Herculean undertakings: Hangry Owl Games

2023-07-06 by Callum Andrews

So this is the story

So we're back with yet another entry in our solo game developer series. This time we got to talk to Chris, who is the one-man band called Hangry Owl Games.

Earlier this year we got to cover his first big title called GROSS which left a pretty good impression on our reviewer.

So this will be the story about, how Chris started it all and how it all went in the end.

Could you please give a short presentation of yourself and tells us about how you got started with game development? My name is Chris, I’m fourty…one years old. I was born in Switzerland, but moved over to Ireland in 2012 with my (Irish) wife. Video games have been a passion of mine ever since I was a small lad. I made my first steps in software development somewhere around the age of 12, using BASIC on an ancient 286 PC with 12 MHz and 1MB of RAM to program simple games like Yahtzee. Even though I started an apprenticeship at a Swiss software company a few years later, which resulted in a career that lead me into every corner of the IT world, it was only in 2020 that I dipped my toes in game development. I guess I always figured that game development was completely out of reach for someone who can’t (or doesn’t want to) create original art, and that only a few of my skills from developing business software and administrating servers, networks and databases are transferrable to game development.

How many games have you published so far and what was your first game that you developed? Technically speaking, I have published two games so far. The first game was purely a learning experience. I’m a big fan of learning by doing, so I jumped head-first into Unity and cobbled together something that, while incredibly simple, at least had a small, unique twist to it. I realized very quickly that I was in over my head, but I still wanted to finish it and publish it to the Google play store to make sure that I experience the entirety of a games development cycle.

This first game is called “Paaargh!”. It’s a Pong clone where the paddles can be controlled by voice input. The louder you shout at your phone or tablet, the faster your paddle flies up. Once there is no noise anymore, it falls back down again. It didn’t get downloaded a lot or win any prizes (and neither should it), but it’s actually quite good fun for two people to play on one device. I probably wouldn’t advise playing it in public though, unless you want to use the boring touch input option.

Having taken a first game all the way to being published, I realized I needed a more structured way of learning, and completed a few courses to teach me the basics of Unity and game development in general. After that I informed my job that I’ll go on a 12 month sabbatical to create my own PC game. These 12 months turned into more than 18, and ultimately resulted in the release of GROSS in January 2023.

The process of making it

How did you come up with the idea for that game and was that the first idea that you came up with or was it more of a reiterative process? There are quite a few considerations when making any game, and even more so if it’s your first one. The game I was about to make had to be something that I would want to play, and that didn’t exist yet. At the same time, it also had to provide a decent amount of content – let’s say five hours as an absolute minimum. At the same time, I had to make sure that I didn’t get completely lost in the scope.

One thing that was clear very early is that I wanted some kind of “defense” game. I love games where you have to hold the line – I love playing the tank, being the shield, keeping others from taking damage. This is always the role I gravitate towards, no matter if it’s in MMOs like WoW or ESO, or in shooters like COD, Warframe or Defiance.

Another point that I realized is that any kind of story or open world based game is out of scope. Even with all the assets in your pocket and all your core mechanics in place, you can easily spend two weeks building a level for a first-person shooter that the player finishes in a few minutes. My game had to use arena-style levels, if I wanted the level to have any level of complexity and detail. All of this lead me to the decision to create an FPS/Tower Defense hybrid.

This idea isn’t completely new of course, the most prominent game in the category being Sanctum and its sequel. As much as I liked Sanctum, I do remember that it was lacking a few things in order to be perfect for me. For me, a good TD game is about building a maze and placing towers wherever I want. A good FPS lets me pick from a plethora of different guns and gives me different abilities to add utility and variety. And a good horde survival/shooter game should send me all over the place to put out fires and should always make me feel like I’m only just able to keep control of the situation.

When the game allows players to maze enemies, they will create choke points – that’s the whole point of it. So, if I want to keep players from simply standing at that choke point and continuously shooting the nearest enemy in the face, I have to find something else for them to do.

I was thinking of a few different things until I eventually came up with the money mechanics. Enemies drop cash that you require in order to build barricades and turrets. But that cash is vulnerable, so the player can’t just wait and pick it up at the end of each wave - cash drones, leprechaun zombies and explosive damage will take it from them long before that. Picking up stuff is not as much fun as shooting stuff, so I had to incorporate ways to pick up cash by shooting it.

All these little mechanics went through a few changes before they became what they are today. Everything about developing a game is very reiterative. You create a very basic version of something to see if it works and is fun, and then make it prettier, faster, less clunky, and so on. It’s hard to ever say “that’s good enough now” and move to the next item on your to do list.

So after coming up with the idea for your game what were the first steps you took into making it? Once I was done with a design document, I just sat down and started making the game. Games start with a prototype that contains the bare minimum of the games logic and mechanics, while wasting as little time as possible on how things look in case a mechanic turns out to be cut from the game. Since this was my first proper game, I couldn’t always stick to this rule. I lacked most of the experience to determine whether something could work or not, unless I took it a good bit further than you should at this stage.

This prototype turned more and more into a game, and it was only about one week before I released the demo that I let anyone else but me play it. This is not a great idea, generally speaking, but I had a very specific idea about the kind of game I was making, and I was convinced that I was able to decide whether it was fun or not. Watching the first people play the game was an eye-opener – it was both exciting and scaring the pants off me. I learned a lot, and while the base premise of the game seemed to excite a lot of players, I had to eat a lot of humble pie when it came to the details of the execution.

What was the hardest part of your journey and why? To be completely honest, the hardest part was the week after the release. Interacting with my community of demo players had me prepared for constructive (and less constructive) criticism, but on the release day I was confronted with an unexpected level of toxicity and even the first few reviews were gut-wrenching.

