Archive for month: January, 2012

What everyone feared would happen with DLC, is happening.

28 Jan
January 28, 2012

The big fear a lot of gamers’ had when the DLC craze started kicking in was that developers and producers would, instead of making legitimate expansion content, start slicing portions off the base game, selling you these portions as extras, for a premium, of course.

Now, I’ve defended DLC before. I don’t see anything wrong with genuinely offering smaller chunks of expansion content for fans. Some people complain about Horse Armor, but while I can’t see the appeal, I don’t mind developers making a few bucks from the people who do. In the end, it helps support the developer of games I enjoy.

But the danger of this model is how tempting it is to go in the opposite direction. Instead of adding new stuff, remove some that you would have previously given away for free and charge for it. Same amount of investment, greater ROI. It makes good business sense. We’ve all had enough exposure to the EAs and Bobby Kotick’s of the world to believe that this thought would never cross anyone’s mind. Once once they’ve chopped the game into smaller offerings, well, that becomes the new standard, the new average, and no one blinks when they chop off even more. Notice how the length of FPS campaigns dropped to 8 hours and now to 4-5 hours?

In this light, I felt a surge of rage this morning when I checked Steam for the daily deal to discover that there appeared to be two King Arthur 2 games on sale. KA2 had been released for $40, as expected, but there was also this other one, Dead Legions, for $10. Was it a tie-in game? I checked the page, it looked very similar to KA2.

Turns out it’s a ‘prologue’ chapter for KA2. A 10 hour mini-campaign that people who blindly pre-ordered the game get for free, and those of us who wait for reviews can pay an extra $10 for. How splendid.

Now, I don’t mind pre-order incentives when it’s some fucking helmet or ring that gives you a +2 bonus over other starting items. Whatever. But 10 hours? How long is the single-player campaign likely to be, in total? I’d be very surprised if it was more than 30. So we’re talking 25% of the single-player game here.

Like I said, I don’t generally mind most pre-order bonus offers. But there is a threshold for this shit. Cutting out 25% of the first day content so you can either make an extra 10 bucks or encourage people to make poor economic decisions is too fucking much. Slapping ‘prologue’ on the description isn’t very fucking convincing either, I’ve played games with prologues before. The prologues were in the fucking game, where you’d expect them to be, not sold separately.

It’s a pity. I was genuinely thinking about buying KA2, the theme is cool.

Tiny Towers, Zynga, and the Appstore killing fields

25 Jan
January 25, 2012

This is going to be a bit of a diversion from our usual topics, that of niche RPGs and suchlike that appeal to your average grumpy grognard. We’re going to talk about iPhone games, and F2P ones at that. Why? Because it’s interesting to analyze, that’s why, so put away your pitchforks and let’s take a gander.

The story is thus : Small, lovable indie underdog ( 3 devs total, 2 brothers and a spare) make a popular F2P game for the iPlatforms. It’s a smashing success. And when I say smashing, I mean smashing.

After Apple’s 30% cut, that’s $262,000 per month (note, this is just an estimate – Gareth).

So. Well done those lads. Here’s where it gets sleazy. Zynga, of Farmville fame (we all love Farmville, right guys?), noticing that these guys are making all that lovely dosh, offer to buy them out. They refuse, as one does when the devil comes knocking. Forward 6 months, and Zynga releases ‘Dream Heights’. You can see where this is going, right? It’s a carbon copy. This image explains it best.

Click here because I’m too lazy to do more than link to the image host.

Well, they’re upset, aren’t they? As you would be, I think. Cloning of popular games is not new. But this is an almost direct rip-off, not simply an ‘inspired by’. Someone played that game while making very careful notes.

So yes, anger. But! Someone else posted this image in response.

Again with the clicking! So much clicking! Think of the children, man!

Ah, yes, SimTower. We can’t forget that, can we? Now, NimbleBit didn’t do as much of a direct clone of SimTower as Zynga did of their title, make no mistake, Zynga is still the villain of our story. Zynga’s tactics can’t help but leave a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who holds the art and craft of game design close to their hearts. But I’m going to take this conversation in a somewhat unusual direction and lay part of the responsibility on the nature of Appstore/F2P development itself.

Yes, indeed.

Why do I say this? Well, consider the numbers. According to that article I linked to, Tiny Towers was developed in 4 months and released in June last year (on my birthday in fact, the 23rd. Mark that date, I’ll be expecting presents). Zynga released its game on the 17th of January. So, around 7 months after their release, Zynga’s clone pops up.

Intuitively, 7 months feels…soon. Snapping at their heels, yes? But what would be the equivalent in mainstream PC gaming?

