Postmortem: Altidudes

By Jonathan Ribarro [04.06.21]

Altidudes is a one-button arcade infinite climber/platformer about dudes skateboarding up a mountain, avoiding obstacles, and beating your high score.  The game was released on PC and ios/Android mobile devices, with another version to come out much later maybe.

The game was first conceived of in the 1-button game jam 2019. The resulting game was a little something I called Mountain Climber.  I was really proud of it and I showed it to my family, which was something I didn't  frequently do prior to making stuff. They all really enjoyed it, and I received my first donated dollar from them, and it was surreal that someone paid me for the work that I did, despite it coming from the family.  Having gotten some positive feedback from Reddit on the game, I got to work.  The game was pretty much made entirely by me, but with some huge help from friends new and old for audio, Trailer, QA, and legal, who I will name further below.

The Engine

I had used Pico-8 on another game jam prior to Mountain Climber, and it was my first brush with both the engine itself and the programming language Lua. I learned both easily enough through experience and research, and thankfully there were a lot of great posts about Pico-8 problems to peruse. For other Pico devs it goes without saying but there is a huge community of amazingly talented people working with this engine, and they are all very kind, knowledgeable folks. If you are considering Pico-8 for a game, you are in good hands.

Gameplay

What Went Right

The game plays exactly how I envisioned it would back in 2019, and I am very happy with how it turned out. Luckily, the math needed for making the sliding, jumping, and falling was simple enough and, at least to me, it feels good. The gameplay was also simple enough that I could work with just that one system and not have to go any deeper, so the scope was kept in check.

What Went Wrong

Coming up with solutions to things like the "infinite" aspect is hard. I think one of the scariest things about Altidudes is that I left a massive, game-breaking bug in it. There's a caveat though: you'll only see it if you can make it to the 'top' of the mountain. That is, where Pico-8 can't count positive numbers any further. See, every computer has a limit, most of our modern machines have one in the trillions or something I think, but for Pico-8 it's purposefully limited in it's capacities, so ~32,000 is about the most you can get it to count. Well, if a player happens to push the position of the player or the camera to that number, then everything kind of just, breaks. I doubt any average gamer will get that far (I know I couldn't). I tried to think of solutions to it, but I just didn't know how to fix it without rewriting a fat load of code, so I left it in. By the way, this is privileged game dev knowledge, don't tell the gamers!

Design

What Went Right

When I first came up with this, I thought of a frog hopping up a mountain. It sounded cool, so I made a frog which, suffice to say, would not have worked in the grand scheme of the gameplay.  I opted for a human character instead, and after I drew him and took a step back I was like, "oh yeah, this is the one" 

So after I made my original dude all the pieces fell into place. He has a skateboard? He skateboards up the mountain. How does he avoid stuff? Either by sliding back down or jumping higher up. It all worked out quite well. From there it was just adding things to make the game feel better and polished, because I knew the jam version was cool for a jam game, but not for a full release.

What Went Wrong

I had gotten a lot of feedback about the game being boring, repetitive, and things like that before I added a feature I like to call *The Super Jump*.  My testers were right though, I knew the game was lacking something and there wasn't much I could do about it (This feedback came 4-5 months before I released the game).  Something needed to happen for the game to feel more exciting. People needed options in how they approached a situation. Since the players are controlling the dude, that means the dude needed some other ability or control, but the game only has one button! How was I supposed to do that?? I had to rewrite a lot of code, but I added an entirely new system to the game based on how long the player pressed the button. Two things resulted from this (Which of course created more work 1.) The Super Jump, and 2.) A menu system.


Game Versions

What Went Right

The PC version went off without a hitch, and everything worked as it should have without anything unexpected cropping up with the technology/computer. I was able to get Android and iOS versions working, which in itself was a miracle, because I had never worked with mobile porting before. As much as I hated working on those versions, they played well all said and done, except for a couple bugs that are still sticking around. 

What Went Wrong

I hate working on mobile. I respect the heck out of everyone who actually does that for a living, but I would rather cut off all my fingers individually than do that again. There was just so much stuff I didn't know, so many problems, so many programming languages, engines, quirks, and subtleties that I had to learn, research, and debug by myself. It was an absolute nightmare, and I hope if I have to do it again I can at least drag someone down with me, heh. 

