Nathan Vella Explains the Magic Behind Sword and Sworcery at GDC

Monday morning at the 26th Annual Game Developer’s Conference, Nathan Vella, President of Capy Games, narrated a panel titled Perhaps a Time of Miracles Was at Hand: The Business & Development of #Sworcery. The presentation illustrated the trials and tribulations they faced when producing the iOS hit. Selling 350,000 copies of an independent title is a milestone by any standards, but that feat was not reached without a keen business sense.

One of the first points he brought to our attention was their willingness to crowd source and seek contributions from friends. “We opened our development to contributors,” Vella stated, which essentially were friends who loved the idea of the game and were eager to offer their talents. These talents included posters and the occasional piece of art for use within the title itself. This is a great way to not only gauge interest, but also get more mouths talking about your project, but he warned, “contributors will only contribute to the project if they believe in the project.”

In today’s saturated market, especially that of iOS, it’s essential that developers make the concrete decision to take chances, and to do so early on. “Succeeding through risk,” as he put it, allows developers to leverage the risk to their benefit. One such example of this was by targeting 100% of the 10%. “iOS has taught devs to target ‘everyone,’ but ‘everyone’ isn’t a demographic, as it actually means ‘no one.’” Just launching your title out to the vicious waters that is the mobile marketplace is like taking a taking a chance at the lottery. A better idea is to target a niche, and due to the scale of iOS, niches can be huge.

Knowing your audience doesn’t hurt either. “Sworcery knew it spoke to literate gamers. We believed many of these gamers were on the iPad, and contrary to typical logic, we launched on the iPad first.” It quickly hit #4 on the iPad within one day, and this was before being featured on the front of the store. Since then, two thirds of sales have been for iPad or universal devices, with over three quarters of their revenue coming from that space as well.

A key factor Vella emphasized that allowed them to reach this position was the importance of standing out. Digital platforms are a sea of games all competing against one another, although most of them are the same in many facets. Games that are different or decide to take risks seem to be the rarity, and often developers are rewarded for the danger of venturing into uncharted territories.

A development cycle can easily go long and over budget, especially when trying to diversify and stand out from the rest. The stress carries over from the individual and onto the business, where it’s easy to make bad calls when under pressure. Vella advises to “keep calm and carry on,” with the understanding that all independent developers are essentially entrepreneurs. Sworcery was originally planned as a ten-month project that would cost around $110,00, but they quickly ran into problems. Seven-to-eight months in, they felt they weren’t even halfway done with the game. At that point they made the executive decision to slash and burn the development cycle and release the game within the next 3 months.

At the same time, Capy understood that it was a bigger business risk not to finish the game, but understood the consequences of rushing it too. A significant amount of trust between teammates is required to crunch and complete the remainder of any project when it comes time to launch. A rushed game will rarely sell as well as a finished game. The “Valve” mentality and the “intense belief in a simple statement” is what held the team together.

The final bit of knowledge Vella shared was how to develop a public relations voice. Every game should begin with a vision, which is then thrust into the PR itself. The of the tone of the PR assets should reflect that of the initial vision, and not that of the game itself: a mistake many development teams make. One reasons for this is to allow for consistency between the game and the PR. It also allows the brand to grow organically and to speak directly to the 10% niche mentioned above.

The best way to go about this is to translate the vision directly into the promotion by maintaining a written voice for all web/PR/trailer/social media assets. There should be a synergy across all items, including a shared color palette, fonts, and sound effects. Why include assets that will never be included in the final game? You’ll just confuse the audience, Vella explained.

If you’d like to see the end result of this team’s work, you can pick up Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP in the App Store today, for $4.99.

Posted on by Dave Voyles in Features

About Dave Voyles

Dave is located in Philadelphia, and works as a Tech Evangelist at Microsoft. He's coordinated the Indie Games Uprisings on Xbox Live, wrote the UnrealScript Game Programming Cookbook, Made an XBLIG game, and is currently doing JS / HTML5 dev for browser base games. You can follow him on Twitter, at @DaveVoyles