Since my last update, progress was slow for a while. Life took a hectic turn in general, but the real killer was the time shift at the end of daylight savings. Previously, I could get up at 5am and know I had until at least 6am – maybe 7am – to work. The time shift simultaneously had the kids waking up earlier and me being more tired when they did. That took a good couple weeks to sort out, but happily things are now starting to work better. By which I mean, I’m getting work done.
These mornings look like this:
~5am: Our younger of the two children, Tamsin, wakes up and starts fussing.
I get up, get dressed, and take her into the living room. She gets toys and a playmat, I get a Macbook Pro. We both get to work.
Between 6am and 7am: Peter wakes up. I get him set up with something he can do with minimal supervision, and get some more work in.
7am: I wake up my wife, and we get going on the day.
This usually has me off and at work between 9 and 9:30am.
There are also the odd evenings where I work, but this arrangement allows me to mostly reserve that time for everything else – spending time with my wife, household responsibilities, and whatever else comes along. It’s a big relief not being forced to decide between those things and game development on a regular basis.
During these sessions, I’ve been working on two projects – Project Quigley, and a small game I’m making for Peter for Christmas. Peter is a big fan of double decker busses, and I’m making him a simple Unity game where a tap will move the bus, and it loads and unloads passengers. Since that is coming along well, I’ll soon be switching the majority of my attention back to Quigley. I’ll have more to say about the bus game soon – there’s a chance it will get proper art and sound and go up in the App Store.
Quigley is at a point where I’m putting out the short vision doc I have for it out to some designer friends and soliciting feedback. Simultaneously, I’m starting work on some low-level level features I’ll need for the game. First up is the 2d map, which we’ll be coating in Angband tiles.
This post is part of a coordinated assault on the blogosphere by a number of indies – we’re all blogging today on the the theme of, “Size Doesn’t Matter”, either for or against. You can find a list of all the other posts at the bottom of this one.
Since not many indies are working in the social games space, we wanted to riff on that experience a little. We hope you enjoy.
Overall, the case can be easily made that game size doesn’t matter. Great small games have already been made – one of my favorites that pops right to mind is Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, a space exploration game where each game takes 20 minutes. We can also look at the AAA market, where games have been getting shorter for years, and people are still content to pay just as much for them. As indies, thank God for this. If the only way to succeed in finding fun was to crank out 100-hour experiences, few of us would be making games.
Something important changes, though, when you get into the social media space. If you want to make money in today’s social media (read: Facebook) market, you’ve only got a couple ways open to you. The biggest is virtual goods. But if your game is really small, how do you go about legitimately creating lots of content for it? If your game takes ten minutes total to play, good luck selling a bunch power-ups and decorative items for the experience.
The solution we see goes back to the basics of making a good game – come up with something with elegant, interesting, and simple core mechanics – and then enable your designers to create content that extends the game’s dynamics.
For those not familiar with the mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics model of game design, it posits that a game is made up of those three things. Mechanics are the rules the game operates with – like in poker, how many cards are dealt, if you can exchange some of your hand for new cards, etc. The aesthetics are the thematic and other elements that lend to the experience, but don’t directly impact the gameplay – such as what kind of poker chips you’re using, if you’re playing at a felt table, etc.
The dynamics – what I’m focused on in this post – are the gameplay considerations that arise with the framework created by the mechanics. So, again in poker, dynamics are things like a player deciding to bluff. They bluff by using mechanics in a certain way (for example, making a big bet), but the bluff itself is a result of the core rules, not a part of them.
With our unannounced Facebook game, we’re working on a small set of core mechanics that will support being extended as we add more content to the game.
So say, just hypothetically, that our new game was a steampunky mech game. It then makes a lot of sense to have interchangeable mech parts and a toolbox of different effects each attack and defense can have. The combinatorial possibilities of the parts help create many possible dynamics, just like deck building in Magic: The Gathering.
Most of this comes down to simply good game design. But in the social media space, this sort of thing becomes essential if your game is free, your team is small, and you are relying on virtual good transactions to pay the rent. If you don’t keep content in your pipeline, you can assume that revenue will dry up as well.
A small set of core mechanics means your development time to beta is shorter. The reliance on content to extend the game means your designer can contribute to the game’s bottom line on a regular basis with only light support from the rest of the team – something that you’ll all appreciate.
Please read some of the other great posts in this giant cross-blogging extravaganza:
Without prior planning, FOUR of the articles written for the newsletter were authored by Boston-area indie game developers. As a member of this awesome group of individuals, I take great pride in seeing Boston Indies in the spotlight.
