Thoughts on writing #1

Truman Capote famously said of Kerouac’s On the Road “That’s not writing, that’s typing”. Bit harsh that, but you can see his point and it’s an important distinction. Albeit snotty and supercilious. Much like the final paragraph of this review of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives which I’ve been reading – review here http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/Extra-Lives/ba-p/2724.

The book describes one man’s addiction to games (and other things) with almost photographic recall of their most memorable moments for him: cowardly leaving his friends in Left 4 Dead (he guiltily went back to help), his first impression on seeing Resident Evil, etc. The book seemingly documents Tom’s ability to devote huge amounts of time to these games at the expense of real events around him, like playing Fallout 3 and missing Obama’s inauguration.But it also asks interesting questions about writing in video games and the paucity of good writing.

It seems game narratives, using Capote’s benchmark, are largely filled with typing. Registers and registers of the stuff, and as someone who is technical, I know from experience that sometimes (only sometimes =p) the text you see on the screen is written to also fill space. It’s shocking isn’t it? Not really. Games are still evolving, their ideals are lofty but their resources have been limited, especially for small developers. Which means the developer is sometimes also the artist & musician & writer & teaboy & marketing: it’s an impossible task!
With that in mind, I’m going to try and find a writer to help out on the project because *newsflash* the draft game design is more or less there. I’ve resolved the issues I previously wrote about (Location based) and I’m massively excited by it. I’ve also sent it to a relative stranger, an expert in the industry, to see how it holds up. To be honest, I’m nervous. I’m oscillating wildly between thinking it’s great and thinking it’s not. We’ll see.

Letters, Words, Sentences, Mad Men & the Missing Monkey. #Extralives #InsideGames @iainsimons

Okay, it’s not really a monkey I’m missing, that’s just a nod to HelloGames’ issue with getting Joe Danger funded (http://www.next-gen.biz/blogs/monkey-business). It’s more the fact that something quite large has been missing throughout this project so far, well publicly at least, and that’s writing about the actual game I’m going to develop. For the past few weeks I’ve wrestled with including it as a main thread. I’m still not sure but I’m going to decide over the next few days.

 
During which I’ll be a little quiet as the above reading material has just turned up. One of which, Inside Games, is by GameCity’s Iain Simons who I’m meeting next week; I think I’ll ask him to sign it =p So I’m going to turn things of an electronic nature off for a while and hopefully some bit of my brain will decide whether to document all the design decisions in the open. I actually think it’s interesting to do so, but perhaps not until the end as the decisions would appear to have more context when seen with the final result. Plus I wont be dissuaded off my decisions by anyone mid-process.
 
On the subject of books (slight digression here, click away if you like), like the previous thoughts on packaging, physical books have an incredibly high value for me. Their eBook counterparts not so much. Try this experiment, get a favourite book from your bookshelf. Now set fire to it. You can’t can you? There’s something oddly immoral about this. I bet if it was a pdf or an SD card you could without much hesitation (aside from the absurdity of doing this because some nutter with a blog asked you to). The net result is the same, you’re just losing a bunch of characters arranged as words and sentences. The difference is that an image of the physical copy also resides in your memory and it’s physically attached to you, as something real, in four dimensions. 
 
I remember coming to the end of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as I sat in a bath in an old Victorian Semi in Clapham. I remember it because the ending made me cry and I can vividly recall a tear falling onto the last page (I know too mawkish). I think of that when walk past the bookshelf and see it. I feel the same way about my boxed copy of Pacman for the Atari 2600 and the Christmas I received it in 1982. It didn’t make me cry, though looking back on that version it bloody should have, but it encapsulates that whole Christmas in its freyed little yellow box. Grandparents long since passed, transient crushes on girls, soaps with Dangermouse on them, jumpers for goalposts etc 😉 there’s a whole lost world in that damn box. This is a tiny reveal actually as to where this game design is heading…
 
I suppose it’s no surprise to declare now that one of my favourite books is Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. I’m such a sucker for nostalgia, like Don Draper relays in the final episode of Mad Men’s first season, “it’s delicate, but potent..”:
 

Fancy getting a grant to start your game company? #abertay #grantfunding

Last night I had a great email, out of the blue, from Iain Donald who is part of a new venture at Abertay University that is looking to help provide assistance to SME’s starting game projects. Iain was the QA lead on Ruffian’s Crackdown 1&2 and the project manager, Mike Enoch, was their tech lead. Once Crackdown 2 was completed they left to begin this exciting new venture with Abertay University. 

