Last month, Jon Lepage’s Impossible Pixel became the first Stencyl game to hit the number 2 top free app spot in the US App Store.
Now that things have settled down a bit for Jon, I asked him to share his exhilarating story, as well as his plans for the future.
Please introduce yourself.
Well, my name is Jon Lepage, I’m 25 and I’m from France. I’m a graduated Movie Director, believe it or not! I created 99 Up Games in early 2012 and since then, I make games and I love it.
In a paragraph or two, please give a synopsis of Impossible Pixel.
Impossible Pixel is the story of a hero against all odds. Pixel Man’s planet is attacked by hideous and dangerous aliens and he has no other choice than to run. His powers: running, jumping, sliding and a double jump out of the blue. While on his journey to survive he will end up finding the power, literally and figuratively, to fight off the forces of evil and free his people from dark alien experiments.
I actually come from the movie industry and I’ve always been frustrated with how painful the process of writing a movie script was in France, you always had to go through endless rewrites and great projects got stalled rather quickly by the scripts. For this project I wanted to go right to the point, even if it meant adding simple, maybe silly, elements. When you work on video games you have the freedom to go in any direction you want; you have no constraints. I always had in mind: “if birds being annoyed by pigs and plumbers saving princesses are popular, I can have fun with the story of my game” and I tried to do just that and not dwell too much on it, not letting it be a painful process.
How long have you been creating games?
I’ve been making games professionally for a year now. I worked in the movie industry for 3 years in France before going into mobile app opportunities and then games in 2012. But I have to say that movies gave me a solid ground to be able to make and produce games. Movies and games are not that different, production and artistic wise, and we even see the two getting closer and closer with games like Heavy Rain and Call of Duty, where the interaction is as thin as it can be, the storytelling predominant and where realism and cinematography are at the edge of technology. Games, especially on smartphones and tablets, have to be thought out as real productions, just like movies. There are so many game apps out there that you can’t close your eyes and release anything with the hope that it will work or that it will sell on its own. You have to plan it all out.
What brought you to Stencyl?
Emanuele Feronato’s blog. I was working with the Flixel engine on a “2D Dead Space” at the time, which Impossible Pixel originally was supposed to be. I’m looking up online how to do something and I stumble upon this blog, where a link to Stencyl was conveniently placed. I dug deeper and saw that Stencyl was the perfect fit for me: a neat visual interface to create games as complicated as you want if you understand the logic. I immediately jumped on board and since Stencyl allowed me to make and test a game right away I decided to try out my skills on an iPhone game. After a few weeks I began to get a hold of things and decided to go all in.
What influenced your decision to use Stencyl for Impossible Pixel?
I’ve always had this urge to make games. At 14 years old I began to make an RPG on RPG Maker just for my best friend. We were into Blade, Interview With a Vampire and Vampire Bloodlines: The Masquerade back then, right before liking vampires was “cool”. So I made this vampire game. You began as a fresh vampire waking up in the sewers without any memory and you had to come out in a medieval town to figure out what happened to you. I never finished it but I remember being very proud of making a day and night cycle and sunlight that would hurt you while walking outside, all in Snes sprites and graphics of course. But unfortunately I always had problems when working only with code. I’m ok with programming but I have a tough time visualizing the result. I’m a visual guy, I’m impatient and I need to see results immediately; Stencyl allowed me to do just that. I didn’t have to translate pages of code in my mind, I just had to organize logics and behaviors and watch my character move. To be really thorough, I think StencylForge is a wonderful tool and it helped me immensely at the beginning; just seeing and toying with behaviors from other sharers helped me tremendously while getting accustomed to game making.
What challenges did you face during the game’s creation?
