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ApathyWorks now has a press kit. I wonder why...
For all your text, review, screenshot, trailer, and credit needs!
ApathyWorks now has a press kit. I wonder why...
For all your text, review, screenshot, trailer, and credit needs!
Busy busy busy. Important game things that are going on:
Things that are going on that are getting in the fucking way of finishing CTDV:
I'll make up for all my silence once I'm given a chance to, you know... take a deep breath. Until then, I recommend following my Twitter feed, since 140 characters is something I can type reliably.
ApathyWorks now has a new Facebook page! Please Like it!
Between that page and this blog, I'll be showing off new Cute Things art in advance of the PC release!
Also, part of me died when I had to capitalize the word "Like." Wait, there I go again.
Why, hello there. I'm back from the warm glow of spending Christmas and New Years at hearth and home in Rhode Island. That means that I've returned to my usual city of stubby, unadorned concrete boxes posing as buildings, host to a quixotic collection of ugly white people under severe delusions of grandeur.
One must soldier on.
Or not, since it's time again to arglbargl about Xbox Live Indie Games. For a change, instead of describing its latest indignities through the lens of Cute Things Dying Violently, let's instead focus on Scott Tykoski, a bonafide developer at Stardock who decided to go slumming in XBLIG with the Christmas-themed Elfsquad 7.
Poor Scott recently tweeted that Elfsquad 7 had only sold 600 copies on XBLIG (at $1 a copy) since its release, which is dispiriting for a number of reasons. But since my opinion on how viable XBLIG is as a market should be pretty well-known at this point, I'll only focus on one reason in particular: Elfsquad 7 got lots of good press. Joystiq, Kotaku, Indiegames.com, Gamasutra, and plenty of other sites quickly took note of the professional developer and his game. Lots of people paid attention. And still... 600 sales.
So, we're looking at XBLIG as a market that is even now becoming more resistant to good press, one of the most reliable levers of ensuring (or at least boosting) commercial success in pretty much any market. XBLIG doesn't have many saving graces left for those interested in earning money from it, and one of those few remaining graces is either quickly receding or is now entirely gone.
And Scott's not my only data point. Cursed Loot (formerly Epic Dungeon) was the best-selling game of the XBLIG Winter Uprising that occurred a year ago. According to its creator, Eyehook Games, the title sold 3,800 copies (at $1 a copy) on its first day on the market last December. And that was before that game (and the other Winter Uprising games) got featured prominently on the Xbox Live Dashboard. By comparison, CTDV (I lied, I am talking about it), a game I'd wager was similarly popular, sold 700 copies (at $1 a copy) on its first day of sales about 9 months after the Winter Uprising concluded, and only 800 copies on its best day, when the Summer Uprising ad went up on the Xbox Dashboard.
Two games, both popular and well-received, both backed by prominent Uprisings and similar levels of advertisement from Microsoft... yet one exhibited far slower sales than the other, just nine months later.
There could be many other reasons for that, including purchasing habits of different customer bases (CTDV seems to have sold as well as Cursed Loot over all, indicating that the long tail of purchases has made up for lower initial sales), but I can't help but think that the marked difference of 3,800 sales versus 800 sales is from rapidly-declining market interest. Fewer customers are interested in XBLIG as a whole, and the market is contracting to the point where even consistent good press is losing its relevance.
One final example: the creator of the recently-released twin stick shooter P-3 admitted in the App Hub forums that his game only sold 21 copies (at $1 a copy) on its first day on the XBLIG market. His conversion rate of trial downloads to purchases was 5%, which is... saddening. And I can't help but compare that with my own crappy geography game, which sold 60 copies on its first day of sales back in June 2010. As a genre, twin stick shooters are far more popular than edutainment, so once again I find myself wondering just how much the market has contracted.
Or at least they pretend to. For long enough to humor me, anyway.
First up, an article on Supply and Demand on Xbox Live Indie Games that I posted way back in September has made its way to Gamasutra, where it was yesterday's Featured blog post. Nice!
Secondly, Tim Hurley over at Gear-Fish roused himself from his stupor long enough to review Cute Things Dying Violently. (Tim, it's been out for about four months now.)
Finally, Tim also snuck a few interview questions my way. I hold forth on the usual game dev subjects like upgrading CTDV, future games to be made, and platform preference, but Tim also threw a curveball my way regarding cooking. That was a really fun one to answer.
Bad news, nobody. Someone hacked my Xbox Live account and spent $120 of my hard-earned money on games I don't get to play. While Microsoft is investigating the intrusion (and taking their sweet time in doing so), they've shut down my Xbox Live account, which means I can't use it to test out updates to Cute Things Dying Violently. Which means the desperately-needed Xbox patch for it is on hold.
In far better news, Kairi Vice of IndieGamerChick has been featuring Xbox Live Indie Games developers on her blog while she recuperates from a medical issue. The series is called "Tales From the Dev Side", and Tuesday saw the publishing of Ian Stocker's (Soulcaster I and II, Escape Goat) article on pricing, while yesterday I had the privilege of seeing my article go live. It's about making your game stand out, which is important no matter what market you're releasing it in, but has a few special ideas just for XBLIG.
I hereby demand that you read it. Twice.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I traded emails with Stefanie Fogel at VentureBeat about Cute Things Dying Violently and developing for the PC. Well, some of my quotes have appeared in her latest article about Xbox Live Indie Games developers switching from Xbox to PC, and you should read it here.
First off, I should point out that I'm quoted in this article alongside the likes of Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac), Robert Boyd (Cthulhu Saves the World), and DJ Arcas (FortressCraft). That is, to be blunt, a huge fucking honor. These guys are all players in the indie community and are talented developers with great games on their CVs.
Also, to be blunter, I don't necessarily deserve to be quoted alongside them. As the article points out, Cute Things has only sold 17,000 copies so far and will probably only gross 30k or 40k by August 2012. These guys all have popular, well-known games that passed 100k sales with their eyes closed. In short, I'm not a peer, I'm a wannabe. That doesn't make me any less awesome, mind you! Just not as awesome as these guys. But one day...
Another thing worth mentioning is that Stefanie only shared a few snippets of the quotes I gave her and the things I discussed. The two paragraphs in her article that discuss me blend a few disparate subjects: I discuss that Cute Things did pretty well but also that the poor filtering on the XBLIG Marketplace scares away potential customers. I also have a bland throwaway quote about how the PC is great for indie developers (no shit), and then that comment about how most of the Uprising developers have abandoned XBLIG.
A few sentiments missing from the article are that I appreciate (and I do!) the huge success that Microsoft and others have afforded me through XBLIG. I don't relish biting the hand that feeds, and I don't think Boyd (a former XBLIG developer) does either. But there are superior opportunities elsewhere. That's just the way it is. 20k copies sold on XBLIG versus 100k copies sold on Steam is a no-brainer.
Speaking of which, I say in the article that I'd love to get my game on Steam, and I would, although it's certainly not a foregone conclusion. I'm certainly not trying to be presumptuous... just because I appeared in a prominent article alongside some wonderful, prominent developers doesn't mean everyone should hang on my every word, or that my game is destined for greatness. I still have my work cut out for me, and I really want to earn a spot alongside those developers.
I've been working steadily on Cute Things for the past few days, and decided that I didn't want to just throw a bland bug-fixing patch at the 360 version. Since I'm also busy working on the PC port of the game, I figured that Xbox owners should get in on the fun. And oh what fun it is! Yessir, we're talking about 18 new Achievements, leading to 24 total if you include the Special level Achievements.
Also, they'll still be called "Achieve Mints" on the 360, thanks to Microsoft's lovely mouth-breathing tendencies.
Cute Things Dying Violently was something I expected to program in three or four months. It wound up taking fourteen. Even so, most of the major gameplay stuff was done by Chrsitmas. So what the hell happened?
I'm assuming that the back eight months of development mostly involved tying everything together. To figure out whether or not this is true, I'm going to go through my code base and determine what was gameplay-related, what wasn't, and where certain tedious batches of code were downright inevitable:
Do you like the Cute Things Dying Violently soundtrack? Shut up, of course you do. It was written for me from scratch by the handsome, talented, and somewhat disease-free Zack Parrish. Mr. Parish is a pretty cool dude, and you might be surprised to know that he banged out the entire soundtrack in a week. A. week.
Or, you could click this thingy, which is also fine:
... especially when you go out of your way to screw things up.
The latest version of Cute Things Dying Violently on the 360, version 1.1, added aiming tools and a bunch of other features, including patch notes that explain how the aiming tools work. Unfortunately, because of a big booboo that I made, those patch notes don't show up on the Trial version of CTDV. Y'know... the version that people use to decide whether or not they want to buy the game? Yeesh.
Using the aiming tools causes a -1 Critter penalty. In the full version, the game then helpfully explains what the penalty is and why it happened with a lovely tooltip. But those tips don't appear in the Trial version, which is especially problematic, considering that you need a perfect score to advance to the second level of the game, which you won't get if you use the aiming tools! The game will get stuck, and you won't know why. YEESH.
Hurrying to fix this now. As it stands, I'm in the midst of implementing a bunch of PC-specific features, so I gotta make sure I haven't broken the 360 version's code anywhere else before I roll out a new patch.
One of the things I've made of point of doing these past two years (oh my God, has it really been two years on this blog?) has been analyzing and re-analyzing the Xbox Live Indie Games market. I concluded that XBLIG was a "tough" market that only certain types of games could succeed on: small, funny, and quirky games. That was wrong, for two reasons. One: big, unfunny games have succeeded on XBLIG. Two: and the "success" is often very, very relative.
Cute Things Dying Violently will hit 13,000 copies sold tomorrow, which is amazing, but also the reason that "relative" success has those quotes around it. Even as one of the best-selling games on the XBLIG platform (was #3 for two weeks, is now #12), it won't make enough revenue in a year to pass as anything remotely resembling a salary, considering it took 14 months to develop. So success has a ceiling.
Or does it? The makers of FortressCraft, a MineCraft clone for XBLIG, made over $1 million USD from their big, unfunny XBLIG title. Their success doesn't have a ceiling.
These are just two examples of many that I've been considering for the past month or so. As more and more XBLIG developers are becoming bitter that their games barely sell at the $3 price point (as opposed to the $1 one that CTDV took advantage of), I think it's important to revisit microeconomics, specifically the tenets of Supply and Demand:
It's that time of the year again. Having worked on Cute Things Dying Violently for longer than Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel*, I have written a post-mortem to document every up, down, left, right, in, and out of that process. Maybe some back and forth, too. I dunno, whatever. You can read the whole thing here.
I should warn you, though, that it's long as hell. 14 or 15 pages long, in fact. Why? Because I'm a good writer, and I like writing, and because I am like Samson at the gate when it comes to fighting the ADHD-riddled masses out there, wielding my wit and shining knowledge like the jawbone of an ass. Is that even still Samson? I can't remember, but everyone can enjoy a good chuckle about the fact that I referred to my wit as coming from the mouth of an ass. Get it? GET IT?
For anyone who wants to skip to the summary, I've posted it below the fold:
Jeff over at Just Press Start has been crying big crocodile tears recently, seeing as how I forgot to link to the podcast the he invited me on to last week. Maybe I'm just embarrassed by the fact that I ran my mouth so much and that it turns out I'm physically incapable of shutting up? Well, here it is, Jeff. You can stop crying now, jeez.
Here are the list of changes that users can expect in CTDV version 1.1:
- Increased wampas by 75%
- Martyrdom perk now drops 10 grenades simultaneously and is mandatory on all Critters
- Lowered the rate of fire on the MP5K submachine gun
- Added more pink
- Added capability for playing with a 3rd and 4th player in local multiplayer
- Removed capability for playing with a 3rd and 4th player in local multiplayer, because of spite.
- Increased Critter volume by 1000% and speaking rate by 500%
- Increased Critter voice pitch by 200%
- Added new quests to Westfall
- Fixed bug where Xbox DVD tray would eject disks directly into your scrotum at high velocity
- Fixed the "Jesus infinite respawn" glitch
- Fixed all misspellings of the word "vagina"
- Fixed bug wherein software would become self-aware and try to join Skynet
- Added approximately 2.3% more fun
Cute Things Dying Violently is getting a lot of rave reviews, but the ones that aren't-so-rave usually have one thing in common: criticism of the controls. A lot of players aren't getting a sense of depth and angles by just relying on the ingame arrow and its color-coding, so I've added an Aiming Tool! You activate it with the Right Trigger:
As I say in the video, I'm looking for feedback on how to implement this so that players can't abuse the Aiming Tool as a crutch. I don't want the challenge of some of my existing levels to simply evaporate. Feel free to provide feedback on this blog (sorry for the CAPTCHA), on YouTube, or on Twitter.
Cute Things Dying Violently is now available on Xbox Live Indie Games for 80msp/$1.00!
While I'm busy taking a victory lap, please peruse the Articles section if you need to refer to the game's Walkthrough or tutorials on how to use the Level Editor.
Okay, I don't want to be arrogant or premature, but it looks like Cute Things Dying Violently is gonna be a success. By which I mean people have playtested early versions of it, seen the videos, and reacted favorably to the press it's gotten by being an Indie Games Summer Uprising finalist. I'm not yet gonna venture how much of a success, because I don't want to tempt fate and upset the Gods (especially Ares, what a prick), but it makes me think of what I want to do next.
And I don't really have a good answer. Those who read the Indie Games Channel interview might've noticed that I've got a ton of ideas bouncing around my head, including stuff for a superhero game, a fantasy game, and a horror game. But would people actually play such games?
CTDV seems to be a fortunate combination of a fun, unique game that also grabs market attention. And I'd be lying if I said that I didn't design it with market attention in mind. But when considering CTDV as a vehicle for penetrating the Xbox Live Indie Games market - designed specifically for commercial success - how the hell would you follow that up? Would a follow up in another genre be a similar success?
This is bugging me because not everyone wants to just make a game with the primary objective of market success. I know I certainly have creative itches that I want to scratch, ones that have very little to do with mass appeal or visions of dollar signs dancing in my head. Take the aforementioned superhero game, which will either be a by-the-numbers brawler or a by-the-numbers Strategy RPG. The "creativity" itch is specific not so much to the game's gameplay, but rather to its accoutrements, the little juicy bits that bring the feel of the game together: story, graphical style, writing, and setting.
I'm talking about the overall feel of the game. And I'm hereby inventing a word for it: Mise en Game. This is derived from movie directors' mise en scene, all the little details that go into composing a shot or sequence; and also from mise en place, a word I picked up from a Tony Bourdain book that describes the careful arrangement of cooks' food prep stations in a kitchen.
