Archive for August, 2011

A Successor to Swordfall

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

After much pondering, I have at last decided to go ahead and make a successor to Swordfall. As flaw-ridden as it is, Swordfall does have some solid mechanics that could support a much better game. And with the core mechanics remaining in place, the time investment required to build a new game should be relatively modest. Although, admittedly, I am a bit hesitant to make that claim, having failed at project time estimates so many times before. But even with that said, I can’t see it taking more than two months, unless I get incredibly lazy or busy with other things.

So, what should you expect out of this new bastard child of a game? Well, it’ll definitely be different enough that I wouldn’t call it a sequel. The art style is somewhat more cartoony, the setting is fantasy, and there will be long term progression, with a story that takes you through a series of small maps. Think Starcraft 2 single player, if you need a structural comparison. I’m aiming for at least ten hours of gameplay to complete the main campaign and unlock all units, of which there will be many. Each unit will also be highly upgradable and customizable, with a number of different abilities to choose from.

Another thing I’m looking into improving is the battle system, though I’m not entirely clear on the details yet. Armies will definitely be much smaller this time around, preventing the slow attrition of late-game Swordfall battles. Generals are also gone, as I don’t think they added all that much. Active abilities on units would definitely be much more interesting, and would help make the battles feel more controlled. I’ve also toyed with the idea of introducing a turn-based deployment phase that let’s you ponder your army’s arrangement in peace before all the hectic fighting begins. This could work nicely if the battles were heavily based around the use of active abilities, perhaps a bit something like Warcraft 3.

One final thing I can guarantee is that the game will be entirely free. I’m definitely done messing around with Mochi.

– Peace and fair battles

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Forged in Battle

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

soldier dudesI’ve recently discovered a game called BattleForge. Well, it’s really  more of a re-discovery; I remember hearing about this game back when it was still new, but then it just seemed to fall off the radar screen. After playing some ten PvE matches and reading some of the comments on metacritic, I can see a lot of the reasons why. The game has a ton of flaws and I’m pretty near burned out with it already, but the concept as such is still pretty unique.

Long story short, BattleForge is an RTS where you build decks out of various unit, spell and building cards. There are no actual card-like mechanics in the game, like drawing or discarding, which somewhat makes you wonder why they went with the card metaphor in the first place. And it really works hard at that metaphor, with cards flapping and bending almost convincingly when you mouse over their little icons. I suspect the only reason they went with this card system is the money bags they saw Magic: the Gathering pulling in. Now that the game has gone free-to-play, it’s business model is identical to your standard CCG. Like every other deck building video game I’ve seen, BattleForge makes you buy all your cards after giving you a small starter deck. Fortunately, it’s not nearly as expensive as Magic. Fifteen bucks should get you all the cards you really need, unless you absolutely must have all the rarest cards. There’s less than 400 cards in the whole game anyway, so there isn’t all that much collecting you can do.

As a concept there really isn’t anything else like it out there. There aren’t all that many RTS games to begin with, and none let you customize a faction before a match. Sadly, BattleForge fails otherwise on so many levels that it’s likely to accomplish little besides frightening away other devs from exploring this territory. Purely as an RTS its just not a very good game. There is some entertainment to be had in the singleplayer campaign, even though the story is complete nonsense. But at least it does present a decent challenge on the higher difficulty settings. I haven’t had much experience with PvP yet, but it doesn’t look particularly promising either. The players have full map vision at all times, and this design choice alone destroys a lot of potential for strategy. With full map vision there can be no sneak attacks or unexpected comebacks. The map design and node capturing mechanics also serve to simply funnel the players into each other. And of course there are the inevitable balance issues, with rarer cards being more effective and late game monstrosities crushing all life out of earlier units.

