Cute Things Getting Greenlit: Interview with Alex Jordan
Cute Things Dying Violently. If you have been following the podcast and site for any length of time, you have heard about this game. I originally played it when it was an Xbox Indie game, and once it was ported to PC, I advised Chris Maeurer he needed to play it. He enjoyed it as well, giving the game a 10 out of 10 in his review.
CTDV creator Alex Jordan submitted the game for Steam’s Greenlight program back when it started. Over a year and a half later, the game has finally been approved for Valve’s digital distribution platform. I had a chance to catch up with Alex and get some insight about him, his games and the long road he has traveled to get his fantastic puzzle game onto Steam.
I’m Alex “AlejandroDaJ” Jordan, a 30-year old government employee living in Washington, DC. I got into game design when my dad handed me a QBASIC book back in elementary school. I wound up making text-adventure games for a while until I learned how to do level design for Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Half-Life 1. My mapping skills got me onto the Firearms Mod for Half-Life 1 team when I was in high school, and I kept up with level design and modding until I graduated college. I put game development on the back burner for a few years while I focused on my career in DC, but around the time that was starting to grow a little stale, Microsoft announced Xbox Live Community Games (now Xbox Live Indie Games), and I eagerly jumped back in.
Cute Things Dying Violently. I guess my first question about the game would be what do you have against Cute Things?
I don’t have anything against Cute Things! It’s my reverence for them and their high-pitched squeals of terror that make them, in my opinion, uniquely suitable for gruesome death.
For those who have not played the game, explain CTDV: what is it, and what were your main influences in making it?
Cute Things Dying Violently is a physics puzzler wherein you have to guide the eponymous Cute Things (or “Critters” as the game calls ’em) to the end of each level. The player has to solve various design puzzles along the way, as well as have the Critters dodge (or not dodge) lots of deadly obstacles.
I’ll tell you what didn’t influence me making it: the three games it most resembles. When I started work on CTDV, I’d barely heard of Angry Birds, let alone played it. I also hadn’t heard of Super Meat Boy yet. And while I had heard of Lemmings (who hasn’t?), I’d never played it. In fact, I was more thinking of some sort of weird mashup of World of Goo and The Incredible Machine.
CTDV originally launched as an Xbox Live Indie Game (or was it still being called Community games when it launched?). How did the game fare there? What were the challenges of porting it to PC?
CTDV launched on XBLIG back in August 2011, and it did amazingly well there, selling about 50,000 copies. A huge chunk of those were thanks to the Indie Games Summer Uprising promotion that Dave Voyles and Kris Steele put together (and Microsoft provided ad space for), but the game also had a really great long tail, sales-wise.
I started the PC port shortly after the XBLIG version released, and it wasn’t challenging so much as time-consuming. The PC version didn’t come out until July of the following year, which felt like an eternity, given that the game had been designed on PC in the first place. I just gave myself a ton of work to do: I contracted out for new artwork, I added a slew of PC-specific features (including really robust graphics and input options settings), and even went a little overboard on new effects, like rippling water and bloom lighting. I bit off a bit more than I could chew at the time.
If I recall correctly, Steam rejected the game when you first approached them for distribution. Did they give you a reason for the rejection?
I actually still have the original email. It goes: “Thank you for submitting ‘Cute Things Dying Violently‘ for potential Steam distribution. We have taken a look at the information provided and determined that Steam is not a good fit for distribution. It is our company policy not to provide specific feedback on a submission, but we would like you to consider Steam distribution for your future products.”
That kind of stung, but I felt that my chances weren’t that great anyway (this was back in the summer of 2012, before the indie floodgates truly opened). And only a few days after that rejection, Greenlight was announced, so I knew I’d have a second chance.
You submitted Cute Things Dying Violently to Project Greenlight relatively soon after Steam started the program. It took several months to get the game greenlit. Was there ever a point where you felt like giving up?
Several months? Hell, it took almost 600 days to get it Greenlit–more than a year and a half. I felt like giving up on a few occasions, and I certainly left CTDV for dead in mid-2013. Back then, it felt like all of my XBLIG developer peers were getting greenlit before me, that CTDV was making no progress on Greenlight, and that I had little to show for my efforts but a series of disparaging remarks on the Greenlight comments feed about how it looked like a Flash game. But, since I posted CTDV on Day 1 of Greenlight, before the $100 fee went into effect, I had nothing to lose by keeping it up there.
I remember reading some of the comments on CTDV‘s Greenlight page. People were saying things like “This looks no better than a flash game.” How frustrating was it that people were putting it down without even giving the game a try?
It was extraordinarily frustrating, but not in precisely the way you’d imagine. I’m never afraid of people disliking or not buying my games… of the whole population of the world, or even just the total gaming population, a successful game is one that scrapes by with only a handful percentage points of attention. You just multiply that by several million Steam users and then you find success. So, I’m not looking for a majority… I’m looking for a friendly niche to call my own, a niche of people to sell my game to.