Internet! Sweet, precious Internet! Oh, how I've missed you. I knew we'd be apart when I moved into a new apartment, but I couldn't have fathomed how much I'd miss your sweet, sweet embrace. Or how much the value of going in to work would increase once it became my primary method of going online.
Anyway. Did you gather that I moved to a new apartment? I did. I also dislocated my shoulder in the process. Good times.
ANYWAY. Indie Games Channel interviewed me and asked me a buncha cruncha questions about Cute Things Dying Violently. Lots of good material there (they also gave my boss character a name: the "Hate Bot"), but I gotta say that I especially enjoyed answering the question about providing advice to up-and-coming indie developers:
IGC: What advice can you offer to other aspiring developers that might also be looking to become a one-man development crew?
AJ: Keep working at it, because knowledge comes slowly. Expose yourself to all major aspects of game development: programming, 2D art design, 3D modeling, rigging, animation, level design, sound engineering, writing… everything! To be a one-man team, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades. Maximize your strengths, and if you identify weaknesses that might be holding you back, only then look for third party support. (There’s a lot of good places you can buy 3D models, sound effects, or music, but the cost quickly adds up, so you better know what you’re doing.)
Identify what markets you’d like to put a game in, and figure out what kinds of games sell in those markets. Play to the market’s strengths, and go multi-platform if possible to increase your sales and downloads. Draw up a list of gaming journalist sites that might be able to spread the word about your game. Look at the list, then make it double in length. Contact all of them, then find more to contact.
Also, join a community. Make friends with fellow developers, because their support and advice is invaluable. Be active on Twitter, and have a blog or website.
If you quit your day job, game design is now your new job. Hurl yourself at it, and make sure your days are spent productively. If you don’t quit your day job (like I did), cut back on design effort if you’re feeling stressed or real life is intruding, but never stop completely. Recognize that you have a constructive hobby (that can make you money!) and learn to enjoy it. Just keep plugging away, and make sure your skills keep improving, too.
In the mad dash to have a presentable beta of the game for the Indie Games Summer Uprising voters, I was constantly redoing artwork. Seriously, most of my art had a half-life of 48 hours. The problem with that was it was incredibly hard to keep consistent PR materials out in the ether.
To rectify that, here's a new (ish) CTDV trailer, showing off similar footage from the same trailer but with new Critter art and ingame object art. Enjoy! That's an order!
Wednesday night, I was interviewed by Kairi Vice over at IndieGamerChick. (That's not her real name. She admitted as such after I accused her of being a rogue LAPD cop that lost their partner and now lives on a houseboat.)
It was a really good interview that primarily focused on developing Cute Things Dying Violently and competing in the Indie Games Summer Uprising. There was ample opportunity to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the game, as well as a frank discussion about other Xbox Live Indie Games developers and their titles. All in all, a very solid, enjoyable interview, thanks largely to the skill of Kairi, who's only been blogging since early July. I hope she becomes an even bigger friend and ally to the XBLIG crowd.
Read the interview here, or else. It also includes some new screenshots and a new YouTube trailer that shows updated graphics, including new Critter animations.
I made the Top 25 of the Indie Games Summer Uprising contestants, and now I'm trying to turn that "25" into an "8." To do so, I'm fractically - and I really mean frantically - rushing to make the game look better and better before the next round of voting closes on Monday the 18th. I received a couple of suggestions to redo the Critters, so, with great relish, I did so:
Initially, I had a hard time redesigning them from the simple white blobs, and for a silly reason: I was emotionally attached to the simple white blobs! I'd been staring at them as placeholder art for the better part of a year! I was comfortable with them!
But then people started criticizing the blandness and simplicity of them, and I started worrying about my ability to get into the Top 8 of the IGSU. Therefore, ambition trumps attachment. For those of you that know me personally, you now have yet another reason to be wary of my friendship.
I am working my ass off. Guess why?
That's why. Check it out.
As I've said before, the prevailing opinion of my chosen market - Xbox Live Indie Games - is that it isn't that great. Sure, you're given access to an honest-to-God video game console to develop your games, but XBLIG (a) doesn't have much market penetration, (b) is limited to fairly gimped versions of games without Achievements and Leaderboards, and (c) is still suffering from its initial impression as a dumping ground of shovelware.
To rectify this, a bunch of proven, quality-driven developers banded together last December to release their excellent games under the moniker of the Indie Games Winter Uprising. And with a new season comes a new Uprising. But instead of the titles being self-appointed by the developers, like during the Winter Uprising, this Uprising will involve community voting.
The first round of voting is going on now: the four gents running the Uprising are taking stock of all 75 contestants and will narrow that number down to 25 finalists. Starting on Monday, July 11, the voting will be opened to fellow XBLIG developers and Uprising participants, to narrow down the 25 finalists into 8 lucky duckies that will be part of the Uprising. Following that, the entire public will have an opportunity to vote on an additional 2 "fan favorite" games to be part of the Uprising, putting things at a nice round 10 titles on display.
Cute Things Dying Violently is by no means a shoe-in to be selected for the 25 finalists, let alone one of the 8 or 10 games that will get to participate in the Uprising. That said, I think I've made a unique, polished game with plenty of style and humor to spare. I'm optimistic that I'll make it in, and really look forward to hearing back.
Oh, by the by, click the image below to see the CTDV page and all my new media on the Uprising website!
Sorry for the dearth of updates, but I've been working my ass off trying to get the mysterious and volatile Cute Things Dying Violently done in time for an Xbox Live Indie Games promotion (more on that in a bit).
That said, a part of working my ass off involved making PR materials as opposed to just slaving over my codebase, so here's something I shat out that I'm actually quite taken with: the game's first trailer!
More updates soon once I have time to catch my breath.
It turns out that I've been busy lately. No more "Project Squish" moniker! This is the real deal!
I've been scrambling to finish things up for the Indie Games Summer Uprising that kind of came out of nowhere, so the hell with what was going to be a concerted PR campaign. I'll take "piggyback off of lots of official journalists' attention" over my own efforts any day.
More promo materials to come soon as I continue this mad scramble towards the Uprising.
What do you say when there's not much worth saying?
My last official Development Diary for Project Squish, #7, was posted at the end of December, almost 6 months ago. Since then, I've made up for it with plenty of Development Interludes, but no proper Diaries, and certainly no in-game videos.
Because the flashy part of Project Squish's development has been over for a long, long time. The last video that I posted features the Boss Bot, pretty much the last stand-out feature I added to the game. Since then, I've been steadily going through the code, adding minor features here, fixing bugs there, and generally making my way through a list of items that are incredbily tedious and incredibly uninteresting.
Also... about those videos. They're not really serving much of a real purpose. Since the in-game art has yet to be finalized, I uploaded those videos primarily to show off new features and gameplay, not to look pretty. And since the game still isn't pretty, I don't need new videos. Furthermore, according to YouTube, their reach was kind of nebulous. Absent more exposure (like the kind you get by, I dunno, actually releasing the damn game) most of the videos' viewers were either close friends of mine who saw them on Facebook and got curious, or fellow developers in the Penny Arcade forums. The latter group was especially important when I still needed their advice and feedback on implementing features, but that need has fallen by the wayside as the game nears completion.
So: no new videos until the game looks pretty.
To emphasize just how tedious and boring this phase of development is, I've attached my To Do List below the fold. It's a constantly-expanding list, and there's seldom a time spent debugging Project Squish that doesn't add yet another bug or item that needs to be taken care of.
I've barely posted in the past few weeks because I've been consistently sick. I cast about for the correct adverb, but yes, "consistently" is the one that makes the most sense. Two weeks (three weekends ago), I started getting a fever and lightheadedness in the evenings. That persisted well into the following week. And just when I called the doctor's office to make an appointment, the fever subsided. Ha, wasn't that funny?
And then I notice that my throat hurt. Like, abruptly. So I stood in front of a mirror with a flashlight, said "Ah!", and noticed that one of my tonsils was swollen and disgusting-looking. Oh, hey, tonsillitis. Just what I wanted. I went to the doctor's office and they gave me some antibiotics. The next couple of days sucked while my sore throat got worse, but in the end the drugs seemed to kick in and my tonsillitis seemed to go away.
And that brings us to last night, when my face and chest abruptly broke out in an angry red rash. I went to the doctor's again today, and it turns out I had a bad reaction to the drugs they put me on for the tonsillitis. So they gave me new drugs, which may or may not work. And I'm pissed like you wouldn't believe, because I just bought an expensive new suit and I'm supposed to go up on a podium in two days and receive an award from the Secretary of Labor!
Clearly, God is testing me. And he is a douchebag.
Since we're going the TMI route, let's get out a bit more information that isn't of the personal variety.
Project Squish is slowly but surely nearing the "last 10%" phase of development, the part where there's a myriad of minor tasks to do and they seem as endless as they are small. I'll officially be onto that section once I'm done with the local Multiplayer component, which has surprised me by coming along quite nicely. The Multiplayer lobby is done, as is the actual in-game play, which now includes various power ups that can be acquired and used against your opponent. A few more customized menus and some player-friendly features, and that will be done!
After that, I have to do the Options and Credits Menus. Once those are complete, Project Squish will be feature-locked, and the rest of the development time will be spent on finishing existing features, tidying up loose ends, and general polish. I can't tell you how excited I am to reach that phase, as Project Squish is now in its 10th month of development.
However, there's one more very important thing to do: finalize the art. I (correctly) put off doing that until I was further along in development, but that time is fast approaching. It'll mean days of just sitting there and dropping new art assets into the project file, which will amount to little more than boredom and tedium. But hey, it has to be done, or else the game won't look sexy.
So that's where I stand. Here's hoping future news will bring more tales of success with Project Squish, and hopefully a story about how my horrible, face-besmirching rash cleared up in time for me to not have wasted a shitload of money on a new suit/look like a weirdo in front of the Secretary of Labor during a fucking photo op.
God dammit, God.
I am not a creative prodigy. I don't automatically create pure gold when I sit down in front of a computer or open up Photoshop, so I try to make up for that with careful planning and intellectual rigor. And not just my own! I recently borrowed those traits from Ryan at Vintage Video Games TV so that I could get some useful feedback on how Project Squish was shaping up.
Ryan spent a couple of days with a pre-alpha build that I gave him and then called me on Skype to discuss it. That required me actually downloading and installing Skype, something which I'd managed to avoid doing lo these many years. Partying like it was 2006, I got Skype up and running and had a nice chat with Ryan over the course of an hour. Here's what we discussed:
The conversation ended thereabouts, as Ryan had to go and make himself pretty for a date with what I hope was a passably-attractive human female, or at least a classy, upscale tranny. However, we covered a lot of ground in an hour, and I was greatful for the advice he gave. I really hope that Project Squish is a hit with the community, and I appreciated all of the insight he gave into how that could be possible.
I got these from Mommy's Best Games, who got them from the Dramatic Life Tumblr, who got them from TIGSource. At some point, I suspect their lineage goes back to Jesus Christ himself riding an Allosaurus. But hey, here's some of them, because they're painfully fucking true:
Still working on Project Squish, which better be the Goddamned Citizen Kane of Xbox Live Indie Games for the amount of time and energy it's taking me. (Not sure what the hell I was initially thinking, but Squish is now 6 months overdue beyond my 3-month development timeframe. Heh.)
Still polishing a lot of things off, and I met some very nice people on the way to PAX East that recommended an artist to me that could help produce some contract art and alleviate my workload, so we'll see how that goes. In the meanwhile, to amuse myself (and you, I guess), here are some comments I left for myself in my code that I've rediscovered:
I guess that's it. Color me disappointed, I remember telling myself tons of jokes in the Around The World code and thought that I'd done the same this time around. I hope I saved all of my humor for the game itself, since that's what everyone else will see.
Much has been going on! And all of it has subtracted from my ability to write or even really work on Project Squish. Which is a shame, of course, because Project Squish is the Most Important Thing Ever, and will certainly prove to be the most important thing in your lives to come. So, actually, these delays are me doing you a favor, since everything will be all downhill for you after you play the game. Marriage, kids, colon cancer... downhill.
Anywho, I bought a Wacom Bamboo Pen (not the Pen & Touch variety), which is an entry-level digital tablet that (a) completely rocks, and (b) makes a mockery of all the money I spent on custom pencils, pens, brushes, watercolors, canvas, and a scanner. Whooooooooops.
But anyway, I now have a more efficient way of drawing on the PC, so I'm working on making art like this for Project Squish:
Obviously, I'm still getting the hang of things. Fortunately, the Wacom makes doing so quite fun.
On numerous occasions, I've discussed that Xbox Live Indie Games rarely sell well at any given price point beyond the $1.00 cost most often seen in the market. Meanwhile, people regularly impulse-buy iPhone games for two, three, or four times that cost on much less information, occasionally without even a trial or a lite version to judge.
Could it be that Xbox Live users are automatically pickier about what they spend their MS Points on because Xbox Live uses arbitrary MS Points and not normal human being dollars? The Xbox stores my credit card information, but (except for certain direct-to-download full games costing $30 or higher) I can't make direct game purchases with my credit card. I have to pay money to fill up my MS Points, where $1 = 80 MS Points. I now wonder if the act of constantly having to refill MS Points and the required mental gymnastics to figure out how much you're actually spending on a game cause people to be thriftier with their Points, and less likely to buy an indie game from a much-impugned market.
Someone needs to ask an actual economist about this.
Our friendo Tadhg Kelly, last seen peddling his "games have no inherent value"/"developers should embrace piracy" tripe over at Gamasutra, has now reposted his article at GameSetWatch. I described my exceptionally low opinion of this article in the post below, but this morning I had another idea on the developer versus pirate war.
One of my favorite people in the universe is Ian Malcolm, so of course it's a crying shame that he's a fictional character written by one of my favorite authors. (And yes, that's despite the fact that Crichton became a climate change denialist later on in life.) One of the reasons I love him so much is that, in the book Jurassic Park, Malcolm takes part in a great colliquy on discipline.
1. Not to put too much emphasis on an unscientific sample of the few people that read this blog, but the folks that commented below only managed to name four "unique" video games from the past 5 or 6 years that were also critical and successes: Portal, Mirror's Edge, Wii Fit, and Wii Sports. Of those, Mirror's Edge was a financial bomb, and both Wii games were hand-crafted by Nintendo to show off their latest sensory peripherals.
Oh, and every other game mentioned was a small-scale indie game released by digital distribution. That's kinda scary.
2. This article in Gamasutra by someone justifying game piracy as a response to developers not nurturing a good community for their games is the kind of thing that drives me crazy. His argument is that, since games have no tangible content and, thusly, have no intrinsic value, the prime driver of revenue for a game is how supportive you are of the people playing it. Including, of course, the pirates. Be nice enough to them, and they may be kind enough to give you money.
