Super Icon’s Creative Director on Developing for Vita: “It has Financially Ruined me”

Games development is a notoriously risky, with big publishers routinely shutting down large studios, and indie studios struggling to make ends meet. Sadly, Super Icon was one of the indie developers who had a tough 2013, some of which they detailed in an end of year post mortem.

Richard Hill-Whittall, Creative Director at Super Icon, detailed the development of Indoor Pub Games Sports World for PS Vita:

Our first Vita development experience has been an interesting one. Personally it has financially ruined me; so many months of development all funded by not taking any wages. Developing a Vita engine, along with a fairly large game (it may seem simple but there is a lot of stuff in Sports World).

During the course of development my relationship with SCEE has been badly damaged, the stress and worry off the scale.

It has also been a really good learning experience, and it has forever changed my approach to development. No more developing and maintaining our own engine, trying to support new platforms and features. From now on it is third party all the way, using development systems such as Unity.

Not mentioned in the post mortem, but likely some of the reason behind the damaged relationship with SCEE, was when Super Icon tweeted about the platform holder “hiding behind corporate speak”. Another reason was down to Sony’s technical requirements and QA process:

Sony TRCs (Technical Requirements Checklist) are in short, a complete and utter nightmare. Again I really feel for Steve, I think his head actually melted at one point due to the extreme levels of pedantry associated with implementing the TRCs. There are just so many eventualities and scenarios you have to factor in to properly implement the TRCs. Also we tackled many of these at the end of the project, when we were both heartily fed-up with the whole thing.

Sony QA was an exercise in frustration too. When you desperately need to start earning money from the game, hitting QA is akin to running into a brick wall. The testing process is slow, and each resubmission adds a few weeks to the time it takes to get the game out. In total it was about two months or so of back and forth with QA before we were approved. One particularly frustrating round was the one where they only found one single issue, a MF (Must Fix) bug, which they found on day-1 of testing. 10 days later they conclude the testing with no more bugs found. Yay we thought, quick fix and we’re sorted. We resubmitted with the fix, and then on day-1 of the resubmission QA found one new MF issue, then no more.

Steve and I were convinced by this point that Sony hated us, and they were never going to let Sports get through!

Much of Super Icon’s difficulties came from the fact that they developed their own tech, something they now regret doing:

It all just took so long, Steve working silly hours adding to and adapting the engine. Even features like video playback and audio took a lot of time to get right and smoothly integrated into the engine. It was a killer – during this time we were not earning any money, it was all just one huge ever-increasing expense. Our release windows kept sailing by – we had originally planned to launch Sports (or Pub Games as it was originally named) shortly after the Vita launched, LOL!

They also regret not being able to afford more testing, from different people:

I hang my head in shame and admit Sports needed more testing. The difficulty isn’t properly balanced; it gets too hard, too quickly. As touched upon above, Steve and I were both so used to the way Sports plays that we were able to beat opponents that in hindsight are stupidly hard. The game is about amateur indoor sports, not professional sporting prowess.

It really needed an extra period of testing, testing and more testing. The other issue we had was that by the end of the project we were beaten; financially and morally. No money to live on and a sense that this game would never be finished if we didn’t get the bloody thing out quickly. I’ve had some tough development experiences in the past, but I think this was in many ways the most damaging. It just felt like it would never end, and when all your money goes, you get evicted from your house and have to sell your personal stuff just to buy food, you know you are doing something badly wrong!

If there’s any silver lining to this story, it’s that Super Icon has learned from the horrible experience, and plans to patch some of the problems with Indoor Pub Games Sports World:

First and foremost; never to attempt to develop our own tech again. I think that you need to be a fair bit larger than our two man team to effectively develop and maintain your own cross-platform tools & technology. You also need plenty of financial support in place to keep things ticking over during the R&D phase.

To ALWAYS give more time to testing; we made mistakes here and it has cost us in review scores and user goodwill. We are currently working on a patch to rectify these issues, primarily:

  • Tweak the AI, as Darts and Air Hockey are exceptionally hard to beat on later levels
  • Fix Darts issues; sometime it is too easy and sometimes seemingly random
  • The player’s finger obscuring the darts and pucks at times on the front screen
  • Add aiming aid for pool & snooker back into Arcade Mode

We always try to fix mistakes/hiccups if we can; user feedback is really important to us and one of the best bits of development.

Not to do a sports title again. In my career to date I have developed eight Pool/Snooker games, a PSP Darts game, two Bowling games and two games with Air Hockey included. They are always very testing heavy, and not the sort of games to ever really get good press coverage or build up a community. From this point onward I shall be focusing on original, unique games such as Life of Pixel, games that I can really get my teeth into and implement something special. With the exception of my first Unity test game, this is the direction Super Icon will go from now on.

And lastly that we need to earn more money; we can’t carry on making so little revenue – it is too damaging for our families and our own mental health & moral.

Unfortunately, as great as Life of Pixel was, Super Icon revealed to us in May that the PlayStation Mobile title failed to make its money back, and their Kickstarter campaign to port it to other platforms didn’t reach the £10k goal.

Here’s hoping 2014 has better news for the talented British developer.