Fireside Chat #2 (Joysteak Studios – Songbird Symphony)
Following the recent launch of Songbird Symphony, fans of the adorable Birb finally got to unravel Birb’s musical journey about discovering who he truly is. As the curtains and feathers of Birb’s adventure come to a close, the team behind Joysteak Studios (Hanif, Kang Soon and Sai Hou) came together to answer some of their fan questions and reflect on their own development journey.
<Source: Facebook page>
Q: How did the idea of Songbird Symphony come about?Hanif: Back in 2016, one of my university lecturers mentioned that birds would learn each other’s cry. That was when I had the idea of making a musical game about birds
Hanif: We made the rhythm aspects more forgiving, allowing new players to appreciate the rhythm game genre and discover their interest in music. Many players have told us that their kids had a better grasp of rhythm after playing the game!
Q: How did you all know each other?Kang Soon: In 2009, I met Hanif in Temasek Junior College while taking a computing course. Hanif was initially the one into video games, and I soon got sucked in too and thought we could do games together. Back then, we had no programming background and did not know Unity existed at that time.
I eventually met Sai Hou during an internship at USA Silicon Valley. We were colleagues for a year and got pretty close which I then roped him into our game development process.
<Source: Personal screenshot from game> <Hollow knight inspiration>
Q: What kind of games inspired each of you?Kang Soon: I didn’t play rhythm games, but during casual connect I saw Rhythm Doctor. My initial impression of rhythm games were simply bars dropping from the screen, so I was surprised at Rhythm doctor’s gameplay and it gave us a fresh perspective on making the game.
Sai Hou: I did play Cytus and Deemo. I also saw Hollow knight and Celeste influence on the game when I joined the team.
Hanif: Some of the games which inspired me were Patapon, PaRappa the Rapper, Rhythm Heaven, Rhythm Doctor, OSU. Other games which inspired me are Ori, Cave Story, and Hollow Knight.
Q: Were there any problems faced?Kang Soon: Our original programmer left midway so there were issues such as the handing over process and splitting of company assets. We hired a lawyer for legal matters and giving due compensation to him. We also spent time settling the Intellectual property agreement. We definitely should have defined such agreement at the start.
Hanif: Our mentors helped us with foreseeable problems, it would have been much messier without their help.
Sai Hou: Fortunately I had one and half month to take over the work, however, our development got stuck on one level for half a year because I was still learning the code.
Q: What was the development journey like? Did you do it full time?Hanif: Yes Songbird Symphony was developed full time. Since 2017 May, we started making prototypes and ideation before the company was incorporated in 2017. During development, we also did some tutoring for game developments to kids, JC students and adults. We also worked on client works during the weekends outside of working hours.
Q: How did you find your mentor and how did they help you?Kang Soon: Our mentors were Chor Guan (then SUTD Gamelab), Kim Naylor and Paul Naylor (Co-founders of Land Shark Games). Hanif and I caught both our mentor’s eye during out time at SUTD Games Innovation program and they slowly got to know of our dream. We still kept in contacts with our mentors even when I had to leave for an overseas internship.
Hanif: Paul gave advice on game design, Chor Guan gave advice for business aspect and industry contacts such as accountants, lawyers, and contacts from Level Up KL.
<Source: Gwen’s Photo> <Joysteak Studios>
Q: How did you get in contact with PQube Ltd?Kang Soon: From the beginning, we knew we need to have a publisher. We released demos on Newgrounds to win awards since people will be more receptive once you have credentials. Finally, we managed to catch people’s attention and managed to attend game conventions.
Kang Soon: Funnily enough, most of the publisher we spoke to at conventions were not interested in our game. It was the game awards that actually got PQube’s attention.
Kang Soon: We got to know PQube since they were Gentlebro’s publisher. We sent out the email and made sure to mention that our office was very close to Gentlebro’s office and PQube responded to their interest. In total, we spend 7-8 months finding a publisher and 6-7 months negotiating before signing the agreement.
Hanif: Our publisher was quite hands-off in the creative aspect, but they do give feedback on the game. During the prelaunch, the publisher feedback that songs were too hard and so we took some precaution and made changes. They provided us with professional QA and translators as well!
Q: Does having a publisher affect the direction of the game?Hanif: Nope, our publisher were quite hands-off in the creative aspect, they do give feedback on the game. During the prelaunch, the songs were too hard and after the publisher gave feedback, we took some precaution and made changes. The design was not very much affected by the publishers throughout the development.
Kang Soon: How much say a publisher gets differs. If the publisher puts in more money into your game, they would want to have more say. Developers should consider the deal and any unspoken details in your contract such as huge upfront payment. It is all tricky and ties back to having a good mentor to advise.
Q: What were some marketing tricks you learned?
Kang Soon: Use all the tools that each platform provide (Steam, PSN, Switch store). There was a consideration over whether we should put a demo. If players don’t like the demo they won’t purchase the full game, on the other hand some would rush the game in 2hours and get a refund.
Steam Tags are one of the tools that helped an increase in our page views. Social media, posting at 11am is good, Wed and Saturday are good days.
Hanif: Do a lot of research on your publishing platform. Their algorithm will change a lot, like Instagram will not promote a post that links the user to other pages, now Facebook has just changed their algorithm and encourage post that links outside of Facebook. Facebook like photos as well. Facebook stats show 3 times more engagement on photo post than link post.