This makes me want to scream and throw my shit. Of course games have intrinsic value, you dipshit. Just because it isn't solid like a book or DVD doesn't mean that games automatically become only a medium by which you succor fans and get them to give you money for your kindness. No, they're supposed to give you money for access to a copy of the game (digital or otherwise) and the experience they get from playing it! The physical media dodge pisses me off to no end, because the distinction between "physical theft" and "copyright violation" (literally, the "right to copy") covers these exact kinds of situations!
I'm impressed that the dude managed to pretty up the usual bullshit justifications with some sort of artsy, social contract-esque relationship between the developer and the (potential) customer, but it falls apart the moment you realize that developers that place a premium on customer service, like 2D Boy, still take it on the chin. Their World of Goo is an excellent game that was (a) self-published for a low price, and (b) done so without Digital Rights Management (DRM) as steps to entice customers. And still, it had a 90 percent piracy rate. Which means, according to the Gamasutra guy's argument, someone's not keeping up their end of the social bargaaaaaain...
The sad fact of the matter is that PC game developers are working in a market with huge, significant distortions. Piracy is cheap and it's easy, and the complete lack of law enforcement against online piracy allows the crime to occur with absolute impunity. And being as any enforcement would require a revolution in both international law and internet law, I don't expect to see a change anytime soon.
People develop PC games because they love developing games, and the PC represents a large audience and a large (potential) market. They frequently charge money for them not because they hope to sucker people and get rich, but because they love designing games and hope to do it for a living. And they can and should do all sorts of things to entice customer support and loyalty. When I get around to PC development, I for one will do everything in my power to provide a cheap, quality-based, DRM-free experience to both reward and entice my clientele. And even if any hypothetical game of mine has a 90% piracy rate, I hope to hell that the 10% of legitimate customers provide revenue that I'm happy with so that I don't have to worry after the missing 90%.
But let's stop pretending that piracy is anything other than the grinning, leering result of a market distortion, and the albatross around the neck of those developers brave enough to enter that market.
Hey, readers of my blog!
Yes, all three of you.
I have a question for you that I'd like your opinions and answers on, which can be added to the Comments section of this post. Hopefully, we can spark a discussion on a subject that's been bugging me for a bit:
"What games have been released in the past 5 or 6 years that are very unique?"
Additional info: Bonus points are added for games that are Unique and Critical Successes. Even more bonus points if the game is Unique, a Critical Success, and a Financial Success (lots of sales). Games in question should be pegged to the current generation of game consoles (Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3) as well as PC releases that came out during the same timeframe.
Background: In the past decade and change, movie studios have learned to maximize their revenue amid dwindling box office returns by over-relying on conventional genre pieces. Furthermore, studios are pretty good at identifying films likely to underperform and burying the film's release (and slashing its ad budget) appropriately, so that the days of major box office bombs (like, say, Waterworld) are actually long gone.
I'd say the video game industry is adopting the same tactics, especially since gamers are even more fickle about what they'll spend $50 or $60 on (rather than a $12 movie ticket). Also, this generation of hardware was incredibly expensive for Microsoft and Sony, who both lost millions of dollars on the Xbox 360 and PS3 respectively and need to recoup it with safe, predictable software sales.
Because of this, I tend to think mainstream developers and publishers are obsessed with playing it safe, retreading well-worn paths that they know gamers will reward them for. So I'm really interested in seeing if anyone has broken this mold in the past half decade and actually made money doing it.
And if we can only think to answer with indie games, then hey, so be it.
Actually, see that title? I'm kinda lying. Well, not really "lying" so much as understating the "mini" part. That's because I have very little to say in an Amnesia "review", per se, as I do about its mechanics.
Here's the review part: this game is fucking scary, and that makes it fucking awesome. It's the scariest game I've ever played, although that probably isn't saying much. It's well-designed, of decent length (my playthrough took 10 hours), and is marvelously paced. Not only that, but it has an incredibly engrossing story that perfectly compliments the scares that the game sends your way. Oh, and did I mention the game is fucking scary? Your character is tasked with descending into the lowest levels of a dark, rundown castle while battling encroaching darkness, diminishing sanity, and some very nasty former servants.
Bitmob has a really interesting article up describing the trials and tribulations of four "successful" Xbox Live Indie Games developers. The article is horrifying - and "successful" is in scare quotes - because even though these guys and gals have professional game development on their resumes and have created some of the best XBLIG offerings out there, their sales are still relatively meager compared with the rest of the industry.
Honestly, the evidence is starting to pile up that XBLIG is the graveyard of game development aspirations. Great for hobbyists, lousy for just about anyone trying to make a living. And even the cream of the crop of XBLIG developers are barely scraping by. Game design is fun, but let's try not to forget about feeding and sheltering yourself and your family.
I'm starting to think that XBLIG has three major things going against it:
Lack of respect: Historically, it seems that potential buyers have regarded the XBLIG section of Xbox Live as a dumping ground of crappy first-time attempts, avatar games, zombie clones, and massage apps. Even though there are many, many diamonds in the rough on XBLIG, the overall low opinion of peers' offerings seems to disincline people to take the platform seriously.
It's one thing to avoid Feature Creep and decide to stick within the bounds of your rigorously-designed game framework. It's another thing to realize that having done so and coloring inside the lines has left your game with a severe case of redundancy and, figuratively, your dick in your hand. (For all you know, that could also be literally the case, but I can attest that I did type this with two hands.)
Fully two thirds - 66% - of the levels in my singleplayer campaign rely on Buttons. Specifically, bounding Critters or objects off of Buttons to either (a) toggle solid walls to be passable and vice versa, (b) turn death-dealing objects on or off, and (c) open Elevator doors so you can get your Critters to safety. The outcomes are different, but they're all handled the same way: bouncing some hapless object off of a Button.
If I'm lucky, the aforementioned different outcomes might be the real kicker here, and not the common triggering mechanism. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that, every time I crack open my level editor, my creative options are limited. Like, they all consist of, "How hard should this Button be to reach? What should it trigger?" That's like being a cook and constantly having to ask, "How much cheese do I have to put in this thing?" I mean, cheese goes great on everything, right? But you don't want to overdo it.
Indeed, I'd prefer if my players don't get sick of Buttons and/or cheese. So I'm gonna sit here for a little bit and try to figure out if I can permit myself a bit of Feature Creep and add a new gameplay feature that can shake things up a bit. The tricky part is that, as a physics-based game limited by my flick mechanic, it almost always comes down to what physical object can reach where. Hence the automatic importance of Buttons.
So, what can fit in that niche without being derivative of something I've already relied too much on?
Don't say "cheese." That doesn't count.
Merry belated Christmas, everyone! And Happy premature New Year! This time tomorrow, I'll be in Aruba with (most of) my family, as well as my better half. Needless to say, that's fucking awesome for me, and not so great for you. Sad, right? So sorry, here's a video to cheer you up:
'Cuz you know what Project Squish needed? Boss Battles! Absurd ones with bucket-headed, cardboard box torso robots! The initial robot design had a pair of soiled underpants stretched across the bottom of the bucket, but I deemed that a bit too much. It hid the robot's evil frown. Also? Kinda made the robot look like a terrorist.
Project Squish is - if I may! - shaping up to be a nice mix of solving physics puzzles (eww, not that again, right?) and timing and coordination tests. My fear all along is that this would turn into some obvious hybrid lovechild/ripoff of World of Goo meets Super Meat Boy meets Angry Birds. Fortunately, it seems like there's some method to the madness, and that I'm not a plagiarizing jackasshole.
That leads me to these boss battles, which offer very trivial puzzles (two of which I helpfully solve for you, the pathetic reader, in this very video) combined with mad amounts of precision. Like: don't let a bomb detonate on your Critter! Or, don't let your Critter get caught in a tremendous goddamn drill.
Important life lessons, all.
A caveat: you're witnessing major chunks of gameplay and art being created on the fly, which is kind of a no-no at this point in the game's design. Well, it would be a no-no if I was still wedded to my three month development timeline. But seeing as how September is back that way, and I happen to think boss battles are a lovely idea for Project Squish despite the threat of feature creep, but hey. My game or the highway. Or something like that.
Project Squish will have boss battles:
It's December, and the aforementioned Xbox Live Indie Games Winter Uprising is under way. More or less... week one of December is coming to a close, but only four of the promised 14 quality XBLIG titles have been released. Oops.
Everyone should've seen this one coming, including the folks at Zeboyd, who recently made a post saying that they actually intended to wrap up development of their latest RPG in a few days. Yet, given the laundry list of shit they have to do - add save points, finish writing the dialog, balance enemy encounters, etc. - the only way I can see that being accomplished in a few days is if a fairly impressive amount of crystal meth is employed.
Seeing as how I want Project Squish to have pretty artistic backgrounds that clash with its often violent gameplay, I guess I better get off my ass and make some pretty artistic backgrounds, huh?
Well, I'm not very good at it. I'm pretty good at freehand pencil sketches, but that doesn't translate well into having a properly drawn-and-colored panorama. My earlier attempts in pure Photoshop haven't really panned out, and work with watercolors is going slowly. But in addition to getting my drawing hand the requisite amount of experience, I'm also trying to get my brain to learn exactly what it is my hand should be doing. How do I elicit the look and feel that I want? Good intentions alone do not produce results.
Therefore, I figure I'd turn to my favorite adventure game of all time, and certainly the most beautiful: The Curse of Monkey Island. What follows in this blog post is simply me staring at a screenshot and trying to deduce how it was achieved artistically.
So here we go.
Oh hey, the Xbox Live Indie Games Winter Uprising trailer is out, showcasing a butt ton of games. And it's on Vimeo, so you know it's got that extra snazzy factor.
<iframe src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/17314563?byline=0&portrait=0" width="400" height="225" frameborder="0"></iframe>
A quick reminder that the video omits: all these games are coming out in the next week or two, and all will cost between $1 and $5. I hereby declare any and all of your excuses for not picking these titles up invalid.
So, hey. You're a fan of mine, or perhaps someone committed to seeing me fail and reveling in my misery. Either way, you'd like to try out one of my games (like Project Squish), but you don't have an Xbox 360. Or your Xbox 360 isn't connected to Xbox Live. Or you just can't be bothered.
In that case, you might like the idea of playing Project Squish on your computer.
SilverSprite is a little Silverlight concoction that packages an XNA game and all of its art and sound assets up all nice and pretty so that it can be played off of a mere webpage. Yes... I've been going on and on about Unity 3D's web player capabilities, and it seems like I can pull off some facsimile with XNA! Neato.
You can read about it here. Or, better yet, don't... just be on the lookout for an online demo of Project Squish sometime in the near future.
All you'll need is a web browser.
Well well well, what do we have here?
Fed up with the fact that excellent and often cheap Xbox Live Indie Games offerings are frequently buried by zombie games, massage games, and avatar games, Breath of Death VII: The Beginning creator Robert Boyd has struck back. The plan? Organize a ton of fellow XBLIG developers with amazing track records (who have also suffered from meager sales) and have them all release quality-driven, high-profile games within a week of each other in December.
The "uprising" is, near as I can tell, an honest uprising. Talented XBLIG developers have long suffered on the market, as I've frequently pointed out in this blog. Since cheap, flimsy cash-ins are easier to get to market than A+ indie games, the crap has all but overwhelmed the arena. As a result, the common consensus from both consumers and media outlets alike was that XBLIG didn't have much to offer... until now.
As a shot across the bow, the Winter Uprising's announcement more than succeeded. For odd reasons, even the best XBLIG titles often failed to garner the attention they deserved, unless they were the rare runaway hit like the oft-mentioned A Gam3 W1th Zomb1es. But 14 quality games, all from established developers? And all of them retailing for between $1 and $5? And all of them hitting the market within a week... and hitting it angrily? Pretty much every major gaming blog and ezine out there took notice, and, voila! Increased attention for the cream of the crop on the platform! Dig it:
I was kind of flustered when I realized that Project Squish wouldn't be done in time to participate in either the media blitz or the actual release period, but hey, that's not their problem. A bunch of awesome developers just so happened to have games that were ready to be released during the same period, so they used that to their advantage.
And, needless to say, that's awesome. In fact, it's more than awesome. Even though I don't get to participate, it will increase awareness of the fact that the XBLIG isn't all zombie massage avatar crap, and hopefully increase market traffic as a result. It should also (hopefully) prime gaming blogs to be more interested in quality XBLIGs that are announced, even if they happen beyond the timeframe of the Winter Uprising.
Of course, I hope that Boyd will have more Uprisings in the future, and that Project Squish will be done in time to participate.
I'll expand upon this when I have internet access (I just moved again), but this new video shows off the game's sense of humor in the Pause menu, a Restart Level option, new fire effects (including settings critters on fire), and a bit more. Have fun!
Happy November, everyone! Today I come to you with flaming critters! Bitches be aflame, yo.
I finished fire conflagration a month or two ago, but have only now just gotten around to what happens when a critter falls into a fire. And the, ahem, associated animations.
Pay attention kids: video game design is often really, really fun.
Team Meat, the very-specifically titled development team behind the quirky and wondrous Super Meat Boy, were recently interviewed by Brutal Gamer. It's a great interview, discussing not only the game and future projects but also advice for prospective indie developers. Their suggestion that indie developers not go to college for programming or art design warms the bitter, manipulative cockles of my heart because, hey! I didn't go to college for either of those things! Yet here I am doing both!
But their ultimate reason for saying that wasn't what I expected. I initially thought that Team Meat's rationale for dropping that little counter-cultural firecracker was to suggest that four years of learning programming or art design all by yourself was just as valuable as doing four years of it in college.
However, I was surprised to find out that Team Meat was asserting that colleges teach fairly orthodox ways of thinking and doing things, and that four years of working on your own encourages not just independence (hey, that's what "indie" means!), but also creativity, originality, and individualism.
That caught me a little off guard because it's completely true, and a way I'm not accustomed to thinking. Everyone - including yours truly - gets into game design because they play a OMG super cool game and want to recreate that game, but better. Better gameplay, better story, neat ideas for levels... you name it, your imagination is already turning the dial up to 11. After all, mimicry is the most nascent (and often exciting) form of learning, as evinced by the behavior of not only babies, but everyone from newbie game developers to major studios. Look at the gaming shelf of your local Best Buy and you can see how iteration is how the industry works.
Creativity, originality, and individualism mean breaking out of that cycle. It means being honest with yourself. Making a cool first person shooter would probably be fulfilling, but will it be unique? Will it stand out? There's nothing wrong with iterating, but there are tons upon tons of viable avenues out there for stamping your name on something truly original.
