Archive for the ‘Random Musings’ Category

Three Trillion

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

That’s how much money I made in the last four hours. Unfortunately though, that amount is not in any real currency. It also did not take any actual effort to make. You  might guess that I’ve been playing the new flagship title of idle gaming, AdVenture Capitalist. And you’d be right too!

Perhaps my favorite thing about this game is how neatly it represents the pinnacle of the casualization of games. It is so casual that you don’t even have to play anymore! You  just install the thing, tap upgrade buttons for a few minutes, and then just wait and watch all the sweet, sweet progress roll in. And there’s just so much progress to be made! I mean, you start with only a lemonade stand making a couple bucks here and there, but before you know it you’re suddenly making millions and buying hockey teams. Then soon after you start making billions and buy a few oil companies. And the progress just never ends. Trillions are only the tip of the iceberg here. Within a few days of upgrading things you’ll start making quadrillions. Then quintillions, sextillions, septillions, octillions, all the way to unpronounceable numbers that no one has ever heard of, because numbers of such magnitude are normally reserved for questions like “How many atoms are there in the universe?”

It’s exciting stuff, at least for as long as you maintain the illusion that these numbers and progress bars actually mean something. But to some extent or other we have been culturally hard-wired to attach meaning to such notations of success. And there is a rush when so much stuff comes to us so easily. And that rush happens, despite your higher cognitive faculties seeing perfectly well how hollow this particular skinner box is. Of course eventually the rest of your brain does catch on, and you get bored of the thing. For me that took about two days.

It has gotten me thinking though, about whether that rush of rapid numerical progress could be tied to a game that isn’t so completely mindless. And I have a little something in mind. At the same time I’ve been thinking that it might make sense to test the waters of Unity development with a small game, before I get too deep into developing my gladiator project. I’ll let you know how all that goes.

— Peace and limitless riches

 

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Facebook Farming and Robots in Japan

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

It’s been a little while again since the last post, so I figured I might as well say a few words about where I’m currently headed. First of all, I took a full time job two and a half months ago at a local mobile/social game studio. The place goes by the name of East Side Games and is best known for the Facebook game Pot Farm. Yeah, you can like totally grow weed on Facebook. What a crazy world we live in.

But wait, all is not lost! I’m still continuing to work on my own crazy ideas on evenings and weekends. The first and foremost of these is the Japanese localization of Scrap Metal Heroes, which just launched yesterday on Yahoo Mobage. It is all in Japanese, so it probably won’t be of much benefit to anyone reading this post. It’s also a two year old game with many inherent flaws, so this is not necessarily the most exciting of news. But it just might give me some much needed independence. For all its flaws, it’s still probably the best game I’ve made and Japan is a strong market, especially where robots are involved. With its new monetization model and a China launch on the horizon, there’s a decent chance of it making me a basic living. If I could manage that, I’d be free to dispense with both the 9-5 grind and the quickie tower defence games. Leaving me time to focus on some ‘serious’ strategy, which I’ll readily admit I haven’t successfully pulled off yet.

Swordfall and Scrap Metal Heroes might have come close, but neither was polished enough and both were saddled with the incredibly restrictive lane mechanism. I got a little something out of it, at least with SMH, but the lack of control over movement and targeting is just too great of a void to fill. So when I started working on Scrap Titans, I began to develop full RTS-style controls. However, I soon became convinced that doing RTS mechanics well was not only beyond my resources, but was also not the most interesting design space to explore. So now that sequel sits untouched on the back shelf, while my ideas have taken a strong shift towards turn-based games. This change is due in no small part to my recent return to Magic: the Gathering, my brief foray into Warmachine, and the board game design interests of some friends.

I currently have two turn-based ideas churning around in my head. One is grid-based and the other is a more abstract card-like affair. I’m feeling pretty confident in both ideas, and one day I’ll go run for the gold with one or both of them. And it won’t be through Mochi or any other flash game portal. I want to finally make a move towards a fully fledged PC game with an honest, up front sticker price on it. It’s not the easiest of goals for a one-man team, but I’ll get there.

– Peace and good strategizing

 

 

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Scrap Titans

Friday, September 21st, 2012

With Tumble Fortress now firmly out of the way, I’ve started at long last to work on a sequel to Scrap Metal Heroes. I now feel I’ve been trending far too much into the casual side of things, and it’s about time to get back to making something closer to my own tastes as a player. Naturally, I’ve been a bit discouraged by the modest returns on Scrap Metal Heroes and Swordfall, but I don’t think the answer is necessarily to start making simple, casual games en masse. There’s no automatic riches to be found there either. In fact, that segment of the market is getting pretty heavily saturated. And perhaps most importantly for me, it seems much harder to pin down the prerequisites for success. Why does Angry Birds rake in the millions while thousands of other block collapsing games make barely anything? The answer of course is a complex combination of timing, marketing, polish, and some particularly adorable juxtaposition that’s just too amusing not to poke at for a few minutes. Birds vs pigs? Hilarious! Zombies vs plants? Oh, the delicious absurdity!

