Interview: ULTRAFLOW's Thibaud Troalen

Interview: ULTRAFLOW's Thibaud Troalen

One flick and a small, pulsing circle is sent on a high velocity journey, bouncing wildly off hard edges until a number ticks down to zero. Tap twice to retry. I'm suddenly thankful that I'm two stops away from where I need to be in the London subway system--there's more ULTRAFLOW to play, after all. ULTRAFLOW is a minimalist puzzle game that falls somewhere between Super Hexagon's pulsing lights and Super Meat Boy's "no, just one more try" design philosophy. The player uses their finger (or mouse, if you're playing the browser version) to flick a circular object to the end goal while avoiding obstacles. The game is not especially difficult, and it helps once you heed the game's tagline: "The only challenge is your smoothness."

Sometimes the right flick is the one with the least amount of effort, but it's tempting to flick wildly as Theophile Loaec & Maxime Bondoux's hypnotic soundtrack drills into your skull. It's also free, and available on iOS, Android, Kindle devices, Windows Phone, and browsers.

Thibaud Troalen is where ULTRAFLOW started. He's a student at Supinfogame, a French school dedicated to teaching game development. He and his team (appropriately called ULTRATEAM) crafted ULTRAFLOW in their spare time, wrecking certain levels and building new pieces as they went. I asked Thibaud Troalen to share with me some of the gritty details of his experience with mobile game development over email.

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I want to address the elephant in the (theoretical) room first: How much love does your team have for Terry Cavanagh's games? ULTRAFLOW feels like a natural evolution of Cavanagh's Super Hexagon, both in aesthetics and design.

I'll speak on behalf of Franck Fitrzyk and Gautier Tintiller, who also worked on the game: Of course we played VVVVVV and Super Hexagon, they're both great games, but originally ULTRAFLOW was to be about the essence of being minimalist and hard. There's lot of other great references for this kind of games (like Wave Wave, Blek, PUK, Color Zen, lots of Ketchapp games etc., mostly lots of mobile games) but we wanted to create a standard. That's it. We our own direction and we stuck with it.

And we succeeded. I mean when you go on Google and search for "Minimalist hard game" you'll most likely find a screenshot or the logo of the game if you scroll enough.

This may be the greatest achievement of ULTRATEAM’s life.

Just so you know, ULTRAFLOW has this kind of aesthetics for lots of reasons, let me cite them, (in no order of priority): -it permits the player to focus on the gameplay/game feel/flow whatever -it's cheap but effective when it's well made -it's unusual -it does not require you to be a graphic designer and master raster/vector/3D graphic tools

ULTRAFLOW is one of the more polished puzzle games I've experienced on iOS. Were there ever any disagreements about it being released for free?

Thank you for the feedback. At first, the game was to be premium (it means that you would have to pay about $1 for it) but retrospectively we didn't count on it that much.

It's hard to publish a game and get noticed (there's about 200 new apps on the Google Play Store each day, maybe even more) and it's infinitely harder to sell one on this kind of platform if you're new. And of course we were new. No one knew about us at that time. So we decided almost 2 months before publishing it to move on to another business model.

We thought about making the first 20 levels free and integrating an IAP (In-App Purchases) for the other ones but we encountered another problem. When you want to sell something to someone, you have to declare it and get taxed. It's not systematic and waaaaay more complex than that, but you can just say "fuck it" and sell your stuff. However, if you succeed, you'll most likely have problems with your fiscal administration. And we didn't want to create an economic business for the game because it would mean to delay even more the release by having one person dedicated to it, and we’d spend less time polishing the game etc. Plus, it would have cost us lots of money we weren't even sure to refund afterward.

We also thought about integrating ads, but again we had to create a legal business, plus the ads would have most likely broke something in the game (the "flow" for instance). Ads are effective as a business model only when they are well implemented, which means that you have to include them in your early alpha prototype and see if they serve more than they annoy, iterate on how you display them, how you make the player interact with them (Crossy Road is the greatest example for this) etc. It was not possible at that time of the production.

So yeah, at last we decided to set the game free because we thought we needed to be more famous than rich. Plus the whole goal of the production was to make something cool rather than making money, both would have been quite nice but again, no one would have played our game if it were P2P (Pay-to-play). There was no big disagreement about it, we just tried hard to be paid for our work until we realized we were mistaken.

Do you primarily play mobile games?

I do play mobile games, mostly the indie ones I've found in the Humble Android Bundles. Plus I've worked on one before (and during) the making of ULTRAFLOW. But I'm not a mobile gamer. I don't even consider myself a "gamer" anymore. I used to play lots of games, mostly on PC and Xbox 360 (and Gamecube and Nintendo DS etc.), but I've found that making them is even more exciting. The reward of watching someone play your stuff is, as a dev, the best thing in the world.

"The only challenge is your smoothness" was such a strange tagline to read before playing the game, but the preciseness/patience required in later levels made the meaning crystal clear. How did you tune the difficulty of the later levels in the game?

