Brad Talton

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about lingering issues and what’s next. 

I’m currently in the very last stages of putting together Chibi Fighters, with only a few graphics and a little polish left to do. Since I’m still producing and polishing, I suppose it’s not too late to write a little bit about what kinds of polish are needed at the very last steps of the game design. 

At the moment, the only large thing that remains unfinished is the story mode. I need just a few more pieces of background artwork to put in, and am currently working on doing all the animation for the story segments. The way that the characters move on and off of the screen, as well as what music plays, what animations appear, and what sound effects are used are all stored in large configuration files. The process of tweaking these files, running through the story, then retweaking the files again and again to match the final effect I want can be a tedious process. However, the end result is that story mode comes out looking clean and playing fluidly.

A large part of developing a game is not in creating the content for the game, but in making the interpreters for these configuration files. Almost everything in Chibi Fighters, from the text used in Training Mode to the high score Jonathan needs in Target Attack, is contained by configuration files. With these files, there is no need to rebuild and reprogram the application every time a variable needs to be tuned or a misspelling needs to be fixed. Currently, just about everything that is being polished for Chibi Fighters is being done in these kinds of files. In a sense, the game is complete—it’s just the content that is being tuned and refined.

At around this stage of a project, the question comes to mind: what’s next? The more successful products that Level 99 Games has released have been things that let users create for themselves—DM Toolkit and RPG Cartographer—for planning RPGs and making game maps respectively. We want to continue to give people the opportunity to make their visions a reality and enable users to use our products to make the games that they want to make.

Our current toss around idea is an ‘RPG Maker’-style of application, that will let you design a JRPG style game and play it with friends. Another option would be a tactical game maker (that lets you create a Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea-style game). And there’s always the option of another video game, as well. I am always open to suggestions, so if you have a preference in this, please come and let me know!

Also, for those in the board game scene, I managed to get down to BGGCon this weekend, and hang out with some of the up and coming developers. We talked about the possibility of iPad versions for a few games—so look out for those soon on the Level 99 Games home page. I’m also working with Kevin Brusky of APE Games on a big licensed game—but no public information on that right now either, sorry!

Hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving!

Next time, Brad will celebrate the release of his game. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about finishing everything and moving on. 

Between content creation, level design, gameplay, playtesting, getting people involved, and debugging, there’s a lot that goes into making a video game. Even with all the fancy open source libraries one can use, and all the tools that make creating art, sound, and interface resources easy, it’s still a big undertaking to put together a game. Super Psychic Chibi Fighters started up in June, and it’s now November. The game will probably be in the app store in early December. Six months and about 800 hours of development time later, the final product is ready to see the world. 

Will people like it? I feel really confident that they will. I’ve played it just about every day for these six months, and I can say that it’s still pretty fun to try and beat my high scores on the minigames, or accumulate medals, or even click through the stories and relive all the silly jokes and boss fights. Will people know about it? I really hope so. Even once the game is released, the ongoing task of marketing, advertising, and getting people to talk about the game carry on. There’s always more to do, and of course, the next project is already looming on the horizon.

In the last few days of development, I’m jamming SPCF3 full of secret features, additional content, game polish, and bonuses. There are new cheat codes (one of which I’ll be revealing here on Snackbar once the game is complete!), a few new cameo characters that appear only in the story, and additional gallery content and bonus scenes that bring out the characters’ backstories and world. Ultimately, I want to go the extra mile and deliver more to gamers than they expect when they download the app. Who knows—maybe I’ll get as well known as Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies? Unlikely, but possible in the world of direct App Store marketing.

Super Psychic Chibi Fighters has a lot going for it. From the fun stories to the stylized eye-catching characters, I expect that it will get a lot of attention in the App Store and on websites where I advertise it. Everyone loves Victoria’s art, and reception so far to the personality and humor of the characters has been nothing but positive.

