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Reflections on an Indie Failure – StarLicker Postmortem

Development on StarLicker began in April 2012, and it was Heartonomy’s first game project as a company. We released it in August 2013 and continued working on it for several months after the release. A total of 5 people worked on the project, and while I (Hayden) had worked with everyone previously, this was the first time that everyone else had worked together.

StarLicker was an unsuccessful game in almost every way imaginable. We made a lot of mistakes on this project, but through this process, our skill, knowledge, and wisdom as game developers improved dramatically. This article is meant to record our experiences so that we improve going forward and to share what we learned with others who walk in similar shoes. In this business, we hear a lot about the success stories, but not as much about the failures. So here we go…


The Good

Original Concept

Hayden: I began the SkySwitch project, as it was originally named, wanting to build the game around high level design goals. The first goal was to build a strategy game with the aesthetic of a bullet hell shmup. Early into prototyping, the concept of the opposing players “feeding” each others’ economies through aggression emerged, and I fell in love with that as a design goal as well.

To this day, I still think at a high level StarLicker represents an interesting, original game concept with a lot of potential. This is one of the few areas where the released game is very strong, and a lot of feedback we’ve had from players confirms this. However, this was also the first strategy game I designed and the actual game fails to capture the full potential of the concept.

Rudd: Some time after Hayden started Heartonomy and StarLicker but before I joined the project, we were participating in a small hackathon together, and I got a chance to see the prototype. At that point, even though it was extremely rough looking, I could tell that the main mechanic had a lot of promise, and I was seriously impressed. With my naive attitude towards the game industry, I believed that a concept this original and innovative was sure to do well if it could be executed on. The concept is what really sold me on joining the company and risking my livelihood. While there are a ton of things I’d do differently now, I agree with Hayden: I believe that the concept was one of the better aspects of the project.


Hayden: Personally, I find it a bit trifling to celebrate the mere release of a game. Having said that, I recognize that shipping does represent a real accomplishment. It requires crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s and there is a lot to learn just from this process alone. If we had not released anything, then writing this article would hardly even make sense.

Additionally, it was always a secondary goal of the project from the very beginning to create a game that could serve as a portfolio piece to showcase to potential work-for-hire clients. We had no illusions that our first release would magically become a huge hit game that could fund the company for the rest of time. We knew it was likely that we’d have to resort to contract work at some point to stay afloat, and that is exactly what happened. And StarLicker has already successfully demonstrated to clients on more than one occasion that we know how to build and release a game.

Rudd: I disagree with Hayden that shipping is “trifling”. To me, shipping the game was a major accomplishment. The difference between an indie studio that has released no games and an indie studio that has released one game is infinitely large. I’m extremely happy that things like Game A Week are becoming popular, because that mentality would have helped immensely at the start of this project. The months leading up to the first release of StarLicker were extremely stressful for me because I could feel that something was wrong. Even with so many months of work put into the game, I could tell that we hadn’t really done anything. We needed to ship. When we finally did, even though the reception was poor, I felt much better, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.


The Bad

Game Design Is Hard

Hayden: I had heard this phrase countless times before but I never truly understood it until recently. In fact, I had heard all of these lessons before, but alas, I am the type of person that learns best by doing (it wrong). At the outset of the project, I had just quit my job and started My Own Company and I was higher on naive optimism than I’d ever been before. For game design, I thought it was enough to establish specific, clear high level design goals (described above) and the rest of the design process would follow naturally and easily from that. This was extremely incorrect.

Nothing about the process of game creation is particularly natural or easy. Every bit of it requires special skills and talents and tons of practice, and design is no exception. I could probably write an entire book about everything I learned about game design from this project, but we’ll keep this to the big ones.


Hayden: Playtest early and often. The value of fresh eyes on a game can not be overstated. It’s fine to start with coworkers, friends, and family, but they will grow accustomed to the game quickly and thus cease to be effective playtesters. As soon as the smallest nugget of the game is playable, start having people play it, and then never stop finding new people to play it at every step of the way.

The Truth About Feedback

Hayden: Really, actually listen to playtest feedback. Playtesters say lots of different things after they try a game. The designer will disagree with all or even most of their suggestions. But do not dismiss any feedback, as I did, with the attitude of “this game is not for you”. It is the responsibility of the game designer to listen to and analyze every single bit of the feedback, and discover precisely what truths it contains. Often, this truth will be far from obvious and often not even directly related to the actual feedback itself. But everything a playtester says, whether its something they like or don’t like, or a new idea they have, comes directly from their experience playing the game, which means there’s something to learn about the game from it.

