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Underwater love: The making of Deep Loot

Underwater love: The making of Deep Loot

Deep Loot hasn’t exactly sunken to the bottom of the ocean floor since it set out to drift in the App Store sea - its promise of free-to-play divin’, lootin’ and fish shootin’ has already baited plenty of fish.

In three days, Deep Loot surpassed the downloads of all developer Monster and Monster’s previous games combined.

That's not to diminish the relatively fresh studio's past achievements, however. Formed by two pals, Dave Fullick and Dan Griffiths – the former an artist, the latter a coder – both routinely swap out their last names for the word “monster” in amongst their circle of friends, so they’re known collectively as “The Monsters”

With no real elaboration on just why that is, you're free to let your imaginations run wild on that one.

“Dan is the coder and handles the majority of the business admin,” says Monster One, Dave Fullick. “He has a history in console game development, before starting a digital marketing agency that would eventually hire me.”

“Dave is the artist and also handles most of the talking and tweeting, etc,” says Monster Two, Dan Griffiths. “He studied animation before spending many years working alongside myself creating a variety of digital products.

“We joined forces to form Monster and Monster in July 2011 with the ambition to create our own IP and release games that we would enjoy crafting as much as gamers would enjoy playing.

“We're based in Leamington Spa and we’re proud to be part of the vibrant local scene. We quite often hang out with the guys at the Arch Creatives, so we know Lumo Developments and Modern Dream really well.”

Monsters of the deep

Griffiths and Fullick have been creating for a long time. As is the case with most developers, in amongst their collective library of releases are, naturally, games that never saw the light of day, with, the two having stared in their teens, when they were little Monsters.

Fullick still has his “thanks, but no thanks” letter from Codemasters from when he was 11.

Later on, both the Monsters worked for a digital marketing agency, making viral games and delivering what's referred to as ‘programme support’ - tie-ins to TV shows, etc. The pair worked on hundreds of projects there, gaining vital experience that they would find valuable when setting out on their own. Time there also influenced the pair’s design ethos: accessibility, value and quality.

Fullick's reply from Codemasters

Firstly, that quality benchmark meant, although there’s only the two of them and the game was created with mobile in mind, they didn’t want to skimp on sound.

“We wouldn't feel like we'd made a proper game if it didn't have good audio,” Griffiths says. “The first thing is the music - we worked with Gavin Harrison, whom we met at GameCity in Nottingham back in 2011.

“We gave Gavin a list of tunes with the right vibe - things like the underwater music from Donkey Kong Country and 'In the Waiting Line' by Zero 7. He asked if we wanted him to use his Spectrums and C64s or mix in some real instrumentation. We went for the latter because it mixed retro and contemporary in the same way the visual design mixes pixel art and smooth modern-looking design elements.

“Gavin got to see some early gameplay too, but he just 'got' what kind of feeling we were trying to create and nailed it.”

Gavin Harrison remembers the GameCity chat well. “I was discussing how the chiptune genre had strong relations to compositions from the baroque era,” he told us. “Creating the music for Deep Loot really did all come together naturally, and whilst the songs have been tweaked over the course of development, the basic core of each one has remained the same.

“The idea was to have the music for all the menu screens, then for each depth level in game to have a new piece of music. Each one of those pieces changes in intensity and mood the deeper you go, reflecting the atmosphere of the ocean around you. The diving pieces were all written in order, with the first one reflecting an almost relaxed desert island feel to the last one, which became more of a dance track.

“I tried to consider how the music might feel or sound as if you were actually underwater. The menu pieces are all quite bright and fast in nature, whereas all the underwater pieces are meant to have a slightly muddy tone to them, like a very subtle sense of hearing the music through water. It's been fantastic watching the game develop and it's been great to see the music created right at the beginning of development still fitting towards the end.”

For the sound design, the team kept it simple, making sure key interactions all had sounds. Each weapon also got its own sound to give it a unique feel.

“It was a big challenge because sound files - even when heavily compressed - take up a lot of memory which is always very limited on mobile devices but the extra work was worth it in our opinion,” says Fullick.

Accessible but deep

If sound is important, there’s one thing that the pair find even more important: accessibility.

“I think the main thing we both care very much about is making games accessible,” says Griffiths. “Any complexity or depth, we feel, should become apparent over time. We like to think very carefully about how, where and why people might play our games and design to accommodate that.

“We're particularly proud of Deep Loot for that reason: we think we've made a really good 'second screen' game that is undemanding - though hopefully worthy of - your attention.”

With the game already at 240,000 downloads, it seems to be getting all the attention it deserves. The game’s blend of looting and turn-based movement mixed with its quirky visual style no doubt helped it stand apart from all the other fish in the App Store sea.

Deep Loot

“Dave suggested the underwater theme because it wasn’t so common on the App Store - at the time - and Dave knew he could make some striking screenshots that would stand out,” recalls Griffiths.