Art

What Went Right

I did all the art in the game on my own, with the in-engine art tool.  I want to preface this next part by saying I do not consider myself a good artist, at least I didn't until I worked on this game.  Prior to Altidudes I didn't think I had an artistic bone in my body, but I got a lot of feedback later based on what I did and people seemed to really like the art and how it looked. I was really happy to hear that, because it meant this game had one good thing going for it.

What Went Wrong

The art didn't just end up looking like the final version, it went through a lot of iterations, and ate up a lot of days that I worked on the game. For some reason, it also took me a really long time to come up with the black outlines on all the characters. Turns out, having a white character up against a bright blue/green background does not work.

Audio

What Went Wrong

I wanna start with the wrong because it got much better. So I attempted the audio myself, and used the in-engine audio tool. Outside of programming, I don't have much talent for other things, but I'm game to try anything and learn. I tried my best with the audio and studied early arcade games to see how they sounded, and I tried to replicate it but there was just too much I didn't know. I had a couple of tracks, but they just didn't have any of the spice I knew the game deserved. So, I hired someone, and this is where it gets good

What Went Right

Bert Cole is an incredibly talented composer who made the entire OST for Altidudes. When I first heard the tracks he had for me, I was blown away by how much better it was than mine. He was running a promotion on Itch.io and happened to get an email, so I debated it, knew my music was unworthy, and I paid up. It was a very good decision, because everyone who played the game from then on had good things to say about it. A couple of my SFX made it into the game, but Bert helped out with those too and they were also better than mine.

Testing

What Went Right

I really hit the lottery with my friends, because they turned out to be great testers. One friend in particular has a no-BS personality, and he isn't afraid to tell it like it is. True honesty is imperative for testing, and you can't use yes-men who are gonna coddle your ego when you are trying to make a game that feels right for your average gamer. Although some feedback hurt to hear, I needed it to make the game good. As a result, the game is much, much better off than it would have been if I didn't have any external testing at all.

What Went Wrong

I didn't have a great system for logging feedback, and I did it all with Trello cards. I should have taken some time to develop some kind of streamlined way of doing it, but by the time each version rolled out and I got a chance to talk to the testers, I just hacked together whatever I could in a few minutes then organized it a bit later. In retrospect I probably could have used some other software or service to handle all that, but I don't really know of any, so Trello it shall stay.


Marketing

What Went Right

I read articles, took a class, and researched endlessly how other indies did their marketing. The people who helped me the most were: Victoria Tran, Gabe Dal Santo, Simon Carless, and Chris Zukowski. They are all absolutely brilliant at what they do, and the nuggets of wisdom they offered in their blog posts, articles, and newsletter posts were invaluable. I recommend anyone who is unfamiliar with any of those names follow them, sign up for their newsletters, watch their GDC talks, all of it. I took a marketing class by Gabe, which introduced me to the world of marketing. I also signed up to the newsletter of Chris, and everything he sends out there is EXTREMELY relevant, so do us a favor and sign up, you won't regret it. I read a lot of articles and blog posts by Simon and Victoria, and I learned a lot.  I'm sure you will too.

What Went Wrong

I am not good at marketing, even with everything I learned. Of course, I'm doing my best given what I have learned but Altidudes hasn't sold terrifically well on Steam/Itch.io. This could be because the game works much better as a quick game you can play on the toilet, rather than on your big l33t gamer rig. It could be because I didn't reach enough people when I was doing all my marketing. Maybe I didn't pay enough for Bing ads? I don't know for sure, but marketing isn't a one-time deal, it's something you gotta nurture for a long while.

What I Did (BONUS SECTION)

I'll list out everything I can remember doing for marketing, so you can get an idea of where my numbers are coming from:

