Archive for June, 2009

Trending away from graphics?

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Since the beginning of game development, we’ve seen rapid increases in the visual fidelity of machines. Whether this was allowing for 16 colors instead of 2, pushing more polygons to a screen, or the various advancements in pixel shaders, we’ve gone a long way. So far in fact that it’s getting quite expensive to make those AAA games. But games are big business, so there’s big money in those that succeed.

But then again, are graphics the keystone to modern game development? The Wii has exhibited to many developers that graphics aren’t the be-all end-all of a console, and that success is also based on giving players new, interesting experiences.

To me, the current trends are swaying towards increased connectivity. Microsoft is pushing to get twitter and facebook on their XBox Live services, multiplayer is finally fully entrenched in in the console market (as if the PC market didn’t have online multiplayer ages ago), and now we’re seeing games that communicate between platforms. Football games where you can manage your roster through a web browser, various different versions of games like the Sims for the iphone and facebook, and games that are pushing player videos onto social sites like youtube. These are the new forms of viral marketing campaigns that hope to use the connectivity of their userbase to get the word out about their games. After all, social networking sites allow for a lot of word-of-mouth marketing, and streamlining this kind of connectivity for users is getting easier and easier. Marketing isn’t just about making people drool over your latest trailer, but converting normal people into hardcore endorsers of your product. People like to share positive experiences with their friends, and in such a saturated market an endorsement from a friend is often worth a lot more than a positive review on some random website that comments about how detailed the pores on someone’s face texture are.

XBLIG, apps versus games

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

First, let me say this isn’t an “I’m going to application development” post. I’m currently working on a game, not an app because this game is something I want to make. If I had an app I wanted to make just as much I would make it, but I do tend to put more of a focus on games.

A lot of the developers on XBLIG have a certain impression of the service, and what does well. The main point made is that applications, whether simple or complex, do better than games. Some people accept this, while others are annoyed that these applications get in the way of their true “games” from reaching their audience. Applications rule the sales charts and really it’s no wonder why. XBLIG is the only place on the XBox Live services where you can get such applications. When developers make games, they are competing not just with XBLIG, but with XBox Live Arcade and disc based games. The applications have simply found a niche that they can fit into and satisfy. I don’t think that we should push against them just because they are being successful. Sure some of these applications took less effort to make then the games they are competing with, but should that matter? Having a strong idea and knowing who your target market is can be just as important as the implementation in and of itself. Making games that are very similar to games like Geometry wars or other shooters is a dangerous move as a developer. These games can take a lot of resources to produce, and you are competing with items already on the market. Applications on the other hand own their own market, because they created the market to begin with. Sure, I don’t like clones or cash-ins, but at the same time I can’t honestly get that mad at application developers, just because they found their own audiences. I don’t personally intend to buy a virtual fishtank or massage program, but clearly there is an audience out there for them, and I can respect that.

Never use your audience as an excuse

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

It’s design rant time! Pointing out painful misconceptions and mistakes that developers make when they are creating games, in the hopes that by bringing it out into the open I won’t make the same mistakes. Today’s topic is, why developers shouldn’t use their target users as an excuse not to include features in their games.

So, what do I mean by this? Well, think of this statement. “I don’t need to include feature X, because my users are Y”. If a designer is using this logic, it’s an issue. The best example I can think of at the moment is developers making games aimed for young children, where they think they don’t need smart writing or even a deep gameplay experience because the game is intended for a young audience. This is the wrong approach. You shouldn’t be thinking of things to cut corners on because of your audience, but should instead be catering the experience FOR your audience. If you’re making a game for young children then the logic shouldn’t be “I don’t need a deep experience because they are young” it should be “my interface should be very intuitive because they are young”. The gameplay itself SHOULD be deep, because you want your players to have something they can master or get engrossed in. By using your audience as an excuse to not do something, you are shortchanging the potential experience for those players or other, unintended players who may be useful to convert into lovers of your game.

Go look at Match3 games. That’s a genre that’s full of very similar looking games, but the ones that stand out in the genre give a deep experience through a simple interface (eg. Bejeweled). Even if your audience is the “casual gamers” that doesn’t mean that they won’t notice the difference between the strong and weak match3 games.

Now think about “simple writing” for children’s games. Sure, certain kinds of dialogue will go over a child’s head, but children often play these games with their parents, and in the end it’s the parent who goes to the store to buy games. If you can make a game that has writing that’s fun for both the child and their parent, that’s a sweet spot because you’ve converted the parent into a fan as well, guaranteeing returning purchases. Your intended audience should be used to help guide your development in what’s important and what you need, not to be underestimated for the purpose of cutting out other important features.

First preview! A character’s head!

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Surprise preview game art!

I’ve had a “style” in mind for my upcoming game for a while now but haven’t yet shown any art I intended to use. The closest I got was the cartoon parody vid I made, which showed the style, and my new character animation system.

