In late 2015, a quirky local game paying homage to 80’s action heroes made SA history when it blew the lid off Steam. With 620,000 players to its name and a 97% positive rating from 12,000 reviews, Broforce has quickly earned its place in local animation legend. Created by Cape-Town based Free Lives studios, the game continues to grow its fan-base, and last month beat out two other contenders to be voted March’s free Playstation Plus game for PS4. Free Lives Animator Jonathan Hau-Yoon spoke at our February animationXchange about his role on the groundbreaking game. We pinned him down to get a little more insight.
Q: How did you come to be involved with Broforce and what was your role in its development?
In 2014, I was starting to get frustrated with the studio at which I was working because we’d gone a long time without releasing anything. I’d also signed non-disclosure agreements, so it was difficult to be proud of the professional work I’d done. I started preparing a portfolio for applying to other studios, including Free Lives and a few overseas studios.
I’ve been told that I was hired more to discourage me from going overseas than to help with Broforce’s development. I have a pretty broad skillset though, being an art generalist and technical artist, so I helped with a bunch of different things: I animated Dawid Strauss’s drawings for the cutscene animations, ported the scripts that worked on the old 2D world map into a 3D spherical space, and did all of the 3D art and shaders for the new world map. I also helped with some fx work and with a bit of art and scripting with UI.
Q: At what stage did Free Lives know they were onto something special?
I think it was important to Free Lives they released what they were working on pretty early on, and could gauge how special it was based on how positively people responded to what was released.
Winning a Ludum Dare jam in the Fun category or getting hundreds of thousands of views for Let’s Play videos are pretty good indicators!
Q: Please tell us about Broforce’s visual style, what programs were used, and what influenced your team’s aesthetic decisions?
Jarred Lunt, our lead artist, did a huge amount of exploration, from concept art and illustrations to testing in-game sprites, and tested many visual styles, from cuter sprites with eyes, to beautifully hand-painted sprites.
In the end, we chose to stick with more abstract pixel art for quite a few reasons. Going with lower fidelity sprites allowed us to get away with simpler, snappier animations and focus on delivering more content (e.g. more bros, more environments, and vitamin-enriched flexing). The blocky nature of pixel art also fit the square collision bounds that we had in game-play, so that the aesthetics communicated more accurately how the game world treats your interactions.
Almost all of the art was done in Photoshop, drawn frame by frame, compiled into sprite atlases and exported to Unity.
Q: You stressed the importance of marketing and knowing your audience during your animationXchange talk, that it’s better to release versions, updates and clips to get feedback than coddling your precious project behind closed doors. How important are analytics and how did tracking traffic and getting feedback affect the game’s development?
It’s sometimes difficult to gauge how positive it actually is because many people don’t want to tell you that your game isn’t much fun. Being able to track analytics makes gathering your information less subjective because the data points are created by anonymous strangers who are simply interested in playing and sharing their enjoyment. It’s pretty encouraging to see how the number of players who’re playing spikes when you release an update.
It’s still important to be testing things in-person, however, so you can observe what players actually do. So, the analytics are just another tool to gather more information.
Q: What advice would you give to young South African game developers based on your experience working on Broforce? What was the most valuable lesson you and your team learned from inception to release?
I joined Broforce after development had begun, but for me the takeaway was the importance of taking part in game jams and regular prototyping. It’s a relatively low investment that can be done whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned developer.
If there’s a particular game mechanic, or an art style, or a technical solution that you want to try out, then go ahead and do it on a small project. If it’s fun to do, and has potential, and if you’re getting a lot of positive feedback, then you can develop it further. If it’s not getting positive feedback, you’ve learnt something new, and can try again with another prototype.
Q: When did Devolver Digital come into the fray and what role did they play in Broforce’s success?
Free Lives was looking for a publisher with a great deal of experience working in games to help us avoid any glaring errors that might damage our efforts. Devolver has been a really great fit, and it’s their job to be knowledgeable about the greater game development landscape: they’d helped with the timing of releases and updates to maximise media coverage, with creating marketing material, and by making deals with Steam and Sony.
Warning: video will self-destruct after viewing.
Q: What was the biggest technical challenge you faced and how was it overcome?
For Broforce, being able to play with your friends online with minimal latency was a pretty giant technical hurdle. Free Lives solved that by hiring Richard Pieterse, whose main job on Broforce was tackling network programming.
Q: You told a story at animationXchange about how your team ended up doing the Expedabros mini game for free due to enthusiasm trumping business sense. This seems to be a theme among creatives in the animation industry— professionals undercharging because they feel so lucky to be doing what they love. Should creative be getting someone else to do their negotiation for them? How do we learn to value our services?
