Stephen Ddungu didn't know much about TikTok at all when a clip of his upcoming game project, Sword of Symphony, started circulating on the video platform last month.
A clip of a young boy attacking an enemy using musical combos that Ddungu had previously posted on other social channels was reposted on TikTok by an account called @gamedevblaster on August 2. As of the publication of this piece, it has gotten over 335,000 views, and the comments are full of praise and excitement.
Ddungu tells me he was alerted to the sudden popularity of his clip by a friend, so he made an account and posted his own video, introducing himself to his newly-found fans. That video has now been watched 1.6 million times, and a second follow-up he posted later has been seen nearly 3 million times.
"It's crazy how fast stuff gets out there and gets popular so quickly on TikTok," Ddungu says. "And just the kind of things that get popular; weird things get so many views. Other people are working for content and only get a few views here, and then you get someone doing a random, weird-looking dance and it's getting millions of views. I guess people like what people like."
Ddungu has always been a musician, and loves to both play and compose. He has a music channel on YouTube where he posts orchestral covers of video game songs, and its success directly led to his eventual work on Sword of Symphony.
In 2018, Ddungu's channel reached 1000 subscribers, and he wanted to do something special to celebrate the milestone. So he made an animation to go with his latest composition, despite never having 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 got a lot of constructive feedback on his work, inspiring him to do better. So Ddungu kept working at it.
"All my decisions are down to me just believing that I can do it," he says. "Just jumping in and making 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, as he was working on one type of project, a new idea manifested itself. What if he used a different medium to support his existing animation work? So he started dabbling in game creation through Blender, and eventually spun off Purpose: VERSA into an action-RPG video game project, called Purpose: VERSUS.
But as hard as Ddungu worked on all of this, his timing was off. He finished a cinematic trailer for Purpose: VERSUS just before he was given his final school assignment, and thus wasn't able to turn that in. So he started sketching out Sword of Symphony, a little game idea he had about using music as magic.
"I wanted to just do something small, like a little prototype that was just a hand-in assignment and then forget about it," he says. "I was about to scrap the project afterwards, because there was no need for it."
But then, Ddungu made a social media page for Sword of Symphony, which he connected to the existing accounts for Purpose VERSA — just to let people who had been interested in his other work know that he was still working on projects. Unexpectedly, Sword of Symphony began gaining traction much, much faster than either of the Purpose titles.
So Ddungu kept uploading new footage as he went. When he reached 1000 followers, he decided he'd write a story for Sword of Symphony instead of limiting it to the combat prototype. Interest only kept growing.
Though Ddungu originally started Sword of Symphony in 2020, he had to rush his work on it to make school deadlines. So in June of this year, spurred on by the project's popularity and conversations he'd already had with potential publishers, he scrapped the entire thing and started from scratch. Now, Sword of Symphony is four to five years away (though hopefully sooner, he says), but it has a clear direction.
The original pitch for Sword of Symphony was a game where you fight with the power of music, and that's still the case. Now, though, it follows the story of a young man named Stefān, a wielder of musical magic, who lives in a magical world called Sonata styled after 18th century London. Stefān is a member of a group of genius detectives who are hired by a royal council to solve musical mysteries, many of which Ddungu says will subtly teach music theory as players try to solve them.
Ddungu is tight-lipped about much else, as Sword of Symphony is still so early in development, so it's not quite clear how the combat factors in just yet. But factor in it does, with the musical combos shown off in Ddungu's TikToks functioning a bit like "rhythmic phrases," where you can do more damage to enemies by tapping buttons in time with the rhythm of the combo.
He also tells me about a group of friends he's a part of that calls itself the "Inner Circle." The group consists of seven creatives all working on projects they hope to link together, crossover, and cross-promote once they're ready to launch them. Ddungu says he's invested in not just the success of his own project, but the success of the group — he wants them to thrive together.
TikTok success hasn't changed much for Ddungu, he says, though he acknowledges a lot more people now know about the game than he expected. He runs a Discord for Sword of Symphony, that he says got around 800 new members on the day his TikTok blew up, and then around 400 the following day. He ran it alone at the time, so for a while he was struggling to approve all the new members individually, and eventually had to ask a friend for support. He expects that things like Discord community management and social media management will now take up more of his time, which he thinks will force him to develop better time management skills.
"It's actually good, in the sense of character development, learning new things...getting into this system of being a better person," Ddungu says. "I'm happy that this has come from something that I love doing. What I love doing is teaching me to be a better person."
With school completed and a new project beloved by a growing community, Ddungu is now committed to making games. He reiterates to me his earlier comment about how he — and anyone — never know what skills they might possess until they dive in and try, which can often result in discovering hidden, unexpected talents and passions.
"You've got to focus and put in the effort and the work and hustle and stuff, even if it means sacrifices here and there, but it's really like a test of strength," he says. "That kind of lets you know whether this is for you or not...But once you dive in, if you feel that you're inclined to be committed despite the sacrifices, that's when you know it's for you. I've tried other things in the past but never really got that [feeling] but with [Sword of Symphony], I know that this is something I want to do long term. I feel so encouraged right now."
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
This article was amended after publication to correctly identify Ddungu's field of study as music technology.