One of the fun, experimental things that I’m trying out in Chibi Fighters is DLC. Some people love it, some people hate it. Personally, I really like it when my favorite fighting games offer new characters as DLC, rather than making me buy the whole game over again to get the eight new fighters (yes, I’m talking about you, Street Fighter 4). So I included two additional characters for SPCF3 that wouldn’t have otherwise appeared in the game. One is a guest character, Cosette Garidion, from my old web series Dark Magical Orchestra. The other is Cecil Kaine, a story character who is not playable, but makes several cameos. I plan to see which one of these two sells better, and if DLC sells at all, really. If Cosette sells, expect more guest characters from webcomics and other indie games. If Cecil sells, expect the world of SPCF to expand as more minor characters from the story make full-fledged appearances. With any luck, the world of Chibi Fighters will continue to expand with more exciting content and levels even after the initial release.

SPCF3 has pushed the limits of my game design ability and programming from the very beginning to the very end. I’ve learned a bunch about programming, about making the game fun, about balancing abilities and skills, and about creating engaging level. The things that I’ve learned in the course of doing this game will hopefully filter into the next thing I go about developing. I’m thinking perhaps a tactical strategy game, something in the same vein as FF Tactics and Disgaea, to offset the frantic action gaming in my two existing titles. Online play would be a fun option to explore in the next gaming endeavor.Of course, whether I’ll be able to do more gaming depends on how well SPCF does. Such is the way of indie development.

Though Chibi Fighters is coming to an end, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to put an end to Indie Dev Diary. I’m working on plenty of card and board games, as well as the RPG Mystic Empyrean, and there will be another video gaming project someday, of course.

Next time, Brad will celebrate the release of his game in style, as well as introduce some of his other projects.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about getting the word out about your project. 

At this point in the development, when the modes are laid out and the graphics are starting to come in, it’s important to get started on spreading the word about the game. I’ve learned the hard way that generating excitement isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen on its own. Posting “here’s my cool game” on your niche blog just isn’t enough to get people involved. Personally, I’m still learning a lot about how to advertise and make a game popular in the pre-release stage, so this section is a combination of what I’ve learned and what I’m still trying.

The most important lesson that I’ve learned about promoting a game is that you can’t do it all yourself. You only have so much reach, and if you’re a cloistered independent game developer like myself, then there’s even less you can do to reach out to the people around you, but hopefully you have friends, colleagues, and just some random associated parties that you can call on for help. This is the best chance to actually spread the word about a project or idea. Hopefully some of your friends will think it’s cool enough to tell others about, and some of their friends will think that it’s cool enough to repeat, and so forth.

My strategy this time is leveraging more social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and my own site. I’ve also created a teaser site, which has some downloads and additional information about the game. I drop the address to this site just about everywhere I can. I’m also running contests, giving free copies of the app to a few lucky followers once the game debuts.

Games bank on different things for success. Even if you have the exposure to show off your game to everyone, without a hook of some kind, you’re just wasting time. There needs to be some catch that draws people into your game. With some games, like Chibi Fighters (and my older Internet Defense), part of the allure of the game is quirky humor, and I try to bring this out in the marketing. On the promotional site, I’ve tried to make the character personalities the centerpiece of the site, and show the players how much fun they will have by displaying how much fun the characters themselves are having with the game. 

This kind of character-based interest building is especially good for fighting games, like SPCF3, where the players will tend to pick a favorite character and master that specific one. Letting the players get to know the characters deepens their interest in the game, which helps them to have more fun as well as making them more excited about the game’s eventual release. When I work on my RPG, Mystic Empyrean, in the coming months, I’ll use a different strategy—one that appeals to player creativity and the allure of building a world and a persona from scratch.

Giving people a reason to get interested in your game is just another piece of the puzzle. Once they are interested, they need a means to get involved in spreading the word. This usually means something interactive—not just a cool gameplay video or some neat graphics (though these certainly help). Memes, interactive videos, comics, and minigames are just a few of the ways that a developer can get people telling their friends about a game. I’m still investigating a lot of these myself with Chibi Fighters, but there are as many ways to get people involved as there are incentives. 

Ultimately, the developer has to think about what he can give back to the people that are interested in your game. Some common things are status within a forum or web community, actual hard goods, in-game bonuses and rewards, involvement with the game’s creative process, or inclusion in the credits. 

If the game provides an outlet for people to talk about it and socialize, they will. OpenFeint is a free achievement system that provides this very function, and which I’ve included in SPCF3. Including a system like OpenFeint gives me an instant, free community module to plug into my game, and comes with its own range of costs and benefits. For one, I have to host the advertisements of other games on the OpenFeint screen in my app. However, an app can just as easily be advertised within the apps of others using this system.

