〜 An evolution of ideas, searching for team members, collaboration with scientists. 〜
Hello everyone, my name is Mikhail Vasilyev.
I am the lead developer and game designer at Clarus Victoria Studios. Recently we released our game Egypt: Old Kingdom on Steam. It is a historical strategy title, where you build pyramids, pray to gods, and solve various problems. The game’s specialty is its deep historical research and immersion in history, which we collaborated with Egyptologists on to get just right.
In this article, you will find Clarus Victoria’s history from the foundation to the flourishing indie-studio, which sold over 20 thousand copies of games on various platforms.
Brief history of Clarus Victoria
This history begins with me. Before Clarus Victoria, I worked in game development with companies such as the Russian Nikita Online and Akella, but I was always concerned with ethical problems. In the beginning, it was a question of legacy. What do our games teach the next generation? They spend countless hours of their lives playing games, but what do they get out of it? With each passing year, these questions worried me more and more.
After quitting my last job at the beginning of 2013, I started to make my first game: Pre-Civilization: Stone Age, a flash game about the beginning of humanity. Later it became a feature of Bronze Age, my next game. Since I was alone, I had to do everything by myself. In the period of 4 months I learned to code, to draw, I learned animation and game design, conducted some short historical research and created my first game.
Afterwards, came the hard part. I had to solve such problems as localization, soundtrack, and monetization. It was difficult, but as the same time interesting. It was a crazy race, and I had to work 15 hours a day with no weekends. I was learning and working simultaneously. The hardest part was realizing I was alone, and when I rested, progress did, too.
From my previous gamedev experience I understood two important truths for beginners. First off, don’t attempt to make a complex game on the fly. Secondly, always remember of the importance of the key gameplay. Tha’ts not something people will see a lot in this new era of bigger and bigger projects. Despite the fact that during Stone Age’s development my resources were limited and the game is admittedly, relatively simple, I paid a lot of attention to the gameplay’s development. However, when I demonstrated the game to the other developers and publishers, they were skeptical and didn’t believe that it could become popular.
The code was terrible. I’m sure that other programmers would fall rolling on the floor laughing if they could have seen it. My artwork was a joke too. A reviewer from FGL (an old flash game marketplace) gave the game a 6/10. In other words, my first game was mediocre at best and no sponsors would have liked to deal with it. This demotivated me, and I began adopting the mentality I would fail.
This problem was resolved when I contacted the main curator of FGL, who rated the game an 8 out of 10, and things started to look up. The game was bought by advertisers who paid out right away, and then went around the Internet. Armorgames.com (one of the biggest publishers of Flash games) rated the game 8.3 out of 10. You can still find it kicking around on old flash game sites.
It was psychologically difficult to work alone, so I invited my old friend Ilya Terentyev to participate in my future endeavors. I planned to keep creating similar games to Stone Age so I could stabilize my financial state. After a short chat, we decided to make the chronological continuation of Stone Age – Bronze Age.
Just like me, Ilya wasn’t all that skilled when it came to game development. We decided that he would do artwork, while I focused on designing and coding the game. In a couple of months we finished the game and even released it for mobile devices. This release became my personal badge of honors. Just a few months prior I could barely understood the industry as a whole, but then I could proudly call myself a mobile developer. I spent a few more months to figure everything out, and then armorgames.com scored the game 8.5 out of 10! Things were looking up.
2013 was coming to an end and we started to consider what we should have done next. Should we continue to make small games, or shall we try to upgrade and create a more high-quality game? This question swirled around our minds for a while. The idea to keep making flash-games which payed off fast was alluring, but after all that we decided to try something better. This approach became the basic concept for Clarus Victoria: every new project should be better that the previous in content and quality. We started to evolve, developing the best ideas and discarding the worst ones.
The development of the new project was tough, as we lacked experience, and the mechanics were changing constantly. For instance, the system of trade and diplomacy was redesigned four times, rendering months of work wasted. We took the mechanics from Stone Age and we added maps, a battle mechanic, trials, and more tasks.
