It’s a Monday night, and two fully grown men are sitting on the floor of my apartment falling in love with my cat. They’re cooing like anime girls, but I’m not judging. Luna’s cuteness level could melt the coldest and cruellest of hearts, but these guys are already the most chilled out and down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. They are Majd Akar and Hosni Auji, Lebanese developers of the iOS atmospheric puzzle game Zero Age, which was featured under “Best New Games” on the AppStore in 2014.
Through the course of the evening, Akar and Auji reveal a lot more to me than I initially believed they would. They are very frank about their foray into indie game development and are not at all secretive about their process or shortcomings. They have no qualms making jabs at each other or making fun of themselves. They’re funny, they interrupt each other and argue over details. Most importantly, they tell the story like it is.
In October 2014, Akar and Auji released Zero Age, a beautiful but infuriatingly difficult game, going against the popular trend of redundant freemiums that are continually crowding the app store. And well?
Finally, we have something that goes against the trend of mindless tapping – a game that really requires you to think. My guess? Akar and Auji are going to make a huge difference in game development within the region. You just wait and see.
Was game development always part of your plan?
Akar: Yep. When I applied to college, that’s what I put into my Letter of Intent: I want to make video games.
Auji: To be honest, until recently, I never thought it was possible. I mean, when I was a kid, games came from Japan.
Akar: Barely seven years ago, there was no way we could have gotten our hands on the means to create a game.
Auji: That’s true – that’s why when I was in college, game development didn’t seem like a possibility that could actually happen. So for me, it was film-making. That’s what I wanted to do. I majored in graphic design, but my second option was computer science. When I got my degree and finished my film, I looked into graduate programs in Vancouver. I was really skeptical because I had no idea how to code. One of the school reps told me that you don’t need to know how to code to do game design – that’s when the idea became a possibility for me.
What’s the first video game you remember playing and what console was it on?
Hosni: It was Sonic Fury on the Action Max. It was this rudimentary gaming system that worked with your TV, and the game cartridges were actually VHS tapes. Sonic Fury was live action, you know, like a movie. You’d plug this gun into your VCR and shoot at planes on the TV. And I mean, the planes would actually explode! That totally blew my mind until I figured out that it didn’t really matter if you shot at them or not – the planes exploded any way. It was just that you’d get points if you shot at them.
Akar: First game ever? I think it was Pitfall on the SEGA.
And how did Zero Age get started?
Akar: It was a really stretched out design process. We had to learn how to use the engine. And we knew we wanted to make a puzzle game. We threw ideas around. It was meant to be simple and easily completed, but that’s not what happened.
Auji: There was also this local competition in 2012 – the Netherlands Game Award organized by the Dutch Embassy in 2012. That was our first incentive. We had to submit a demo by June and hand in the finished game by November.
Akar: And we won the completion with this game that actually looks nothing like Zero Age.
Auji: We probably won because of that trailer. I don’t think anyone actually played it.
Akar: No, come on. I think they did. Just not much of it. Either way, we were worried. The competition was pretty fierce.
Why a tablet game?
Auji: Well, we actually started with a PC game. It was supposed to be mouse only.
Akar: It was meant to be something you could play through quickly. It wasn’t very action-y. But then we created a Version 1 that had some action in it. I love JRPGs and strategy games and it sort of seeped through to that prototype. I think Hosni probably has awful things to say about it.
Do you have horrible things to say about it?
Auji: No, no! But it was incredibly hard – I couldn’t even play the demo! I think Majd was the only person in the whole world that could play it. So I was just like – fine man, you play it. I’ll film it. But after that Majd suggested we make the game for iPad instead. You can self-publish, it’s simple because of unified hardware – you don’t have to worry about things not working because the platform is always the same – and it’s easier to sell. But all of a sudden we had different sized iPads and different firmware versions. At that point any notion of simplifying things just went out the window. Also, at the time, neither of us owned an iPad.
Are you kidding me?
Auji: Nope. Majd bought a used iPad 2 so we could do testing while we developed. I didn’t buy one until right before we launched Zero Age, and I bought it just to test that the game worked on the new version.
Why iOS, not Android?
Akar: Look, we had only two choices of engine at the time. Unreal Development Kit and Unity. We went with UDK, which was seriously difficult to use and at the time it didn’t really work that well with Android devices.
