Budding Beginnings

As of today, Lantana Games is 10 years old. It’s a milestone we never dreamed of achieving, and in that time we have built and learned so much, grown as a team, hit our stride, tripped over bumps, had successes, made mistakes, and couldn’t have done any of it without you, our community. Game development is an incredibly difficult industry to break into. Sometimes I feel like we still haven’t. Despite that I’m continually reminded of how much support you all give us. From coming up to hug us at events, to putting 400+ hours into Mondrian – Abstraction in Beauty, our fans never cease to amaze us and, personally, I never cease to be stunned at having fans of our work at all. So today is a day to reward you with telling some stories we’ve never told, and looking back at what has made Lantana Games survive for so long.

It’s a story that can’t be told without going all the way back to our humble beginnings…

The Longest Night

2009 – Year of the Indie

I had already been networking throughout the game industry in Boston, getting my portfolio and resume ready for one of the numerous studios around here: Harmonix, Rockstar, 38 Studios, I was psyched to start interning and creating. But while I was back down in Savannah, things were changing. Something weird was happening in the game industry at that time. Not only were jobs – entry level jobs in particular – incredibly scarce, but in their place a new artscene was popping up: independent games. Titles like Braid, Audiosurf, and DEFCON were rising in popularity. Unity, then a relatively new game engine, was gaining users, despite not having anywhere close to the technical chops of an engine like Unreal at the time (very different story nowadays). Steam was still gated but was starting to let smaller creators into their exclusive community, iOS was suddenly a thing, and Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network were coming into their own. Suddenly, there was a new route into the industry, one that I couldn’t ignore.

It was Spring, 2009. I was attending GDX (the Game Developers eXpo) at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I was chatting with some school friends when my industry my industry Darius, from Boston, kicked the back of my chair jokingly to say hi. We got to chatting like we always did, and he asked me what my plan was once I graduated. I emphatically responded, “I’m going indie.” He looked thrilled and asked me, “Do you know Scott?” I did not at the time, and he informed me Scott had just started a community called “Boston Indies,” an offshoot of the main game development meetup here, Boston Post Mortem, devoted solely to independent developers.

The group met up once a month in Cambridge. With that, the upcoming second annual Boston Gameloop, and some initial ideas floating around in my head, I couldn’t wait to get home and become a part of Boston’s burgeoning indie community.

Starting Up

We had no money. We had ideas but no prototype. We barely had a team, but we had enthusiasm. It was an exciting time to be an indie, but without products to play, you had nothing. By the end of the year, we had three:

1. The Longest Night – A final project I had created at SCAD, converted for Flash. We uploaded the game to Kongregate and got over 1000 plays and a 3-star rating. Not a terrible start!

2. Hunter’s Gulch – A quick weekend game jam top-down shooter created by myself, Julia Smith, Maura Wright, and Tommy Kastner. Sadly we don’t have any stats on how this game did initially.

3. Zombie Slaughter Tour 2009 – This was a month-long jam that, though not much of a good game, did some interesting things mechanically, combining a Guitar Hero-esque music mechanic with minor randomization. At the very least, I got to record some power chords for the gameplay, and I learned how to create an online leaderboard. Rock Paper Shotgun ripped it to shreds. At the very least, it was a good lesson in expectations. Shortly after that, some server issues killed the online leaderboard, and having moved onto a bigger project, it wasn’t worth fixing.

The end of 2009 was an exciting time to start up the studio, but we had no idea what we were in for in 2010.

2010 – The Revolution will be in HD

Rolling into 2010, there was one goal on everybody’s mind: PAX East. Announced in 2009, the local industry was abuzz with everybody getting their games ready, buying a booth, or teaming up with several different multi-studio booths, an idea which paved the way for the Indie Megabooth just a couple years later.

Though we couldn’t afford an actual booth at PAX East, there was another opportunity: Made in MA. Hosted at the time by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) at the Microsoft New England Research and Development (NERD) building, Made in MA brought together local developers for a huge party the night before the convention began. We made sure Lantana Games would be there with our newest prototype for a small game we called Children of Liberty, a kid’s stealth adventure about the night of Paul Revere’s Ride.

An Unexpected Success

The Made in MA party rolled around, and we got there early to set up our modest table: a laptop, a 24″ HDTV, some controllers (little known fact: the first Children of Liberty prototype was 4-player multiplayer), and some Wanted Posters we’d designed to promote the game, which we also scattered around the building. We went mainly to get some feedback on what we were making, figuring we’d take that and be able to go into full production with a clear path in mind.