Oh boy… A lot! Learning the software, creating sustainable game mechanics, risking the time and money to make the game, making visually appealing art, bringing it to production quality, fixing a lot of bugs, facing the love and wrath of the players, the tough mental meltdown of online critics, failing the release, counting sales, handling the sudden success… Every part of Impossible Pixel’s making was tough and nerve wrecking. But it’s incredibly rewarding. It took me 7 months to release the game and 3 more before it went crazy on the App Store. But when you see your creation on top of the charts, when you receive messages of happy gamers, when your game is featured on websites, everything seems to suddenly fall into place and you feel like you just had to power through to get there. The mental toughness is the main difference between a success and a failure, whether you have money or not. You need to be tough from beginning to end; there is no alternative.
What were your experiences in bringing the game to the App Store?
Long and painful. I’ve released around 10 to 15 apps now, other than Impossible Pixel. Apple is like this omniscient god who has full and unquestionable power over its creation. The App Store is a marvelous platform; it allows small companies to make a living rather easily if they produce quality content. Their share is really fair. They take “only” 30% of the revenue of an app and leave you with 70% of the price. In comparison a movie producer gets 1 € on 9 € movie tickets – same with DVDs, around 11% – of which a smaller amount is given back to the “creators”: directors, composers and writers. From what I heard from friends in the music business, major companies and labels are even worse. So the App Store really is the Eldorado everyone is talking about. But it comes at a price. Like every merciless god, Apple can take life back in a blink of an eye. Their review system is unforgivable and if you send sub-par content, you will fall into the limbo of failing to get your game to go live, and ultimately they will always be right and you’ll have nothing to say in the matter. Producing quality content is the safest bet but you will always be shaking while waiting for their approval.
What was it like working with a sponsor?
This one really was unexpected. AppGratis is quite different from Kongregate or Newgrounds. They don’t buy games. They have no ads to make revenue from. They have no “submit your app” page. AppGratis offers to its users one or two promotions a day and feature apps that go free or on sale for a day only. But their selection process takes place within the privacy of their walls. They have around 9 million users. Big companies try to take advantage of it, and when they to, I believe they get a lot of money out of it.
What happened for me was that I received an e-mail Monday, February 25th, early morning from an AppGratis rep’ stating that they really liked the game and that they wanted to feature it worldwide within their app. No money asked, no counter part. At the time, Impossible Pixel sales were dropping, probably due to the lack of coverage and it being the first game of 99 Up Games, creating uncertainty from users willing to get it. So I figured why not! At the very least I would get some visibility. Followed what followed… The game finished the day as one of the two or three most downloaded free apps in the world with over 680,000 downloads. Reviews were starting to pour in, on the App Store, on iPhone review websites, on Twitter… I wasn’t making any money but the game was making a name for itself. I wasn’t prepared to make money out of this day though, but what follows lies only within my hands and it’s up to me and my work to make it worthwhile.
What are your plans going forward with Impossible Pixel? What about with game creation in general?
The success of Impossible Pixel started an incredible opportunity for me. People now know my game and my brand. I will of course try to improve it further, but it also gives me the credibility to start other projects. And I have a few games cooking that will come out this year. I don’t want to spoil too much but an Impossible Pixel 2 is in the making and I should have a few pretty talented game makers along on the ride with me… I can’t wait to give you more news!
Do you have any advice or tips for indies looking to create a game and achieve success?
Unfortunately I have no recipe for success. I think there is only good, hard work. Canabalt took 1 month to make, Infinity Blade a lot more. Be absolutely certain of the kind of game you want to make. Be sure to make it for the platform you’re aiming at; App Store users are very, very different from Newground visitors. Learn your tools as much as you can. Study similar games, what worked, what didn’t. Don’t invest over your capabilities, whether it’d be time or money, but keep in mind that it is an investment. Make primarily what you think is a quality game. Team up with quality people if you can. But ultimately, everything comes down to finishing the work. You have no chance of making a successful game if you don’t release it!
Thanks to Jon for sharing his story with us and for answering our questions.
Our next success story could be yours! Enter the Stencyl Jam and show us what you’ve got (and maybe win some prizes, too!).