Ittinop “Pun” Dumnernchanvanit, the founder and CEO of Earthshine Games, has a strong background with a PhD from MIT and professional experience in AR/VR engineering. Before bringing on additional team members, he was the solo developer of Kingdoms Reborn up until its early access release.
It’s surprising what a little dissatisfaction can lead to. Seven years ago Ittinop “Pun” Dumnernchanvanit was a student at MIT studying for his PhD in Nuclear Science & Engineering. He was also a big fan of city building games like SimCity, but Pun felt the genre was drying up at the time and saw an opportunity.
Why not make his own game?
Despite a lack of game development experience and two years remaining on his PhD, Pun started spending all of his free time creating a city builder from scratch with the help of Unreal Engine.
Fortunately for Pun, making a city builder was almost as much fun as playing one. Four years later, a PhD earned and the decision to leave a job in his field behind him (despite his family, friends and coworkers disapproving), Pun managed to not only release a game, but release one that is a genuine hit.
Kingdoms Reborn has sold 300,000 copies to date and has earned a 90 percent review average on Steam in its Early Access state.
In the years since, the growing team at Earthshine Games continue to expand Kingdoms Reborn with new factions and new ways to play, all while leaning into some of its more unusual aspects–like the ability to play cooperatively or competitively online.
We spoke with Pun about his journey as a solo developer, why Unreal Engine was the right decision for him and his game, and how Early Access became a pivotal element of the game’s longtail development.
How did Earthshine Games get its start and what made the studio decide to create a city building game?
Dumnernchanvanit: Earthshine Games and Kingdoms Reborn were born out of my personal passion for city-builder games. My journey began seven years ago during the final two years of my PhD in Nuclear Science & Engineering at MIT. At that time, I spent a lot of my free time gaming, and city-builder games were, by far, my favorite genre. Back then, there were very few city-builders on the market. The market for both city-builders and RTS was shrinking. AAA titles like SimCity were not doing well. With the absence of AAA games in this space, I felt a lack of games to play in the genre.
Out of this situation, I saw a unique opportunity: what if I set out to create an indie game myself? After examining and plotting market data for a deeper understanding, one plot stood out. If we compare the Steam reviews to the copies sold for the city-building genre, we find that they are extremely correlated. No game with higher than 80 percent review fails, and those with 90 percent or higher reviews do exceedingly well. This indicates that as long as we can build a great game, sales will follow. Since there were so few city-building games back then, players got to try all of them regardless of marketing. Steam then elevates games with higher reviews. Therefore, as long as I could develop a great game, everything else would fall into place.
This idea seemed audacious back then, given that my studies had almost nothing to do with game development. Nevertheless, I began dabbling in building game prototypes and found it incredibly enjoyable–it was like playing games. Before long, I found myself dedicating all my free time to building game prototypes. The most amazing part was how much I enjoyed and learned from the process, from art and design to programming. At that time, I developed a space colony building game, a precursor to Kingdoms Reborn, of which I was quite proud.
Fast forward two years: I completed my PhD and landed a job working on AR/VR. Although fulfilling, I couldn't help but continuously think back to the game I was building in my free time, wondering what it would be like if I pursued it fully.
Courtesy of Earthshine Games
Eventually, I made the decision to leave AR/VR work after two years to focus on building out the game for Steam. This decision was met with disapproval from everyone (family, friends, coworkers, and such). Despite how unconventional it seemed, I felt I had to do it, or I would regret not doing so when I am older with family responsibilities. So, I took the leap.
However, reality wasn’t so kind: the amount of work required to transition from the amateur prototype to a marketable product was immense. It led to multiple difficult decisions that I had to accept in order to make the game great in the long run. For instance, due to the lengthy design process for each sci-fi building (due to the lack of references, especially real-world ones) and data suggesting that space-colony building games were less likely to succeed, I decided to shift from the space-colony theme to a more grounded medieval-to-industrial age theme. I discarded all of the old 3D models I had crafted, and many of the game systems had to be rebuilt as my understanding of game design and programming expanded.
Working full-time on Kingdoms Reborn quickly evolved into a crunch, with 80 to 90 hours a week. If it hadn’t been for my deep passion and love for the project, I wouldn't have survived that whole year with such intense work hours. Nevertheless, all that hard work paid off when the game was released on Steam in November 2020 with a 90 percent review score, and swiftly reached 100,000 copies sold just two months later.
