Cally and Her Caves
by Devon Wiersma
With only two people on a team of game developers and no experience shipping games before, one might (naturally) think that getting started in development and shipping your first game could be a difficult skill to tackle.
But this didn’t dissuade Jordan Pearson, a game developer based out of London, Ontario who together with a partner founded VDO Games, a studio which develops an action-platformer series called Cally’s Caves for mobile devices since 2013. After quitting his job and learning game development in the Game Maker engine, Jordan and his friend soon spent the next four months developing their first title, Cally’s Caves. The series has been running strong ever since, with Cally’s Caves 3 and Cally’s Trials recently released on Steam, the company is now working on Cally’s Caves 4 which is set to release in 2017.
Jordan’s first partner at VDO left shortly after the game’s release to start a family, so he soon joined forces with an artist he met online who goes by the moniker of 0HK0. The pair met when Jordan made a post online seeking to partner up with an artist, citing Cally’s Caves 1 as proof he could put the work in to ship a product and specifically appealed to anyone whose previous experiences with doing art for games had failed to come through. 0HK0 responded and the pair started working together on Cally’s Caves 2.
0HK0 handles most of the artistic elements for VDO’s games, which features a plethora of pixel art. Jordan, meanwhile, attends to all the other aspects of the game, from development, to marketing and even the music.
Yet despite working together on three installments of the series now, they actually tend to keep one another at arms-length. “He lives somewhere in the States. I’ve actually never met him in person or like even talked to him on the phone or anything like that, we’ve only communicated through the internet, it’s pretty crazy,” he says, adding that through the development of Cally’s Caves 2 which was their first game together the pair communicated exclusively over email, “But now we have Skype so it’s a bit easier to get in touch.”
Both team members keep a rather light web presence, with most available information available on them limited to the production of the game itself. The team applies this practice to their fans as well, often being wary of growing too close with their players or others online.
“I’ve learned not to get too involved with anybody on a personal level,” Jordan explains, “Theoretically, if we scale up in the future, how many personal relationships are you going to be able to keep maintaining on that level?”. It’s a justifiable practice for a growing studio where any spike in popularity could lead to losing face with relationships that a game maker holds dear.
That being said, VDO Games has its own Discord server where fans, streamers and other developers can go to seek advice on game development or discuss current events in the industry, and the members of VDO Games check up on it on a daily basis. It allows fans of Cally’s Caves to interact and support one another while still enabling Jordan to interact and socialize with the game’s fanbase.
He also does his best to answer back every email and piece of feedback promptly and personally.
“Every single time I ever respond to anybody I always say ‘We’re a small team, we really appreciate your support, it means a lot to us’ because it’s true”.
These interactions, he adds, are integral to maintaining not only VDO’s fan-base but also their games positive reviews. He finds that responding to negative Steam user reviews on Steam and feedback from the community helps players identify with the team and improves their perception of them as developers.
“When you think about the people who make games you think, ‘Oh they’re just these crazy rich geniuses’”
“I think that just trying to convey that you’re a person and being real with people is a good way to build a community, and that’s all that we’ve really done”.
Each game VDO has published has also consistently been a new entry in the Cally’s Caves series. While they’ve explored the idea of creating games outside of the franchise, the appeal of its development is a constant battle for the team to improve upon the latest release.
“I think the main reason we’ve stuck with it is because I felt like we could improve each time we finished a game. We felt like we could do better,” says Jordan. Not only that, but with Cally’s Cave 3 finding new fans on Steam and the recognition of the name growing, VDO Games see no reason to stop improving the series any time soon.
They’re also not afraid of potential clones of the series appearing on the store, something which is often prevalent in App Store releases. Jordan believes Cally’s Caves doesn’t rely on gimmicks or new mechanics which would ordinarily be the focus of these clones. Instead he claims the appeal the game has is its “overall package” — the care and attention put into the series itself and the improvements added throughout each iteration of the franchise.
Even with a steady output of high-quality games (Cally’s Caves 3 was featured in the first slot under “Best New App” in the U.S. App Store on iOS), Jordan’s experience with developing games professionally doesn’t stretch too much further than the summer of 2013.
The road to his development has been a winding one: as a child he programmed games for the Commodore 64, but with a post-secondary degree in political sciences he found himself working a number of different jobs, including an administrative assistant at a retirement home, an attendant at a payday loan company, and an overnight clerk at a bus stop where he recalls having to “kick people out who were trying to shoot heroin in the bathroom”.
He had always been inspired by stories from other developers he heard about. Specifically, he spoke of Steve Gaynor, game designer and writer of the Bioshock series who moved on to found his own studio The Fullbright Company which created Gone Home and is currently working on a new release, Tacoma. Stories of success and passion like Gaynor’s inspired Jordan to pursue game development on his own for better or for worse.
The Cally’s Caves series eventually served as a passion project he would work on between his full time job, but often at the cost of his stamina. He states that his work at the retirement home was “insanely high-pressure…I was coming home at like, seven exhausted every night and had to find it within myself to put in six hours of game dev and do it all again the next day”.
But now that VDO Games is slowly growing towards sustainability as they release more and more products, his latest job at a call centrer allows him the luxury of taking time off to focus on development of their games while working part-time.
Since his game development time frequently stretches on for extended periods of (his average work day is from 7a.m. to 8p.m.), he actively takes steps towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He takes periodical breaks, practices yoga and goes for a jog every morning. Yet Jordan recognizes that being able to work towards the development of games is still a privilege in a sense, one he feels is wasted when he doesn’t commit most of his time towards it.
“If 7 a.m. rolls around any day and I’m not working on a game I feel this sense of guilt…every single second that I have to make this happen I gotta be doing it, otherwise I’m spitting this opportunity in the face.” But it’s not all quite as bad as it sounds, “I’m probably making it sound like a grind or something like that…but the reason I’m working on it so long is because I enjoy working on it”.
It’s this sense of privilege which he reminds himself of and something he astutely notes is frequent in the game industry. We spoke on the topic of Game Developers Conference, something we agreed feels unbalanced towards foreign attendees. He states aptly, “I’m a white, male, Canadian game developer and it’s hard for me to get to GDC. What’s it like for a person of colour who lives overseas and is a game developer?”.
It’s not an uncommon observation either; with the cost of attending GDC for developers upwards of thousands of dollars in Canadian and the American political climate discriminating more and more against communities around the world, attending GDC is gradually becoming another lost opportunity for international developers.
International players are something he’s also concerned with. Cally’s Caves has been picked up by gamers worldwide — Cally’s Caves 3 has the most downloads from China despite having little localization from the English language. This international interest makes Jordan want to localize the next installment of the series better to give those players a better experience.
He also recognizes the privilege of living in Canada itself, citing how the Canadian app store is “a pretty good bellwether” for identifying popular apps worldwide — something invaluable for a mobile developer. “We’re also pretty lucky in having a similar culture to the States,” he adds, “We can just put out our games in [Canada] and it immediately can be sold on the U.S. App Store exactly as it’s sold in Canada as well. I have a game dev friend in India and it’s not as easy for him to just put out a game that has the same cultural norms.”
VDO Games shows few signs of slowing, with the next installment of Cally’s Caves is due for release in Summer 2017, with Cally’s Caves 3 and Cally’s Trials are both available now for purchase on iOS, Android and Steam.