The pictures above show an evolution of my first in-game character. When I started, my intention was to “make a style that would be easy for me to produce a lot of animated characters with”. I wanted things to go really fast, so I began with basing my forms on geometric shapes, with flat coloring. This is especially apparent in the video, and may be something I return to later. But of course, I can’t let a good thing be. From my initial sketch, I started moving towards a little more of a “geometric” look by not using freehand lines, and did some quickie coloring. It looked nice, but still not quite right. It was time to see what some real “time” put into the art would do. I took the head shape that appealed to me and expanded on it, polished it up. It looks good, even flat, but I really loved the colors on my roughly-shaded piece, so I went full-boar. Taking MUCH more time than I initially intended to make these characters in, I started my rendering process. Hours later came the refined, polished style which I’m settling on. I really do like it! Perhaps with time and practice I’ll get the time to create these characters down, but it’s hard for me to move away from this style now that I see how it looks fully rendered, and I hope others will appreciate that extra level of polish.

First preview complete! Stay tuned for more excitement! Oh, and feel free to give opinions on it of course ;)

XBox Live down for the day, what’s a gamer to do?

Monday, June 15th, 2009

If you didn’t hear this already, today (Tuesday June 16th) XBox Live went down for maintenance. Now, it should be noted that Live is not just the “gold” XBox services that allow people to play games online, but their online storefronts and connectivity for a lot of titles. XBox live being down for the day means a lot of people won’t be making any sales today. Whether they be normal DLC, Arcade titles, or our own XBLCG/XBLIG service. In fact, if I’ve got my facts straight you can’t even PLAY Community Games when the Live services are unavailable. For some reason Community Games can’t be played without a net connection to Live. I’m not quite sure why this is, but today the world will fall silent, as XBox users will be unable to fly RC airplanes, watch virtual fish on their TVs, or try to use their controllers as a “massaging” implement. And us game developers? Well, we can keep making our games on our PCs, but we can’t get them onto the XBox to test, nor can we review other people’s games to get them up for sale on Live. XBox made their name for having the strongest showing in online features, so I’d be curious to know what the impact of Live being down for a day means, in dollars and cents. How many sales are lost and how much total developer time is lost when XBox becomes an offline-only console?

Getting games faster, the need for direct links

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

That button above… I just added that to my game’s info page. Go ahead, have a click. Don’t be shy. Understanding where that link goes will be central to the theme of this post, and of course I’d love if you kept going and tried the game as well ;)

I’ve been ever-skeptical about the long-tail sales of games on XBLCG (or XBLIG, as it is soon to be called Indie games instead of Community games). For community games, there have been 5 ways to download a game as follows
1. Your game came out recently, it’s listed in new releases
2. Your game is popular and gets (and ideally stays) in the popular games list
3. Your game is picked as an IGN pick for a week or two
4. You use the browse functionality to find your game.
5. You use a webpage like the one that link above goes to for (in)direct download.

Choices 1 to 3 don’t last forever. Or at least, it’s VERY challenging to stay in the popular list, especially as a game since that list is based not only on purchases but trial downloads. “Peculiar” titles tend to stay up there longer due to this fact.

Browse functionality is painful to use, unless you like big non-descriptive lists. It’s rarely if ever used.

Which brings us back to that download link at the top, and what I wish that link represented. If you follow where that image leads to, it will take you to the XBox Live Marketplace. At this point you’ll look at the page and see a LOT of buttons. Live links, buttons reading “Full game” and “Game demo”, and depending on your resolution, you may have to scroll down to see those magic words “Download to Xbox 360“. So we don’t get to download immediately. Once you try to use this button, if you aren’t logged in you have to of course go through a login screen, and then are dumped back to the same page to press download again. Once that is done, you FINALLY get… well… a confirmation screen. Okay so AFTER confirming you want the trial you are congratulated. Of course, it makes no mention at this point that you’ll have to go to your XBox to begin the download process.

If you aren’t already logged in, to get from my link to finally having the game queued up on XBox takes about 5 steps? Click link, find download link, login, find same download link again, confirm download. As the web developer I don’t have much control on this ease-of-use issue, but it hurts the chances of my game getting trialed by potential players. If a process isn’t simple, a lot of users will just as easily give up on it. That holds back XBLCG from long tail sales. It’s not easy to use and makes things more painful than if I were trying to sell my games directly on PC.

Here’s what I’d like

Ideally I’d like a stronger connectivity between the XBox and PC, but that’s not going to happen soon. Maybe we’ll see more once Microsoft puts in ratings and facebook/twitter connectivity, but I wouldn’t hold my breath about easy downloading from Windows to XBox. iTunes was always nice how you could click a link on a webpage and everything would be setup to download or subscribe to whatever you clicked on. No clutter or confusion to get in the way of finding that one “extra” step that stops people from abusing the system.

Saving that connectivity, I’d like Microsoft to minimize user steps. I want it to be user clicks a link on my web page. If user isn’t logged in, a login prompt is put up, where in place of “sign in” we would have it confirm the download. If the user was already logged in, they are given minimal info and a clear, obvious download link to click. Once confirmed, the download is queued and a message comes up telling the user to boot up the XBox to begin downloading the title. That’s 2 steps. Click my link, and confirm/login.

