With Blade of Betrayal about to come out on iPhone, I wanted to take this time and write down my history with the title. It is a game that has seen many changes and platforms over the years and is now finally going to have its definitive release. Very few creators get a chance to revisit their old efforts and enhance them with all of their new experience, but that is exactly what I was able to do with Blade of Betrayal. It was a long road to get it to this point and I hope everyone who plays it enjoys the game and appreciates the amount of love and work that went into it.
Blade of Betrayal began as a small three-month development in 2002. I was contacted by some friends that had recently opened up a game development studio in Houston, Texas by the name of HPT Interactive. They really wanted to make a very epic space-exploration game but felt that the scope of that project was beyond their current capabilities so instead they decided to start small and make a quick turnaround title for the PocketPC.
When I was contacted by HPT, they initially wanted someone to come in and help create some concept art and simple game design. I did some sci-fi creatures based on their space game as a warm-up to see how working with the team would be. They liked what they saw and asked what else I could come up with for their first game release.
N00B DESIGN – THE COLLEGE YEARS
I was nineteen years old at this time, and a total child of the NES era. Some of my favorite games include Castlevania, Mega Man and Metroid. Seeing the door wide open to my input, I began pitching them an action side-scroller similar to the Castlevania games but brought to the modern era.
Basically I got down and designed the game I always dreamed of playing. Every level offered a completely unique set of art & enemies and were full of hidden items that would entice the player to return to find them all. Every chapter of the game was rich with content and ended in a boss fight that put your skills to the test.
The game’s design was completely derivative of the influential titles I loved, but it had enough of its own identity. I pitched this ambitious platformer to HPT, along with a full script and sketches for all the enemies and bosses. It was a lot bigger of a game than they had wanted but my enthusiasm and road map convinced them to give it the thumbs up. At that point I was basically tasked with being responsible for the art and direction of the game.
As a teenager in college I was juggling 8+ hours of classes and projects during the day and at least 6 hours of production work every night. This basically killed my social life as I was working nonstop. We still wanted to make the game in 3-6 months and I very naively believed that I would have a finished game in that time. With the amount of art and animation, along with all of the level maps Blade of Betrayal was easily on par with some full sized SNES games. We had the first level up and running around the 4-month mark. Despite our goals for a quick turnaround, we pressed on and proceeded to build the rest of the game.
Working on this game forced me to learn the foundations of skills I still use today. I drew my character sprites in MSPaint, colored them in Photoshop, and learned how to create tile-based maps using Tile Studio. I had to teach myself digital illustration and animation since those were not things being taught in the university. I had to learn the hard way that good planning can save you weeks of fixing mistakes – so I had to become a better producer and stay organized. I think because of all the hats I had to wear I was able to grow at a much faster rate and momentum on the project picked up.
DIRECTOR’S CUT 1 – ZODIAC.
About six months after the release of Blade of Betrayal, HPT (with one less programmer) got back in touch with me to do a port of the game for a new system called the Tapwave Zodiac. The system was a Palm-based handheld that was designed to be a competitor for the Gameboy Advance and PSP. The system was very well designed and was definitely optimized for video games, while still being able to double up as a PDA.
One thing we felt hurt the sales of the PocketPC Blade of Betrayal was the market saturation for the device. Since anybody could make applications for the device without barriers like licensing and certification the market was just full of applications. It was very hard to sort out the good from the bad and because of this we know Blade of Betrayal was somewhat lost in the shuffle.
The Zodiac was a second chance for us since the game library was tiny and there were absolutely no platformers for it. We would have zero competition and we knew that would help with the success of the game. It did not take much to convince me to put in the legwork to reformat all of the games graphics from 240×240 on the Pocket PC to 480×320 on the Zodiac.
Anybody who has done porting should know it is far easier to scale down than to scale up and some art had to be recreated completely from scratch, including almost 30 cutscene illustrations. The work of taking all of the existing art and making it work on the new device was enough of a challenge but that did not stop me from wanting to slip in a few new enhancements to the game.
THE PRESSURE TO ADD CONTENT
By this time we had started calling the game Blade of Betrayal: Special Edition. The game was coming out shortly enough after the initial PocketPC release that we felt we needed to distinguish between the two. I started feeling the need to add more content.
