Tuesday, 19 July 2022

Follow the code...

So it has come to our attention that recently that the CEO of Unity has stated that "any developers who do not prioritize monetization are [expletive] idiots".

Well, let the ship's log state for the record that by these terms we, the team working on Bullion, are proud to be "[expletive] idiots".

Those who have been with us for a while might recall the delight of Bullion coders Ben and Paul when Jeff Minter played Bullion at Play Expo Manchester; Jeff's titles had been a major influence when they were first starting out making games. But just as important as his games was Jeff's philosophy: having been in the video game industry since the very start, it was his observations that a fledgling Leda Entertainment used as a basis for the studio's values. To quote the "readme" file from Jeff's Atari ST title Llamatron:

"The programmers went back to their assemblers. The Men In Suits handed them pieces of paper upon which were written the exact specifications for the games. The programmers had to pay their mortgages, so they coded and were employed. The Men In Suits laughed, and took a bigger cut, and molded the market to make themselves an even bigger pile."

The full file can be found here - it's well worth a read!

Llamatron: no mess or fuss, just psychedelic blasting mayhem!

And that was over three decades ago. Fast forward to now, and the evidence of how monetization is damaging the games industry is everywhere, from the triple-A studios that have grown so big they cannot afford to take the risk that comes with being creative and try something new, right down to those working cludging games together from tutorials, believing that by putting enough ads, microtransactions and NFTs in that they are going to get rich. And then, of course, there are the bottom-feeding reskinners that - true to Jeff's words - are just changing the graphics and putting a different title on the storefront.

Now we will freely admit that the concepts of free-for-all fighting and collecting the most of something are hardly original - but Bullion is the game we want to make. Yes, we want to cover our costs, and a few drinks worth on top would be very nice, but that has never been the motivation behind Bullion's development. We're all about creating something that's fun and brings people together, and watching the reactions of our players at the shows we have demoed Bullion at, it certainly feels like we're on course.

Bullion may be about pirates, but we have no interest in trying to fleece our players. And if that makes us [expletive] idiots, then we'd rather that than sell out, despite the fact that Bullion is built on top of Unity - and it indeed raises the question whether or not we want to use Unity for future titles.

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

The Long-Overdue WASD Retrospective...

 WASD was the biggest show we've exhibited at to date and as such, we thought it only right to get the input of the team members who attended for a blog post... which has taken a lot longer than we expected! But here it is at last - the thoughts of our three intrepid crewmates in their bid to conquer London...

Paul H:

WASD was always going to be a different kind of show - would our grassroots game studio stack up? It certainly felt a bit fake-it-till-you-make-it as we dragged the wheelie suitcase containing all our gear across the cobbles of Tobacco Dock with one hand and a trolley of stickers and chocolate coins in the other.

The first couple of days were weekdays, so visitors tended to be other people from the games industry, who were largely very complimentary, praising the game's striking and colourful art style and easy playability. These were valuable contacts for us to make - with Bullion launching later in the year, this was as much about seeking publisher and promoter opportunities as it was growing our audience. Many a conversation, and many a bottle of grog, were had over the event to this end.

But we did have players - and the usual pattern of play emerged! Reluctant player mums would take great joy in beating their gamer kids and husbands. Groups of young adults delighted in stabbing each other in the back, demanding rematches to extract instant vengeance. Many of those we spoke to said the Indie Room was their favourite place in the event, always full of buzz and excitement...music to our ears!

Competive families... let's hope they read the disclaimer!


Our stand was roughly in the centre of the Indies, Merch and Curios room, amongst games of all shapes, sizes and styles, and that's not even mentioning having giants like SEGA and 2K games a short walk away from our room!

Thursday started off slow - this is fairly common at shows like these, especially on a weekday, and being towards the back of the venue. Nonetheless, players took up the challenge and played! Response was positive early on, and throughout, from kids to kids-at-heart and members of the press, players were having a blast. Maybe they were drawn by the man in the cartoon bull mascot head (or the chocolate coins!), but many stayed for multiple rounds, or brought over friends to keep the bovine buccaneer brawling going! We saw plenty of true enjoyment at our stand, particularly with a full 4-pirate crew playing, as well as facing our beastly boss battles!

The love for indie gaming was really exemplified when I ventured out of the indie room to see what else was on offer. Surprisingly many of the big budget publisher areas were very quiet - unexpected for a London-based gaming expo! Maybe it was having an events team presenting these games, who cannot possibly match the energy and passion of indie developers hosting their own pride and joy in the next room.

