Dino Dini Kicks Off The Craft Computer Club

Kick Off 2

The last week my twitter has been pretty active since I launched the Craft Computer Club Kickstarter but one retweet caught my attention last night and it was from someone called Dino Dini.

I recognised the name straight away as the author of my all time favourite Amiga football game, Kick Off 2. I spent many many hours playing that game when I was “revising” for my A-Levels. It’s one of many computing experiences that inspired me to study Computer Science and want to be a programmer.

So I replied to the Retweet asking if it was the same Dino that wrote the game (you never know on the Internet) and received this response:

And then something magical happened that’s making me smile as I write this, I received a generous backer notification. It was from Dino and it came with a wonderful message of support and an offer to help if he could.

Today I’m going to write to Dino and see what we could do.

I’ll let you know if anything, Kicks Off (sorry, it’s a poor pun but couldn’t resist)

Screenshot 2014-02-10 13.51.45

Blast-em: A very open video game

Blast-em: A very open video game

Today, Byron Atkinson-Jones releases his latest game Blast-em. It’s a good old fashioned side scrolling shootemup with a pulsating soundtrack by @gharrisonsounds Gavin Harrison – if you’re old enough to have had an Amiga or ST you’ll love it, and if not you should go find out what you’ve missed out on, have a look here.

Apart from flying through space and blasting anything that moves there’s two really interesting things about the release: Byron is giving you the option to buy the source code and letting you see how many he’s sold!

A game’s source code and the amount it’s sold are two things that are usually kept under lock and key. They are both incredibly useful to someone starting making games and writing software in general.

A great way to start learning how to do something is to start with a finished product you can take apart, break and put it back together to see how it works. For example, this is how we learn about music, we start with the sheet music (source code) by accomplished composers, see which parts make the melody which parts make the rhythm. We can then fiddle around with it and make new versions. This is how I invented Axel G ūüėČ

Byron has turned the release of a game into a learning experience for students of video game development and it’s a wonderful thing. Byron has suggested he might run a daily blog on the development of his next game, a Pac-man inspired so hopefully we can show that too.

So best of luck to Byron on the release of Blast-em

Raph Koster’s Theory Of Fun Slides

Raph Koster (San Diego, CA) is the Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment and author of the bestselling book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. For many years he has served as a lead designer for teams building online virtual worlds. His first job was as a designer working on persistent worlds at Origin Systems. His last project there was working on Ultima Online, opening the online persistent world market to the general gaming public

This is a set of slides that support his book,Theory of Fun for Game Design, which I’ve just bought and will write a mini-review once I’ve finished ūüėČ

xFall – It’s Alive

I have a screen to show off which is in reality pretty dull (yeah, that’s not a particularly exciting way to start a blog post off I know, but i am genuinely excited). So you’ll just have to pretend the screenshot is immensely exciting (and between us we’ll agree, sorry, they’re pretty tedious).

So, once you get past the splash screen you see this awesomeness. Some platforms with some people on them

Imagine them running around, jumping and shooting. It’s amazing isn’t it. And see that one at the bottom, that’s you ūüôā

A game in 1k?

I was at a talk on next years SXSW event (more on that later) when my G1 started flashing with a new message. I flipped it open to find a message on Google Talk from Peter Liepa (creator of Boulderdash). It turns out Peter’s written a new game and it’s in less than 1k. He really is an astonishing fellow. I had a quick play with it before he submitted it into the JS1K competition http://js1k.com to offer a little feedback but with only 1 byte left to play with it’s about as perfect as it can be with those constraints – to give you a rough idea the text up to this point has almost consumed 1k!

It’s really an amazing little concept and you can play it here: http://js1k.com/demo/640

Trying to write a game in 1k is a great exercise in constraint, optimisation and game mechanics – and thanks to Peter I’ve been obsessively trying to put together something for the demo competition myself. So far I’ve got a screen full of space junk (pictured above) and I’m riffing around using localised gravity to collect them together into satellites. It’s sort of like a cross between Gravity Well and Katamari only it’s in 1k.

Thanks Peter, that’s my spare time gone ;o) I’ll post mine up when it’s showable, prob a in a day or so

p.s. I’ll be catching up with Peter again next week to talk about his new projects

Marketing, episode 4: The licensing agent of a well known IP turns us down (oh noes!)

Bonjour!

