Game Dev Unlocked: Interview with Maxime Bernard

In this article, Maxime tells us about the Kickstarter campaign he's currently running for Wild Dose (first chapter already available on Steam), his creative process, and his personal story.

Wild Dose will be part of the next Game Dev Unlocked feedback Friday on 26th March.

GDU: Could you give us a bit of your background?


I'm Maxime, and I'm the solo developer from Lappi Soft, a one-man and a dog (Lappi!) indie game studio located in the French Alps.

I discovered Unity in 2016. While learning how to use it, I got the feeling that I could earn my living with game development. So, I started to save money to buy myself a bit of freedom.

My primary motivation was my wish to stay home to take care of my wife, disabled by a severe genetic disease.

Unfortunately, 2017 was a rough year for us. My wife's condition significantly worsened.

It could have been the right moment to "get that freedom", to take care of my wife and my game project… But I had to be honest; I did not have enough energy.

I made a deal with myself: I would take the time to recover until I was fully ready. I had to stop game development, as I could not cope with this activity in addition to my day job and my wife's disease.

But at the end of 2019, I knew the time had come. Game development became my main activity!

GDU: Wild Dose is your second game. Could you tell us a bit about Breaking Lockdown, your first game? 

When I joined GDU, I was not yet a "full-time" indie game. Despite spending most of my working time on game dev, I tried to find the balance between this activity and some contracting. I was struggling with my project. Due to my developer background, I had made the terrible mistake of implementing my own character controller.

I played "Home is where One starts", and the penny dropped! I had to stop thinking like a developer. I was not a programmer anymore; I was a game dev, which is totally different. And to test this new "way of working", I announced in GDU's Discord I would try to make a game in a week.


I failed this "one-week" challenge, but I got so much positive feedback from David and the early students that I decided to turn this into a full game.

GDU's objective is to start, finish and market your game.

With that experience, I could know the minimum effort required to push an "almost decent" game on Steam while also managing localization and marketing.

That's how Breaking Lockdown was born; a (too?) frustrating game required (too many?) skills, quite influenced by the fact in 2020, the outside world was hostile. Working on it was my way to (safely) break the lockdown, make concessions to release it in 2 months, and, most importantly, realize I had to go full time on game dev.


GDU: How was the idea of Wild Dose born? What were your influences?


I remember Mel (Arkania) shared an article by Anne-Laure Le Cunff about "idea sex" and how to generate ideas on demand.

Before discovering Unity, I wrote a lot, and I never experienced writer's block. It's the exact opposite! I have "so many ideas, so little time", especially when you know how much effort it takes to make a game.

Instead of using "idea sex" to generate ideas, I used this to merge everything I had in mind. Wild Dose may seem ambitious as there are several universes, but I also knew by experience, thanks to Breaking Lockdown, that small games are way more challenging to sell than bigger games!


The initial concept was not supposed to be Wild Dose; it was Fresh Air. While looking at the Dark Cities assets by Manufactura K4 and the Nature Environments by Nature Manufacture, it came to me.

As a solo developer who uses assets, browsing the Asset Store is a great way to brainstorm and imagine what I could create with the environments and characters available.


Quite influenced by the Bloober Team's creation (Layers of Fear, Observer, Blair Witch), but also by the excellent dialogue mechanics of Disco Elysium, Fresh Air was supposed to be a walking-simulator/murder-party/RPG game, where you were playing a private police inspector (not investigator!) in a world where public services have been outsourced and where people were taking virtual drugs to escape in a virtual nature.


I followed Anne-Laure's process quite instinctively. It always started with a few notes while seeing something inspiring; then, I would let this idea evolve by working on Breaking Lockdown. Then I would connect several ideas during a trial or running session, which usually helps me clear things up.

I had several influences. "Stanley Parable" and "When The Darkness Comes" were the main ones because an "inner voice guided you", but I could also mention "Portal", the first "Bioshock" or "Close to the Sun".