Without this setup a direct-sales approach to the problem is difficult, because it’s already a challenge to get people to download the game, even if I as the developer have a compelling way for users to be interested in my game. I don’t control where they go after, and as far as I’m concerned what comes after is also what gets in the way.

The game podcast dilemma

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Probably too many in fact. This all stems from working for 2 years at companies that were a 2 hour commute from my home. I needed something for those long bus rides.

If you look at my MP3 player you’d notice 3 main tastes. I tend to focus on technology, art, and video games. Technology is more or less entertainment and keeping up with current events for me. Usually I don’t get anything significant out of those except conversation pieces. Video games, although being my main occupation, I was surprised to find that I don’t get much out of these either. I get the usual game news, and sometimes an opinion about why a game does/doesn’t work which I can use to learn from, but the majority of the “useful” information I garner isn’t from games or tech podcasts. It’s from the art.

I find that the art/comics podcasts I listen to are the ones that give me the content I’m interested in. They are the ones that talk about personal marketing, finding work, managing time, making plans, working with publishers, and collaboration with others. Those are the topics I, as a game developer, am interested in. Comics podcasts come close enough to my field of expertise that they are often applicable to me.

Why could this be? Well, I think the majority of tech and game podcasts aren’t listened to by developers, but by consumers. The market for games and tech are so large that a lot of these shows exist to appeal to consumers. People who want to know about upcoming games in the AAA business, and aren’t about the development process itself. Comics and art on the other hand are communities filled with creators more than traditional consumers (advertising and games have us all as art consumers, but those consumers often don’t consider themselves “art fans” as it were). There are a lot of “starving artists” out there, so from that standpoint there is more interest in these communities about how to become a success. Because it’s hard to describe “art” through only words, these shows focus on other parts of their business.

So with that, I’ll share with you all a few of the podcasts I listen to for learning about art and comics development.
Big Illustration Party Time
Art & Story
Breaking the Panel
Webcomics Weekly

If you’ve got a podcast you think I’d be interested in, whether it be in art, games, or tech let me know. I’d love to get some new, interesting listening in. ESPECIALLY if it’s something like a games podcast from a developer’s point of view, as I’m always looking for those.

Some parody perchance?

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Tonight’s presentation at the IGDA went quite well, and along with the presentation, I presented a quick video I made using my current project’s cutscene editor. It’s kind of a combination of my endeavors recently with looking at the XBLCG market, and my ranting on ridiculous trademark registrations (IGDA members who found me and my blog and still don’t know the deal with Langdell, go read back and look it up!) Could these be the new two great tastes, like peanut butter and chocolate? Check the video out below and see how you can take control of the XBox Live Community Games marketplace!

I met a lot of interesting developers, including some other XNA devs. My collection of business cards grows larger by the day!

I’m such a hypocrite!

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

So, it’s been well-expressed that I may not be the BIGGEST fan of some members of the IGDA board of directors but… I am going to a Toronto chapter meeting tomorrow.

Why? How could I betray the indie developer scene by encouraging the IGDA at this time of trademark frenzy!?!? One of my friends Andrei Petrov helps to run the Toronto branch, and tomorrow’s meeting is about XBox Live Community Games. Being the “expert” that I am in that field, I’ll be doing a presentation about selling games on their service.

My opinion on the IGDA is, for the purposes that I use them for, I don’t really know if they actually need to be an international organization. What I care about is having group of independent developers who are of a similar mindset to be able to meet up once in a while to talk shop, meet new talent, and make useful connections. That’s done as a group of people, not as an organization. Having them all under the banner of the IGDA just makes them more convenient to find in your particular locale, because they all have the same name to run through Google.

I’d call foul, but they both seem so great…

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

I’m not big into cart racing usually, but when I first heard about Zero Gear I got excited. It’s a charming little cart racer with a focus on customization. I first got into it when I was looking into the OGRE engine, and Zero Gear definitely made me want to learn more about it. And when I say customization, I’m not just talking about giving your character a silly hat or painting your car neon pink to blind your opponents. Zero Gear is planning to allow players to script their own custom items, levels, and game modes so that it can be a platform for new racing game ideas. I really hope this game is a huge hit.

Now I was looking on Gametrailers… and a game called “Mod Nation” piqued my interest. It had a very similar look to Zero Gear, but apparently the similarities didn’t stop there. People have started describing this game as the LittleBigPlanet of cart racing games, and I can see why. It’s got some fun tools to create levels that look really good, and seem very accessible. Being able to define a track just by driving down where it would be if a track where there, leaving a trail of tar behind you really makes the ease of this tool stand out. Being on the console it’s going to be simpler and perhaps not as fully customizable as Zero Gear, but it’s still looking like a powerful, and efficient set of track-making tools.

So what do you think? Fair or foul play? Are you interested in either of them? I hope when they come out they are both strong games, and can be wildly successful!