Talking Metal Heads and tiny game studios with Nathan Francis

Posted August 24, 2020

Solo developers and developers who are apart of tiny video game studios are certainly some of the most dedicated, passionate and creatively brilliant people within the video game industry. It’s amazing to think that games such as Stardew Valley or Undertale were made, almost exclusively, by just a single person. A recent spotlight was put on a handful of games made by tiny video game studios and hosted on Steam. That spotlight, known as the Steam Tiny Teams Festival, encouraged us to examine these tiny game studios ourselves. In fact we dedicated an entire broadcast to the topic which you can have a listen to over here.

In part of our research on the topic of solo developers and tiny teams we decided to have a chat to Nathan Francis, the creative lead behind the upcoming party game Metal Heads. Metal Heads is a local / online multiplayer party game and one of the various games highlighted within the aforementioned Tiny Teams Festival. In Metal Heads up to 8 people compete in a set of challenging yet exciting minigames whilst metal music thumps in the background. It’s a game we’re very excited to play when it releases later this year, especially after we enjoyed our time with it so much at PAX Australia 2019.

We were very excited to chat with Nathan. His story is an interesting one, but one that also feels quite representative of many other developers working solo or as part of a tiny studio. Metal Heads started as a solo project, but Nathan has since brought in the assistance of Andy Gillion to help him with music. The pair now go by the pseudonym ‘Otreum Games’ with Nathan working full time on the project, funded in part by an Epic Mega Grant. With that in mind, we had to ask Nathan about his game development experience so far.

“It has been a fun experience, but no doubt, an extremely challenging one. I started working on Metal Heads late 2017 I think (I actually can’t remember), and it was pretty quick to get going at first, especially since I had worked on some massively scoped solo projects prior to that, before deciding to scrap them after months or even years of work due to them being completely unfeasible for one person to release. This gave me a tonne of experience using Unreal Engine 4, and this experience has helped the development of Metal Heads significantly as there’s less time spent learning the engine. In saying that though, I am nearly always learning new things. I had a day job at JB Hi-Fi for ~8 years, and have only very recently resigned from JB to work on Metal Heads even more, after having received an Epic Mega Grant from Epic Games. While I started Metal Heads in 2017, the development was sporadic and some weeks I wouldn’t do any work, in favour of playing games and just getting through busy and stressful work weeks, but it was in 2019 that I put my foot down, and decided to really ramp up development time to try and get Metal Heads to PAX Australia. I started doing 12+ hour days around March, and since then, have been doing 12-18 hour days (mostly I work from about 9am-12am) with a few day breaks here and there so I don’t burn out. Not all days are super productive, sometimes it feels like I’m getting a few hours of work done, but when I’m really focused, I utilize every single hour and get so much done, which is a wonderful feeling. It’s tough, but in the end, I feel it’ll be worth it. Already people think that Metal Heads is made by a larger team or company.”

Nathan also shared with us some of the struggles he has faced as a solo / duo game developer.

“I learn what I need to learn, and I use that knowledge the best I can, even if it’s limited knowledge… Doing so many mini-games is like creating a new game every single time, and I have to really dig into my skill set to overcome the challenges. I have this thing now though, where I like to see how far I can push myself and see what absolutely insane mini-game I can come up with next. Right now for example, I’m working on a train mini-game, it would seem simple in theory, but due to technical limitations of game physics, character movement, networking, etc, it causes a lot of problems. These problems have required me to spend a good deal of time trying to figure out mathematical problems in my head, because while I’m sure such a solution exists somewhere in the WWW, it would probably take me longer to find that, than to figure it out myself.”

 

“As for what the most challenging thing is? It would be drop in/drop out, and online multiplayer for sure. Things work a lot easier when playing locally/offline, but online multiplayer introduces a whole world of pain to the development cycle. Online multiplayer is almost an expected feature for every game these days, and the pressure put on developers is far greater than even 2-3 years ago to include online play. Worse yet, if your game includes online play, and it’s not of AAA standards, people will tear your game apart. But not including online also means people will constantly hound the developer to include it, so it’s incredibly important that I get it right. Drop in/drop out isn’t as highly requested, but I know it’s a feature that will help set Metal Heads apart from the handful of other party games out there where you need to reboot to the lobby to let someone join your game.”

“Online multiplayer is almost an expected feature for every game these days, and the pressure put on developers is far greater than even 2-3 years ago… Worse yet, if your game includes online play, and it’s not of AAA standards, people will tear your game apart”

Nathan also pointed to marketing as a real challenge. In fact, when I asked him if he could bring in one specialist to help with Metal Heads, he said I definitely think someone in marketing for sure.”

“While online multiplayer and drop in/drop out have been the most challenging aspect, I would also say marketing has been extremely difficult. Quite often this is something neglected in development teams, and their games suffer for it. I don’t want to make this mistake. Despite knowing this though, I understand why developers don’t focus on marketing, because without a big publisher (ie. Devolver Digital, Team 17, Epic Games), and without some kind of niche, it’s extremely difficult to get noticed and can quite often feel like screaming at the top of your lungs and nobody hears you; you put in all that effort to get noticed, and it falls on deaf ears. Thankfully, marketing is picking up for me now though, and has been slowly building momentum since PAX Australia last year. It was a real tough move to make, and cost a lot of dollars, but ultimately, it was an absolutely fantastic time. I met lots of awesome people, and I think it gave the marketing ball the push it needed to get rolling, and it’s only getting faster, with the recent Steam Game Festival resulting in having I think the biggest live-stream of the event with almost 5000 people watching me, and now the Yogscast Tiny Teams festival shining a very bright light on the game too. I’m glad that Metal Heads hasn’t blown up like Fall Guys though, I don’t think I could handle that much attention all at once right now, but if that happened, no matter how little energy I have, I’ll take the challenge. Kudos to Mediatonic and Devolver Digital for how they are handling it all though, they are doing GREAT!”