Rudd: To me, this is the most tragic failure of StarLicker. When we submitted to IndieCade for 2013’s festival, they were nice enough to provide feedback to all entrants. This feedback should have been invaluable, coming from people who understand indie games and what makes them worth playing. But with this feedback, we almost entirely rejected it out of hand, believing we knew what was best for the game.

If I try to rationalize why we thought it was reasonable to ignore, it might be that one of the judges said that they’d love to be able to try the game via multi-device asynchronous play, which was already in the game and in fact the main intended way to play. How deeply can they be looking at this, we thought, if they didn’t even see that? But other feedback cut to the core of what we now know to actually be the issues with the game. “You nailed everything but the core gameplay elements”, wrote one judge, with words that still sting to read.

Perhaps if we had listened better to feedback, we might not have such shocking stats on retention: only 6.8% of matches end quote-unquote “normally”, and almost 65% end in an automatic forfeit due to one player failing to play their turn.

Hayden: While I agree with Rudd about the value of the feedback we got from the IndieCade judges, I remember things differently about why we didn’t take it to heart. It actually began with a playtest session organized by the NYU Game Center specifically for IndieCade submissions. We came out of that playtest with lots of great feedback and some crazy ideas that would have been major changes to the game design.

However, this playtest took place in June 2013, which was already after when we originally wanted to release the game. I’ll get into this in more detail below, but at this point we were panicking over money, and no one was feeling brave enough to make major design changes at that point. This is why such valuable feedback was ignored.

Indie Scope

Hayden: Start as small as possible. A multiplayer strategy game, even a small one, tends to be a very complex game design. To put it bluntly, I was simply in over my head as a game designer. Despite having a lot of experience playing these types of games and the clear design goals mentioned above, I did not have the experience or skillset as a game designer to execute well on those goals in the time we had to develop it.

Rudd: What we shipped was a much larger and complex design than we should have taken on for a first game, unconditionally. But what we originally planned to build before release was significantly more work than we actually managed to do. We originally planned a single player story mode, leagues with Elo/MMR systems for multiplayer, player messaging, and even, perhaps after launch, an innovative system for players to mentor other players. But even by cutting all that, it was too late. The original design necessitated at least some of those things to keep players engaged, but we had run out of time to deliver on them.

Release When It’s Ready

Hayden: In business, time is money and money is time, and we didn’t have enough of either for StarLicker. I originally intended for it to be a 3 month project, but then I decided to make it multiplayer. And then I decided to add 5 variants of each of the 8 units, four unique power-up abilities, etc. In other words, we let the scope grow wildly beyond what we could actually deliver on at the quality bar we wanted. To make matters worse, we were living off of our savings, and it’s frightening to watch your bank account balance dwindle, and this fear clouds good judgement.

We crunched for months toward the end, but while that allowed us to release the game (mostly) as designed, it forced us to rush on many aspects of the production that should not have been rushed. For example, we never created an automated system for integrating art assets. Every time an asset was modified, I had to spend time manually putting it into the game. We never felt like it was okay to slow down and really spend the time on “unnecessary” things like automation. At first this seemed acceptable, but by the end of the project we had thousands of art assets (all the animations are frame-based sprites) and this manual process ended up wasting so much time in the long run. The same was true for a lot of coding tasks that would have resulted in a more polished game. In the middle of a rushed, panicked crunch, it’s basically impossible to slow down to really get the code right.

So, just like in the AAA industry, the best games tend to come from the companies that can afford to say the release is “when it’s ready”, and the bad games always show signs of sloppy, rushed work. Game production is game production, and there is no exception for indie games.

Rudd: The caveat from this lesson learned that I feel we should emphasize is that this comes second to having a correctly-sized scope for your team. Yes, releasing a product that we weren’t happy with was a mistake, but I still feel that we made the right decision in essentially cutting our losses. We had spent as much time as I was comfortable spending on the project, so we basically had to release it before it was ready, because we had failed to scope the project correctly for our resources.

Free 2 Fail

Hayden: This is a big one – the decision to make StarLicker a free to play game. The reasoning behind this decision went something like this: the best way to maximize the number of people that play the game is to make it free. And it would be no problem to design a free to play system that people will like because, well, League of Legends does it! This might be the best example of the overzealous idealism that pervaded the project, a theme you may have already noticed. The problem is that we knew what LoL did to monetize but we didn’t have a good understanding of why it worked, and completely failed to communicate a compelling “why” in our design.

