Neko Ghost, Jump! Interview: Burgos Games Founder on Leadership, Visibility, and the Struggles of Indie Development


SOURCE: GAMERANT.COM
FEB 13, 2022

The path to one's goals is rarely a straight line, and that's been Victor Burgos's experience. A Marine Corps veteran and a lifelong gamer, Burgos always knew games were in his future, but until just a few years ago life had gotten in the way. Now, he's the lead at his own indie studio, Burgos Games, where he and a team of developers have been hard at work on their first title Neko Ghost, Jump!. The cat-themed puzzle platformer, currently available for Early Access on Steam and the Epic Games Store, aims to appeal to a broad audience with its multiple playstyles, competitive leaderboards, and expansive customization options.

Despite that, it hasn't been totally smooth sailing for Burgos, who said his first project as an indie dev hasn't been getting as much visibility, or making as much money, as he would like. Game Rant spoke to Burgos about Neko Ghost, Jump!, his experience as an ex-military studio lead, and what he thinks gamers don't realize about indie games. Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Tell me a little about Burgos Games. How did you get started as a developer?

A: To be honest, like every other developer out there, I grew up playing video games —the Nintendo era, the Atari 2600. I was born in the 80s, so I went through the big boom of video games.

So, after high school, I was on the path to go to the University Central Florida for a computer science degree. I always liked the ‘programming computers’ side of things, so thought if I became a programmer, I could go into video games. But then, 9/11 happened. And instead, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. So I went to boot camp in November 2001, and I was in the Corps for 12 years. My first duty station was Iwakuni, Japan. I was like, ‘is this karma?’ One of the things about the culture in Japan is that there were a lot of arcades there. That made me say, ‘oh, you know what, maybe I can get back into video games.’

At the time there were very few colleges that offered video game programs. One of them was Westwood College Online. They had this funny commercial about game testers which is a meme now. So, I applied for that, and thought I’d just start my game dev degree while I'm in the Marine Corps. But then I got deployed to Kuwait in 2003 during the transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation Enduring Freedom. That kind of screwed me over. When I went back to Japan, I decided that video games are what I wanted to do. I ended up taking some courses, just little things, because I knew could get those out of the way. I ended up getting a computer engineering degree out that, which sucked. I realized that it was not what I wanted to do.

At the 12-year mark, I got out of the Marine Corps, and I decided I wanted to go to college full-time and go for a games degree. So that’s what I did. I went to Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. I also ended up doing a bunch of freelance work outside the program to learn what I wanted to do, which was more on the technical side.

I graduated from SCAD in 2017, and I just went freelancing, until I got my first major full time gig working for Monochrome Games for Contagion VR: Outbreak. That was a really awesome project. I ended up shipping their Early Access. But after a while, they had some funding issues, and basically, they couldn't pay me. So I said, ‘well, if you can't pay me, I might as well just work on my own anyway.’

I founded Burgos Games in November 2018. I started working on a VR project, but I wasn't really feeling it. Then, there was a five-day game jam that happened in May 2019. This is where Neko Ghost, Jump! was born. A lot has happened since then, it’s been kind of crazy.

Q: Let’s talk about Neko Ghost, Jump! What are some key features of the game?

A: Simply put, Neko Ghost, Jump! is a puzzle platformer in which you take control of Nekoman, the main character. In the game, you can switch between 2D and 3D camera perspectives anytime. You can also switch a physical form and a “ghost form” anytime. So you use those two core mechanics to progress in the game, defeat enemies, or to try to speed run levels. Right now, we’ve planned almost 50 levels for the game, but it will probably end up being more like 60. The levels all have different biomes. Each biome has its own unique enemies, traps, and bosses. Every level also has its own leaderboard.

The leaderboard thing is actually really interesting, because some people get little addicted. I know there's this one guy that is doing numbers. He has 25 hours so far. I love that.

There are three different playstyles that, once you start a new game, you can choose. There’s a speed running one, an action one, and a casual one. Then, the game customizes based on your playstyle. For example, one big difference between the speed runner style and the other two is the perspective switch. In the game, when you switch from 2D to 3D perspective, there’s a cinematic camera transition. We don’t use that feature in the speed running playstyle. You don't want to waste a second just to see a cool little camera transition.

In the game’s story, Neko World gets invaded by dog space pirates, and on Nekoman’s wedding day, Nekogirl gets abducted along with a whole bunch of his friends and family. Their village gets destroyed — you’re trying to rebuild the village while you're playing the game. You do that by finding your friends, who are hidden in the levels. If you're a completionist it’s really cool game for you, because there's going to be a lot of hidden stuff and there will be a ton of achievements. We also have hundreds of customization options

The game is really suited to speed runners, casual players, or just action junkies. You can play however you want to play.

Q: How has the Early Access process gone so far? What sort of feedback have you gotten from players?

A: We have some fans that are really intrigued about this. Some of them have said that combat is lacking — a lot of people said that they wished there were more attacks or that the combat felt better. Since then, my main focus has been working on the combat.