What might come next? Vampires vs penguins? Perhaps. They do both look good in black. The big problem though is that it’s really hard to tell what exactly might capture public attention in this fickle arena. Casual games in this sense are a lot like viral youtube videos. Some small slice of simple-minded amusement that’s different enough from what’s come before to put a few minutes of your time into. Who on Earth would have expected that some kid twirling a pole, pretending to be a jedi, would become a smash sensation? Impossible to predict what might click like that with the current zeitgeist.

On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to quantify quality in core games. Absorbing narrative, challenging gameplay, difficult choices, a meaningful sense of progression; these are all readily recognizable qualities. When a core game fails it tends to be over clear systematic problems. It might simply be glitchy, way too easy, or possibly much too hard. It might end up having a poorly conceived, easily exploited combat system. Maybe the AI is utterly incompetent, ruining any sense of immersion and challenge. Or it could be incredibly linear, taking away any meaningful choice from the player. Of course, none of these issues will be received the same way by different players, but they are easily identified.

So, what does all that mean for Scrap Metal Heroes? What are its strengths and flaws? The core mechanic of building robots is certainly fun. Some of my favorite games are ones where you can come up with your own unique ‘build’ of some sort and then test it out against the competition. TCGs and tabletop wargames are founded on that basic idea. As, to an extent, are many RPGs. Total War multiplayer has some of it as well, but the territory really hasn’t been explored all that much. Is there a mainstream strategy game out there that lets me design my own robots, spaceships or monsters, and then compete against other players’ creations? Not really. Or at least the pickings are very slim. All the robot-building games I’ve seen always involve one-on-one combat rather than strategy. It doesn’t help that the robot creation is often incredibly complex, to the point where you almost feel like the whole thing is just an exercise for actual robotics experts.

Scrap Metal Heroes, however, is weak in other areas. The combat is definitely its greatest weakness. It’s rather spammy, with not much in the way of pacing, and most importantly there just isn’t much decision making required. No control over movement, targeting or priorities. Just spawn, spawn, and spawn some more robots. So that’s the first thing that needs to change. No more lane combat whatsoever. In its place I want a fairly traditional RTS control scheme that actually lets you move units around, capture strategic points, and target weak enemies. Of course, I originally went for the lane system because I thought standard RTS mechanics were too complicated, particularly when it came to AI and pathfinding. But I now think it’s perfectly doable, if I keep it simple enough. Especially if I manage to obtain a basic engine from somewhere. Naturally, this would make the most sense with a top-down viewpoint, even though humanoid robots unfortunately don’t look that interesting from above.

So, what else needs to change? Well, I’m not too fond of the way Scrap Metal Heroes lays out levels into two distinct linear paths. I’d much rather have an open map with a number of different interconnected territories and cities, each unlocking something different. At the moment I’m planning to essentially present it as a conquest game with three different factions, all gradually expanding their territory, until they clash. Mechanically this conquest aspect will be pretty rudimentary compared to Swordfall, but it does give you some options and provides a bit of context.

Another issue I have with Scrap Metal Heroes is part progression. Higher rarity parts (indicated by name color) tend to be strictly better than more common ones, making the vast majority of parts obsolete by the late game. This really hurts design diversity, and makes it hard to both remain competitive and make robots look like you want. And part progression with an item pool of this size (about 250 parts total) isn’t really worth it. There’s only four tiers of power in Scrap Metal Heroes and it doesn’t take all that long to zoom through them. RPGs manage item progression by having thousands of different items, but I have no chance of making that much content. So the only reasonable solution is to have a relatively small pool of balanced parts. Though even so I may still aim to give rarer parts a slight edge, without making them strictly better than common stuff. I think the trick is for the more common parts to be plain, straightforward and efficiently priced, while the rare parts can be more specialized and expensive. Rare parts can still have the biggest, flashiest abilities so that they’re fun to discover, but their power is balanced out by some drawback, such as situational conditions, narrow role, limited ammo, high build cost, etc.

To keep that sense of power progression, I may add a technology tree similar to the one in Arkeia that boosts certain abilities and part types. Although this time I don’t think I’ll hide any of the techs. It might even make sense to allow any of them to be researched right from the beginning.