Rudd: One of the biggest problems here is that StarLicker was a niche game. It is not easy to learn or get into. For some games, that is okay. But StarLicker being free meant those that downloaded it had no incentive to give the game a further chance, unless they had a friend bugging them to play it. If they had paid an upfront cost, at least some of them would feel obligated to “get their money’s worth” out of it and learn how to play.

Even for the players who did invest themselves into the game – time-wise, that is – the incentives to pay were extremely low. For the first 6 months of the game being available, we did not offer any cosmetics for purchase; the only IAPs available were XP multipliers and items that were also unlockable via normal play. Some player reviews actually expressed guilt over not paying since they were enjoying the game so much, but not enough guilt to actually purchase anything.

Hayden: Not only was StarLicker a niche game but it also had some design flaws that resulted in a severe player retention problem. This is a death sentence to any free to play game, let alone one that limits the maximum amount of stuff for sale so as to not “abuse” the model. So in the end, we made an extremely small amount of money. With around 11K downloads, the game has earned less than $300 to date (no I didn’t forget a zero there).

Multiplayer Only

Hayden: Since day one, I wanted Heartonomy to focus on developing multiplayer games. So very early in the project, I decided to tackle asynchronous multiplayer as the focus for StarLicker. I enjoyed playing several async games on my iPhone, so it seemed like an obvious good idea. But the problem is we focused on multiplayer features so much that we entirely neglected all the value contained in playing solo.

I eventually came to realize that the value of single player is that most people simply prefer to learn a new video game on their own at their own pace. For most people, trying to learn an entirely new and unfamiliar game in the context of a competitive 1 versus 1 matchup is difficult and stressful. Add on top of that the fact that asynchronous means there is a lot of waiting between turns, and the result is a game that is almost impossible for new players to really get into.

Another side effect of ignoring single player is that we ended up rushing the creation of a tutorial that was little more than an afterthought. I feel like we missed a huge opportunity to make a compelling single player mode for StarLicker that could have introduced people to the game’s unique mechanics at a reasonable pace such that they would enjoy that learning process. And then, hopefully, most players would have eventually decided they were ready for the added challenge of competing against other players.


The Ugly

What’s in a Name

Hayden: Let’s talk for a moment about how we came to name the game “StarLicker”. I originally started calling it this as a new codename that I thought was hilarious and described the core mechanic of the game (tracing along the paths of star-shaped bullets) better than what we were calling it at the time – “Sky Switch”. As we asked more and more people what they thought of the name, we realized it was an extremely polarizing issue. Some people loved the name while others hated it. Those that loved it felt like it was unique, bold and intriguing. Those that hated it thought it sounded gross or perverted and said they would be embarrassed to tell it to other people. Ultimately, we decided to go with it, but I honestly still don’t know if that was the right decision. I’m still getting the same polarized reactions when I tell new people the name.

Rudd: Honestly, I never even liked the name. It always made me a little bit uncomfortable, like it was semi-NSFW. Of course, at the time of its naming, the main player character Lenny wasn’t flying around in a ship, but was flying on his own, with a giant tongue licking up the energy bullets. It wasn’t until later that I finally convinced the rest of the team that that concept was a little too out there. But the name stuck because of the polarized reactions. Our biggest piece of mainstream press coverage seemed like it came entirely from the audacity of the name, and the (NSFW) comments bear that out. At that point, it seemed like it could be one of our “angles” so the name was pretty much set in stone.

Malaise Marketing

Hayden: Marketing an indie game is a ton of work and there is no clear formula to follow to find success. We knew how important marketing was, but we didn’t really know what to do about it. I feel like our marketing effort was halfhearted, and this was a direct result of the fact that we all knew, deep down, that we rushed the game out and it wasn’t good enough. The big advantage indies have when it comes to marketing is their unbridled passion, and by the time we finally released the game, we just didn’t have enough passion left in us to properly promote the game.

Rudd: The biggest marketing push for the game wasn’t even made by us. In fact at the time of this biggest push, I was packing up my apartment to move the next day, unaware that it was happening until it had already begun. Our friend Brian made a post on Reddit’s /r/gaming that made it to the top for a short period of time, even making it to the standard front page of Reddit. By Imgur’s estimation, Brian’s infographic was viewed over 413,000 times. That’s some serious exposure, for sure. By far that was our biggest spike in attention, accounting for almost 10K downloads, about 90% of all of our downloads ever. And we didn’t even have anything to do with it. Ouch.

