New Video Blog of Indie Games on IndieGameADay.com

Mike Rose, UK editor of Gamasutra, recently launched IndieGameADay.com, a video blog of new indie games.

Each day, there’s a video of Mike recording himself playing an indie game. For instance, here’s one of his session of Haunt the House: Terrortown:

I love these spotlights on the indie game development scene, and I hope he’s able to keep it up. As of this writing, he’s got about a week’s worth of posts. To navigate the site a bit easier, you should click on the menu icon at the top, then click on the monthly Archive to see all posts for that month at once.

There’s also a weekly roundup which is a playlist of the videos for the past few days so you can consume them all at once.

An Inspiring Indie Story: Team Football’s Licensing Deals

Team Football Logo

With the World Cup happening this month, there are bound to be some soccer games made to take advantage of the attention it brings. While most will be terrible, and many will be nothing more than “swipe to take a penalty kick” games, a few will be good.

Of course, without the official FIFA license that EA has locked in until 2022, even good soccer games will have a hard time getting noticed without something unique to offer, such as zombies or combat or familiar faces such as Nintendo’s Mario or Capcom’s Mega Man. Otherwise, it seems only Konami has a serious contender in terms of official licenses. It probably isn’t likely that other publishers, let alone independent game developers, will be able to negotiate a deal to offer any official content in their own games.

No one told indie studio Team Football, who managed to secure the official license to England national team for their game Official England Football (which is only available in England). The small startup also managed to work out a licensing deal with France, Japan, China, and Brazil, and Official Brazil Soccer is supposed to be available around the world, although I couldn’t find it at the time of this writing on my Android tablet.

Many aspiring indie developers start out realizing that games don’t appear fully-formed, that someone had to make the games in the first place, which means it is possible that they can make games. Suddenly, they are excited by the possibility, and some get burned when they bite off more than they can chew.

Eventually, they stop deluding themselves into thinking they can make the the best MMO RPG/FPS/RTS EVAH! They internalize the lesson that they need to be “realistic.” The common advice is to cut down on your scope, to recognize that you can only do so much by yourself and with your limited resources.

But being realistic is also a good way to sell yourself short. You may have the capability to achieve something fantastic, but if you assume you can only accomplish something mediocre, you’ll stop before you should.

Granted, some indies have access to different levels of resources. Some managed to save up hundreds of thousands of dollars, others inherited, some borrowed, some are leveraging income from their day jobs, and some are struggling to make ends meet. Some have a team of talented individuals, others toil away in solitude.

Team Football benefited from Birmingham’s Entrepreneurs for the Future incubator, funding from Creative England, and some good contacts in the industry.

But they showed what’s possible if you go out and chase after what you want. An indie game development studio with official licenses for their sports games is able to stand out among the crowd, and in a heavily-saturated market, getting that attention is precious.

Are you setting supposedly-realistic expectations for yourself, or are you imagining what’s really possible?

Advertising Your Game on YouTube

YouTube Channels

A few years ago, I read that search engine optimization (SEO) wasn’t just a way to make sure Google and Yahoo! can find your website. iTunes is also a search engine, so if you had a podcast, you know where your content needed to be listed.

Similarly, YouTube is a search engine. Are you optimizing your marketing efforts there?

You have two opportunities here: leverage existing channels and publish your own.

Leveraging Existing Channels

There are quite a few channels focused on games, and some of these channels have dedicated viewers.

In the article Advertising Through YouTubers, Kevin Harwood makes the case for introducing your game through one of these influential channels by endorsing them so they review and play your game for everyone to see.

I was a bit turned off by the “let me show you the numbers” part of the article:

It would be completely within reason to pay $250 per video made and commission four 20-minute game play videos.

100,000 viewers

$1000

even if only .5% of the viewers go forward and purchase your game for $30 on Steam (you earn only $20)

You have earned $40,000 in revenue

No this is not a “get rich quick article”. I’m simply showing the ROI on a basic initiative like this.

