Five years as a full-time Indie

The exact timing is a little off, but I today just renewed my business license.

Yes, 5 years ago July I left my job as Technical Director at Big Blue Bubble (now one of Canada’s largest game studios … you’re welcome ;)). Here’s what I had to say.

All systems are go!
July 29th, 2005 – 10:34 PM

Amazing. Today was my official last day at Big Blue Bubble. BBB was a great place to work, but I’m a too ambitious for my own good. So, lets see if I can make this [independent game developer thing] happen.

Back then I was still a regular contributor to Indie Games website GameTunnel, and I hadn’t yet taken over as the Ludum Dare guy (I was more annoying than useful back then — It’s April! Better run a compo!).

Uh oh... the flame is lit... what's going to happen now?

One of the first things I did after leaving was crunch a few more days of polish in to PuffBOMB (a game originally created during a Ludum Dare competition), and submit it to the IGF and Slamdance for the 2006 events.

It didn’t make the finals in the IGF, but PuffBOMB was actually a finalist for a special Slamdance award, the “PopCap Casual Game Award“. Unfortunately, it was the only finalist of that award that didn’t make the main competition, so it’s difficult to find evidence it was even there.

In retrospect, it looked to be an especially good year for Slamdance; My competition being Cloud (from the people that later started That Game Company), Narbacular Drop (the precursor to Valve’s Portal), N (the great Ninja platformer from Metanet), and many more. Definitely in good company.

After my PuffBOMB revision, and for the rest of the year I started working on my rope-physics game I called “The Spider“.

Early experiments with verlet physics left me wanting to create a soft body physics engine

A former boss of mine infected me with his fascination for an obscure Japanese platformer Umihara Kawase, and after spending some time a year or so back learning spring physics, I decided I wanted to attack the “rope-game” idea.

The Sykhronics website circa November 2005 ... back when it was just my pseudo-portfolio site

By the end of the year, I persuaded my brother Richard to start working with me. And just before the end of 2005, I formally registered my company: Sykhronics Entertainment. Early February 2006, I announced it and my plan:

Sykhronics, pronounced “psi-cron-icks” [is] A branding of Mike Kasprzak’s independent game works. Established in 1998, replacing my older branding Gamma Flare Games. After bouncing around the gracious hosting of a few friends, I acquired the “dot com” in 2000. Sykhronics served my purposes as a portfolio site to nab me a job in the game industry, and did so in late 1999.

[Sykhronics is now] Sykhronics Entertainment. Still a branding, but now also a legal Canadian company. A sole proprietorship owned and operated by Mike Kasprzak, registered in late 2005. Fancy biz license and everything.

The big plan behind Sykhronics Entertainment is different than what I’ve done in the past. Rather than the big studio atmosphere, with dozens of team members and projects, it’s more simple. An independent game developer, small and collaborative, in many ways similar to the crew behind a collaborative music project, or an indie comic. So while the team may dramatically change from project to project, when I’m in a significant role, you’ll see Sykhronics brandings.

It seems I thought highly of musicians and comic books back then. 🙂

I’d say that “manifesto” still holds true, but things certainly changed and evolved as the years went by.

The Spider” game continued to evolve, and eventually looked like this.

Green tentacle ball, orange bendy scenery, squishy purple blocks

Mid 2006, we decided that The Spider lacked a clear end goal. Any attempt at coming up with something “XBLA worthy” seemed like it would take years instead of months. To try and focus the vision of things, we switch gears to a tank-game called Ballistic Force.

Ballistic Force - a take on scorched earth ... maybe... it was to have destroyable scenery

Ballistic Force was something we actually started pitching to Sony, as this was around the same time they announced the EAP program (now known as PlayStation Network/PSN). Sony actually got back to us, but after we signed the papers, that was the last we heard from them. It was for the best though, since we killed the project after about a month.

Fall 2006, we decided to take what we’d done and start working on a remake of PuffBOMB called PuffBOMB HD. By January 2007, it looked like this.

The weird row of orange things was a (physically) a chain rope... just not visually.

The original plan was for me to do the art, but at the time I never really did much of anything beside pixel art, so I wasn’t able to produce much usable artwork either of us really liked. So I hired an artist to help out.

By June 2007, the game looked like this.

Planning the next move

Soft body mushroom physics, and an evil vortex (the one piece of artwork that I did ... oh, and the horrible UI)

Three 'hamsters', an evil vortex, and a vase

Multiplayer Mode

All things considered, it was actually turning in to a pretty decent game.

I’ve actually been keeping quiet on some of the nitty gritty details of this project, but seeing how it’s been a few years now, I’m ready to talk about it.

What I neglected to mention was that the game was being developed with the Xbox 360 in mind — We did all our testing using Xbox 360 controllers (the iPhone didn’t exist yet, and I can’t remember where Steam was at). During the 4-6 months working with our contract artist, I had pitched the game to Microsoft as an Xbox Live Arcade game (Note: this was in the days before XNA and XBLIG). We got a good initial response from them, before several months of silence. I’m mostly to blame for this (back then I was still nervous about cold e-mailing “cool people” like Microsoft’s Xbox division), but it was a mutual neglect of communication. As it turns out, my contact left the company — Yikes!

