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A two-year side project that became an unexpected indie game success

Last month we interviewed Darrin Henein, he’s the design lead for Firefox Mobile at Mozilla. During our interview with Darrin we learned that he is also the creator of the popular iOS game Lastronaut. In his interview, Darrin talked a lot about learning by doing and not being afraid to just try something. Having always wanted to create a game, he finally felt he’d picked up enough skills through his career to give it a shot.

The game started as a side-project, he and his friend Stephan Leroux worked on it in their spare time over the course of two years. When it launched in the App Store they hoped it would be played by a few thousand people but never expected the response they had. It was recently nominated for Best Indie Game 2015 by the Canadian Videogame Awards. We thought it would be interesting to catch up with Darrin and learn more about his experience developing and launching Lastronaut.

For people who haven’t played what’s the basic premise behind Lastronaut?

At its core it's an infinite runner. I didn't want to invent a whole new type of game and have to think about game mechanics while I was just learning to make a game. I figured "let me start with something that's kind of simple and a little bit more understood as far as game design goes." It was clearly heavily inspired by popular games at the time, like Jetpack Joyride.

Basically, I had this story in my head about an astronaut who—after this apocalyptic war with the robots, obviously—ends up being the last human on Earth. He's tasked with piloting the last rocket ship off of Earth as humans are quickly abandoning it. He's running through all sorts of chaos and madness to try and get to this ship. As a player you're running, avoiding obstacles, and you have a couple of different weapons that you can fight back with. That simple premise ended up being far more complicated than we initially had hoped, but at least we weren’t reinventing a whole new type of game.

“I find my best work as a creative comes when there’s no pressure; in its infancy I had no plans to ship this game or even show it to anyone else!”

When did you first start working on the game and how did the whole idea come about?

I grew up playing Nintendo games and loved them, and I got a lot of joy out of games like Super Mario as a kid. Ever since I was young I’ve had this moonshot dream of making my own game. But at that time you picture video games being made by these massive companies with hundreds of people working on them for years, and it just didn't seem realistic that one person could do it on their own.

My career in design slowly led to learning programming—starting with things like HTML and CSS but quickly moving on to Ruby, Javascript and other more advanced languages—and I got to a point where I figured "you know what, I probably have enough of the fundamentals to at least take a stab at it". The project began as a learning experience, it wasn't something I planned as being a finished project that I would launch at some point, it was really to get started working on a game to see how it comes together. I find my best work as a creative comes when there’s no pressure; in its infancy I had no plans to ship this game or even show it to anyone else!

I started drawing some of the artwork, and posted some of it to Dribbble. A co-worker at the time, Stephan Leroux, saw it and said "hey I didn't know you were making a game, I've always wanted to develop a game!” He came from more of an engineering background and he said "if you need any help at any point let me know." I said "sure, I don't know what I'm doing, and you can probably help me save a lot of time."

Pretty early on I had a working prototype that I was able to show him and he was happy to join the project. From there it was just the two of us over the next two years in our free time hacking away at this thing. I take the train into work so I had some time each day on the train, and my wife would go to bed early so I would have some time in the evenings as well. As well, Stephan got married during those two years, and I had a kid, so life just kinda happened and it took us some time but that's how it came together.

“The first big milestone was getting something on my phone actually working, some code that would draw the player sprite on screen. That was more difficult than expected, and a sign of how complicated this endeavour would be.”

Can you talk about the process of working on the game? It happened over two years but what were some of the major milestones throughout the project?

The whole project was really a good encapsulation of my philosophy around learning things, which is just to go out and do them. Books are great, and courses are great to give you background and a fundamental understanding of concepts but the best way to really, deeply learn something is to actually exercise that knowledge by applying it.

For us—and for me especially—I had much less background in the programming side of things. The first big milestone was getting something on my phone actually working, some code that would draw the player sprite on screen. That was more difficult than expected, and a sign of how complicated this endeavour would be. Tools have evolved a lot in the last couple years and so it's a little bit easier to do today, though what we started with was still far simpler than generations before us had it! Just getting my little character that I'd animated on my phone that I could show people was a special moment. Then getting to the point where there was a few obstacles and a couple of ways to avoid them was really cool. At that point I could ask friends and family to try playing it, even though it was still kind of thin, it was a playable game.

There were a lot of things that we knew we had to do but didn't anticipate how difficult they were going to be. One of the big ones was sound design. I had been in a band in university, and I was familiar with music production in a very peripheral way. I have a keyboard at home that I can connect to my computer, so I knew I could do the music and sound effects.

One of the goals of this project, to step back for a second, was that I wanted to create the whole game myself, or at least between the two of us. We didn't want to outsource any of it or hire a team or hire people to do parts of it, so all of the artwork, all of the animation, everything came from our two computers. Music was one thing that took much longer than expected, I ended up writing a bunch of it on my iPad using this great music app from Korg. I (obviously) couldn't carry my keyboard around, but the best time to work on stuff was on the train, so I would sit on the train with my headphones in and my iPad and use this tiny little keyboard to write the music for it. It was time-consuming but turned out okay I think [laughs].

