Show Notes: Video: Interviewer: I'm at the Indie Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Scott: Yeah, I'm Scott Anderson. I'm working on a game called Shadow Physics where you play a 2D platform similar to Mario and the shadow is projected by a 3D world. So, here's a guy who is seen walking around in the shadow not on the actual objects, and he is projected on the wall. He can walk alongside the wall and back in the wall.
Scott: A bunch of interesting game play mechanics came out of that basic idea, like if you push the object the 3D object itself falls. You just have to solve this puzzle here.
Interviewer: Aw nice, it's tight, dude.
Scott: Then, we have some other mechanics. The interesting thing about being in a world created by shadows is that if you move the light that the shadows are being cast from, you are changing the entire world underneath the guy. So, we have puzzles where you can manipulate the world to get the guy to a different place.
Interviewer: Sure. How do you go about manipulating the objects? Is that hard to do considering that you're also controlling the character?
Scott: Yeah, it's a little hard to do. So right now, it's basically left play.. It's really hard to play on a track [?]. It's left play and then drag to move the light around and the character controls a very simple platform and controls these arrow keys and space jumps.
We're still working on the control stuff, especially the camera stuff. It just seems a little awkward. Right now, it's just a free camera. We're looking at other alternative camera means so we can stay kind of hands off.
Interviewer: Sure. How close are you then to completion?
Scott: I'd say, at least, a year or two off.
Interviewer: Wow. OK.
Scott: The game is still very early. We're still exploring a lot of the mechanics.
Scott: Here's another example of things that come out of the system. There's multiple lights. So, there's a light here and a light here.
Scott: And that projects two shadows. You can kind of from a single set of objects kind of jump over here on the platform over here.
Interviewer: OK. Any other game play mechanics that are interesting, emerging properties that came out of this rule set?
Scott: Yeah, Here's one more where we had enemies that war just existing shadow objects like you, and you get hit by the guy. You can actually crush these guys, too, just like you get crushed yourself by shadows.
I don't have a good example of that right now, unfortunately, but hopefully we'll have that soon. Here's another light manipulation puzzle where he creates stairs by moving away.
Interviewer: Oh, tight.
Scott: And there's other mechanics that we still haven't explored yet.
Scott: One example is to use bright light to white out shadows so you can fall through things or fall slower. Another example is to use different colored lights, and the different colored lights would have different physical properties.
Scott: So, maybe, gravity is reversed or maybe in one light, for example, blue light, you can swim in the blue light without falling into this. That's pretty much the game.
Audio: Interviewer: I'm here at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Scott: I'm Scott Anderson and I'm working on a game called Shadow Physics with Steve Swink.
Interviewer: And you had a game in the Experimental Game Design?
Scott: Yeah, Shadow Physics is in the Experimental Game Play Workshop. It's a game about playing a 2D platformer in the shadows created by a 3D World.
Interviewer: How did you come up with the idea? What was the process?
Scott: Steve actually had the idea years ago when he was first working at Neversoft. They were working on a game that had shadows, and he was looking at the shadows and the programmer spent a lot of time, spent like a month or two, just getting nice shadow technology. All it ended up doing was looking a little bit nicer than other shadow techniques would have. Steve was thinking about ways of doing game play ideas with the shadows. He spent so much time on it you might as well use it for game play.
Scott: So, he wanted to do a game where you could play in the shadows. When I moved to Arizona a couple of years ago we had a meeting and we were talking about different game ideas that we had and he pitched the idea to me. I was like, oh that's a pretty cool idea. Maybe, I'll do it.
Fast forward, like a year later or more and I actually sat down during TIG Jam and implemented an early prototype of it and it was a pretty cool idea. We've just been working on it ever since.
Interviewer: How long did it take then to implement the first basic prototype because it seems kind of complicated in the sense that you have this 3D world and you have to kind of run off the shadows or something else like that.
Scott: The game is actually using semi-advanced technology. It requires high end hardware. It's all shader model 3 stuff because we're doing collision attraction, like classic per pixel platform collision attraction against the shadow mat that is generated in Real Time and using standard shadow mat techniques. The original prototype took me about three or four days to put together, actually.
Scott: But, it was three or days of straight up crunching because it was during TIG Jam. It was a game jam. People were pulling all nighters. I pulled near all nighters, so I was basically working the whole time. Then, it went through multiple iterations. I took a week off of work at Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment and worked at Flashbang Studios, basically, a full time week and got it to close to where it is now. Then, I've worked other weekends and part time on it.
Interviewer: During that week you took off, did you just work with Steve and just iterate over it? How was that development process then?
Scott: Yeah, I worked with Steve and we iterated and showed him stuff. A lot of the stuff, the technology is still in development. There aren't many tools right now, so it's a little harder for someone to get in and work the game. Steve is technical enough that he can do stuff with it because right now it's all super script driven. We still want to improve the tool so that it is easier for people to build on it.
Interviewer: Can you talk about the technology that you used then for the game?
Scott: Right now, it's DirectX.
Scott: It's Direct 3D. We use bullet physics for the physics engine.
Scott: F-mod for audio engine.
Scott: Lua for scripting, as I mentioned before. It's a mish mash of digital technologies.
Interviewer: What is the scripting, the Lua Scripting, used for specifically?
Scott: Right now, it's used mostly for level design, actually.
Scott: But, also for game play scripting stuff and their ideas are to expand it more.
Scott: So it can be used for more things, and a lot of the game play code will probably be written in Lua as well.
Interviewer: Have you ever done any user testing then? I mean, have you had other people play it? And what's the feedback?