One thing about indie developers, or solo developers even more, is that all of us suffer from imposter syndrome. If you open a bakery and sell bread and cakes, you call yourself a baker. Even now that I have released a commercial game that sold a couple thousand times and was received quite well, I still can’t call myself a game developer without mentally adding “yeah but not really though, right?”.

I have spent around 4000 hours pouring every ounce of energy and creativity into this one project, and while I know that I have worn a dozen different hats to create a decent game in that time, I also know all the little things that are far from perfect about it. I’m constantly walking on the thin line between thinking “wow this is actually really awesome and great fun” and “dude you’re just some old guy in his midlife crisis who decided he could create a game”. When someone, even if they only saw screenshots of your game or played it for five minutes, tells you in a public place that your game is a piece of garbage with the worst mechanics and it runs like crap, then that doesn’t just tip you over that line. It throws you one mile over it.

Apart from that: Animations. Humanoid animations. For some reason, my brain is not compatible with animations.

And, on yet another note: Time management. You have this vision in your head of how your game should look, what it should do, all the wonderful things you could add, but there never is enough time. The gap between what the game is and what you actually want it to be is not just widened by the lack of skill and experience in certain areas, but also by time in general. You constantly have to move on when something is barely good enough, otherwise any kind of planning just flies out the window.

Did you possess any skills before you started developing games that were applicable to your game development journey? My background in IT and software development certainly helped. More than anything though, what worked in my favour is that I’m a great generalist and can be very pragmatic. I have very little interest in becoming a specialist in anything, but in turn I have surface knowledge in all sorts of areas and almost every topic interests me. This can be both a blessing and a curse – knowing only the half of something often is more dangerous than not knowing anything about it. But on the other hand, a solo developer needs to be so many things: software developer, game designer, level architect, graphics designer, sound designer, and so on. If you specialize in one area, others will suffer. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll never finish your game. If you’re a control freak who wants to develop and design everything yourself, you’ll never finish the game.

Then again, if you’re looking up how exactly the muzzle smoke on a black powder cannon looks, or how its fuse works, and you end up browsing Wikipedia for a couple hours, that’s not exactly a very efficient use of your time either, and that sort of thing might have happened to me once or twice.

Wrapping it all up

When did you decided to publish your game and how long did it take to reach that point from the development phase? Originally I wanted to publish the game exactly one year after starting to work full time on it. I had to move this date twice. The second time I moved it, I made sure it was far enough in the future that I was certain I could deliver the game in time. This was about 12 months in, so about half a year before release. At that stage I had the demo with all its systems ready. What was missing was 8 more levels, achievements, localization, loads of balancing/bug fixing/optimizing/polishing, as well as writing a story with a progression system and a tutorial.

How much of it went according to plan? Most of it actually did. I planned one week for each level, which worked out quite well. Some levels took a lot longer than I thought, others were a lot quicker. CAMP was created in little more than two days. Writing the story was easier than expected, but presenting it to players turned out to be an issue. I originally meant to act the story out, not in cutscenes but in something similar to a visual novel / comic book. But it turned out quite quickly that that would have added four to eight weeks on top of the time I had allocated for this part of the game. So I decided to tell the story as walls of text (completely violating the directive of “show, don’t tell”). I was hoping this wouldn’t be too much of an issue, because I expected that most players (me included) don’t play this kind of game for the story anyway, so they can just skip it. While the players who love a story probably (hopefully) don’t mind having to read it.

What certainly didn’t go to plan is that I massively underestimated how much time balancing, optimizing, polishing and fixing the game would take.

Has this journey had any influence on you as an individual and has it led to any personal growth or lessons learned? Yes, absolutely. It has taught me a few things about myself and about what makes me happy. There’s no better feeling than walking out of your office after a long hard day knowing you made decent progress, or that you kept working on an issue until it was solved, instead of giving up. Some experiences (see above) have been a kick in the gut, but I can honestly say I’ve never been more proud or satisfied than on days when something big happened: For example when I watched the first streamer playing the game live, when I saw that Splattercat covered the game, or every single time a fan wrote me how they loved the game.

So what's next for you and can we expect any new game(s) soon? I have just started working on another game. It’s a game that can both be played solo, or with up to three other players, either locally or via network. It’s a multiplayer twist on an ancient and classic game (no, not Pong again). It’s a comparatively small and simple game, but I have a lot of interesting and fun mechanics planned for it to turn it into a multiplayer game that could be a lot of fun. I hope to be able to release it in either Q4 2023 or Q1 2024.

It’s also my way of learning how to develop a multiplayer game, and the skills and experience I’ll pick up along the way will then either be used to add multiplayer support to GROSS, or to develop yet another, more complex, multiplayer game afterward.

Would you like to tell us anything else, that we haven't asked but that could be relevant to future game developers? I’m not sure if I’m the right person to give deep, meaningful advice to other new game developers. If there is one thing I’d like to pass on, it’s the importance of figuring out for yourself what you want and what you’re capable of. At the end of the day, you’re the only one that really knows yourself, your skills, your strengths and weaknesses. Take everyone else’s words and experiences with a spoonful of salt. Ask all the questions, take all the input from other people, but take that in the context of their situations. You will find plenty of horror stories, where someone got burnt by a publisher, or they released an awesome game and no one noticed it. Just as you will find plenty of success stories, like someone who made a TikTok that went viral. Try to find out why these situations worked out the way they did, learn from other people's mistakes and successes, and apply this knowledge to your own circumstances. If something appears to be down to luck, it’s usually a long string of good decisions carried by persistence and hard work.