Forged in the fires of Ludum Dare, Pony Island went on to become a popular Steam release. Jem Alexander chats to developer Daniel Mullins about the game’s development
Game jams are increasingly spawning smaller game ideas that eventually emerge onto the Steam as full-fledged games. Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island is one of those games and has seen critical and commercial success after an initial ‘prototype’ version was created during the global game jam Ludum Dare.
“Ludum Dare is the biggest online game jam,” Mullins says. “They give you a theme on the Friday and you have until Sunday night to make it. The theme for this one was ‘entire game on one screen’ and my idea was to have this game that existed in the options menu of a different game.”
How developers interpret the theme, which changes for each jam, is the most fascinating part of the Ludum Dare experience.
With so little time to make a game, pre-planning is a luxury that developers can’t afford. Commonly, devs will feel their game out as they go along, with surprise pivots and happy accidents contributing heavily to the final product.
“The first thing I did was make the creepy border screen, which looks kind of grungy and dirty,” Mullins explains. “Then I had that jittering red and blue effect behind the white text. I did that in the first hour and that made up so much of the aesthetic of the game. It came together in that weekend and somehow both the ponies and Satan just kind of fell into place.”
Those put off by Pony Island’s kid- friendly name might be surprised to learn of Satan’s inclusion in the game. “I wanted to think of something that sounded innocent that contrasted with the satanic stuff,” he says. “It could’ve been ponies, it could’ve been dolphins.” Dolphin Island could have been quite a different game, but no doubt the main inspirations would still have shone through.
“I knew that having the satanic stuff would be cool and creepy and I had seen that in the game Motherlode, an old browser game,” Mullins says. “You have this little ship on Mars and you’re drilling down to resources and you come back up and spend them. It’s a very basic set-up and it doesn’t seem like it has a story, but all of a sudden it hits you that the guy you’re drilling for is Satan. Then you drill to the bottom and you fight this mecha Satan.”
Once Ludum Dare ended, Mullins put Pony Island to one side and didn’t think much of it, until he saw it appear on a round-up of 2014 on Giant Bomb. “I got mentioned in this article, it was Zoe Quinn’s top ten games of 2014. That was exciting! That this little game I made in a weekend got recognised at all. So I decided to put together a trailer based on the game jam project and put it on Greenlight.”
I felt like an evil super villain in a laboratory. I was cackling to myself because I knew that it was so convincing
But Steam Greenlight can be a harsh place. Pony Island didn’t make much of a splash. “I had used it once before,” Mullins explains. “It was a failed Kickstarter, but I used the Greenlight process and my experience was the same with both games. I get some comments and views when it’s on the front page of Greenlight, which can be encouraging. A lot of people see it. But then it falls off that front page and it’s just crickets.
“Both of those games just sat there for months on end, and then both of them at the same time, on the same day, were greenlit for reasons I don’t know. So my experience was: you put it on, you wait for six months and magically you get through. I don’t know if that’s common or not!”
Before Pony Island finally got greenlit, Mullins tried to ship it around to publishers. This was tricky, too. “I talked to a lot of publishers and I think I had two that were interested. One of them flaked out and stopped responding – I had already sent them a demo, talked to them many times. Many emails. Skype calls. And they just flaked out, out of nowhere. That was pretty disappointing.”
The other publisher signed Pony Island, but that wasn’t smooth sailing either. “That went a little bit south too,” he explains. “After the game came out they actually went bankrupt and took a lot of developers’ money with them. Luckily they only had my revenue from the non-Steam stores. That’s a drop in the bucket, compared to the Steam sales. Steam just dominates the market so much.”
In order to secure this initial publishing deal, Mullins was asked to create a 30 minute demo of his game. “That was when I really got serious. They wanted it in a month, so that was the hardest I ever worked on the game. What I came out with after that month was basically the first 30 minutes of the final product. They were impressed enough and said ‘okay, we’ll do this’.”
GOING PART TIME
At this point the game jam experiment was fast becoming a full blown release. Which meant he would need to devote a lot more time to it. Luckily, the Vancouver game studio he was working at was very helpful.
“I decided to ask if I could work part time at work and they said I could work just two days a week. It meant I could still have some income coming in, but most of my time would be Pony Island.
“It wasn’t scary because I had a good relationship with this company and I knew that even if Pony Island flopped, I could just switch back to full time. A lot of people say ‘oh, it’s so risky!’, but it wasn’t a risk. I was really lucky that I had that situation that my work was so flexible. If it’s your first indie game, don’t quit your job, because that is a risk. You might not get it back.”
Development went reasonably smoothly for Mullins. He worked with a couple of friends, one of whom helped during his crunch period for the 30 minute vertical slice, while the other provided music for the game. Otherwise, Mullins was working on his own, which has its own problems.
“You go through cycles,” he says. “It seems pretty natural and I’ve identified it now, where you’re feeling really good about it for a week or even two weeks, and then you slowly lose motivation and all of a sudden you’re thinking ‘what am I even doing with this?’. But then it picks up again and it just seems to cycle around.”
Mullins recalls how one of his favourite parts of Pony Island was all developed in one single night. “The part that everyone talks about is when that Steam pop up happens. That whole encounter with the Asmodeus character. He’s doing all sorts of crazy stuff to your computer. You’re hearing facebook notifications and there’s a crash of the game. That was mostly all done in one night.
“That was such a fun night, because I knew these tricks that I was coming up with were really convincing. I felt like an evil super villain in a laboratory. I was cackling to myself because I knew that it was so convincing and I knew it was going to trick people. That was the most fun night of the whole development.”
That wasn’t the only part of the game that was enjoyed by players, however. Pony Island currently enjoys an “Overwhelmingly Positive” rating on Steam. Mullins handed out Steam keys to streamers and YouTubers, and enjoyed watching personalities he’d been following for a while playing and enjoying his game.
“The most impactful for me are when people who I’ve watched and appreciated before the game came out actually took a look at my game. That’s kind of surreal. That happened with this YouTuber named Super Bunnyhop. He did a video just for Pony Island, which was super exciting. He liked certain parts, but he also criticised certain parts. He compared it to a Doritos taco from Taco Bell, saying that they’re both five dollars and you’d be happy with your purchase with both. To be compared to a Doritos taco by him was kind of bittersweet.
PewDiePie also created a video on Pony Island, which ballooned Mullins’ expectations of the game.
“I thought ‘Oh, I’m going to be a millionaire! PewDiePie’s going to play the game!’,” he says. “That’s obviously in hindsight not how it works. I think his audience back then was a lot younger, so I found that the number of people buying it from his video was quite low compared to those who had way fewer viewers, but a more mature audience. They had a much higher conversion rate.”
After all that, the critical and commercial success of Pony Island has allowed Mullins to quit his job and work full time on his next game, which he plans to self-publish. Not bad for a prototype made in a weekend.