Like with Stone Age, people expressed their doubts about the game, and I was almost convinced that I had overdone the mechanics. I started to feel inadequate. The development had stretched over a year, so the atmosphere was tense. Money almost run out and we had to count every penny.
Eventually, the game was released for mobile devices first, and then, after passing the Greenlight process, it appeared on Steam. For our moderate budget Marble Age took off. It was rated higher that any of our previous games, and is currently our Pre-Civilization magnum opus. We even tried to include an in-game currency, to integrate Free-to-Play mechanics.
With this addition, the game started to bring a lot more money, but we had no idea who was paying. For all we knew, it could have been kids who stole their parent’s information, forming a malicious mindset in them. That burdened us, so we turned off the in-game currency and didn’t return to the idea of free-to-play. It may sound a bit extra, but it our games were originated on ethics. After a while we released a version for armorgames.com, where it was rated 8.6 out of 10, our highest yet.
In the spring of 2014 we earned our first significant profit and decided that it was time for an upgrade. We wanted to start from a clean slate and to make our games truly historical. For the setting we chose Ancient Egypt, because it was an ancient state that inspires wonder to this day. This marks the beginning of a new era for our studio.
It was the right time to expand our team, and we invited another friend to join us as a flash-programmer. Then we started to look for artists to make our art better. Around that time we had a novel idea: what if we could find real Egyptologists and collaborate with them? We were convinced that this wouldn’t happen, because they were real scientists, and probably wouldn’t even have time for us.
Despite our doubts, we took a shot and called the Center for Egypt Studies of the Russian Academy of Science (CES RAS).
Unexpectedly, we received a much warmer welcome than we had expected. As the scientists learned more and more about our project, they slowly agreed to help us. They were just as interested in popularizing history as we were! We were over the moon and felt like nothing could impede our progress now.
The reality as usual proved us wrong. The problems started to pour one by one: we couldn’t find any decent artists, the gameplay was changing all the time, and the demo version didn’t even start to look good. After consulting the Egyptologists we had to throw away all of the game’s scripts which I had written over the course of several months. In the middle of the development process, I finally got back to them again.
We faced financial problems again. Eight months after the beginning of development a coder from our team announced that the time he would volunteer had ended and he would only continue the development for a pay rise or for a percent from the game’s future profit. We bargained a bit, but soon I realized that I couldn’t fulfill his requests and we parted ways. As a final “gift” he prohibited us from using any code he wrote while working with us. The project was on a brink of failure.
But the night is the darkest before the dawn, and soon the period of wonders began. We found two amazing artists at once – our now good friends Ivan Beshkarev and Maksim Yakovenko. Soon after we also found a new coder, Egor Piskunov. With his help in five month the entire game was written anew for Unity Engine. Almost all of the decisions we had made in that month were working, we developed many methods which helped us to optimize our process.
The game was released on Steam as Pre-Civilization Egypt. It was a success, as the rating was over 91% and we broke even in a couple of months. The historical accuracy of the game set a high bar of quality, and we even received several letters from people who were Egyptology or education-related. At the moment of writing this article over 60 thousand copies of the game have been sold on Steam and in the mobile stores. It’s not much for the big studios, but it’s a lot for us.
However, just a week from the release of our game Sid Meier’s Civilization 6™ came out. Several weeks after that, without any warning or notice, our game was removed from Steam.
As it turned out, Take-Two (the company who markets Meier’s games on windows) owns the rights for Civilization. They simply contacted Steam, Google, Apple, and we were removed right away, even in search results. Apparently, we had no rights to even use the word “civilization”, because it belonged to Take-Two. Their logic is simple – everything is for the major publishers, and the platform bears no responsibility. If you want to go to court, it’s your problem if you want to lose. All we could do was rename our game.
But we didn’t worry too much, for at the end of the day it was better to change the name. And that was the origin of the name Predynastic Egypt.