That means that when people were knocking my game on Greenlight, it wasn’t upsetting that they didn’t want to play it… it was upsetting that they were coming between me and my ability to sell the game to the people who would play it. Without Steam and Greenlight approval, I’d never be able to reach those people.
You offered more than a few promotions to try and raise the awareness for your game, including giving it away free on Desura during the Not on Steam Sale and just before this last batch of games were Greenlit. What effect did these promotions have on finally getting approved?
The Not On Steam Sale (which happened back in October, during the same time the federal government was shut down and I was temporarily out of a job) and the most recent sale got me tons of good press and lots of great feedback, but surprisingly little in the way of Greenlight momentum. Both sales caused upvote spikes, but in the end, they contributed towards only 6% of my total rise to the top of the Greenlight queue.
It turns out that it was the psychotic pace of Valve’s Greenlight approvals that got me the rest of the way. Games ahead of me were being greenlit and wound up moving CTDV up the queue faster than it could fall backwards. Actually, given Valve’s obvious attempts to clear the whole queue, I think the two sales only moved up my eventual approval date by about a month.
You said you plan on giving anyone who has CTDV a free steam copy of the game. Any other plans for it? Like maybe new levels for the Steam edition? Or are you just happy to be wrapping up this chapter of your game development career?
Oh, I can’t leave well enough alone, so CTDV will in fact be getting updated for Steam. Firstly… yeah, I gave away a ton of free copies across both sales, and I want to make sure everyone who owns a copy on Desura gets a free Steam key. It’s what I promised. Some might consider that leaving money on the table, but I see it as an investment towards building a future base of Steam players.
As for new features, I would rather like to rebalance some levels and some score requirements before the Steam version gets released. I’d also like to run amok with Steam Workshop… level-sharing is a huge priority, and I think I’d have a complete blast with Steam Trading Cards. Oh, and I’m porting the whole game into Unity, which speaks well for future Mac, Linux, and mobile versions, a prospect that wasn’t really thinkable until a few months ago.
I consider all of this odd, since I’d been working on another game since the Fall, and if you’d have told me then that Cute Things would be my most exciting intellectual property in 2014, I would’ve called you crazy.
You have been posting on Twitter (@AlejandroDaj) about the progress you are making on your new game. What are you willing to tell our readers about it?
Ah, yes… At The Lichgate. It’s a top-down, cooperative endless wave shooter for pretty much all mobile devices. It’s also platform agnostic, meaning someone on an iPad could play with someone on an Android phone and vice versa. It’s got a Lovecraftian darkness-and-insanity theme to it that I’m quite partial to. It was meant to be a quick diversion away from long, time-consuming projects, but yet again I find myself far overrunning my projected time frame. I’m going to continue to nudge it along, but getting CTDV on Steam is my priority.
You have been using Unity for the game if I remember correctly, but I did see you show some interest in the Unreal 4 engine when Epic announced they were selling it for a surprisingly low cost. Are you still considering switching to Unreal? What have you learned working with Unity?
I did consider switching to Unreal, and even paid the $19 to get access to the SDK so that I could take a peek at it. Unreal gives you so many great features out of the box that you have to drop premium money to access with Unity… things like full dynamic lighting and advanced rendering effects. I got annoyed at the lack of access to them so I figured, hey, let’s check out Unreal. However, Cute Things recently getting greenlit means that investigating Unreal has become a distant priority.
Working with Unity, I’ve really learned how to properly target both desktop and mobile platforms. I know the strengths and weaknesses of each, and how to write code efficiently in Unity to make sure that mobile titles don’t get unnecessarily bogged down. That’s another reason I have to push back learning Unreal… I could probably get an Unreal version of Breakout up and running in three to six months, but to really learn how to make the engine run efficiently? That’ll take a year. I’ve already invested that time into Unity, so I’ll continue to use that for the time being.
What advice would you give to any aspiring developers, both in general and specifically in terms of getting a game Greenlit?
In general, I would tell any developer that’s looking to make a living off of it to live within their means, save up, and spend the intervening time working very hard to make one or two games of high quality and original content, as opposed to many one-off games of decent but unoriginal content. It’s not good enough to be consistent in the indie space anymore… you have to be consistent, talented, and really unique.
As for getting a game greenlit… I fell [butt] backwards into that, so I can hardly give advice, can I? But I guess I’ll try my hand at it: leverage as much PR support as you can, get your game into bundles and prominent sales, and keep hammering away at the need for votes. Shake down your friends and your Twitter followers. And above all, persist. Stubborn persistence on my part, long after I thought CTDV was dead, allowed me to just plant my feet and eventually have the game be greenlit.