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  • Postmortem: Muse Games' Guns of Icarus

    - Emily Compton, Alex Jarocha-Ernst, Brian Kehrer and Howard Tsao
  •  [The team at Muse Games reflect son the development of its 3D action title Guns of Icarus, providing a look at the successes and challenges of indie game development.]

    Having produced a few tiny games with the Unity engine, which was pretty new at the time, we -- the Muse Games team -- felt confident enough to do embark on a more challenging project. We put our two previous games, Extreme Sledding and Elementia, up on our site for people to play for free. These made no money, and we realized that ad revenue alone could never come close to sustaining us.

    We started Guns of Icarus the same way we started everything else: saying, "It would be cool if..." In the case of Guns of Icarus, we thought of those moments in typical shooters where you get to briefly use the big mounted turrets, and thought that sensation could be made into a whole game itself. Guns, fire, explosions, and above all a sense of urgency and power -- just seems like the right thing to do. This dovetailed with our concept for a ruined world with large diesel-punk airships and bands of marauding air-pirates patrolling the wastes. Over a few conversations, scribbled notes, and sketches, the idea of Guns of Icarus started taking shape.

    We didn't have a lot of money, and we knew that there wasn't anything else we'd rather do than make games. With a limited budget, we set a target of four months to develop the game. We were able to keep to our target, and craft a set of core gameplay mechanics that resonated well with players. We spent another month and a half testing and polishing before we put it up on our site. We envisioned a lot more for the game, but our budgetary constraints enforced discipline and a small scope. We just had to start somewhere and see where it takes us.

    Initially after the release of the game on our own site, no one knew about Guns of Icarus, because no one knew about Muse Games. But things really changed in a big way when the game released on Steam, and then the Mac App Store. This is not the post-mortem of an IGF finalist, but it is one for a game that sold tens of thousands of copies and got featured on multiple platforms. Guns of Icarus was one of the first Unity games released on Steam. It ended up being successful and profitable enough for us as a small indie team to keep making games, and to have the opportunity to make Guns of Icarus Online -- the game we always wanted the original to be.

    Concept sketches. Emily did concepts like these on notepads mostly. We used them get an overall sense of look and feel and art direction without having to spend a lot of time, and we transitioned to creating 3D assets quickly.

    What Went Right

    1. Clear Scope And Goals For Features, And Project Management

    We laid out a few major features early on, and knew that we had to focus on those first and foremost to get the game out on the schedule we set. There were a lot of other ideas thrown around during development, but the ones that weren't absolutely essential to our core gameplay had to be tabled for later. "We'll do it in Guns 2" became a running joke, and maybe a way to vent our more ridiculous dreams without obsessing over them at the cost of more important things. In the end, while the game could have benefited from more features as well as content, its success gave us the opportunity to now actually realize those loftier goals. If we did not keep to our budget and scope, what we are doing today would not have been possible.

    However, as we will detail later on in "What Went Wrong," the balance between building a game within scope and on schedule vs. more content and polish was a constant struggle and dilemma, and there were also negative consequences to the approach we took.

    2. Our World Is Flat

    We don't have a star game designer, producer, or artist on our team. We don't have a guy or a girl from a big studio with years and years of experience, where we can turn to that person and just nod our heads knowing everything will be okay because he or she said so. Maybe as a result, no one had a big head. It is actually pretty easy to build consensus without politics, ego, and personal agendas. We add to each others' ideas, and we argue like hell sometimes, but everything we do, we do it together. We don't really buy the argument that the buck always has to stop at someone. People might see this and laugh, but it works for us. A great idea can come from anywhere, anyone, at anytime. This way, we can harness it and not let anything go to waste.

    We may not have a whole lot of experience making games, but we have a lot experience playing games. So for the team to buy into an idea, it's really quite simple. Is it cool enough to get people really pumped? If we execute on the idea, how would we as players feel? With Guns of Icarus, we developed a shared creative vision and bought into it completely very early on. Guns was a collective effort in so many ways, and it couldn't have happened any other way.


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