Indie games development can be tough, especially when you’ve got a good idea for something but you’re not quite sure what way to take it. Having heard about Booya Squad, a Wisconsin-based team keen to turn their childhood comics into a mobile card battler, we wanted to learn more about their journey.
Booya Squad is a joint effort between Mike Bloom and his brother-in-law, John. They’re currently working on a social card game called Mario Italiano Four Families, but the story starts much earlier than that. Based on a comic book world they created over ten years ago, it’s been a long time coming. In that time, they've had to juggle big moves across country, raising a family, job changes, health issues, and many more challenges. The team’s blog explains the full story, such as how Mike skipped on a regular sleep pattern in order to get work done, but we also had a chat with him to learn the pertinent details behind everything.
148Apps: How much have various free internet resources helped you in your quest to go into game development? What would you recommend to other aspiring developers?
Mike Bloom (MB): We used the internet to learn how to do everything we needed to know. When we started, we were very naïve to the amount of knowledge and skills we would need to complete the game. So as we progressed through the project we often came upon an obstacle where we needed to learn or come up with something. So we would Google it or search for it on YouTube. We were constantly amazed that if we dug deep enough into these sources, we would always find exactly what we needed. The trick is to use different search phrases. We did this for everything from balancing stats, building a clean UI, all the way to marketing methods.
The idea here is to not be scared to start down the development path because you don’t know how to do everything you will need to do, or better yet you don’t even know what is all needed. Since we went in half blind, we just found the answers when we needed them, and that was actually fun. It was like, oh we have to do that? Well, I’ll do that one, learn the skill and put it to use right away.
148Apps: What kept you going through the particularly tiring times?
MB: In all honesty, this has been a three year grind, a true test of our will. But through it all, two things kept us going, kept our focus on the end result.
First, this is our passion! They say to find your passion, to know what you are meant to be doing, figure out what you’d do if money wasn’t an issue. Well, this is what John and I would be doing, bridging our favorite things, art and video games.
Second, we had to find a way out of our punishing corporate prisons, and we knew if we didn’t give it our best shot we would regret it forever. We aren’t fresh out of college, trying to make something out of our final game dev project with little to lose. We are guys in our 30s that got stuck in careers that we don’t enjoy. We have wives, kids, and mortgages to pay. We put it all on the line to follow our true passion, the dream we planted 14 years ago, the dream we almost let die.
148Apps: You’ve no doubt learned plenty of valuable lessons throughout development, but if you could only name one important thing to impart to other aspiring developers, what would it be?
MB: One thing we learned was to delegate the workload. With a small team, you need to know each other’s strengths and work within them as much as possible. As you go, you will find tasks that appeal to one person more than the others and let them do them. When we both had no experience in an area, but one of us would like to learn it, that person took it on and by now is good at it. When the time came that we needed something we really weren’t interested in learning or doing, this is when we would outsource. We would try and put our feelers out there to find the most affordable options and we would often score big. The sound was done by a brilliant guy that we met through a friend, and he did an amazing job!
Don’t sway from your vision: No matter if you are doing everything in-house or you are outsourcing coding or design or sound or whatever, make sure you have a clear vision and stick to it. Yes, games will always evolve through the development process and that is great, but make sure that evolution is for a better player experience and not because it’s easier for your coders, or some designer or animator doesn't want to spend the extra time making it right. Compromising your game’s unique features or playability because you are getting resistance from a team member or your outsourcers will leave your game in the heap of other generic, could have been great games.
Stay authentic and be yourself. Coming from a cutthroat sales management job, the game dev community was a breath of fresh air. Every fellow game dev we ever came in contact with, whether on social media, through a blog, or at a convention, was always friendly and helpful. Most were genuinely excited for us. The more transparent we were, the better our response from even some big names we met.
Never give up. There were many times when it would have been perfectly logical for us to quit. I mean we originally thought the game would be done in less than a year. Here we are now, three years in. The obstacles we've faced were crazy! I was working 60-70 hour weeks and then staying up till 3:00 AM to work on the game after my family was sleeping. John took a promotion out of state and began the same insanity. He also has had two children during the development of this game. I was diagnosed with a blood disease and had to take work leave for months, only to never return and have to scramble for a new job while depleting my savings. Shortly after this, the first firm we contracted for coding refused to finish the job and demanded an additional $40000! This is just a few of the things we had to overcome.
I tell you this not looking for a pat on the back, but in the hopes that we may inspire others to follow their dreams, no matter what they face. To show them that if they believe in what they are creating and they have passion for it that they will find a way. Looking back at what seemed like the end of the world at the time, now makes perfect sense. If I hadn't fallen ill, I wouldn't have had the courage to leave a job that was killing me and I never would have had the time to finish the game. If the first coders wouldn't have breached contract the game would have been a mess, and I would never have met the team I’m with now. They are doing a stellar job and have become my good friends and a valuable asset. So, what we've learned making this game goes much deeper than learning how to make an easy to navigate UI, or how to make cars look reflective in Photoshop, it’s changed our lives.
148Apps: What made you decide to go with a mafia theme for your comic and then card game?
MB: I have to say that part of my love for all things Mob-related stems from my Italian heritage. My mom’s side is very Italian. But when I drew the first sketch of the soon to be Mario Italiano, I wasn’t even thinking about making a mobster comic. But I liked the drawing and he looked the part so I started working on the idea. At first I was worried because the mafia thing can get pretty stale and clichéd, but I figured I could solve that with character design and some sick humor. I also quickly realized that the theme lent itself rather well to the off-the-wall character creation I loved. Really every mobster fact or fiction had some crazy nickname and or characteristic about them. This really opened the door to go crazy with my characters. I also knew that I could really have fun interconnecting and building the story as I went. So I started by developing an arch enemy: Stinky Joe Elbo, a nasty rival mob boss. Shortly after that, I talked John into doing the comic with me and our minds exploded into our sketchbooks as we continually grew Capitol City through its inhabitants. At this point we have over 300 characters between the four families and the whole thing is held together with the characters’ roles and back-stories.
148Apps: How difficult was it to use a potentially dark theme yet still maintain plenty of humor?
MB: This was actually easy for us. John and I are both a little weird and we have a pretty good sense of humor. So we accomplished this mainly by our wacky character design and our writing. We’d rather err on the side of creating a character that is a bit too over the top than ever introduce a character that is generic or boring. If we can’t think of a great name, trait, or back-story then we scrap the character, but in most cases we aim for all three. We really try to bring life to these characters, make them something that stands out. When we were doing the comic, we really thought there was something edgy yet cool about depicting a gruesome firefight between rival mobs, but the characters involved were guys like Freddie the four eyed freakshow, a frog-eating half mutant, and Costa Rico - a jerry curled, island-hopping gunrunner. The Comic and the game take a very serious tone, but there’s this underlying ridiculousness of the characters that keeps it fresh and makes you smile.
Thanks to Mike for telling us the story behind Booya Squad and Mario Italiano Four Families. The game is set for release later this year and we’ll be sure to let you know when.