This is the first of several dev blog posts we’ll be doing as we head in to PAX; this first one focuses on our release strategy for All Heroes Die. Our further posts later this week will start to delve into the specifics of gameplay.
Right now, we’re working hard to get ready for our “$5 Beta” at PAX East. I’ve been asked a lot about exactly what the $5 Beta is, and wanted to take a few minutes to explain it.
What I call the $5 Beta is a release strategy that has been used by a number of smaller / indie studios, as well as by many other products in other industries. With it, you are looking to release your game in a very rough form; in some ways, the rougher the better. It’s a very Web 2.0 philosophy: ship early and often. Get your game into the hands of the people who will play it, and then use their feedback to develop it further. It’s a strategy that I first saw used by TaleWorlds’ for Mount and Blade, and also is being used by the gorgeous indie MMO Love. The indie devs Wolfire are also doing something similar with their game Overgrowth.
There are some advantages and disadvantages to this strategy…
Start getting real feedback on your game.
Start building your game’s community.
Get some actual cash flow!
Reduce the risk of continued investment in the game by gauging the market’s interest.
It feels somewhat like that dream where you show up to school with no clothes on, and are just waiting for everyone to notice. (You know that dream, right? Right?)
You risk forming poor first impressions. These may be hard to break, especially for media folks who look at tons of games all the time.
You are increasing your workload with an added component of community interaction and community management.
You’re now seriously on the hook to deliver to your fans.
Overall, we feel that this strategy is a great one to take for first-time game makers like ourselves – to us, all the cons I’ve listed are overcome by the first pro point – real feedback. The amount of time and energy you put in to a game means that you’re going to have blinders on regarding your gameplay and UI – you’re eating and breathing this thing, and you most likely long ago made your peace with dozens of issues that will completely vex your players. Getting honest feedback on these things is paramount.
Personally, I’m quite interested to see how this strategy turns out for us, and I’ll definitely be blogging our results. All Heroes Die is a curious mix of old-school and new-school, in terms of its technology and business model. On the one hand, we’re using an installed .exe that people download – very close to the shareware model that was pioneered by Apogee and ID in the early 90′s. On the other hand, we realize that our success is tied on almost every level to having a robust and engaged online community – something that brings us a lot closer to the social games of today.
Before I go and do another IGDA profile, just wanted to share a fantastic post from Gareth Fouche’s Scars of War Blog. Scars of War is a 3D RPG being built with Torque.
In essence, Gareth looks at a guy on DeviantArt who decides, inspired, that he is going to start painting and drawing, and keep going until he’s good. I’ll leave it to you to click the link and see the results.
Starting my own studio has an exercise in ignorance. Just about every day I’m asked a question or confronted with a decision that I have no basis for dealing with. And hey, I’m supposed to know all this stuff by now, right? It’s not like I started this all yesterday. And man, I hate making mistakes.
So, the last couple days slammed home several things that I’d already been considering. Graham and I post mortemed the May-to-now timeframe, and the biggest problem we saw was that we seriously lacked project management.
But wait! Scott, aren’t you a seasoned project manager? Haven’t you produced games before?
Recently Microsoft made a couple changes to the Community Games section on Xbox Live. The first was that they changed the name to Xbox Live Indie Games. The second and more significant change was to their pricing structure.
Previously, you could charge$10, $5, or $2.50 for you game. The new structure will be $5, $3, or $1.
There are a couple things to see here, from an indie perspective. The upshot for me? I’ve never felt better about my decision to not create a game for the Xbox.
I think in the longer term, this price change hurts indies in general… but the big question mark here isn’t the price point, it’s how much more exposure the Community games channel will get to the public. One thing is for sure – Microsoft doesn’t want developers like me making Community games.
It was already extremely difficult for an indie to make a living or run a company off Community games – the numbers we started seeing earlier this year confirmed that. From what I saw, people mostly put this down to a lack of marketing and exposure for the channel to the Xbox 360 userbase. Much like we see on iPhone game sales, if you’re not a big hit, you’re not going to sell enough units to cover your costs. But on the iPhone, this is because the channel is so incredibly crowed and noisy. On the Xbox, it’s because no one knows the channel exists.
The price change brings Community games more in-line with the iPhone game prices. This could help some indies sell more games on the Xbox, because the pricing is just that much more trivial to the user. But really, it still comes back to getting more people playing and buying Community games.
Longer term, this kind of pricing is a “race to the bottom”, as Jeff Vogel describes in an excellent series of posts on his blog. In enforcing this kind of price structure, Microsoft is saying that more complex, longer games don’t have a home in Community games. That’s the message I’m getting, at least.
