Postmortem: Infernax


Developer: Berzerk Studio
Publisher: The Arcade Crew
Release Date: February 15 2022
Platforms: Steam, Win10, Xbox, Playstation, Switch
Number of Developers: A good dozen
Length of Development: 11 years
Budget: Considerably more than a potato salad
Development Tools: Prototyped in Flash, launched in Unity3d

Eleven years ago, we set out to make the hardest, goriest, coolest homage to games of our childhood we could do, over the course of a weekend, in Flash.

Three entire console generations, two (three-ish?) engine changes, the studio almost closing down, twenty-one Adam Sandler movies, murder hornets and a pandemic later, we published it on all platforms last Valentine’s Day.

This is Infernax’s Postmortem of the things we didn’t forget/repress over the course of the past decade.

SOME OF THE THINGS THAT WENT RIGHT


1- Surrounding ourselves with the right people

When Infernax started out in 2011, it was going to be a ten-day project made by an artist and a coder. We hired a friend to do a handful of chiptune loops, bought about $20 Canadian worth of wav files on shockwavesounds dot com for SFX, and our marketing plan was landing on the frontpage of Newgrounds. When we launched, the credit roll was about as long as most Netflix shows.

There is something endearing and comforting when developing small scale games with as few people as humanly possible, but like a great man once (mostly) said, “you were so preoccupied with whether you could you didn’t stop to think if you should.”

Most studios can accomplish anything if they put their mind to it, but is it really the best use of your time and resources though? For us, the quality of the game jumped tenfold the moment we started adding experts in their fields to the team, not only by making what was already completed a ton better, but their help also freed our own team of those responsibilities to work on what they are best at. Would you rather have a senior programmer spending his time making fart sounds in a Logitech microphone instead of coding when you could instead have audio professionals with studio grade equipment recording those fart sounds?

Music has always been an important part of making games for us at Berzerk, and having kick-ass music is a consistent part of our work going all the way back to our Flash days. Because of that, we knew we had to surround ourselves with talented people to get the task done, mouth kazoo just wasn’t gonna cut the mustard. At first, back in 2011, we had a friend of the studio, Olivier, make the theme and set the overall tone. 

We added FamilyJules to the mix in 2015 for extra juiceness when we first scoped the project up after the Kickstarter. Five years later, we heard that a guy from a local audio team, Triptyque Audio, was really into retro NES stuff so we hired them for the sounds, but Jason ended up being so in love with the project that he ended up giving us music he had done years before he’d even heard of Infernax. After listening to those tracks, we commissioned Jason for the last couple ones we needed to finish the game as well. 

All the music was then remastered by Jason to have a more cohesive sound, and help unify all the work from each composer into the final soundtrack. That’s not something we could have done on our own, and that really upped the game’s polish level. While a game’s OST is one of the things people sometimes overlook, Olivier, Jules and Jason made ours memorable enough to become one of the most praised parts of Infernax.

Pixel photos of the game's musicians

The same thing happened when we decided to sign with The Arcade Crew, our publishers. We did self-publishing in the past and it had worked pretty well, but we knew we’d need some help with this one as Infernax would be quite outside our current reach. Just Shapes & Beats had a pretty large audience, but it was largely pre-teens and rhythm game enthusiasts, at least the most active years after launch. Infernax is for neither of those groups, it’s a gory pixel RPG aimed at people who grew up playing the games that inspired it from the ’80s. 

Having The Arcade Crew’s insight helped a ton when it came to outreach, having released titles for the same audience they already knew who would love it and how to reach them. They built a plan for something I’d have struggled figuring out over the course of many months in just a week.

I think it’s especially crucial to do so when you are trying to work with such a low head count: every single person on the team matters, and you want them to be able to do what they do best. By offloading those “I guess i can do it” tasks to people who actually will do it a ton better in half the time, you get to work on your production milestones instead so your game actually progresses.

Better people do better work, groundbreaking discovery, I know.

2- Sticking to our proverbial guns

Over the years, we’ve been told over and over how everything we were doing was wrong. The game was too hard, too cryptic, too violent, too gory, not over-the-top funny enough. We had a clear vision in mind, it just took a while to realize that this vision meant the game might not be for everyone, and that it was perfectly fine.

