sephyka | Video game & Animation design » NINDASH – The Art behind the Ninja

Hi there.
I would like to make a POST-MORTEM about «NINDASH: Skull Valley», my first mobile game experience.
As I’m French, apologize my conventional English.

NINDASH game - Main Illustration.

GAMEPLAY TRAILER:

GENESIS:

Adrien Bariau, young game-designer almost at the end of his contract, decided to show his student game prototype METEOR DASH to Tot, the ANKAMA’s Boss. He requests advices to Loïc Roger, an Ankama veteran who recently created a small game development cell in the studio and initiated some cool mobile games as KING TONGUE and DRAG’n’BOOM. Loïc told Adrien his prototype wasn’t very “sexy” and would needed some visual assets to take the boss fancy. He spoke about me, as I’m also a Ankama veteran, with more than 10 years of work as game artist/illustrator.

METEOR to NINJAS!!

METEOR DASH gameplay was pretty simple.

↓ The first game prototype was about a meteore striking strange creatures in the space. I told Adrien no one would incarnate this kind of Meteore (it would be more sexy in a 3D simulation).
NINDASH game - First game prototype.

THE DEAL & THE TEAM

NINDASH game - The Nindash Team.

We had the green light and full liberty of our game content. The only constraint was to create the game with a team of 3 in only 3 months. The team was:

– Adrien Bariau: Game-design/Level-design
– Thomas Baron: Development
– Romain Pergod (me): Art direction

We also have the support of a few ANKAMA talents in various skills:
– Sylvain GUERRERO: FXs
– Grégory DESMURS: Sound-design
– Pierre-Jean BAUDOUIN: Music
– François HOUSSIN: Logo
– Davy GIRARD: Text

NUMBERS.

What NINDASH is ? NINDASH, it’s:

– 1 Demon door,
– 2 Ninjas heroes,
– 3 months of production,
– 6 BOSS & environments,
– 9 musics,
– 11 Skull enemies,
– 13 characters/creatures illustrations,
– 30+ characters skins,
– 60+ sounds,
– 90+ game levels,
– 100+ background assets,
– 270 gold shurikens to collect,
– 666666+ Downloads on iOS the first week,

CHERRY TREES, BONSAIS & GRAVES.

For my first mobile game experience, I wanted to create a world easily accessible to everybody!

↓ My first steps were to define ground patterns.
It’s a good way to start: think about first colors, moods and shapes.
NINDASH game - Background. 00: Ground Patterns.
↓ I wanted to create a stylized, colorful and efficient art direction. I focused on the first environment: I defined backgrounds assets like plants, trees, walls or other video game basics.
NINDASH game - Background. 01: Light Meadows
↓ As I’m a clever boy, I decided the second one will be an evolution of the first one.
However it’s not magic and was still long to change all previous assets.
NINDASH game - Background. 02: Dark Meadows
↓ I created 6 different worlds, each of them represented between 15-25 background assets; that is more than one hundred for the entire game.
NINDASH game - Background. 03: Marshy Cemetery
↓ I’m used to use the Adobe Photoshop software to design my graphics, even if it looks like vector art, legacy of my past years in ANKAMA studio. I use basic selections, gradients and layer styles (Stroke, Glow, Shadow…). Then, I exported all in .PNG format.
NINDASH game - Background. 04: Bamboo desert (asset Photoshop tutorial)NINDASH game - Background. 05: Final den (asset Photoshop tutorial)

One of my main reference was Zelda Minish Cap, even if I never played the game.

NINJAS & SHURIKENS.

↓ From the very beginning, I wanted to create two main characters: a male and a female. I started by re-work the shitty ninja of our prototype : I enlarged the size of the head and add white dots eyes for a better readability in small on mobile devices.
NINDASH game - Character-design: Heroes first sprites.
↓ Then, I defined character actions in accordance with the gameplay. DASH (1 frame), STAND, SKID & STRIKE (3 frames). I chose efficient and ‘cut’ animation style, with minimum of frames.
NINDASH game - Character-design: Heroes SpriteSheet
↓ As our production was super short (barely 3 months) and I was alone to design all the game assets, I created a very efficient and stylised 2D art style, inspired by some mangas as Megaman.
NINDASH game - Character-design: Heroes JA.
↓ I present to you my animated illustration of NIN & JA, the two main protagonist of our game.
NINDASH game - Character-design: Heroes NIN.

PILE OF BONES.

↓ In Nindash, enemies are skulls hordes which attack from the top of the screen. We had a lot of fun and ideas with skulls. We had time to design 11 various units for the game.
NINDASH game - Enemies are skulls.
↓ The art style I defined allow me to quickly draw a dozen of skulls illustrations. It was between 4-7 hours of work for a visual, depending on its complexity.
NINDASH game - Enemies are skulls.

Animation.

NINDASH game - Background/FX: Demon door.NINDASH game - Background/FX: Demon door (Unity timeline).

