How a game changed from concept through Kickstarter and release
When Kitfox released Moon Hunters on Steam last month, it had been two and a half years since we first pitched the game to the Square Enix Collective. It’s changed a bit in feature list since then, but the soul of the original idea has been preserved. I’m the designer and lead of Kitfox Games, a small indie team in Montreal, Canada. What follows is an outline of how our game changed and stayed the same throughout development, as we pursued the best possible version of Moon Hunters.
I’ve always loved ancient mythology, and what I especially love about the oldest stories is how many variants were allowed to co-exist together. Different regions had different interpretations of rituals, and gods, and stories., and tThose differences were tolerated or even celebrated. My fascination with this is reflected in Moon Hunters, in that; the central conflict is about the historical trend towards one narrative, dictated, recorded, and called “truth”.
The “four aspects” of the Moon goddess in Moon Hunters, governing Law, Fertility, Death, and Love, inspired by the many interpretations of Inanna.
When we posted our very first announcement of Moon Hunters onto the Square Enix Collective, we were still in the middle of developing our first game, Shattered Planet. We didn’t have a prototype – we were too busy to do much more than dream! But we had an idea.
The very very first mockup of Moon Hunters! The style changed and refined quite a bit over time…
What is Moon Hunters? According to materials you can still go seek out, it was a 1-to-4 player co-operative dungeon crawlingdrawling game in an occult pixel art world that’s procedurally generated. We billed it as being about “solving ancient mysteries and building mythologies”.
Our announcement Facebook post through the Square Enix Collective, with a mockup that, while more refined than the first, still looks quite different than the final game.
Based on feedback from the Collective community (namely, the hundreds of people who said “Mythology!?!?!? Count me in!”), we doubled down on the mythology component and took “build your mythology” as a tag-line for our nearly 400% successful Kickstarter.
At this point, August 2014, we had finally shipped Shattered Planet and could focus entirely on Moon Hunters. Other than refining the art style, design, and setting, we didn’t change much between the two pitches. In retrospect, I wish we could have had the space and time to prototype the game fully before doing the Kickstarter – all we really had was a game design and the pieces to form a cool video, which isn’t a great development practice.
By the end, we raised $178k, which was 2x more than even the team optimist (me) thought we might achieve.
The success of the Kickstarter ensured we could afford to develop Online multiplayer, which we’re still finishing, with the help of Unity 5’s brand new networking (which we wish had been delivered a year earlier, ahem). But no amount of money can help a mismatched feature in the game… and after six months of development after the Kickstarter, we realized we had promised a major feature in the video that just wasn’t working: Tribe Management.
The Transformed Feature: Tribe Management was theoretically easy. In-between adventures, you come back to your little ancient Mesopotamian town and build up its resources, almost like leveling up, conferring bonuses for your next adventure. Do you work at the stables or train in the medicine hut? Do you even build a stables, if it means you don’t get to build a bazaar? Etcetera.
A never-before-released mockup of the ill-fated Tribe Management feature, demonstrating how characters choose where to spend their time.
However, the more we worked on Moon Hunters, the more it became obvious that this was a little weird. As much as I will critique The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, he has a point, in that heroes do generally travel around, and there’s a reason we call it “the hero’s journey”, not the “hero’s homecoming”. Even in our primary inspiration, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the titular hero literally begins as the king of a city, and yet still doesn’t always return to his home of Uruk between adventures.
So it felt weird, but we kept working on it. We hemmed and hawed and tried it a few different ways… and over Christmas break, while talking to my ever-brilliant game designer husband Brent Ellison, realized what I really wanted was a town that moved with you. So as you journeyed across the world, you could still feel that sense of progression from place to place, and also “level up” by making those mini-choices to get bonuses. I realized what I was describing was a nomadic camp, and so the Tribe Management feature was cut, and the Camp feature was born.
Depending on how you spend the night in the camp, different encounters and bonuses are accrued.
Live Development: Besides the usual platform porting stuff (PS4 woo!) we’re working to make Moon Hunters bigger and more complex over time, adding more systems and replayability. We want to keep each playthrough about the right length for a “party game” (1-1.5 hours), but give players more and more reasons to play it one more time. Right now the world doesn’t have as much variety as we initially dreamed, and the consequences of your heroes are more limited than we’d like.
Taking feedback is sometimes a delicate art. Our Steam player baseplayerbase has a suggestion thread with 50 or so posts on it, and many are calling for an “Endless Mode”.
Normally Moon Hunters is limited to a 5-day span, after which you have your final encounter and the game ends one way or the other (losing to the final boss is acceptable and changes the tone of your ‘myth’ text generated afterwards). … Iit’s natural that players would feel attached to their heroes and not want to start again. Unlike in other procedural games like Binding of Isaac or Shattered Planet, the heroes of Moon Hunters have a bit more personality, in the form of literal personality traits.
Choices in dialogue and behaviours in combat are translated into one of nine personality traits: Brave, Compassionate, Cunning, Foolish, Patient, Proud, Seductive, Vengeful, or Wise.
So we considered Endless Mode. There are several practical concerns of course (balancing, etc), but we realized that although it’s one solution, it’s not the only one, because the real problem is two-fold:
Players aren’t ready to let go: this is actually a good problem to have. It means they are invested, and want to play more. So we’re looking now into ways to allow the heroes to potentially serve other purposes. If players are feeling like “I don’t want to give her up! Not yet!”, then our answer will hopefully be, “That’s okay. You can still visit her sometimes. We’re not taking her away forever.”
The replay value isn’t clear: this is perhaps the real problem. We were hoping players would be excited to see their myth and unlock constellations and immediately want to play again. In reality, some people are so bummed out that they “lost” their old hero that they feel the need to step away for a bit.
You can check out the release version of Moon Hunters on Steam, for PC, Mac, and Linux, with PlayStation 4 coming in a few months. The procedural nature of Moon Hunters means we can easily keep adding bits and pieces, improving the game for everyone. Our first big expansion-pack style free DLC will probably try to make the game better, on a structural level, with the central goal of improving replayability. With the support of our players, hopefully we can keep making the game better for years to come.