Overall, WASD was great fun and the reception for Bullion was brilliant! I'm already looking forward to the next show, wherever that may be!

Joe Medforce's jacket was so shiny we wanted to nick it!


Almost all the shows we've done previously have been about something else - usually retrogaming - with and indie zone tacked on. So walking through WASD to our stand with bits of our rig tied with string to a little trolley and seeing entire rooms devoted to the likes of Devolver and Team 17 did induce a certain level of imposter syndrome! 

Getting the stand set up alleviated this feeling somewhat; with fewer set-dressing pieces and a full backdrop, it started to feel more like we at least appeared to be on a par with the others in the "indie room". The friendliness of those running the surrounding stands was also a great help - plus this time, we finally had the long-awaited Silverside head and jacket, which I spent most of the event prowling around in, and certainly gave us some extra "stand-out" quality.

The audience was much more industry-oriented than we had previously experienced - however, the game was as well received as ever, and we gained not only new contacts but a lot of valuable insight as well. And while the show was not as busy as we had hoped or expected, it was reassuring to learn that the "indie room" - for those of us not linked up to one of the big publishers - was the activity hotspot at the show!

The biggest take-away of all though was that despite our limitations as part-time, self-funded venture, we were able to stand toe-to-toe with much bigger studios and labels - and even, in the eyes of some, come out on top!

The JM:TV Live crew were great to chat with and gave their all against Queen Ella!

Quotes and highlights for the show...

  • - "Bullion: Curse of the Cut-Throat Cattle shows potential as a fun little party game" - Xbox Tavern
  • - "My true game of the show, which is a diamond in the rough, is Bullion!" - Joe Medforce, Words About Games
  • - Stuart bringing the GDL team to the stand, in an attempt to defeat the boss he created (watch the video - below!)
  • - The number of people wanting photos with Silverside!

... and there is still one more big surprise we've got lined up as a result of WASD... but we can't talk about it yet! As soon as we can, it'll be in our newsletter and on our discord, so sign up to get the news as it happens!

Sunday, 29 May 2022

Livin' La Vida Low-Cash

 Okay, so this time we did do it again - (pirate) radio silence since March, and with our biggest show to date in this timeframe, no less!

Actually, this is a large part of why we've been so quiet. Make no mistake, it was a great show (and we do intend to get something up on here about it, promise!), but what we learned there has forced us to put the brakes on somewhat and rethink a number of our plans. We're still on course for launch, albeit a bit later in the year than we had hoped - it's a few of the things that happen between then and now that we are having to re-evaluate.

One of the key issues we face is that we are entirely self-funded. This leaves us very little wiggle-room for how we use what reserves we have, and often puts us in a position where a bit of extra creative thinking is required to get the result we want... which sometimes leads to unexpected amusement.

This particular case relates to voice acting: we realised a while ago that we needed to re-record the vocals for Silverside. Since he has a big, loud, piratey voice, it was suggested that gameplay coder Ben take on the role, and that way we save ourselves a bit of our tiny budget, so it was arranged that while he and Paul were in London for the WASD show (which we swear we will cover in the next post!), they would meet up with our audio engineer at the hotel and record the required vocals. And along the way, it was decided that we could double up on the saving if Paul became the voice of Beefy Stu.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the hotel room backed onto a railway line... and thus came a golden moment of both creative improvisation and hilarity. Ben picks up the story...

'... so we're in the hotel room with trains constantly rattling past, Heather - our audio engineer - is in the bathroom, and Paul and I are both thinking "what do we do now?" - Paul's on limited time as he's got a family commitment that he needs to get to before coming back to the show, and we're wracking our brains trying to figure out how to salvage the situation. Then Heather comes out of the bathroom and she says "you know what guys - it's really quiet in there, you can't even hear the ceiling fan...'

You can see where this is going. Yup - in short order, the hotel bathroom was converted into an improvised recording studio:

When you gotta record, you gotta record...

A dedicated headphones holder...

Ben continues...

'... we've got almost all the bedding in this bathroom to prevent echo and that sort of thing (I don't pretend to understand audio!), and since he has to be elsewhere in a couple of hours, Paul's gone in first to record Stu's lines, along with Heather so she can coach and direct him to get the result she wants. So all I can hear outside is a woman's voice shouting instructions like "Say 'Mercy'! Louder! More annoying! Now moo for me!", followed by a man's voice complying... I am literally biting on the one remaining duvet, tears rolling down my face with laughter as I imagine what the people in the next room must be thinking!'

Of course, Ben got his comeuppance when it was his turn to record Silverside's new vocals... but it was agreed by both our humiliated coders that the embarrassment was a small price to pay for two characters' voices... and an entertaining anecdote for the blog!