In the initial Fresh Air concept, you were only supposed to talk to your AI. In Wild Dose, I thought I would just have one voice-over: the Capetian, the mysterious creator of that virtual drug. Then I realized I could have these two personalities in a single game, starting to talk to each other, like your inner angel/demon.

On all the games I've played as part of GDU "free" or "advised" one, Sagebrush is my favorite. Wild Dose's visual style clearly inherits from it, and I was pretty happy to see it mentioned in the Intermediate Course, which helped me create the Offliners.

For the universe itself, the first Deux Ex and Nomads Souls were my models.


The Dark Cities and Natures assets looked quite realistic, but having a realistic environment would have meant having realistic models (that's what I thought at that time, but I don't believe this is true anymore). Cloud Punk and Tokyo 42 proved that you could have stylized and convincing low-poly or voxel universes.

I had several Synty's assets, including the famous Sci-Fi City Pack (I even spotted a few models I'm using in Binary Smoke teaser), so I thought it could be a good start to build my city.


Breaking Lockdown had not been released yet, that Wild Dose was already starting to emerge.


GDU: Why a first-person 3D game?


Many players asked me this question. Even before joining GDU, I knew I would focus on first-person games because… they are easier to make! In my previous project, I tried to have both a top-down and first-person view; it was a nightmare!

As a solo dev, if you want to be good at game dev, you have to keep doing the same game. Well, not exactly the same; you will improve and add things at every iteration. That's what I learned while watching the GDC Talk How to Survive in Gamedev for Eleven Years Without a Hit, and by observing the beautiful chess-puzzle games made by Minimol games, a studio that Raphael, a GDU student, run.

Breaking Lockdown was a minimalist version of the game I really want to do: no save system, no inventory, no health bar. In Wild Dose, I'm using tools I have learned to use in Breaking Lockdown or played with while developing it: Aura 2, Unity's Dialogue System, HFPS Kit.


By saying this, I may shock a few people, but Wild Dose is not my Opus Magnum, my masterpiece.

I'm still new at game development, and I still have a lot to learn. Wild Dose is the perfect project to make a few beginner's mistakes. But don't get me wrong, I believe a lot in this project, or I would not spend five years of savings and several years of my life in it! (laugh)

GDU: Why did you decide to make a Kickstarter?

The day before I released Breaking Lockdown, David and Thomas had this great chat about their game developer experiences. Thomas was part of the GDU community, so I was already following him on YouTube, but I started to watch more and more of his videos, including the one about his Kickstarter.


I've always feed quite fond of crowdfunding. I love the psychology behind it. In the past few years, I followed a lot of book, games, or movie campaigns, and of course, I backed a few, mainly on Ulule, which is the French equivalent of Kickstarter.

I think it's a pretty clever way to fund and market artistic creations. I knew I would do this for a game soon, and then I realized: the best way to gain experience on this is to run a campaign. The worst thing that could happen to you is funding Wild Dose and secure your future in this industry.


Thanks to all the information in Thomas's Kickstarter video, I have been redirected to other resources. Between July and November, I literally swallowed a lot of information about similar Kickstarter campaigns, the main one being: The Kind Camomille, Kapia, A Fox Tale, Johny Lion face, Spaceflux, Cyber-Knights, and just before my campaign, Aveliana.


I also contacted Thomas directly at the beginning of November to join his beta program, telling him I was clearly interested in his crowdfunding section. I even had the chance to start the course before the beta starts!


In a way, we could say that David has been my creative teacher, while Thomas was the funding one.


GDU: You had the opportunity to participate in the Steam Festival. Can you share your experience?


I could summarize this with Mel's favorite quote: do it!


Showing a demo of a free demo chapter could seem silly, but I desperately needed to get more wishlists. My objective was to reach 1000 by the end of the festival, as I only had 400. The main reason being that I'm not too fond of marketing.

I was exhausted by showing my game on Imgur, 9gag, Twitter, or Reddit to mainly other indie dev, including a few frustrated ones who will say: this looks like an asset flip you can do in a minute.

