Stephen Ddungu didn’t know much about TikTok when a clip from his upcoming game project, Sword of Symphony, began circulating on the video platform last month.
A clip of a boy attacking an enemy using music combos that Ddungu had previously posted on other social channels was reposted on TikTok. by an account called @gamedevblaster August 2nd. As of the publication of this article, it has garnered more than 335,000 views and the comments are full of praise and enthusiasm.
Ddungu tells me that a friend alerted him to the sudden popularity of his clip, so he created an account and posted his own video, introducing himself to his new fans. That video has now been viewed 1.6 million times, and a second follow-up that he later posted has been viewed nearly 3 million times.
“It’s crazy how fast things come out and get popular so fast on TikTok,” says Ddungu. “And the kind of thing that gets popular; weird things get so many views. Other people are working for the content and they only get a few views here, and then someone does a weird looking random dance and gets millions of views. I guess that people like what people like. “
Ddungu has always been a musician and loves to play and compose. He has a music channel on YouTube where he publishes orchestral versions of video game songs, and his success led directly to his eventual work on Sword of Symphony.
In 2018, Ddungu’s channel reached 1,000 subscribers and he wanted to do something special to celebrate the milestone. So he made an animation to match his last composition, even though he had never animated anything before. He admits that this first foray into animation wasn’t incredible, but he enjoyed the process of experimenting in the new medium. And he received a lot of constructive feedback on his work, which inspired him to do better. So Ddungu kept working on it.
“All my decisions depend on me just believing that I can do it,” he says. “Just jump in and take the leap, because you never really know the extent of your potential unless you dive in. And then you surprise yourself.”
Ddungu took his newfound interest in animation to incredible lengths. He worked on it alongside his school studies in music technology and eventually made his own animation project called Purpose: VERSA, inspired by game series he loved like Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and Nier. Then once again, while working on one type of project, a new idea manifested itself. What if you used a different medium to support your existing animation work? So he started to dabble in game creation through Blender, eventually turning Purpose: VERSA into an action-role-playing video game project, called Purpose: VERSUS.
But despite how hard Ddungu worked through all of this, his timing was wrong. He finished a film trailer for Purpose: VERSUS just before he was given his final school assignment and was therefore unable to turn it in. So he started outlining Sword of Symphony, a little game idea he had about using music as magic. .
“I wanted to do something small, like a little prototype that was just a delivery task and then forget about it,” he says. “I was about to discard the project afterwards, because it was not necessary.”
But then Ddungu created a social media page for Sword of Symphony, which he connected to existing Purpose VERSA accounts, just so people who had been interested in his other job would know that he was still working on projects. Unexpectedly, Sword of Symphony began to gain traction much, much faster than any of the Purpose titles.
So Ddungu kept uploading new images as he went along. When he reached 1000 followers, he decided that he would write a story for Sword of Symphony rather than limit it to the combat prototype. The interest just kept growing.
Although Ddungu originally started Sword of Symphony in 2020, he had to rush his work to meet school deadlines. So in June of this year, fueled by the popularity of the project and the conversations he had already had with potential publishers, he scrapped it entirely and started from scratch. Now, Sword of Symphony is four to five years away (hopefully sooner though, he says), but it has a clear direction.
The original release of Sword of Symphony was a game where you wrestle with the power of music, and that’s still the case. Now, however, it follows the story of a young man named Stefān, a bearer of musical magic, who lives in a magical world called the Sonata inspired by 18th century London. Stefān is a member of a group of detective geniuses who are hired by a royal council to solve musical mysteries, many of which, according to Ddungu, will subtly teach music theory as players try to solve them.
Ddungu is tight-lipped on a lot of other things, as Sword of Symphony is still in a very early stage of development, so it’s still unclear how combat influences it. But the factor does, with the musical combos shown on Ddungu’s TikToks functioning a bit like “rhythmic phrases”, where you can do more damage to enemies by tapping the buttons to the beat of the combo.
He also tells me about a group of friends he is a part of who call themselves the “Inner Circle.” The group consists of seven creatives working on projects that they hope to link, cross over and cross promote once they are ready to launch. Ddungu says that he has invested not only in the success of his own project, but also in the success of the group – he wants them to prosper together.
TikTok’s success hasn’t changed much for Ddungu, he says, though he acknowledges that far more people now know about the game than he bargained for. He runs a Discord for Sword of Symphony, which he says he got around 800 new members the day his TikTok blew up, and then around 400 the next day. He ran it alone at the time, so for a while he was struggling to approve all the new members individually, eventually having to ask a friend for support. He hopes things like Discord community management and social media management will now take up more of his time, which he believes will force him to develop better time management skills.
“It’s really good, in the sense of character development, to learn new things … to get into this system of being a better person,” says Ddungu. “I’m happy that this comes from something I love to do. What I love to do is teach myself to be a better person.”
With school finished and a new project loved by a growing community, Ddungu is now committed to creating games. He reiterates to me his earlier comment about how he, and no one, never knows what abilities they may possess until they dive in and give it a go, which can often result in the discovery of hidden and unexpected passions and talents.
“You have to focus and put in the effort and work and hustle and bustle and stuff, even if it means sacrifices here and there, but it’s really like a test of strength,” he says. “That lets you know if this is for you or not … But once you dive in, if you feel like you’re willing to compromise despite the sacrifices, that’s when you know it’s for you. I’ve tried other things in the past but I never understood [feeling] but with [Sword of Symphony]I know this is something I want to do in the long run. I feel very encouraged right now. “
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @Patovalentino.
This article was modified after its publication to correctly identify the field of study of Ddungu as music technology.