What enjoyment there is to be had isn’t easy to get at either. The UI design is downright embarrassing and many cards are overly complicated. Pretty much every unit has 3-4 different abilities, often with descriptions that go on for five lines. With a dozen different critters in your deck, you won’t remember much about what they can do. The game doesn’t really provide any context for the units either, so you won’t really end up caring much about them. Another part of this disconnect problem is some unnecessarily high stat numbers and a certain degree of abstraction that makes it difficult to compare units and figure out how much damage they can do. Each unit card in the game has an attack and defense value, starting in the low hundreds for lowly units, and going up to 4000+ for late game beasts. The defense score seems to translate directly into hit points, but it’s a complete mystery how the attack value relates to actual damage being dealt. Of course, additional stats like attack speed go completely unmentioned.

All in all, BattleForge is largely a lesson in what not to do. But it is interesting to see someone exploring this particular hybrid. I just wish more devs would try out customization models in strategy games, hopefully without blindly sticking to all the established conventions of CCGs. But that’s enough flogging of that tired old horse. I’ll come back to it only once I have something new to add, perhaps even a game of my own that revolutionizes the whole genre. Perhaps.

– Peace and calm seas

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Next Steps

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

My last posts might have given the impression that I’ve been sitting on my thumbs for the past two months, moping about the tragic failure of Swordfall. Fortunately, that’s not quite the case. In fact, about two weeks ago I finished a new flash game, another one of my ‘Rise of the’ defense games. It was approximately a five week project and I ended up landing a sponsorship for a bit less than Rise of the Tower’s five grand deal. Pretty typical as far as my sponsorship experience goes, but I’m pretty happy with that result. It’s a very welcome cash infusion after two big games that haven’t produced anywhere near a decent wage for all the work that went into them.

Also, now I once again feel like I know what I’m doing. Sure, I got stuck for a while there on some over-ambitious, hugely flawed visions, but I’ve learned my lessons and now it’s time to move on to smaller and better things. So yeah, looks like I don’t need to go out hunting for a real job after all. While I do plan to return to strategy, I’m going back into it from a much more casual and goal-oriented angle. I’ve been working the past few weeks on some interesting ideas in that direction, keeping the iPhone as my main target platform. It brings back many of the battle mechanics from Swordfall and Scrap Metal Heroes, but with escalation and deployment mechanics that should keep it all from turning into one long cycle of attrition. Also in my mind are some elements of collectible card games that have intriguing possibilities. Deck building and card drawing, to be specific. I played MTG for a few years back in the day, so I know full well how addicting deck customization can be. The trouble is I have yet to see any decent attempt to translate that concept into a computer game. The likes of PoxNora just have no appeal to me. I feel like they’re all aiming for a needlessly exact translation of card games, with apparently no one interested in re-examining the genre’s structure in light of a digital platform. For me the biggest turn off in these digital CCGs is the turn-based battles, which I got tired of back in the Age of Wonders days. Another is the typically lackluster graphics, and a major third peeve is the genre’s obstinate refusal to budge from the micro-transaction model. As soon as you require people to buy cards with real money, the whole affair turns into pay-2-win. This goes hand in hand with the card rarity spectrum that everyone just has to use, which neatly breaks your game into tiers of crap cards, decent cards and good cards. Back in my MTG days easily 80% of my card collection was useless filler material that no serious player would ever touch. In some cases there are good cards that give you the exact same thing as a crap card, but for half the cost. Any RTS with that kind of balancing would be laughed out of the room.

I’m hoping I can topple some of these old standbys, at least in whatever limited way my resources will allow. And naturally, it won’t be anywhere near the complexity of a traditional CCG like Magic. With a casual target, the mechanics have to be pretty simple and the card count reasonably low. Now, this is all early days still of course. I don’t even own a Mac yet, so any plans for iPhone development are little more than whispers in the wind. I’m pretty confident though that this game will happen eventually. I like the concept and I’m having a lot of fun right now with the fantasy setting. It’s such a refreshing change of pace to just come up with whatever the hell I want, instead of hunting through history articles on Wikipedia. I’m actually working on a little flash side-scroller on the side as well, which I’ll probably finish before I get serious with this fantasy strategy thing. I’ll try and keep this blog up to date on any major developments.