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Nathan was also quick to point out that being a developer as part of a tiny studio has its benefits too. He particularly liked “not really having to answer to anybody or keep up with them.”

“I go at my own pace, so that’s less stress for me. However I think introducing Andy Gillion to Metal Heads has been great for the game, not just because of the incredible music he is making, but also because of the social and morale aspect of development, it’s great for both of us, having someone to work with and bounce ideas off and have a good laugh is wonderful. I consider him a friend, not just someone I work with, and I think that kind of bond when working on something so large is incredibly important to productivity and maintaining a healthy development.”

“It is evident that solo developers or tiny teams have created some of the best games of all time. I think these games do well, because of the creative freedom, and the passion that is put behind them. I’ve been working all these long hours, and effectively “crunching” for over a year now. I doubt very much that I would willingly do that if the game I was working on wasn’t a passion project, or was someone else’s idea that I wasn’t completely sold on, which I feel like that would happen to me if I was working for another game studio. In saying that, I wouldn’t mind being part of making a game like Cyberpunk 2077 or Fall Guys, I think that working on Fall Guys in particular would be a blast, I’d probably push out a mini-game or 2 every week since I wouldn’t need to worry about anything else. This same desire to push forward regardless of how we feel, is shared by so many other developers I have spoken to, they are so dedicated to their art, and so relentless in their pursuit of a dream that nothing will stop them. I also think that when the public find out that some games are only made by 1 or 2 people, it amplifies the public’s positive response, they understand that it’s “made by just one guy!” and feel that they can trust a developer more who has put that much effort into the game.

I also got Nathan to hone in on the Tiny Teams Festival which was only a couple of days underway at the time. I asked him how he got involved.

“I saw it on Twitter briefly while I was out one day, I think I was shopping, and thought “I had better get onto that!”, but then once I got home, actually forgot about it! A few days passed and one of the Twitch streamers who has been helping with online bug testing and joining in on live-streams during the Steam Game Festival actually tagged me on the last day of being able to apply. I believe hundreds applied, and within a few days, I got an email to say Metal Heads was chosen! The day before the event went live, I released a massive update for Metal Heads to address a whole bunch of bugs (a LOT)…and also added 3 mini-games to the demo just for the event. I also added a “Wishlist” button to the main menu, and since then I have seen an increase in wishlists, which is great, because while downloads were steady, wishlists were almost non-existent, most probably due to people simply forgetting to wishlist the game. The event went live, and while I don’t think anybody from Yogscast has streamed Metal Heads yet, (I don’t know if they will or when they will), the download count for Metal Heads has skyrocketed much the same way as during the Steam game festival. I’m seeing 500+ downloads every day which is insane considering I normally get about 20-50 per day, and a MASSIVE increase in wishlists, going from maybe 1-5 up to 82 the first day, but then 1032 the 2nd day and 1157 the 3rd day with probably more to follow. To put things into perspective, PAX Australia, which costed thousands of dollars garnered just over 700 wishlists over 3 days, so to get over 1000 per day and not having had to spend anything is incredible and that is thanks to the increased exposure of the Tiny Teams event. The demo went from hovering around page 13-33 on the Steam most popular demo’s, to page 6-7, which is incredible! It’s even beating the demo for “Moving Out”…but that’s probably because everyone is actually buying Moving Out rather than downloading the demo, because it’s awesome. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what the rest of the event does for the wishlists and download count, especially over the weekend.”

As a final take on tiny teams, I asked Nathan about his favourite game made by a tiny studio. He didn’t hesitate to tell me about his love for Slime Rancher. It is freakin adorable! And FUN! It was originally made by 2 people, and I believe they have expanded due to the astronomical success Slime Rancher has had”. He also wanted to conclude the interview with a comment dedicated to his fans.

“THANK YOU to all of the fans, and everyone who supported Metal Heads by downloading, wishlisting and streaming the game! And to my family and friends who have been so patient and supportive of me during the entirely of development, I love you all. Also, while it’s just Andy and I working on the game, this I feel is more of a community effort now, with twitch streamers and people in the games Discord helping out with testing pretty much as soon as I ask them, and they haven’t asked for anything in reward (they will be rewarded in some form though). Without that kind of assistance from the gaming community, I don’t think Metal Heads would have excelled as much as it did in the last few months, especially with online multiplayer. You are all incredible and every single thing I see you do in relation to Metal Heads motivates me even more to keep on going. You are the life-blood of this game. YOU ALL ROCK!”

It was definitely insightful chatting with Nathan Francis and we can’t wait to see more of this passion project as it continues to evolve during development. Metal Heads is expected to release on PC sometime this year.



About the Author

Elliot Attard

PC gamer, TV show binge-watcher, music lover and elite member of high society (but not really) - Elliot possesses all of the qualities needed to project his word thoughts straight into your eye holes.