Well, I think that covers all of my plans so far. Tune in at a later date to see some early art.

– Peace and robot builds

 

 

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A New Plan

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Oh wow, it’s been longer than I thought. But not to worry, I’m not abandoning the blog by any means. These three-month breaks just build up the all-important anticipation for the next nugget of wisdom.

So, the you-know-what game is finally done in both its versions. In another display of utter predictability, this thing has taken much longer than I anticipated. Also, it hasn’t been the kind of success I was hoping for. But past is past, and it’s finally time to move on to some new ideas. No more lane combat or tower defense. And most importantly, no more five month projects! I’ve got half a dozen promising ideas packed away in the old vault, and something of a new business plan. These new ideas are pretty diverse and relatively simple. The plan is to aim for 3-4 weeks development time per project, with joint launches through Mochi and iOS. The first game in this plan is Age of Inventors, which already has a preview up on the site. This one should be done early next month, but given my track record you shouldn’t believe a word I say about release dates.

Other ideas on the list include a really simple space 4X game with customizable alien aces, a robo combat game (distant descendant of Scrap Metal Heroes), an exploration-focused trading company game, a wilderness survival game, and a defense game featuring airships (but definitely no towers).

But don’t worry, I haven’t quite sold my soul yet. Had I done that, I’d be coding virtual carrot purchasing on Facebook by now. Despite the number of games in this agenda, I’m not planning to produce mindless shovelware. If anything, I’m looking to improve on quality and originality, but still keep the scope down to something a bit more manageable. From a business perspective this rapid development plan makes a lot of sense to me, and it also lets me explore a lot more ideas and themes. With a five-month project I pretty much end up hating my own game by the end; such is the nature of over-exposure.

Another thing I’d like to avoid in the future is lump sum sponsorship deals, even though that’s been my best revenue source to date. But the thing is, it doesn’t really build up anything. It’s just one lump of cash and then it’s off to the next thing. I’d rather work on something to continuously build up my own brand and revenue stream. I mean, passive income is the holy grail, right? And it actually seems perfectly doable in this line of work. For a solo dev like myself, a revenue stream of $200 per day would be great. That adds up to more than 70k per year after all. And with 20 games in a portfolio, each one would only need to make 10 bucks a day. Thirty thousand ad impressions plus seven sales on iOS would do it. With even a half-decent business model, it sure doesn’t seem like much.

But enough of the boring biz talk for now. The inventions are waiting!

– Peace and new ideas

 

 

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The Next Big MMO

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

No, that acronym doesn’t make too much sense, does it? Massively multiplayer online what, you might wonder. Massive multiplayer online skeet shooting, perhaps? Really, MMORPG is just such a mouthful. At one point I just called them ‘morps’ but that doesn’t seem to have caught on. So MMO it’ll have to be.

And what is the next biggie? Guild Wars 2 is the likeliest candidate at this point, according to the hype mill. Pre-purchases of the game just became available today, but apparently a lot of stores started selling them yesterday and are already sold out. I’m not sure if this is necessarily a sign of enormous fan fervor, or if the pre-purchases are strategically very limited in number. To stem the tide of people making their way into beta, perhaps?

Either way, I don’t really care all that much myself. I used to be incredibly hyped for this thing, but a bit of realism has sunk in since then. I’m sure it’ll be a good game, but it’s no revolutionary online eden. I’ll probably even buy it fairly soon after release, but I still think the people spending $150 on the collector’s edition for something that’s still 3-6 months away are a little insane. Although to be fair, if there’s beta access involved, then it’s a bit more understandable. More ‘eccentric’ than ‘deranged loon,’ I would say.

TotalBiscuit’s GW2 videos have given me a pretty grounded view of GW2. Sure, there’s lots of innovation in it, but it’s still using a lot of the same old tracks. Yes, the public quests and organic quest chains look like a great change of pace from static quest hubs. And yes, it does seem like there’s a lot of freedom without strictly level-coded questing zones. So, the facade isn’t quite as thin and tacky as it’s been before. There’s still plenty of cracks showing up though. Some of the public quest battles look little different from a sparkly game of whack-a-mole, with mobs constantly popping out of the ground and dropping from the sky in front of your face.

Actually I’m feeling pretty suspicious about the entire ‘content scaling’ that’s been paraded as one of the key features. Strangely, I can’t remember seeing any negative reactions to that system, so maybe they’ve figured out some way to make it work. I just have trouble imagining such a quest and level scaling mechanic that still maintains a sense of consistency. So, stuff gets harder depending on how many people participate. Sounds like a great idea, right? So let’s say I’m having some trouble with a camp of five bandits, and call four friends over to help out. Then what? Twenty extra bandits magically pop out of the ground? Or the original bandits suddenly have five times more hit points? Might be it’s a bit more subtle than that. Maybe they only get double HP and a couple extra allies that pop in one at a time. Still silly and terribly transparent.

