28 Apr 2014

I Am Working on Stuff

I am working on a couple of things - one very large and ambitious, the other less so.

My main project is something I pitched to an IP-owner 18 months ago, and has some pretty interesting features:
  • HTML5 free-to-play client
  • User-generated content
  • Desktop world builder
  • Worlds shareable via social media
  • Cloud-persisted saves
  • Cross compiles to Windows, OSX, Linux, Android and iOS courtesy of the spiffy LibGDX.

Stolen from the Daily Mail, because costing them bandwidth is a noble cause

I'm still involved in IndieCity.com, and now work as a consultant doing enterprisey, cloudy, NoSQLish, agile things at OpenCredo.

4 Dec 2012

No Country for Old Men

A combination of Kickstarter and indie games culture are driving down the price of development to the point where creating indie games is the preserve of the young, the reckless, and the rich.


Taken from MyGaming.co.za

Recent Kickstarter campaigns have highlighted that there is a great unwillingness to crowd-fund an indie game with a realistic budget. Accusatory disbelief of development costs has been bandied about in comments on numerous articles around the inforweb.

We've seen projects like the quite-simply-great Spud's Quest be lauded for being the right price (£5,000), and also Fist Of Awesome being funded for a similar amount. These games were both in a substantially completed state upon going to Kickstarter.

There are two things that concern me about these observations:
  • Decrying salaried studio staff as expensive drives down the value of game development skills;
  • The Kickstarting public expect games to be nearly-finished and have a token amount to bring them to market.
That game development is being devalued is the gravest concern to me, both as someone who's brought an indie game to market and as a consumer of the medium. Are we really saying that people earning a decent salary (but still lower than that of someone with a similar skillset in enterprise) are over-valued? That we don't want people to be able to have some modicum of job security to follow their passion?

I was most surprised at the number of indie developers bemoaning the cost of the Dizzy Returns KS. You would have thought that indie developers, struggling to make a living from their passion, would support the notion of people being paid reasonably to make games.

If this trend continues we will fast approach the horrible state that music is in. A great many people spend their lives trying to 'make it', virtually none succeed, and even those that have moderate success normally rack up huge debts. The industry is polarised into original creative works that bankrupt their creators, and AAA sure-fire hits that cost vast sums to make but have all the originality of mechanically-recovered reformed ham.

The issue of the Kickstarting public expecting games to be nearly finished is at odds with what I considered the site to be about, and the primary source of my personal concern.

How are new and original ideas supposed to get off the ground? Getting a game to alpha is not a trivial undertaking, and doing so in a fashion that looks pretty enough to sell itself in a crowd-funding campaign is an order of magnitude more expensive again. The answer, according to griping indies and internet commenters, is to self-fund and/or develop in your spare time.

At the end of such an unfeasible task you get the great pay-off of a few thousand quid. Which will get you what exactly? I suspect there is a substantial disconnect between the realities of any significant development project and the expectations of the public, likely proliferated by the popular image and ideal of the impoverished indie developer living on noodles in their parents' house.

"But Notch made Minecraft by quitting his job," I hear you cry. Yes. That is all very well and good for a man with no mortgage, no family, and no children.

How exactly is one to create an indie game when one has responsibilities? As any parent will tell you, spare time does not exist. Making your family live in poverty for your dream is not reasonable, responsible or fair. Asking for crowdfunding will elicit the same outraged responses of "you want to pay yourself? To pay your bills? You should be living in a shoebox to make this!"

In summary, I believe the popular image of the indie developer has made it all but impossible for a person with responsibilities to create independent games. Kickstarter has exposed this mismatch with reality, and threatens to further engrain it. Furthermore if this trend continues the skillset required for making games will be devalued until we reach the point where nothing of artistic merit will be created by people with a reliable income.

Brandon Boyer said in one of his GDC presentations that indie development goes in cycles, swinging between golden ages of creativity and accessibility, and sparse periods of impenetrability. I suspect we are seeing the end of the most recent golden age, and it won't be until another market disruption happens that indie games development will be as accessible as it has been for the last few years.

7 May 2012

The Problem with Adventure/Puzzle Games

Adventure puzzle games all suffer from an intrinsic problem: the puzzles there-in are contrived by the minds of man, and are not resultant of behaviour that emerges from a set of observable rules. As such they never really engage on the same low level of the mind as, say, a physics puzzle game.

This leaves designers with a fundamental puzzle of their own.




Truth In Game Design

At GDCE 2011 Jonathon Blow, creator of Braid and the upcoming The Witness, gave an excellent talk entitled Truth in Game Design. The talk was very insightful and took a long time to say something quite simple, which I shall paraphrase here:
Puzzles tug on the cognitive processes of affordance-identification best when they are borne of the observations of simple rules that create complexity. 
Rather than design puzzles, designers can create more intuitively engaging problems by creating the simple rules of a game-space, observing complex and unpredictable outcomes, and then reverse-engineering those phenomena to invite the player to create conditions which lead to their emergence.