When we were finally picked up by the new rep, the game was brought to Microsoft’s game approval board, and was ultimately turned down. It was for the best though. Richard and I were too caught up waiting for the “emotional validation” of Microsoft green-lighting us, that after the 6 months of waiting, we had very little motivation to do more (we were slacking a-lot). We would have probably become one of those very-late “problem developers” that they were clearly trying to avoid. If I remember correctly we got the word in August, Richard bailed and started looking for a real job (after all, he did work for me unpaid for nearly 2 years), so I spent the next month finishing up with the artist and finally shelved the project in September 2007.

This here was the the turning point. The shock, the anger, the bitterness of having thinking your project was killed by someone outside. I invested a good “5 figure” chunk of cash in to the project (the artist had to be paid). Ooooooh!! {arm flailing}

Ahem… Of course, I was clearly an idiot at the time. Microsoft didn’t kill the project, we did. We let ourselves get comfortable in the idea that “attempting” to make an Xbox Live Arcade game was a safe and flawless plan. The axiom “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” became cemented in me, which might explain my RIDICULOUS porting tendencies lately. 😉

I also should point out, developer relation people seem to leave companies all the time. Come back a year later, and a company may have a completely different staff in the department you deal with. Sometimes it’s a bad thing (the new guy doesn’t care for your work), and sometimes it’s a good (GREAT!) thing (the new guy likes it, is very enthusiastic, and full of ideas).

After a month or so of “burnout recovery”, I started working on my general purpose framework — Taking a huge list of things I did wrong structuring PuffBOMB HD and correcting them.

As I mentioned, I was burned out. We spent about a year working on PuffBOMB HD, and a year before that doing The Spider stuffs. I did NOT want to do anything even remotely PuffBOMB related, not right now at least. I eventually started on a new concept during a Ludum Dare competition, but not much came of it.

Pillar Caterpillar - Concept art... the playable was just boxes

March 2008 comes along, as does my framework stuffs. Apple announced the iPhone App Store and the iPhone SDK. I (stupidly) wait 2 days before finally signing up, so I totally miss the beta period. I spend the next few months prototyping.

Magtraction, a crappy puzzle game concept that's core mechanic should be fairly obvious from the working title

Dungeon Legion - Well... I'll come back to this.

Before July rolls around, I get through 2 notable concepts. The first, Magtraction, was really not very fun once prototyped. The second, Dungeon Legion, was actually interesting, but I judged that it was going to take me too long to get something submittable ready.

Then one day, I’m visiting my mom, when she throws out a line she hasn’t in years.

Make me a game. Some sort of Gem game or Match game.

I’ve always responded to that with a bold “I refuse to rip off an existing game. If I do make something like that, it has to be based on an original idea“. For kicks, I thought I’d try coming up with something. I came up with an “original” matching game mechanic; I start prototyping it, and before I even get it half working, I discover something: My original concept was too complicated, but half implemented it’s actually unique, original, and a pretty good idea. The concept seemed too obvious, and I was actually afraid if I didn’t do it, someone else would … and it would be soon. At least with PuffBOMB clones, the barrier to entry was higher (though physics middleware is far more prevalent today). This matching game though, many coders could get it up and running in just a weekend.

Pattern Trade prototype, after match detection was working, I realized this by itself is actually a neat game. It became Smiles' Zen mode

This lead to Smiles, a game I’ve been talking about (non stop) for the past 2 years. Developed solo in 4 months, July 2008 to October 2008, it was released for iPhone.

The (now classic) 8x9 game board -- iPhone version only

It actually did pretty poorly when it it came out, no more than a few hundred copies in its first weeks. But the important thing is I was FINALLY making money. The 3 years prior to Smiles I made practically nothing, and merely drained away my bank account. That’s okay though, since it was the plan. Before I started at Big Blue Bubble, I’d already saved a bunch of money to prepare myself for this. BBB gave me a whole extra year to save money for my eventual Indie venture (and added another year of burn-out too — oh the fun of startups).

Then things started picking up. First, it was finalist in the Independent Games Festival in 2009. I flew out to San Fransisco for the very first time to (finally) attend the Game Developers Conference.

The Smiles pavilion at the Game Developers Conference ... undecorated

The press liked it.

Pocket Gamer UK, you guys rock! They sent me this

I wrote a book (chapter).

Funny enough, I wrote a chapter on writing portable code... well, it's funny now. Back then I only had an iPhone version of the game.

Later that year I (finished) porting the game to Netbooks.

I like netbooks

Then, if you can believe it, in 2010 the Netbook port WON ME A CAR!!!!


A CAR!!! AHHHHHH!!! Also an all expense paid trip to GDC, but the car is definitely the iconic item.

I ported it to iPad, where it was a launch title.

Smiles HD, the now totally musically better version .. sorry iPhone

In September I was invited by Intel to speak at their Elements conference (held alongside Intel Developer Forum) in San Fransisco.

2nd from the right, black and white shirt... that was a big stage

A bunch more platforms including webOS, Maemo, Windows Mobile 6.5 and more recently Windows Phone 7.

How did you spend your summer? Mine was spent with WP7

And VERY recently I’ve started seeding the game to PC distributors.

Desura - a Steam-Like service from the ModDB and IndieDB people. Very cool.

I haven’t even mentioned any of the Ludum Dare stuff yet (a topic all in itself).

So it’s been an eventful 5 years, lots of really cool things to look back on. And now with the $60 to renew my business license paid in full, here’s to another 5 years.

I wonder if the car will still be running by then?