Ternox Games is a Ukrainian indie developer that has already released 6 games for PC, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and Playstation 4/5. In addition, he also acts as a publisher of small games of other authors on consoles. And in his free time from development, he still manages to hold contests for other developers, trying to attract newcomers to the industry and build a community. On the eve of the start of the next competition from Ternox Games, we decided to talk to Ruslan Salikov, a person who does all these things alone.
Good afternoon, Ruslan. Judging by your website, you are both an indie developer and a Ukrainian publisher, and as we know, the organizer of gaming DevJam. Let’s talk about each of your hypostases. So who is Ternox? Where did you come from, what education did you get, and how did you start developing games?
I am from the Zaporizhzhia region, and my hometown is currently occupied. The story of how I started developing is rather trivial. I played on a Famicom clone as a child and began to dream of creating something of my own… Probably the first “games” that I created were some quests that I did as a child in PowerPoint. But for a long time, I didn’t even dream of making it my job, because somehow it all seemed far away and complicated, and you also need to be able to draw and program. Therefore, I have an economic education and I even worked as a civil servant.
Sometime in 2008, in high school, I discovered Game Maker and started learning it little by little and creating something there. Thus, over the following years, several far-from-perfect games were made and more were not completed.
In 2015, I made a platform game Taimumari for a competition on one forum, got second place and some money, and decided to spend it on buying the new version of GameMaker: Studio and Steam Greenlight. If you remember, there was a system from Valve, where people voted on which indie game they would like to see in the store. And it was quite a useful thing, a kind of Kickstarter, but not about money, but about likes.
Then my game quickly gathered the required number of votes and was accepted to Steam. I decided that I should quit my job and go finish the game, because the version for the competition, of course, needed polishing and expansion. So, I did it, and at the end of the year, I released the game. These are probably my first steps in game development.
You already have 6 published games in your portfolio, including console editions, two prototypes, and three games in development. Do you do everything alone or do you sometimes involve outside artists or someone else? How can you possibly develop three games at the same time? A few hours a day each, or a few days a week each?
Rather, several weeks for each. When you work alone, sometimes it’s hard to do the same thing for months, so switching between projects like this is beneficial. Then, when you return to a game that you last played a month or two ago, you look at it with a slightly fresher eye and you have new ideas that can still be improved.
I do everything myself, but I have an artist friend who draws the game covers and some of the graphics for me. Everything else is my own, but I don’t shy away from using ready-made sprites from Itch.io that I can redraw and use as I need. Players never notice this, the main thing is to get into the style.
If it’s not a secret, which of your games is the most profitable, and on which platform?
This is going to be the weirdest, but it’s Bullet Beat for Xbox. The game turned out to be simple, so it is bought because of easy achievements. This game, by the way, has a cool story, because it is literally a game that I started making sometime in 2008-2009. First, there was the first part of the game, and then the second part based on the first, and so I made it, made it little by little, and somewhere in 2013, the game was almost ready. But I somehow forgot about it and decided to release it on Steam only in 2019. Almost no one needs it there, because I didn’t do any marketing at all, but then when the game came out on Xbox in 2020, then it started selling great and is still selling. And on Steam, my most profitable game is Taimumari.
In general, how much more difficult is it to publish a game on Nintendo Switch or PlayStation 5 than on Steam?
It’s much harder and more expensive on consoles. Because you need a suitable DevKit, which you usually have to buy, and it can not be sent to Ukraine, and you have to look for ways to get it. Of course, you also need the platform itself to allow you to release games. Well, the process of verifying the game and creating a store page is more complicated and longer.
I would say that the most similar to Steam is the Xbox store, where it is easier to release games, although there is still a lot of manual work from Microsoft employees that you have to constantly correspond with.
Let’s move on to your second hypostasis. You help other indie developers publish games, but only those made on Gamemaker Studio 2. And you have already published 8 games in this way, so you can be called the first Ukrainian publisher! Why did you decide to do this? How do you look for developers, or do they come themselves? Is it only Ukrainian teams or anyone?
I think I’m definitely not the first because Bullet Beat on Xbox was originally published not by me, but by Xitilon, and he is also from Ukraine and was engaged in this before me. We actively cooperate, and it was he who helped me understand many things.
I was just helping my friends or friends of friends to get their games on the Nintendo Switch because I was lucky enough to get a DevKit, and at some point, Nintendo seemed to stop accepting new developers altogether. So I released their games with a small royalty percentage for myself, but those games didn’t sell very well.