Auji: Also, the things you could do with audio on UDK were kind of limited.
Akar: But UDK offered a deal that appealed to us. If we released on iOS, we didn’t have to pay a massive fee. It was like around a 100 dollars. If we were going to do an Android game, we’d be paying through the roof for a license.
Auji: And any profit we made was ours up until the $50,000 mark. After that, we’d pay them 25% of any profit.
So I’m guessing you didn’t have any funding. How much did it cost you to make Zero Age?
Auji: You mean in terms of time? Because it took us two years to make it.
Akar: Think of it this way. If in two years, our combined salaries amounted to $96,000, making this game cost us around $100,000, maybe just a little bit less. But we got so lucky because people were good to us.
Auji: Majd’s brother loaned us an office to work out of for a year and half.
Akar: That really saved us a lot of the usual trouble you face from working at home in Lebanon. We didn’t have to deal with electricity outages and bad internet – which are seriously a big problem here.
Auji: But then we had to move out, so each one of us was working separately at home. We’d discuss things via chat and meet up every once and while. But you know – it was a good way to curb fights. There’s no arguing over chat because you can just stop typing and come back later.
So tell me about the wizard guy. How did you come up with that character?
Auji: First of all, it’s a girl. Her evolution was also a long process. At first, when we were still working on the PC, Majd had a character with a robe. Was it also girl?
Akar: Yes, it’s always a girl. And then there was this pumped-up super sexy version of her. You know … the theory was that sex sells. But at that point we realized, the whole thing was just not going to work and the game would never be completed. So we had to scrap it all and start all over again. Now it was a tablet game and her texture had to fit in a single cube. We think about function before form. We don’t think aesthetically first. But thematically, her character had to fit in with the game world.
Auji: We needed a magical character made up of a single block. So a woman all of sudden looked like a wizard and no one recognized her as a woman. Also, her name is Mim.
What’s next? Would you want to create a game for PC or other platforms?
Auji: Yes, absolutely. I’m still learning how to use game design software that doesn’t require the knowledge of coding. They only really work for mobile games though. But yes, I’d really like to be able to do a console game. I think Majd does as well.
Akar: Does what?
Auji: Make a console game.
Akar: Never again a mobile game. Alright not never again. We’re planning to start an actual company for mobile app and game development, but I really, really want to do a console game at some point.
What has the response to Zero Age been like?
Auji: Look, the barrier of entry in Zero Age is pretty tough. It requires focus and more time spent on a puzzle than most casual tablet games. But people who have managed to get past that barrier are generally very impressed. In retrospect, the system we created was actually very difficult. What we should have done was have other people test it before launch. We created the puzzles and tested them ourselves, and because we were so immersed in our own system, solutions were obvious to us, and we kept making them harder and harder. We expected people to grasp too much too quickly.
Akar : Yeah, because of that barrier, people who put in the time and effort that the game initially requires end up really enjoying it and the reviews are good. People who don’t have the patience for it don’t review it. Now we think it might have worked better on the PC, so we’re planning to release a PC version pretty soon, but of course, we’d want to make it look better, since on the PC you can. That might take some time, but it would be a waste not to make full use of that kind of power.
What would you tell someone who wants to develop their own game?
Akar: Be extremely patient. You’re going to have to sit through a pretty tough financial period. Hosni and I aren’t special – every indie developer has to go through these periods. Oh, and for coders, always test on paper before starting on a single line of code. I personally ****ed up because I didn’t do that, so I sometimes took longer to code than I should have.
Auji: What would I tell someone who can’t code and want to design a video game? You need to find a good coder.
Personally, I’m working with an application called Stencyl . There are more like out there like it. They’re called graphical programming languages – you need the logic you’d need as a programmer, but you don’t need the syntax. You can definitely use these apps to create prototypes for the games you want to make.
What games are you currently playing?
Hosni: Fire Emblem 3DS…
Majd: Jackass, I’m so jealous.
Hosni: …the remake of Grim Fandango and I’m hoping to start Blood Borne soon.
Majd: Final Fantasy Type-0 … oh my God, it’s so good. Freedom Wars on PS Vita. Rogue Legacy and I’d like to play Blood Borne as well.