Our VR baby turns one today. If you want to know more about its development, reception, and the lessons we learned along the way, read on!
Cold Iron represents what seems like a million firsts for our little studio: our first 3D game, our first game with voice acting, our first Unity project, our first console and PC game, and our first foray into VR. In game development (like most creative fields) it can be all too easy to forget the past and look only to your next project. It makes sense as a survival instinct, but it can lead to feeling ungrateful or unfulfilled if you aren't careful. So I want to take a moment to remember our time making and releasing Cold Iron.
A clip from The Devil's Duel, the project that went on to become Cold Iron. Things got weird.
Recently when I was preparing to speak at a local university, I realized what a strong and direct influence our friends have had on our studio's direction. For our first game, Star Billions, we chose mobile because of our friend Blake's experience developing for iOS. For Cold Iron, Blake introduced us to his business partner Michael who was a VR enthusiast and had developed his own room-scale project for Vive. We were instantly dazzled. We borrowed his Vive (thanks, Mike!) for a weekend to get started on The Devil's Duel, the game that would become Cold Iron. After a couple months of polishing this demo, we published it to Steam in the hopes that players would give us feedback and put the full version of The Devil's Duel on their wish lists.
We got our wish in the form of helpful feedback from players thankful for a lengthy free demo. As most game developers will tell you, the key to refining your game lies in expanding on the central premise (fast draw duels with a puzzle twist) and simplifying the rest. Originally we had much longer cutscenes that were not only difficult to produce, but left players feeling like their hands were tied, which is not a happy feeling in VR. In exchange for putting this bulky headset on, players want to be active and always in control, which in retrospect makes perfect sense.
Another casualty from The Devil's Duel to Cold Iron was room-scale support. This was a must in order to standardize for all the major VR platforms, most of which did not have that capability. I note this only for posterity, because I honestly can't remember a time when it was cool or helpful for Cold Iron.
The initial brainstorming process was nothing spectacular, but I will always be proud that we brainstormed specifically for VR. There were no past game ideas creeping in with "...but in VR!" tagged on. I think this led to a fundamentally solid foundation to build on. It didn't take long to realize that quick draw alone couldn't sustain a full length game, so puzzles became a natural way to add depth to the experience. As a designer, I was really into the idea that the gun was just the way we interfaced with the game world, but that it didn't mean we should limit ourselves to challenges of speed and accuracy only. Why not add a third element? Speed, accuracy... and decision making.
Developing for three platforms simultaneously was something I really took for granted. Since James handled all the programming, my biggest responsibility in this regard was testing and making notes. I played so much. I cannot describe how many times I heard our (amazing) voice actor Dylan McKinnon taunt and applaud me. His voice haunts me to this day.
I'm pretty sure James wanted to pull his hair out at several points. One of the disadvantages of working in a new medium like VR is that you can't necessarily count on Google to help you find solutions to oddball problems, and even when you do find solutions, they're often head scratchers in their own right. Still, we managed to find a way and Cold Iron had a mostly bug-free launch on PSVR, Vive, and Oculus Rift.
Oh, how young we were...
As the clock ticked down toward midnight and Cold Iron's release, James and I were the most nervous we had ever been in our lives. Our first game had been made with very few expectations, and as a result any press we got was simply icing on the cake. On the other hand, Cold Iron had a much easier time getting exposure--possibly because people pay more attention to games that make it to a console. We watched The Office reruns until we managed to fall asleep, knowing that the familiarity of our favorite show was our best shot at comfort at an extraordinarily uncomfortable time. I can't remember if we heard much on or shortly after midnight, but the next morning we woke up to a miserable 3.5/10 review. I spent the next few hours praying that it would be an exception and not the rule. My prayers were answered by an overall positive response, with some reputable reviewers even giving the game 8s and 9s, appreciating everything from our story and voice acting to the challenging gameplay.
In the end, I have only two major regrets. I wish we had launched at $13.99 (our current price) instead of $19.99. I've since come to realize that it's the type of game and not the work you put into it that should determine its price. In other words, experimental games require experimental pricing.
My other regret is how we marketed Cold Iron. Our strategy worked wonders in the sense that we got plenty of coverage for a young studio, but we could've done a better job of conveying to our players what they were in for. If you saw Cold Iron from afar, you'd assume you were getting Red Dead Redemption VR, but when you play it you realize it's much more of an action-oriented puzzle game than an adventure game. Fans of puzzle games would never assume Cold Iron was meant for them (it was!), while players expecting a sprawling adventure might be disappointed if they don't research the game before buying it. I mention this issue to every developer who asks me for advice: make games that look like what they are. Otherwise you'll have a hard time reaching the players you designed your game for.
Despite any missteps, I will remember Cold Iron as the perfect next step for our studio. After our Wild Card update and accompanying price drop, I felt confident that we were offering players a product worthy of their time and money. I am eternally grateful for the people we met during both its development and release, especially our voice actor Dylan McKinnon, whose talent and enthusiasm made a huge impact.
It's easy to never look back on your work, and even when you do, it's easy to stay fixated on the technical progress you've made: what you learned about Unity, about 3D graphics, about console development. But it's just as important to look back on the emotional progress: the knowledge gained from getting feedback directly from players, the anxiety of releasing a game that people are expecting to enjoy, and the difference between marketing a product and marketing your product.
It's amazing that Cold Iron is already a year old. We're in the trenches with our next project, but I'm happy to have a reason to look back on a project with so many "firsts", both technically and emotionally.
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