You’ve heard plenty about cloud gaming, but what about making a game in the cloud? That’s what a new studio is doing to adapt an old pen-and-paper Wizard-battling game for mobile.
A revolving roster of industry veterans make up developer Fixer Studios, which is producing Sinister Dexter for iOS and Android, which is a turn-based role-playing game based on the 30-year-old Spellbinder text game. The crew, led by former PopCap manager Avery Alix, are working together in what they call the “collaborative cloud.” This means that most of the studio don’t ever meet up in person. Instead, they build the game online in a development environment they can all access from their home computers. This method has enabled Fixer to keep costs down while letting talented creators work on the project when they have the time.
Fixer hopes to release Sinister Dexter in the spring — although they aren’t committing to that. It’s free-to-play with in-app purchases, but Alix says they are working to ensure those goods are fair.
Spellbinder has a pair of players facing off against one another as spellcasting wizards. Sinister Dexter takes that concept and builds on it. Alix and his team have loved Spellbinder for a long time, and they want to do right by the property with their take on the concept.
“Spellbinder has grown to exemplify the theories of online human interaction and ‘how we play,'” said Alix. “As someone who has been in love with the core game for so long, I feel like I’ve grown up with it. In a lot of ways, the last 30 years have been a massive beta test, helping to hone the core gameplay. In each iteration there have been new features or tweaks that stick and others that fall by the wayside, and the community has long exposed the few weak points in the game’s balance for us to address.”
In Sinister Dexter, two players still face off against one another with their dueling warlocks. Gamers must cast magic and — since spells can build off one another — try to strategically plan their attacks.
“To us, mobile is the next most logical step in bringing the Spellbinder experience into a new age,” said Alix. “We’re adding handy features like push notifications to let you know a turn is coming, a spell predictor, and graphics and sound for the first time ever.”
A team in the clouds
Fixer is a team of remote developers. This was new to Alix and his partners, Eric Olson and Christopher Langmuir. But they’ve found a workflow that is working for them.
“Overall, it has worked really well — better than we could’ve hoped,” said Alix. “First, we’re strongly enabled by excellent, free communication tools that allow us to do video conferencing, real-time document collaboration, task and bug tracking, and so on. Also, we have a pretty robust model for how to operate as a distributed team, often with different schedules.”
Alix credits Langmuir with organizing the team into an efficient structure that’s easy for everyone to understand. Basically, while some of the staff work together in Seattle, most are all around the U.S. and Canada. To address that, the team keeps all of its content stored online in a cloud development space that everyone in Fixer can access and contribute to.
“On the plus side, we’re a highly experienced team, so the importance of the central cloud was understood from the beginning as a critical piece of the puzzle,” said Alix.
Fixer is a small studio that hasn’t raised any capital from investors. They’re putting their own money into it, and most of the developers are volunteering their time. That means team members drop in and out as their schedules dictate, which presented its own challenges.
“Something we learned early on was to communication schedules early and often,” said Alix. “This has helped us tenfold when distributing the workload. Everyone has been great about checking in with team leads, advising on availability, and meeting deadlines. Don’t get me wrong, ‘life happens’ and sometimes a team member needs to unexpectedly take a week or two away from the current project, but they raise an immediate red flag to their lead and producers in those circumstances. With a good system of backups and clear dependency tracking, we simply flex the distribution of tasks to accommodate.”
It’s worked so far, and Alix believes this model has actually improved Sinister Dexter.
“The mixing of styles can sometimes lead to disaster, but on the whole, we’ve seen creativity, originality, and true outside-the-box thinking,” he said. “In general, we encourage Fixer staff to participate in all facets of development, but this has definitely been one of the more happy accidents we’ve found in the model.”
This enables anyone on the team to take a shot at tackling any task. If someone thinks they have an idea that works, the resources are available for them to try.
The team at Fixer is hoping that the combination of time-tested gameplay and their collaborative development methods can help the team build something that will stand out on mobile. While popular games come and go and phenomenons such as Flappy Bird pop up out of nowhere, Alix thinks that they have a formula that will result in success.
“Having had the benefit of working on a handful of top-five mobile games in the last few years, I can honestly say that our thinking as an industry has really matured,” said Alix. “In the case of Sinister Dexter, we have a game that was truly meant for mobile. Draw Something and Words with Friends are both titles that took classic mechanics and did a great job of implementing them for bite-sized multiplayer in your pocket, and Sinister Dexter is going to do the same thing — albeit with a much more strategic and hardcore set of mechanics.”