Rather than try to please every single human on the internet, we instead focused on making sure that it was the best game ever made for the people we were making the game for. We were certain there were enough people wanting a “hard as nails” “unapologetically unforgiving” and “hella dark” game to make it worth making.

So we leaned hard into it. Knowing not just who our players were going to be but also who they were DEFINITELY NOT going to be gave us so much more creative freedom. Making references to other games is a lot easier when you know on average the person playing your game has played the hell out of them.

Not to toot our own horns, but I feel we really succeeded at that goal. While not everyone might get into it, those that do enjoy those choices will feel as though the game was made just for them. That decision has positively impacted our reviews as well: very few people felt baited into buying the game by expecting something else. People knew exactly what they were getting into and that thing was exactly what they were looking for.

3- Having the humility to make concessions

While having a clear vision of what you want your game to be is rad and all, it is still important to find some common ground with others and understand how to process feedback appropriately. We live in a society, not everyone has the same expectations for a game, and we have the technology to accommodate everyone. Making a hard-as-balls game might not be for everyone, and gory bits oozing from every orifices may not be either. Having options to customize the experience for everyone diminishes nothing in your game. 

What we landed on was pretty straightforward and in no way revolutionary. We gave the player a clear choice: Play in Classic Mode, the way we intended the game to be experienced, or in Casual Mode, a mode that has more quality of life improvements. The game itself is not easier in what it asks of you, but it makes it easier to learn it. 

We also used our built-in cheat engine to help with giving more options, we felt it was “in character” to disguise our accessibility/difficulty features behind a game genie facade. That was the whole point of those dongles: to make games easier to play. So we added a bunch of codes to it, infinite lives, max XP, infinite jumps, invincibility, to name a few. 

Yeah sure, scalers in the option menu with granular control over everything would probably have been clearer and cleaner, but we found this way to be a lot more true to what we were trying to do; it IS supposed to be a game that emulated the experience of ’80s gaming. It was a much neater way to disguise these options, and ultimately the result is the same.

No matter what the player wants to do with our game, we stated from the beginning what our intended vision for the game was, but in the end, you do you, nobody is going to get mad over fictional pixels.

4- Not being afraid to make radical changes

For 80 percent of the game’s production, Infernax was a linear-ish RPG. You didn’t really have much agency over what happened in the game, you had a singular story, a singular adventure, you played it once and that was it and that was fine for the longest time.

Then for the PAX demo where we would finally reveal the game to the world, we polished up the first 15 mins of the game to present to attendees and… found it to be a bit flat. I mean, it had been the same for over six years now, mostly left untouched design wise, so it was a product of its time. It was missing something, the “wow” moment we had designed in 2011 wasn’t as impactful six years later and we needed something new to shake up the player.

Our solution was a little cinematic quicktime event deciding the fate of a character. It broke the linear gameplay, and the super detailed and gory artwork contrasted really well with the minimalistic 8-bit graphics of the game. So we gave it a little reward that changed depending on the choice you made and called it good enough. Turns out that feature hella resonated with players, a lot of them were envisioning the entire game being like that, and so we acted like that was the plan all along and rebuilt the entire game around it.

We spent the following two years basically retelling the story twice and made sure that every moral choice you’d face throughout the game had repercussions in one way or another. Each decision needed to have a payoff either in the form of an in-game reward, or of an awesome moment for the player to experience.

In the end, we went from a mostly finished game to almost back to square one over a joke.. and somehow it paid off.

Turns out that was the right call to make. It’s one of the most beloved features of the game and will be the angular mechanic if we ever decide to make a sequel, most people will play the game 3-4 times to experience everything the game has to offer.

scopeup.png

5- Localizing outside of EFIGS following data

Initially we only planned to localize in EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish) and JP/KO/CH (Japanese, Korean, Chinese) if we found a distribution partner. It felt adequate because our market research at the time hinted at those being the main languages the game would resonate with. 

A couple of days before we locked the English script and shipped it to our localization partners, our publisher came back to us with stats from our reveal trailer: turns out it did especially well in Eastern Europe and Brazil, like, REALLY good.

Full disclosure: Localization for us has never really been a priority, in the past we had never done games that were particularly text heavy; in our previous game, Just Shapes & Beats, 90 percent of the text was error messages, and nobody ever reads those. I sure as hell don’t, so we didn’t really get the importance of it. Heck, for the first year of Just Shapes & Beats launch we only had the French localization because it’s kinda required by our province’s government, and Japanese because we had a distribution partner over there. It still did fantastic globally.