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Bossing it...

Ever since the early days of Bullion, we knew we wanted to have multiple modes of gameplay The standard avarice mode - time-limited gameplay with a winner based on treasure - was the obvious main mode. But we wanted to include boss battles as well, and so the question was how to make that gameplay mode sufficiently different, but still retaining the mood and themes of Bullion?

In avarice mode, Captain Silverside and crew attempt to appease the gods of the Isles of Ser-Lloyn by being the pirate to collect and thus offer the most treasure. We wondered what would happen if they chose to provoke the gods instead - after all, pirates are not best known for following rules! What if they intended to defy the gods and try to keep the treasure for themselves? Wouldn't the gods take umbrage?

Hence defiance mode - the crew refuse to play the game, so the gods send their champion to smite them! Each game arena would have its own guardian, appropriate to the theme of that arena, which the crew would need to defeat in order to win the game and keep their treasure - and their skins!

Meanwhile, Bullion's human development crew had hit a few rocky shores of their own. It looked like we were going to be blocked for a while and we needed to pivot. We onboarded enemy character artist Stuart at just the right time - we asked him to "go nuts", and boy did he deliver - for what should land in our inbox one day but the fearsome undead zombie parrot figure of Captain Krackerz!

Try feeding this guy a cracker!

Up to this point, the world of Bullion was populated only by anthropomorphic bulls. In this one act, Stuart had reimagined the world our corsairs inhabited, opening up endless possibilities that have led to the crocodiles, lizards and sea creatures in the game today (with more still to come - make sure you follow our social media for an early heads-up!). And what better way to start, in a pirate world, than with a parrot? Perennial companion to the pirate figure, Krackerz seeks revenge against all of the cruel captains that have gone before, mistreating and teasing his brethren. We decided to go all-in, working on the boss battle, replacing our placeholder skeletons with new parrot-themed models built by Stuart, and thinking through how a boss battle might work.

Most of the existing enemies in Bullion were simple 'grunts' - they'd pick a player and attack them, possibly running away if outnumbered, but doing very little else. Bosses needed more sophisticated handling - advanced weapons, range attacks, and interacting with the environment and the other creatures therein. And they would need vulnerable moments too, suitably signposted, to enable the players to perform mob attacks.

We worked on a script for Krackerz based around several rounds of gameplay - as the battle progressed, his behaviour would change, becoming increasingly more difficult to attack. He'd fire his cannon at players; he'd summon minions to act as a shield and stand around him, waiting to attack approaching players.

We wanted the core mechanic of Bullion - that the winner is the pirate with the most treasure - to remain. Being the pirate that defeats the boss was more an element of chance than skill. But attacking the boss needed to be rewarded. We made them 'treasure pinatas'; the more you attack them, the more treasure they drop. What's more, each stage of the boss battle ends with the boss dropping a BFD - a big fat (ahem) diamond - worth a considerable amount of treasure!

Once we had Krackerz, there was no holding us back! For Salty Swamp, Stuart's warped genius came up with Ella Gator, the most fabulous Queen of the Deep South - a lizard with attitude and a whole slice of drama, darling. And from a gameplay point of view, she is more complex than Krackerz, too (as befits a boss of a harder level) - she controls how her minions attack, sets fire to the marsh gases, and bats a huge rock at our players to crush them!

The most fabulous boss in the bayou, darling!

Our usual process is to test new features of the game by taking it to the public at shows and expos. There we can watch people play, with more or less prompting, and gauge what needs adjusting. It became clear that people liked the idea of boss battles, but they did tend to drag on, particularly when players didn't want to be the one to engage with the boss and get smited! Why 'take one for the team' when you could be collecting treasure instead, since that's how you win the game? We found this a bit irritating, and wondered what to do about it.

Then we realised - if we were irked, how would the bosses feel? The champions of the arena, sent there by the very gods themselves, were being ignored by these rebel ruminants? They'd be positively furious!

We made the rage of the gods part of the game mechanic. The longer the boss goes unattacked, the angrier they become - and the more swift and devastating their revenge! The players need to find that balance between co-operating to defeat the boss, and collecting treasure, otherwise they'll all be slain and nobody wins.

Boss Battle mode achieved!

We have more bosses in the pipeline, and a whole third mode of play now added to the game... but those are subjects for future blog posts!

Monday, 21 February 2022

A Taste of the Pirate's Life...

With all the positive feedback we've received ever since our first show all that time ago, we decided it was high time we took the plunge and released a demo on PC!

