‘I’m back! Back in the New York Grove’, sang Ace Frehley in 1978.
Shortly after, KISS took off their make-up and Ace Frehley then left the band. They had become a bit dated, silly even? So, too, the platformer. They came to be seen as undemanding, linear games; the preserve of younger kids who like the cartoon presentation of these games.
Even efforts to compete with the advent of 3D did little to halt the decline of the platformer from its market share heyday of a third of games sales to 2% by 2006, but whisper it like Ace Frehley… the platformer is back.
Sunblaze, developed by Games from Earth, is a 2D single screen platformer harking back to classic days. It’s title screen opens with a popping tune reminiscent of early Mario music and the soundtrack throughout is top notch.
You are Josie, a cute pony-tailed little girl whose father is a retired old superhero. Better than that though, Dad owns a Superhero training simulator – well of course we’re gonna try it. It is during the training session that we…err train and are taught all the basic moves in the game environment; the double jump, the dash, hang crawling, hitting things or jumping on things causes them to fall and this can break obstacles.
These are all the usual, expected staples of a precision platformer and they are introduced quickly and seamlessly. It’s a joyous start.
Then the training simulator goes wrong and you are stuck inside and have to fight your way through various colourful levels to escape back to Dad.
One of the starkest things about Sunblaze, right from the start, is how darn quick the game is in almost every respect. Sunblaze treats death in the best way, from red sauce to resurrection in a millisecond. Instantaneous and unforgiving failure is followed by instant play again without even the need to press a button.
Speedrun Death Challenge, Anyone?
There surely has to be a contest for who can rack up the most deaths in under a minute? Then when you complete a level there is no fade screen or load screen, the screen simply melts into the next level like the moment you see a magic eye image…boom it’s there and you are stood right where you were but in a different room, facing a different puzzle.
The pace is amazing, making the experience a pretty continuous one and emphasising the positive part of that, no matter how you are doing.
Pretty soon however, you start meeting those challenging levels where the game demands you put together your newly learnt moves into combinations in order to whizz around the board.
Each level (created by a friendly rainbow unicorn, naturally) needs to be solved and they become more a complex puzzle each time. There is an order of doing things, hitting jedi training robots, dropping blocks, exploding TNT, squashing laser gates, breaking glass barriers and all sorts of other things.
Pretty soon you start each level with a moment of pause to survey the puzzle in front of you and try to figure out a way to the end. As the game progresses, each new chapter introduces more hazards. There are spiked floors, poisonous coral, explosive oil drums, volcano spitters, and evil computers.
Played normally, Sunblaze is a pretty difficult game. It isn’t called a Precision Platformer for nothing. You know what you are in for when you see that the game keeps a death counter and a timer. There’s going to be competition with speedruns and lowest deaths (or as I prefer, posting a screenshots of completing a game with an unbelievably high death count).
Death comes in many forms and frequently, you can explode into residue on touching spikes, be crushed entirely by a moving block or fried in classic cartoon style of shocking your skeleton when caught in a laser gate. If it all proves too tough there are a multitude of difficulty settings that operate seamlessly.
Firstly there is a Zen Mode which is, effectively a rookie mode and gives you the whole game and story with fewer levels and a reduced difficulty, so the game can be played by a variety of ages and capabilities.
On top of that you can switch on various cheat functions that remove the game cap or cooldown on abilities such as infinite jumps or infinite dash. You can even make levels easier by giving yourself the ability to ignore volcanos and laser gates by switching on invincibility or to smash glass barriers on contact and avoid the perils of messing with squashing blocks. These accessibility options can be combined in any mode; play the standard mode and tackle a particularly hard level by switching on infinite jumps for example?
A Variety Of Deaths
Sunblaze is a great game with a wealth of accessibility. It knows what the flaws of a platformer are and if gets around them confidently. You will never be stuck for too long, you can always tweak the game parameters a little for one level of the whole game and experience much the same as someone else who plays the more skilful variant. And for those of you who want greater challenges you can try to collect the power cubes in each chapter. Do all this and there are a reputed 700 levels in the game.