“After working on projects with limited colour palettes, I felt like creating a game packed full of bright and colourful pixels,” remembers Fullick. “I didn’t realise at the time but looking back now I can clearly see a whole bunch of influences I must have channelled. Titles from my childhood such as the Oliver Twins’ Dizzy and Rowlands brothers’ Creatures games still have a place in my heart and I like to think the main character would have fit in just fine alongside characters of that era.

“It became pretty obvious early on that the same style of chunky pixels I was using for the game world wouldn’t really suit the menus, so a good chunk of time was spent developing the interface to be both functional and visually appealing. If the player spends a large amount of time wading through menus and shop screens then it’s wise to spend a bit of extra effort making the experience as rich as possible.”

Complex controls can be a barrier to enjoying a mobile game.
Dan Griffiths

Mechanically, the game feels like a unique blend of turn-based combat with light strategy elements and looting. This mix comes from the pair playing a lot of games themselves, console and mobile. They realised that a many mobile games are designed like console or PC games, instead of keeping the mobile platform in mind.

“There were a couple of things in particular that we were thinking when we designed Deep Loot,” says Griffiths. “Firstly, fast paced, reaction games are usually a bad fit, because if you get distracted even for a moment, it can suddenly be 'game over'. So that's why Deep Loot is turn-based – it waits for you if your attention wanders.

“Secondly, complex controls can be a barrier to enjoying a mobile game. In particular on-screen controllers tend to be a bad approach because your fingers slip off the virtual buttons and without the tactile feedback of a real button, that's tricky to get right.

“Also anything that requires swipe gestures, multi-touch gestures and so on can be good for apps in general but can be too imprecise for games. That's why the majority of actions in Deep Loot is just a tap. I guess our mantra for Deep Loot was: how, when and why will our game get played?”

Diving in

To achieve all of this, the team used the Flash-liked programming software AIR.

“Flash gets a bad rep, but without the Flash boom of the early 2000s the indie boom we're enjoying now may well not have happened,” says Griffiths. “Studios like Vlambeer and Team Meat are both examples of teams that cut their teeth in that scene and you can still see 'Flash game' elements in their games.

“On reflection, Flash might not have been the best choice for Deep Loot because the 'on the fly’ procedural generation is rather processor intensive and a more heavy-duty programming language would've perhaps resulted in faster code with less optimisation required.

“Also, we started Deep Loot dev before the Starling plug-in for Flash was really ready to be used so Deep Loot only has limited access to the GPU for graphics acceleration which is why we had to be so efficient with our visual effects. That said Flash is an amazing animation tool which helped Dave add so much character to the diver.”

Most of the visual side was created using Photoshop and Illustrator, with Flash used for screen layouts and transition animations. Dave Fullick also used a lot of pen and paper sketches whenever overcome with a wave of inspiration.

On reflection, Flash might not have been the best choice for Deep Loot.
Dan Griffiths

Like a wave, part of what the pair hope keeps players coming back is that feedback loop, rolling over and over… or should it be ‘feedback loot’? Either way, part of what keeps players engaged in that feedback loop is each level’s procedural generation, making each dive feel unique and freshening the sense of discovery.

“It's essentially a mixture of hand-crafted content - the locations, built using an editor we wrote ourselves - and connecting sections generated using a method that can build grids of tiles of varying densities,” says Fullick. “Then there's a bunch of rules for determining if there's enough room for a chest or a sea creature, etc.

“Then each of our five depths has different parameters set for the generator to give each depth a different feel. We limit some of the prefabs and treasures so they can only appear at certain depths which means the player has to explore all the depths, maybe even revisiting the shallows if there's something they missed.”

Deciding how much loot players can find each time was just a matter of lots of play-testing and iterating. The duo created a spreadsheet of how much loot they got versus what equipment they were wearing on the dive, generating a general rule of thumb for ‘gold per unit of air’ at each depth.

Whales?

“Then we tweaked the value of the loot and how likely it is to appear so that we had a nice ramp up in value as you get better at the game,” remembers Griffiths. “So initially you'll get 500-1000 per dive - more if you've learned a few tactics - ultimately going up to hundreds of thousands of coins per dive once you're fully upgraded.”

Next, using the in-game currency, they set the prices of keys - for special chests, air, and deeper dives - so that they represented good value. “For example, because we know how much gold a player might get with a single unit of air, we know that our air booster has to cost slightly less than that,” says Fullick.
“We also have a rarity system, so some loot items are less likely to appear than others and there are some other generation rules such as locked chests always spawning at least one collectible.

“This process basically gave us a framework and a good 'first pass' for our prices and loot distribution. From there we tweaked values little-by-little until it felt right for each level of upgrade and depth. Very, very time consuming but essential to create the right experience.”

Deep Loot character concept art

Deep Loot was always planned as a free-to-play release as Monster and Monster’s first game - which was premium - sunk into obscurity, with the pair not being established or handling a licensed brand. It amassed “almost zero purchases.”