When I was working on the Prometheus Engine, I planned on using it for a super neato horror game. All well and good, but I abandoned it for Project Squish, which I hope prospective players will reward for its sense of humor and creativity. I'm happy that I'm following Team Meat's advice, but it's also somewhat jarring that I could just as easily have gone in a different direction, down the road much more traveled by.
Avoid that route! Be vigilant! And be creative.
Since Halloween is once again right around the corner, I've been thinking about scary games. Thinking about them is all I can really do at this point... I can't play them, because (a) I'm a pussy, and (b) my backlog precludes buying any more games until I finish at least a couple of the ones on my plate. I also can't develop them, because (a) I'm busy, and (b) I'd need to throw tons of money at art, sound, and music design to bring an adequate level of atmosphere to the table if I actually hope to frighten anyone.
So: I'm thinking about scary games. Specifically, the myriad of ways in which you can scare a player and certain pitfalls to avoid.
Another day, another Wild West metaphor.
Gamasutra has an article up kindly letting us know that some mouth breather launched a Denial of Service (DDoS) attack against Minecraft developer Markus Persson's web server. The rationale? That Persson was not working fast enough on the Minecraft content he'd promised, and deserved to be punished.
Although the internet's open nature has turned it into both the world's biggest university and its biggest playing field, that same openness leads to very little policing. In America, last I checked, the only recourse for someone anonymously trashing your web server with a DDoS attack was to be able to prove that said attack cost at least $5,000 in commercial damages. And then the FBI gets involved, although that seems to do little good unless you're the schmuck who hacked Sarah Palin's Yahoo! email address.
Persson isn't American, of course. He's Swedish, so that gives us another fun little example. Recently, Sweden brought criminal charges against the folks who ran The Pirate Bay, a BitTorrent file sharing site that frequently played host to illegal copies of games and movies. After a knock down, drag out fight, The Pirate Bay folks were found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. Also, their server was shut down. The final result? During the appeals process, The Pirate Bay guys nimbly changed hosts to a new server. Which is still up.
The Wild West metaphor pertains because, insofar that the internet is a wide open place, that's largely because nobody has really bothered policing it. The internet doesn't transcend national laws, but, outside of major issues like child pornography, nobody really bothers enforcing them. And that especially pertains to the less-pressing issues of copyright violations (from game and movie pirates) or juvenile vandelism, like that of the genius that decided to DDoS the server for a game that's got only one hard-working developer and is still in alpha. On the occasions when those laws are enforced, as my American and Swedish examples show, the effect is punitive and short lived. (Remember those retarded RIAA crackdowns?) There's no precedent for the kind of international law enforcement cooperation needed to crack down on these issues. And there sure as hell aren't enough people to give a damn.
In short, Markus Persson found success because he struck it big in a wide-open medium that allowed him to fulfill his potential. But that same medium allows for people to conduct virtual vandelism and get away with it scott free.
I've just posted an article about the ethics of marketing fad-based cash-in games on Xbox Live Indie Games. Short version is that I think it's perfectly acceptable, so long as you don't act like a dick, like the guy behind Avatar Zombie Massage Online 2 did.
See that image above? I'm still not telling you the real title of my game until I'm good and ready. Buuuuuuuut... see that video below? I did some work, yay!
That took a few weeks longer than I expected, as I waddled away from my rigid design timeline to experiment with my art skills, or lack thereof. Y'see, I made this pretty (ish) mountain that I wanted to show off, but I needed a neat lighting system to really show it off, so, I, uh... just gave you an example of how feature creep works.
But hey. My dev diaries of late haven't been too process-oriented, so let's take a time machine back to late 2009 when I'd ramble incessantly about normal maps and whatnot so I can... ramble about normal maps and whatnot. Come venture with me!
I had a ton of fun playing Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2, but I'd never make the mistake of assuming they were depicting some semblance of real warfare. Presenting the agonies and confusion of war is generally boiled down to military lingo and bloody death to break up the steady procession of Michael Bay-inspired scripted events.
I'm ruminating on this because I'm in the process of hauling ass through The Only Thing Worth Dying For, a fantastic account of a Green Beret team that inserted into Afghanistan in late 2001 to link up with Hamid Karzai and foment a Pashtun rebellion against the Taliban, one of the first campaigns in the war. I've marveled at how tense the book has made me, because, for a Special Forces incursion into enemy territory in one of the most dangerous places on the face of the planet, there's not a whole hell of a lot of Hollywood-esque gun battles. There's the meticulous planning and the waiting and the bureaucratic interference, all of which drive the narrative. But most importantly, there's the fog of war. The reining confusion of being on the ground and trying to figure out (a) what the hell is going on, and (b) where are the people that desperately want to kill you leads to a great deal of anxiety, even for the reader!
Imagine if that anxiety could be inspired by a video game. Not that many have tried... most modern war games obsess over cinematics and a tightly-scripted, relentlessly linear presentation... with explosions and Michael Bay stuff. I guess the game designers and publishers are clear on the demographics. But what if someone were to make a game that was less about accomplishing concrete objectives in battle and more about trying to make sense of what you were supposed to do?
Linear games generally can't afford that kind of presentation, but sandbox games can. The old Operation Flashpoint and the newer Armed Assault II have missions that offer the player a wide degree of flexibility, personal judgment, and huge levels to apply both in. Often, that means getting lost and confused. Pair that with an incredibly hostile environment and you can inspire anxiety in the player.
Except, that kind of game probably won't rise beyond the "cult classic" status, where OFP and ArmA 2 have been consigned. Let's not forget, anxiety-free linearity is popular! That's kind of why I want to try out the new Medal of Honor... I've heard that it splits the difference pretty well. We'll see!
DrMistry, the creator of Space Pirates From Tomorrow, has an excellent post up on his blog which touches briefly on the previously-discussed Mommy's Best Games/Top Downloads issue. More importantly, it really hammers home just how reliant Xbox Live Indie Game developers are on Microsoft's XBLIG/Xbox Live infrastructure, and just how crippled the release of a game can become when portions of the system go down.
(DrMistry even points out that the New Releases section can go down, which I didn't know! Around The World got 85% of its sales from the New Release tab. If it had gone down during ATW's release... I shudder at the thought.)
A really interesting point that DrMistry makes is that good PR and coverage on the indie gaming blogs doesn't net as many sales as sheer visibility on the Xbox Marketplace dashboard. I didn't know that. That means that XBLIG bugs and outages have an even more horrifying impact on game sales than I previously guessed at.
Prior to releasing Project Squish, I plan on spending a good month or so with a gameplay-and-art-complete game, just so I can unload tons of finished content on the indie gaming blogs and simply advertise my heart out. However, it turns out that if the Xbox Marketplace chooses that time and date to screw up, no matter how energetic my PR campaign is, I'm in for a world of hurt when it comes to sales.
So apparently, Mommy's Best Games - one of the best and most noteworthy indie studios working in Xbox Live Indie Games - has decided to hold off on releasing their new game, Explosionade, because the XBLIG Top Downloads tab in the Marketplace is broken.
Kobun's indie page covered it here, and Indienerds covered it here. Basically, the short version is that the database that does sales tracking for XBLIG is unreliable, updating every few days or not at all rather than every 24 hours on the dot. For developers interested in checking their daily sales, it's obnoxious. But this database also powers the Top Downloads section of the XBLIG Marketplace, giving additional valuable attention to popular XBLIG titles.
Y'see, Microsoft does an utterly piss-poor job of advertising good XBLIG titles. There's a myriad of reasons why that is, including the fact that Microsoft earns more revenue from Xbox Live Arcade titles and doesn't want super cheap XBLIG offerings to compete with the pricier Arcade options. Left to hang, XBLIG developers must create their own advertising. One way is to prevail upon the various gaming blogs and indie sites out there and hope your game is good enough to get featured and talked about. Another is to have actually made a good game to begin with, and have it appear in the Top Downloads section (or IGN Picks, or what have you) by virtue of your hard-earned popularity. So when the XBLIG database is broken, and the Top Download section isn't updating, developers lose one of their lamentably-few options to juice their sales.
Those of us that have released mediocre games (/raises hand) know what that leaves the developer with. Absent access to the Top Downloads list or much in the way of web publicity, your game lingers on the New Arrivals tab for a few days (by virtue of being, um, new) before even newer releases push it off. Your sales are high while it's on there and visible, but once it drops off, sales decline by as much as 95%.
In fact, Kobun described exactly this when he featured my Around The World post mortem.
I understand why ATW languished - it was small and mediocre to above-average - and it didn't get sales legs beyond being on the New Arrival page. But to consign even more talented developers to the same outcome is gruesome. Microsoft should get their shit together and make the XBLIG market a more rewarding place, or else you might see more developers bitch and whine (at best) or leave the market entirely (at worst).
The article is aimed at indie developers, and it actually makes some unique points that haven't been done to death in other indie gaming zines and blogs. Here are the six points that the article stresses:
Some of those are no-brainers, like it's depth and unique-ness. (Although, the guy behind Dwarf Fortress would beg to disagree.) And the list has at least two unfair elements, as #5 and #6 are effects of popularity, not its causes. (Well, okay, #5 is both.)
However, the "frictionless" tag really intrigued me. The writer meant that the game - the freeware, online-only gimped version - was ridiculously easy to play. You log into the guy's website and play the game through your browser. That is one hell of a marketing tool, and one of the reason's why I've been eyeing the Unity 3D engine, with it's multi-platform support that, incredibly, allows you to play games through your web browser without even needing admin access. Neat, right? The old adage for indie gamers working on PC is that "everyone has a PC!" Well, everyone also goes online and uses a web browser. Tons of potential there.
In fact, having a free, albeit feature-incomplete version of your game on your webpage is a double godsend. First, your game becomes just as frictionless as Minecraft: you visit the website, click Play, and voila. If you have a compelling game, all you need to sink your hook into a potential customer is for them to give you page hit and try the game. Secondly, you expand your market from just avowed PC gamers... the Steam, Direct2Drive, Play Greenhouse crowds... to potential PC gamers, i.e. everyone that has a web browser and could conceivably choose to purchase your game. In fact, it's entirely possible to have the purchase consist of web page access to another, feature-complete version of the game on your webpage, rather than just a downloadable copy.
And not only do you reach a broad market through a universal platform, you also minimize piracy that way. I wonder if browser-based games behind pay walls will be the wave of the future.
Another day, another post mortem. The two gentlemen geniuses behind Breath of Death VII have written a post mortem article about their game's development and release. It's an entertaining read, especially because the developers hit it out of the park on the list of things they did correctly, which includes everything from design aesthetics to pricing to advertising and beyond. The stuff they didn't do right? Absurdly mild mistakes strictly pertaining to minor gameplay aspects of BoD.
Oh, and obsessively checking up on sales. Trust me, guys... everyone obsesses over their sales.
The talented guy (guys? gals? not sure) over at EvoFx Studio have been working hard on what appears to be a densely-featured, gorgeous freeware engine. Dig it:
Apparently it's coming out in the first quarter of 2011. I'll be eagerly anticipating it!
So: first quarter earnings, or lack thereof.
It's pretty late (this data is current as of 7/27/10, with nothing new to replace it), but here's how Around The World did in the various markets that I launched it in, during the period of April 2010 to June 2010:
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||Canada||80||70||17||$11.52|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||Germany||80||70||9||$6.10|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||France||80||70||2||$1.36|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||United Kingdom||80||70||40||$27.10|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||Italy||80||70||1||$0.68|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||Japan||80||70||1||$0.68|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||Spain||80||70||2||$1.36|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||Sweden||80||70||6||$4.07|
|Full Game - Around The World||Xbox LIVE Indie Game||United States||80||70||123||$83.34|
That leaves me with a total of $136.20.
Frankly, that's not that bad, but that's only if you take the reporting period into account. April 2010 through June 2010 only accounts for roughly 10 days of actual sales, since ATW came out on June 20. So, we're looking at only 10 days of sales data, not a full quarter.
That said, a cursory glance at the data is telling. ATW did well in English-speaking countries, and poorly everywhere else. Why is that? Well, I guess I could accuse all the Western European and Asian countries as being too effete, well-educated, and cosmopolitan to even need a geography game. But since I doubt that's the case, I think it's just more likely that even if educated non-Anglophone players can read and speak English, they don't necessarily want to. Thus, we see my lack of available game translations - an option I declined to implement - coming back to haunt me.
Also, as this represents the first week and change in sales, any further sales data will continue to show the tremendous dropoff in downloads and purchases that I witnessed once ATW disappeared from the Marketplace's "New Releases" list. However, for Xbox Live Indie Games, ATW has an unusually high attach rate, since people who bother to go searching through the Educational section of the Marketplace have a high intent to buy an educational game. Although the sales have been meager, ATW has been experiencing a 20% to 35% download-to-purchase ratio for these past few months, which is unheard of in the XBLIG community. As a result, I'm seeing a long tail effect for ATW. I'm hardly going to make money from it, but it's nice to see that it's found it's own niche, albeit an absurdly small one that won't threaten my day job.
I would super-duper like Project Squish to be a pretty game. Every time I load up the alpha and play around, I find myself sighing at my placeholder artwork. Soon, the day will come where I can throw out all this old work and replace it with something thoughtful and good-looking. You know... something that will clash violently with critters exploding into clouds of blood and viscera!
I'm a pretty decent sketch artist, albeit one that has only worked on refining his own style and has not ventured into the "learn new things" territory. Very similar face and profile doodles adorn the corners of my work notebooks. Fortunately, this style - with all of its wide eyes and goofy expressions - can be easily adapted for drawing the game's critters, as my recent video and art show. But they're the punchline of the joke. The setup needs to be in the careful beauty of the game's levels, which means I need to get off my ass and learn how to draw and paint digitally.
I'm experimenting with a variety of styles right now. At first, I thought I'd sketch out my level objects and landscapes (especially the landscapes) by hand, scan the line art, and then paint them digitally in Photoshop. Unfortunately, I find myself sans scanner at the moment, and I won't buy one unless I can commit to that exact work process. Since I'm not prepared to commit right now, I'm experimenting with other things. Specifically, I'm going batshit crazy in Photoshop with just a mouse, exploring the limits of what I can do without a sketching hand or a tablet pad.
Although I have a high opinion of my own drawing style, I know I really, really need to improve on my habits, especially painting and coloration. As such, I'm currently drawing and redrawing the same stupid trees so that I can take the time-honored brute force approach to getting better: "If at first you don't succeed..."
I'm starting from extreme mediocrity and hoping to work my way upward. Here are the first and second trees I'm drawn and painted:
Good news, everyone! I've learned how to Burn/Sponge/Dodge in Photoshop. I've also picked up another key lesson: I can't Filter my way to success, especially if my heretofore approach to Photoshop Filters has been "keep clicking buttons and see what looks good."