Now, this article was not published years ago. The race to the bottom in game pricing has already occurred. Most indies are not selling their game for $30 on Steam, and I’m sure a 0.5% conversion is one of those things that doesn’t just happen.

Still, I don’t think the basic principle is off. YouTube videos are bite-sized content that your prospective customers are actively searching for. The same may or may not be said for your game’s website. If you can do more than merely send a link to a channel’s owner, you have a better chance of your game getting featured and in a positive light.

Harwood suggests incentives to encourage the reviewer to play the game with a goal of achieving some level. It would be terrible if your intricate strategy game was reviewed by someone who didn’t seem very invested in trying and misunderstood some key aspect of it. Saying something like “If your playthrough gets past the Cow Level, you can get three free copies of the game to giveaway to your viewers” means that your exciting and awe-inspiring Cow Level has a better chance of being featured than if you merely hope the reviewer gets that far and discovers it.

Obviously you can’t control how other people will enjoy your game, and if you pay to get your game endorsed, there are even laws governing disclosure. See the FTC’s 2013 PDF dotcom Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising.

The goal isn’t to deceive people into thinking that an influential reviewer loves your game. The goal is for the influential reviewer to give your game a fair chance, and you want to put in some work to make sure that your game is shown in the best light.

If you do nothing but spam emails to these video reviewers, having no relationship with them in the first place, you are just another faceless game developer. It is random chance if your game is reviewed in the first place, and if it is, who knows how the reviewer will play it.

Imagine if a game such as Mario Kart 8 was reviewed by someone who didn’t know that you can use the items that you pick up on the track. That is, this person picks up banana peels, or mushrooms, or a boomarang plant, but didn’t know to press the button that actually makes use of them. One of the key features of the game is completely ignored in the review, and suddenly the game looks somewhat flawed and confusing.

So no, getting your game featured on popular YouTube channels is not a guaranteed way to make your game popular. You still have work to do, and Harwood has some creative ideas for making it work out well for everyone involved.

Publishing Your Own

If, on the other hand, you want to make your own videos to similarly take advantage of YouTube as a search engine, there is a separate article on how to make videos for games by Alconost co-founder Kirill Kliushkin you would want to see.

My favorite piece of insight was how scripts are timed so that voiceovers are matched to on-screen events. I also really appreciate how the entire process is purpose-driven. The first question they ask is “Why do you need a video?” and the process flows from the answer.

Kliushkin covers teasers vs trailers vs in-game video intros, scripting and storyboards, and the importance of professional-quality voiceovers, among many other topics. Even if you plan on hiring someone else to make the videos for you, this article seems like a good primer on the basic things you need to keep in mind to create the right video for your marketing needs.

Video of My Talk On The Importance of Purpose, Mission, and Vision

On May 29th, I gave a lunch and learn presentation at StartupCity Des Moines titled Playing the Long Game: The Vital Importance of Purpose, Mission, and Vision to Your Business.

It was a post mortem of sorts. I’m running this business part-time as I have a day job again, but I ran GBGames as a full-time independent game developer from 2010 to 2012…poorly. There were some major lessons I learned about running a business, and the idea was that by sharing the cautionary tale of GBGames, other business owners could benefit from my experience.

If you couldn’t make it to my presentation, don’t worry! There’s a recording uploaded at http://youtu.be/jtsE6lGp-Pw:

I also uploaded the slides with notes in a few formats:

The presentation itself is about 35 minutes long, and then there was some quality question-and-answer time with the audience. The energy I got talking about the impact I wanted to have in the world really brings home the point I was making about the importance and benefits of having a clear purpose, mission, and vision.

It was a great experience, and my talk was well-received. I hope you get some value out of it.

Reminder: Come to My Lunch and Learn Presentation on May 29th

If you can make it, please come to my Lunch and Learn post mortem about my time running GBGames full-time on Thursday. I hear it will be a good one.

Playing the Long Game: The Vital Importance of Purpose, Mission, and Vision to Your Business

Gianfranco Berardi will share the major lessons that can be drawn from his experience running an independent game development business full-time.