Ok, guys, if you're so effective at game development, I'd like to see what you created cause I'm working more than full-time on Wild Dose for a while now, and believe me, making an actual game takes a lot of time.


The truth is we're doing it wrong! Showing our work to other indie dev is not marketing. 

We need to reach the players! 


At the end of 2020, I started to look for some PR support for the following reasons:

- getting no replies to all the outreach messages you send could demotivate you and make you believe your project is crap

- I had to focus on my core business. I did not choose to turn full-time to spend at least one day per week on marketing. It's a waste of time and energy, and some people do that way better than I do.

I thought I had found the right person at the beginning of January 2021, especially knowing that PR had already managed a successful Kickstarter campaign. I even got a few valuable pieces of advice, but for unknown reasons (I'm still waiting for a reply to my last message), this did not happen.


The Steam festival allowed me to show my game to real players. I can't imagine what kind of results I would have gotten if I had started it with more wishlists cause I'm pretty sure the algorithm put the most expected games on the top.

My biggest mistake was not to have prepared the pre-recorded stream I was planning to broadcast in the loop for the festival opening; I'm pretty sure I would have gotten 100 more with this.


And while we’re talking about numbers:

I think half of my Day 6 wishlists are coming from my only viral post on Imgur that got more than 90K views and 1000 upvotes. Unfortunately, I made a terrible mistake while editing it, and I ruined it: live and learn!


GDU: You decided to release the first chapter of your game as a free title on Steam. Why? 


I wanted to experience the "prologue" marketing style. All these free games which are populating the popular upcoming releases tab on Steam prove it's working. That's also what has been done with Life is Strange: the first chapter was free!


I would have loved to have an actual prologue, but it requires a lot of time. First Session is the very first act of Wild Dose. I had a few echoes that Steam had changed a few things and that the algorithm is not as kind as it was with free games.

I think the main point is: don't expect to gain many players on a free game if you did not market it a bit. Although Aleksandra from EggNut said that they had "No features in major streamers or influencers. All our marketing was done through Twitter and Reddit with pretty gifs", check their posts, you will see of good they are at marketing.


But they're right about the fact a free game allows players to know you. Now I'm not entirely sure it's way more effective than a demo. The few data I have collected so far go in that direction, but you can only judge the effort after several months with marketing.


GDU: How is the Kickstarter going so far?


To be honest, I'm a bit frustrated. We're at the middle of the third week, and I reached more than 70% of the funding goal, so I'm pretty optimistic that I'll get it funded. However, I've never hidden this campaign; I wanted to make the game I dreamt about and deliver more content. 


I had enthusiastic feedback on my campaign itself, from Marc Hewitt, GDU's marketing expert, and from my fellow "Kickstarter advisors" that I contacted directly after following their campaign. I even had an unexpected Kickstarter critique on launch day by Bower's Game Corner.


I wish I had not listened to a few people and contacted Kickstarter way earlier to get that "Project We Love" tag. I contacted them a few hours after launch when I reached the 30% goal, and I've got no reply so far, so maybe my campaign just s…cks?


I'm also spending a lot of effort on getting featured, but without actual press coverage, it's pretty hard, and that can only be provided a strong PR strategy managed months before the campaign starts.


Apart from all these points, I should have handled it better – but this is my first Kickstarter! - I really enjoy running this campaign. I'm learning a lot, there is always something to do, and there is a lot of pressure to get potential backers' attention while delivering more content. I love that!


I managed many massive (and crappy) software releases in the past, and I start to have a decent level in mountain trail running, mainly cause with the Covid-19, I made a lot of trips in full autonomy (usually more than 30k and 2000 D+. Believe it or not, it helps me a lot!

I see this campaign as a one-month release or a long ultra-trail. I won't stop until I reach the finish line, no matter how slow I am!

You can support Wild Dose creation on Kickstarter until 31st March at 11 pm CET. You can also follow me on Twitter @LappiSoft.

If you want to optimize your Steam page, I would really suggest you to watch this Wild Dose Steam Page review video by Jeff Giasson.

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