There is plenty of opportunity for contests and community promotions that are outside of the game. Hidden bonus content or especially tough challenges that will have players asking around for the solutions to unlock or beat can be a great strategy, as can the ability to play competitively online, or competitively at all. Competitive gamers love discussing strategy with anyone they can.

A free or ‘lite’ version of the game can never hurt your cause, and gives unbelievers who are willing to try your game a chance to play it before spending their hard earned money on it. To some people, a demo version says “if you play this once, I think you’ll want it even more,” and shows that the developer has enough confidence in the quality of his work to let people try before they buy.

Of course, not all successful games have free demo versions, either. Ultimately, the question is whether the game is interesting enough that people will want to play it again after playing it once (or playing a portion of it).

There’s very little in the world of gaming that’s tougher than taking your product and showing it to the world. Some people will hate it, some will love it. It’s important not to get discouraged by negative reviews, and to take suggestions and lessons to incorporate in the next venture. If you’re confident in your game, and enjoy it, then someone else will too. Maybe you’ll even make some friends and fans along the way.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about building out a game from the base concept.

With the skeleton of the game built, my next step is to identify which parts of the game require fleshing out. This is a problem that can usually be attacked on several fronts. The player characters need to have all of their attacks programmed, the stories need to be written, and some of the minigames have stages that need to be programmed. These different aspects can be approached as they become relevant, or according to whim. Once the shape of the skeleton is established, the actual content insertion can be done at leisure.

All the while that this is happening, there will be new ideas that come along, and need to be accommodated or thrown out. I had originally intended to put a kind of Pong variant into the game as a two player minigame, for example, but that idea was dropped out for various reasons. On the flipside, while writing the story, I discovered that writing the characters in a sort of “fourth wall” style was very interesting, and decided to include unlockable comic mini-stories as part of the gallery mode, as rewards for some minigame achievements.


When developing different game modes, the big question is “what can be salvaged from the existing game modes to make new game modes.” Training mode and story mode can be derived easily from versus—just include some extra controls or an AI engine. 

The deconstruction of the game’s premise to make minigames isn’t just in terms of coding, however. One of the minigames, Corridor Runner, focuses on using your character to dodge a series of hazardous  traps and reach a target—the dodging aspect of SPCF3‘s versus mode. Another, Trick Shots, allows you to use a set of limited shots to eliminate targets that have been placed in hard to reach spots. This minigame is a deconstruction of the variety of attacks available to the different characters and how they can interact. If the minigames aren’t derived from the same premise and mechanics as the base game, they will feel out of place when bundled with the main game.

Minigames and derived modes need to not only be culled from the premise of the main game, but they need to be rewarding in their own right. Playing the story unlocks new characters, so players are motivated to play the story. There needs to be some incentive associated with the minigames as well. 

For achievement driven players, a series of medals and leaderboards are enough. Unlockable gallery content can be a big motivator for others—especially if the unlockables drive the story or characters forward more. 

By creating a wide range of achievements and unlockables—ranging from the simple to the near-impossible, it is possible to get a great deal of mileage and playability out of game modes which would otherwise be discarded quickly. Most gamers are goal-driven, and will play a game mode relentlessly to achieve their goals. The same game, equally as well-built and fun, would be forgotten by these players if it did not present some concrete goal.


There are a lot of reasons to include cheats and secrets in your games. Some of these are obvious—it’s nice to include fun bonuses that don’t quite fit on the options menu. It’s fun to leave in a few easter eggs for people to find. When you’re developing independently, you can and should include things just because you think they’re fun—it’s part of the charm of doing it yourself. 

However, cheat codes and secrets have other uses, too. Including cheat codes that can only be found online or via leaks will entice players to go online and talk about the game, to scour your forums, and start up dialogue about how to get a particular unlockable or cheat code. You can even sponsor community-based “treasure hunts” for your cheat codes, or save them as additional press releases and hooks to continue generating news about your game even after release. If you release a fun easter egg or cheat code in your site’s posts or newsletter every third week, you can bet your bottom dollar that subscriptions to your RSS will go up and traffic will increase. Effectively used, secret content can give your players a more enjoyable game, and boost awareness of your future projects.