You can check it out here: https://ledaentertainment.itch.io/bullion-demo

Demos have always been bit special for the older Bullion team members (aka Ben and Paul H). Back when our two programmers were but young scallywags with Atari ST computers and dreams of being game developers, playable demos were limited to what could be squeezed into the capacity of a single floppy disk - that's about a megabyte, if you're lucky! - and slapped on the cover of a monthly magazine... no internet back in those days! So releasing a playable demo by this means was considered something of an achievement - possibly more so than actually releasing a game!

Nowadays of course, the opposite is true - any would-be game developer can get a demo, or even a full game, out on the marketplace with barely a few mouse-clicks (and a bit of grind-work preparing all the required content!), and we are spoiled for choice when it comes to digital storefronts: Steam, Itch, GOG, Gamejolt... since all our previous releases have been either on mobile or Xbox 360, this was another "Bullion first" for us! Eventually we went with Itch.io, just for its ease of accessibility - however we are not blind to marketing trends, and so at the same time, we also set up a Steam page for the full game, and to allow people to wishlist (hint! hint!) for when we do release it. We're hoping to get the demo on Steam too but, thanks to a flurry of "life events" simply ran out of time before the release date! Ah, the joys of being a small studio...

So: demo live - check. Steam wishlist page - check. What else... ah yes! Public feedback has been at the heart of what we do even before Bullion was a concept, and the insight we have gathered from the shows we have taken the game to has been invaluable. So we set up a Discord server as well so that our demo players can let us know whether we should be showered in treasure... or walking the plank!

Of course, one thing we were ready for was the inevitable chore of putting together all the various content assets required for each storefront - imagery is always the pain-point here, with so many different sizes and aspect ratio requirements... just like back when we were making mobile titles! That said, back in those days at least the mobile storefronts required you to manually resize your imagery to all the different required permutations and upload them all, whereas on PC, this tends to be automated - it's a small thing, but we'll take it as a win!

Deciding exactly what to put into the demo was pretty tough - on one hand, we had a definite idea of what we wanted to showcase, but our experiences watching people play at expos showed us some very definite trends as to favourite characters and arenas... hopefully what we have here is a decent blend of the two: Gyutan Sands and The Locker can be played in the "avarice" game mode, players can face Salty Swamp's fabulous boss Queen Ella Gator in "defiance" mode, and a single voyage that links all three of these arenas together. Playable characters are limited to Captain Silverside and Bovy Jones - to enable the requisite four player action, each of these appears in two different colour schemes... could this be a hint of things to come...?

At the same time as preparing the demo, we've had all the normal activity going on as well. Ship's cook Beefy Stu was unveiled earlier this month as our fifth playable character - if things go the way we want (and by heck, the heathen gods owe us this much after the last few months!), we should be announcing a sixth next month, along with the next arena our mottley bovid miscreants will be making berth at! As ever, all details will go up on our social media as they happen - alternatively, sign up to our mailing list for super-advance updates!

... and then, of course, there's our plan for public shows and expos... but that's for future posts! Meantime, go grab the demo, give it a play, then join the crew on Discord and let us know what you think... we look forward to seeing you on there!

Monday, 10 January 2022

Voyaging onward...

 A while back, we admitted that we've been more than a bit rubbish with our blog and social updates until recently... and we've only nearly gone and done it again! Blame a combination or Christmas, New Year, COVID and other family/life challenges - it was something of a perfect storm, apologies for a couple of quiet weeks!

On the subject of being rubbish with updates, would you believe that our last "year in review" type post was nearly four years ago? With everything that has happened in that time, it feels like a lifetime since then!

Anyway, let's lead off with some great news: welcome back, Stuart DeVille! Yes, the winds of life have blown in a direction that has seen the return of our original master of monsters, and between him and Chloe, we're now accelerating towards filling out our crew of minions and bosses.

Cap'n Krackerz brought a new vision for the enemy characters

Last year was a tough one, no doubt about it: all the plans for Play Expo Margate 2021 that we had started laying the foundations for over a year earlier were well and truely scuppered and our "life comes first" maxim was pushed to a level we had never even thought possible as the entire crew wrestled with the impact of the COVID pandemic. But even in the face of this leviathan, the voyage continued, and the calmer waters of the autumn was a most welcome break.

And despite us battening down the hatches for much of the first half of the year, a great deal of progress has been made: work on the defiance-mode stage with Queen Ella Gator, the fabulous carnival drag-queen boss of Salty Swamp was finally completed, giving us our second boss battle, so it's fitting that Stuart has re-joined us just as we have finished bringing his last creation to life!