This week I finally heard back from the agent of a well known bit of I.P. that I was hoping we could obtain in order to bolster the games credentials for marketing (Actually the agent replied ages ago but we had a problem with the Collision Games email server which meant I read his replies about 2 weeks late! Luckily he was very understanding, sorry DC!). As the blog title suggests, he turned down the request as they’re working with another developer so am actually quite excited to see what they produce as I love the I.P. in question (I can’t say what it is as it would give away too much just yet). In hindsight it was always a long shot without anything concrete to show them, like a prototype, on that subject I’ll get to in the next post.

This week I also spoke to a very good friend, Susan Cummings, who is VP Product Development at Paramount Digital Entertainment (Paramount Studios) about trying to use well known I.P. (as they have quite a lot ūüėČ and she was able to give me a good industry take on how long this sort of thing can take. A very long time as it turns out. And as we all know the terrible cliche about time and money it sounds like a large risk to introduce into this sort of project.

I’d started to come to the same conclusion myself from a more pragmatic point of view as I’ve tied up around 3 weeks of the project by exploring the I.P. route with various people. As it turns out this hasn’t cost me anything other than a bit of my time and a small delay to the project. It was worth it as I now have a good feel for the sort of inertia a license can introduce into the project. It could be the best thing for it or it could absolutely be the worst.

What I do know is that I’m systematically removing or clarifying the process I need to follow before exerting too much energy on development – this along with money is probably the most valuable commodity at this stage, perhaps even more so. There is definitely a balance to be had between thinking and doing and I believe I’m now about to cross that divide. I’ve got one final revision of the business plan to support the development (which I’ll be shopping around at this event: http://www.gamesbrief.com/2010/08/want-to-meet-investors-who-want-to-put-money-into-early-stage-games-companies/ and then it’s prototype time (the funding of which I’m currently looking around for, see recent post on the public sector things in Wales…)

As was well documented earlier into the project, the idea for the license was obviously to help with the marketing but as anyone who’s ever started and finished a project like this will know, first you can’t let something like that derail you and second you often find that the loss of something perceived as important turns out to be a catalyst for something inspired…

Free Love (give a little, take a little)

Gaming business models, like games themselves, are split into a number of genres. For example, there is free, there’s advertising based, there’s the virtual goods model and of course the traditional pay and play (and that includes sub-genres like Jon Hare’s brilliantly named “Free for Freaks” model, based at heart on the old coin-op model).

Dave Jones is now infamously, and probably forever, tied to his quote on the subject:

“If a game is built around a business model, that’s a recipe for failure”

To be fair to Dave here, I think he may have said this before the fragmentation of business models became as well known as it is now. But, and it’s a big but, even if there was only one business model available, your game would still be built around it. It has to be. We’re not yet in Roddenbery’s cash free utopia so if your job is the production of a good or service then your job is ultimately to sell something. Understanding how what you’re selling is affected by the way you’re selling it is key and should have implications on the design of the product.

For example, a friend of mine prints around 100,000 magazines each month and then dumps them in great big piles at the entrance to supermarkets in the South Wales area, people then pick them up without paying a penny for them and take them home. Obviously I’m being a bit cute here, there’s a very well thought out process here. The magazine aggregates all estate agent properties in the area into a single format brochure. What they really sell is an advertising and distribution channel for the estate agents (to potential buyers) who consider it part of their marketing budget. This translates into a free magazine for the public and a solid revenue stream for the business. The product is designed specifically around a model to make money. How long this model lasts for is probably debatable.

Conversely there’s something like¬†TweetDeck. Last night as I read through some tweets, Tweetdeck (iPhone) continually crashed on me which it got me thinking that it’s a bit shoddy really. Then I remembered I never paid for it in the first place. Would I? No (crashing aside) as I also have the free official Twitter client, which logically brings us to the very free Twitter. So what are the business models here? My guess is that at the moment they have a ton of very very smart people trying to figure that out. How is TweetDeck making money, I can only assume at some point we’re going to see advertising interspersed with tweets (which will probably have Twitter’s own paid for tweets in also).

It’s all a bit flakey for me. Especially if you’ve got a lot of overheads to build and maintain those things. This is the old and bad trait of the web that I’m very familiar with. We’re back to ‘build it and they will come’ territory and you need very very deep pockets for that sort of thing (tied to a zealous faith in that you’re doing will eventually pay off). Having been there and done that, I never want to return to it.

