What started out as a hobby born out of spite and then became a passion project which ate up most of their spare time has blossomed into a real chance for two lifelong friends to make their mark as indie developers in the professional scene.
Bence Varga and András Hujber were born around the same time at the same hospital in Hungary and became friends through the connection. They decided to become video game developers early on thanks to PCs being something of a luxury in Eastern Europe at the time and some good old-fashioned sibling rivalry.
“We were young and our brothers didn’t [often] allow us to get on the PC and play video games,” Varga said. “So we came up with the idea: what if we started making our own games?”
Starting out with Lego figures and some basic programming Varga and Hujber began learning how to develop video games. By the age of 12, the two had made a very basic, but nonetheless executable, video game.
The two kept the passion going and would eventually earn degrees in computer engineering.
“We then began our professional careers as software developers,” Varga said. “With that foundation and knowledge, we learned what it takes to become video game developers.”
Hujber worked as a product manager and a freelance graphic designer and Vargas worked as a team manager for mobile game developers. Even with full-time professional obligations, the two wanted to make their own game.
Inspired by classic real-time strategy (RTS) games like Blizzard’s Starcraft and Ensemble Studios’ Age of Empires, Varga and Hujber decided to make a hardcore, old school style RTS themselves and for the past several years, they’ve been working on Five Nations, a HTML5 based RTS game.
A Game to Call Their Own
Varga and Hujber had experience with HTML5, an all-in-one web programming language, from working on mobile games such as Mr. Bean: Out of Control. It made sense to merge those skills and develop Five Nations as a browser-based game.
“RTS games take a lot of time for the player,” Varga said. “The initial thinking was to see if this kind of model would work. We wanted to see if an RTS could work with HTML5.”
Varga said HTML5 was the comfortable choice because they weren’t sure where the project would go.
“We weren’t sure about thousands of things,” he said.
Even with the skills and experience with the platform, they were still working full-time so Five Nations had to wait until they were off the clock.
“[At the time] we put around 30 hours per week into Five Nations,” Varga said. “It’s quite challenging and demanding to balance that and life as well. It comes at a cost and we need to sacrifice a lot of things.”
To ease the burden, Five Nations started as an open-source project. The idea was to let outside developers work on the game but Varga and Hujber said the idea was scrapped early on.
“There was interest, of course, but no one really contributed,” Varga said.
“And we wanted to find some funding,” Hujber added. “We were told not to use an open source project if we wanted to attract serious investors.”
Hardcore Game Design for the Players and the Developers
Five Nations is designed to be a hardcore RTS. Players are meant to be challenged not only by their opponents but by the gameplay mechanics. For example, as the name of the game may suggest, there are five races with different strengths and weaknesses for players to base their strategies around. Compare that to Starcraft’s three races or the four races in Warcraft III.
“We decided to use five races because when we were younger we designed a much simpler version of Five Nations,” Hujber said. “The story needed five races and the Five Nations of today is something like a professional remake.”
“I think for the player it can be interesting to challenge each race and learn their unique abilities,” he added.
The five races of Five Nations are a challenge for the player and they’re a challenge for the designers. Making each race look different from each other is tough on its own but Varga and Hujber need to balance and make each race feel unique as well.
“We don’t want to make one race too powerful,” Hujber said. “We want combat and resource management to be unique for each race. It will be a great challenge to do this, but it’s what we like.”
Mechanics, Hujber said, are the hardest thing to make interesting in a video game.
“Think about the orcs and humans in the first Warcraft game,” he said. “They were basically the same but had different sprite sheets.”
They also gathered resources the same way. Send the worker unit to a gold mine or the forest and he comes back to the Town Hall building with some gold or lumber. A tried and true method for Blizzard through the series but a total snoozefest for Varga and Hujber.
“Most RTS games have one or two main resources but Five Nations has four,” Hujber said. He acknowledged Age of Empires also had four resources, but what makes Five Nations unique in resource gathering is the number of steps required. Players need to build mining stations near the resource nodes which will send a cargo ship to the headquarters.
“We wanted to challenge the player not only with defending the stations but also the supply routes,” Hujber said. “And also so they can target enemy supply routes and make things harder for them.”
Varga and Hujber want Five Nations to stand out from other RTS games. However, according to Hujber, being able to say a game is completely unique these days is hard.
“Every game has unique things and other games borrow good ideas from each other,” he said. “We are working very hard to make our game unique but we know games like Starcraft and Age of Empires are the great pioneers on this side of the games industry.”
A Chance to Show Their Stuff
In 2018, Varga and Hujber had a chance to show off their work at the White Nights Conference, a games industry convention held in Europe. After pitching Five Nations and being approved by the committee, they had a chance to rub elbows with some pretty big names in the games industry.
“To be honest, it was like winning the lottery,” Varga said. “It was undoubtedly the significant milestone that kicked off the transition from hobby to potential business opportunity.”
New to the conference scene, Varga and Hujber needed to watch internet videos to learn how to set up booths and what needed to be presented. Varga said it was exciting for them but also terrifying to realize how much they needed to work on.
“It was very intimidating at first,” Varga said. “The more we prepared, the more we realized we knew nothing about the business side of game development despite our passion for making games. It was like having your first day at school.”
Seeing this as their shot, Varga and Hujber wanted to bring something a little different to the conference. Instead of a technical demo or a vertical slice of the game to present, they made a playable version of Five Nations they called “Super Early Access.” This version functioned as a playable campaign and prologue to the main game’s story.
“We wanted to come up with something better to present than a standard demo for our core fanbase and early adopters,” Varga said. “We thought it would be cool to tell the story of what happened before the main galactic war in the main game.”
Being able to present a working version of the game and attending as big a gaming conference as White Nights were, the best part for Varga and Hujber was seeing how excited people were to play an old school style RTS.
“It was great seeing people surprised that we can deliver on a project like this,” Varga said. “In this industry, especially in the studios, your not going see a lot of effort put into an RTS game because they take a long time to make. It was good to show people it can be done.”
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