For example, a post with a picture generated from a link (the TodayOnline post) and a post with a link but with our own photo (i.e making a photo post with a link), the latter did better.
Q: How did you decide on the price point?Kang Soon: Songbird Symphony is priced at $16.99 and the general feedback is mixed. Our first price point was $14.99. Our publisher hinted that our game was worth much more too.
Hanif: We considered who was our true audience and also the expectation of our game compared to other games on the market (Wandersong, Gris, Hollow Knight). Not many games go for our middle price point ($15-20) and there isn’t much data to support our price point. In the end, we did what we believed in.
Kang Soon: On the launch date, the game was discounted at $14.99, so we still managed to go with our very first price point. Our published agreed it will help push discoverability.
Q: How do you come to conclusions on design?Kang Soon: We placed high respect towards Hanif’s decision since he had the most game design experience. Although we might have some doubts about certain ideas, we won’t reject it but instead, proceed to give it a try first. Then with much objectivity and maturity, we would adjust the idea. I feel that Hanif is a very mature person.
Q: Are all the music and sound done in-house?Hanif: Yes, coincidentally I did some music project in school and Kang Soon did art as a hobby so we had some experience in our fields. I felt slightly intimidated after seeing a forum post stating that since Songbird Symphony is a music game, the music must be stellar. But even with that, I was determined to do the music and had improved myself throughout the project. It was as much a journey for Birb as well as us.
Q: Who are each of your favourite character and songs?Sai Ho: Poot (Chicken Fairy)
Hanif: Kookaburras, Cassie (Dialogue/Song)
Kang Soon: Masked bird, The theme song,. The theme song was the earliest song that Hanif made for school and it captured my imagination. I knew we had to use that song somewhere in the game.
I also liked Egbert, the idea came from a Disney movie. He is the cricket to Pinocchio, an alternate voice to Birb and put his adventure into perspective.
Q: How involved is the team in community engagement for Discord & Twitter?
Kang Soon: We set up our social media pages from the very beginning. As social media content is time-consuming, we took turns to do it and sometimes asked our friends to help us, making an average of one post a week. However, it was still not good enough and it should be have been done every day.
Nearing the end of the development, I was active on the social media pages and marketing.
Hanif: Our current community has a lot of young people. Songbird Symphony is about being welcoming - Birb is trying to find out who he is. We try to reflect that in our community. If someone posts content not representative of our values, we will address it.
Kang Soon: People do get bullied in discord, some of these young audiences are still in their "Emo Stage" and have self-doubt which causes them to be passive-aggressive. People will pick on them, but we try to take care of them. “Hey maybe try to be nicer? Birb won't like that”. We always use Birb as a shield for us.
Q: What made the team decide to go Indie without any AAA experience?
Kang Soon: This decision deals with the right timing and people. Our mentors and Hanif were waiting for me to return from the US. I felt that Hanif and Yong Xue were good partners and I wanted to grab this opportunity. We each gave ourselves a fixed amount of time limit for our dive into indie as we have personal finances issues like HDB, wedding and parents. We also talked with our family to find out if they are supportive. For me, if I didn’t do indie now it would be harder for me in the future. I wanted to go into games but I failed Ubisoft’s technical interview.
Hanif: Indie is not for everyone. It was not easy to find co-founders, it felt like a marriage when forming a partnership.
Sai Ho: For me, it was about timing, I graduated half a year after Kang Soon and Hanif, I applied for Ubisoft and also failed as I did not undergo any C++ course. I felt it was a good chance to join when Kang Soon approach me and it aligned with my dreams.
Q: Many devs want to go into niche genre; they get ambitious and it ends up being a flop. What made you choose something niche?
Kang Soon: We didn’t think that much, we just wanted to do what was interesting for us. Following others is not interesting and doing something new means we don’t have to compete. We essentially determine what goes into the new genre. We call it musical-lite.
We didn’t do so well with the mixed genre of platforming and rhythm genre. Typically the 2 mixed-genre has to share mechanic or audience, but we could not find the overlap for ours. We weren't trained in game design so we just did what we wanted.
Hanif: The key is how to polish the game and make it presentable. The indie audience enjoys experimental games, so we tried to make Songbird Symphony as family-friendly and casual to fix the genre-mixing issue. Make your game welcoming.
Q: What is one thing you would change if you can go back to the beginning?Hanif: [All members thinking for a long while] The fact that we are taking this long to think of an answer shows how proud we are of our product. Maybe there are certain things in marketing, but not in the development.
Kang Soon: I agree, more of the business aspect. We were not familiar with the legal aspects at that time and did a lot of exploring and self-learning. We could have been less naïve in our mind-set as starting an Indie is far deeper than we expected.
Sai Hou: Same, none on the development.
Q: What’s next for Joysteak Studios?Kang Soon: We are still figuring it out. We are not selling amazingly well to be able to work full time on games. We are still trying to meet the minimum guarantee from the publisher and determine whether long term sales can support the salary of 3 developers. We are thinking of merchandising, starting our next game and doing some client work. Players are still asking for more bug fixes so we are making our promise to the players first.
We have some ideas…the title of the game contains the word Birb.(notetaking & post written by our volunteer - Chong Jun Yi. Thank you!)
Thanks to Joysteak for the fantastic fireside chat.
Thanks to Joysteak for the fantastic fireside chat.