So not only is this an interesting funding avenue, it’s supported by people with plenty of AAA experience and they want to help you benefit from it! What more could you ask for, especially if you’ve been wondering where to start out in the games industry. 

 
Head on over here to find out more information: 
 

Project Planning #1 Stuck in Limbo

Limbo appears as though you’ve just fallen asleep or are slowly waking up. There’s no annotations on screen to help you either; no score, no lives, no help. Just a soft relief of white blurring into black which gives you the impression you’re watching someone’s dream being projected onto a screen front of you. Actually, nightmare is probably more accurate as there is a sense of unavoidable dread about the events that unfold. Many of which are macabre and kill you instantly, almost without any sense of warning. Limbo is a like an incredibly beautiful but sadistic girlfriend; I’m not sure you would put up with it if it wasn’t so pretty. That’s not to say it’s not rewarding but it quite obviously enjoys manipulating you. 

This also feels like this game project of mine – only without the bear
traps. I’m still no further along in my decision regarding
using/abandoning location based data. A bit like the above game, it
continually throws obstacles in my way and I’ve no idea if the end
result will be worth the perseverance but there’s something deeply
alluring about it. There’s a sense that here is where something very
interesting is going to happen. This is where conventional video games
and social communication are going to collide. This is where the fun
is, somewhere…

Having spent the past few weeks getting expert advice on the aspects
of development I’m starting to hear a familiar refrain in their
ideologies (that it rings true for me could be a false positive if it
weren’t for their track record.) Everyone has the same starting point,
to create something fun but there’s an esoteric convenant which those
that are seen as pioneers all adhere to and it’s this, as summed up by
Eugene Jarvis:

“if you have nothing new and cool to bring to the table, then there is
no sense in designing a game. Regrettably, about 80% of the video game
business involves clone products and cheesy licensed titles. These are
the too-numerous to mention titles that no one remembers once the ad
budget runs out. Life is too short to waste on me-too efforts. If you
are just doing it for the money, and you can’t get even get yourself
psyched about your project, then it’s time to move on to something
fresh. Why waste irreplaceable time in life just making money, when
the alternative is having some fun exploring the unknown? Money can
be made later, but time is lost forever.” – Eugene Jarvis Interview
with Halcyon Days http://www.dadgum.com/halcyon/

And he should know, the man’s brain is bigger than Texas.

Pet Shop Boys Play Vs iTunes #psb #disco #itunes

Following on the from the earlier article on packaged products versus digital downloads I’ve found a great example. On Wednesday, Julia and I went to see the Pet Shop Boys live in Cardiff. They were incredible and put on one of the best “greatest hits” type shows I’ve ever seen. It was an hour and a half of pure pop classics. As we walked back to the car I thought I’d go onto iTunes and pick up their remix album Disco, which I had and have lost/lent at some point. 

 
Disco on iTunes is now an eye watering £10.99, I think I paid £3.99 for my original cassette copy in HMV in the late 80’s.
 
 
Disco on Play.com, which is on an a physical CD which they post to you, is £3.99 and this includes delivery. I’m not kidding, take a look:
 
 
I just can’t get my head around this, is it convenience that I’m paying the extra 70% for here, or are Play just dumping old stock? Either way it doesn’t really matter has you can guess who’s got my money and would have even if they were the same price.
 
I want something I can see and hold.
 
Please ;o)

CasualConnect in a 140 characters or less by marblemedia inc’s Sasha Boersma #casualconnect #ff @cartoondutchie

Brevity is the soul of wit. Unfortunately, you might have noticed that I have tendency to ramble. Jaz Rignall told me recently that “if you think you are waffling then you probably are.” I’m working on it Jaz!

I could take a few pointers from Sasha Boersma who is marblemedia inc’s Senior Business Manager, Interactive (http://ca.linkedin.com/in/sashaboersma http://www.marblemedia.com/). Sasha (@cartoondutchie) has been tweeting an awesome precis of the talks from this week’s Casual Connect (http://www.casualconnect.org/). They really stood out for me as they are brilliantly succinct and capture the essence of some of my concerns regarding social and location based games – using much less words. Maybe I should try to blog in 140 characters or less!