Admittedly, I’m sketchy on the details but I have to wonder: what exactly is the end result of this scaling? Does it really mean that the game can never be really easy or incredibly hard? Must the challenge always be just ‘right’. If I want to explore the Hellmouth of Doom and Dragonfire at level 1, will I scale up accordingly so I can whoop some dragons? Or if I’m an all-conquering, level 80 warlord might I get crushed by a pack of bunnies at the local potato farmer’s field? What do levels even mean if my power is always adjusted according to the content?

– Peace and happy leveling

 

 

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Beyond Arkeia

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Now that Arkeia is finally nearing completion, I’ve spent some time thinking about what to do next. In a way it’s perhaps premature, as some things may change depending on how Arkeia does. For instance, if the iPhone version ends up performing way better than the flash one, I may end up exclusively on the iPhone for a while. And if the game as a whole is really successful, I might not be able to resist the urge to do a sequel right away. On the other hand, I do have a number of other ideas I’d like to get to and I’m getting a bit tired of lane-based combat.

For one thing, Scrap Metal Heroes really deserves a sequel of some kind. But definitely one without lanes. At the moment, I’m envisioning a small team (perhaps 4-5) of customized robots, which you can control in typical RTS fashion. Move them, tell them what to attack and trigger special abilities at the right time. There’s an iPhone game called BattleHeart that does this pretty well. The only thing I don’t much like in their system is having nothing more than individual cooldowns on abilities. It means there’s barely ever a reason not to use a ready ability, so you’re constantly clicking between units, just checking cooldown meters and spamming abilities. Either a character-specific or global resource would force you to make some actual choices there.

The robot building would remain pretty similar to SMH. One thing I would like to add is an ability to mix and match different arms, so that you could pair a right-side hammer arm with a left-side plasma cannon, for instance. Then you’d switch between the two in a fight, depending on circumstance. Not sure how useful such flexibility might be, compared to making more specialized bots. Would largely depend on how difficult it is to avoid melee.

Another thing I don’t care for in the original is the power scaling of parts, how so many choices became obsolete by the late game. Just in terms of designing objects and producing graphical assets, it’s quite a pain to make lots of power tiers, each with a healthy selection of parts. And it has a lot of drawbacks for the player as well. The number of parts creates a lot of need for inventory management, and forces players to abandon parts they might really like for aesthetic or thematic reasons. However, a sense of power progression is kinda important too, so I’m considering an upgrade system that lets you improve individual parts. Makes perfect sense given the DIY bot tinkerer setting. Just bolt a couple extra metal plates inside the head and your armor rating goes up. Install better electronics and more of your shots will hit. Lots of potential for customization there.

Another option is a point-buy system where more advanced parts might be more powerful but they’re also more expensive to maintain, so you’re not able to bring as many bots to a fight. Only kinda, sorta makes sense though, and has definite risks of overcomplicating things.

For the between battle bits, I’d love to have some kind of open overworld you can travel through. So much more characterful and immersive than just menus. Also appropriate, given the name of my company. Clear goals and sense of direction, but with a fair number of options on what to do between key story locations. It could be presented as a fairly simple map. Not too different from old-school final fantasy, back in the day when they were still relatively open. And relatively good.

An interesting option for the battle system would be having your bot-maker avatar personally on the battlefield, guiding his creations. He could have his own powerful abilities, but you’d lose the battle as soon as he fell. Pretty similar to a miniature game I’ve recently gotten into called Warmachine. In that your tactics very much revolve around protecting your warcaster leader from being assassinated. Right now I feel there’s too much danger of overcomplication in such a system, but it’s an idea.

 

I have a number of other ideas in the old drawer as well, though this is without doubt the strongest contender. I would still like to do something with the remains of Fortify the Border, my recently abandoned defense game. I’m not sold on the Rise of the Colony style mechanics, but I do like the interface and maps I produced for it. I think some kind of isometric, RTS-style castle building would be an interesting change of pace.

Another concept I have is a gladiator school management game. Buy slaves, recruit trainers, set up a training regimen, expand the school, advertise, equip gladiator teams and enter tournaments. Kinda like the Sims with a lot more blood and slavery. Perhaps not very politically correct, but it strikes me as a pretty original idea. Can’t remember ever seeing a business management game combined with a combat system. Of course there might be good reason for that too. Such a hybrid might end up being a rather small niche. Slavery might also be something of a PR minefield; I’m sure there are some unwritten rules about that. Certainly there are games that feature slaves, but I can’t remember any where you so directly own and control them. In at least some of the Civ games you can enslave foreign workers/populations, but that’s a very abstract representation.