No One Got Paid

Hayden: StarLicker was entirely self-funded by the development team. This meant basically no one got paid and the plan was that we would each get a slice of the profits after the game was released and the dough started rolling in. For the entire duration of the project, when it came to paying rent and bills and buying food, we each had to fend for ourselves. Rudd and I were full time on the project, so for us that meant living entirely off our savings. For William, it meant periodically taking time off from freelance gigs to focus on StarLicker art in focused bursts. Kurt was wise enough to force me to pay him a little something upfront, but it was a pitifully small amount and definitely less than what his contribution was worth. Zane, having just graduated from college, was an unpaid intern working for IOU.

But then we released the game and money did not start rolling in. It barely even trickled in. And this created a very strange and unexpected set of feelings beyond the obvious disappointment and frustration. I felt really strongly that I just completely let everyone on the team down. It was like I assembled a team of some of my most talented friends whom I had the utmost respect for, only to have them waste a huge chunk of their creative lives. This feeling still hasn’t worn off, and I don’t know if it ever will. This is a huge force fueling my desire to revisit the core concept of this game and the universe we created for it, so that maybe one day I can rest assured that it was all worth it.

In Conclusion

Since long before I (Hayden) started Heartonomy, I’ve felt that making games was my purpose in life, that I had something important to contribute to the world through gaming. StarLicker was not the first time I’ve tried and failed to create a successful game, and it probably won’t be the last. But with each subsequent failure, it hurts a little less, and I learn a lot more. Eventually, hopefully, I’ll have learned enough to make and release a game well enough to succeed.

We set ourselves up to make a lot of the mistakes described above because we shut ourselves off from the world during development. The game dev community, especially indies, can help each other so much. I read once that we are not competing against one another, but we are all competing with obscurity. I believe this is true. So if you read this article and have any sort of reaction at all, we’d love to hear it. Whether it’s a question, something you can relate to, words of encouragement or even discouragement, please share it with us by email, twitter, etc. Thanks for reading.

Launch Daze

Wow, it has been a while since our last post here. I apologize if you’ve been missing us, but the whole indie game development thing is a lot more time consuming than it seems. Speaking of game development, our first game StarLicker is now available world wide on the App Store! Indeed, we launched StarLicker last Friday, but it’s different from what most people think of as a typical game launch.

We are calling it a soft launch. Traditionally speaking, this means that the product or service, in this case the game, is only made available to a limited audience as a sort of test run. Our soft launch is a little different. StarLicker is now available to anyone with an iOS device, worldwide. The limited audience in this case is everyone who knows about the game. Strictly speaking, a game isn’t really available to you until you know it exists.

Not many people know about StarLicker yet. So far players have mostly been our friends, family, beta testers and their friends, and a handful of people who have discovered the game on their own. We haven’t yet made any concerted effort to get noticed by gaming websites or anyone else influential in spreading the word about the game. The one exception to this are two nice pieces written by our friends over at Str N Gaming – check them out here and here. These pieces exist only because the writers were in the beta and they have been super supportive of us ever since they first learned about the game.

At this point, you may be thinking we are crazy. How could we just sit back and let the game fail? We may be crazy, but we are doing this deliberately. The thing about StarLicker is that we designed and built it for the long haul. It is an asynchronous multiplayer, free to play, bullet-hell strategy game. You’ve never heard of such a game before? Exactly. People have never seen anything quite like StarLicker. It draws on several disparate influences and blends them together into something new. On top of that, StarLicker is not a game to be consumed like a piece of media, nor is it an addictive time-waster for the subway. It is designed with a high skill ceiling to be a rewarding hobby, played competitively by a community of long-term, dedicated players. We have been around gaming long enough to know that a game like this will require more to take off than a big expensive marketing push and a bunch of internet headlines.

For StarLicker to realize its potential it’s going to need lots of passionate players and a connection between the player community and the developers. This will facilitate an open dialog about what is working, what should be changed and what the metagame looks like at the highest skill levels. This sort of community can not just be created quickly out of thin air. It is something that must grow, organically, at its own pace. As the creators of StarLicker, all we can do is plant the seeds and water them. We know this game is unique, innovative, rewarding and downright fun to play. Over time, as we continue to play the game, refine the balance, add new features, support more platforms and reach new players, both over the internet and in person, it will grow. And as it grows, more and more people will be connected to us and one another through the game. Then one day, StarLicker will be the epic, perennial game it is meant to be.

Are you excited?

What Does “Gamer” Mean?

As I reflect on the events of the past week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, one thing in particular stands out the most. During a panel on improving the public image of the game industry, Ian Bogost called for us to throw out the term “gamer” as a label for people who play games. He said it was a perverse term, and no other media labels its consumers with a special term. And to my surprise, this statement was met with applause and fanfare from the audience.