My work continues, and I'll keep on churning out silly trees. We'll see how it goes. In the meanwhile, does anyone have any good tips, tricks, or tutorials? Or other things that begin with T?
It's been nearly a month, so here's another Project Squish development video:
This video shows off my little critters being animated in-game as well as some new level features, such as working buttons, toggleable blocks color-coordinated to respond to colored buttons, and the elevator. Implementing the elevator involved a little sturm und drang, as I was trying not to rip off World of Goo. However, the process of getting the first critter to the elevator and then choosing thereafter when to end the level allows for a lot of flexibility, including the possible usage of surplus critters saved to unlock game features or something. I haven't decided yet.
I recently concluded Month 2 of development, and things are moving swimmingly. I'd initially planned on a 3 month development cycle, as I was working strictly with 2D and with XNA programming principles that I'd long since learned while working on Around The World. However, I find myself repeatedly adding new and unplanned features for in-game play, which is dragging out the process. I'm always wary of "feature creep" - when a developer keeps adding unplanned features and pushing back their development timeline - but I also want Project Squish to be content rich and have a wide variety of possible puzzles and level interactions. I don't think it would be remiss to add another month to the development schedule to make a (hopefully) good game even better.
I've made some placeholder art for some cute little things that will waddle around the levels of Project Squish. It's not finished by any means, but I mocked it up to test out the animation system and was rather enamored with what I created. Anyone think they're cute?
Another well-written post-mortem by an Xbox Live Indie Games developer can be found here. It chronicles the development of Dysnomia, including the hiring and agreed upon 50/50 revenue split with a second team member, the development process, the meager budget ($100 for roughly 1,600 hours of work), and ultimately his sales figures.
Once again for an XBLIG developer, the Dysnomia Team experienced a paltry conversion rate of roughly 6% in trial downloads converted to actual purchases. He's made a decent chunk of pocket change, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500. On a whim, I compared that to the 1,600 hours spent on development. Unfortunately, the result suggested that the Dysnomia Team earned about $0.90 per hour for development, not including sunk costs. Split between the two developers, and that goes down to $0.45 per hour.
For hobbyists, that's a shrug. For aspiring indie developers looking to make a career, that's horrifying. Nobody wants to wake up and realize that child laborers in Malaysia make more than you do!
I love working on video games. I find programming and level design flat-out engrossing. Releasing Around The World was deeply fulfilling, even in spite of its poor sales.
But good God, I am sick to fucking death of writing in libraries.
What is a library? Well, XNA, the programming environment I write Xbox Live Indie Games in, is a library. It's a series of tools that let you build a game from the ground up, and does a lot of the heavy lifting. For instance, all 3D models or 2D sprites are drawn to the screen with their respective "Draw()" methods. Invoke that, and you're drawing. Yeah, I'm trying to make it sound straightforward for lay people, but for programmers, it really is.
But heavy lifting doesn't necessarily make things more efficient. While working on Project Squish, I spent the last 30 minutes wondering why an in-game pressable button vibrates psychotically when you're pressing on it instead of just staying down. Eventually, I solved the problem, but I've already experienced hundreds like it, and I'll experience hundreds more in the future: simple tasks that become unreasonably complicated and often don't behave as expected.
That's because a library gives you a lot of tools, but you still have to create everything from scratch. Including absurdly simple things like buttons. Also including much more complicated things like the dynamic shadows that I spent a month working on with the now-abandoned Prometheus Engine.
I wouldn't have these headaches if I worked with a game engine. A game engine is not only a library full of tools, but also full of templates and features pre-made for your use. An engine is like a car, in that you go shopping for the one that already does what you want it to do. There are engines out there that already handle not just buttons and shadows, but also terrain, lighting, physics, and loads of other things. Instead of programming these features from scratch, an engine gives you access to them from the get-go, allowing you to modify them as you see fit or leave them be and focus on programming things that the engine doesn't handle for you, like logic specific to your game.
So why am I not working in an engine right now?
Another day, another new video with tons of new stuff in it.
New features after the jump.
Machinarium was released last year, and somehow I completely forgot about it. Or missed it entirely. Anyway, Amanita Design created and self-published this gorgeous point-and-click puzzle game, and apparently, it got pirated to hell and gone. Even at $20, the developer estimated that only 5 to 15 percent of the game's players actually paid for it. Dudes, not cool.
As described by Joystiq, Amanita is having a "Pirate Amnesty" sale, marking down the game to $5 so that you will hopefully give them the goddamn money that they deserve. I bet it'll work to some degree - they've managed to find tons of free press on this one - but I always get a little unnerved about combating piracy with positive reinforcement. "You pirated the hell out of our game, so here it is a little cheaper. We won't get anywhere near as much money from you, but we will get something, so that we may feed and clothe our kids. Thanks."
Negative reinforcement, of course, would involve that scene from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back where they go to everyone on the internet's house and beat them up.
I don't think that would work.
Oh, hey, look, it's another development video:
I'm going to try and pace these videos a little better in the future. I recognize now that during the 17 some odd Development Diaries for Around The World, I was releasing videos left and right for even the most banal updates. I'll try and be a little more... discerning... in the future.
Anyway, lots of new shit in this clip:
As I mentioned earlier, I've stopped work on the Prometheus Engine. It had a very cool name, but had all the hallmarks of a time sink. Successfully finishing this engine and then embarking on the creation of a horror game would've taken me forever, and although I have forever, it's not a wise use of my time. There are plenty of free XNA engines that I should learn, and there are plenty of smaller, more straightforward games I should work on to (A) further hone my XNA skills, and (B) increase my personal visibility. Prometheus achieves A but flat out murders B.
As such, I've turned to another game I've had on the back burner, Project Squish:
What am I up to?
I just got back from Rhode Island, so I will reluctantly resume posting.
Also, I'm not the only one in the post-mortem business. The guy that did Legend of the Rune Lords has also written one, and it's quite a read. Even the difference in our writing styles highlights our varied approach to game design: his post-mortem is brief and focused, while mine for Around The World is long and all-encompassing.
The developer held himself to a two month development cycle (!!!) as opposed to my six month development cycle. Obviously, he was much less interested in teaching himself C# and XNA at a luxurious pace. He wanted to get his game done in time for Dream-Build-Play, so he needed to hit the ground running. He bought a license for the TorqueX engine, which, judging by the Wikipedia entry and my own experience with Torque Game Engine Advance, would be hilariously inadequate for me. However, it was perfect for the Legend developer, and he further augmented his headlong speed by using royalty free art and sound assets. Spared from both creating an engine or making the artwork for it, I can see how this guy pulled off developing a full RPG in two months.
The post-mortem also links to another article, this one on his sales. That article was pretty eye-popping, too. Suffice it to say that in his first 12 days, Legend of the Rune Lords sold more than twice what Around The World has in a month. The lesson here is simple: Alejandro, developing educational games is a luxury, not a living. At least for right now. I never fully deluded myself into thinking that my game would be popular, but I came pretty damn close. Quality and gameplay mean nothing if it's in a genre that nobody wants to touch. Lesson learned! Now I'm moving onto something more mainstream.
Also, the Legend guy learned some of the same lessons about the New Arrivals list and good box art, so I'm happy that I seem to be going in the right direction. His sales also bottomed out once his game fell off the New Arrivals list, but there are way more people willing to randomly browse the RPG section of the Xbox Marketplace than the Educational section. Again: lesson learned!
Apparently, very few publishers anticipated that kind of success, which is a bit of an understatement. The developers, Hello Games, recently gave a speech at the Develop 2010 conference that described publishers shying away from the game idea for all manner of dumbassed reasons, my personally favorite being, "We want games that are less about fun right now."
Ha ha, right?
The flip side to this is when developers spend very little time pondering the ramifications of what they're trying to market. For instance, I decided that my first Xbox Live Indie Game should be a geography quiz game. Granted, that was because it was a simple concept to learn the ropes on, but I was also quite smitten with the game itself, only to find that people tend to avoid educational games like the plague.
As a result, my next game will be called, "3D Boobs: A Musical." Well, not really, but you get the idea.
Guys! I have an idea for an RPG!
It's set in a fantasy world of my own design that's completely different from all other fantasy worlds. You're a dangerous man with a troubled path and a mysterious prophecy hanging over your future. You fight orcs and goblins and trolls and dragons and other mythical beasts.
You can play as a warrior or a thief or a mage, and although those have already been done to death, it's okay! Because I have thought of novel ways of making learning and playing those classes really interesting and intuitive!
The environment is large and sandbox-style, with towns and cities and mountains and dungeons all over the place! There's obviously some sort of volcanic/fire land, and definitely a cold land. Maybe a desert land too. Lots of enchanted forests. And a terrible nameless evil is off in the distance! Maybe to the "north"! Or to the "south"! Or one of the two other cardinal directions that can be referred to when describing ambiguous evil.
There will be a crafting system and an alchemy system and you can own property and farm your own land and whatnot.
It'll be a very mature game, too, wherein "mature" means "tits and drunkenness."
... Yes, the idea behind this is "exorcise all ambitious notions born more from reading Tolkein/playing Zelda in middle school than breaking new ground or exploring new concepts." The sad thing is that there's some non-jokes hidden amongst the jokes. The sadder thing is that while I disabuse myself of this dream, everyone else is busy nurturing it.
Jeez, that took a while.
I collected all of my thoughts and put them into a Post-Mortem article that describes the full development, release, sales, and marketing history of Around The World, as well as what I intend to do for my next project. On that last note, the short version of it is that I'm putting the Prometheus Engine on hold, and have already started a new game, codenamed Project Squish.
I put a lot of heart into the article, and I hope everyone can learn a bit from it. Indie development is tough and frequently unrewarding, but it's also enlightening.
If I had to guess, I'd say that the most relevant section of the article regards how well ATW sold, so here's an excerpt of that after the jump:
Around The World has been released! It is now available for just $1 on Xbox Live Marketplace, under the Xbox Live Indie Games section. View it or buy it here.
I've also added it to the ApathyWorks webpage, and you can check it out here.
Images of my triumph:
Not only is Around The World back up for Peer Review, but it seems to be coasting on its way to release! (Knock on wood. Do it.)
In the meanwhile, here's another video of the Prometheus Engine:
The biggest thing in this video is support for animated models, also called "skinned" models for a reason that I don't truly understand. Sure, I've been animating things in XNA for awhile now... Around The World had animated lighting, a moving Selector, the selection animations, the whole works.
But that was manual animation, having my game tell the model exactly how to move. With skinned animations, I attach a digital skeleton to my models and set up specific animations in the 3D modeling program of my choice before importing the model into my XNA project. That allows for much more complicated animations, such as a player character being able to walk and jump.
I'm excited! Are you excited? I'm excited.
My girlfriend is out of town for a week, so when I'm not busy staring at the wall or imagining that my cell phone is vibrating, I've decided to spend more time shoring up Prometheus:
New and improved from the last video is, um, me knowing what the hell I'm doing for a change. The multi-pass lighting is now up and running, and I've even thrown in a first-person camera control system, a flashlight effect that follows the camera as if the player were pointing a flashlight at things, and even some normal mapping for gits and shiggles. Details on the multi-pass lighting below the fold:
Le sigh. Around The World got failed in Peer Review again. It's my own fault, really... I should've caught the error that surfaced. Fortunately, I've learned the art of being patient over the past few weeks, and I relish my new week-long Time Out. It'll give me an opportunity to fix the bug that led to the Peer Review failure (which I should've discovered earlier), and it'll also allow me to track down an illusory game-crashing error that testers are having a hard time reproducing. So, good news.
Also, in the past few weeks, I've acquired ADHD. Since I can't leave well enough alone, I've started work on a new game engine that I call Prometheus. Check it out:
There's a lot going on here in this video:
Around The World is back up for Peer Review for the second time. I'd really appreciate it if any folks with a Premium Creators Club account would do their best to break the game and (hopefully!) give it a pass. Premium types can find the Peer Review page here.
I've got two more days left in my Sit In The Corner timeout that Microsoft mandates after peer reviewers find a bug in your game, so on June 1 I get to resubmit Around The World. Yay. In the meanwhile, Alpha Protocol is starting to come out, to less-than-rave reviews:
The reviewers seem to be complaining about a lot of things. Bugs seem to be the biggest issue. Shoddy gunplay seems to be coming in a close second.
But a lot of reviewers also seem to be complaining about dated graphics and crappy animations that "aren't on par with modern offerings." That makes me wince a little. Assuming that the art department didn't suffer from poor managerial decisions by developer Obsidian or publisher SEGA (which may have actually contributed), the next likeliest causes of "substandard" art would be limits on the developer's funding or a shallower talent pool to pick from.
Either of those issues would have handicapped Obsidian right out the gate. But, suppose they had managed to deliver a tight, polished game (which they didn't) with the same, relatively-uninspired level of art quality? Would they still be lambasted? It may be that the criticism floodgates were opened by the bugginess and crappy gameplay, and that reviewers groused about the graphics because they were busy grousing about everything... but would Obsidian warrant criticism if they'd released a great game that unfortunately did not approach the visuals of Modern Warfare 2 or Assassin's Creed 2?
As an indie developer, I cringe at the thought of being judged against competitors that have the time or funding to make their graphics really sparkle. I'll always strive to make my graphics look good, but in the end, I am just one dude without a budget. Needless to say, Obsidian has more than one dude and some substantial funding, but will similar developers be criticized in the future if their products don't approach those of mega-developers and mega-publishers? Will not looking the best in your chosen genre count against you in the future? We'll see.
First, the good news: sweet box art, courtesy of my brother!
Now, the bad news: some eagle-eyed XNA Creators who were Peer Reviewing Around The World found some rather debilitating bugs. Apparently, having a Selection Animation still running when a round runs out of time causes in-game menus to flat out refuse to show up. The game also stops taking in-game input at that point. No input and no menus means that the game effectively freezes. Oops.
After three frustrating hours, I tracked down the source of the error and eliminated it. However, I had to delete the previous version of the game I uploaded for Peer Review in order to replace it with this newer one. Only, I can't resubmit for another week. That's Microsoft's rule. I'll get to resubmit Around The World on June 1. The wait will be agonizing, and I'm a little peeved, but I'm going to use the time productively and put the game back up for normal play testing (which doesn't have any time limitations) in order to catch any other late-emerging bugs, seeing as how I'd really, really like to avoid any other week-long delays.
Yes, despite slower updates and lots of personal travel, I have arrived at this point:
I've also finalized (I think!) the game box art, promotional screenshots, and game release package. I'll upload those tonight. Next step is playtesting in the XNA Creators Club Premium community. Once they give my game a rigorous shakedown (and they will), it will then move on to Peer Review, where they check my game for bugs and serious errors. If it has none, the game goes straight to the XBox Marketplace.