All in all you can play Sunblaze from start to finish in a couple of hours using all of the easiest settings and cheat modes or you can take on the full challenge and it will take you days and well over 1000 deaths. That the game can be immensely accessible and extremely challenging at the flick of a setting and lose you nothing in gameplay gives Sunblaze broad appeal.
The plethora of Roguelites around in recent years has given the platformer a lesson in how to present death as irrelevant to gameplay or at least not a setback to progress.
Is It Worth Buying Sunblaze?
During the lockdown of the last year there has been a widely reported jump in playing video games, Platformers are in the top five genres for growth in that period with platform play growing by 25% in that time.
These days Ace Frehley is back playing with KISS, they still tour and they are back in their daft glam costumes, but what we realised is that we liked it that way after all. Sunblaze is one of a developing new breed of platformers in the line of Super Meat Boy and Celeste that realise the platformer never really left us and know how to give us what we really liked all along.
You know that feeling you sometimes catch yourself doing in a game whereby you lean hard to the left in your chair, subconsciously willing your character to make that jump, you’ll be doing that a lot here. Like any game, when you put together a series of combinations to travel with speed and fluidity across and around all the obstacles to complete the level, it is glorious when you succeed.
I literally punched the air and let out a holler when I completed things. So, if you ever liked a platformer then you should check out Sunblaze and you too can sing ‘I’m Back’.
Did you ever wonder how to approach a game publisher with your game idea? Do you like axes? Annoying monkeys? Dinosaurs? How about flannel shirts? Well, this interview is going to be the highlight of your week.
We spoke with the team at Another RoadPublishing, the publisher behind Lumberhill – a crowdfunded chaos-filled lumberjack game you can play with friends. Play in co-op, PvP or solo mode and swing your axe through insane levels that put your axe wielding skills to the test… all against the clock. Expect to see beautifully drawn pirates, raging wildfires, (annoying) monkeys & pandas among other unexpected things along the way, and get unlocking your way to new worlds and skins. Bags of fun, and already critically acclaimed, Lumberhill is well on its way to a raging success.
Sharpen your axe and iron your flannel – this wild co-op will throw you right into the middle of action! Try to get your job done in a crazy race against the clock: collect orders, fight wildfires, pirates and extremely annoying monkeys! Unlock tons of new skins and worlds playing in co-op, PvP or solo mode… and save the world – lumberjack style!
We have started as a video games accelerator, offering financial support and mentorship to students and young studios, aiding them in completing their first professional projects. It became apparent to us that these fledgling studios would also need help with promotion and marketing of their games. So, the Another Road Publishing was created to do just that.
Congratulations on the Kickstarter. At the time of writing, you are almost halfway to your goal! What was the reason you went with crowdfunding?
The team working on the game is young but very ambitious. At this moment, most of the workload is already completed, but we’ve decided that there are still some things that we would like to expand and polish in the game. It could use an additional round of testing, more levels, a few new mechanics and skins. The game will be released in the beginning of 2021 regardless of the result of the Kickstarter campaign, but at the end of the day we would love to include everything we have planned!
The campaign story, video, GIFs and images on the crowdfund page at Kickstarter are very slick and professional. Did you hire a third party or is it all done in-house?
All in-house! We have amazing artists on board who created all of the beautiful images and GIFs for the campaign!
All of the drawn elements were hand-painted and animated by us, and our video editor put together these amazing videos you see in the campaign. Also the live action scene in the promotional video where we are chased by a definitely real dinosaur was one of the most fun things we did this year.
You already have a great following thanks to previous releases. Do you get a lot of organic feedback on Discord, for example, which helps the developers polish a game before release?
Yes, all of the feedback is extremally valuable for us. We’ve got a lot of it on our Facebook page, Discord servers and from youtubers and streamers playing the game.
Sometimes it helps us in not so obvious ways. Let’s say, we have a specific feature in the game, and we feel like it should be visible and clear to the players that it is there, but we get a lot of feedback that says “it would be cool if I could do this that way”. We get a very clear message that there is something wrong with the way we’ve placed that feature in the game and it should be changed. We also listen very carefully to what people think of the game overall and make adjustments where we can. One great example is the tutorial area, which is now completely different from what we had in the previous demo version of the game.