He’ll explain what happened between the time he delivered his two weeks’ notice to his day job in 2010 until 2012, when a lack of funds forced him once again back to part-time business owner status. See how a lack of strategic planning resulted in a business with no focus and a business owner feeling out of his depth. More importantly, learn how doing the hard work of identifying your Why, How, and What pays off both immediately and in the long-term.

WHEN:
May 29th, 2014 at noon

WHERE:
StartupCity Des Moines
317 6th Ave, Suite 500, Des Moines IA, 50309
p: 515-868-0473
e: info@startupcitydsm.com

It’s a free event, and I’d love to see you there. Register for it at https://tikly.co/-/2510.

A Recipe for Meaningful Gamification

Gamification has been quite the buzz word for the last few years, although I haven’t seen too much in the headlines recently.

Sebastian Deterding defined gamification as introducing game design elements in non-game contexts in the presentation below:

Deterding has since been upset at how gamification is thought to be nothing more than using incentives to reward people (press button, receive points/badge/achievement) for doing what the designers want them to do, and he argues that good game design and a larger purpose behind it all is still needed to make it successful.

Gamification isn’t new, and people have been talking about it for decades under different terms. Deterding has since preferred “Gameful Design” as a term instead.

I recently learned about Scott Nicholson, associate professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. He researches learning through games, and he’s the director of Because Play Matters Game Lab, which is meant to create transformative games and play for informal learning environments.

Nicholson is interested in Meaningful Gamification, which he defines as “using game design elements to help users find meaning in non-game contexts.”

So, you are trying to establish long-term change and making such effort intrinsic rather than relying on rewards to keep it going. There’s a lot of research on compensation in the workplace. The old carrot-and-stick approach seems logical. If you want people to produce more, you reward them with more pay. If you want to stop some behavior, you punish. If you take away those rewards and punishments, people will revert to behavior you don’t necessarily want.

But for some time there has been the idea that extrinsic motivation actually reduces productivity. A person told that he/she will be rewarded for doing an activity will be more likely to stop doing the activity when the reward stops than a person who was not presented with an award.

Nicholson created the following recipe to help create meaningful gamification:

  • Reflection – assisting participants in finding other interests and past experiences that can deepen engagement and learning
  • Exposition – creating stories for participants that are integrated with the real-world setting and
    allowing them to create their own
  • Choice – developing systems that put the power in the hands of the participants
  • Information – using game design and game display concepts to allow participants to learn more about the real-world context
  • Play – facilitating the freedom to explore and fail within boundaries
  • Engagement – encouraging participants to discover and learn from others interested in the real-world setting

I think choice is interesting, because a lot of gamification interest comes from the idea that if you create a game that everyone in your organization must play, then it will drive the behavior the organization wants, when it’s not actually the case.

More information about this recipe is at the Because Play Matters Game Lab website.

Learn Computer Science, Not Coding

When I was in college, I was in the computer science program. Some of the classes were about learning programming.

I enjoyed programming, but I didn’t always enjoy the classes. Part of the reason was that we were learning how to program in Visual C++ 6.0.

For anyone who remembers it, 6.0 was…OK. That is, if you wanted to code and compile and run a project, it worked more or less as expected.

But it had a reputation for not supporting the C++ Standard very well. As I didn’t know the Standard very well myself, I had no idea, but in hindsight, it explained why my professors almost universally ran into difficulties teaching certain aspects of it.

Eventually the school’s official language switched to Java. I recall hearing it was because a professor started talking about linkers and object code and got a bunch of stares from confused students who were used to doing nothing more than clicking the “Build” button in a UI.

Similarly, my classes that were ostensibly about teaching database concepts almost always were really classes about using Microsoft Access. Even before I started using GNU/Linux as my main OS and cared about cross-platform compatibility, it seemed wrong to me that the tool we were supposed to use to practice what we learned was so proprietary.

I found I preferred classes in which I learned concepts and theories that could be applied in many contexts. I always liked general principles rather than specific solutions.