And away we go!
Yes, development on Around The World has entered the flat-out banal phase. My latest piece of box art, sitting next to the old box art:
My work-in-process Box Art:
It's nowhere near done and nowhere near perfect, obviously. I forgot the exclamation mark after "World", the title isn't poppy enough whereas the subtitle is too poppy, and I have a lot of unused space. Give me a day or two and I'll improve upon it.
Where we're going, we don't need roads:
Wrong '80s movie franchise, but no Indiana Jones quotes came immediately to mind.
Development on Around The World is mercifully coming to a close, and I'm busy rummaging around on the checklist I made for myself, tackling final tasks and generally polishing things up. In this video, I show off the completed Options and Screen Saver menus. I still have to do the Credits menu and the How To Play menu, and once those are done, Around The World will be feature-complete.
Today, Gamasutra is featuring a typically-thoughtful blog post about all the death and wanton killing in video games. The author discusses the Manichean view that most game worlds present, with good-as-can-be good guys murdering outright evil bad guys with little in the way of pity or remorse. The author ruminates on how a game would play if it offered some combination of, say, more nuance, non-lethal takedowns, and discussion of killing as a sin.
Those are interesting thoughts to have, considering that I'm hard-pressed to identify an Xbox 360 game on my shelf that doesn't involve killing something. But that leads me to a bigger thought: why don't more games offer enjoyment, major objectives, and interesting content that don't involve killing?
I guess my case in point would be sandbox games. The last three I played that come to mind are Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Mercenaries 2. Aside from well-worn time wasters like package hunting, those games all revolve around killing people (and blowing things up). In fact, aside from exploration, the very thing that makes those games sandboxy is how you kill people/blow things up. Most of the gameplay's flexibility, if you can call it that, is in choosing where to go and exactly how you wish to dispatch the people you find there. Don't get me wrong, that makes for some pretty fun gameplay, but so much more can be brought to the sandbox genre.
My esteemed colleagues RainbowDespair and Slash, who made Breath of Death VII (look two posts down) have updated a bunch of us on their sales figures. The game premiered on Xbox Live Indie Games on April 21, and with Microsoft's April 22 through May 1 sales data on hand, the duo has proclaimed that they made a little north of 5,000 sales, with a surprisingly high demo-to-purchase rate of 55%.
5,000 sales is $3,500 after Microsoft's 30% cut, which isn't bad for a week. And as a very high-quality game (I can testify to that) with significant word-of-mouth momentum, and forthcoming appearances on the Top Rates and Top Downloaded sections of Microsoft.com and the Xbox Live Dashboard, their well-earned prominence might earn them a continued period of robust sales as opposed to the quick, brutal drop-off that most Indie Game developers experience.
It'll be interesting to see what happens. As I've always stated with regard to Around The World, I'm not expecting to make much money on it, let alone a living. But further insight into what sells on XBLIG and what doesn't will be a boon to future games that myself and others will be churning out.
Quick Around The World update to prove that I'm still working on it: I had to rewrite my Ocean shader after (a) the original file went missing thanks to a backup snafu, and (b) I wanted to modify it so that the water background (the fuzzy blues behind the continents) actually pans correctly when you zoom in. Yes, I'm mostly working on cosmetic stuff, streamlining, and bug fixes at this point. A finalized beta and playtesting are just on the horizon!
That said, check this out:
I haven't seen an adventure game this beautiful to behold since Curse of Monkey Island. It's going for about $30 on Steam right now, and I think the world would be a sad place indeed if we all didn't admire the artwork and maybe throw a few bucks the developer's way before they all starve to death.
Also, talking about adventure games gives me an opportunity to link to the venerable Old Man Murray article about the adventure game genre committing suicide. The article's practically 10 years old at this point, but it's still as awesome (and accurate) as ever.
Some colleagues who post along side me on the Penny Arcade forums have recently released an 8-bit style RPG for Xbox Live Indie Games called Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. (Hint: there are no BoD 1 through 6 games... yet!) It only costs $1, so there's absolutely no reason not to try it out.
In trying to make Around The Worlds stand out to potential buyers, I loaded it up with ancillary features, like unlockable wallpaper images, a Screen Saver, and a Leaderboard. Well, we can probably nix the Leaderboard, as today I was surprised by the unwelcome news that Xbox Live Indie Games can't actually have Leaderboards. Huh. I thought they could. Whoops!
I guess it makes a twisted degree of sense. XBLIG is a broad market... lots of developers submitting and selling lots of games. When XBLIG developers pay rent in the form of a $100 annual fee, Microsoft already gives those developers access to some pretty sweet systems, like the Xbox Live networking infrastructure and the Xbox Live Marketplace where they sell the games. However, Microsoft has been far less accomodating on expanding indie games' footprints beyond that. For instance, indie games don't have Achievements, as Microsoft keeps a strong rein on what Achievements games can provide how many points they can give away. I imagine that a flood of simplistic indie games, each with their own Achievements, would be nightmarish for Microsoft.
And it turns out that allowing indie games to use Xbox Live for permanent Leaderboards falls in the same "nuh uh" category. As it stands, there is a workaround: using Xbox Live to share high score information with other players that are currently on Xbox Live at the same time. It uses the same principle as multiplayer games sharing information over the network, which obviously means that the score-sharing isn't permanent; it lasts only as long as the play session does.
The gentleman over at Enchanted Age documents this workaround here. I'm going to study it and see if it's worth the effort.
Because I'm a jerk, I loaded up the Hardest difficulty level in Around The World with some real mindbenders. Prepare to go hunting for obscure islands in places like the South Atlantic and Arctic Oceans if you want to earn those points!
These islands are so obscure that many of them failed to show up on the map I used to generate the game's world. I figured that wasn't fair to players - how could they find obscure places if they didn't show up on the map? - so I went and decided to fix that.
Players will never experience this, but I hid a nice little debug mode in Around The World that cycles through every location in the game's database and checks to make sure it's visible on the map. You see, the map has its typical Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) values to make those pretty colors that represent countries and borders and what have you. In addition to RGB values, the map also has what's called an "Alpha Channel" that determines transparency and, as a result, where you can see straight through to the water behind it. 0 Alpha is full transparency, 255 Alpha is full opacity.
So, my debug mode goes through all the locations and checks to see if the pixel at that point on the map is transparent (0 Alpha) or opaque (255 Alpha). If it's 0? The game resets it to 255, making a little island visible. When the process is done, the game actually generates its own brand new map and saves it to the game. Self-editing!
Okay, well, I think it's cool.
Not sure how I feel about that. I mean, I totally get the purpose: a professional, but not super-duper professional development studio wishes to release a game by avoiding the ESRB ratings and licensing that goes hand-in-hand with publishing on Xbox Live Arcade. Developer gets to keep more of their money away from Microsoft, avoid the painfully long Microsoft certification process (XBLIG games are all peer-reviewed, for free), and reach a new market.
Well, they can try. As I said before, finding success on the XBLIG market is not always a matter of Bigger Is Better. Professionalism will only get so far when trying to satisfy the XBLIG niche market, which looks for small, quirky, and cheap games. That $1 price point is very much the weapon of choice these days. Tank Battles might not be able to just waltz into XBLIG and find a hospitable market.
In which case, I'm not particularly worried. I don't see professional developers crowding out indie developers in the XBLIG market. Something to keep an eye on, sure, but not some sort of imminent demise for the rest of us.
And yes, I spelled "indy" wrong from the get-go and it's in my post tags and everything, God, I'm gonna carry that with me to the grave. Pretend everything has to do with Indiana Jones and we'll all be fine.
Oh, the places you'll go:
What you see in the video above is confidence that the main game itself is pretty much feature-complete, and that I've moved onto another system: the Screen Saver. In this video, I briefly feature the collection of 65 images that can be unlocked by playing the game.
Assembling and editing the photos for the Screen Saver/wallpaper system was, actually, a lot of fun. Most of the U.S. and Canadian photos are my own, but seeing as how I'm developing a global game, it turned out that I'd need more than, ah, U.S. and Canadian photos. So I hit up the interthump in search of good Public Domain images, of which it turns out there are quite a lot. (I sourced all of them through Wikipedia, which unambiguously states the copyright of each hosted image. In these cases, I only used the ones listed "Public Domain.")
Shorter Thomas Edison: I'm learning a ton of new ways to not make an XNA game.
Sturm und drang, huffing and puffing aside, that's more or less true. I've been hung up for the past several hours about how to compress my plethora of unlockable Around The World wallpapers into a workable size for an XNA game. You see, I'm 75% positive right now that I want to sell Around The World on Xbox Live Indie Games for $1, and $1 games have a 50mb size limitation. Fortunately for me, I loaded the game up with only 30mb of wallpapers. Unfortunately for me, C#/XNA compiles those images into an uncompressed format that's optimized for being read by a graphics card.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that XNA was in the habit of compiling 30mb of wallpaper images into 150mb of game files. So much for my 50mb limit.
Or so I thought. I found a way of setting the compile settings on any image (or rather, any file period) that I add to my game. I changed the compile settings on the wallpaper from "Color" mode (which creates uncompressed images) to DXT1 mode, which compresses images and optimizes them for 3D models. 150mb of wallpaper images has thus reverted back to 30mb in size. Of course, I won't be using the wallpapers on 3D models, so it remains to be seen if this compression leads to really poor image quality.
Oh well, you live and learn. And grind your teeth.
An odd quirk of the advances made in game development and art direction is that players often find themselves visiting locations of untold beauty and blowing them right the hell up. Given how shooting and warfare-oriented most popular games are, it must be a natural extension of the old U.S. Army adage about "going to far-off places, meeting exciting new people, and shooting them." As it happens, I've long since realized that running and gunning my way through various utopian landscapes often saps some of the joy from them.
Take Uncharted 2. The game brings you to gorgeous locations throughout south and southeast Asia, yet for most of the time you're trying to stay alive while fighting hordes of murderous thugs. It's telling how infrequently a game like Uncharted 2 is willing to slow down and let you just enjoy the scenery, given how jarring it is that one level in the game lets you do only that. No shooting, no killing. Just languid exploration and idle chitchat in a Himalayan village. Other reviewers have described this moment as "letting Nathan Drake just be Nathan Drake", and that is accurate. However, that phrase should also read "letting the player just be Nathan Drake", as that point in the game allows a player to well and truly step into Drake's shoes and experience not just the constant gunfighting and ledge grappling that is his life, but also his reverence for beauty and his travels to amazing places.
The last post that had this title disappeared (mysteriously!), so I'm not going to invest much effort into this one, less it fall into the same wormhole.
85% of Around The World is diggity done. Content-wise, the game is all there, with the only major remaining systems being the Screen Saver/Wallpaper viewer, Leaderboard, and Tutorial system. The Screen Saver and Tutorial are procedural time sinks (i.e. I already know how to do them), and the Leaderboard is the last real unknown for me... yet another aspect of Xbox Live and XNA that I have to learn from scratch. That said, it doesn't really concern me.
Everything other remaining thing to implement is minutiae: making certain graphics a little prettier, streamlining certain systems, polishing certain features, etc. It's time-consuming but it's represented by a discreet checklist, so can go bang-bang-bang down the list (when I'm not busy obsessing over Bad Company 2 of any George R. R. Martin books).
And speaking of checklists, below the fold is a list of the things you need to achieve to unlock Wallpapers for the Screen Saver:
It turns out I've stepped beyond my comfort zone.
It was bound to happen, and has happened previously. As documented in my Development Diaries, a lot of my work on Around The World was handled in preliminary projects. Duly named "3D Test 01", "3D Test 02", etc. etc., these projects allowed me to get the hang of XNA and get a feel for implementing new features without cluttering up an actual game's code base with all sorts of trial and error code.
Also, fewer notes to self in the code that say, " I have no idea what the hell I'm doing here."
My preliminary projects filled in a lot of the knowledge gaps I needed plugged before working on Around The World, but not all of them. For instance, I neglected to delve into saving and loading game progress, which is what I'm working on right now.
It's a bit outside my comfort zone because it leaves the relative safety of straightforward game design and moves into the territory of querying the Xbox 360's Dashboard features. Now I have to master a whole slew of features which I do not get to design myself, because Microsoft beat me to it: the overall Guide menu, Storage Device windows, text input screens, saving and loading games, Leaderboards, you name it. The functionality they offer is very potent, but it's alien to me. I have the unenviable task of having access to the Xbox 360's behind-the-curtain features, without being able to wholly see what is actually behind the curtain.
Or maybe I'm just a poor programmer and a whiney douche. I'll press on ahead and make sure this damned game's progress can be saved and loaded. My adoring fans need to save their high scores!
Gamasutra has a great interview with Patrick Redding, the Ubisoft Montreal narrative designer. If you're like me and you loved the narrative twists and turns of Far Cry 2, you have Mr. Redding to thank. He's also working on Splinter Cell: Conviction right now, and his familiarity with the Splinter Cell material shouldn't come as a surprise for anyone that recognizes the name "Redding" from a character in the series.
The interview is long and very detailed. It's basically Redding's stream-of-conscious discourse on interactivity in video games, on subjects ranging from cooperative play to forcing the player to do unsavory actions (a la Modern Warfare 2). It also has a bit of fun rumination on how players explore the limits of the systems that game designers present them, i.e. players wanting to kill the Non-Player Characters that are essential to advancing a game's plot. The guy is smart as hell and I'm going to make it my business to get my hands on as many of his games as possible.
Also, this reminds me: I should probably go back and replay Far Cry 2 now that I have a better video card.
Apparently critics are quite taken with Heavy Rain. The whole interactive novel/branching storyline thing has intrigued me for quite a while, which is why I bought Indigo Prophecy when I could snag it on the cheap (Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy share the same development studio).
Games these days usually resort to either being linear, tightly-scripted affairs, or open sandbox games that explore dynamism in the form of how you accomplish missions as opposed to what those missions' results are. That's because getting a story into a game is difficult enough. Getting multiple stories into a game (and I'm not just talking about alternate endings) is a tremendous feat that requires exponential more game asset development. More recorded dialogue, more artwork for different scenes, more programming for each possible outcome. So any game that does this well, I really want to play.
The Olympics is a great morale-booster. It allows you to exercise like crazy at the gym when it's on in the background, and it inspires you to achieve great(er) things for yourself. It provided a lovely push for me to get yet more accomplished on Around The World.
The most notable additions to this video are the Round End menu (which also shows off how you unlock Screen Saver pictures while playing the game) and some new selection sound effects, so turn on your speakers or plug in your headphones. I've turned off music for the time-being, as it's ridiculously aggravating to hear the same damn song when you run a debug build ever 2.5 minutes.
