I spoke with Mare Sheppard of Metanet Software Inc about their decade long success with the 'N' series and discuss how it came to be that their game sequels and countless months of polish really shined through the cracks towards success in the current state of the game industry.
Who Are You?
Metanet Software Inc., or Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns. We’re based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and have been making games since 2004.
What’s your Game?
N++, it’s a fast-paced, momentum-based platformer where you get to play as a badass parkour-loving ninja, narrowly escaping enemies and collecting gold across sci-fi landscapes. It’s crammed full of so many levels, game modes, enemies and secrets, it’s the last platformer you’ll ever need. It was made using C++.
How did you come up with the idea/concept for this game?
The core concept of N++ has remained unchanged since the original N from 2004. It was inspired by our love of platformers and minimalism, and our desire to create a “perfect” pure experience of gameplay without any of the fluff or filler that most games get bogged down by. We were inspired by freeware, especially the games Soldat, Zone Runner, Super Bubble Blob, and Puchiware no Bouken.
For N++, we spent a lot of time prototyping and iterating new ideas, so that we could add a bunch of interesting fresh enemies and concepts which still felt organic and worked well with the existing game design. We also tweaked the physics to make them even smoother and more precise.
How long did it take to build? What was that process like?
The very first version of N was made in 6 weeks of intense work.. it was like an extended game jam, working all day until late at night for weeks on end. However, we couldn’t have done it in such a short period of time without the preceeding 4 years where we learnt through trial and error and developed the basic technology (tile collision, ragdoll, etc) that we then used during those 6 weeks. After this initial version we spent another 6 months or so improving it and adding features and content.
N++, on the other hand, took about 30 months to complete; we then also spent an additional 12 months developing more features and content, to make the “Ultimate Edition”. The process was intense — we had never attempted a project this big, and we had to really work on our process in order to sustain such high output (over 4000 levels in the end, and 100+ colour schemes) without letting the quality drop. It was definitely a marathon, and required a lot of focus and finding workflows which helped us stay in “the zone” without crunching or getting burned out.
Have you released a game previously? If so, how did it go?
We had previously released N and N+. N was released as freeware, and while development was stressful and rushed, releasing it was easy: we just uploaded it and emailed some of our friends. After a couple years, it had spread via word-of-mouth to the point where fans were emailing us.. and one of these fans was someone at Microsoft who wanted us to make a version for XBLA. (NOTE: it’s a bit depressing to think that these days, with the incredibly fast-paced and cluttered gaming landscape, no game would be given the time and space/oxygen required to slowly build an audience like this. We feel very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time).
N+ was developed over the course of 9 months in cooperation with Slick Entertainment (developers who had experience programming games for consoles). It was released on XBLA in early 2008 (just a few months before Braid!); it had a good launch, and continued to sell slowly but steadily over many years.
Is this your full time job?
Yes, since making N+ in 2007 we have been making games as a full-time job — occasionally we do contracting work for other teams, but mainly we work on our own projects.
Have you used an external publisher before?
Did you have a marketing budget? If so, what was worth it? What was a waste?
Yes, we had a small marketing budget (small in comparison to what we’ve heard “III” (eg Triple I) indie teams spend these days, but still quite substantial). It’s hard to say what was worth it and what was a waste, since most things (e.g. making a trailer, attending PAX, etc) don’t have an easy way to involve analytics to measure the response.
Do you rely solely on game purchases for profit?
Yes, although we occasionally do contract work and consulting for other small teams.
What was/is your marketing plan/strategy?
We exhibited the game extensively during 2014, showing it at Indiecade, PAX, Bit Summit, Bit Bazaar, GDC, E3, and PSX. We updated our blog and devblog with details of the development and a chronology of the art style. We also made a bunch of beautiful promotional videos and a gorgeous ad campaign (Motion++). For the Steam and Xbox One release we worked with Evolve PR to help reach out to press and streamers. We did a lot of interviews and demo sessions with journalists. Basically we tried everything we could think of 🙂
What advice did you take 5 years ago? Is it still true today?
The common advice 5 years ago was that if you made something special — something with amazingly high quality that was unique — you would succeed. We’re not sure if this was ever actually true, but it’s certainly not true today. Now that there are SO many games competing for attention, it’s very easy for great games to fall through the cracks and get lost.
What advice would you pass on to developers who are looking to launch their game?
Right now, if you don’t have a large following that is excited to play your game, then your launch will probably not be great.
This thread from Pixeljam Games sums it up pretty well.
Do you have a dev log?
Where can people follow you?
What’s your favourite element of the game that everyone should know about?
The local multiplayer in N++ — both co-operative and competitive — is something we think is really special. We’ve gotten a great response from people about N++ being one of the best co-op experiences they’ve had, and our personal favourite element of N++ is the competitive Race mode: the first ninja to the exit turns into a rocket and can hunt the others! This is incredibly fun!
Why should I play it?
If you want to know what being a ninja feels like, or like challenging, rewarding skill-based gameplay that feels amazing, N++ is the game for you. It is absolutely the most polished and refined platforming experience money can buy, and we’ve made sure that even after hundreds of hours, there will always be something just slightly beyond your skill level that will push you forward — there is no skill ceiling, even fans who have been playing for 10 years are finding new ways to improve.
It’s also beautiful: the aesthetic is minimalist and based on print graphic design, so it’s smooth as silk and perfectly supports the fast-paced gameplay. Plus there are over 100 colour schemes so it always has a fresh feel, even if you’ve been playing for hundreds of hours!
Oh, and the soundtrack is top notch: 6 hours of the world’s best modern electronic music that underscores the tension and sci-fi environment perfectly.
Where do you get inspiration to build games or come up with an idea?
From art, architecture, and the world around us. Inspiration is everywhere!
Also from classic game design of the past: we love those games which are based purely on beautiful design and dynamics, such as Tetris, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Lode Runner, etc. They’re so powerful. Our company motto is “backward-looking, forward-thinking” 🙂
For aspiring gamers reading this who want to work in the games industry/make games, what advice can you give them?
Just start making stuff. We learned how to make games thanks to blog posts and forums, and 20 years later there’s even more great learning material — and game-making tools — available for free online.
The most important thing is to not get stuck, remember that learning involves failure, as long as you’re always growing then you’ll achieve something you’re happy with eventually, as long as you don’t give up. Try to start very very simple and build from there, don’t make an MMO as your first game! Oh, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket — have a backup plan, since financial success is incredibly rare in this industry.
What marketing information did you wish you knew before launching your game?
The “silver bullet” marketing advice passed around over the years — “if you just do this, your game will sell like hotcakes” — changes fast and is largely tied to being in the right time and the right place, so it’s not really all that useful in the general sense. It seems instead important to be creative and agile, and to have a series of marketing strategies and back up plans. Maybe the most useful suggestion is: invent a time-machine and release your game in 2010-2012 if you want it to be a big hit 😉