Now, when I neared graduation and was worried about finding a job, suddenly my disinterest in specific tools such as Microsoft Access turned out to be a liability, but I was looking for programming jobs in particular, and most of them seemed to want people who knew not only how to work with databases but with specific types of databases.

On the other hand, if I cared, learning Access, or Oracle, or MySQL were all within my grasp if I applied myself. My issue wasn’t skill but experience. I understood how databases worked, and I could apply my knowledge to most of them. And in fact, my knowledge of how they worked could be applied outside of formal databases. When I was creating a component-based entity system for my game objects, I was basically creating my own database system. It’s been said that video games are just databases with pretty front-ends.

So I preferred being able to think generally about solutions rather than learn specific tools. I still hate picking up a game development book and discovering that it’s actually a Windows-specific game development book, or a Game Maker-specific development book, or a Game Salad-specific development book, or a Unity-specific development book.

A few days ago, I enjoyed reading Don’t Learn to Code, Learn to Think. The author is railing against the confusion that computer science is nothing more than programming, against learning a tool as an ends in itself. Computer science is a way of thinking, and programming is how you apply that thinking. The former is more general and has broad applications, the latter…well, creates specific applications. B-)

Not everyone needs to learn how to write code in the same way that not everyone needs to learn how to fly a plane, but knowing logic and information theory helps you in life the same way that knowing physics and math would.

If you want to learn something that also has broad applications, you should check out the online course Model Thinking led by Scott E. Page at the University of Michigan.

In these lectures, I describe some of the reasons why a person would want to take a modeling course. These reasons fall into four broad categories:

  • To be an intelligent citizen of the world
  • To be a clearer thinker
  • To understand and use data
  • To better decide, strategize, and design

Sounds good to me.

Being able to improve my ability to think about problems has wide-ranging benefits. For one, I have more tools. I don’t learn to use a hammer and treat everything as a nail. I learn the screwdriver, the ax, the jigsaw, and more, and I apply the right tool to the problem, and I can even combine tools in ways that make sense.

Similarly, if I learn programming but don’t learn the concepts, I’ve basically learned how to use a hammer. While you could hammer a screw into a board, you can’t use a hammer to remove the screw, or to cut the board. When problems arise, such as compiler or linker issues, or logic bugs, I have almost no frame of reference for how to solve them if I haven’t learned about compilers or De Morgan’s Law.

Are Your Game Mechanics Off Balance?

Note: this post was originally published in the January 2012 issue of ASPects, the official newsletter of the Association of Software Professionals.

You’ve been working on your action game for so long that you’re sick of playing it. You have a wide variety of enemies with different strengths and weaknesses, and you’ve provided the player with dozens of different weapons to take advantage of those weaknesses. You’ve tested so many different playstyles, changing variables as you found issues, and you even had your family and friends try it out to make sure that they don’t think it is too hard or too easy. Your game is ready for your first customer!

Except something goes wrong. Someone discovers a way to use a weapon that dominates all of the enemies in your game, eliminating the challenge and fun entirely. Or perhaps there’s a sequence in the game that you find slightly challenging, but to someone who doesn’t know all of the intricacies of the game and hasn’t had the opportunity to practice for months, it’s frustratingly too hard. In either case, the reason why your game isn’t ready is that it isn’t balanced.

A Numbers Game

Balance in a game can refer to many things, but the basic idea is that you are deciding what values and numbers to use in a game. As an example, Tic-Tac-Toe, or noughts and crosses, has two players, nice spaces in a 3×3 grid, the requirement that you can place only one ‘X’ or ‘O’ during a turn, the requirement that each space can only hold one mark, and a victory condition of having three of your marks in a row. Tic-Tac-Toe is a fairly simple game, but you can imagine all of the ways you can upset the balance by changing these values. It would be a completely different game with a 4x4x4 matrix and requiring four in a row for a victory condition.

Balancing a game requires getting the numbers right, but it’s not always obvious what “right” is. Should your strategy game have one type of resource to collect or two? Should a unit that does twice the damage of another unit cost twice as much to produce? What if it has half the armor?