I’ve also been pondering a strategy-RPG hybrid I’d like to make once I move beyond casual games. Unity might be a good place to start for that. Basically, you’re a mercenary captain in a low-magic fantasy world, travelling around the land with a small army, taking on quick contracts. Another overworld plus some Starcraft-scale battles, so a few individual heroes and a couple small squads under your command. Once again, Warmachine has greatly influenced my thinking on this idea. That game does a really good job of giving each unit and robot a unique role to play. It’s not so rock-paper-scissors dominated as Starcraft, nor so predictable as Total War. Warmachine has also gotten me intrigued by probability-based combat systems. Attack skill vs defense to determine chance of hitting, power vs armor to determine chance of causing damage. Makes a lot more sense to me than just hitpoint depletion. Sure, it is a little more complicated but I could see it working in a non-casual PC game.

I’ve actually done quite a lot of background lore on the setting for this game idea; I’ll have to write a bit more about that one day.

– Peace and great ideas

 

 

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Knowing When to Switch Tracks

Friday, March 16th, 2012

I’ve just done a bit of a spring clean up of sorts on my ongoing projects. More specifically, I’ve gone from three unfinished games to just one. My latest castle-building defense game, Fortify the Border, has been laid to rest, and I’ve merged my other two games, Swordfall: Rome and Empires of Arkeia. About a week ago I took a hard look at these three games, and concluded that in terms of mechanics, polish and ease-of-production my new iPhone game, Swordfall:Rome, was by far the strongest of the three. My initial idea at first was to make a mad rush to finish off Arkeia and FTB before putting my main focus on the iPhone game. But there were a couple issues with that. While Arkeia and FTB were both near-complete mechanics-wise, there was still plenty of work to do in terms of level content, story, balancing, testing and so forth. Rushing through those critical steps, just so I could get these games over with as soon as possible, just didn’t sit right with me.

The final decision to abolish the old version of Arkeia came when I was grappling with one particular design decision. Originally, I allowed the player to attack and move an unlimited number of times per turn, in an effort to simplify army movement. But this of course allowed the player to bring all his forces to bear in every battle, making the map layout all but irrelevant. The system I used in Swordfall: Kingdoms, where each region could attack and move only once, was easily exploited by moving an army to another friendly region after attacking, so that it could attack again. The feedback in this system also left a little something to be desired. And I very much wanted to avoid the clunkiness and complexity of the original Swordfall, so something else had to be done. The only solution I came up with was breaking up movement and attacking into separate phases, as in Risk. But multi-phase turns ran exactly in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. I realized I was firmly headed down the same road to over-ambitious complexity that doomed Swordfall. Quickly, I started to question many of the other choices I’d made as well. The deployment system, in which the player sets up his army on a grid before battle, wasn’t really working out as intended. It made the battles slow to start, and I found myself making the same deployment setup time and again. My plan to de-emphasize rock-paper-scissors countering in favor of inter-unit synergies also left a lot to be desired. It was too complicated and too difficult to balance. Ditto with unit special abilities. Then there was all the damn maps. Sixteen of them, but with only four different enemy races to fight. There just wasn’t enough variety to fill up all that space, and I couldn’t see myself putting in the time to add 3 or 4 new races. Or into vastly expanding the existing ones.

In the meantime, my new iOS game beckoned. To make it, I had pared down my lane combat mechanics, maps and upgrading into their most basic forms. And the result was fun. It was simple, quick, linear and easy to make. No moving and recruitment of armies on a grand strategic map, just a straight-line sequence of battles. Each one pre-designed with just the right level of challenge and variety. No deployment phase and no abilities, just click on the arrows and watch dudes fight. Yet there was some skill involved. In getting counter units to match up with the enemies they were intended to counter, and in achieving the right mix of front line and support units. Clearly, this was the right game for a casual audience. This was a game I could make without tearing my hair out. But I couldn’t turn my back on Arkeia entirely. I couldn’t simply abandon all that art I’d worked on for more than a month. So eventually the natural solution came: take the iPhone game and combine it with Arkeia’s art and setting. The result: a new and revised Empires of Arkeia. One that I’ll first release for Flash and then later port to the iPhone. With the engine already iOS-tested, this won’t require anything more than a bit of rescaling. Truly the best of both worlds. And while I remain a little disappointed that I couldn’t make the more complex Swordfall mechanics work out, I do believe this new iteration is a much stronger game that many more people will get some fun out of.