My options at the moment look like this (these are the ones that best fit with my project):

– Variable download price (with some premium ‘gifts’ for the fanatical/family/friend users)

– Free with in game monetization and advertising

Both have attractions for me and ideally I would love to run the project on a hybrid of the two but I need to speak with some much smarter people than me on whether that’s possible or just confusing to the consumer. I love the idea of removing the barrier to entry to increase the numbers of users you can monetize but at the same time I feel it’s folly to lose revenue if some people are willing to pay something. This would be crucial to a small project like this, to get a return on some costs very early on – say a few thousand followers, friends and family would pay more etc. The development plan for the project is to run it in small iterative phases – the perpetual beta product =p With the first public release in 3 months. The take-up numbers on that first release will probably decide its future. We aim to fail fast.

As a (naive and very rough) example, I have around 160 friends on Facebook of those I think around 50 are family and very close friends who would, out of loyalty (and badgering), buy a copy of my game for about ¬£10. The remainder are good friends and I think about 50% (say another 50) could probably cough up a fiver (¬£5). Then there’s my twitter followers who are less close but have invested some of their time following my ramblings hopefully by the time of release would provide another 200 or so that would pay perhaps a ¬£2. So we could probably grab a ¬£1000 on the first few days of release. That figure would be multiplied by any others that are involved in the project.

In my view not all consumers are equal and if possible it would be great to have the model cater to all of them i.e. have the game available to buy for the early adopters, perhaps a premium price for the friendlies which would include otherwise unattainable inventory items, then provide a free version with in game monetization (discounted for those that purchased) and then lastly bring in advertising if you get traction. Essentially the price structure would be to have the highest price you can get away with at the start which eventually declines to 0 but has a reverse increasing curve from 0 upwards for in game monetization.

This feels a bit like having your cake and eating too but I believe this is where my project lives and dies. I also think this, somewhere in all this stuff, is where the future of selling games lies.

[Further reading]

I must give huge credit to Nicholas Lovell who, for my money, is like the Seth Godin of Games Business. His blog gives focus and clarity to these ideas, ideas that I think a lot of us have had bubbling away as suspicions but not had the nouse to define. Check out his blog here: www.gamesbrief.com and in particular this set of slides:

Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away

50 years on and the Beatles still sound as fresh as they did when they first released that record. But extrapolating John Lennon’s demeanour from the 80’s would now pitch him somewhere in the region of a cantankerous Naom Chomsky with an¬†inferiority¬†complex. Sorry, I was always more of a McCartney fan.

I can imagine Paul using Facebook; sharing his status, his photographs, his youthful inspirations: Constantly. John, I could see hurling out¬†acerbic¬†barbs like shurikens on Twitter. Ringo wouldn’t care about any of that nonsense, he married Bond girl Barbara Bach. George, ever the voice of reason, searching for a higher plane, would be trying to unify everything using some aggregation platform.

George was my favourite Beatle, I think he wrote the best songs and I’d be with George, I want to unify all these channels so I don’t want to worry about who posts where using what: I just want the stream.

Therefore, when it comes to writing a game that accesses this information there are some interesting choices: Do you post to Facebook, Do you post to Twitter, Which friends list do you use, Should you use OpenFeint, what about Google’s new Facebook killer how do we incorporate that, what about the oldest social stream of all, email?

A friend, Mark Delaura (Google’s Game Developer Advocate) just wrote a piece about the demise of the phrase “social game” http://www.satori.org/2010/08/the-demise-of-the-term-social-game/ but the piece is really about the need to make use of social graphs and the need to have an abstraction to let you get to the data without worrying about the mechanics of it, as per the questions above.

What will no doubt occur is a server based API (it has to be server based as all the underlying social services are in a state of flux, witness the number of times Facebook changes its API) therefore a server based abstraction will let the developer get on with the job of worrying about their game and not the protocols. This is what has largely happend with graphics and sound, although when you want to do something at a lower level you exchange convenience for a more inflexible but more precise implemtation.