  1. Twitter - I have a Twitter account with a following of ~200 as of writing this. I'd approximate about 3 of those followers are active. This is to stress that the number on Twitter really isn't important, because that's not where the sales are. I made a bunch of announcements there to places like #gamedev, #pico8, and things like that. One of the most important things I think I have done is helping gamedev at large, and I did this by publicizing my Trello board where I did project management. I should also mention that I usually kept a tweet about my game pinned to the top of my profile, and I had a link to my website in my bio.
  2. Newsletter Creation - I heard newsletters are pretty metal, so I made one of my own and put it on my website. The service I used to make my website, Wix, was doing a promotion where they gave out coupons for ads, so I used one for Google, and another for Bing/Microsoft. The deal was if I paid $25 they would give me $100 worth of ads for free. So I paid up and I made ads that directed users to the homepage of my website, where the newsletter was. To this day I don't know how many are bots, and how many are real humans. I got ~95 subscribers to a Mailchimp newsletter when the money ran dry, and I didn't pay anything more for ads beyond that.
  3. The Press - I sent out some keys to Curators on Steam and outlets I figured might be interested in my game.  I came up with 4 news sites which were: Game Raven Review, Game Skinny, Bonus Stage, and Indie Game Buzz. I emailed all of these places after the game was released, so to my knowledge, no articles have been written. I also made a presskit using a handy tool on Itch.io, and I have used it quite a few times since then, so it was worth it.
  4. LinkedIn - I didn't intend for this one to have a big effect, but I wanted to do it anyway. I made a company page and updated it, shared the posts through my personal account, and it reached a few people in my network which was all I really wanted. The numbers for engagement were abysmal, I think my first announcement post got 3-4 'likes', and the actual release date announcement got 3.
  5. Steam Optimization - I did some hard research on tags and how I could best please the Steam algorithm. Honestly, I think I did good enough because as of this writing I have ~75 wishlists, and the game got like ~80K impressions, if the stats are right. The one lesson I took away from others is that you wanna stay as far away from the 'Indie' tag on Steam as possible, and that's what I did. Other than that I just picked out the tags most closely matching my game, and let Steam do the rest.
  6. Trailer - I figured since everyone else had them that I needed one too. I was just browsing around on Twitter one day and found Gary, dm'd him, and then that was it. Painless process, and he was very good at it too. I haven't bothered checking the numbers for the Youtube video that I posted, BUT in the comments I posted a link to the game page on Steam and asked people to wishlist it.

Business/Legal

This one was a lot. When I went to school, I learned how to make games for a AAA company, not as an indie. I didn't learn business, marketing, legal, or any of the stuff you need to know as a serious solo developer. I had a lot of research to do, so I started with the business. I incorporated an LLC in New Jersey (my homestate) and that was it.

For legal, I knew I wanted a trademark for the game title, because I read it's a good thing to do. One problem I had though is that I didn't know anything about lawyers. My family tried to hook me up with a lawyer friend, but when I heard the number they wanted for me to purchase their services, I was shocked to be quite honest. So with that one a definite no, I looked elsewhere. I searched the USPTO website and trademarks, then I just looked up popular video games I happened to like and took a gander at what lawyers were hired for trademarking. I made a spreadsheet of lawyers and called a few of them. I won't name this one, but he seemed quite mean on the phone (I also had no idea how to talk to a lawyer, so I may have been wasting his time). Brandon Huffman was the next one I spoke to, and I found him on Twitter. We didn't go further after we talked, but I want to stress it's important not to burn bridges in this industry, because everybody knows somebody. I spoke to Daniel Koburger next. I decided to go with him because he was very forthright, honest, and helpful. My gut told me he was the right one, and we have been working together ever since.

The Time

Mountain Climber was created in November, 2019. I would say I started transitioning the game to 'Altidudes' in December of that year, so I was working on it for ~1.1 years. BUT, I didn't work on this full-time, because I had another office job I was doing at the same time. I put myself on an hour a day program, where I would do any sort of extra work I could for at least an hour a day, and that was how I made Altidudes for a long time before becoming a jobless bum in March. Once April hit and I got the company, I started working on Altidudes more and more. I am lucky enough to live with my family, so my expenses are basically $0.

The Bill

Making video games is not cheap, and Altidudes was no exception. Even with how small it was, it still cost a lot of money! I also want to mention this first: I could not have made this game without having a full-time office job prior to it's creation. That job paid way more than indie dev money, but in March 2020 I had to leave because of Covid-19. I made enough money to actually do things, so I used some of it to make Altidudes, and that's the only reason this game exists as it does.

Ads: $50 total

Engine purchase: $30 total (Bought extra copy)

Music/audio: $437

Marketing class: $439

Legal: $2250

Trailer: $160

Steam Submission: $100

iOS Developer account: $100(per year)

There were other costs associated with the business, but I wanna leave those out. For those curious, it was very roughly ~$500

Total: ~$4,000

All in all, I'm proud of what Altidudes has become. Financially, no, it will not support me and perhaps never will. But that's not why I made the game. I made it because I could.

I hope this is helpful to you, and good luck on your gamedev journey! I can't wait to see what you create.

Good luck friend,
Jonathan

Return to the web version of this article
Copyright © UBM TechWeb