Sasha and marblemedia inc have kindly let me repeat them here for you:

 

its assumed that iPad customers will be willing to pay more for their apps due to larger screen / improved experience #casualconnect

 

days of the 99-cent games over. established market where consumers willing to pay for quality (consider $2.99) #casualconnect

 

not all games need to be social #casualconnect

 

all games are social #casualconnect

 

focus on the experience of the platform and how your game works within & improves that experience #casualconnect

 

consider that PC games out number iPhone games when concerned about app store competition #casualconnect

 

what is innovation in casual gaming? user experience, technical methods, biz models. sounded like a #cmf info session. #casualconnect

 

this moment is a short window for indie devs to anchor and grow b4 need of big marketing bucks interfere #casualconnect

 

one discussion I 100% agreed with – location-based gaming is more hype than real #casualconnect  [I wish I was at this talk, this is my view, see recent post]

 

my fav quote of #casualconnect : the iPad is just another portable device, but one you can see what you are doing” 🙂

 

once again, common theme at conf panels – for commercial success, know your audience and know you are not your audience #casualconnect

 

Rt @UntoldEnt State of the casual games industry as i see it from #casualconnect: confused, uncertain, incongruous. Very scattershot at the moment.

 

after a full day of learning and meeting, it was lovely to spend the evening connecting with other Ontario game peeps 🙂 [nothing todo with the talk, I just love the fact Sasha has learning as an activity, awesome!]

 

when integrating a sponsor into your game, you need to follow your sponsor’s branding rules very carefully #casualconnect

 

TV audiences are shifting from viewers to users. passive viewers are seeking new ways to engage with the properties they love #casualconnect

 

social games have the biggest distribution opportunity, but too much noise on the market, so more marketing $ required #casualconnect [Hello!]

 

FB Connect is not always the answer, depending on your target, it can actually turn the user away from your game #casualconnect

 

social games aren’t ‘set it and forget’, once launched must keep feeding content and watch user behaviour #casualconnect

 

typical casual game revenue, 18 months after release: $600K (based on speaker’s experience at established studios) #casualconnect

 

typical social game: 9 month build ($500K), plus ongoing maintenance means over 2 yrs cost is $2M. profit @ month 15 #casualconnect

 

‘typical’ casual game: 6 months to build, $200K in dev costs #casualconnect

 

biz optimization: keep dev $ low, get wide distribution, max ROI on marketing $, earn $ as soon as possible #casualconnect

 

key to indie development, you need to own the distribution #casualconnect

 

advantage of branded IP: depending on the brand, it can have the strength to heard over the noise. #casualconnect

 

if you are developing content for a platform you don’t own, always be concerned and watching #casualconnect

 

the downfall of the long tail: the top 5 players have control of 50% of the market #casualconnect

 

if you aren’t keeping an eye on the new platforms, your vision is limited #casualconnect

 

when building a biz plan for a casual game, be aware that catalogue is everywhere – how will you rise above the noise? #casualconnect

 

lead from the front. lead by example and work harder than anyone else #leadership #casualconnect

 

on a mobile app, considering that you need at least 100K downloads to be worth something to ad networks #gamesauce

 

as a manager, consider looking at the org chart upside down – who do you serve in the value chain? #gamesauce #leadership

 

when pitching, pay attention to what isn’t spoken – the ums, hmms, and silence – and address them #gamesauce

 

consider when you self publish for XBLA/PSN, how your game is going to get attention among the 100+ other titles #gamesauce

 

when intending to develop a game for XBLA or PSN, consider that they release 104 games/year each. (@jmoledina #gamesauce)

 

every option you provide your user when planning game design should have meaning (@bbrathwaite #gamesauce)

 

still considering lesson from @bbrathwaite’s #gamesauce presentation this morning. “do something by yourself because you can”.

 

great biz advice for studios & indies: if you think the gig will cause you more grief than the money is worth, don’t do it. #gamesauce

 

excited by this theme of importance of story in the gameplay over art and code emerging at #gamesauce

 

1st impressions of Seattle: lots of trees, mountains, and a long wait in baggage claims. Cool airport train though 🙂

 

but before I finish packing, I must first break for Aqua Teen Hunger Force 😛 #geekgirl [nothing todo with Casual Connect, I just love Aqua Teen Hunger Force 🙂 ]

 

Money, it’s a gas: Schoolboy economics #1

Business is simple. You sell something, to someone, for more than it
cost you. This usually results in you making a profit.

Bad business is also simple. For example, you can sell things for less
than they cost you and/or you can sell things that do not do what you
promised the buyer. Both of these scenarios sound stupid but they
happen to occur more often than you think. The former happens when you
don’t fully understand the costs to your business of delivering the
product to the market and the second occurs when you don’t understand
the value of the offering or the offering itself, so you oversell it.
It could also be that what you’re offering is something the market is
not interested in paying for. All of these will mean that before long
you will be looking for something else to do.