I’d like to take my time here to thank all of our community for their feedback and support! You guys are the best!
Lumberhill looks and sounds like crazy, chaotic fun, enjoyed by many at the Steam Games Festival. What sort of feedback helped the development process?
All of the feedback helped us immensely in creating the experience the players will love to play. As we published the demo version of the game twice (once during the Summer Steam Game Festival and Autumn edition) we’ve received not only a lot of feedback on the game itself, but we could also see how the changes we’ve introduced for the second demo influenced the experience for the players.
We value any feedback, because even something seemingly irrelevant, like a question about the way that the quests work in the game, might push us in the direction of: “Oh, if they ask about it, maybe we didn’t explain it well enough in the game and we should fix it”.
Have there been any in-house full on, all out Publisher vs. Developer Lumberhill battles during playtesting?
Yes! And we had a lot of fun together! (Well I guess the developer had more fun since we have lost all of the matches, but we gave it our best!)
If we can talk about Weakless for a moment: – When publishing Weakless with Punk Notion, how did Another Road help bring the project to life?
As I mentioned before, Another Road Publishing stems from a video game accelerator that was providing support for young developers just starting out in the business.
Weakless came to be as a student project and when we accepted it into the acceleration programme, it was little more than a big pile of concept art and a bold dream of two girls. You could say Weakless was with us from the very beginning, from the conceptual phase, through first prototypes, to the mature, enchanting game we can play today – and we supported it as much as we could along the way.
Weakless is a very unique slant on a traditional puzzle-adventure. The deaf and blind characters are an incredible twist. Did this evolve or was it planned from the beginning?
Actually, it was one of the first thoughts that sparked the game into existence: to have two characters that complete themselves and find their strengths not, like it’s usually found in games, in their superpowers, but through something that is traditionally considered a disability.
The idea for Weakless came from two incredible young artists, Ania Kowalczyk – a graphic designer, and Agnieszka Wlazły – a composer, so somewhat naturally the concept drifted towards deafness and blindness, or rather – an extraordinary sense of hearing and sight. So, yes, it was planned from the beginning and served as a form of foundation for the rest of the game.
Have you ever been approached by a developer and absolutely knew the game would be a hit? …or even hated a concept and didn’t want to get involved with a game at all?
Yes, sometimes we happen to see a certain game and just know that it will be a great fit for players in terms of innovation, fun, polish and overall quality. But we are just people, and sure we have a lot of experience in the field, but we are still limited by our personal tastes and opinions that could not always be in line with specific player base. And that one amazing or not so great game might be great or not so great only for us. This is why we try to remove ourselves from the process a bit and let the player base speak.
We conduct marketing tests to see if gamers like or dislike certain idea and only then we decide if we want to continue to work with the developer. One thing that can cause the project to be rejected from the get-go is the quality of the presented alpha or tech demo; we feel that even the most incredible ideas won’t be successful when realised poorly.
What gives Another Road the edge when developers choose you?
We base a lot of our approach more on “what will the community think” rather than on “what we think”. We conduct a lot of early marketing tests to make sure that we are a good fit for each other. When they start to work with us, we help and fund \ creation of their Steam page (or work together on reworking it) and then conduct the marketing test. If it works out for everyone, we go ahead. If it doesn’t – we part ways leaving developers with all of the marketing assets and a polished Steam page. We also offer extensive marketing campaign plans reaching from community management to performance campaigns on various channels (FB, Twitter, Reddit etc.)
Reddit is known for its “unique” community. What has been your experience with Reddit marketing?
…”be active on different boards, be a part of the community – and genuinely love it”
Another Road Publishing
As for the performance marketing campaigns via Reddit Ads, I found it to be a straight forward experience – if you ran something on Facebook you will feel at home. But outside of paid marketing, Reddit is really specific as a platform. Overall we feel that there is a change coming (and a really overdue one, in my opinion) to the way marketing works on social media channels.