Also, it’ll be much easier to make this way. While my time estimates should always be taken with a grain of salt, I do think I can get the beta out within a month. I’d expect the final release no later than May, though the iPhone version will likely be a bit longer, as I have no idea how long the Apple approval process might take.

– When in doubt, keep it simple 

 

 

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Thoughts on Mochi

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

To any other developers who might be lurking around here, I thought I might share a few of my experiences to date with the Mochi ad and micro-transaction platform. Now seems like a particularly appropriate time to do so, as I’m pretty sure to be moving on to other pastures.

I discovered Mochi while working on Gun Nomads, my very first one-man game project. At that point I knew nothing about sponsorships, and in fact didn’t even realize it was possible to make a living from flash games. Gun Nomads was at first meant to be nothing more than an exercise in getting my 3D work into something, and actually finishing a decent game (something that I never quite managed with my school projects). So with that in mind, making a couple bucks from this Mochi thing seemed like a no-brainer. Not knowing much about the flash world, the resulting traffic took me completely by surprise. Within a week Gun Nomads reached its peak of popularity, receiving 100,000 views on its best day. Of course, my return from ads (ecpm) varied between 10 and 20 cents per 1000 views, so I wasn’t exactly making a fortune. Those tiny fractions of a penny for each ‘customer’ just didn’t seem like much for the entertainment I was offering. So, I started reading about this new-fangled thing called ‘micro-transactions’. It seemed like another no-brainer. I only needed one person in a thousand to spend a trivial bit of change to start making some real money.

So I went in and expanded Gun Nomads, adding micro-transactable guns, mission content and cheats. It turned out even a trivial bit of change was difficult to get from flash gamers, but my ecpm did jump up to about a dollar. Although my daily traffic had slipped by then, so I only made forty bucks on my best sales day. A week or two afterwards I was down to making $10-$15 per day. A bit of welcome spending money and a sign of better things to come, but not quite a quick and easy fortune.

But the long tails in this business can still make such games worth something. More than two years after release, Gun Nomads is still making nearly two dollars a day, and has made over four grand to date. So with a bit of patience and a hefty portfolio of games there’s no doubt a potential living can be found in this territory. On the other hand, my other three micro-transaction games haven’t done quite as well. Swordfall is currently making more per day, but it’s also a much newer game. In the very long term it might still overtake Gun Nomads, but at this point that seems unlikely. In any case, the bottomline is that sponsorships have proven much more reliable and profitable. In my experience, it’s also difficult to combine the two, as sponsors seem to like fully free games about as much as the audience does.

There are definitely a few flash games that have achieved some impressive numbers with this business model, but I’m not convinced anymore that it’s worth pursuing. There are other, much more fertile avenues to explore, if paying customers are indeed the ultimate goal. Like the internet itself, flash is supposed to be free in the minds of most people, and it is nice to have this one place where anyone, anywhere in the world can play games without running into a paywall.

So, what would I recommend in Mochi’s place? If you like the micro-transaction thing, it can clearly work spectacularly well on facebook. Getting into that market can be difficult for the little guys, as there is no way to get noticed outside of marketing and viral spread. The right game can still get all the attention it needs from the latter, but it won’t work out for most. The typical time-constraint, spammy paywall techniques on facebook can also be a bit exploitative. That model really has no appeal to me as a player, nor as a developer, but it might be the right cup of tea for some. Although, if you’re trying to build an image as a ‘good-guy indie,’ just the fact you have games on facebook will hurt that reputation.

Currently, the most interesting market for me is mobile, which of course is hardly a unique opinion these days. The culture on the various app stores is really completely different when compared to flash. People celebrate iPhone games for being so cheap, while they groan and whine when similar flash games charge anything at all. It probably has a lot to with the downloading of apps into your collection, rather than playing through a public website, that makes the things feel like property. Perhaps the most interesting thing, at least to me, is how the mobile publishing model is now expanding onto traditional operating systems. Apple now sells apps for OSX as well as iOS, and by the sound of things Windows 8 is going to follow close on its heels. This could be the start of a revolution in how PC and Mac games are published. Even something as accessible as Steam still has some pretty high standards and a fairly arcane approval process, at least from what I’ve heard. Letting nearly everything in and allowing the gems to float naturally to the top is a wonderfully democratic approach in comparison. All this together with the recent explosion in multi-platform dev tools is opening up game development like nothing else in history. I can see a day coming when any twelve year-old kid can make a game and release it on every computing device in the world at the click of a button. That day is not today, but the walls are definitely beginning to crumble.