In the next installment, Brad will talk about generating buzz and interest for your project before release.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about when the rubber hits the road: taking all your planning and assets and starting to put everything together.

Before I can start putting together the game itself, I have to get graphics in place so that I can have an approximate idea of how it will look. Since the artist and graphic designer are probably not even close to finished with the game’s resources, the developer has to make do with simpler versions for the present. These approximate versions (or proxies) will have the same general shape as the final game resources, and are easily swapped out for the real thing when the time comes.  

Even though I don’t have the actual versions of resources ready yet, there’s no time to waste in creating the foundations of gameplay. I know what the final resources will be shaped like, and that’s all it takes to put them into place in the design of menus and interfaces.

Before starting on any other part of a project, I work on the core of the game. In SPCF3, the core is the versus mode. It’s the easiest part to begin with, because there is no need to write artificial intelligence. In fact, at the early stages, you’ll want to be in control of both sides of the field so that you can test out everything from both players’ points of view. It would be terrible if something worked differently for player 1 than it did for player 2, after all.

The core engines for the game are open source and generally bug free. These days, very few game designers write their core engines from scratch. Even bigger-name game developers usually outsource this aspect of design to dedicated game engine companies. (Those are all the other names you see but don’t recognize before the title screen.) Modules like physics, graphics, and sound are just too complex and easily reusable to be worth writing over again for every game. 

Since the game engines are in place, all the developer needs to do is coax them to work in the way that the game needs. Even if all a game requires is simple physics, 2D graphics, and mono sound, this is not always an easy task, and requires a good degree of programming knowledge. Each engine behaves in different ways, and so has its own learning curve and nuances to master.

Once the foundations are laid, it’s time to start working on rule enforcement. Video games, unlike board and card games, enforce their own rules. There’s a fairly common mantra: “If the game lets me do it, then it’s not cheating.” (I had to tell cousins this every few minutes back when I was throwing cheap punches with Dhalsim in Street Fighter 2.) This is an unfortunate expectation of video games, but because players expect a game to force them to follow rules, the developer has to rise to this expectation.

Rules are more than setting boundaries to the stage and making sure the match ends when someone runs out of life. It’s important to ensure that damage is assigned correctly, an attack strikes with the right amount of force, and that your balancing factors such as defensive power and offensive power are actually working as you intended.

The rules are different than the actual game balance. When making a game, I try to keep the characters’ information as separate as possible from the actual game systems. The information that describes a character (how much power they have, how fast they are, what their defense is like) are commonly called tuning variables. By storing these outside the game in configuration files, the developer give himself a means to rebalance the game after each round of play testing, as well as to make patches and updates without recompiling the entire project. Keeping all this information in separate files is what allows game developers to make a 1 MB patch to a 5 GB game without forcing you to download the entire game again.

Once the core of gameplay is established, I move on to what I tend to think of as a ‘game skeleton’. The skeleton consists of the main menu and submenus that form the game’s workflow. The skeleton gives you access to the different game modes and menus, even if those are still blank at this point. It’s sort of like a Christmas tree that you can decorate at leisure with new game modes and options.

At this point, the workflow of the game is established, along with what players can do, and how the menus will pull together. Menu design is actually one of the more important and often overlooked aspects of a game’s execution. A poorly crafted workflow or a visually weak menu system can cripple user experience. If the user can’t get to the actual game content within 15 seconds of the game launch (but shorter is even better), then there are problems with the streamline of the interface. Of course, as a developer debugs and tests the game, these shortcomings quickly become apparent. 

Personally, I’m a bit spotty in my game development habits. I tend to build different elements onto my game skeleton in no particular order. Since many elements will require coinciding development, this isn’t a bad strategy—arcade mode is built on top of versus mode, and story mode is built on top of arcade mode. But training mode is also built on top of versus mode. So which one to do first? This is an issue of pure developer preference. 

The only important point here is to build upwards. I try to intuit which modes depend on which other modes, and which portions of my design can be re-used and re-purposed elsewhere in the game, and then attack the problems of the game in that order. Of course, this is mostly guesswork, but a little experience goes a long way in helping a developer to make the right guesses and save serious hours of development time.

So with a game plan for what order to build my game modes, there is still the task of actually doing so. 

In the next installment, Brad will look at transitioning between game modes, building a workflow and creating dependencies.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.