It surprised me because for most of my life I have identified myself as a gamer and it never occurred to me that this was the slightest bit strange, let alone perverse.  I love to play games, so naturally I am a gamer, right? Nevertheless, these statements made me think deeply about why is it that we don’t call people who read a lot “readers” or people who listen to music “music-listeners”.

It then occurred to me that this is the wrong question to ask. It’s clear from every example I can think of that it is silly and somewhat perverse to label someone by what they consume. Consumption is not a meaningful or identifying quality of a person. We are all consumers of different things to varying degrees. The question I then asked myself is what does it actually mean to be a gamer?

The answer is simple. Like the game developer, the writer, the musician and the filmmaker, the gamer himself is a type of creator. Gamers develop skills and techniques, and they create strategies and tactics. They invent stories to give meaning to the decisions they make as they play. Together, gamers form communities to share these discoveries and inventions, and out of these communities, gamers create unique culture around the games they love.  Games are interactive, and therefore they can not be treated simply as media to be consumed.

To resign games to just another form of consumable media is far more perverse than any label we could place on people. As the creators of the games, we need to embrace this truly unique and special quality of our media.  We should champion the gamers who spend their time exploring the worlds and stories and mechanics and systems we create that empower them to be creators themselves.

In his fantastic talk at GDC about the relationship between game theory and game design, Frank Lantz asked us to consider that “rational thought is not incompatible with the sublime”, and that just maybe it’s possible that the game of poker saved the world during the Cold War. It should be clear to us developers that we have something very unique and powerful in this medium of games and its participants we call gamers.  Let’s move forward by making this abundantly clear to everyone else who has not yet realized it.

Heartonomy visits IndieCade East

From a balmy February Friday to an extremely brisk February Sunday, Hayden, Kurt, and I attended IndieCade East, the first iteration of such to make its way to the East Coast. The conference took place over three days in Astoria, Queens at the awesome Museum of the Moving Image, which meant that we were lucky enough to only have to take a few short train rides to get there. As a New Yorker, I’d love to see a whole lot more conferences like this here.

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The entrance to the Museum of the Moving Image

IndieCade East 2013 was a special moment, because it was the first time that we showed StarLicker publicly. We were lucky enough to grab a spot to pitch it for 90 short seconds at the Game Slam, and 90 full minutes with a table for the Show and Tell. Thanks to the awesome folks at The Spawn Point Blog, you can see the video of our Game Slam pitch on YouTube, “um”s and all. The Show and Tell session left us with never a dull moment, and we got a lot of good feedback. Now we know a lot of what we need to improve before we go to beta, and what works well to introduce people to the game in one or two turns of a match.

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Hayden and Kurt show off StarLicker

The rest of IndieCade was just awesome for us as lovers of gaming. Of particular note was the ridiculously futuristic Oculus Rift, which lives up to all the hype. I can’t wait to play an FPS on that thing. Make sure you’re mostly alone when playing it, though: the person demoing it was giving me instructions, and I instinctively looked over, but saw nothing. Disembodied voices are super creepy.

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Hayden tries out the Oculus

On Saturday during Night Games, we were able to take part in a massive game that took place in a theater with 100 laser pointers, named Renga, from wallFour. The 100 players have to point their lasers at the screen in a humongous co-op fashion in order to defeat enemies, “harvest quads”, and ultimately defeat a great evil to return home safely. I have to say, never before have I felt such frustration and joy in the same hour, shared with the other 299 people in the packed auditorium. Truly a surreal experience.

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One of the upgrade phases of Renga

In addition, we got a chance to play some of the Sportsfriends games – Johann Sebastian Joust, BaraBariBall, and Hokra. All of these were fun, but the one we were able to play the most was Hokra, since it had a dedicated station for the entire length of the conference. That game is ridiculously fun and competitive. Just when Hayden and I started to get good at it, forming good bouncing and passing strategies, somebody came around and revealed that there are other maps with different configurations of goals and obstacles, and I think I caught a glimpse of some sort of player type selection. This game is surprisingly deep, and I wish I could play a few more hours of it right about now. The biggest upside and biggest downside of this game is that it’s only for four players, locally. That situation almost never occurs in my life currently, so it’d be very hard to consistently practice and get good at the game. The same goes for the other Sportsfriends games, but Hokra is the only one I can comment significantly on.

Overall, IndieCade was fantastic, and I can’t wait for it to come back to New York!