Underwater arena "The Locker" added our fifth playing field: this was always envisaged as Bullion's "final stage", so the threat level has been dialed up. As well as fighting off tough crab-man enemies, players have to keep their air levels topped up, and also watch out for the giant squid tentacles that surround the arena. The overall atmosphere of the arena is one of deadly beauty, so full credit to Paul J and Chloe for bringing this together.

The Locker: Beautiful to look at - lethal to play!

The new voyage mode of play has added for longer and more varied matches as players fight it out across a number of islands in a combination of avarice-mode's flat-out treasure grabbing and defiance's boss battles. Similar to the "cup" mode of gameplay in many racing games, the overall winner is the player who claims victory on the most islands... but in true Bullion style, should the whole crew wipe out - on any island - it's game over!

Finally, there have been a host of other tweaks and enhancements across the board; the AI players now use the dash/rush escape mechanic, the ghost characters have all been upgraded (again!), and a whole slew of new visual effects, UI and cut-sequence enhancements have been rolled in. Our initial release platforms have been decided, and it definitely feels like everything is coming together.

Of course, the highlight of the year has to have been getting back out on the road and putting Bullion in front of the public. Having people at Play Expo Blackpool remember playing the game when we were last there (in 2019!) and commenting on all the improvements and additions we had made since was awesome, and being part of the very first GDLX and getting the opinions of other developers was similarly amazing. Getting to finally catch up with old friends - Badger from Stoffel Presents, TristaBytes, AsobiTech's Quang, the Replay Events team - was a huge morale booster, and having Stuart re-join is the icing on the proverbial cake.

Now, as we head into 2022, there are stormy clouds above us once again; like the villain in a bad movie franchise, COVID is back in its new omicron incarnation, and right now it's difficult to say whether we are heading back into the storm or if the skies will clear again. But we sail on with hope: every enhancement, every feature, every tune-up and tweak is a step closer to the finished article, and in the face of this uncertainty, it's reassuring to think about all the support we've had. As turbulent as 2022 may be, we are still confident that it's going to be a great year for Bullion - and be sure to keep an eye on our social media as we've got some big announcements coming up!

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Full Circle

(Game designer/developer Ben talks about GDLX)

Last weekend found the good ship Bullion docking at the inaugural GDLX: Game Dev London Expo.

Game Dev London is a rapidly-growing developer community, with one of its key administrators being our very own ex-crewmate Stuart DeVille. Stuart pretty much re-invented the look and feel of Bullion's enemies, including giving us our first boss battle, and it was a real blow when changing life circumstances meant he had to step down from the team. So GDLX was a great chance for us to catch up with him. It also gave us a chance to put Bullion in front of a whole new audience: instead of the families and retro-gamers we were used to from the Play Expo shows, most of the people attending GDLX were connected to game development in some way.

The show was held at the Samsung KX hub: described as an "innovation space", the main area comprised of a sizeable auditorium for the various talks that were scheduled through the day, surrounded by various stands that would normally used to showcase Samsung devices and technology. Which meant that rather than the plain table we were used to, we ended up setting up on a desk that looked more like someone's home office, complete with house plants! But it was a decent enough space, so we cracked out the roller banners, the stickers, the treasure chest - everything we usually have on the stand - and settled in. And then things started getting slightly surreal...

If only the boss could see what really went on in the home office!

We had plenty of players during the day. But we also had people asking us about how to market their games. About how to position themselves to break into the industry. Pitching their skills to us. Even asking whether Leda Entertainment was offering internships. And suddenly it began to dawn on us that we'd come full circle: back in 2013 at Leda Entertainment's first show, we'd watched with no small amount of envy from behind our barely-decorated table stand as the team opposite us, with their banners and big monitors and other highly visible promotion material had attracted a continual flow of players. And now, here we were - while most of the other teams had crammed themselves together in a relatively small space which left little room for any kind of promotional display, we had our posters and pirate hats and give-away stickers and pirate gold chocolate... it was a bizarre Vader-meets-Obi-Wan kind of moment, especially given the people-oriented ethos of the Bullion team!

A great day of networking while watching other developers fighting each other...

But this also turned into a delightful opportunity. Game development is a hard industry to break into, especially straight out of education, and we've heard many tales of broken dreams over the years. So to a number of the would-be developers who came to talk to us about internship or job opportunities, our part-time team approach and the idea of building a skillset that would widen their employment prospects while at the same time improving their abilities as game developers seemed to come as something of a revelation.

With a little luck, we may see a number of other "grassroots" game studios springing up in the coming years.