We got a chance to talk to Jakub Kasztalski from Unbound Creations to talk about what it was like to expand the Headliner franchise with their most recent release, Headliner: NoviNews. Jakub shares how he found the right audience for the types of games he wanted to make and how he used community feedback to strengthen his sequel.
I’m Jakub Kasztalski, and Headliner: NoviNews is my fourth title under Unbound Creations.
Headliner: NoviNews released in October of 2018, just over a year after the release of the original Headliner game.
My friend pitched the idea for the first Headliner game over a few beers.
He just said, “Hey, what about a game about controlling the news?”
So we started brainstorming and thinking about games such as Papers, Please.
Initially, it was more of a fast-paced, dexterity game where you’re trying to approve all the articles, racing against the clock, and you’re running home, trying to dodge curfews and things like that.
As I saw the situation in the U.S. change with the rise of fake news and the elections, I saw that there was potential in those topics.
So we pivoted from more of a gameplay game to a more narrative one, focusing on commentary about the fake news phenomenon, media bias, and the overall situation.
If we hadn’t chosen to address political issues in the Headliner games, the games would still have some community, some following. It just would have been a different beast.
All my games, and all the games under Unbound Creations, are very story driven, focusing on a lot of issues that parallel issues in the real world, so it fits into our brand when we tackle those kinds of topics.
It might have been a risk, but you could say maybe the other option would have been a risk as well. You never know.
It was kind of a lucky coincidence, at least, lucky for us.
It definitely came in at a time where the themes of the game were already becoming bigger issues in the U.S.
They were definitely things that needed to be addressed.
Making a sequel is finding a formula and improving on it
Even with their flaws, I’m pretty proud of both Headliner games
I do feel that they’re the two best games I’ve made so far and with each one, the formula keeps getting better and better.
We’re not sure about next steps yet, but it’s definitely a refinement process where each new game educates us for the next one.
Headliner: NoviNews is our fourth game, so each new title from Unbound is an improvement on the previous one.
At least, that’s how I feel.
We used a lot of the comments we’ve received from fans from our Discord to improve the new Headliner.
So the three main issues we wanted to address with Headliner: NoviNews were:
- The short playthrough
- Only having the two characters and not having much more interaction with the world
- The low-budget quality of the first game.
Those were the main things we wanted to improve.
We felt like the original formula of picking the news headlines, walking through the world, and seeing how it changes worked.
So we kept that and built upon that formula.
I’m proud of how Headliner: NoviNews turned out, given the limitations I self-imposed.
I had a certain budget in mind, I didn’t want to spend more whether it was on marketing or hiring people.
The other thing is, I wanted to spend no more than a year developing the game.
Given those restrictions, and also the fact that I was switching from a different engine back to Unity, we’ve done a really good job, and it’s a really solid game.
Overall, there are some flaws, but we released it at a point where we could have kept iterating it, but would have been doing it with diminishing results.
I wanted to take the lessons we learned and use them for the next game.
From a project management, more business side, I’m happy we found that balance.
There are also some personal issues I wanted to tackle in the game, which deal with being a creator.
You see these issues in the character of your brother, the aspiring comedian, and he deals with a lot of anxiety and depression and maybe imposter syndrome.
It’s something that I think a lot of people––not just developers, but also streamers and YouTubers, as well as others––can relate to as well.
This isn’t just from my own experience, but also talking to some of my friends who deal with similar issues.
Some of the lines are directly borrowed from things my friends have said.
I’ve talked to a few people in our community who said that they really liked the brother’s story, and that they thought the whole idea of depression and even suicide were handled very well and in a really realistic way.
They felt that the game wasn’t trying to capitalize on those topics, or be extreme for the sake of being extreme.
They all felt like it was very thoughtfully done and was able to shed a lot of light on those issues, so I felt like I did a very good job of handling those topics without being just another game about depression or anxiety.
The brother’s story was rewritten the most times, so I’m really happy that we managed to convey some of those issues and that they connected with people who deal with them as well.
Developing a solid community around a title that deals with complex issues
Our game is a niche title that caters to people who are interested in those kind of topics.
Before the first Headliner, I actually did a lot of research and mined a little bit of Google and Facebook data to find which topics people were most actively involved in as well as what kind of demographic we were looking at.
Looking at the Steam sales statistics, it turns out we got pretty close to what we were aiming for.
I feel like we did a good job of targeting a certain type of person who were interested in the topic of the game.
We started the Discord around the launch of the first game, I honestly didn’t think that much of it at the time.
Since then, it’s grown to over 100 members, and has started some interesting conversations as well as provided a lot of feedback and back and forth during the development process.
It’s definitely been a very steady stream of newcomers, especially around the release of the first game.
Now that we’ve released the new one, we’ve had a big boost of newcomers.
We also have a new faces every time I advertise that we’re looking for Linux or Mac testers.