After watching a friend play through most of Uncharted 2, I thought, "This is the kind of game I wish I could make." It was a somewhat unfortunate thought to have, for many reasons.
Firstly, there's the issue of how relatively uninspired the game is; it's little more than the high water mark of the video game industry's desire to successfully emulate the thrill and presentation of big budget Hollywood movies. "Handsome, funny Indiana Jones analogue partners with sarcastic romantic interest to beat a homicidal mad man to a long-lost treasure" doesn't exactly scream originality. The game was amazing to behold, obviously, but played it safe content-wise. In imagining myself at the helm of a blockbuster video game project, I'm really wishing to faithfully execute some well-worn cliches... just with a grand scope and lots of Triple-A polish.
But, more unfortunately, wishing to make my own Uncharted 2 made me realize that those fantasies lay wholly in the realm of Bigger Is Better. Of going big, or going home. Dreaming is important, and ambition is important, but wanting my name attached to the next Uncharted or the next Assassin's Creed or the next Half-Life is misguided. It's not misguided because I have no chance of reaching those heights, of course. No, it's misguided because it incorrectly conflates my pleasure in playing a world-class game with the pleasure of being responsible for creating such a game.
The back-to-back blizzards gave me a chance to get a lot of work on Around The World done. In fact, I got the Score and Timer bars ingame and also added timed rounds and score keeping (so that the bars on the HUD aren't just for show). I would've shown off this work sooner, but laptop issues accidentally deleted one or two days' worth of work on the game which I only recovered from last night. More information to follow.
The laptop issue was flat-out galling. Last Thursday, my laptop became unable to browse the internet, mid-session. Mid-session! Three days of furious work using every single shred of Google Fu and the problem-solving skills I'd acquired in my two years as a computer technician finally resolved the problem and pinpointed the culprit: Trend Micro, my Goddamn antivirus program! Something that had been on my system for 8 or 9 months! Disabling it got me back online, although now I don't have any antivirus protection.
The recovery efforts were hamstrung by my inability to get online. When I finally got back to my apartment after a week of being holed up in Logan Circle, my desktop also didn't want to go online. It connects to the internet through a wireless bridge that talks to my apartment's network, and the bridge decided to stop working. I wound up having to set up the whole shebang - tower, keyboard, mouse, and old CRT monitor - within ethernet cable reach of my router, way over on the other side of the room, just to get the damned thing online so I could reconfigure the wireless bridge. Eventually, I got the wireless bridge reconfigured, and trucked the whole desktop back to the other side of the room. Now I could use the desktop to browse the internet and help fix my internet-challenged laptop.
Which I did. Only, I came back yesterday and found that the wireless bridge on my desktop had ceased working. Again! Nothing had changed overnight, it just ceased working. My $70 wireless bridge (which I had initially bought for my Xbox 360) and my $30 antivirus software just one day decided to stop working.
Eventually, after much screaming and howling, I gave up and walked the three blocks to Best Buy and bought a $50 USB wireless adapter. I tried installing it on my desktop - following the instructions perfectly - only to have the installer tell me that an Error Had Occurred and that the wireless adapter couldn't be installed. Apopleptic, I did a manual driver search on the adapter's CD, found the drivers, and installed them myself. I re-ran the installation program and this time it succeeded, eventually installing the rest of the softwear I needed to connect wirelessly.
I sit here, a day later, stunned and fuming. A $70 wireless bridge, a $30 antivirus program, and a $50 wireless adapter all failed to work, in quick succession. The $50 wireless adapter was only salvaged because I know what the hell I'm doing, and it was a minor software issue that was easily circumvented. But what if I wasn't a guy who worked for two years as a computer technician? What if I didn't have the skills necessary to identify Trend Micro as my laptop's problem, or successfully install a finicky wireless adapter on my desktop?
I don't mind spending money for a good reason. I can even stand to spend money to recover from unforseen emergencies, like a leaking car tire or a dysfunctional wireless bridge. But I really cannot fucking stand to throw money at something that's supposed to work, or help, and doesn't. I don't have the free time to manually defend my laptop from viruses. I don't have the wherewithal to build my own wireless adapter. So, I invest in Trend Micro or Linksys/Cisco so that they do these things for me.
And when they don't do these things for me, or they actually contribute to a problem, well, it makes me want to punch a baby.
Turn your sound on for this one, I finally added music!
For a change, this Development Diary doesn't require much in the way of discourse. This video represents a lot of features and ideas that I've described previously. So, let's jump to a list of what the video is showing:
Okay, some feedback from some folks on the Penny Arcade forums made me feel much better. My game still has a good chance of standing out. Also, this made me laugh:
I'm not the first person to have thought of a geography game. And, more importantly, I'm not the first person to have released one.
Well, consider my night ruined. My game will have better graphics, of course, and a different gameplay mechanic, as well as a few other odds 'n ends like power ups and a Wallpaper app that you unlock photos for as you play. And mine will retail for $1.
But I'm not first. And good lord, does that make me feel horrible.
Over the past few days, I've determined that, yes, despite the degree to which I screwed with the original Equirectangular Projection map to get it to fit onto a texture and 3D model, it is still possible to map latitudes and longitudes directly to an accurate X and Y screen position for my game. Hooray! I have to build the adjustments directly into the code that interprets the latitude and longitude, but it works.
That means that I don't have to manually enter in all the positioning data in-game. What I do have to manually enter in is latitudes and longitudes into my XML database. Fortunately, I have a standardized source for that: Wikipedia. My teacher parents, the living embodiment of "citation needed!", would freak out, but the data is all in one place and the tests I've done thus far are accurate. As a result, all of last night's work was spent (a) taking the latitudes and longitudes in the format of 41°49'25"N 71°25'20"W (Providence, RI) and converting them into a string-friendly format, like "41d49m25sN71d25m20sW", (b) loading that string into my XML database, and (c) coming up with code to parse that string correctly into X and Y coordinates in the game itself. Which I did. And it is awesome. Details and probably a new movie soon.
Oh, and I made the ocean background less horrendous. Again.
And you know what? I did all this while watching Dante's Peak!
Gamasutra has an interesting article up about the (very relative) success of people who market on Xbox Live Indy Games (XBLIG).
News flash: you won't make enough revenue to sustain a professional development team on XBLIG!
The article is slightly defensive in tone despite being supportive of XBLIG, and I can see why. Similar digital distribution platforms like the iPhone App Store and Steam are much more popular and can earn developers much more revenue. But given the varieties of platforms and markets that other digital distribution methods serve, it shouldn't be surprising that XBLIG developers must play to a niche in order to stand out.
Looking at the list of successful games, I'm heartened. The guys that did well made alot of money. And although that revenue, as previously stated, wouldn't sustain a whole studio... wait, why do we want to sustain a whole studio? XBLIG is for hobbyists, and hobbyists will almost always be working by themselves. If they want to pursue their delusions of grandeur, most other non-XBLIG distribution methods, like the ones considered above, will support a small studio and reach a larger audience. But for a hobbyist working on nights and weekends? Who among them wouldn't want to make north of $100,000 on something like A GAM3 W1TH ZOMB1ES?
This serves as a cautionary tale for me. As someone who cut their teeth working on total conversions and mods for Half-Life and Half-Life 2, where feature creep and ambitious design led to projects lasting half a decade or more... XBLIG should not be my platform of choice for a huge game. It will not reward ambition in the traditional sense. The indy scene equivalent of Modern Warfare 2, i.e. a hyper-polished gamer's game, probably won't sell on XBLIG. Instead, small is good. Quirky is good. Personality is good. It's an important lesson for me, since my notepads are overflowing with ambitious game ideas. I should take solace in the fact that I can save time and turn my back on those ideas (for now!) and focus on something that will not only take less time, but probably find more success on my platform of choice.
I wasn't kidding when I said I was going to have a Development Diary in the "imminent future", was I?
Above, you finally get a taste of the gameplay I'm going for. With four random locations that you can choose to either answer or ignore, the player will have to juggle these options in his or her head while deciding where to move the Selector. There's also the difficulty factor: on the Pie Wheel at the bottom, Red means Hard, Yellow means Intermediate, and Green means Easy. Beyond that, there's also the accuracy with which the player must place the Selector, with different multipliers awarded for how close you can get to the city in question.
I've been up to quite a lot these past few days.
I'm trying to read up on the topic, and I've started with Shamus Young's blog post on his procedural city project. Check out his efforts right here:
You can also download it as a screensaver from his site. Neat!
It's a really comprehensive write-up that covers every single aspect of mod and game design, offering plenty of insight and a good glimpse of what it takes to put together a successful development team. Read it here.
Here's the latest screenshot of just what, exactly, my HUD is shaping up to look like:
Click for a full-sized version.
As you can see, I've more or less finished the Pie Wheel, standardized placement for the location text that goes along with the Pie Wheel, and even added a Score/Time Remaining meter (on the right) and two Power Up icons (on the left).
Now, of course, I get to agonize about certain things.
Around The World's development is moving steadily (if also slowly). I'm currently working on a screen-agnostic HUD and display system. And what does that mean, you pretentious dick? It means that the layout of the HUD and where models are drawn on the screen will automatically adapt to what kind of system (PC or Xbox) and what kind of screen (widescreen or standard) the user has, making sure that none of the important parts of the game are drawn outside of the Title Safe Area. Fun!
Work on Around The World is proceeding apace, as I'm coming to terms with the Title Safe Area and also trying to solve a shader discrepency between the game build that runs on my laptop and the one that runs on the Xbox 360. Boring stuff.
I might be slowed down, though, as my art development platform, my beloved desktop PC, is currently on its death bed. Blue Screens of Death in Windows XP are far more handicapping (and frightening) than their erstwhile Windows 98 counterparts, and it looks like I'm in for a painful transition. However, I may just get a new hard drive and Ghost my old hard drive over to see if that will work as a stopgap. However, Christmas was 12 days ago, and I really, really don't feel like spending more money.
I nabbed Indigo Prophecy for, like, 3 bucks on Steam the other night. We can now add that to the list of games I have no time to play, but I've always wanted to see how they handle the "interactive movie" approach to video gaming. And that bizarre plot I keep hearing about.
I'm not in danger of buying a PS3 any time soon (see above for issues of time and money), but my interest is growing. The latest blow to my resolve to not spend more on gaming systems: Tycho from Penny Arcade has an interesting writeup on the PS3-exclusive MAG today. MAG's a 256-player, massively-multiplayer online modern military shooter that epitomizes tactical gameplay and cooperation. Yes please!
I haven't had a good dose of tactical gameplay since Operation Flashpoint (hello, my Game of the Decade), a wildly open military shooter that introduced me to discreet tactics and requisite headset coordination with good friends. (Not to mention, being brutally killed in the middle of nowhere for no discernable reason.) I also dabbled in Battlefield 2, which was usually less tactical but more epic in scope than Flashpoint, and also broke new ground on cooperation systems in the form of squad mechanics (something that we were aiming to do in World at War) and a dedicated Commander role. And, according to Tycho, it seems that these two separate bags of goodies have been combined in MAG. If that's true, then I may have to part with more of my money this year than I previously imagined.
A few people noted that some scarier games made my Best of the Decade lists, specifically Thief 3: Deadly Shadows and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. In retrospect, that doesn't suprise me: horror games have to try harder than any other type of game to fulfill the obligations of their genre. Those that stand out really stand out.
Action games have to place a premium on fighting and spectacle. Adventure games have to come up with interesting, solvable puzzles. Horror games, on the other hand, frequently have to bring everything to the table: action, spectacle, puzzles, and the other hallmarks of good gameplay.
On top of that, they have to excel (or at least be competent) at the storytelling aspects that are required to elicit fear in the player. A good plot comes to mind, but pacing is the real kicker; when to go for the jump-scare, when to build suspense, when to let the player relax, etc.
And all of this must be wrapped in an aesthetic package that seals the deal. Artwork must include scary monsters, creepy settings, and moody lighting, while ambient noise and musical cues give players the psychological prompts to put them on edge... or push them over it.
Since horror games have to get all of these things right, I'm deeply appreciative when a good one comes along. Given my familiarity with the design process, it thrills me when I see a coherent vision emerge from a fifty-person team and a multi-year development cycle, let alone a vision that can scare the hell out of me.
In closing, I recommend everyone read Journey Into the Cradle, a writeup on the development behind my favorite scare of the decade, Thief 3's Shalebridge Cradle. It's spoiler-rific, though, so I emphasize that this should be done after playing the game. Certainly not before, as you will be doing yourself a disservice.
I've been working on the Heads Up Display (HUD) for Around The World, not to mention some of the selection effects. Take a peek:
The HUD currently consists of the following components: the Selector (which has always been around), the Pie Wheel that shows Xbox 360 controller face buttons, and the selection effect (i.e. "the bullseye").
There's something wrong with the image I posted below. Do you know what it is?
I'll give you a hint: I removed Antarctica.
Wait, that's not a hint! That's the answer! Aww.
Whilst I slept, vengeful hippies snuck onto my laptop and and inflicted Global Warming upon Antarctica, melting it away. How Global Warming melted away a solid land-based continent, I have no idea, as the hippies were already long gone.
Or maybe the hippies realized that, when it came time to implement the HUD, that Antarctica posed a problem as it wasn't "free-standing" like the other continents: the edges of the projections I acquired to generate the world model actually cut off the left, right, and bottom sides of Antarctica. That means that I had no room to maneuver when it came time to resize the game window to fit the HUD... I couldn't make it taller or wider without showing that there wasn't any more of Antarctica, that it just abruptly ended where the projections ended. Oops.
So now that Antarctica has been removed from the image and the model, I can resize the game window as I see fit to include the HUD. Thanks a bunch, hippies.
I have been working on Around The World during Christmas break. See?
I've been working on the Heads Up Display (HUD) system, including a Pie Wheel for button selection that corresponds to the Xbox 360 gamepad face buttons, and the cold-warm-hot effect for selecting a location with the crosshair.
I'd show you all this in a nice video, but the DSL here in Rhode Island is hilariously bad, and the upload rate is some obscene derivative of hilariously bad. Short story is that nothing's getting uploading to YouTube until I return to DC. But in the meanwhile, a pretty picture!
My love affair with Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer is coming to a close, I think. We shall see. It'd be nice to finally get around to finishing Assassin's Creed 2, anyway.
Against all odds, I've done some work.
Despite my crippling Modern Warfare 2 addiction, for which there is no cure, I've ported my shaders, models, and assorted art into a fresh code base and have begun working on the actual game of Around The World.
