Last year, I sat down with Suncrash’s Tomer Barkan to discuss their early access title Judgment: Apocalypse Survival Simulation, the development scene in Israel, and the challenges of developing an ambitious game in such a small country with a very small team.
What is your background?
I am a computer science major. I worked seven or eight years in network security. I was a programmer, then a team leader, then a product manager. But games are more exciting. I was at a very big conference in San Francisco and I found that nothing there interests me anymore, so when I came back [home], I quit.
And now I’m a producer at my own small company, I guess. You have to know when to cut the stuff that doesn’t work and if you don’t have enough time to do that, and that’s something that can be hard for some indies. So, being a product manager before helped me. Our art guy was doing independent stuff, mostly architecture, like 3D renders of houses that contractors want to sell.
Judgments’s reception so far has been quite positive, right?
Yes, we’re happy. Could always be better. We have our problems and we know about them, but our community is very friendly and very helpful and we owe a lot of improvements from our early access launch a year ago to the community and their feedback. In one of the last updates, more than 50% of the changes were from community fdeedback.
Why did you enter early access in the first place? Was it about feedback or was there also a funding component?
No, it was for feedback. We already had enough money to finish development. In the end, we stayed in early access longer than we had planned and it cost more, so it was good that we were able to sustain it with sales. We didn’t want to go to early access without being able to finish the game. I find that practice a bit… unethical? People are paying money for a game they expect to be finished and if you’re not sure you can finish it, then don’t promise that.
Are you worried for launch day, with all the changes of digital distribution? These days, a successful launch seems to be getting a lot harder.
I think that will worry me in our next game, but we already have a big wishlist and a huge community for this game – our sales are kind of steady, they’re not going down… I am anxious about the release, but mostly about how it will be received. I hope players will be happy with the full version and I hope they don’t think it needs more time in early access. I feel we’re close. We’re going to be updating the game after release to some extent.
Early Access might not have the best reputation, but could it be an option for gaining additional visibility when the market situation has become tougher?
We really haven’t done it the other way, but I would recommend it to other developers if they cannot get enough people to play the game before release. We had two or three closed alphas that people had to sign up for via newsletter, but very few people played and we wouldn’t get a lot of feedback. In early access, we got so much feedback, so I would recommend it, even today. For us, it did wonders. Both for the improvement of the game and also for visibility.
What were the biggest mistakes you made during early access? What are the game’s weaknesses?
Sometimes I feel that stuff is too complex and we don’t explain it well enough in the game, but that’s hard. On the other hand I don’t want something like a mobile tutorial where you have to do things step by step. It’s hard to find the balance. Overcomplication can be an issue for us in some instances.
We’ve also had some balancing issues which we have been dealing with in previous updates. We have to keep it balanced for the final release with all the new content.
The overcomplication stuff might just be a matter of preference, though. There are players who like to micromanage stuff and get down to handling all the details…
That’s true. From the beginning, our aim was to make it automatic, so you don’t have to micromanage. But if you want to do that, you can go down to all the details and tell each survivor exactly what you want them to do – but that is optional.
What about the art style? Was that something some players didn’t agree with?
More or less half the people hate it, half the people love it. We learned a lot for our next game with regards to the art style. We’re just two people developing the game – for the most time, that is. We had another part time game developer, a designer who joined us a few months ago, but almost the entire duration it was just me and Yoni, our artist.
So we had to find a graphics style that’s doable, that’s fast enough and that on the other hand looks good, and… some people like it, some don’t.
We did some things to improve the graphics. The colors were a bit unsaturated. The game gained that apocalyptic feel, but I think it deterred players a little bit. They like more colorful stuff. We tried to find a balance where the atmosphere is still dark and apocalyptic.
What was your biggest challenge during development?
There was one tough point for us. We submitted the game to a lot of conferences like PAX and Indie Arena and we were rejected, which was very deflating. It was hard, but after a while, after we went to a few conventions ourselves, we came to the realization that our game is not the best for this kind of public thing. It’s better for people to sit at home and play it. Still, that time was hard for us because we got like three or four rejections and it was bad for motivation, but we got out of that after the realization that it’s okay.
You’re located in Tel Aviv, Israel. How’s the indie scene there?
There is a game development scene. Just a few [months] ago, one of our mobile midcore developers called Plarium sold to an Australian company for $500 million. We’re very strong in social casinos. I think people mostly work where the hype is, so there’s a lot of mobile developers, and indies are a bit smaller. I think we’re one of the most advanced ones in terms of releasing on Steam. There are a few more. There’s around 15 teams lately working on indie games out of passion.
So you actually do some networking there with other devs…
It’s a very small country, so I wouldn’t call it networking. Everyone meets, we help each other. It has advantages that it’s so intimate, but also disadvantages. We don’t have a lot of experience within the community. So we come to conventions like this…
What’s your impression of Gamescom?
This is actually my third time here and I really love it. Last year we had a booth in the Indie Arena. It was fun working with all the other indies, but probably not effective for marketing.
Don’t you think it has any effect?
On sales? No, definitely not. We had only one bigger Youtuber that came by the booth. Also a lot of smaller Youtubers, and that had some effect, but other than that, nothing. It had other benefits, like working with other indies and playtesting. Now we’re out in Early Access and get a lot of feedback but before that, playtesting was important.
How big was your playtesting pool before you released to early access?
About twenty people that I know, such as friends. And I watched them play, which was very beneficial, because when you sit behind someone and watch them play, you learn a lot. And the closed alpha added maybe another twenty people – a very small pool, because we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to do it. Nobody knew about us.
Judgment is currently in the final stages of early access and will release soon. You can purchase it on Steam for $19.99. For more information, visit the game’s website or follow development progress on Twitter and Facebook.