– Peace and broken walls


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New Games and Old Series

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

These runty little goblins will be some of the critters you’ll face in the new Swordfall successor, which for the time being I’m calling ‘Arkeia’. They probably won’t be too great a challenge though, unless of course they bring along the whole clan. But they’ve got some much larger friends who will likely show up in your future nightmares. In all honesty though, it may yet be a while before you get to fight any of them. Progress on this game has been rather minimal so far. To be fair, I do have a solid start on the assets, much of the unit concepts done and a healthy set of design specs. The code just isn’t there yet. I did take a version of Swordfall yesterday and started cutting stuff out of it in an effort to turn it into my new game, but now I’m not so sure I want to go down that route. The games seem similar enough to turn one into the other, but on closer inspection there are quite a few differences. Just taking out the old maps, units, techs and generals leaves my code with a ton of obsolete references that need to be hunted down and cleaned up. On top of that I really feel like I should merge some of the class structures, using new methods I developed for Rise of the Colony. Plus, it would be so much cleaner to start with a fresh, brand new application and just copy things in as I need them. Might take a fair bit longer to get running that way, but I’d likely end up with fewer headaches and a more efficient end result. Bottomline is this may all end up going into November, though I’d like to finish it by the end of next month. Just from a financial viewpoint I kind of need to get it wrapped up and sold by January, so at the very latest I will have it done by the end of November, leaving a month for auctioning and sponsor branding. Of course that would probably push back the actual release to January or maybe even February, depending on what the sponsor wants. I don’t think a Christmas launch makes much sense in the flash world; you can’t exactly stuff one of these things under a tree.

So yeah, I have been a tad lazy these past couple weeks, and a little busier with other things than usual. Mostly this is due to starting my visual arts studies at the University of BC, though with only two courses I’m not exactly feeling overworked. And they are artsy courses too; not anything serious like ‘Advanced Human-Computer Interaction’, a course in which I naturally dealt with motion tracking and brain interfaces. Or more likely it was an introductory Java GUI course, but no one has to know that. Anyway, my homework for next week involves dripping ink on two sheets of paper… and nothing else whatsoever. I think I can handle that and still make some games.

So aside from taking my first steps to becoming a true artiste, what exactly has been on my mind lately? Well games of course, that goes without saying. Has there even been an entire day in all of time when that was not the case? Although these days I almost feel like I’m growing out of games. At least the playing them part; I’m as thoroughly fixated on game making as I’ve ever been. It might just be a lack of good games, but there’s been very few in recent years that I’ve managed to really get into and actually finish. Starcraft 2 is the only example I can think of right now. That definitely entertained me for a few months, but the ladder matches ultimately got really repetitive and hectic. Then there’s been some fantastic open world shooter games like Red Dead Redemption and Deus Ex, which I haven’t managed to finish but feel like I should. In the case of the latter I haven’t even finished my first mission yet. The high regard for it makes me feel an obligation to give it a chance, but all the crawling around vents just isn’t triggering the right neurons.

I could of course tell myself that I’m just picky with my genres, that I’m only really into deep RPGs and strategy games. Then again, I haven’t finished a single player RPG since Final Fantasy X and only reached level 35 in World of Warcraft. The latest iterations of classic strategy series like Civilization and Total War also leave me cold. In the case of Total War the reasons are at least clear enough. Empire covers a period of history that really doesn’t interest me much, and I found the ‘line up dudes into lines and wait while they shoot each other’ gameplay a bit on the simple side. Shogun seemed like a return to the glory days at first, but it’s just such a small game. There’s barely any units and all the factions are effectively identical. Then of course there’s a certain lack of attachment to it, having virtually no background knowledge in the machinations of feudal Japanese clans. Leading the mighty Chosokabe clan to victory just doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Civ 5, on the other hand, seems like it should be great but hasn’t been able to hold my interest very long. There’s definitely features in there that I don’t care for, but they don’t seem major enough to put me off the game by themselves. The reduced ability to optimize cities definitely does have some role to play; building the wealthiest or most productive city in the world was a major hook in the Civ 3 days. I also hate having land units turn into boats when they hit water; that just makes seas way too trivial of an obstacle. But surely that’s not enough to ruin the entire game, is it?