– Peace and fair trades

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The Rise and Fall of a Game, Pt. 2

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

So now that I’ve covered some of the key problems I see with Swordfall, I’ll just take a moment and cover some of the hard-won lessons I’ve gained in the process.

Lesson 1: Don’t Make Games For Yourself

Now, I’ve definitely heard this one several times before, and I always thought it a rather stupid rule. I mean, if you love to make games, obviously you’ll want to make something that lines up with your interests. And yes, I absolutely agree that you should. You’re likely to do much better work if you deeply care about what you’re making. But here’s the kicker: don’t imagine you’ll actually end up playing the thing in the end. Whatever connection you have to the game’s idea, art or mechanics gets pretty thoroughly explored during development, especially if you’re working solo. By the time you’re ready to launch, you’ll know every nut and bolt so well that the very idea of playing it fills you with absolute boredom, or perhaps even loathing. The only exception, I think, might be a highly procedural game, like Minecraft or Civilization, where generative algorithms can still throw surprises at you on the umpteenth playthrough.

So what exactly is the harm in making games for yourself? Well, for one thing it’s terribly difficult making a living out of an audience of one. Or ten. Or a hundred, or however many people there might be out there who happen to be just like you. Early playtesting can help here, especially if you can get a variety of people to sit down in front of the game. Preferably people who aren’t afraid of hurting your feelings. Also, don’t rely on enthusiastic fans as an accurate representation of the audience. Fans that actually go to the trouble of contacting you are only the tiniest sliver of a minority among the potential player base. And if you make a game just for them, you’ll once again end up with an awfully small audience. To be fair, this may work with some types of games. If you’re involved in crafting an intricately detailed simulation of medieval banking, you know you’ll have a small audience to begin with, so you’ll need a hefty price tag that only the most enthusiastic fans will swallow. But small audiences don’t really work in the flash world. This market is all about quantity. If you want to make serious money in flash, you need to reach millions of people and put out games at a brisk pace. Which, of course, nicely segues into my next point…

Lesson 2: Don’t Make Five Month Games

The simple fact is that flash games tend not to make much money. Most of them make next to nothing, the decent ones make a grand, the good ones make $5000, and the truly exceptional ones might reach $25,000. And then, of course, you have Fantastic Contraption, which made over a million. But Fantastic Contraption doesn’t really count; even though it was made in flash, it really is more of a traditional pay-to-play indie game. That is naturally a much stronger market for those games that can attract a dedicated paying audience, but it’s not an easy place to break into.

As far as the flash sponsorship & ad market goes, 25-30 grand is pretty much the best you can hope for. And that kind of money only goes to the absolute cream of the crop. Unless you’re making a sequel to a highly popular game, you really have no right to expect anything like it. No matter how brilliant your idea might be or how gorgeous your graphics, it’s still incredibly difficult to predict whether your game is worth 3,000 or 20,000. Naturally, a fair bit of the equation depends on your reputation, how well your vision aligns with the tastes of high-budget sponsors, and on whether you have established sponsor relationships. And regardless of your business skills, the audience itself is a fickle beast, out looking for a quick bit of fun amidst an endless torrent of content. In that choked up jungle some straightforward production quality will raise you above the the herd, but the thing that takes you from good to great isn’t always so obvious. The point of it all is this: hedge your bets. Don’t sink all your time into an elaborate tree that may not bear sufficient fruit. Spending five months on a game and expecting to make a living means all the stars need to align perfectly. Even if you manage to pull off that trick once, can you really make a consistent show of it? Oftentimes, popular games come about through dumb luck more so than brilliance. Novelty is a big part of this business, and the Next Big Thing can land in your head almost by accident, never to be repeated again. Case in point: Alexey Pajitnov, the developer of Tetris, has now worked some fifteen years in the US games industry without coming up with another breakthrough hit. Chances are that Tetris will be all he’s ultimately remembered for.