To this day, many games were promoted across multiple channels, creating a situation where we were active on all the channels, but not *really* present on any of them. This, of course, changes with the size of the team: in bigger companies each channel can have a specific person assigned to it, but in smaller teams usually there is one person operating all of them. And I feel that Reddit is the prime example of that need to be *really* present on it to work out well. You have to not just come around once in a while and post one or two updates, but be active on different boards, be a part of the community – and genuinely love it. To sum it up, during the Lumberhill campaign we decided to put more effort into our Discord community, but perhaps with our next projects we will find Reddit to be the best fit.
There has been an outpouring of praise on YouTube for Lumberhill. Do you feel YouTube is a good platform for an indie developer to find “Let’s Play” creators etc. to get it into the wild?
Yes, working with YouTube creators was a pleasant experience and we didn’t stumble on any serious hurdles along the way. Additionally, we were really happy to see that many of the creators just picked the Lumberhill demo straight from the Steam Game Festival without any prior contact with us, and loved it! For us it was more than just marketing, we watched every gameplay video closely and noted all the comments people had while playing, which resulted in a few changes to the game. So it is not only a great way to get more eyeballs on the project, but also receive extensive and very organic feedback on the gameplay.
How would you suggest indie devs approach creators on YouTube?
I would recommend to approach the creators just like you yourself would like to be approached – we all have limited time in our busy days, and presenting your pitch in an organised manner usually works the best. If you contact them via their business e-mail, first tell them what your game is about in quick points and then present the rest of the materials.
If you pick their interest in your “elevator pitch”, there is a bigger chance they will like to learn more about your game. If you try to include all of the info in one huge paragraph, the essence and the novelty of the game might get lost in the details.
As a publisher you must be approached by people all the time who just have an idea to pitch. What is the most common & overused game pitch you hear?
I don’t feel that there are any “overused” game ideas, as with Indie developers due to the smaller production scale they have a lot more freedom to experiment and take creative risks. So even if we receive a lot of game ideas within the action-RPG genre, every one of them will have a different hook or interesting twist to stick up from the crowd.
Have there been any issues with Coronavirus lockdowns impeding progress on Lumberhill?
When the government rung the first alarm bells about the pandemic outbreak in our country we quickly transformed our physical office in to a virtual one and worked from homes ever since. And as easy it was to move computers and other essential hardware in to our homes, the switch to this new way of working took significantly more time. Also the worry about our loved ones – our parents and grandparents didn’t help. In the end we had to push Lumberhill’s release a few months forward, but thankfully we are now at full speed ahead and focused on our goals.
Are you working with any other developers right now on upcoming games?
It is too early to share ?
The industry as a whole has seen an increase in interest for indie games, throughout Coronavirus lockdowns. Have you noticed an uptick in developers coming to you with games?
Most of the game pitches come to us through gaming events that we participate in, such as Gamescom, and usually the devs include some kind of demo or tech demo in their pitch, which naturally requires some time to produce. Since the pandemic started around March I feel that if we might see the increase in the amount of the pitches presented, it will happen in 2021 once the devs will have sufficient time to gather their teams and produce first alphas.
What are the steps Another Road takes to ensure the development runs smooth?
Firstly, we conduct a marketing test; we fund, help to rework or create the Steam Page for the game and present it to the community. If it works out we push forward and fund the development of the game. From that point forward we start to work on the marketing and increase the awareness about the game (so this is not something that happens just one month before release of the game). We also provide QA to the developer if necessary, so they can focus on making the game and we can focus on making sure everything runs alright.
One of the burning questions for every indie developer is: how do I approach a games publisher? What advice can you give an indie developer who wants to get their game published with you?
It is the best when we have a pitch document and some kind of demo/alpha/technical demo to work with. Some important things we are looking for are: what is the overall quality of the presented gameplay, what genre it is, what are your past experiences as a studio, what is the USP of the game and what are the estimated development costs. It is much easier if the pitch document is structured in a way that we can easily deduce what is the essence of the project.