Then there was the PlayStation-only Retro Higway, because the developers themselves released the game on all other platforms, but they were too tired to do it on Playstation.
Well, the first and so far the only game I released simultaneously on all consoles was Unichrome: A 1-Bit Unicorn Adventure from a developer from the USA.
I mainly published developers from Ukraine, but there are also developers from Brazil, the Netherlands, and the USA.
Are you planning to go beyond Gamemaker Studio 2 or not?
So far, I have a bunch of projects on Gamemaker Studio 2, so I have to finish them, and it’s a few years, and then we’ll see. As long as I have enough, I love 2D games and pixel art games, and for that the engine is perfect.
And finally, your third “work” or “charity” – Ukrainian Visual Novel Jam. Usually, such contests are organized by some special companies, looking for sponsors, judges, and information partners, you do all this yourself and at your own expense. Why do you need this? What do you want to find?
I am a simple person, it is difficult for me to agree with everyone, to write to everyone, and all that. I already had some experience in conducting jams and contests, but unfortunately, I did it in Russian. Therefore, after the start of a full-scale invasion, I decided to entertain the Ukrainians in such a way that it would be possible to get distracted and gain a little experience in game development.
And why… well, for me it’s fun to do it, and also… the game development in Ukraine is not about the development of competition, but on the contrary, about the development of cooperation. I wish we had more such indie teams in our country, who would make the game of their dreams, and not only mobile games or large projects of class AA or AAA. A developed indie game dev scene will benefit every indie developer because there will be someone to learn something new, share experiences or find the right person in the team.
Why visual novels? You don’t even develop visual novels yourself. Because it’s the easiest way, in terms of tools and costs, to get into game dev?
Well, first of all, I love visual novels and I would like to attract more people to this genre in Ukraine.
And secondly, yes, this is an ideal genre that can “pull” people into game dev who would never have thought of going here before. Many artists get together and do something, although before they just drew for Twitter and earned a little money for it.
Anyone familiar with a computer can make a basic visual novel.
Maybe later I’ll do jams about other game genres, but for now, I’m only good for one regular jam.
Are you satisfied with the results of the first Ukrainian Visual Novel Jam? The expenses, as I understand it, are 53,000 hryvnias, did they pay off? What games from this jam can you recommend to our readers? How many of them have a chance to reach a commercial release and does it even make sense?
Well, part of these 53,000 hryvnias is the help for the Armed Forces, which I transferred for each game submitted to the jam, it definitely paid off!
And yes… I didn’t count it all in terms of money. People had fun, got new experiences, and met new people, this is the most important thing. Most novels, of course, need to be refined for commercial release, but the winner of the first jam could definitely release the game as is (it’s Kaiser of the Singularity – ed. note), but it is necessary to translate it into English, of course. It would be cool next time to give the winner a translator as an additional prize so that the game can be released right away.
But there will be some “Chance” projects. After all, I try to conduct the jam in such a way that it requires a minimum of actions from me. Thanks to the platform Itch.io, which already has the functionality ready for all of this. And the more rules or nominations – the more work that will “prevent” me from holding jams regularly.
And of course, it is necessary to release novels after the jam. Although it is a bit difficult, because this genre does not fall into the current trends of Steam, which “requires” that players be able to return to the game again and again and play for 100+ hours, that is, they are sandboxes, simulators or roguelikes. But still, you can find your buyer for visual novels.
Ukrainian Visual Novel Jam #2 starts tomorrow, January 27, 2023. In your opinion, will the same teams participate this time, or will their number increase? What expenses are you ready for? Do you think the quality of projects at Ukrainian Visual Novel Jam #2 will be higher than the first competition?
I think there may be a few more releases, but not much. I expect about 70-80 projects. Although winter is a more passive time of the year, even the blackouts can prevent teams from making a competitive novel.
As for the quality, it can be higher, because people already understand more what it is, what jams and visual novels are, and what the winners looked like. And the first jam did gain some popularity, so after it was held, many people already asked when the new jam was, so they must have already prepared. Well, the old teams will be back as well, I can already see many wanting to take part again.
I am morally ready even for 100 participants. It would be cool, of course.
Thank you for the answers, Ruslan. Good luck judging the jam! And we will wait for the release of STONKS-9800, which we have already seen at Indie Cup Ukraine’22. As I understand it, the release of the game in Steam Early Access is quite soon. Wishing you more inspiration!