Egypt: Old Kingdom
While working on Predynastic Egypt, I started to research a solution for the gameplay problems I faced. Why is it so difficult to create every time? Why does game development look like magic, and you never know what you will get as a result? What would be the final point of the constant improvement?
I started research to understand the essence of a perfect game. What was the level of our games? Where should we go next? I read dozens of books about game theory, system analysis and so on, developing a concept and plans for several years ahead.
The next game was going to be an ambitious task, to create a historically accurate game about the great age of pyramids.
With Old Kingdom, I wanted to create a truly great game. I yearned to reach the next level of game design, historical accuracy, and atmosphere. To accomplish this, we dedicated 6 months to simply testing concepts: trying out different genres, mechanics and technologies.
But it took too long, and Ilya halted the process. Unfortunately, he had decided to leave Clarus Victoria and to continue his path outside of the gamedev industry. Ilya still consults us when necessary, but his departure limited our funding and PR-activities. With this new limitation, the concept of the next game formed in a few days. We took Predynastic Egypt as a basis and added only the most obvious and important features we could allow that still moved towards the perfect game.
Expanding our team would have solved the most vital development problems. After the Predynastic Egypt we parted ways with Egor (he moved to another country), but instead we found two new coders: Anton and George. I decided to employ 3 more junior game designers, believing that if we had more people, the project would be done faster.
I was wrong and cost us several extra months of work. Apparently, design for this particular game was too personal and complicated, and it was difficult to delegate. We found different duties for the newly hired people, and I finished it by myself. The same story happened to the programmers who weren’t working so well with the juniors. On the plus side, we’ve got a dedicated PR manager, who speaks both English and Chinese. It was important for us, because our games were popular in China as well.
Another big problem was the time. The development was dragging on for almost 18 months instead of the originally planned 10 months. To give you a better idea, we could have done 3-5 projects of Predynastic Egypt’s scale during the development of Egypt: Old Kingdom.
The final polishing also took a while. When money became a problem again, we decided to release the game. Even though we tested it as good as we could have, until the last moment I wasn’t sure that it was ready, even when I was about to press the “publish” button on Steam! Only after that we started to send the game to youtubers and the press, even though originally we planned to do it so much earlier.
I knew that such late PR was a mistake, but really didn’t want to delay the release anymore, and I couldn’t stand the pressure. Unsurprisingly, the sales didn’t go as well as they possibly could have, but in general the project looked promising, and it nearly paid off a few days after the release. It could have been much better if we started to promote it earlier, and looking back I wish we would have delayed the release for another month.
Our projects wouldn’t be successful without our supporters: volunteers, fans and youtubers, who are genuinely interested in the success of our games. We are grateful to every single one of them, to all the people who bought or are planning to buy our game, and to every reader of this article. Without you we wouldn’t be able to achieve any of it. The more supporters we have, the easier it is to create good games, because you all are our main source of inspiration.
Some tips for the future game developers:
- Be optimistic and love your craft. If you can’t do that, maybe you should find something that will interest you more. When we were on the brink of a failure, only our enthusiasm saved us.
- If you are not sure about something, take small steps. In this case a little goes a long way, if you do it properly.
- Strive to study and train your skills, and research the topic before doing something. On the flip side, don’t fall into the rabbit hole of theory. Every task requires only a certain level of knowledge. For simpler tasks a basic level of knowledge is enough.
- Manage your finance right. Don’t spend big if you are not sure it will pay off. Get more expertise, then invest the money.
- Manage your time right, it’s worth everything. Successful projects that were rushed can be bad..
- A great team is important, look for the right people. They are the key to realizing your vision.
- If you make a game – don’t neglect the promotion, but don’t make it more important than the game.
If you would like to experience our evolution yourself, you’re welcome to play our games! In the future we will explain more about Egypt: Old Kingdom’s mechanics and about our approach to working with the historical material.
English translation: Polina Kuzmina.