Well, normal game dev cycle is what, around 3 years? The equivalent time scale would be develop a game for 3 years, release it, then 5.25 years later, someone releases a clone game trying to cash in. Clearly, in that scenario most people wouldn’t be that concerned. 5 years is a long time, you’ve already made almost all the money you’re going to make on the title. In fact, if it’s that popular, chances are you will already have moved on and released a sequel of your own. By the time their clone came out, it would be competing with your shiny new iteration.

So part of the problem here is that there is this hyper-accelerated dev cycle for Appstore titles. 4 Months isn’t unusual, most of the iPhone developers I’ve read talk about development cycles around the 3 month mark. For the F2P model this is especially true, as the goal there is to release a title, track metrics to see what people like, then release regular updates with more of those likable things. It’s a “quick-to-market but long-term support” model. This means that it is especially vulnerable to this kind of tactic.

Zynga isn’t unusually evil. Other big companies are plenty evil (EA, Kotick, cough). But the amount of time and effort it takes to develop new AAA titles is a bit more of a barrier, for them. In the mobile games market, your breakout hits, like all the other titles, probably have a <6 month dev cycle. And there is nothing you can produce in 6 months that a large team with money to burn can't replicate fairly trivially. Regardless of what you think of the ethics of it, I expect this to continue and get worse. It simply makes business sense. Competition is incredibly fierce in the Appstore, it seems to be (in my opinion) even more of a 'winner-take-all' situation than the mainstream industry. Partly because of the crazy expectations of the average customer (pay more than $1, lolwut?), partly because of the process of discovery of new games, partly because the journalism around mobile games is still in its infancy. From the point of view of a Zynga, it makes sense to let the small fish act (unwillingly) as an incubation lab. Let the thousands of enthusiastic indie teams mine the 'design space' of game ideas, then rush in and use your development and marketing might to displace them from any mineral veins they discover. It's not a new tactic, but in this environment it's particularly brutal. It sucks, of course, but them's the breaks. The only suggestion I can think of is to look for elements to add that are hard to clone. Avadon and King of Dragon Pass are narrative-heavy games, it’s a lot harder to simply rip off a game plot. So plot/characters are one element, anyone else got any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments. The cheaper-to-produce art styles that indies favour are unfortunately out, too easy to copy.

Narrative is not a game mechanic

20 Jan
January 20, 2012

You guys know I love narrative, right? I really, really do. I’ll play a mediocre game for a decent story, and most of my favourite games involve a compelling narrative that pulled me through the experience. In fact, I usually don’t finish a game unless I’m into the narrative, I’ll lose interest.

That being said, this article is spot on. Both about narrative and its analysis of game design, the problems of QTEs etc. I love narrative, but you should always build your game with an eye on ‘if I strip out the text, sound, movies etc, what’s left? What is the player actually doing? Is that much of an enjoyable experience?’

I’ll just leave it here for you to read, shall I?

Saturday Art Update

14 Jan
January 14, 2012

It’s a bear! And…some other stuff πŸ˜›

Change of Plans

11 Jan
January 11, 2012

Oh dear, what now?

Eh. Well, the thing is, the plan has always been to evaluate my progress after each month and see how things are going. Had my first one at the beginning of this month, post-Christmas/New Years festivities, and came to an unfortunate conclusion.

That being, that I need to drop multiplayer. It’s slowing me down too much. It’s not that it is hard to do, it’s just time consuming. To develop, to debug (I have to run the client and server locally, try to play against myself, debugging one at a time) and it’s inevitable that it will increase my test cycles. After a month, I wasn’t as far along as I wanted to be, and coding for proper multiplayer was a big culprit. If I had a year to do it, I’d not be worried. But I’m trying my best to stick to the 6 month timeline, and 1 month has passed.

Time to triage.

So, dropping multiplayer. BUT! This is a battling card game, it seems a bit lame without the option of actual human intelligence to play against. AI doesn’t really cut it. So what can I do to make singleplayer more engaging?

There are different types of challenges in video games. Depending on the structure and mechanics of the game, AI can become more or less significant. For example, you don’t need a chess grandmaster AI for a first person shooter enemies. Chess is purely tactical, so all the challenge is going to come from the intelligence of your opponent. For an FPS, the focus is more on reflexes, so the intelligence of your opponent is not as significant.

It’s obviously desirable to have intelligent foes, in general. But when a game has other forms of challenges in it, the lack of a masterful AI is not as…noticeable. Think about your favourite RPG. Would the enemy AI give Deep Blue a run for it’s money? I don’t think so. In fact, any decent RTS AI is a lot cleverer than your standard RPG foe. This can work because the RPG system itself offers part of the challenge. The interaction of skills and powers, and how the game designer lays out the encounter, add challenge to the game that doesn’t rely on the Orc King having a sophisticated AI algorithm driving it.

