The following is a reflective piece from Kamal Aittah – CEO of Egyptian studio Game Hermits and his thoughts on their game – Call to Valkyrie.
Hi all, this is Kamal and since it’s the end of the year, I wanted to make this article kind of a reflection on what we’ve been through in Game Hermits. A bit of context first, I like to read postmortems about failed games. For me, they are a very valuable source of experience. They teach us a lot and provide us with an in-depth experience of what developing a certain game felt like and how can we best avoid falling into the same mistakes.
This is why I’m dedicating this article to be a postmortem of one of our most ambitious projects, Call to Valkyrie.
Chapter 1 – What is Call to Valkyrie [CTV]
Story & Concept :
Call to Valkyrie was an RTS title that tackles early Viking history (9th century Viking history). It follows the story of Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons (Ivar the boneless, Bjorn Ironside, and Hivtserk) who were seeking vengeance against Northumbria after they executed their father.
The game was designed to present the complete story in 5 big missions; Each mission averages 40 – 45 minutes of gameplay. The game was not designed to be a multiplayer RTS and it was developed using UE4.
Unique gameplay mechanics:
No Base: Players aren’t able to build bases like other RTS games, instead, you raid other existing bases found around the map and occupy them.
No conventionally structured army: To stay true to Vikings’ history, we had designed no real structure for your army. You could produce 4 main units:
- Ax unit: using ax and shield, this was the attacking unit that could deal a lot of damage but was not as strong on the defense side. It cost an average amount of resources.
- Spear unit: using a spear and a shield, this was the tank unit, it could deal a considerable amount of damage, but most importantly, it could take much more hits and survive. However, It was expensive regarding resources.
- Archer unit: archers were very fast, cheap, and could deal huge damage if grouped together. However, they were very weak to strikes from enemy archers or infantry units.
- Scout unit: this unit was the cheapest, it had a very weak attack and defense stats, however, it was very quick on its feet allowing you to scout the fog of war and to gather intel about enemy movements.
These were the units that made it to the MVP version, however, we designed a lot more units like convoy units, champion units, ship units, berserker units, and many more.
There were no formations as we have discussed because Viking raids were based on hit-and-run tactics. So, we included tactics in the game as follows:
- Jormungandr: this tactic caused your units to favor flanking enemy units and attack the backline.
- Skjaldborg: this tactic caused your units to favor group together and protect your backline.
- Hold your ground: this tactic caused your units not to pursue enemy units.
- Free tactic: this tactic caused your units to target the nearest enemy unit.
Another unique factor was bases. Bases produced peasant units that take longer to spawn the more peasants you have. The more peasants you have, the faster resources you can produce. Farm bases, for example, produced more wheat and no metal. Mines on the other hand produced no wheat and more metal.
Occupying a base lets you take all the resources for yourself. You can then turn peasants into different types of soldier units of your own depending on the resources this base has or you could just leave them be to produce more resources. However, allowing the peasant number to exceed soldiers occupying a base is not a good idea since they can rebel and kill your soldiers losing you control of that base with all its resources.
If you put everything together, you get a game where you’re always strategizing which base to occupy when, how to manage peasants, when to defend a base and when to burn it to the ground and flee with your soldiers, and how to keep the number of your soldiers increasing over the course of the mission to finally be able to take down the main objective of a mission which usually is to occupy the main citadel of the land or kill a prince.
Chapter 2 – Instinctive decisions are bad decisions
We knew we had a good game design in our hands and we knew we had the skills to develop it. But the problem was that once we finished the design, we were so excited to start MVP production that we didn’t bother to research the market. We went along with “We are gamers, we know what fellow gamers want”. we have found this to be a very poor mindset.
Since we didn’t research the market, the early versions of the game were very weird to play and hard to understand. We’ve forgotten to put the player experience at the center of our priority that we had unintentionally alienated our players who felt really uncomfortable playing it.
Of course, that was a shock to us. We were so sure about our design but the overwhelmingly negative feedback snapped us back to reality.
By then, it’s been 5 months of development and we were about to just quit. But we felt like we could do a better job. So we decided to revise the game design and controls and make the experience a lot easier to understand and play. Of course, this meant that a lot of the mechanics we spent developing in the past 5 months we’re going straight to the trash.
We invested more money and time on art as we were completely transforming the game from an alien RTS to an actual interesting RTS based on player feedback. Our goal was to reach an interesting playable version with good traction to it before we pitch to publishers. But here’s where we went wrong, again. We showed players a work in progress from the old system to the new system. This was devastating because a lot of people who liked the core idea of our game got very confused to the point where some of them actually stopped following us on social media.
The lesson here is to establish a very solid and unique identity for your game through consistent work in progress that is coherent. And if you’re going to make major changes, don’t show a work in progress, but keep silent and come out with the revamped version all at once to help renew your game identity and renew the passion in your player base.
Chapter 3 – Poor business skills
Whether we like it or not, games that turn in revenue are designed and implemented as a business. We’ve spent so much time on the creative and technical side that when we finally finished the MVP that was very interesting, very unique and had very positive feedback from our players, we suddenly discovered that our direct competitor was Microsoft’s Age of Empires. Our competitor was Microsoft…. Let me say this again … OUR COMPETITOR WAS MICROSOFT! Of course, that was very … Disappointing. We knew very well that we cannot compete with Microsoft … Not in a million years … No publisher would even dare to publish an RTS game against Microsoft’s Age of Empires. But we really really loved the game. Not only us developers but players as well. By that point we’ve been working on the game for a solid 8 months, we had over 120 players on Discord, we had good traction on Reddit and we were very optimistic about the game.
To suddenly realize how ignorant we were regarding the business side of game development that we had no idea who we were competing with or how to calculate market share or even how are we going to fit our game in the market was an appalling experience. Nonetheless, we went with it and purchased a ticket to one of the big events in the industry that had gone digital due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We met a lot of publishers and investors, they showed interest in our concept and game so far, but we kinda fell flat when it came to real questions regarding the business side.
Their main complaints were as follows:
- The game is too short even with planned DLCs
- The game has no online multiplayer
- Our team had no grounded plan about production timeline
- We had no strategy to deal with competitors which included Age of Empires and Stronghold.
With this conclusion, we decided that it was time to move on from Call to Valkyrie 🙁. Even though we loved developing and playing the game, even though players loved playing the game, even though the concept and the game were unique and fresh. We still failed on several other fronts that ultimately caused us to stop investing in Call to Valkyrie.
Chapter 4 – What now?
We still have a downloadable version here if you want to try it out.
After Call to Valkyrie, we started focusing again on B2B and outsourcing services as we’ve been doing for many years. However, we had another fresh, unique game in mind. By this point, we trust our concepts to be interesting, we trust our designs to be original, and we trust our creative and technical skills. So we decided to take time to study the game business. And to take it step-by-step, first with market research, identifying the target audience, validating the game concept, strategizing against competitors, and planning risk reduction.
We’ve been developing our new original IP MVP on the side and it’s going so far so well. We managed to avoid all the mistakes we’ve done with Call to Valkyrie. Furthermore, we haven’t posted anything about it on social media yet as we plan to set a professional identity to the game rather than an amateurish one. We’ve also been in contact with multiple publishers and investors who are interested in the project and in our business plan which is a good indication that we’re walking down the right path.
Hopefully, we get to show you the game very soon. All I can say about it now is that it’s a Casual MOBA for mobile devices that will change the way MOBA’s are played on mobile 😉