Anyway, we ended up just throwing the extra languages at the end of our loc quote, not thinking much of it. The data wasn’t lying! During the month of launch, those two markets were some of the best-performing not only in sales, but in terms of stream impressions as well. Streamers from those regions were usually the 3rd-most viewed, and there was almost always a handful of them streaming Infernax at any given time.

People like to play and to watch gameplay in their language it turns out, shocker, who could have guessed?

THE NON-EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF THINGS THAT WENT WRONG IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER

1- Overestimating Kickstarter, or underestimating our need

Remember the potato salad guy? Don’t try to be that guy.

When we did our Kickstarter in 2015 we had a humble goal in our heads. We had a mostly done game but didn’t have the funds to finish it, and we had a Kickstarter campaign draft from 2013 that we could probably adapt to current times.

We really just wanted to get on Kickstarter for an easy Steam Greenlight approval (remember the Steam Greenlight process?), some easy marketing, and enough presales. We’d take the Kickstarter money to fund whatever we had left to do, which we didn’t foresee as being very much.

So after the potato salad guy’s viral success we figured “hey that’s not a bad idea, imagine what we could do if we did that but for a videogame”, and so we did. Turns out the concept isn’t all that bad, but it’s hella more expensive to make a videogame than it is to make a root vegetable meal.

We ended up raising something like $6,000 (Editor’s note: the campaign closed at CA$ 4,329)—not nearly enough to fund the rest of the game, especially considering that with the increased interest in the project we had more we wanted to add to it. Like if we had shipped the game as we had intended at first, it would’ve been Steam-only, no controller support, and a glorious 640×480 resolution. $6,000 ain’t gonna fix that. I’m actually pretty sure just running the campaign cost us more than we made.

Actually I know it did, as we actually ended up refunding everyone since there was no way we could ship the new vision in the timeline we had promised.

It DID get us through Greenlight and generated a non-negative amount of buzz, so there was that, but in the end we really should’ve gone the full nine yards and done a proper Kickstarter campaign instead of trying to take the easy way out. It would’ve been a lot less stressful post-campaign, would have set realistic goals for us, and expectations for the backers.

A cutscene from Infernax. The hero faces off with a weird worm-eye monster.

2- Eleven years

Eleven years of production is a long time for a game. 

Not that we had much control over it all. Other projects took precedence for financial reasons, we lost core members of the team along the way, we almost closed down the studio somewhere in there too. Oh yeah and not to mention we had to do the largest chunk of dev during a worldwide pandemic (including finding a publishing partner and shipping). But nevertheless, over the course of eleven years the game changed and evolved (as it should), but eleven years is a long-ass time. 

For example, near the end we realized that Alcedor’s sprite looked hella cheap compared to all the more recent additions, so we re-did it. That might not sound too bad, but do that times infinity. After every iteration of new content, we’d find something else that we needed to redo because it didn’t fit with the current state of the game; and with good reason. When you spread out production over a decade, older things will look just that: old. Like it was made by someone else who didn’t have the same experience with the project as you have. 

Which is technically true, as the human body’s whole cellular composition is replaced every 9 years or something.

It wasn’t just art too. The initial prototype was made in Flash, so code had to be redone for modern consoles. The tone of the game changed a ton over eleven years too, the game went from a whimsical tongue-in-cheek retro homage game aimed at the Newgrounds crowd to a serious RPG for consoles, kind of reflecting how we’ve evolved as humans over those years.

So to make sure the project doesn’t feel like it’s at odds with itself, you have to redo things old you did to the best of your previous ability because it doesn’t fit with what that new you is doing. That would have happened less often had we not had such a long production cycle, at least everything would have been more coherent with itself right out the gate.

11yearsplus.png

3- Accessibility should’ve been built in from the get-go

This kind of ties in with the previous point, but we really wish we had the knowledge back then that we have now about accessibility so we could have designed around limitations rather than try and fix it a month before Gold.

Many a time we ended up facing issues where we either had to abandon a feature because what needed to be changed was too “baked in”, or have to trash months of work that was done years ago, redo it all in a different way, and hope to god we didn’t break everything.