Reviews are another important aspect. My goal when Neko Ghost went up on Steam’s Early Access January 11 was to get to 50 reviews as soon as possible. I don't know if a lot of people are aware of this, but there are tiers in Steam’s algorithm that are heavily weighted on reviews. A part of that is unit sales, but reviews are also a huge weight on that algorithm. The first tier is 10 reviews, and after Neko Ghost hit 10 reviews, after two or three days, I noticed a big bump in my visibility, because people were able to see it on their Discovery queues and stuff like that.

The next tier is either 25 or 50 reviews, I think. But I’ve been stuck at 21 for a week or so now, and I'm getting a little antsy.

It's a chicken-egg problem. I need people to buy the game and review it so that I can increase its visibility, but I also need the game to be more visible, so that I can get those reviews.

After it released on Early Access, the game didn't do great — it didn't meet my own expectations. I have pretty grounded expectations, but I haven’t even met those expectations. And so I was worried. And honestly, sales have been not that great. Gross, the game’s made around $3,000, but after Steam’s cut and refunds, I’m looking at around $2,500 or even less than that. Basically all that does is pay my mortgage. I have people that I have to pay.

The issue is that we sometimes we get compared to other games. I don't know if it's fair or not to be compared Celeste. That’s a super high bar.

Q: Do you find yourself getting compared to developers had more resources or more time to work on their games? Is that something that you feel happens a lot?

A: There are a couple of things that I've noticed. Especially since Early Access, Neko Ghost gets either compared to games that made millions which the developers could afford to reinvest back into their games, or to developers that already had huge budgets. They either had an existing fan base, or they had a publisher fund them.

It’s unfair, because for the most part this is all self funded. I did have a Kickstarter that earned me $20,000. Or, it says $20,000 publicly, but I didn't get that, because not everyone actually paid at the end, and Kickstarter took its cut. I didn't make that much money off that Kickstarter, but I did get another $20,000 from Epic MegaGrants. That was good, but $20,000 barely covered my own costs as a developer for four months. So I've been basically paying out of pocket, from my personal savings.

Originally, being indie meant you didn't have a publisher. But now you have these huge so-called indie publishers like Devolver Digital — any game they back is going to make a ton of money. Just go to their Steam Store page and look at all of their stuff. They’re just printing money every time they publish a game. How is it fair that to compare a game from Devolver Digital or from Devolver Digital's portfolio to a first time dev that is self-funded?

It's kind of stressful as an indie developer, because if you don't have a publisher then you can't count on their funding, or any external funding. I feel like from a gamer's perspective, they don't understand that. There's a lot of stuff that gamers in general just don't understand that goes into game development, especially on the indie side.

Q: It seems like Early Access has been great for ironing out the kinks in Neko Ghost, Jump!, but it hasn’t been great for you financially.

A: Early Access has been helpful, because I get feedback from people that have bought the game, so they're kind of invested. That kind of feedback is worth it, because these aren't people trying to get free keys or the friends and family of developers. They’re strangers that have an opinion, because they bought the game, and they want the game to do better. In that regard, it has been great. For finances, no. It's been terrible.

Q: How has your military experience informed your time as a game dev? Have there been benefits? Drawbacks?

A: It’s been hard. Going from the military to the civilian world was like culture shock. In the industry, it depends on where you land, I guess. I got contracted into a couple of studios that had contracts with the military. We kind of understood each other. But at a regular gaming company, no one's been in the military at all. It's totally night and day. So when I got into leadership position, before Burgos Games, no one knew how to handle me, and I didn't know how to handle other people.

When I started Burgos Games it was a struggle, because my initial thinking was “oh, I'll just run them like as I did as a sergeant in the Marine Corps. These guys are like my PFCs, my privates. It does not work like that. It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t run things like I did in the military. I had to think of how to be a leader in the gaming industry, which I think a lot of people actually struggle with.

Q: What sort of qualities do you think are important for leading a game studio?

A: Number one, patience. Which, admittedly, I've never had any abundance of, but I've gotten better. The second thing is empathy. Those two go hand in hand. You have to be able to put yourself in somebody else's shoes. In the military, we were kind of tight-lipped about that. There are a lot of mental health issues in the game industry - even on my team. Every once in a while somebody will have a bad day, and they don't vent about it. I'm good with stuff like that. If you need to, you can vent to me as long as you like. Hopefully I can help you out. Mental health issues are definitely not uncommon in the industry, because every year I always see some big games media articles talking about mental health.

Q: So, what’s next for Burgos Games? If you had a blank check to develop a game, what would you want to do?

I've been kind of addicted to like the XCOM series for forever. I’ve actually always secretly wanted to work for Firaxis Games just so I can work on XCOM. A game like that is something that I would love to do, but on a much grander scale. An XCOM type MMO maybe — maybe not a full-scale MMO but more like Destiny. A kind of strategic MMO where everyone has a purpose, and if you screw up, you might screw up humanity's last hope.

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Neko Ghost, Jump! is available for Early Access on Steam and the Epic Games Store, and is in development for PC, PlayStation, Switch, and Xbox.