I’ve thought a lot about this, because I switched from a maths and finance career to work in a creative one, and wanted to avoid living the “starving artist” trope.
I don’t believe there’s a “right” amount: there’s only an amount that both parties think is fair. And what they think is fair largely depends on the information that is available to them. An employer thinks you’re overcharging if they think they could hire someone else to do the same work for less. And you as an employee would think you’re underpaid if you’d be paid more at another studio for the same work.
It’s important for us to be aware of what other studios would offer us, whether it’s in keeping an eye on their job postings, or in applying to other positions. If the entire industry pays relatively little for a particular job, it’s possible that it’s a job that doesn’t require rare skills. We could increase our skill rarity either by becoming even better at what we do (e.g. a graduate vs Glenn Keane), or faster (which comes with experience) or to pick up complementary skills that other people shy away from (e.g. one of thousands of animators vs an animator who can do maths and script).
It’s difficult for creative people to make a lot of money because we generally care more about meaningful work than money. But if we learn a bit of the language of business (or hire an agent to handle negotiations), we can easily make enough to live comfortably, save and invest.
Q: What was your favourite piece of feedback from gamers? Are there any memorable fan videos, stories, memes or mentions?
Gosh, there’ve been many! The ones that have resonated have been personal stories about bringing people together, families using the game as a means to connect, and some people who’ve used it as a means of trying to combat depression.
Come on, Jon. How can you not allude to this little work of magic.
Q: During your presentation you mentioned that there was a lot that the team had to leave out. What ideas were left on the cutting room floor, why, and was there a particular idea you wish had made the final cut?
Evan and Jarred have spoken in interviews before about being able to go into space, fight aliens, ride dinosaurs, and have a BroFort that you manage. I think all of these are wonderful ideas, but after working on Broforce for over 3 years, there’s a point at which you’ve got to say “It’s enough. It’s ready to release now.”
It’d be fun to revisit them in the future though. I’d love to throw a velociraptor into a crowd of terrorists…
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge South African game developers face and what do you think the future holds for SA’s gaming industry?
Not having fast, affordable internet that’s widely available is largely crippling in the digital age. Hopefully with fibre coverage growing, and with more companies competing with their own independent infrastructure, this will improve.
My understanding is that there’s some legislation that’s also a barrier that makes it difficult to receive money from overseas. Some storefronts simply don’t allow you to create accounts from South Africa because of how difficult it is to work with South African legislation. I’m not sure if it’s because of the Film and Publications Board, or local banks, or SARS.
However, the exchange rate is in our favour, so that if South Africans make a game that people are willing to buy, and jump through the hoops to get it sold on an international market, there’s lots of money to be made there!
Q: What are some of your favourite games and what inspired you to enter the industry in the first place?
I had very broad interests growing up. I loved maths and art, and writing and music, and I struggled a lot with choosing a career path. When I started to consider game development as an option, I was blown away by how intimately all of these things that I already loved—and many things that I was still to learn, like psychology, and running a business—were all important parts of making games. I was fascinated by the medium of game development not only providing a new outlet for creative expression, but also by how it could absorb so much of the skills we would learn elsewhere in our lives, and turn them into interesting game experiences.
I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing RPGs growing up, and even after entering the game industry I played more MOBAs than I’d like to admit, and I still occasionally play League of Legends and Starcraft. But there are also some tiny projects that feel very personal that have resonated with me recently. One of them is a game made by Team Lazerbeam, called Snow Cones, which is a game about snow cones going on a date. I’d like to see more games like that!
Q: What are you currently working on and do you have any personal projects you would like to share with us?
At Free Lives, we’ve been working on small prototypes. Some of it is for us to skill up at making a variety of games ourselves. Some of it is to explore what might potentially become our next game. And some of it is for us to make some really bad games, lower our standards, and just have fun making things.
I constantly work on personal projects. Most recently, I’ve been working on a fire tornado to practise doing game VFX work, and a short 2D animation as fan art for Kariba. Other projects that are on the cards are another character sculpt, and a hacking game MMO. My interests may be a little broad.
Q: How can people contact you and where can they go to follow your progress?
My portfolio site is http://techartjon.com, but I tend to post work more regularly on Facebook.
Well done on making it to the end! You’ve earned your Easter egg: BroForce is available for a 60% discount for the next couple of hours – so get it NOW, soldier!
Interview by Chris Wheeler