Play and Consistent Observable Behaviour


A great book, although I don't agree
with all of their definitions
Humans are very good at experimenting with well-defined and constant rules in order to produce a favourable outcome. This process is commonly known as learning, and the iteration of inputs to these rules is called play. A simple example is a child playing with building bricks: the rules are those of physics, and the iteration is the act of stacking and re-stacking the bricks. The outcomes observed are whether the stack falls down, leans, or stands upright.

This process of learning is hardwired at the lowest levels into the human brain after millions of years of evolution. Even without stone implements people needed to understand how the most base of all tools, the body, reacted under different conditions. Becoming proficient in sport is a process of being able to more accurately predict the outcome of the combination of input and circumstance.

Opaque Behaviour

People are quite good at sussing each other out too. The taradiddles of many people's social lives does provide empirical evidence that as a species we're not terribly good at it. Society functions as result of a community acting with reasonable predictability, but there are often cases from the trivial (someone leave the pub in a tantrum) to the significant (sociopaths) that prove time and again that predicting and understanding the thought patterns of others is haphazard at best.

A good HCI introduction
It is also argued that a person cannot introspect their own cognitive processes. This is why asking people for insight into their actions in usability tests (or indeed after spur-of-the-moment events like reacting to violence) is fruitless. I shalln't recite the reasons why here - those interested can go and read Donald Norman's  Emotional Design, Design Of Everyday Things and read up on cognitive psychology - but if the field of psychology generally agrees that we can't reliably explain our own thought processes, then the chances of us being to explain those of others are similarly slim.

In human-computer interaction terms, the behaviour of others is less predictable because their state is less transparent. A stack of bricks immediately shows its state, meaning less interpretation is needed and a more accurate prediction of events can be made.

Contrived Puzzles

Puzzle games like the Monkey Island series, the Dizzy series and my own Clover: A Curious Tale rely on players being able to second-guess the designers' understanding of how objects (often identified by little more than a few words) interact. There is little or no 'organic' interaction between them like you might see in a game like Portal.

Sorry!
The lack of natural and observable interactions between objects is one of the reasons why 'combining item' puzzles are always infuriating. Why should I be able to combine these two items, but not any other two? Hopefully there'd be some hint in the description of the items - I'm guilty of this with an arrowless bow and an aerodynamic plunger. There's no observable reason why a rubber-chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle should suggest use down a zipwire.

Most adventure/puzzle games do make limited use of more natural problems, normally involving the "I can see it, but how do I get there" mechanic. Clover: A Curious Tale had a small example of this with a drawbridge that could only be opened from one side.

If adventure/puzzle games can never be 'pure' then are they truly relics of a bygone era? An evolutionary offshoot that survived whilst competition was weak, but was driven to extinction when more successful beasts encroached on its turf?

Adventure/puzzle games clearly work, otherwise the genre as a whole wouldn't have sold millions of units. I suggest this is because they work at the reflective level and not the behavioural.

Reflective Play Spaces

Donald Norman's Model
Narratives are the prime example of reflective possibility spaces. An author introduces a set of characters and circumstances, and the imagination of the consumer is set ablaze churning over the possible outcomes of what might happen if Character X's secret gets found out by Character Y. Interestingly one can consider this entirely hypothetical play: evaluating inputs and circumstance to second-guess outcomes, when it is impractical to empirically test these ideas.

If we concede that adventure/puzzle games' real arena of play is the mind of the player and not the consistent rules of some virtual world, what does this mean for gameplay?

My argument is that adventure/puzzle games in their truest form should be stories first and foremost, with as little 'gameplay' as possible. The play occurs primarily in the players understanding of all of the constituent elements of the narrative, and not in the rules of the on-screen components.

Players of these games take primary joy from the play in their imaginations, and any hybridisation of game mechanics will alienate this audience to some extent (although hopefully attracting those of a different disposition). The game world and its layout should be considered an aid to the imagination of the player, and less a manifestation of the interacting elements within.

19 Jan 2012

Clover: A Curious Tale Free (Legally!)

Clover: A Curious Tale is now free on IndieCity.com and is only 80MSP on Xbox Live Indie Games!


You can get a personalised bundle of free games if you sign up at IndieCity and fill in preference survey. The IndieCity recommendations engine finds out what you like, and finds you free goodness of the same sort.

What's more is that, if you like, IndieCity will once-a-week recommend another free game or demo and automatically add it to your download queue.

I can't make the game any cheaper on Xbox Live Indie Games, but I would if I could.

5 Jan 2012

Indie Advice: Creative Briefs

I've written a little about branding, but marketing is a very deep subject, unlike many of its practitioners.

If you need to get someone creative to communicate some ideas about a product, then this slideshow is gold dust. Even if you haven't got any creative briefs that need writing, I'd suggest posing yourself some of these questions just for fun.

4 Jan 2012

Indie Advice: Branding Questionnaire

In this post I'll share with you some questions you can ask yourself or your colleagues that will help you understand how to communicate a brand identity.

When I was working in finance I had the pleasure of working with Phil Joyce - a designer who's skill was not just making things look pretty, but getting to the nub of often vague requirements. I've never seen anyone feign interest so convincingly, or expose someone's lack of forethought in such a disarming fashion.