How does this relate to my problem. Well…I can make the lack of a real human intelligence to play against less of a blow if I add mechanics that introduce other forms of challenge.

So I’m making it an FPS. You run around throwing cards at your opponent, Gambit style. πŸ˜€

Just kidding. I’ll cut to the chase, I’m adding RPG elements. A character system, level ups that make your ‘ability’ cards stronger, equipable items, etc. This adds the fun of the RPG fight-loot-level cycle. You’re level 1, that level 5 creature is going to be incredibly tough. Because the RPG mechanics make their ‘numbers bigger’, not because they are 5x smarter.

It sounds a bit cheap, I know. But hey, I love RPGs, and that cycle is fun and addictive, if you get it right. πŸ˜‰

Now, you may be thinking “But Gareth, haven’t you cut work in one area only to add it in another?” To some degree, yes. But it’s not that much work. A lot of people think that the hard part of making an RPG is coding all those mechanics. Nah, that part is not hard or time consuming. You can whip up a basic character system/inventory in a week. It’s the art and content. Fuck, you’ve gotta create so much content. You don’t fully grasp it until you try make one, just how much content is needed.

I’m not adding that content here. You’re not going to be wandering around in 3D. It’s basically the same, you click on nodes on a map to start the ‘adventure’, which consists of a series of little narrative screens followed by a combat (card duel) ‘encounter’. The closest thing I can compare it to is Puzzle Quest 1, but with card duels instead of match-3.

There is one other…significant…change. I don’t think the setting and ideas I had for Street Sorcery are a good fit for these mechanics. The whole item treadmill of ‘wooden training sword->rusty sword->common sword->fine sword->enchanted sword->vorpal sword->godslayer blade’ just doesn’t work for me, in the world I was imagining. Not only that, because of the new focus, I am going to need more cards/item graphics than I planned. Which would be as big a problem as the multiplayer, if I kept the same art style.

Long story short, I’m changing the setting to Steampunk and making the art style a bit more cartooney. I’m aiming for something like Penny Arcade’s amazingly cool Automata :

So that’s the state of things. Luckily, the art/story/theme stuff is all in the planning stage, it’s easily changed right now. I’ve torn out the multiplayer stuff and begun adding in the RPG elements, it’s progressing nicely. I’ll show you more when I have something to show. In the meantime, who wants to help me come up with an appropriate name for the game. Something that says Steampunk+CCG would be good. CardPunk maybe?

Grab your Top Hats and Aviator Goggles, everyone!

365 Days of Art

06 Jan
January 6, 2012

Aaannnndd…we’re back. Happy New Year everyone!

I’m gonna kick off the year with a little personal celebration. One year ago, I made the decision to stop daydreaming about being a better artist and actually work at it. To motivate me, I joined the ImagineFX forums 365 day challenge, where the goal was to paint or sketch something everyday for a year.

Well, a few days ago I hit #365.

I can’t describe the feeling. Or wait, no, I can. It feels like taking control of your own life, like creating your own destiny. It feels empowering. It feels like everything and anything is possible. In a word, it feels great. πŸ™‚

And my art has grown by leaps and bounds. I estimate that, prior to this year, I doubt I’d drawn even 1 hour every 2 weeks. So 25 hours a year, tops.

This last year, I’ve put in at least 400 hours of work. So this last year was worth 16 years at the previous pace. Somehow, around working a day job, hobby game development and various girlfriends, I managed to find 10 forty hour weeks. Or 2.5 extra months at the day job.

Let’s just say, I’ve missed a lot of sleep πŸ˜‰

(If it sounds impossible, consider that most US families watch 10 hours of tv a week, or 520 hours a year. Is there something in your life you’d like to do more than watch TV? Turn it off. πŸ˜‰ )

Anyway, here’s a collage of the year’s art.

And, for fun, here’s a comparison of my best art from 2008-2009 vs last year.

Funny thing, after running that marathon and reaching my goal I decided to take a break, seemed only natural. But after a few days of not drawing, I started to feel uneasy, like I was not doing something I should be doing.

Well, that’s easily fixed. πŸ™‚

So, here’s the first sketch of 2012. I’m not doing the IFX challenge anymore but I’m going to try to follow the philosophy of the Greek painter, Apelles :

Nulla dies sine linea – Not a day without a line drawn.

It’s gonna be a great year, in so many ways. πŸ™‚