The game went from 1 playable character, 15 levels and 4 music tracks to 2 playable characters, 22 levels and 25 music tracks. On top of this, the second player had an entirely different gameplay style. Where the original felt like Castlevania, the new character’s levels were more like Contra. THANK YOU KONAMI.
I know now that this was a very foolish move, easily adding another six months to the project to get all the new content implemented and tested. Nobody sat me down and said “No, Billy, we shouldn’t do that”. We just went along with it and hoped for the best.
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Every month that went by after the Zodiac launch was time that we were not capitalizing on its fairly small selection of games. Tapwave continued to promote their system and eventually managed to get stores to start carrying them. We kept crunching.
Eventually a second generation Zodiac was announced with even more features. Last I remember, there was a chance that we could be the pack-in game for the system when it released. When we heard that we doubled our efforts to complete the game in time.
That time never came. Soon after, Tapwave announced they were no longer going to support the Zodiac and that all retailers were to liquidate their units and cut off future sale. It is hard to compete with a giant like Nintendo and Sony and at the end of the day they just ran out of money.
This was like pulling the rug out from underneath us. We had no guarantees with Tapwave and all of our production expenses were out of pocket. Our game was being designed for the Zodiac only and could not be played on any other device. We had put all of our eggs into this basket and the basket broke.
Needless to say we all got hit hard. I was hit especially hard because I had created a superior product with an enhanced story and better art and music. These were all things I wished I could have done on the PocketPC version after the fact. I had learned a lot about game design and graphic design since the original production so I saw it as an opportunity to put out the definitive vision of the game.
Not one person ever got to play that game. We shut down production at about the 75% mark. Defeated, everyone parted ways and over the years communication faded. Blade of Betrayal was a bittersweet memory of unfulfilled potential.
4 YEARS OF MATURITY
I had graduated college by this time and started working for casino-gaming company Multimedia Games in Austin, Texas. My experience with Blade of Betrayal prepared me for the projects at my new job and I was luckily able to continue to refine my production and design skills and even learn some new ones like marketing and communication design (thank you Michael Conway). My work became less rough-around-the-edges and my eyes were opened up to better game design philosophies. More importantly, I learned about production schedules and deadlines!
I still always retained a soft spot for independent development and continued to brainstorm new game ideas. Most were not feasible or marketable so I kept a lot of that on the backburner. My attention focused more on freelance projects doing logo design, web layouts or animation. No labor of love, but it was still a way to earn some extra money on the side and keep busy.
Eventually my bug to make indie games caught up with me and I formed Perfect Dork Studios in 2007 as both an independent game studio and media outsource company. I have formed a great internal development team and have an extended network of developers I can contract as well. In a relatively short amount of time, the company has grown as has the project scopes. In 2009, our name will be attached to at least five released products which is a nice number for any indie studio.
Over the 2008 Christmas break I was in Houston visiting friends and family. My last night there, I met up with a group of my school friends that I had not seen in years. Among them was my friend, Robert Shoemate, who was the one who initially introduced me to HPT back in 2002. He had just been laid off from his programming position (economy woes!) and was hoping to get into iPhone development as a way to work and make a living. He and another original HPT programmer, Eric Duhon, were forming a new company, Conjured Realms. Their focus would be iPhone and mobile games.
I had just finished my first iPhone co-development, Aim For the Brain! so I showed that game to Robert and he was impressed with the polish. I very nonchalantly said, “Man can you imagine Blade of Betrayal on iPhone?” We both kind of looked at eachother and it was like a light switch turned on. Of course we could imagine it on the device. In fact, all of the assets were already created at the proper resolution. Half of the development had already been done. It didn’t take much for either of us to commit to the project.
DIRECTOR’S CUT 2. KEY WORD = CUT
Either thanks to my very full schedule, or my growth, I took a hard look at the Zodiac Blade of Betrayal and decided that there was a lot of the game that just was not all that good. From clunky boss battles to ugly levels, there was a whole lot of content that did not meet my current standards anymore.