What would you put here?
Many introvert artisans consider branding a cringe-worthy endeavour (for which I think the archetypal spin-merchant and bullshitter Kurt Cobain has a lot to answer) but it really needn't be. Yes, it's all very corporate, but this is about understanding what you're genuinely trying to do and being able to communicate it to other people.

Whilst working with marketers and designers I saw various techniques for getting to understand the crux of an idea or concept. The following is a set of questions that I've been asked and have asked myself in different exercises. I've seen these applied to global financial companies, charities, luxury liquor brands and new start-ups.

By answering these questions you can create a set of branding anchor-points that you can refer to when designing logos, writing email signatures, deciding how to reply on a forum, authoring error messages, or creating full-page print ads.


If you find these questions a bit daft or struggle to come up with answers, try answering the negatives. Who aren't your competitors? What celebrity is nothing like yout thing?


What is the thing called? Why?
This process can work for pretty much anything: games, studios, sites, campaigns... Anything that needs an identity.


What does the thing do, and why was it started?
Why are you bothering? If you can't answer this one, probably best head back to the drawing board!


Who are the main competitors? What is their branding like?
This might be competitors for a business, or alternative products in the case of a game. No purchase or decision is made in isolation, so be aware of what the audience will be comparing you to.


What is the USP of the thing? How does it differentiate itself from its competitors?
A USP is a Unique Selling Point/Proposition, a now-antiquated but still useful marketing concept that succinctly articulates what one feature your thing has that its competitors do not. 


What's the thing's ethos or mission statement?
A mission statement is a short sentence or two that explains why the hell you're doing what you're doing. If you're branding your studio, why did you start making games? What's your ambition?


Can you reduce the mission statement into a single-minded proposition?
A single-minded proposition is a single sentence that communicates one fact in as a succinct, inspiring, and believable fashion as possible.


What are 6 words that describe the thing?
Try to think of adjectives that don't apply to every product. "Innovative" is a classic one for businesses, but what company doesn't consider itself innovative? If any of these can be applied to every other company, then it communicates nothing.


If the thing was a car/supermarket/celebrity which would it be? What features does it share?
Think about the positioning of other brands. Being able to draw parallels will certainly help you communicate how you feel about the brand, perhaps having never had externalised these feelings before.


What is the profile of your target audience?
This is a whole other article, but what does your typical audience member look like? What age are they? What gender? How affluent are they? What magazines do they read? Where do they shop? What clothes do they wear? 


Where is it hoped the thing will be in 1 year's time? What about in 3 years' time?
A brand is not for life. It needs exist in a given form for as long as it serves its purpose; knowing how that purpose might change will enable you to segue from one brand to a variant later.


What are the top-level goals of creating a brand for the thing?
Why are you bothering with this exercise? What do you want to get out of it? Are you trying to draw up a creative brief? Are you defining your studio brand before breaking cover? Are you branding your game?


Are there other ways that creating a brand will help business?
What are the secondary and tertiary benefits of doing this?


How do you want people to respond to your thing?  
This is pretty important. What do you want people to feel and think when presented with your brand? In awe? Comfortable? Relaxed? Energised?


Can you think of anything that visually represents the thing?
If you've got a visual metaphor in mind, it's bound to come in handy sooner or later.


If the thing was a guest at a party, how would they act? How would they talk?
For me, this is one of the most important questions when coming up with a brand for a business entity. This should inform how everything from your logo to your forum posts should be crafted.

3 Jan 2012

Indie Advice: Long Term

Your first game, or indeed your next game, may not be a success. It doesn‘t have to be.

What are your long-term goals? Very few people are talented enough to be successful at something on their first attempt. How many bands‘ first songs turn out to be #1 hits?

If you carefully market your studio as well as your game and make efforts to network, then you will be building a long-term awareness of what you do with those in the industry and with the games-playing public. If your first game bombs, at least people will know who you are second time around.

Do people get these metaphors?



Look at Zeboyd Games, creators of Breath Of Death and Cthulhu Saves The World. They created very good titles for XBLIG, but sadly like many other XBLIG developers failed to make a sustainable profit. Their games were quite-rightly critically acclaimed, thus opening the door to have their games distributed on Steam. Word of their style reached influential places in the industry, and they‘re now working on a Penny Arcade game.

Evaluate what assets you have. How can you exploit these further? Could you port to another platform? Might you get more notoriety by submitting your game to a festival?

My game was a commercial failure. However in the process of creating it I accrued enough experience and established enough contacts that I was presented with an opportunity to work at IndieCity.

Whilst you‘re focusing on creating your game keep in mind how you can maximise the number of doors that may open for you in the future. Talk to as many people as you can. Be pleasant. Be professional - within indie limits, naturally.

My sensei taught (through the medium of pain) that everything that ever happens to you is your own fault. A more optimistic spin on this is that you make your own luck, and you do this by being prepared, working hard, and by maximising the number of opportunities that you have to be in the right place at the right time.