We left sound until the end and we had this really cool effect in the game where time slows down every once in awhile. It doesn't just go from full speed to half speed though, it follows this gradual slowing down, this “matrix bullet” time effect which was difficult to do visually but really looked great. We finally got it working, but then when we were doing the sound we realized any sound that we're playing needed to also slow down at the right speed, and then play in the slow motion speed and then come back up to the full motion speed.

“I think by the end of the first day we had over a 100,000. Within a week we had passed 1.1 million downloads. We were just stunned, we didn't know what to think.”

This was all stuff that was challenging but when we got those details right, it really added a nice sense of polish to the game. There is a lot of distance between a functional demo and a polished, shippable product.

The last part that was far more work than expected was just the whole promoting and marketing piece. Once we decided we wanted to put the game in the App Store, I started emailing blogs and game reviewers and YouTube people and trying to get as many people seeing it as possible. That's where I think we just ran out of steam. We got a little bit of feedback and we hit a couple websites that picked us up but we definitely didn't put enough work into the whole marketing piece. We did get lucky, but to properly launch a product is a lot of work in itself.

What made you decide to launch it, and what was that experience like?

When we started the project we didn't even have the ambition of ever releasing it. We were just working on it making it what we wanted it to be and what we thought was fun. We hit a certain point where we were showing it to friends and family and they were saying "oh this is really cool, when can I get this on my phone?” At that point we started thinking that we weren't that far from having something we could ship, so we met for lunch one day and made a list of all the things we needed to do to submit it to the App Store and have a playable game. We had to add menus, and settings and just things to wrap the game up. This was in early 2015 and we ended up shipping in March.

It was a wild experience. The way that the App Store works is that they review everything ahead of time that goes into the store and if they see something they like they send you this very anonymous, blunt email saying: "Hi, we like your thing, there's a possibility that it'll be promoted at some point, can you provide us with promotional artwork?" The game is all pixel 8-bit graphics, and they wanted these massive HD banners. I was scrambling the nights before the release date, redrawing everything in Photoshop to HD specs and staying up till 2 in the morning just to get this stuff to them on the off-chance that they'd promote it.

“People were asking how they could support us and they were asking us to make more games. That validation, that we made a thing that people would pay money for, was really neat.”

The night before it launched my wife was asking me "how many people do you think are going to play your game, what do you think is going to happen?" I said "I don’t know, I know maybe 100 people in Toronto that may each know a couple of people, maybe we'll get 1,000 people playing it, maybe 10,000 if we somehow strike gold." Then we woke up in the morning and saw it on the front page of iTunes and the numbers were already in the 30,000s. I think by the end of the first day we had over a 100,000. Within a week we had passed 1.1 million downloads. We were just stunned, we didn't know what to think.

Probably the most immediately rewarding thing was just realizing that we live in a time when with a laptop you can create something that people around the entire world are going to see. We used Google Analytics and saw that there were 2 countries in all of the ones that GA tracks—which I think is all of them—that didn't have someone playing the game. We were blown away by the global reception. This was a game that was entirely in English, we didn't localize any of the languages, we didn't even think about this stuff. But it was a simple enough game that I think people could figure it out. That was really rewarding, just seeing all this hard work paying off. Not even in a financial sense, as the game is free with no ads, but just having people see your work. I think to most artists that's kind of the goal, to just impact people and have your work affect people.

You decided to give it away for free instead of charging for it, what was the thought behind that?

I think part of it was my insecurity of it being my first game and thinking it wasn't that good. I just wanted people to play it. To me success with this game was having even one person I didn't know love it and really enjoy it. I played all these great games that impacted me when I was a kid, I just wanted to give that back and say "here's my contribution to video games." I didn't want money or barriers of any kind to stop kids around the world from playing it, I just wanted people to be able to enjoy it. I would rather have 1000 people play the game then to have a thousand dollars.

What were some of the major highlights for you post-launch?

We started getting emails from people playing the game who were just like "this is awesome, I can't believe it's free!" We launched with no ads, and no in-app purchases and it was an entirely free game which is kind of rare. People were asking how they could support us and they were asking us to make more games. That validation, that we made a thing that people would pay money for, was really neat.

Then we'd get even better emails which were the ones like the one father who emailed us and said "my daughter showed me your game today and we sat on the couch for 4 hours tonight playing it. I had such a great time with her, so thanks for making this game". Stuff like that where I'm tearing up reading the email, I couldn't even imagine this little experiment that we made would have that type of impact on people.

If you want to try the game you can find Lastronaut in the App Store. If you liked this piece and want to see us feature more project specific interviews - let us know!

A Medium post about the decision to make the game free: