A perfect example of living up to their name, Small Impact Games have proved consistently that, with the right knowledge and the right tools, you don’t need a big team to deliver AAA-level quality.
We recently spoke with Mitchell Small and James Rowbotham, Managing Director and Lead Developer, respectively, at Small Impact Games, to learn more about their journey and their latest project, Marauders, currently in Early Access on Steam.
The founding trio of brothers Mitchell and Cameron Small, and school friend James Rowbotham, have been the core of Small Impact Games since its inception more than 10 years ago. While the team has grown to as many as 12 at times based on the needs of a given project, this core has always stayed the same.
They each bring AAA experience to their current projects, having worked as Animators, Concept Artists, and Designers on titles for the likes of RockSteady and Codemasters. From the experience at these large studios they have a deep understanding of the challenges, overhead costs, and tech debt that can result working on AAA titles, and have used this knowledge to build a studio that can deliver AAA quality at a fraction of the cost, striving for competitiveness over complexity when working on a project.
Well versed in Unreal Engine and the creative aspects of building games, the team at Small Impact Games focused primarily on game mechanics when approaching their first projects - such as The Black Death, released in 2016.
Keeping true to their philosophy of not outsourcing any skill - “We want to learn anything important to the game, and be able to do it ourselves so no core skills are missing” says Mitchell - the team have developed and grown a deep knowledge of the technical aspects of game development, and of operating a successful title, all of which would come to bear in their latest project, Marauders.
“[For Marauders,] we knew early on that we would need a backend service, and that with the right solution we could have a technical edge [against competitors in the genre].” - Mitchell Small, Managing Director, Small Impact Games
Many hours in the studio playing Escape from Tarkov and similar titles inspired the team to try and create a game that would capture the same “gripping” feeling of tension and immersion.
The team had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve, and the technical knowledge to build it, and so Marauders was born:
While development of the game can be said to have progressed smoothly, the search for a suitable backend solution was not so straightforward. Throughout the development process, and as late as two months prior to the game’s launch, the Small Impact Games team were bouncing from one solution to another, trying to find one that would meet their needs.
They tried both GameSparks and PlayFab, but found both were lacking in the features and functionality they needed:
“They just didn't work for our game, we were hitting their limits very early on, even just managing player inventory.” - Mitchell Small
Next, the team tried zeus, but along with experiencing “barriers due to the lack of customization”, the company started deprecating services (following their being acquired by Improbable) and were not a viable long-term option.
A brief stint with Epic Online Services (EOS) followed, but proved equally unsuccessful: “We really struggled with EOS, it seemed really broken and weren’t able to get any visibility on the issues we were having.”
Struggling to find a satisfactory solution, the team then decided to build it themselves using a combination of AWS services (Aurora, DynamoDB, AppSync, etc.). It was while speaking with AWS support due to difficulties with the AppSync service that they were introduced to Heroic Labs - a recent AWS partner for studios migrating from the now deprecated GameSparks service - and our backend solution, Nakama.
Small Impact Games were able to get started right away with Nakama via the AWS Marketplace listing, starting the transition at the end of August and with the game’s launch on Steam planned for early October.
“It felt good, felt better. We were able to get up to speed very quickly, migrating our game logic and getting it implemented in Nakama in three days. And the stability issues we'd been seeing seemed solved overnight.” - James Rowbotham, Lead Developer, Small Impact Games
Where the team had been struggling with rate limits, stability, and scalability issues - even during Alpha and Beta testing - with their previous solutions, Nakama was able to provide the stability and performance they needed to scale their game. A result made more impressive considering that Marauders servers are deployed only in one US region, compared with multi-region deployments with previous solutions, and with no problems experienced by the large, global player base during launch.
“Through all the painful iteration, we learned what we needed, what we like, and what reliability looks like, and that's why we appreciate Nakama more.” - Mitchell Small
Marauders makes use of an extensive list of Nakama features, managing the 330,000+ user accounts, with heavy use of player metadata, and the 25M+ storage objects for these users. The crews players form in-game are managed via Nakama’s Groups feature, and the game’s leaderboards are used to track player progression and add a further competitive aspect to the gameplay.
The prevalence of cheating in the genre is a constant challenge for developers, and Marauders is no exception. Nakama’s real-time chat feature is used to communicate with players, and effective use is made of player banning to help combat cheating.
“It's great to have your imagination be the limit instead of the backend.” - James Rowbotham
Looking to build on the early success of Marauder’s release - during which Small Impact Games were pleasantly “surprised that our backend didn’t struggle at all, we kept waiting for something to go wrong but had no problems at launch” - the team are already planning to expand the gameplay using additional features from Nakama: expanding the groups to add Clans, and implementing tournament support.
“Nakama is such an outstanding service compared to our previous efforts, we're definitely going to use it for future projects. Nothing we've seen comes close.” - Mitchell Small