Twitter is another platform we use, and we’ve more than doubled our numbers since we published the first Headliner.
That’s how it’s grown in terms of pure numbers.
The community has stayed pretty consistent in that, from the get-go, it attracted a lot of people who are interested in more serious topics.
We have a lot of serious conversations in the Discord, and people are also open to provide gameplay or art feedback on anything we post in the Discord.
It’s stayed consistent, which is nice.
I feel that right now we’re at the size where it’s pretty easy to manage it, we haven’t really had any issues that have needed addressing.
There were a few cases where people got into very heated arguments, with one person leaning towards the left and the other more to the right.
At the end of one argument, they both agreed it was getting heated and they both decided to stop and respect each other’s opinions.
It was actually surprising and very reassuring because it’s not something you see in the common discourse where two sides agree to disagree and still acknowledge each other’s opinions in a polite manner.
We added a current events channel from the get-go as a way to encourage those dialogues, it’s definitely something we wanted to facilitate.
That is part of the goal of the game, that’s why we’re tackling these issues.
It’s something we always had in mind, and our Discord serves as a platform where that dialogue can happen.
I didn’t really have any huge expectations with Headliner: NoviNews.
I’m just keeping an open mind and just accepting things as they come along.
We’re trying to grow our community and our following without necessarily putting certain requirements or goals we need to meet.
We’re letting the community organically build.
Although at the same time, I’m reevaluating whether or not the rate of growth we have right now is sustainable given the development time and the costs involved and reassessing whether or not this approach is working.
The community is great and I’m proud of the game from my artistic side, but as far as business goes, I think maybe the rate of growth is something that needs to be reconsidered a little bit more.
We definitely want to keep growing the same style of community and continue facilitating discussions and topics that get people interested, but we want to grow it to a bigger size and spark more debates.
I want to establish that Unbound Creations as a brand that makes games that are a bit more than just pure leisure and entertainment.
We’re expanding our community to new demographics with fan translations
Since the beginning, we’ve been tackling issues from both sides of the globe.
With the new Headliner game, the scope and reach of the themes have been even more global because the U.S. isn’t the only country dealing with potential media control and authoritarian government.
For the original Headliner, we’ve opened it up to allow fan translations of the game, since translations weren’t in our budget.
When we were making the game, I didn’t expect fans would get so involved with translation and localization.
We’re nearly done with the Chinese and Korean translations, which maybe shows something about the passion of those communities and their interest in bringing the game to their own countries.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to release those translations in the coming week or two and open it up to those demographics.
There are several other fan translations that are at varying points right now, the ones that are furthest along are German and Italian.
We’re considering Spanish and French also, because they’re both very large demographics across the world.
At the moment we have a simple system for the translators, it’s just a Google spreadsheet that we grant people access to once they reach out to us.
It’s collaborative, and we have a few languages where it’s just one or two people working on them. The Korean and Chinese translations were individual efforts.
We’re trying to keep it open and collaborative.
We also have a dedicated channel in our Discord for localization, so if anyone has any questions or uncertainties, they can ask them there.
They actually caught a few lines that were either confusing or missing from the translations, which was very helpful.
The people doing localization also get special titles in our Discord––we’re going with the theme of of “fake news, government control”––and their title is “Minister of Foreign Communication.”
A lot of the themes connect with people all around the globe: surveillance and policing, police brutality versus national security.
It’s a broad brush that touches on a lot of issues, and I believe many people who play the game can find one or two topics that resonate with them.
Educators are also joining the community
I’m meeting with someone from foundry10, a local education research institute, they’re interested in how games can be used to teach media literacy and critical analysis.
It’s especially relevant these days, where it’s getting harder and harder to trust the media you read.
Although it was never my original intention, having an educational use of the game is something that I’ve really been wanting to focus more.
I never considered Headliner to be an educational game.
But, as I started exhibiting the first Headliner at expos, I had numerous people comment that it would be a really good game for kids in high school either studying ethics or journalism.
I had one or two teachers tell me it would be really interesting in a school format, so I’ve been focusing more and more on exploring that area.
Ultimately, I want to make memorable games that have an impact
I mentioned Papers, Please before, but another big inspiration is HER STORY, Night in the Woods, Oxenfree: all those games attract people who want more than just pure fun and enjoyment.
Other games, such as Beholder or Orwell, also generate commentary about the global situation.
It’s almost a genre in and of itself: games that have kind of an experimental design but also show commentary about the state of the world.
One of the big pillars of the games’ design is taken from Telltale. The idea is that “no good deed goes unpunished.”
I really like that phrase, and I always wanted to have that balance where every action has a both positive and negative outcomes.
It’s not about which one is right, but the question is what do you prioritize? Who do you want to help? What outcome do you want, and what is most meaningful to you?
You can get what you want, but it will always cost you.
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