· 12 min read

Taking The Plunge Into Game Dev – Beasts Of Burden Interview

We speak to Ustwo's previous Head of Design, Toke Barter, about the history of the Beasts Of Burden app, and the key challenges they faced on the way.

Located within the Copenhagen branch of GameAnalytics is our GameHub, where anyone can come and use the space in order to develop and grow their games. One such group are the developers of Beasts of Burden, who have just started their kickstarter campaign

Thanks for chatting with me today. Can you shed a light on what Beasts of Burden is?

Gladly. So, in short, Beasts of Burden – bob – is a game-driven approach to establishing better habits, overcoming stress, and improving feelings of well-being.

We’ve based this game on 30 years of research into stress management, and it provides bite-sized and fun activities proven to build a resilient mindset. All of which is delivered by powerful A.I. within one central app.

Here’s a nifty video we put together to build a better picture of what it’s about:

And how does it actually work?

So when playing the game, you’ll learn over time to identify behaviors that create unnecessary pressure in your life, and develop new habits and skills that ultimately lead to a stronger mindset. For some, this requires building more ‘structure in life’, others strengthening ‘social connections’, and others simply to practice being in the moment ‘mindfulness’.

We did a ton of research into this field before developing the app. Our approach actually builds on Dr. Derek Roger’s research, as well as Challenge of Change Resilience Training™ model for creating a ‘resilient mindset’. All of which was developed through his company, the Work Skills Centre™. In just the recent three years, he has trained over 17k people globally in this approach, which is pretty impressive.

What inspired you to create this game in the first place?

It’s a bit of a long story…

I guess it all started sometime 10 years ago, when co-running a consultancy in London. I was simply walking down the street on a Saturday afternoon, and I suddenly thought I was having a heart attack. Later, I found out that this was actually a stress-induced panic attack, which came as quite a surprise. That day, I discovered that my body and mind were telling me something: slow down.

Fast forward 10 years, I’m happily married with my wife and have 2 beautiful children, living in Copenhagen. Although things are great, I still however see around me the effects of stress on people’s lives.

Annually, there are a staggering 1,400 deaths in Denmark directly linked to work-related stress, which is 7x higher than traffic incidents. In the same year as stumbling across these numbers, I’d begun to witness close colleagues and friends dropping like flies to stress related symptoms  – completely out of the blue. Now in the form of emotional breakdowns, long term sick leaves, and even quitting good jobs overnight.

It was hard to sit back and not do something. And so 16 months ago, the journey of Beasts of Burden began.

It’s great you’re working on something that’s so important to you. What was it like taking the plunge into app development?

Just before I started working on Beasts of Burden, I was working at a design studio called ustwo.com. This was a brilliant place to work, and I had lots of fun there, but I wanted to create something for myself. However, it’s difficult to find time to do something like this when you have a full time job and a family to raise.

And so, I did something I never thought I would do – I quit. I would like to say that I had everything planned out at this point, but realistically it took me a few months of sitting in a room, figuring out what my next steps would be.

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An ex-colleague at the time was going through a rough patch, and had recently had a breakdown. This really hit home for me, and just reminded me how awful stress can be to someone’s life.

So, with nothing to lose, I reached out to a developer I had met through a friend, Jeppe. He himself had experienced stress firsthand a year earlier, and dreamt of applying his skills to making a difference in the world. It felt great to work with someone, bringing our idea to life – and launching our first prototype only months later to a small circle of testers.

'When I quit my job to pursue my app, I would like to say I had everything planned out. I didn't. But that's OK.' - Toke Barter, ex Head of Design at @ustwo. Click To Tweet

Beasts of Burden is a very beautiful game. Where did you find inspiration for the style?

I’m glad you asked. What we really wanted to focus on when making this game was to create an experience that feels nothing like a tedious training routine, or dutiful mindfulness app. For the overall theme, we were very inspired by the meditative mood of the game Monument Valley, and the meditation app Pause – both developed by my previous workplace ustwo.

For the built-in A.I., we like to think of it as a mix between the inquisitive fairies of Zelda, and the philosophical ‘little prince’ of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel of 1943.

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And not least, our ‘beasts of burden’ draws on the characteristics of Hayao Miyazaki adorable characters, the soul of ‘Where the Wild Things Are‘, mixed with a modern love for Nicolai Howalt’s vivid imagery.

When creating a game like Beasts of Burden, how much research went into this?

Even though I had experience stress first hand, it was important for me to understand what actually causes stress. I had already been spending time reading up on the topic, and also talking to experts within this field. Something I realised early on was that there is not a catch all solution to preventing stress. Rather, there are a vast number of tools out there that can help you at an individual level to identify and manage pressure leading to stress.

A turning point in the project was Dr. Derek Rogers’ insight that “ongoing worried thoughts lead to stress.” To put it simply, worried thoughts trigger our bodies ‘fight or flight’ response, keeping us in a constant combat mode, tearing on our minds and bodies. From this research, we identified 6 key areas to help build a resilient mindset towards stress – from building structure into our everyday, to simply practicing being in the moment.

