Daisy Ein and Zap Layden make up Super Retro Duck, the indie game studio they’ve been working as for almost two years. Since February of 2016, the pair has tackled two different games, one of which is still under wraps. Their first release, Tiny Bird Garden, has been quite a hit since release; in its first month, it garnered more than 300 reviews, earning the game a rating of 4.8 on the Google Play Store and 4.9 on iTunes. Tiny Bird Garden was ranked the second most popular casual game the same week it came out, getting 5,000 downloads in the first two weeks.
Tiny Bird Garden celebrates cute birds and kindness with a play style similar to Neko Atsume. Players get to make friends with new birds every time they open the app, and see old bird faces coming to visit the gardens they create. Clever puns and tongue-in-cheek jokes are prevalent in the dialogue as players meet different caretakers in the garden and learn how to attract more birds to create the perfect Tiny Bird Garden. There are many different ways to interact with each bird, and seemingly endless birds to meet. From marketing to design to development, Ein and Layden have clearly pushed themselves to create a game that is not just a labor of love, but a work of art. We had the privilege of talking with Ein about her and Layden’s dedicated work, love of tiny birds, and their continuing journey as indie game developers.
Thanks for joining us at Sidequest. We’re wondering, what first inspired you to make Tiny Bird Garden?
We both really enjoy games like Neko Atsume and Animal Crossing, and we wanted to make a game that we’d want to play! Making games is something we’ve always wanted to do, and this project sounded like a fun place to start.
So, why did you choose to create a game about collecting cute birds? Have you always loved birds?
We’ve both loved birds for a very long time, haha. They’re so cute! We started working on games together in February of 2016, and by the summer of that year, Tiny Bird Garden was officially our focus (although there are other, larger titles we’ve been working on and have not announced yet!). I know that’s not a very exciting answer, but we wanted to make [a] game that we’d want to play ourselves. I think that’s what made it enjoyable.
How did you get the whole project started?
The two of us have been partners for a very long time, and making games has been a long time dream that we’ve shared. A lot of things have gotten in the way of that, over the years. We’ve built other careers, pursued other things, but the dream never went away.
It just felt like it was time to try. It was a pretty scary decision, and we funded almost everything ourselves (which was also very stressful and difficult). Aside from financial limitations and challenges, getting started wasn’t all that hard. We had each other and most of the tools we needed to make it happen. The only thing stopping us was us—so we went for it!
We had to play off of each other’s strengths and trust each other a lot though!
What did you love the most about creating the Tiny Bird Garden world, and its cast of characters?
Personally, I loved designing the birds. I was really inspired by Animal Crossing‘s approach. Some of the birds are inspired by real life birds, but others are not. I love how, in Animal Crossing, you might have ten rabbit villagers, but their designs are so whimsical and memorable, and this is not necessarily due to the model itself. A lot of that character is in the texture. I wanted the Tiny Birds to feel like that.
Writing the dialog has also been a ton of fun. I was worried players might find it a little cheesy, but I loved the idea of sprinkling in kind words of encouragement. I feel like there’s plenty of things out there in my day that want to bring me down—so I hoped that maybe hearing something like “hey, you’re special!” would bring a little sunshine into someone’s day.
You’ve been able to build a wonderful community of encouragement on Twitter for game developers, gamers, women developers and developers of color. When did you start this and what was your motivation?
Thank you so much for your kind words! I didn’t mean to start anything special, honestly. I just thought it would be nice to start a thread that would encourage folks to share and cheer each other on, haha. It does feel like it’s getting larger, however, which is a strange but awesome feeling! If I ever miss a week, folks let me know that they miss it—so I guess it’s here to stay! I’m thankful people care to join in.
I honestly don’t remember when it started; I think it was some time in 2017. I just think it’s a nice idea to reach out and ask other creatives how they’re doing—and I love seeing what others are up to! It really inspires me to keep working hard on my own creative goals.
What’s something valuable you’ve learned while making your first game?
Things will go wrong and things will break. I know that sounds kind of silly, or even pessimistic, but it was a huge learning experience for me. Even from the start, there were challenges that we just hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes, throughout this process, things went wrong that weren’t even in our control. It was really difficult, but we had to keep moving forward.
My takeaway was: expect challenges, and when they hit, just take them on. Mistakes can be a great learning experience, and when the issue isn’t in your control, it’s still a chance to learn and exercise patience. I’m definitely not a master of these skills yet, but I’m working on it!
“I think, however, if it’s something you really love, it’s worth the long hours and uncharted territory!”
Got any words of advice to other indie game developers out there?
Gosh, I don’t even know where I’d start, haha. I feel like there’s so many things I could say.
I guess the best advice I could give would be: do as much research as you can, but also, don’t be surprised when there’s something new you have to learn! Unexpected things are probably going to happen along the way too. There have been so many surprises throughout the process of making and releasing a game (both good and not so good ones!). I’m still tackling new things, even after Tiny Bird Garden’s release, that I hadn’t anticipated. It’s not really “over” once your game is out either; marketing and promotion are both really important and pretty challenging!
Overall, making a game takes a lot of hard work and dedication. When you’re a small team, you often have to wear multiple hats too! I think, however, if it’s something you really love, it’s worth the long hours and uncharted territory!
What are some games that you’ve been enjoying lately?
I’ve been really enjoying Stardew Valley and Miitopia! Waiting on Santa Claus before I finally get to dig into Super Mario Odyssey, but I know I’m going to love that one too! 🙂 The … holiday season is definitely going to consist of hanging out in my pajamas and playing video games for me, haha.