Interview – Megan Summers – Product Manager/Developer Screwtape Studios
At PAX Aus, Hope sat down with Megan Summers, one of the brains behind the quite excellent arcade platformer, Damsel to chat about life as an indie developer and what’s in store for the future.
How’s Pax going so far?
It’s amazing. Coming from Brisbane getting a chance to come down and play and see people playing and being around the other indie devs is exhilarating. It recoups us for the next few months of development and we’re always on a high.
What feedback have you had for Damsel?
We’ve had a couple of reviews which have been really exciting. We’re hitting around 7s but all of our feedback from players has been much more exuberant. We always knew we weren’t going to be making a 10 out of 10 game – if we dreamt that that was going to be it, we would have been destroyed from day one. But we also put effort into parts of our game to try to stand out in certain elements. Like our art-style was always something that we wanted before working on any mechanics. We spent about a good six months just figuring out that style and how we wanted it to work and how Damsel moved before she was even moving to do anything. So those sort of elements have really brought people in.
The artists that we’ve been able to work with – I’m not artistic at all but I have had so much joy every day that we get the dropbox fills up from the artist adding new things to the game. He’s done an amazing job and it’s one of the first things people say. It’s actually really lovely that this year is the first year he’s been able to come down so he’s getting the praise he deserves. Every other year we’ve sent messages to them at the end of the day to all the artists letting them know what people have been saying. You can see the boosts that it’s giving the whole team.
People talk about marketing games or caring about sales like it’s a bit taboo but people have to be able to eat to make more games, right?
There are so many games and every game every year is getting better and better so you’ve really got to try to differentiate yourself in one way or another. We’re a small team but we really want to make another game. So we want to make a game that people are drawn to it so we can make more. It’s scary putting everything on the line and going “This has to make money, this is what we’re here for” we were in that phase for a long time where we were making mobile games so then when we didn’t make money it was ok. Whereas now our aim is to build a company that we can keep people hired at, keep our own jobs, and keep creating. Unfortunately, that means for us not being purely artistic, you have to have that commercial side. Everything we think about now is how will we be able to get this to more people so that we can keep making games.
If you don’t market the game and no one buys it then you knew that no one was going to buy it. Whereas as soon as you do start having to make that effort it does make it scarier and make it feel more real. Being a small team it can be really scary saying “this has got to make enough to make something else” rather than just keep boot strapping it together.
How have the release and sales been?
We’re moving slowly. We know that our release wasn’t as smooth as we could have done. We’ve all been working other jobs as well and then just hitting those bugs at the end of development where you’re like “How is that happening?”. I’m so glad my background is in QA because it means we’ve been able to squash most of them before release.
There’s one in there that’s been driving me insane that I’ve been trying to figure out. Prioritising is crazy when you get to the end of a project like this. You can see the thirty things that need to get done but you know that number thirty is never going to be done before release. We are going to continue fixing all of those things but the biggest game was to get it out. Picking that release date and just doing it – it was scary.
We knew that Steam was going to be a little bit smaller. Steam sales for most games are getting a lot less. It goes through little phases every couple of years where indie games will sell great on sales for a little while and then oh no, we’re buying them on other platforms now. So we knew that our console release was also going to be a big deal.
I’ve been lucky enough to work at Defiant development over the last two years as well and it’s been amazing watching them release Hand of Fate 2 and then the DLC. So we’re really trying to not put pressure on ourselves, not put out less than the best thing that’s there. We’d rather over deliver with less content and then update the next month with more. It’s been a really hard decision with such a small team. There’s one programmer and one designer and that’s the same person.
We’ve all been burnt by a game that overpromised. That could have been an indie or a triple it’s happened a lot. That was the last thing we wanted to do. We’ve actually held back our Linux release as well because we didn’t want to seem like we didn’t care because it’s less players. We’ve been in contact with those players saying that it is coming but we didn’t want to give them a game that wasn’t the same as the PC version that’s just not how you do it.
We knew that every platform was going to be important for us. Knowing that if we can get as many people to see it – we don’t have that name that draws people, we haven’t got another PC title. This is our first major title. We didn’t have necessarily those other things that might bring people in.
When are the console releases set to come out and which platforms?
Early next year. Definitely Xbox and Switch. If anyone has a Sony rep that anyone wants to get me in contact with we’ve tried a few times. It might be a little bit later for PlayStation but the Switch is the one I’m most excited about.
We’re actually demoing on Xbox here at the show. It’s so much harder to update on consoles because it all has to go through their specific certification. It’s working on the Switch but hitting some of those cert requirements is going to take a little bit longer. It’s such an exciting platform to be on but there are always going to be those restrictions because it is still handheld. They’ve done a phenomenal job like the platform itself is robust as hell but of course, it’s going to need those smaller file sizes as well. I don’t know how Diablo III is getting on there. Skyrim on the Switch actually runs pretty damn well too.
