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After last year's launch of the puzzle game Kine, Chump Squad founder Gwen Frey was kicking around ideas for her next project.
"I didn't think I would do another puzzle game," Frey tells GamesIndustry.biz. "I thought I would go for something bigger. I've always really loved strategy and tactics games so I thought I would go for something bigger, maybe grow Chump Squad, maybe get an office."
Then COVID-19 came along and punched a hole in all those plans. Frey says she would have needed funding to grow the studio as she hoped to, and that would have meant a lot of air travel to raise capital right around March, just as the disease was declared a pandemic and swaths of the US and Europe went into lockdown.
So she shelved those plans and instead started up a game jam with some friends in puzzle designer circles.
"For the game jam we started making a puzzle game and I just absolutely fell in love with it and kept pushing on it, and that became Lab Rat."
To hear Frey describe it, Lab Rat is very clearly a product of its time. Set for release early next year, Lab Rat sees players put in the role of humans made to run through a series of brain-teasing tests by an antagonistic AI. While it's a single-player game, there is an online component to allow for touches like having the AI poll players and sharing the resulting survey responses with each other.
"It was the beginning of lockdown, sitting here on my computer alone every day, and the only way I could communicate with human beings is through this computer in front of me," Frey says. "Every interaction I have with other people is filtered through social media. Everything I do is being tracked and monitored. I'm being put into a filter bubble on Google where all I ever see is the things the algorithms think I want to see.
"I just had this feeling that this is oppressive and absurd, and this is what human interaction is becoming. I wanted to make a game that captured that..."
"I just had this feeling that this is oppressive and absurd, and this is what human interaction is becoming. I wanted to make a game that captured that, not in a way that's negative or dark, but kind of light-hearted. I wanted to poke fun at the absurdity of the situation."
The game's marketing plan likewise reflects our current moment. Lab Rat was announced during the virtual Gamescom event last month, as part of the Awesome Indies showcase. Gamescom was just one in a steady parade of formerly in-person events to roll out online replacements this summer, and while there have been some indications the online-only editions can still provide effective marketing, Frey has some reservations on that front.
"I'm nervous about online events replacing in-person events for a lot of reasons. When I try to get a game into a local event, say PAX in Boston, I'm submitting my game and only competing with other people who could possibly show up at PAX in Boston. And I've never submitted a game for PAX Australia because I know I can't get there. When people have to physically show up at these events, it does have a limiting effect on which indies can apply there, which is good and bad."
(Note: The PAX events are run by GamesIndustry.biz parent ReedPOP.)
On the one hand, creators far outside the development hubs where such events often take place now have fewer economic and geographic barriers preventing them from appearing. On the other hand, Frey is somewhat concerned that when every indie developer can put their game into every show, the pool of games actually featured by organizers may shrink.
"My theory is very soon we're going to have a situation where only the best indies ever have their games shown, and there's no place anymore for somebody who's making something more niche or more experimental to showcase their work or get noticed, because we're having a kind of winners-take-all situation right now with these online events," Frey says.
She's also skeptical about whether online-only conferences will continue to attract consumers the way in-person events do.
"There's just been so many [virtual] events that gamers are getting bored of them. They aren't special"
"I just don't think they are as compelling for gamers," Frey says. "There's just been so many events that gamers are getting bored of them. They aren't special. There's something very special to driving to a place and physically being in a place and experiencing being at PAX, hearing the noises, playing multiplayer games with your friends. It's so much more special and impressive when you're playing these things in person, and that just is not the case when you're doing an online festival.
"I think as time goes on, they're less and less interesting and they're no longer the exceptional marketing opportunity they used to be. I feel like if I miss a given online show this weekend, there will be another one in two weeks."
Even if in-person events were still happening, Lab Rat would have a different marketing and launch strategy than Kine did despite both being puzzle games.
One of the biggest differences is due to the number of platforms Frey is targeting for launch. Kine was an Epic Games Store exclusive on PC when it launched last October, but it also launched the same day on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. And then the Stadia version was ready for the streaming service's debut the next month.
For a small indie developer without the assistance of a publisher, that was challenging.
"Not only did it mean I was spending a lot of time at the end of development focusing on making sure the game worked on every storefront, but it also meant iterating became extremely difficult because if I ever wanted to make a change to the game, I had to update it in several places," Frey said. "Updating your game on any given storefront isn't a big deal, but knowing you have to push an update to five or six storefronts is overwhelming. It makes it a lot harder to iterate and develop from that point on."
Another big timesink of the multiplatform launch was addressing the litany of platform-specific quirks that would pop up.
"All of a sudden you have to test what your UI looks like in German on the Switch when the Switch is in handheld mode and the text could possibly be overflowing the UI boxes," Frey said. "You just have all of these edge cases that come up when you try to do everything all at once."
Frey says one of the nice things about an exclusivity deal (beyond the funding that comes with it) is that it can give a developer time to test and iterate almost like a beta release, so that when it arrives on larger storefronts, it's a tighter, more complete experience.
"What I found is because I had to do everything at once, I didn't have the time to focus on... reaching out to specific press for each platform"
Because the Epic deal only secured exclusivity on PC formats, Frey didn't get the benefit of that sort of iteration before the console launches, something she says she deeply regrets.
Frey also found that in her experience, the marketing boost that conventional wisdom says can be gained from a simultaneous release was overstated.
"I thought I would get more of a marketing push if I could say it was on all the platforms at the same time," she says. "I thought there would be more venues that were Nintendo-specific, for instance, that would cover the game and people would see the game in all these different places. But what I found is because I had to do everything at once, I didn't have the time to focus on just reaching out to Nintendo-specific press, or just reaching out to specific press for each platform.
"So in the end, I don't really feel like I got that effect anyway. And I think if I had a publisher that was managing those marketing relationships and could amplify the fact the game was coming out on all these platforms, perhaps it would have made a lot more sense to come out on all these platforms at once. But I think as a small studio, it was a mistake to try to take on quite that much all at once."
Whatever misgivings Frey may have with parts of the game's marketing or launch strategy, she makes a point of saying they haven't soured her on the game itself.
"I'm extremely happy with Kine," she says. "I'm proud of what I accomplished there. I did update the game slightly a couple months after launch on all the platforms. I just feel like that whole process would have been a lot smoother if I had only launched on one platform initially."
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