So, the secret ingredient in the flash sauce is to find a happy medium. One to two months is about ideal in my book, perhaps going down to as little as two weeks if you’re working with a fair number of existing assets. If you’re incredibly brave or don’t need sleep, you might try out a one week game, as long as you don’t make a habit of it. It may just work for something with a very simple core concept that’s playable after a day’s worth of coding. But you need a strong sense of fun and novelty to back it up; at least something that’s likely to fetch a couple grand for your efforts. You will not be able to live on $1000 games, at least not in the developed world. Trying to make fifty games a year that anyone will actually notice is a fool’s errand.

Lesson 3: Depth is Overrated

Sure, most of us like a bit of depth to our games. Variety in level design, different kinds of enemies, lots of meaningful choices, and perhaps a large serving of elaborate upgrade trees. Ultimately, what exactly is depth? It can be a few different things, really. Lots of novel things to discover, plenty of variety in gameplay, and perhaps most importantly a sense of gaining mastery of a difficult but rewarding set of skills. Depth is generally bought at the cost of complexity, an especially important point to keep in mind when developing strategy games or RPGs. You want a system complex enough to support a range of meaningful choices, sufficient variety and a multi-pronged sense of progress. You’ve got to have your leveling, quest completion and your gear drops. You’ll also want some strategic building construction, marching armies and advancing technologies.

At the same time any system you build has to be easy to learn and make some kind of intuitive sense. So using what your players already know, both from other games and the real world, will make your rules much easier to swallow. Naturally, it goes down much easier still if you lead people in gently, taking care to point out all the individual actions that make up the basics of your game. A few might be frustrated enough by this hand-holding to seek fun elsewhere, but that’s a small price to pay.

If you happen to be a new developer and a fan of AAA strategy/RPG games, you might want to scale back on your initial plans for scope and complexity, perhaps by an order of magnitude at least. No flash indie team can go head-to-head with the big boys, and there really isn’t much of a middle ground in this industry anymore. There are small games and big games, but very little in between. Small teams make casual games, and casual games are a very different beast from the giants of the industry. Your players will not have spent months or years reading through all the hype generated by your marketing department. They will not have invested a day’s paycheck in order to play it. They will come in as blank slates, attracted by little more than pretty colors, googly eyes and a catchy title. The moment they encounter frustration or confusion is the moment they’ll go find pretty colors elsewhere.

Angry Birds. Plants vs Zombies. Fruit Ninja. Cut the Rope. These wild success stories did not come about because there’s a lot of meat on the bones. They happened through a touch of novelty, cute characters, a good deal of polish, and a title that instantly reveals the game’s entire premise. In this arena, a pretty surface is worth more than all the deep dark depths in the world. The trick here is to have a strong core, both mechanically and thematically, one that’s easy to both build and communicate. For a month-long project the mechanics should take less than a week to implement. The rest is all polish and testing, with some extra polish on top.

Lesson 4: The Last 10% Will Take Half Your Time

Put another way, you’ll first make 90% of your game, and then still have the other 90% to look forward to. To be fair, I haven’t found this to be true with all my games. With some simple projects and reusable code assets, I have managed to come in at just slightly over schedule. But with anything a little more complex, perhaps something with a synopsis that doesn’t quite seem to fit into a single sentence, all bets are out the window. Two months can just as easily turn into five. There are just too many features and interacting systems to really grasp all the little knobs and widgets you’ll have to make. And the more complex your creation becomes, the more potential there is for things to break, more hidden corners for game-killing bugs to hide. On a five month project the last two may be spent making sure everything still works. You will play your game a lot, you will have to tweak, adjust, fix, and rejigger every little thing. Approximately once every hour you will curse yourself for being an idiot. You’ll remove the evidence of your idiocy, and then compile the game yet again. And again. And then again. So make small games, people. Spend more time with ideas, less time with bugs. Both you and the bugs will be much happier in the end.

And now I believe it’s time to head out to today’s life drawing session, over at the local university. I’ll reveal more about my future plans soon.