What happened was beyond our wildest imagination: there was a line to play. A GIGANTIC line, easily 20-30 people long. To this day, we’re yet to beat that line. The game was getting attention from every angle at the show, from gamers, media, and even professors from the newly formed Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab (now just MIT Game Lab). Players were instantly drawn to the visual style of the game, which combined ambient lighting color and dark shadow objects to create a cat-and-mouse feeling of you vs. the Redcoats. The demo was only a couple minutes long, but those couple minutes showed off a lot of what was in store: hiding and running, smoke bombs that Redcoats would either choke in or try to fan away (thus giving you a mobile hiding spot), jump boots, and an overall slightly fantastical feel to Colonial America.

We left the party that night feeling great. Feeling confident. Feeling HYPED. We knew we had something on our hands, so now it was just a matter of making it… right?

On the March

After PAX East, we kept building the game in earnest. We gave a presentation on its development at MIT, after which we soon all agreed to make the game single player, rather than multiplayer. 4-player single screen stealth just wasn’t working, and the idea of slightly altering the story for every possible combination of characters was daunting. So we scoped it in, and the team was ready to go.

I was on programming and game design. The initial version of Children of Liberty ran in Multimedia Fusion 2. I wasn’t the best programmer at the time (I’m still not) so while it was rough around the edges, the game was generally smooth, played well (if slow), had a very nice camera, and the items came out great. The AI sucked, though, as I could never really get the Redcoats to behave individually. Like I said, not the best programmer.

The creative elements were primarily split between Maura Wright and Julia Smith. Maura was responsible for character design and animation, while Julia handled environmental art. Maura gave the characters an approachable, whimsical style, easy for anybody to enjoy. I think her art in particular was what drew people into the demo at Made in MA. For our second demo at Boston Gameloop that summer, though, Julia’s tallship reveal on Long Wharf absolutely wowed the crowd. So, visually, the game was coming together great, and playing okay. A very decent start.

Doubts and Reflections

We gave 2010 everything we had. Sam Paley joined the team right before PAX East to take on the role of the game’s Producer, and we worked out of his apartment. Nobody stopped, took a weekend, or saw the sun. We had a lot of expectations to live up to, and while, as mentioned, everything was looking great, I personally didn’t really have the programming chops to make it play brilliantly. A publisher meeting that the whole team attended did not go so well, and left a sour taste in our mouths. Despite the hype buildup at PAX, and the audience interest on social media, they were bored. It played too slow, it wasn’t their kind of style, and we didn’t have enough of the general gameplay figured out yet.

We took December off to collect ourselves and get back to the game with fresh minds in 2011. However, Maura left the team soon after to explore other opportunities. After her departure, we examined the game deeply, thinking about what we needed to meet the expectations of the gaming audience we’d already impressed (ie staying true to what we’d created) while giving the gameplay a swift kick in the pants to hit the level of excitement and immersion that publishers would go for. It needed to be faster. It needed to be darker. It needed more action. It needed a toy sword and a yoyo. We were determined to make something that would do our own hype justice, and with that, we dove into the New Year muskets-a-blazing.

Lessons Learned

2009 was an… interesting time to start up. The economy was in a wreck, investors were more interested in multiplayer Facebook games than single player PC stories, and the industry was just beginning to shift in some unexpected ways, with Steam accepting its first indies, engines like Unity on the way, and a sudden, if small, exodus out of the AAA space. We got in at the right time, and came out swinging the moment we walked up to bat, with 3 games in our first year, and an announcement for a game that had social media and Boston gamers alike excited.

But all in all, there was so much we could have done better. We could have built smaller games to support for an extended period, rather than put them online and call it a day. We could have approached more publishers early on for Children of Liberty and found the right fit, rather than getting bummed after one bad meeting. We could have asked family and friends for more assistance, and actually focused on a business model that would work for us, rather than only focusing on building a product without a long-term vision for the studio.

Sadly, we weren’t exactly business people at the time. We were artists and designers looking to just make a game. In 2009, you could kind of get away with that. The technology was young, no indie had really struck it big yet, and all in all we just wanted to play around and see what was fun. Ten years later, there have been so many massive changes in gaming that time isn’t money, time WAS money, and it just flew out the window.

Going back, knowing what we know now, I think we would have held off on Children of Liberty and instead continued our focus on web games, likely getting into mobile development earlier on. Instead, we aimed high, and though we garnered a lot of attention and had a working game, it wasn’t as exciting or dramatic as it could be. It had the potential to be something bigger, something better, something truly… revolutionary.