As I was getting my strategy game “Stop That Hero!” ready for release, I tried to make sure that even if someone didn’t play perfectly, they would still be able to win while also ensuring that it wasn’t too easy to win. What I found was that even when I played how I thought was sub-optimal, it was still using special knowledge that I had as a developer, so what was somewhat challenging to me was way too hard for someone else. Having other people play it gave me a lot more information to go on.

The feedback you get with playtesting will be invaluable, but you might find you are making guesses at appropriate values. In my game, the player summons minions such as orcs and dragons to fight off heroes such as archers, knights, and wizards. Summoning costs resources, and it takes time to summon a minion. How much should an orc cost? How long does it take to summon a warlock?

While guesses are good for getting the game up and playable in the first place, the guess-and-pray approach can be tedious and slow when you’re trying to get the game ready for customers. There has to be a better way.

A Little Analysis Goes a Long Way

I found two tools helpful in game balancing work: a spreadsheet and a whiteboard.

In the spreadsheet, I entered as much information about the various entities as I could. Data such as HP, movement speed, and minion costs all ended up in the chart. In the game, resources increase by 1 each second for each castle and tower the player controls, so time is another value to keep track of.

EntityDefinitions

Using numbers such as cost, time to summon, game play time, and the number of towers the player controls, you could answer some questions, such as:
With control of one tower, how many orcs can the player afford by the time one orc is available on the battlefield?
How many slimes can be summoned after 30 seconds of game play if the player has control of one tower? After 1 minute? With two towers?
How many orcs could have been produced during the time it takes to produce one slime?

The answers come fairly naturally from the data. For instance, if an orc takes 3 seconds to be summoned, and a slime takes 6.4 seconds to be summoned, you can produce two orcs and part of a third in the time it takes to produce one slime. Knowing this information, you can determine that the cost of one slime should be just slightly more than the cost of producing two orcs, all other things being equal.

But sometimes the values aren’t equal. In my case, an orc does the same damage as a slime during one attack, but orcs deliver attacks every second while a slime needs to spend a little more than 2 seconds to do its next attack. Also, slimes move at less than half the speed of orcs. On the other hand, slimes have ten times the hit points, making it much harder for the heroes to kill it. So how much is a slime worth compared to an orc now?

If you can come up with appropriate formulas, you can gather some statistics to help in balancing. Figuring out the relationships between all of these numbers is key, and this is where a whiteboard can come in handy.

STH_BalanceChart

This chart represents all of the interacting systems during a game session. You can see how player resources are influenced by play time, the structures owned by the player, and resource chests collected. More resources means more minions can be summoned, which decreases resources and increases the number of entities. Some entities can capture towers, which helps increase resources. Combat is represented by the weapon-related boxes at the bottom of the chart, which all impact HP, which impacts whether or not a given entity exists. Speed can be impacted by a slow status effect, which means heroes take longer to move, which means the player has more time to gain resources and summon minions.

Even with only a handful of numbers, you can see that the relationships between them and across systems can get complex. Still, this chart helps us find our way to some interesting statistics. For instance, we can determine how many orcs it takes to kill a one guard. Let’s say that guards have 250 HP and do 33 HP of damage every 1.2 seconds, and orcs have 100 HP and do 17 HP of damage every second.

Orcs take (250 HP / 17 HP damage) x 1 second = 15 seconds to kill a guard. Guards take (100HP/33 HP damage) x (1.2 seconds) = 4.8 seconds to kill one orc. Since guards kill orcs at a rate of 0.208 per second (1 / 4.8 seconds), it takes 15 seconds x 0.208 = 3.125 orcs to kill a guard. In game terms, three orcs will die before the guard’s death blow is dealt by the fourth orc.

STH_MinionKillRatesByHero

Knowing this information, we should make sure that the player is capable of summoning at least four orcs for every guard in the game world, or else it will be impossible to withstand the onslaught of the heroes. If orcs cost 7 resources, and if one level is designed to produce four guards from the nearby village, the player should be able to have 7 resources per orc x 4 orcs per guard x 4 guards = 112 resources before those guards arrive.