– Peace and fair winds

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The Rise and Fall of a Game, Pt. 1

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Swordfall has now been out for about two months, and it’s been something of a hard lesson on what not to do in this market. For reasons that seem obvious in retrospect, the game has been a pretty complete flop. While Swordfall has a small core of enthusiastic fans, it hasn’t come even close to Alexander: DoE’s performance. The possibility of this outcome was at one point inconceivable to my limited imagination. Swordfall was after all essentially the same game, but with lots more stuff. Lots and lots of maps, provinces, factions and units. Proper strategic AI, battlefield generals, province-specific recruitment, and all sorts of other fun. How could it not be better when it was so much bigger?

So why did it end up being less popular? I suspect a significant part of the reason is simply lack of novelty. I’m sure there were a fair number of people who had already played ADoE and weren’t impressed by what appeared to be more of the same. But it seems equally clear that the bulk of the issue lies with the structure and complexity brought about by all those new features.

Problem 1: Too Many Options

Swordfall has seven campaign maps to choose from, and on average each map has about seven playable factions. So a fair number of options, but small potatoes compared to a Civilization game. This all made sense to me, as I figured I was making something about halfway between Risk and Civ/Total War. Naturally enough, I’m something of a devotee of both of those grand series. Sure, I love my epic, open-ended strategy games and RPGs. There’s nothing quite like opening up a brand new simulation of a world and tinkering with it to your heart’s content. So this is where I was coming from. But of course, to anyone used to the linear, goal-oriented experience of your standard flash game, this is all very confusing. Where does the game start, exactly? Am I supposed to finish the top map first? Do I ‘finish’ the game by going through all the maps? Surely I don’t have to play with all those factions too?

Now, I’ve probably played Rome: Total War about as much as all other games combined, and yet I’ve never actually finished a single campaign. The same is also true of my experience with the Civilization series. Although I do think I once, entirely by accident, won some kind of point victory, back when Civ 3 was still the hot new thing. At which point I must have said something like this: “WTF, the game made me stop playing! That’s so stupid. I’m sure as hell not having that condition on next time.” So I think you can guess how much value I put on finishing strategy game campaigns, and why more goal-oriented players might have caught me by surprise.

Problem 2: No Permanent Progress

Really just a subset of the same sandbox-vs-linearity issue, and equally alien to the standard flash paradigm. In a match-based, sandboxy game like Swordfall you might play an hour or two before finishing a campaign. And afterwards you have nothing to show for your efforts. No new levels, loot or unlocked uber units anywhere to be seen. Perhaps not a problem for civ-junkies, but they’re all likely too busy playing Civ 5 to bother with flash games.

Problem 3: Too Serious, Too Historical

Not too much of a change from ADoE here, except in that I just had to pick medieval Europe as my setting, easily the most overused, cliched and grim of all possible eras. All the text descriptions and graphics took this torch and ran with it to an awfully serious, bloody, grim, somewhat plodding place. Now, I’m fairly convinced that most flash gamers are either bored kids or bored office workers, and a large helping of medieval military history is not likely to make their days go by any faster. So yes, there is that. Again, seems fairly obvious in retrospect. Lesson learned: add wizards. And maybe birds. If all else fails, go for zombies and vampires.

Problem 4: Information Overload

To be sure, Swordfall dumps a lot of things in the player’s lap from the get-go. The big campaign tosses nine different AI factions your way, all listed in a map key with details on income and victory points. The map itself has 67 provinces, each with name, income, food resources, and details on the occupying army. There are generals to recruit with two dozen possible abilities, regular military units, province-specific mercenaries, a substantial tech tree, and battles involving rock-paper-scissors mechanics coupled with general ability management. Yes, there is a tutorial with some text in a box explaining how all this works, but even so it does seem like a bit much, doesn’t it? More linear gameplay might help here once again, with its ability to introduce features gradually and all that jazz.

I’ll try and follow up soon with some of the key take-aways from all this, and what I’m planning to go onto next. But right now I do believe it’s about shut-eye time. 5:40  does seem like a mighty good time to head for bed, doesn’t it?

– Peace and good tidings

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