It’s been really interesting because we try to do as much research as possible on all platforms. But in the end next month the whole landscape of the Switch could have changed. We’re needing to get in while they’re still focussing on indies is our big thing now. Early next year for us it has to be. We just don’t want to miss that boat. We’ve missed a lot of boats over time in the last 6 years and that one’s one that I just – it could probably make or break the game. I think getting in as early as possible is going to be the best thing that we can possibly do.
Is it hard to juggle such important priorities and also not burning out?
All of this crunch talk at the moment. There’s a lot of people going “Just make it, just do it, isn’t that what you’re doing it for?”. Every job is a job when you get there, unfortunately. I was lucky enough to work at Pandemic doing QA and EA when they were bought out by them. “You get to play games all day, can you get me a job?”. But we did 16 hour days for four weeks on a milestone that wasn’t the end of the game. I didn’t get overtime pay at all. There are upsides, there are bonds that I made during that time with people. They don’t make up for the time. It did get to a point where I’d be walking around the office like blurry eyed and I don’t even know how I was doing good work. That’s probably the biggest thing as well is how much actual work are you getting out of people when they’re on 4 hours sleep?
I think it is changing. At Defiant I said that to be able to get a DLC out early this year when I was looking at it at the scope from a QA point of view, that I was looking at about two or three hours of overtime for two weeks. For me, that’s easy overtime. I almost went home crying because Morgan Jaffert said “No, we’re hiring somebody else.” and that’s the first time that there had been so much respect for everyone’s job. I had no fear of going to them and saying that I was going to need to do a bit of overtime. Then to have your work respected and your time respected to say “Let’s have a chat about this and see if we can not have to do that” and within two days we had another QA. It was phenomenal. I couldn’t have continued the other work but we kept on going for the whole year. I got to learn how to be a manager as well. I will often stay an hour sometimes at work to finish something but to be told – when you’re telling someone that you’re going to have to crunch a little bit – to be told “No” then to have them hire somebody else as well. It meant that we got those builds out, those builds were better. They had more time on them, the work was better. We couldn’t have done it any other way.
So I’ve really been trying to emulate that with Damsel as well. We’re working for ourselves and crunching for ourselves it does feel different. It really does. But the work quality doesn’t get better when we’re crunching for ourselves. If we were doing 16 hours by the end of that day you are done and then you’ve got to get in the next day and look at your work. So we’re really trying to pull back once we’re tired, it’s better to go to bed and wake up the next morning refreshed. So we’re really trying to emulate the way Defiant respected me and respect ourselves the same way.
What’s it like to have so many people play your game here at Pax?
The joy in that pax rising area of the players. They just get to go around and talk to all the developers, see games that are made in their cities. There’s so much love. Because we’ve been showing the game now for four years, we had people come back today and this is the fourth time seeing it and they’re just excited that we are that it’s released. Half of them bought the game in early access and they just wanted to say congratulations. Often I’ll chat with people who love the game and then I’ll find out stuff about them. I love chatting to new people and we’ve connected over the fact that they love my game and I want to get to know them as well. You want to be big enough to not have to worry but if it ever happens I’m going to miss finding those people who are just – we’re so similar and it’s the game that brought us together.
What are the plans once the DLC and ports are all done?
It’s been very hard to keep my business partner and creative director for speculating on Damsel 2. It’s already in the works and I have to keep pulling him back to work on this. For me, the smartest but also the most exciting thing would be to do a sequel because there are things that didn’t get in. No one knows they didn’t get in like the potential for more weapons.
The story was pulled out at one point completely for various reasons. Then we realised that was the worst thing we could have done. The timing meant that what is in at the moment, I love and you get characterisation of Damsel and the other characters but then it really is about driving you in and out of each of the missions. So for me expanding that story and having more of what we had originally. I’m so glad that story went back in but there’s part of it for me that’s a little bit hard. It was actually getting Screen Queensland funding that allowed us to put it back in which was amazing.
Some of our inspirations were like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen style. So we were like at least if we were creating something that is lighter there’s an homage there to the silliness of the stories we grew up with. She’s a Buffy meets Batman mixed with Duke Nukem. My favourite game growing up was Commander Keen four and Anthony’s was Duke Nukem so a big part of Damsel that’s come out is these two different characters. A lot of the puzzle levels are really inspired by Commander Keen and a lot of the tongue in cheek as well.
We knew that with a game called Damsel we didn’t want to preach to anyone ever. Because you and I don’t want to be preached at about how a woman should act as much as men don’t want to be preached at. I haven’t thought “in distress” for four years after saying the word. The word has changed for me and that’s all that matters to me. That’s what changed to me. And if even if people are like “Uh Damsel, that crap game” they didn’t think “in distress”. For me, that’s all that mattered about the name. The amazing thing is the amount of young boys who’ve been playing the game – they don’t care. So I hope that that comes across when girls start playing with that humour. We are trying to say something but we’re not trying to shove it down your throat. And if for me, just the word itself as changed and that’s really been kinda bizarre at 33 having a word completely change.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I just wanna thank everyone who’s supported us over the past four years. We’ve had a team of six at most down to a team of four and all of those who have worked for us have been amazing and I can’t wait to make the next game.