This project will also produce a server based API to deal with social graphs and I think I’ll release parts of it as I go along to see if any other developers can make use of it. I think this sort of middleware needs to be open sourced and away from the main providers of social graphs, not that I’ve anything against them, just they may well come and go (Bebo, Friendster, MySpace, even Google aren’t immune to this Say Hello, Wave Goodbye Google Wave), but the game development community I suspect will carry on as it always has. Essentially, as a developer you don’t really care to access 10 different APIs to retrieve the user’s friend list, you just want a single abstraction such as:

FriendList usersFriends = SocialGraph.getFriendList(user);

Where usersFriends is a collection of that user’s friends across multiple social networks, a Friend object could then provide more granular information such as flags to see what networks they’re on, e.g. boolean Friend.onTwitter which could be used with the current user’s preference as to which networks they read and write from e.g. boolean User.useTwitter. You could argue at this point that the abstraction should be more abstract and the API shouldn’t expose the physical network, but ¬†I think you’ll have to compromise somewhere. What the developer needs is a nice interface¬†that¬†doesn’t¬†change in a way that will break what they have implemented in the past so they can code against without worrying about the underlying network API changing a la Facebook.

If you’re reading this and want to use the social¬†networking¬†API we’re developing just drop me a line.

Jaz Rignall on Writing #2

Following on from my post about Tom Bissell’s point re: the important of writing, writers and the need to get them to come in early on projects, I had a great email from Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall who has, in many respects, written the book on it. He’s been an arcade champ,¬†reviewed¬†games, edited some of the most successul magazines in the industry and is still as passionate as ever about games. At some point I’ll do a little feature on the legend of Jaz as for me he is a pivotal figure in the U.K.’s computer and videogame history. His and other journalists contribution was to give the producers and consumers of games in the UK a voice, an image and more importantly a sense of humour. He’s even got his own wikipedia page here.

Jaz wrote to give his take on things from his experience developing games at Virgin:

“Interesting what you‚Äôre saying about needing a writer. When I was working on games at Virgin, one of the ‚Äútricks‚ÄĚ we used was to back in the story/narrative at the very end of the game. That‚Äôs not to say we never had a story specced out: we always had a narrative in mind, but it was more like a stone skipping across a river than plotting a course across it. Ie, what was most important is setting up cool and fun situations first, and then going back to justify how they flowed later.

We found when we got into the story too early, we ended up in situations where we got bogged down with the details, grew too attached to bits of the story, painted ourselves into corners, and were often worried about changing things, so that the story was driving the game, rather than the game driving the story.

My rambling point being, the story/narrative is by far the most malleable thing: just make a game good by creating the best situations that are fun for the player ‚Äď ie, create the puzzles/situations/challenges first ‚Äď and then figure out how it goes together as a narrative later.”

And all things considered, I think I’ll take his advice! Jaz has also kindly done a sanity check on my game design, which aside from being phenomenally generous of him, was pretty nerve wracking. It was like handing in an essay to your favourite teacher…I’m very¬†excited¬†to announce that he doesn’t think it stinks, actually I’d go a little further and say he likes it ;o) More on that later.

How can you tell if a videogame is rubbish?

Iain Simons asked many clever game developers this brilliant question and got some great replies in his book (with James Newman), Difficult Questions About Videogames (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Difficult-Questions-About-Video-Games/dp/0954882504). I met up with Iain this week in Nottingham, at GameCity’s Antenna HQ, and had a great afternoon chatting about games and how Bruce Everiss is now blogging about shaving (http://www.bruceonshaving.com/) , amongst other things.

I like Iain a lot (I’m not just saying that because he may be getting more involved with this crazy project, which I’m very excited about) and as one of the founder’s of the National Videogame Archive you feel our treasure is in the right sort of hands. What the wrong sort of hands are, I don’t know, but they a probably gloved in black leather, stroking a white fluffy cat.

Anyway, back to that question: How can you tell if a videogame is rubbish?

The first time I fired up Gears of War 2 I would have said “if it looks like this”. I wasn’t impressed, thought it just an insanely amped up Operation Wolf as it’s very clearly on rails. This was about 5 months ago. I revisited it this week after reading Tom Bissell’s interview with Cliffy B. Tom’s portrait of Cliffy was someone who was instinctive and obsessive about creating great games, in fact when asked what he thought of people thinking he “played games all day” his reply was that he spends all his time “fixing broken games until they’re ready for you to play”. I liked this take on it so I went back and grabbed GoW2 and stuck through the dodgy dialogue.

That was yesterday and now I’m almost a whole day behind writing a 4 page funding pitch document for my game project. Thanks Cliffy!

So to answer Iain’s question, I’ll do it in reverse

Q: How can you tell if a videogame is not rubbish?

A: When you literally spend the whole day repeating the same phrase…

“Okay, just one more go”