Buttons and Bamboo.

↓ I always known that User Interface would need time. In NINDASH, there aren’t a lot of interface: HOME, MINIMAP, COLLECTION, In-game HUD. Nevertheless, I spent a third of the production time only on the User Interface design and feedbacks!!
NINDASH game - User Interface: Starter Pack.
↓ Even worse, we had to add a lot of pop-ups at the last time as the RATE pop-up, the STARTER PACK pop-up, the RELOAD Shop pop-up, the Apple LEADERBOARD pop-up, Gwaaaaaaaaah !
NINDASH game - User Interface: Starter Pack.

ECONOMIC MODEL.

NINDASH: Skull Valley game economic model is very topical.
Nowadays on mobiles, most players DON’T want to pay a cent to play. It’s a (sad) fact.
The most common economic model is Free-to-play, with ads and/or in-app purchases. For Nindash, we choose to sell a few exclusive characters skins next to a not-too-agressive ads monetization.

PRODUCTION.

NINDASH game - NINDASH game - Sephy at work

• What went wrong:
It’s been more than 10 years I tried to create a small video game next to my work, it always failed for various reasons. NINDASH was published so it’s for me like a victory!!
Creating a video game is always about to solve what went wrong, it’s about constant adaptability.

Nothing were dramatically wrong!!

• What went right:
– Our vision of the game was good: we didn’t discard a lot of things of our work.
Team alchemy. Each member of the team has his own specialty and we respected the part of everyone. However, we were very exigent and often discuted on some global aspects, like game-design or User experience.

• What could be better (or different):
3 months is a really short deadline for a video game project.
At the middle of the production, we decided to reduce spectre of our ambitions and we cutted a few things:

– We have gone from 7 environnments to 6… but 3×2 is still goood yeah!

– We stopped to work on the ENDLESS mode. It would be a great mode but it could be a full-blown apart game which needed so much time and settings to be really interesting and well-balanced. We chose to focus on the STORY mode.

We reduced the number of Bosses from 6 to 3. To design properly a good BOSS, it needs at least two weeks of work: design, animations, integration, gameplay, patterns, test, debug, additional feedbacks, spells and FXs, test/debug, balance, test/debug, etc. The main regret was to give up the Final BOSS. It was literally impossible to spend time on it during the final rush. We preferred to polish the game and the current Bosses than to add a Final sucked Boss!

– One other (very) important thing we sacrified is : scenario. :'(
At the beginning, I had a nice idea about the narrative aspect of the game, I wanted to create a cinematic which explains the role of the main characters, using 5 illustrations. I drew the first, then a piece of the second. Then I didn’t found time to finish it, overworked by the requirements of the core-game. It wasn’t conceivable to spend 2 weeks (1/6 of the production) only on a skipable cinematic, which would have not even represented 30 seconds in the game. I also had cool ideas for the penultimate and final bosses. But as I said previously, we have to skip this part. « Nothing is lost but everything is transformed » : we finally used the illustration I done for the ending cinematic, which we integrated at the very last moment.

• What I didn’t expect:

– I animated all small skull units with Adobe Flash, exported in image sequences which were re-imported in Unity. A technical issue has arised when I drew the first Boss: his big size did not allow to use this technique (the generated spritesheet would have been so big). Finally, I designed a ‘puppet’ of the Boss. Then, I learnt in one day how to create efficient and dynamic animations directly on Unity.

To spend a third of the production time only on the User Interface design and feedbacks.

– The most difficult part was to switch all the time between 16:9 (mobile) to 4:3 (iPad) format. It was problematic because we have to choose what format to prioritize, at the expense of the other. We choose the mobile format. It was particularly difficult for User Interface design. Sometimes it was well-polished on 16:9, sometimes better on 4:3. We have to do some compromises.

– About ‘FEEDBACKS‘, if you are working on a small video games with a small team, it’s certainly the word you are hearing the most. The Boss will attacks, feedback! The Boss is stunned, feedback! The skull died, feedback! Player position on the level, feedback! End of the level, feedback! Button was released, feedback! Player collected 10 souls, feedback! There are feedbacks everywhere!! The second most-used word is ‘REWARD‘. It’s a perfect Combo, reward (reward is a feedback :p)! The player won a new skin, reward! The player unlocked a new environment, reward! The player finished the level with 3 stars, reward!

– I spent one entire week to work only on the game icon and stores pictures!

NINDASH game - App Store Pictures.

• What went hot:
– We have integrated the final Splashscreen and the ending cinematic in the last two days.
– At the last moment, Thomas did a critical Unity update, inescapable to add Apple stickers app’. It wasn’t a good idea because all the game graphics crashed. Fortunately, he quickly found a solution.
– The iPhone X was released a few days before the soft-launch of our game. iPhone X is a very particular device with a more panoramic screen and a notch on the top of it. We had luck because one of our early tester has this new iPhone (thank you Letsuky). He told us that part of User Interface were cropped and the game didn’t work very well on this new device. It was problematic because we wanted to be highlighed by Apple. So Adrien had to rework and lengthen all 90 level backgrounds of the game at the very last moment!