I'll be frank, the production was quite a mess. We didn't really know how to proceed at that time. I'm talking about producing tons of levels, not the code/game design/graphics/whatever parts (they were easier).

Of course we studied theories about that in school, but when I started to make the game I was alone. It's only after I was sure the thing had potential that I decided to team-up with my gud ol’ pal Franck. He was to assume command of the whole Level Design aspect of the game, in addition to helping me on designing gameplay. So we were two, and we never planned anything at that stage. He was just making levels while I was coding features. Then Gautier joined us to work alongside with Franck on making levels.

But after spending three months building about 50 levels, the white page syndrome showed up.

Since we never organised the production (aside of the usual "I make this, you make that" thing), we decided to build up a documentation in order to rank features, mix them in proper order and organize themes (like "Moving Objects", "Smoothness", "Speed" etc.).

Then for the following months we struggled to produce content, killing many levels, rebuilding every other one up to 10 times, dropping unusable features, and finally we came up with 99 levels.

But during the whole production we had a blurred idea of how to organize the difficulty curve. You can feel that in the game. Of course we did playtests. We even had (and still have) analytics to help us tweak blocking levels, but not enough people tested the game in front of us and at that time we relied too much on our own experience with our product. I think it wasn't enough to have a smooth progression curve, but I guess this is one of the charming aspects of the game, even if it's a mistake from us.

The tagline of the game came from Franck, from this particular post on Mapcore, the greatest game dev forum that exists. We received great support from the community, which was quite awesome. There's some gifs showing how the game was and how it evolved. Lots of things changed, mostly little things, but the world is made of details.

Is game developing the sole job for you and your crew? You've obviously had some level of success from ULTRAFLOW's release, but I'm curious about the mindset of a small developer who's just now entering such a competitive market. What can young/new developers like you do to find some footing in the industry?

Yeah we’re all game developers to some degree, some prefer making music or code, some other level design or graphics, but it's all about making games.

Well, we knew before making the game that the mobile market was very competitive, but now it seems even harder to get noticed. You realize that fact just after clicking on the "Publish" button. It's no longer a theory; you and about 200 other peeps have just published your game the same day on the same platform.

How in the hell could people just see it while browsing the store? We had some luck for ULTRAFLOW though. To be quick, there's several "circles" of public audience when you have no marketing budget. That means no paying for user acquisition, reviews on website, followers on Twitter, likes on Facebook, "let's plays" on YouTube. All those things have become very expensive and nowadays, making people play your game is very, very costly.

So these recommendations are for people like us with no marketing budget and most of all no history.

Think of it as a web, where your game is at the center and the general public is far, far away, in the largest but most distant circle.

The first circle your game will spread to is the "Family & friends" one. If your product is pleasant enough they will talk about it, to their relatives, colleagues, schoolmates etc. But we are only talking about less than 100 people.

To get out of that circle, talk about your game on dev forums and community websites. It's a second "circle,” much more important than the first one. There's often special sections for "new & upcoming games" that tends to highlight them. But you should not do that after releasing it. It's too late. Everyone will thought "yeah another stupid clone of XXX" etc. and move on. You have to create hype. Make a devblog, release broken alpha builds, post gifs/videos on Twitter etc.

There's always a risk, maybe someone is going to steal your idea and make it even better, but if your game/prototype is sexy and enjoyable enough, you'll have your first audience, maybe even fans among the developer community. Tough, if no one is hooked, something is broken/unattractive and you should question your design.

If you are lucky enough or if your game is extraordinary, devs will talk about it... Maybe even contact you.

According to our own experience, the specialized press is going to ignore you if you contact them saying "hey mate, play my game it's cool". Well, don't think you're the only one who does that. Let them know about what you did after you've proved that it's worth their time. Some of them may ding on the Store trying to find pearls but remember, 200 new games per day, don't count on it.

If famous individuals play your game and share their experience, bloggers/youtubers or maybe even community managers of small then maybe greater website/firms (like Gamejolt if you have a browser version, or Google if you fit in their specifications) are going to feature your game. Then the specialized press may have a word about it if it wasn't done before, then maybe even the general press.

After that, well, welcome to the club. Lots of people are going to play your game, so be prepared, or at least try to be (you will never be in fact). Things will move very, very fast.

As always, do not reply to nasty comments, but try to correct bugs the most you can. Answer mail, cherish your first audience the most you can, try to continue if more people reach to you but be aware that answering to mails, comments, tweets etc. is a full time job. You can't imagine how much energy and time it will drain from you if you haven't already experienced it.

But yeah, going from the "unknown dev students" status to the "2 million players" one is hard, most likely impossible. You'll need an incredible amount of luck and mostly a very, very good game to be played. It's going to need a great amount of time, polish, tests and more polish. But believe in yourself, your team and what you do. It'll keep you on the right way, even if only ten people play your game. If you've made those ten folks happy, you've made art, something to be remembered. You've created emotion.

DISCLAIMER: As a non-native English speaker, Thibaud's interview responses were edited for length and content with his permission.