The first thing I did was dissect the entire game and focused on all of the elements that made it fun. I then basically cut out the rest. Yes, this means the iPhone version will have even fewer levels than the original release, but every level is good and well crafted. I kept the basic plot of the original but condensed it into a much more personal story that only centers on the key characters rather than secondary characters that serve no real purpose.
I was able to finally accept that the game did not need a billion levels if they were not enjoyable. Enough time had gone by that I was able to let go of content and features in a way that I couldn’t when I was so fresh and new to the process. Because of these cuts, we were able to add in other fun and practical features that extended the replay value such as medals you can earn for completing various level challenges.
One big production hurdle was getting the game to control well on the iPhone. Others have tried to do platforming games with mixed results. The common complaint is that the device has no physical buttons so it is hard to get tactile response from them. We did a lot of research and play testing and the team and I came up with a few cool ideas to enhance the controls to feel very responsive and accurate. We believe control will be one of the key factors between those who love the game and those that don’t.
Once the original engine was ported to the iPhone we were able to pick up where we left off. At the time of writing this, we are a week away from submission to the App Store. It is a truly exciting time for me and the team at Conjured Realms. There is no guarantee that the game will be a huge success but at least it has a better chance than it ever did. At the very least, we are able to put up a game that is very personal to us and hopefully enjoyable to the player. There is a huge audience for retro-style games and I think they will appreciate the conscious nods to the classics from the 80s and 90s. It is not a perfect game but it certainly has style and charm which give it a flavor of its own.
MORE BETRAYAL TO COME. THANK YOU APPLE.
The iPhone platform is exploding like wildfire right now and so many developers are jumping on board. The nature of indie development is changing and we are starting to look at games as these organic things that have expansions and updates and are much more iterative. The speed at which you move is much faster with fewer barriers to put your product up. You can pretty much bet that we are not going to miss a beat and follow Blade of Betrayal up with some sort of sequel (whether spiritual or direct) in the near future.
The story has come full circle. Whether Blade of Betrayal becomes a recognized name among gamers or is simply a fun diversion for short breaks, I am completely satisfied with the end result. For the longest time Blade of Betrayal left a hole, incomplete and unfulfilled. Now I have closure with the title. And it feels damn good:)
-President, Perfect Dork Studios LLC.
HPT INTERACTIVE: Eric Duhon, Matthew Shoemate, David Harms
CONJURED REALMS: Eric Duhon, Robert Shoemate
APPENDIX A: Legal Tips For N00Bz
If you are in a position that I was in when I first signed up to do indie games, be sure to READ YOUR CONTRACT! It may feel weird, but handling the business side of things is super important and should not be put off until the end of production. If you cannot get cash, ask for royalty on the return on sales. If you are an artist or writer and are not getting the dollar-compensation you wish, then leverage that into owning the intellectual rights to the characters and story. This was my experience and it has turned out to be a pretty good (if uneducated) decision. Since I own the rights to Blade of Betrayal, I can freely go and start doing comics or whatever else I want. I control the IP. That is as good as money in many cases.
APPENDIX B: 2D Artists. Build Vector If You Can
This is just general advice to future-proof your game art. We live in a world of multiple devices and formats and resolutions. If you have the ability, I encourage you to do all or most of your art in vectors. It will speed your production up, allowing easy editability and SCALABILITY! Being able to take a character portrait and blow it up to billboard size without losing quality is what you want. It means print advertisement will also not suffer from low resolution pixilation or dithering when using in-game assets.
APPENDIX C: When In Doubt Don’t Be In Doubt
Morale and motivation are fuel for your production. A lack of either can slow the train to a halt and in many cases kill all chances of finishing your product. Finishing is one of the hardest things to do. Set goals and focus on them. If you don’t believe in your product then the quality will suffer and nobody will want to play it.
APPENDIX D: Like The Work
Hopefully you like the actual work involved when making a game. Sometimes it is a thankless endeavor and that is all you have. In my experience with Blade of Betrayal I had very few reasons to try as hard as I did and no prospect of selling through the roof. I liked making the game and enjoyed the whole process. When it did not sell well initially, I did not beat myself up because I had a great time just making the product.