For instance, if close to launch you realize you probably need a gore-free option in your mature gorefest game to allow people who react negatively to overt violence to enjoy the game, and that it’s not just blood splatters you can turn into sweat…80 percent are baked in animations, background assets, actual character design for the past 9 years, and none of it is designed to be removed. You could go back and redo it all, but then you could forget something, like a guy getting hanged, and your efforts are all for nothing.

Had we known from the beginning we were going to want to have that kind of control, we could have done a better job of finding elegant ways to do things, rather than patching it up post prod and ending up with something that, while serviceable, could have been a lot better.

4- We still managed to start our marketing sprint too late

After Just Shapes & Beats, we swore we’d never run a campaign over the course of the entire production. We thought we had learned something from the 4 years of doing the convention circuit and chasing every press event we could find all the while being in prod: it’s nigh impossible to maintain interest over such a long period. We had devised a plan of attack: 12 months, no more, no less, this way you have a long 10 months to hype up your game and it’s short enough to keep people interested. It was a great plan but ultimately had a flawed execution. 

By month two of “the plan” we were still fully dark: we didn’t want to commit to a date yet, didn’t really have anything exciting to announce, and wanted to secure a publisher before going public. The thinking was that it would hurt our chances if we started anything before locking in the publishing partner. By the time we had, seven months had gone by, and then we ended up waiting a good two months to announce the partnership, again because we wanted it to be “perfect”. All of that only left us a solid five months to activate our social medias again, start reaching out for opportunities, etc.

We had four years to plan it all out and ended up winging it over the course of the last few months over the fear of commitment.

5- Elden Ring

Launch dates can be a make or break for an indie game; they dictate what kind of exposure you get from press, from streamers, even from storefronts. If you launch during certain dates, ad campaigns will be super expensive, and on other dates you’ll be overwhelmed by other titles.

When we first picked February 15th it was threefold:

  1. The game would be ready, we’d have codes weeks ahead of time to ship to press.
  2. The only known larger titles launching near that date were scheduled for December and January.
  3. It was a good marketing hook to launch a gory game on Valentine’s day.

It was all a sound plan until Horizon Dawn: Forbidden West and Elden Ring announced delays a few months apart and well after we had made plans with platforms and cemented our own dates.

Those delays ended up being right in our launch window.

So instead of launching during their longtail, when we would expect press and streamers to be looking for something new to cover, we were actually launching right during their hype building. But that was going to be ok, we’d have our keys ready for press ahead of time, way before they would so at least we’d get some coverage that way, right? 

…Right?

The Anakin/Padme meme

Turns out even a month before launch wasn’t long enough, everyone was already booked with both games, and to make matters worse, Horizon Forbidden West embargo’s drop was scheduled to be on the same date as ours, which we found out the week before.

There’s little we could do but pick up the pieces and hope for the best by that time. We couldn’t have launched any earlier than we did, and pulling the plug a couple months before to delay until the “Elden Ring Storm” had passed wasn’t an option either, no matter what people on Twitter say.

In hindsight, I really don’t know what else we should’ve done to be honest. I guess I’m basically venting that even with a year of careful planning we ended up nearly rolling a double critical fail. It just goes to show that even if you have “the perfect plan”, you are at the whim of whoever is running the simulation.

Listing everything that went wrong may make it look super grim but don’t get me wrong, all in all we actually did really well all things considered: Infernax ultimately is a great success for us. We somehow managed to find our way into the public consciousness against these two mastodons, if only to reach the core audience that we wanted to play the game in the first place, and that’s what matters in the end.

THE END?

It’s sort of hard to put in words, eleven years of our lives in 4000 words divided in 10 bullet points, it feels like it’s oversimplifying the whole ordeal. This whole thing just made me realize just how much happened over the course of development not only to the game, but to us as people: the game has been in our lives for longer than most of our near teenage kids and has outlasted relationships. 

We’ve seen the game grow from a small “too edgy for Newgrounds” Flash game to a polished product released worldwide on all platforms in 12 languages, and in turn Infernax has seen our Studio go from three twenty-something dudes making bite-size free Flash games in their basement to a studio successful enough to be writing about their story.

We are incredibly grateful to have had the run that we’ve had with Infernax, its ups made all the downs worth it. We’re super proud of what we ended up creating, a game that was so very close to our hearts that we defied destiny to finish and ended up finding its way into so many hearts; I guess the Valentine’s launch date was appropriate after all!

Infernax's characters laughing

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