Since then, we have expanded the Kingdoms Reborn team to include many talented artists, designers, and a marketer—a team I am incredibly proud to work with. We're excited about the future and look forward to creating memorable gaming experiences for our players.
Courtesy of Earthshine Games
How and why did you decide to incorporate both cooperative and competitive multiplayer in a genre that often focuses on single-player games?
Dumnernchanvanit: I have always enjoyed playing city-building games with my then-girlfriend, now my wife. It offered us an engaging way to spend quality time together while indulging in gaming. However, since most city builders lacked multiplayer functionality, we found ourselves playing side-by-side on separate PCs, unable to either collaborate or compete directly in the game world. Each time we played, we found ourselves wishing for a game where our cities could coexist and interact within the same world. Hence, I made it a priority to incorporate this feature. As I delved deeper into the task, I began to understand why most city-builders with simulated citizens don't support multiplayer—it's a challenging endeavor. Looking back, I believe the effort was well worth it. Even two years after its release, our game stands out in the sea of city builders due to its unique multiplayer feature that most other games lack.
What have you learned so far from the game's early access, and how is it impacting the continued development of Kingdoms Reborn?
Dumnernchanvanit: Launching the game in Early Access has been a remarkable strategy for obtaining player feedback and, simultaneously, generating resources to expand our team. However, there is a certain downside to Early Access: swift changes can alter core gameplay elements and subsequently affect players' perceptions of the game. Consequently, we have to proceed with caution when implementing changes, which, to some extent, slows down the development compared to the pace we had when the game was exclusively available on Discord for a close-knit community. Overall, I firmly believe that Early Access has provided a net positive impact on the game's development, helping shape Kingdoms Reborn into the best game it can be.
Courtesy of Earthshine Games
What made you decide to introduce military gameplay to the title, and how has it changed the way people are playing the game?
Dumnernchanvanit: Early in development, I experimented with adding RTS-style units to the game that players could control. At that point, the core city-building loop was already satisfying to many players. However, I noticed that the addition of RTS-style units led to a scenario where most players became so distracted that they stopped building their cities, regardless of whether they ended up winning or losing battles.
Thus, I removed this feature, and our Early Access release did not include any military component.
After the release, our community frequently asked for the introduction of military elements. The fantasy of using a prosperous city to build a powerful empire seemed too appealing to ignore. Heeding community feedback, I began testing the inclusion of combat mechanics again, this time in a more simplified form. The next thing I attempted was akin to the Civilization series, where each military unit occupied a province. This turned out to be too complex and encountered the same issues as the RTS-style units. Ultimately, the battles were simplified into the UI we see today.
There have been significant updates and patches to the game since it entered Early Access. What sort of challenges does that create for a studio and its fanbase?
Dumnernchanvanit: We pay significant attention to our community when developing our game. The challenge associated with this approach pertains to catering to the diverse preferences of our community members, who appreciate the game for various reasons. It's exceptionally challenging to make design decisions that satisfy everyone, but we've always striven to do our best. This effort often resulted in us having to frequently revise our features and balance, even going as far as removing certain features altogether based on community feedback.
Courtesy of Earthshine Games
You recently released the Land of the Rising Sun update, which added one more faction to the game's growing list of factions. How difficult is it to add entirely new factions to a live game?
Dumnernchanvanit: The bulk of the work in adding a new faction lies in creating a completely new 3D model set for that faction. Essentially, this involves recreating all the models for the base game from scratch. This decision to build many factions was made early on, leading us to streamline the 3D model-making process (we even decided to skip the typical 2D concept art for buildings entirely). Despite our streamlined workflow, crafting a new 3D model set can still take around six months, even with our team of five 3D artists.
While the design and integration work for a new faction isn't particularly difficult, we tend to introduce new mechanics, redesign, rebalance, and refactor many elements each time we release a major patch with a new faction.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about Kingdoms Reborn and Earthshine?
Dumnernchanvanit: We’re most active on our Discord, but you can also tag us on Twitter.
Get Unreal Engine today!
Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool.
With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.