SOFT LAUNCH.

If you don’t know what a soft launch is, check the following Wikipédia definition:
A soft launch is a preview release of a product or service to a limited audience prior to the general public. Soft-launching a product is sometimes used to gather data or feedback regarding its acceptance in the marketplace, prior to making it widely available during an official release. […]

I know Apple really like Soft launch for games. It is really important for testing your game, even if there isn’t a lot of players.

10th November: Apple validation of the game.
28th November: Publication of the game (Belgique/Canada)
5th january 2018: Apple did request for App Store Promotional Artworks. Good sign for a highlight of our game?

It’s difficult to analyze our Soft Launch, it recovers rather from the marketting pole.
At my level, I noted that it was already difficult to target Belgian and Canadian audience.
Our newsletter reach was pretty low (11,48% opened, barely 1,56% clicked), facebook reach is worst and worst, etc. We had about 1500 players… It’s not really much!

• First patch:
The NINDASH team took 3 days for a first patch to increase the beginning of the game and to do a few bugfix.

↓ I took advantage of this time to add 4 Ninja skins including a tribute to my two favorite WAKFU series character: NOX and ELELY.
NINDASH game - Character-design: NOX + ELELY.
↓ Then, I created a lots of visual stuff for teasings on social medias about the international release.
NINDASH game - J-2.

↓ I also created some other ads for the game in landscape and portrait format (4×3 + 16×9).
NINDASH game - ADS Landscape.

RELEASE.

9th january 2018: International release.

For the release, we had the support of several ANKAMA social networks, it was a good way to start, particularly on the French and Russian Apple Stores in which we quickly had a lot of players comments and good reviews, with a 5✩ Note!!

11th january: First Apple highlights!!!

↓ We had thursday evening Apple Store highlights. We got the Grail: the ‘Featured‘ banner in most of European stores (FR / UK / IT / DE / ES / etc) and China, Japan, Russia, etc. It was a huge visibility for our game: between 75-100 downloads per minute the first days.
NINDASH game - First highlights on Apple Store.
↓ Then, I spend my week-end doing data-porn, by watching points and statistics on Unity Analytics map… It was both freaking and fascinating!
NINDASH game - Data porn.
↓ It’s interesting to analyze the Top Free app’ on the French Apple Store. We fought for the top 20 against ‘Run, Saucage, Run!’, we gone until 8th place. The next day, we totally disappeared! Amazing how a few video games editors are able to climb their app’ on Top only using users acquisition!! We go back a few hours later with our natural referencement.
NINDASH game - Apple Store Top Free App FR (13/01/2018).
↓ We were very happy of the launch. After one week, we finally have got very good rates on very important markets like United States and China. I’m very proud of it! We fortunately have between 8-25 downloads per minute the week after, thanks to natural indexing and Apple residual highlights (JP/UK/NL/SE).
NINDASH game - Apple Store Notes/Rates CN-RU-US.

↓ We quickly reach 666666+ downloads of our game on iOS. I drew a promotional illustration to celebrate it!
NINDASH game - 666k on iOS (first week).

NINJAS & ANDROID.

↓ After a few weeks of testing. We released our game on ANDROID the 23th january.
NINDASH game - Android Store Release.
↓ As expected, the Android launch was very quiet. Two reasons: we hadn’t Google highlights and we didn’t use players acquisition. We still have really good players reviews on store. For reference, the previous ANKAMA mobile game DRAG’n’BOOM also has a quiet launch with finally more than 2M+ players after months. I hope, it’ll be the same for Nindash.
NINDASH game - Android Store First week.
↓ Android store is a very different environment than iOS. Games aren’t verified, often hacked. Game clones quickly appeared. It happened with our game.
NINDASH game - Apple Store Notes/Rates CN-RU-US.
↓ I did it for the 5000, then the 10000. I bought a brioche to my workmates to celebrate the 50000+ downloads of our game on Android. Next brioche for the 100000 haha!
NINDASH game - Android Store Release.

THANKS.

I would thank all our early testers who helped us to find bugs and increase the game:
Lopaul, Naemis, Seyif, Letsuky & his iPhone X.

RESOURCES.

• GAMAKNA: SHURIK’EM UP! [FR/EN]
• GAMAKNA: NINDASH « Les météores, c’est nul ! » / « Meteors, that’s boring! »
• NINDASH on Touch Arcade / TIGSource / AFJV.
• NINDASH Game of the Week on PocketGamer.biz [twit]
• NINDASH Tips & Strategy Guide on Touch, Tap, Play
• NINDASH OpenClassrooms Devlog. [FR]