That naturally leaves us with the sad fate of the revered Age of Empires series: the cruel abomination known as Age of Empires Online. Okay, that might be a bit too harsh of an expression, but a healthy dose of scorn at this trend-wallowing, facebooky, freemium MMO-ification is definitely called for. Sure, the core game is essentially just AoE 2, which is a fine and safe way to go. The art style is heavily casual, but nonetheless pleasant to look at and pretty unique. No real complaints there. But the MMO frippery piled around this core doesn’t entirely work. It takes way too long to unlock a decent roster of units (meaning something akin to AoE 2), making the game feel awfully grindy as you slowly bash through one enemy camp after another with the same few unit types. This of course isn’t helped by the lack of enemy diversity, virtually nonexistent story, and the complete absence of any type of challenge, at least for the eight hours or so that I played it. But at least now all the casual players like three year olds and the mentally handicapped can feel like they’re winning all the time. Oh joy, what a wondrous gaming age we live in. Then of course there’s the afore-mentioned frippery: the endless stream of shiny gear you can put on your little warrior men. Admittedly, an interesting idea at first. In all honesty, I do like the idea of customizing and upgrading an army, considerably more so than doing the same with a single character. This is after all something that has barely been explored in games, and I do still like strategy games, at least in theory. AoEO’s approach might be a bit too much of a cut-and-paste hybrid, but still I think it deserves a few points for originality.

Execution though is another matter. The first problem is that the upgrades are too trivial to really notice, and seem terribly simplistic and arbitrary to boot. +5.1% damage output on one unit type is hard to get excited about. And these numbers just seem so strangely precise; some of the percent bonuses have two significant digits after the decimal. I’m not sure if this is evidence of highly tuned balancing or just an effort to make sure you won’t forget the whole thing’s just a shallow illusion built on meaningless numbers. And despite these upgrades resulting in a barely perceptible sense of power progression, they’re still enough to make fair matches with friends difficult to arrange. On top of that you have to level up for a while just to unlock the ability to even play multiplayer. Too bad for those who erroneously believe multiplayer to be the whole point of the genre.

Being the somewhat ill-considered, cut-and-paste job that it is, the game is riddled with muddled metaphors that make little sense. The crafting system is really the most glaring misfit of them all. You craft items out of planks and ingots like in any old MMO, but then those items are equipped on unit classes and mass-produced in battle using generic resources like wood and gold. It would all make much more sense if it were presented as developing new technology, but logic has very little place in this game. AoEO is not interested in finding new and clever ways to represent real world systems. This is simply an exercise in cutting successful pieces out of existing games and then nailing them together. A trendy Frankenstein concoction if ever there was one.

– Peace and better games


Posted in Game Critiques, Random Musings | 8 Comments »


The Cavalry Has Arrived

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

I’ve been doing a pretty good job lately holding procrastination at bay, and as a result my SFK game is coming together at a decent pace. I’m a hair’s breadth away from completing all the units. I just finished modeling the Cossack, the last of the unique units, so the only thing left is some post processing and the General unit. Originally I planned to make a few additional units specific to some of the other maps, but file size concerns have gotten in the way. I’m aiming to keep the game under 10 MB, and that’s going to be hard enough as it is. The addition of variable color layers has nearly doubled animation file sizes from what they were in ADoE. Thankfully though, I don’t really need variable colors on unique units. I’m also brushing up against the limitations of Flash in other areas, so sometime soon I may have to start looking at other platforms. Unity definitely looks promising, though I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it during the two group projects I’ve used it in. UI implementation especially seems nothing short of retarded for someone coming from a Flash background.

There are other intriguing options as well. I’ve had some exposure to XNA on a game jam project, and it looks pretty reasonable, but getting on to XBox Live Arcade sounds like a hassle. Without doubt the phone/tablet market is the most inviting place for an indie developer who isn’t interested in Facebook games. And in that arena the choice lies between taking the somewhat more difficult and expensive plunge into the Macverse or betting on an emerging market like Android. Although I have heard rumors of a development application that can compile into both formats. I’ll have to investigate whether such a thing truly exists. Regardless, anything involving the iPhone would mean getting a Mac, a prospect I’m not too fond of.

But for the time being I am still a flash guy, and I’m still committed to making a sequel for SFK, so long as it isn’t a complete flop. And I really don’t think that’ll be the case; it’s already quite a lot of fun to play. It took me quite a while to tweak the strategic AI, but it puts up a solid fight now. AI-to-AI fighting is also nicely dynamic and unpredictable. On the Europe map there are some factions like the Arabs, Russians and Byzantines that tend to do very well, but even they do get swamped sometimes. Even seemingly minor powers like the Spanish and Vikings occasionally go on to create huge empires.

But perhaps you could all use a visual to understand what I’m talking about, so here’s a small icon for the Europe map with faction starting areas colored in. To make the title of this post a little more relevant, there’s also some horsey guys included.

Posted in Project Previews, Random Musings | Comments Off on The Cavalry Has Arrived