The studio's second game, which was much more successful, was F2P, and reinforced the Monsters’ belief that the model is the way forward.

“We spent a lot of time talking about the ethics of what we're doing,” admits Fullick. “Primarily we wanted the game to be rewarding to play regardless of what you spend. We knew we would have to make it at least a bit grind-y to encourage some players to want to spend to speed it up. But we also know that some players like to grind because of the sense of achievement you get – for example JRPGs are grind-y but in a way their players appreciate, so we tried to capture that.

“We also wanted to make sure people feel happy if they do purchase, which is why the coin doubler doesn't just reduce the grind, it also gives you another bonus.

“Ultimately we wanted to make sure people who play for free also have a really good time because, although it sounds cheesy, we just want as many people as possible to play our game and have fun. The in-app purchases are really a kind of 'tip jar' with added value.”

Compared to many other F2P games out there, Deep Loot’s in-app purchases are extremely generous - there’s no ‘whale’ targeting going on, even if the game is set in the ocean.

“There’s currently a lot of debate regarding various approaches to monetising games,” says Fullick. “We know we walk a fine line ethically with the free-to-play model but we are hyper-aware of that, and our personal ethics inform everything we do. So we tried to choose price points that balanced our need to pay the rent against what we consider fair and value for money.”

Evolving aquarium

The F2P model isn’t the only thing that’s always evolving, either. With iOS devices changing over the course of the two and a half year development process, it meant the game had to evolve along with them.

“Within the first year of development we suddenly had to deal with retina resolutions, while not blowing memory and keeping performance as well as the odd aspect ratio of the iPhone 5,” says Fullick. “All of which caused a fair bit of head scratching and a whole bunch of systems and artwork to be reworked.”

We spent a lot of time talking about the ethics of what we were doing with F2P.
Dave Fullick

Other than that, the game stayed relatively true to its initial concept, with a few minor improvements.
“One thing that was pretty major was initially the suits and ships were meant to be purely visual, but we had so many people ask us why they should buy them during our alpha that we decided to give the suits combat and air bonuses and/or penalties and we gave the ships gameplay altering perks - such as scaring away the fish or letting you unlock treasure chests without a key,” says Griffiths.

“The original design had a load of social features and a community hub website. We were going to have community missions where everyone playing contributes to a bigger goal - e.g. defeat a million crabs - and everyone who defeats at least one crab in that time period would get a reward once the mission is complete.

“We also wanted some more rogue-like features that would lead to more tactics and emergent gameplay. For example, the original design allowed players to dig the tile under a chest and it would start to fall – if you could land it on a sea creature it would do damage and burst open – so that would be another way of taking out tough creatures and also opening locked chests without using keys, but we had to drop it, unfortunately.

“There is probably a hundred more of these ideas and we cut pretty much all of them so that we could actually finish the game before our funds completely ran out or we went completely mad.”

Instead of driving themselves mad by drinking more saltwater, the pair decided to ship. The sail is up and the wind is at their backs, but the deck could still do with a scrub. There’s always something to do when you’re at sea.

Bleaching barnacles

“It became apparent pretty quickly that there are still a few annoying bugs and glitches we need to squash so that’s the immediate task at hand,” says Griffiths.

“It’s also been incredible to witness just how quickly some eager gamers can rattle through content, so we’ve accelerated our plans to roll out at least one big content update full of new stuff for users to unlock, discover and enjoy.

“In fact, we’re already getting a ton of fantastic suggestions from the community who have been submitting ideas through our suggestion page.”

“It would also be nice to try and revisit some of the original ideas that didn’t make it into the final release, such as community challenges and exploding seagulls, as well as address requested features such as iCloud save support.”

Once Deep Loot is finally as polished as it can be, the pair want to start work on their next game, which they hope won’t take quite as long as Deep Loot.

“We have lots of plans and lots of dreams,” says Fullick. “If Deep Loot makes enough that we can afford our Zeppelin, then we're outta here and a career of aerial piracy beckons.

“The main thing, though, is we want to keep making games and in the ideal situation our games will pay for themselves without us needing to top-up the coffers with freelance work.”

“Our next project is tentatively a follow-up to Winter [Walk]  and Autumn Walk, since we'd like to finish another short project after the drawn out development of Deep Loot,” reveals Griffiths.

“It’s something our fans have been requesting for quite some time and our current plan is to create a story driven game that combines the 'Jerome K. Jerome' character of the Gent with some classic Victorian tales. We've already got a game name and some elements of the narrative and gameplay sorted, so we're both looking forward to getting stuck in.”

Hopefully the seas appease the Monsters with a glorious bounty of riches and fish, so more gamers may reap the benefits of their Monster-flavoured iOS gaming.

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Contributing Writer

Kirk is a writer of many words and grower of many hairs. He manages to juggle family life with his passion for video games and writing. From the mobile indie scene to triple-A blockbusters, his life ambition is to play ALL the games. Yes, all of them.

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