As you can see, I have a rudimentary menu system working. It's got a red halo at the moment, currently set to fit the frame of the "Title Safe Area" that XNA figures out from whichever system it's running on. (All old tube TVs and even most HDTVs chop off a wee bit of their picture around the edges.) I don't think I'm going to keep using it, though... It'll be much more efficient to just anticipate that a certain amount of the borders will be lost to the edges of a TV screen and place my graphics further from the edges as needed.
There's also the noticeable and automatic day-to-night-to-day transition. So I've got that going for me.
Apologies for the infrequent posting, but Thanksgiving has brought me back to my ancestral homeland in Rhode Island.
Absent the pressures of work and whatnot, I've had the presence of mind to sit in front of my laptop and realize: it's now or never. My shaders are mostly complete, most of the artwork is complete, and now is the time to start putting everything together.
Around The World has officially begun development.
There's also the Raindrop Mod. Observe:
I consider myself a decent mapper, with a portfolio demonstrating that I have some good ideas but need to commit a lot more time (that most elusive commodity) to proper environment detailing.
But these guys? These guys inhabit a rareified atmosphere. They are fantastic artists, and gamers should appreciate a stroll through their creations.
Huzzah! My water is working as advertised and it's just about done:
Not too bad, considering my knowledge of refraction math is about 7 days old.
The above video showcases implementation of the following features:
Unfortunately, the above video also omits my failure to implement the following features:
Fortunately, those omissions haven't sent me back to the drawing board. They're just minor delays on my To Do list. The other successes are much more important, as they've (a) shored up my ability to write functional code in large batches, and (b) increased my knowledge of how the Xbox 360 works. [break]
These accomplishments also allowed me to hone my problem-solving skills. For instance, in the last Diary, all my water was refracting in the same direction, to the upper left. Why was that? To answer the question, I had to learn exactly how normal maps store data.
Click for a larger version.
For those of you playing the home game, all image formats store data in a type called "RGB", for Red-Green-Blue. Combinations of red, green, and blue produce different colors, and an RGB value is stored for each pixel in the image. The red, green, or blue value can be anywhere from 0 to 255. So, true red has an RGB value of 255, 0, 0, while true blue has an RGB value of 0, 0, 255.
It makes sense that three data points (RGB) can be interpreted as three data points for a different purpose: RGB can be interpreted for "XYZ", i.e. points in 3D space! We can derive surface normals (the direction any given surface of a 3D object faces) from an XYZ value. That's why we use normal maps.
However, vertex and pixel shaders don't use the full range of 0 to 255. They use a range of 0 to 1. Therefore, an R value of 127 would be equivalent to an R value of 0.5 in a shader. So, for the image above, I converted each color from the 0-255 range to the 0-1 range to figure out what each direction represented. (That image is just the normal map for a stubby pyramid that I made in five seconds in 3D Studio Max. It's a view of the pyramid from the top, looking down.)
The first issue I noted was that each number is positive. In programming, though, the direction Left is usually a negative number while the direction Right is a positive number. Ditto for Up and Down. So my refraction was all going off in the same direction because each number was positive. Well, some of the numbers need to be negative. But how to choose which ones?
Simple, it turns out. Compare the medium blue pyramid edge to the hot pink pyramid edge. Those faces point due Left and due Right. Left and Right are on the X axis, the first of the three numbers assigned to that color. Left is 0.15, whereas Right is 0.85. Each represents exactly 0.15 units of offset... Left is 0.15 greater than true 0, whereas Right is 0.15 units less than 1.0. So, how to make Left negative and Right positive, as well as make it work not just for Left and Right, but any conceivable direction.
The answer: subtract 0.5 from each coordinate! 0.5 is exactly halfway on the 0-1 range that RGB/XYZ uses. Thus, Left (0.15) turns into -0.35, while Right (0.85) turns into 0.35. Positive versus negative, left versus right. I just made sure to subtract 0.5 from each coordinate, and then, voila! My refraction started working.
That was one major problem solved. The other was something I can't post pictures of, as it occurred on the Xbox 360. Basically, when I got my water shader working, instead of drawing the whole water surface, the 360 drew the top half... and then drew the top half again! No bottom half. I did some research, and found out it was the result of the 360's predicated tiling.
Predicated tiling, it turns out, is when the Xbox 360 makes multiple attempts to draw to the screen when it's processing very big textures. The 360 has 10 megabytes of EDRAM, and it turns out the huge world textures I was sending to it made it run out of that RAM. It would draw half the screen, clear the RAM as if it were clearing its throat, get the rest of my texture information, and draw it again (from scratch, it turned out).
I grimaced, as this was all my fault. I was passing the Xbox 360 not one, but three huge textures that wiped out its RAM: the world map texture (with the borders and countries), the the normal map for the world (for the detailed shadowing and the twinkling nighttime lights), and the water background. The 360 was choking on these three textures. So, I kept the world map texture at full resolution but scaled down the normal map and the water background map significantly. Not much quality was lost, and the 360 started drawing my screen all in one pass. Problem solved.
And there you have it. Hopefully you now have an idea of the promises and pitfalls involved with just doing a simple geography game.
Next up, I have to light the damned water correctly, so that the oceans aren't always in daytime when the world model is in nighttime. Also, sparkling waves would be so pretty. I'll work on that too.
Um, holy shit? Holy shit.
That means, Unreal Engine 3.0. The whole thing. The development tools. Everything. For you. For free.
At first glance, the pricing appears more competitive than Xbox Live Indy Games or Apple's App Store. Apparently, developers can just go and download this thing and work on their game. When it comes time to release their game, they pay Epic a $99 licensing fee. After that, 100% of the profits go to the developer, until the developer makes $5,000. Once that threshold is hit, Epic takes a 25% cut of all subsequent sales.
This is what we call "awesome."
The effect tweaking and the art tweaking continues! And it's driving me crazy.
I made the oceanic background a richer blue, but, again, the contrast wasn't high enough for me to see if the effect was doing what I wanted it to. So, I drew a big white smiley face on the thing. Now I can see what's going on, and I'm not too pleased. A higher refractive index makes the waves and the scattering effect stronger, but it moves everything up and to the left. Lowering the index moves things down and to the right.
In the next 24 hours, I hope to answer: Just what the fuck have I done wrong now?
Edit: My goal is to have the water effect refract the background in all different directions. Right now, increasing the refractive index does magnify the scattering, but it also shoves it all off to the upper left. That means that the effect isn't refracting what's directly underneath it unless you lower the index to practically zero.
My ultimate objective is to have the background show lighter ocean near the coasts and darker ocean away from land (like the Monkey Island video), and have that be the background that the water effect refracts. However, it will look like shit if the effect offsets that background to the upper left. That will screw up the alignment of the world model with the background. Nobody wants to see the underwater shape of Africa sitting well to the northeast of actual Africa.
I gotta fix this.
Happy 50th post, everyone! I have a lot to show today, for a relatively small amount of work. Observe:
This is another one that's better off being viewed as non-embedded, in HD.
What you're looking at is some pretty impressive wave refraction, although the 2D art it's refracting is still, ah... subpar. (I deployed a debug version of my handiwork to the Xbox 360 last night and could barely see the low-contrast refraction effect, so I plopped the 2D art back into Photoshop and pumped up the contrast. Still, it's nothing to write home about.)
But anyway, that's only what's being refracted, not how it's being refracted.
I got a lot work done last night. My goal was to replace the inefficient, ugly water shader from the last Development Diary with something superior. First, a primer:
This is an overhead shot of Melee Island, the starting island in the original Secret of Monkey Island. The graphics are from the remake, and you can see the pretty pretty water effects surrounding the island.
I captured this to video so I could stare at it and deduce its workings through... magic? Something like that. "Careful analysis" (read: staring) shows that, since this is a 2D game, what we're looking at is a 2D refraction effect used to distort another 2D image, namely, the background. In this case, the background consists of Melee Island and a rendering of what the surrounding land would look like if it didn't have water over it. Beneath the water effect, you can see white sand slowly transition to dark blue and eventually black as the water gets deeper and deeper. That is what is getting distorted by the water effect.
And so that's what I wanted to recreate. A problem, though: I'm not working on a 2D game. I'm working on a 3D game. I don't have any art for what lies beneath the world model I made. It's a model of the world, and nothing else. In fact, where each country and continental border ends, there is complete transparency. I set it up that way to demonstrate whatever pretty water effect I chose in the background. That kind of hurts me in my attempt to use the Secret of Monkey Island water effect, huh? There's nothing for the water effect to refract, it's all just blank!
Okay, then. Getting to where I want would require some finesse.
The Intertron is working and I'm enjoying my new place, which also means I'm scurrying back and forth between my desktop computer and laptop to polish up the graphics on Around The World. As the last Development Diary showed, I'm really unhappy with how that water looks. The remake of the Secret of Monkey Island pulled it off much better with simple 2D refraction, so I'm experimenting with that right now. More about that soon.
And since I have your attention, here's some more Spoiler-rific rumination on The Lost Symbol:
The good news: I added water to my game engine.
The bad news: It really sucks and doesn't do what I want it to do.
This video obscures a lot of issues, so please bear with me.
Not much new today. I just added some twinkling to the lights in the last video. It's computed based on the period of a sine wave that I feed my shader (neat!) and fed into a special function thereafter to determine how light or dark the light is.
Next up: I add an ocean behind the map of the world. Yes, reflective water! I'm also going to add my distance light code that I used in my previous shader so that the water will be as dark as the land around it.
When I posted my last Development Diary, I had gotten lighting working on my test shader, but movement wasn't working quite as I'd expected it. Well, not five minutes after posting the Diary, I got movement working correctly. Again, it came down to what order I was feeding instructions to the shader. But nobody wants to read a Diary that consists of, "Hey, I got the order right. Here's a video. Things look exactly the same. Please read my blog, I'm desperate for page hits." No, I decided I'd learn how to properly instruct the Super Awesome shader that FX Composer 2.5 spat out for me.
And I couldn't figure it out. At all.
Then, several days of busyness and horrific work stress set in, during which I had no time to program. In case you're interested, the highlights of the last few days:
Compare that to the highlight of today:
This day is certainly an improvement.**
You'll notice correct lighting, movement, normal mapping, and even ambient lighting. So, if that isn't the Super Awesome shader, what is it?
Why hello there, friends. I bet you're wondering if I managed to fix the problem discussed at length in my previous Development Diary. Well, you're in luck! I fixed that problem, only to create more problems. All in the time-honored tradition of video game design, I can attest.
I decided to tackle the issue by creating a shader from scratch and stripping out most of the other bells and whistles that cluttered up the one I want to use. (What is a shader? Wikipedia can tell you, or I can simply say that it literally "shades" the screen, drawing models where I want them and how I want them to look.) That means no normal mapping, no environment mapping, no specularity, etc. I took a couple of minutes and whipped up a quick shader that handled texturing and lighting. That's it.
I easily recreated the problem. Why was I happy that I recreated it as opposed to solving it, you ask? It meant that the logic in my shader design was sound. That could only mean one thing: I was feeding variables to the shader incorrectly, i.e. giving it the wrong instructions. I fiddled with the variables until, TA DA! I got it to work!
What this video doesn't really show is my new problems.
I'm currently working on my first game for Xbox Live Indy Games, a tiny little edutainment game called Around the World that will be a geography quiz game. It will be in 3D, of course, so that I can make a simple geography game pop with some semblance of a graphical sparkle. Day and night cycles, an ocean with undulating waves, floating clouds, you name it.
Since I'm working in XNA, Microsoft's addon for Visual C# that works on both Windows and Xbox Live, I don't have the benefit of working with a finished engine.
(For the lay-person out there, an engine is a rough shell of an application that handles a game's bare necessities for you, such as networking, device input, and, yup, graphics. It's like a grand template, and good engines will allow you to do all sorts of neat stuff like adding water and hills and vegetation and what have you.)
I get to write my own engine. And I get to write it pretty much from scratch. So if I want any of the things I listed above, like glistening water, I have to figure out how to do it myself. And that is very, very hard.
As you can see, texturing, normal mapping, and lighting are all up and running. It's just not running properly. Notice how, halfway through in the video, when I rotate the sphere, it carries the light with it, despite the light source not actually having moved!
Welcome to my hell. I gotta sit up before I can walk. Et cetera, et cetera... and running is a long, long way away. Wish me luck.
Jesus Christ. One guy did this.
The editorialists in the video point out the very interesting fact that the developer has put most of his energy into post-processing effects rather than polygon counts or super-high resolution textures. That seems to me to be the best possible approach for lone indy developers, and something which I plan on emulating.
The guy's site is here.
I've been rather slow about updating the Games portfolio on this site to include my past work from Firearms, Firearms: Source, and World at War, all mods for Valve Software's Half-Life 2. In particular, I haven't had time to dig up content from either Firearms mod. As for WaW, I dug up what very few screenshots I'd already taken and uploaded them. Of course, I have other works from WaW that have never seen the light of day, so I figured I'd load up my previously dormant mod and take some new screenies.
I started Half-Life 2/World at War and loaded up a map with the provocative title of "Village." A quick runthrough brought a wealth of issues to my attention, most of them in the form of empty wireframes and pink-and-black checkered surfaces that screamed the unwelcome message, "Hey, dumbass, you're missing some textures."
Hrm, was I missing some textures that belonged to Counter Strike: Source? I'd uninstalled that a few months back. I re-downloaded CS:S, but, nope, the textures were still missing. I did a quick perusal of the WaW directory itself. All the textures seemed to be there.
Eventually, I decided to load up the Hammer level editor to look at the map and manually reassign the textures if need be. Too bad that none of the viewports in Hammer actually worked. Oh sure, all the Tool buttons worked, but the actual most important part of the editor, the part that lets me see what I'm doing, had broken at some point in the past few months. Dead end.
I paid another visit to the Way Back Machine and uploaded an article I wrote about Artificial Intelligence in the shooter genre. The article covers a lot of ground, including why most shooters have terrible A.I. and what changes would be necessary to make good A.I. a key component of a good shooter.
My brother added some website stats for me to keep an eye on as I keep adding content and build towards the day when this website can go properly live. Very, very fun to look at. So, for everyone out there reading this who doesn't share my last name: thank you for your patience!
Speaking of content, the engine I'm building for The Newton Gun is relatively far along and methinks I should upload a YouTube video or two to show off just what the hell I've been working on. Aside from that, there's no reason why I can't build a content base for this website gleaned from the art I've done on previous projects such as Firearms and World at War, defunct though those projects may be. (Firearms: Source, on the other hand, is nowhere near defunct, but I haven't submitted any content for use in their first Release Candidate.)
So please keep an eye on the Blog page. When content starts to go live in the Games section, and as I track down and upload previously written articles for the, um, Articles section, I'll be sure to let main page viewers know. Huzzah!