Therefore, you have to make money from your game which roughly means
selling it, or some monetizable content through it, at a particular
price to a number of people for more than it costs you make it. The
likelihood of you successfully doing this depends on many things, not
least your game idea and ability to market it. How confident you are
that you can execute all these things correctly will also have a huge
bearing on whether someone will give you some money to help fund
development. Depending on the size of your project this could be
vital. For this project, one that’s small in scale, it’s likely that
person will be me until I have something that demonstrates the
viability of what I’m doing. My current philosophy is that you can not
do everything, as much as you want to, and therefore you will need
money to allow you to bring in expertise.

What figure that is will obviously depend on your project, for example
I know I could easily develop an iPhone game, it would be distributed
via the app store but there are key areas that are still missing, such
as art, music and marketing. Sure I could knock up some pixel art and
write some simple melodies but my cute game idea would be hobbled by
poor execution. If you then consider how much competition there is on
the app store my game would likely sink without trace, taking my small
investment with it. You could turn these limitations into virtues but
that in itself requires a lot of talent. I’m not that talented.
Therefore a smart route might be to find an existing publisher, start
a relationship with them early on to see if they’re interested in your
type of game and show them your game as soon as you’ve something working
(and fun!) to create some buzz.

Making your game is going to cost something. And not, Fame joke aside, just sweat. This cost will be the
sum of many things like your salaries, your office rent, your
equipment, your addiction to Jelly Belly, Lavazza, your utilities,
etc. Isolate your costs into a monthly outgoing figure before you
start, this will give you an idea of something that can be multiplied
out over time to give you a development cost. In startups we often
“hide” these costs as we’re in lofts, basements, sheds or anything
with enough power points for a small army. Don’t hide these costs, it
gives you a false picture of where you are. Learn your numbers; these
are your sanity checks. If you still want to tell people you’re making
your game out of sheer love, this is how much your love costs. Bottom
line: if you don’t know these numbers you wont know if you’re making
money and you probably want to.

In economics they have an idiom called Opportunity Cost, sounds like a
game show but it’s not. It’s what having A costs you in terms of you
not being able to afford B or C or D. To quote my wonderfully
eccentric economics tutor, Bernard, “The opportunity cost of having an
ice-cream is 2 bags of chips.” When you know what your game is costing
you, you can also work out what you’re giving up. It could be a 6
month project means you’re giving up 6 months salary which means it’s
costing you twice: the amount you need to fund it and the amount
you’ve forgone by not being available for work.

When you know your monthly costs, you now have a good unit of
investment into your project; there is also an emotional investment
but that’s for another entry. Each month this is how much you are
investing into your project. You can multiply this by the number of
months you think it will take (and then you can probably multiply that
by 2). By now you should be getting the sense that this could be
expensive and you might be questioning whether it’s worth it in the
first place, if you’ve been doing some simple sums in your head you’ve
probably hit around 5-10 grand. Great! That’s exactly what you should
be doing. Don’t forget to add on the money you would have earned if
you were doing a proper job =p

You can now split your personality to become a venture capitalist and
ask yourself some pretty tough questions like: How many units are you
expecting to sell? What will you price a unit at? How are you going to
distribute the product? How much will distribution cost you? How are
you going to let people know about your product? How much will that
cost? Oh, your putting it on Facebook, how are you getting money? Is
there someone who you can partner with to help with any of these
things? Can you buy the technology you need for less that it costs to
develop it? Have you done this before, do you know where the pitfalls
are? Even if you are able to do all of the work yourself, or convince
a few others to do the same with you it’s still expensive so you need
to make sure that you’re not doing this for less than nothing and
those sort of questions can help.

I’m only using my experience of working in startups over the past 15
years but running on enthusiasm and your own ability to develop a
product is usually not enough. It’s great fun but it’s probably a sure
fire way to burn yourself out and use up your savings. Irritatingly
there are, as ever with these scenarios, small exceptions to the rule
which become the poster children for the startup generation. You know
the sort, the guys (or gals) that built their tech in a garage, ate
nothing but sugar dust for 6 months and are now buying they’re second
Ferrari. Dig into any these stories and I bet that you will quickly
find that what was special about these guys was that they were able to
connect with someone who had the resources to realise their potential.
And they usually had a good sense that they had to. They still
needed a good idea and the passion to realise it but they were also
able to “sell” it to someone with money and that’s why you’ve read
about them.

You never read about the projects that ran out of gas.

