Archive for September, 2011

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

Posted in Random Musings | 10 Comments »

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 »