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The Indies:
Slick Entertainment

The Indies is Dork Shelf’s games feature that takes an inside look at up-and-coming local and national indie game developers.

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Is it unusual that a trio of respected triple-A-cum-indie developers from Vancouver decided to include “evil” in-app purchases (IAP) in their first game?

The guys at Slick Entertainment didn’t see it that way. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss IAP as a money-sucking tactic. Rather than accepting that, designer Shane Neville saw it as a challenge, which formed the basis of his talk at Game Developers Conference last month: “Shellrazer – Designing In-App Purchase Without Losing Your Soul.”

“As a game designer, I wanted to do this,” Neville said in an interview with Dork Shelf. “[When we were making Shellrazer] everyone was saying free-to-play (F2P) was the next big thing, so we said, ‘Let’s see if there’s potential there.’ It’s all about discovering new territory.”

If a turtle version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Oliphaunts starred in its own game, that game would be Shellrazer. The side-scrolling role-playing shooter puts the player in control of the shelled beast, fighting goblin hordes and rescuing members of its clan. It was released in 2012 for iOS platforms (and Android earlier this year), and quickly flew to the top of the app charts.

Yes, it had in-app purchases. No, it didn’t turn off players or fellow developers.

Best of all, Neville — along with Slick’s programmer Nick Waanders and artist Jesse Turner — proved that F2P games can work in a way that respects the player and allows the creators to do what they love: make games.

So how’d they do it? They weren’t trying to fool the player, purposely designing IAP in a non-obtrusive way: No sad-eyed sheep to guilt players into spending real-world money or sneaky tactics to trick the player into accidentally buying virtual goods.

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Shane Neville

“The indie community is very outspoken,” stated Neville. “It’s hard to do F2P and not be evil. There’s so much repulsion and disgust, and some is rightly earned. Within the community, people were universally opposed to the business model.”

Neville said the community responded positively to their approach, with many developers expressing exactly what they hoped: the game was designed such that they didn’t feel pressured to purchase every upgrade for the full experience.

The approach paid off financially, too — 30% of the game’s revenue came directly from IAP, much to everyone’s surprise.

“You can do it [F2P] and be successful and not be evil,” explained Neville. “After the game’s release, I spoke with people at F2P companies, [who were happy to see that this] can be done while respecting the player. It gave them motivation to not trick the player to make a profitable game.”

Earning approval from their peers by achieving a seemingly impossible task and inspiring other developers to follow in their footsteps? Not bad for their first game together.

But make no mistake, these three are far from strangers to the industry, all having come from collective years at Electronic Arts, Relic Entertainment, and Threewave Software. Waanders had been running Slick since 2007, having worked with Metanet Software on N+, and top-down racer Scrap Metal. He decided to attend a Full Indie meetup in Vancouver, a gathering of the city’s indie devs, and the first person he met was Turner.

Turner is credited with conceiving the badass, weapons-laden War Turtle protagonist of Shellrazer. “That one drawing resonated with a lot of people,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s goofy and wacky and it’s basically me in an art form.”

It’s also a reflection of the games that Slick makes and wants to continue making. “There are so many serious games, and even though I like them to play them, it’s kinda cool to give a game to someone and the first thing he or she does is laugh,” added Waanders. “If you can get someone to laugh in the first five minutes, that’s pretty great.”

The pair later met Neville at another Full Indie meetup. Neville, who also runs his own company Ninja Robot Dinosaur Entertainment, joined the Slick team to work on system design, level design, and PR and marketing after getting a glimpse of Shellrazer.

“We had a bunch of mechanics built, but we had trouble finding the fun,” recalled Turner. “That’s when Shane said, ‘Oh yeah, I got this.’”

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That about sums up Slick’s approach to game development, one that neither team member could fully achieve while working in the triple-A world, where more time and effort is put into pitching a game instead of diving into the prototype.

“It’s not unusual to have a team of four or five people working on a pitch for a few months. We finished Shellrazer in six months,” said Neville. “There was no pitching. It was: ‘Is that cool? Yeah, that looks cool. Let’s make it cooler and start drinking.’ It should be that simple and it’s not.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as figuring out the right time for a project. The trio began work on a prototype for Starrazer, a space-themed strategy follow-up to Shellrazer (“Space games are awesome, no matter what my girlfriend says,” stated Waanders). They announced it on their site’s dev blog, wanting to be open about their activity and progress. Two months ago, they stopped working on the game.

While they were able to find the fun in Shellrazer, they couldn’t do it for Starrazer, admitted Neville, and the game is on hold for now. No matter what comes next, Neville assured that it will fit their quirky sense of humour and, yes, will most definitely contain Turner’s wacky art.

It’s a perfect example of the approach that many indies strive for: shorter development times, the freedom to craft their own IPs and being able to move on when something doesn’t feel right.

“When I started Slick, people said, ‘I wish I could do that, but it’s too risky.’ Two years later, the recession hit and all these stable companies started laying people off left, right and centre,” said Waanders. “The most stable choice was starting your own company.”

The risk has so far paid off. In addition to all its success, Shellrazer is a finalist in the Best Game on the Go category at this year’s Canadian Videogame Awards (April 20), where — funnily enough — most its fellow finalists also contain in-app purchases.

Know a Canadian developer with a great story for The Indies? Get in touch! emily@dorkshelf.com

Correction: Slick Entertainment was founded in 2007, not in 2009 as previously stated.

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