What types of risks and challenges did you face? How did you overcome this?

We’ve hit many bumps along the way when developing this app. I would say that one of the main challenges that we faced was maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

But I guess the biggest risk for us now is if we don’t get the funding we need to continue developing. It’s a scary realisation that we’ve done everything we possibly can, and that our fate is in the hands of the public.

Our iOS mobile version is today 90% complete, including content and mechanics to tame three core types of beast behavior. We really need the support of the public now to push that 90% to 100%, which would ultimately lead to a final polished version on the App stores.

I’m sure many developers have been in a similar situation, and I can only emphasize with them. Good thing we have an app that helps with stress!

You’re currently in Kickstarter stage. Why did you choose Kickstarter?

As you can probably guess by now, Beast of Burden is a passion project built in our spare time over the last 16 months. Tons of ideas take off on Kickstarter, and we’re hoping that our app could be one of them.

I truly believe that bob can help people and make a difference. We’re just hoping that the Kickstarter community will see this and help us achieve our dream. And in the long run, all of this support will help us build a larger community around our game, and hopefully attract the attention of a publisher or investor who sees the potential in this new genre of games.

So you’re balancing a full time job, a family and an app on the side. How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?

Before I started working on this app, I actually came from a pretty comfy job – minus all of the stress and responsibilities. When I left my previous role, I started freelancing around 3 days a week to continue supporting my family, and the rest of the time spent on developing the app. It worked out pretty well, and at times I would say I was earning more than my previous role.

Beasts of Burden 5

Most of the team would do the same really. Although, Jeppe actually had a different approach. He would work solidly freelancing for 2 to 3 months at a time, save up as much as he could, and then purely focus on our app, uninterrupted. He would do this until his money ran dry, and then repeat.

Both of these routes seemed to work for us, so I would recommend this to any developer. Honestly, a lot of people my age feel restricted, and so did I, but freelancing was perfect for me.

What made you choose to work in the Gamehub at the GameAnalytics office?

So I actually joined Gamehub due to one of my friends at Youropa. They are also set up here in Copenhagen, and told me about this really cool office.

Not only have the GameAnalytics team been great, but it’s also super helpful to be surrounded by other developers working on their games. It honestly beats sitting in a small room at home, which I’m sure a lot of developers will agree when I say it can be quite tedious and anti-social.

So how do you find working with a bunch of other startup developers? What’s the atmosphere like?

Very honest. Very open. I feel like we’re no longer stumbling in the dark, and that there’s a definite focus.

Every morning, we come in and show our prototypes, while sparring with each other on ideas. We all come from having worked in big corporations and game studios, so you’re used to being in a busy environment, surrounded by skilled and talented people.

And that’s just so valuable. You’re getting that feedback and reassurance you need to progress your game. I would say at times, it feels like you’re almost cutting corners with your own development.

What metrics are you hoping to measure when your app is launched?

Well, I can say that we actually don’t have GA built into the app yet. But we’ve been discussing how to do this in the best possible way, and what metrics we should be following.

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I’m super interested in creating meaningful engagement, and how I can encourage users to keep coming back and using the app to train healthier habits. Upping motivation is key for us, and monitoring retention and specific challenges over time will let us know how we can help people get in the habit of using our game. For that however, we need ongoing data.

And what’s the future like for Beasts of Burden? Where would you like to be in a year’s time?

Ideally, we would have a much bigger team, filling in some of the key skills we’re currently missing and enabling us to take this app on full time. Marketing is a really big challenge for us – getting traction and our game out there is hard. We want to basically change as many peoples lives as possible, but in order to do that we need more help and a larger team.

I love building stuff, the strategy behind it and the development side of things. But then suddenly you’re supposed to talk about yourself, say how amazing your game is, which is something we’re just not used to. We’ve got the product, the idea, but the actual marketing is something we need help with.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Do you have any advice you would give developers starting their game for the first time?

Yes, loads. I could talk for hours.

But the biggest piece of advice that I would give is whatever project you’re working on, share it from day 1. Share it online. Talk to people. Get them excited. If you don’t talk about what you’re doing, you’ll never know truly how you’re performing, or if people even want or need what you’re building.

'Whatever project you’re working on, share it from day 1.' - Toke Barter, Founder of the Beasts of Burden app. Click To Tweet

If I was going to go back in time and change anything, it would be to launch a beta version of my game as soon as possible. My high standards and fear of what players ‘might’ think was stopping me. People love to give advice and feedback in the early stages, which is invaluable. I recommend spending some time finding beta testers within your target audience. Their specific feedback is precious, considering they’ll actually want to play your game.

It’s all about building that excitement and community around your idea, so that when you do finally launch, people are already talking about your game.

Beasts Of Burden is currently in Kickstarter, looking to launch fully before the end of 2018. You can follow the team here for up-to-date info as well as insights on their Kickstarter campaign. 

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