A price point of $5 doesn’t make business sense for us on most any platform. And for one where people aren’t showing up in large numbers it’s even worse. What Microsoft is saying with these changes is, a) we only want games that you can make for about $3 a copy and b) trust that we’re going to publicize the channel a bit more.
I like Microsoft a lot – I used to work with them as a publisher, and I’ve always appreciated their excellent attitude on supporting their developers. But I’m going to need a bit better of an offer to prove out their business model for them when I’m taking all the risk.
The conventional wisdom in the AAA games industry is that there is a sweet spot to hit with your content creation. You want to create a rich game experience for your players, but at the same time you want to make sure not much of your content remains unseen – unplayed content in your game is tantamount to wasted time.
Personally, I’ve been moving away from that thought in the Heritage game design, and this morning it hit me how to enunciate the exception to this rule. In essence, unseen “stuff” can keep your game fresh to your older players. Continue reading →
Cory Doctrow has a very interesting article up on Internet Evolution. In it, he puts out an idea he thinks could help resolve the issue of internet makers creating things that infringe on other people’s intellectual property, said IP holders then bringing onerous lawsuits to bear, etc. His idea is to do a hybrid Creative Commons license for your content.
Not sure if this is helpful to anyone, but here is a print version of what I said:
I wanted to discuss the recent controversy over crunch time that sprang from the Leadership Conference panel. I feel the IGDA cannot afford to equivocate at all on this issue.
Although as an organization we need to be inclusive as an umbrella for all developers, having a “live and let live” policy on hard crunch with any company makes the organization look like a complete paper tiger, and robs us of any credibility on the issue with the larger overall development community.
While the attitudes and practices of Epic may work well in their culture, a lot of development houses make the same arguments simply in order to compensate for a lack of rigorous process in their production cycles.
I would urge the board to take a stance that, while acknowledging some studios have a culture of crunch that has their employees’ buy-in, that it is not something the IGDA can condone in light of the abuses other studios will commit with that same reasoning.
If this isn’t possible, I think that as an organization we should reconsider our advocacy around working hours. If the IGDA cannot be credible to developers on this front, we should instead focus on things where we can.
There may be small variations from the video in there – this was what I wrote down beforehand.
I’ve been somewhat reluctant to open my mouth any more on this topic… mostly because the immediate response from board memeber Tom Buscaglia and outgoing chair Jen Maclean (paraphrasing here) was, “Thank you, we hear you – and we could use your help if you care about this issue.”
The reality is that I can’t take that time. It makes me feel like a jackass, because I’d like to be fighting the good fight on this one. But looking at it? I’m in the middle of starting a company and trying to get an ambitious game from scratch to the IGF in about eleven months. Not only can’t I find that time, but I don’t have any of the enthusiasm for this fight that I know I’d need to really do a decent job at it. And that makes me reluctant to shoot my mouth off anymore.
So… why am I posting? Because I realized today that the call from Jen and Tom to help was NOT something I should read as, “Jump in or shut up.” In fact, I’m sure that they would both be appalled at that thought. That was just the connection drew on my own.
The IGDA does need its members to step up and help out in greater numbers. It also needs to know what we think, what’s important to us, and constructive thoughts on how we’d like them to represent us. These two items both stand up just fine on their own; while both are needed, one doesn’t flow from the other. While it behooves me to try and help, I shouldn’t keep quiet just because of that.
The only thing I’d add to my above statement, from my perspective as a producer in a previous life, is that I feel some crunch is inevitable in most game development. There are number of reasons; I think the two biggest are that our processes are still immature, and often our amazing ambitions often exceed our time and capabilities. A lot of this will go away with more practice, but yeah, sometimes we will all work overtime. God knows I’m doing it right now on Heritage.
However, it is completely unacceptable to me when studios encourage a culture of crunch being utterly necessary and intrinsic to game development, but are not up front about what devs are signing up for, don’t compensate their employees for their extraordinary efforts, and make no serious efforts to improve how they make games in order to eliminate that crunch. If crunching is part of your up-front deal with people like apparently it is at Epic, great. If it’s a relatively extraordinary measure for a company & they try to mitigate the need for it, I have no problem. If it’s an excuse to keep your profits high and you can’t be bothered to innovate your way out of it… that’s sad.
Whatever stance the IGDA takes on Quality of Life, I feel it needs to address the problem children of our industry – not Epic. And if Mark Rein, Mike Capps and company get upset because they’re left out in the cold, they should suck up and deal. I’ve seen Capps go on enough about how Epic is a bunch of rock stars… well, rock star away. I don’t think not having the IGDA Seal of Approval is going to hurt their recruiting much, given the buckets of money they are apparently lobbing around. And having that seal actually mean something might start to help with the problem children.