A Grumpy Old Gamer’s Thoughts on Joust and Game Packaging

Over the past few days I’ve been swapping Atari 800 related tweets with @jazrignall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Rignall) & @RetroGT (http://www.retrogt.com). Joust and Dropzone being two classic games we’re quite misty eyed over.


Jousting makes me feel good.

To give myself a slight break from banging my head against geolocation APIs I dug out my old Atari 800 and put in the Joust cartridge. I’ve not actually played Joust since I was a teenager so I was floored to find that it’s still massively playable. Not just through my rosebud tinted glasses either. It really is a phenomenal game. Fast, frantic and lots of fun. In fact, I’ve just played for about 20 minutes which is about the same length of time as I played Joe Danger for yesterday.

I love Joe Danger but one thing I noticed, when I paid my £9.99 for it, was it didn’t come in one of these:

This is Joust in a lovely box. You should play this now. It’s 18 years old and still amazing.

Like the music industry, digital downloads (and their corresponding can of DRM worms) are quickly replacing the physical format. I miss the boxes but this isn’t a lament for the LP or gatefold sleeves, it’s really more aimed at the economics and philosophy of selling goods. It’s hard to charge money for something that has no physical form or rather it’s hard to persuade people that the invisibile item has comparable value to the same product that has physical form. You can, but it’s more effort than having it in box and I miss the boxes. For example, I still buy CDs becauase I like the artwork and sometimes, ironically, they’re cheaper than via iTunes.

To the left of my desk is this slightly random collection of games from my larger more random collection:


Some games on my desk

There’s been a gradual evolution toward something homogenous which ultimately lead to the tiny little itsy bitsy SD card (bottom of picture, actual size) which my purchases are now saved to. The SD card is very smart in terms of the vast amount I can store on it but it’s dead to me on an emotional level.

Take the bottom item for instance, Obliterator by Psygnosis, almost totally style over content. The game looked great, played like a dog but I didn’t care, it came in a massive box that looked like a prog rock album (actually they used Roger Dean a lot http://www.rogerdean.com/ who did Yes’ sleeve covers). Sitting on top are two of Ultimate’s classic games. Jetpac is in a normal cassette cover and underneath sits Sabre Wulf, the first game they charged £9.99 for (Jetpac was £5.99).

Ultimate justified the higher tag primarily by sticking it in a bigger box with better artwork – the game of course had to be of greater quality too. Perhaps as the quality of the games improved packaging became less important as a way to differentiate the product. But to the person shelling out their hard earned cash, I think it still has importance, but maybe I’m crazy as I prefered to buy Valve’s Orange box in a store rather than over steam.

Does packaging add weight to the product or is it just an additional expense that we should jettison?

 

Game Design #4 Location, Location, Location: Hurdle or Wall?

It’s becoming clear that incorporating location data into a mobile
game concept is a bit of a siren’s call. It’s an alluring one given the
profile it has at present, thanks to applications like FourSquare, but
it presents my design with some major challenges.

The biggest headache at present revolves around the user’s location
relative to the geolocation data available, e.g. physical building
descriptions such as your local store, schools, offices etc, and
making the interaction fun. There is a huge amount of real world
information at your fingertips through various APIs and this leads to
numerous flashes of excitable rhetorical questions. A dangerously
addictive drug for the developer, it normally surfaces as questions
that start “Wow, what if you could do this… imagine if we could…”
and the next thing you know you’ve been hacking a house of cards
together for a few weeks.

I’ve fought off that urge, primarily as I have to write about it too
and that’s forcing me to think it through, perhaps overly so.
Therefore, I am trying to forget about the ‘what if’ scenarios to
focus on ‘what now’ and ‘what next’. My conversations with Lee, Peter
and Keita have, for better or worse, got me focused on the mechanic of
user interaction and chaining those interactions into something fun.

Using this technique here reveals I have some location data, great,
but what next? This is the core of my issue with it. I have a
rudimentary game design based around using this data but it requires
the player to be relatively near in order to interact with it and if
they are not, what next? If the user doesn’t actually travel that much
or is always travelling near the same locations, what next?

My main question now is whether to push further into the problem to
find a solution or don’t use it in such a restrictive way or ditch it
entirely. The main reason for trying to leverage it was that I’m quite
familiar with their APIs and that it’s an interesting area right now
for games to explore. However, the appropriate question here is “is it
fun?” These are all straightforward questions but when you introduce a
time constraint it makes the decision crucial. I think I can only
branch off at this point once.

What happens next?