You can also see what happens if you change a number. If an orc does twice as much damage, it would take 250 HP / 34 HP damage) x 1 second = 7.4 seconds to kill a guard, so it would take only two orcs to kill a guard (7.4 seconds x 0.208 orcs killed per second = 1.5 orcs).

By studying the relationships between numbers, you can determine what information would be useful, and then simple mathematics can get you that information. Spreadsheets also help you by making it easy to tweak values to see what effect a change might have on other values. You still need to playtest as much as you can since it is only by playing that you can determine if the game is entertaining enough, but this article should have demonstrated that you have tools to aid you in balancing the game.

See Me Present at StartupCity Des Moines on May 29th

StartupCity Des Moines

NOTE: If you couldn’t make it, the presentation is available online.

Des Moines, Iowa has a coworking community called StartupCity Des Moines. It’s a pretty neat place, and there’s a lot of exciting things going on there. It’s the only entrepreneur hub I know of in the area.

Over a month back, I went to a lunch and learn on entrepreneurship given by one of the founders, Christian Renaud.

About halfway through his talk, he mentioned the idea of sharing your failures with the community. While successes are great to share, giving a post mortem for failed business also helps make the entire community of businesses better for the future.

“I would strongly encourage you, just for the betterment, to not make central Iowa suck for startups over the next 20, 30, 50 years. Till that back in. All the good things you learned, all the bad things you learned. Till them back into the soil, because God knows we need them.”

Since then, I’ve been thinking that I have something to share from my experience running GBGames full-time and failing to get it self-sustaining before running out of money.

I’ll be presenting at the end of the month:

Playing the Long Game: The Vital Importance of Purpose, Mission, and Vision to Your Business

Gianfranco Berardi will share the major lessons that can be drawn from his experience running an independent game development business full-time.

He’ll explain what happened between the time he delivered his two weeks’ notice to his day job in 2010 until 2012, when a lack of funds forced him once again back to part-time business owner status. See how a lack of strategic planning resulted in a business with no focus and a business owner feeling out of his depth. More importantly, learn how doing the hard work of identifying your Why, How, and What pays off both immediately and in the long-term.

WHEN:
May 29th, 2014 at noon

WHERE:
StartupCity Des Moines
317 6th Ave, Suite 500, Des Moines IA, 50309
p: 515-868-0473
e: info@startupcitydsm.com

It’s a free event, and I’d love to see you there. Register for it at https://tikly.co/-/2510.

Ooh, Some Pixel Art Tutorials!

I’m a pretty good programmer, but I’m a self-taught artist. That said, I think I make fairly decent programmer art.

July #1GAM

It’s not beautiful, but it’s not strangely proportioned stick figures either.

I used to draw all the time when I was a child, but aside from taking a drawing class in high school, I haven’t had any formal training.

So I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my craft, especially when it comes to creating better 2D graphics.

A long time ago, I found Alexey Garkushin’s page of pixel art tutorials.

While I’m sure there are more up-to-date documents out there, the page hosts tutorials from a variety of artists, including “So You Want to Be a Pixel Artist?” by Tsugumo which starts out with the ubiquitous grass tile and takes you through multiple lessons on coloring and shading to make your tiles look much more pleasing. Eventually the lessons take you through animating a fighting game brawler sprite.

Also available are tutorials on animating water flow, creating a pixelated portrait, and working with isometric views. They are easy-to-follow and give some insight on how to create the kind of art seen in some of your favorite classic games, such as Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 if you didn’t play it on the SNES).

There are even a few tutorials on non-pixel art, such as using Photoshop to render human hair and a general art tutorial that is appropriate for anyone interested in learning more about how light and shadows play on objects.

If you want to see how some amazing examples of pixel art, check out PixelStamps, “a collection of stamps pixelated by the pixel artists of the world.” When people click on stamps, the stamp price goes up to indicate the popularity of it. It’s a pretty neat site that gives you an idea of what’s possible with a few strategically-placed colors.

Do you know of other pixel art tutorials? Or art tutorials in general? What’s your favorite?