Scott: Yeah, we've had a few people test it. Right now, we know a lot of the flaws, especially with the control scheme. Those things will be buried because there are other things to look at the game. We want to iterate on the control scheme some more and then have more people try it out. Obviously, Jonathan Blow and a few other people in the Experimental Game Play Workshop have played it, and a few guys from Flashbang played it.
Our biggest concerns are just camera and light manipulation, so it's control stuff right now.
Interviewer: So now, what's the next step? I know you said it's going to maybe take one or two more years, but what's the next step to get this thing out?
Scott: The idea is to flesh out some of the extra mechanics that we're looking at, things that have to do with colored lights and a few other things. And then, after that work on control scheme stuff; work on lots of content for the game; work on polish for the game.
The game doesn't really have a set visual arts style right now. It looks very prototypy and something with simple shapes. We may do something like that, but we do need to flesh it out.
Interviewer: Is your goal then to release it on PC or Xbox Live or what?
Scott: I mean, in the worst case scenario we come out with the game. It's polished but not something we want to release commercially. We'll just release it for PC. Not as many people as we'd like to would be able to play it just because of the hardware requirements, but a decent amount of people will still be able to play it. It's just kind of the thing - it's a cool game. You can play it for free.
Ideally, it would be a really cool game and we get commercial release on Xbox Live Arcade or PSN or Steam or even some of those other platforms so that we can get more exposure and make some money off of it.
Interviewer: And you talked about TIG Jam and just pulling all nighters. What if you pulled an all nighter for the next three weeks because you've got a daughter?
Scott: I could probably get a lot of the technology done, but I might die in the process. I'd probably get a lot of the technology done, but I think a lot of the things like working out the controls and building levels aren't necessarily going to benefit from an all nighter. They're going to take a little more time.
Interviewer: What about TIG Jam? You talk about that more, whether you benefited from it. How your split was?
Scott: Oh yeah, I definitely benefited from TIG Jam. I met a lot of indies that I had just known about from online from all the forums or whatever. I met Derek Yu. Russell was there, you know, a bunch of people. It was a good thing. It was like a mini GDC almost for indies.
Interviewer: Did it last for five days or what was that?
Scott: It was a weekend. I think it was a three day thing. It was in Phoenix at Flashbang Studios.
Interviewer: Gotcha. Does that happen yearly? If other indies are interested, how do they get involved?
Scott: It happened last year, and that was the first one. That was the first yearly TIG Jam. Since then, people have created local TIG Jams so there's been a TIG Jam UK in the UK, and there's been a TIG Jam Midwest, and I think that was in Iowa, some place in the Midwest. I don't remember exactly where it was.
We're looking to a TIG Jam East, actually. Since I'm moving out to New York, I was talking to Brandon and he's in Baltimore and he's talking about starting a TIG Jam East.
Interviewer: OK. Cool. Alright. Any last words then for other indie game developers who want to do their own game?
Scott: Keep at it. Keep trying different things. I've been doing this for a while now, probably about four or five years. I've had a lot of failures and some successes, so just keep doing it. That's all I can say.
Show Notes: Interviewer: I'm at the Game Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Arthur: Hi, I'm Arthur Humphrey. I'm the founder and lead designer and lead engineer at Last Day of Work.
Interviewer: And you focus on specific types of games. Can you talk about the genre that you do?
Arthur: Yeah, we specialize in virtual life sense and virtual pets, and we disguise them as adventure games and tycoon games and a variety of other genres. So, we really aren't a hybrid but at heart the games are virtual pets that run in Real Time like a Tomagatchi.
Interviewer: I interviewed you a few years ago. What have you been up to recently in terms of games that you are releasing and platforms that you are on?
Arthur: Well, we're still here.
Interviewer: That's awesome to hear.
Arthur: It's a great start. We are expanding some of the franchises that we talked about back when we talked before. The leading franchise is always Virtual Villagers, and we've done three chapters of that now and brought two of them over to iPhone, one through a license and one we've done in-house. And, they've both done really well. We brought Fish Tank over to iPhone, and now we're trying to create something new again.
We're creating what I describe as the game I always wanted to make, and it's a virtual life simulator that, at first glance, probably resembles the Sims. It's a family in a house, but mechanically from a gamer design perspective it's much more emergent. It's much more of a simulation. It's very sandboxy, and we're really excited about it.
It's got some really crazy features that hopefully will create some emergent narratives that really represent the drama that life gives you, you know, the ups and downs and the big themes, like a family, career, happiness, health, death.
Interviewer: You know, since the last time we spoke, have you, I guess, come into any other realizations about how to effectively communicate simulations to your audience, or some of the... I know you have this underlying algorithm that you have to constantly test as you're balancing your game. I don't know if you tweak that or come to any other new realizations or understandings related to that.
Arthur: There are a lot of levers that we've discovered in the design of this type of game, and one of them relating to what you are mentioning is how much do you want the game to be emergent, how much do you want to let the algorithms tell the story and how much do you also want to put in a handcrafted, let's call it pre-rendered, story.
Arthur: And we've done both and we tried to mix these. Basically, if you put the lever all the way to the handcrafted story you get a rich wonderful story that engages the players and you get zero replayability.
Arthur: And if you put the lever the other way you get maximum replayability, but the story becomes a little bit generic as the player can quickly break it down into these thesis that the algorithm is putting together for the narrative.
Arthur: So, we try to kind of do both. In Virtual Villagers we did that by having a meta story but leaving the game sandboxy so that the way they unlock these chapters of the story as they play are completely order independent and a lot of emergent stories can still come out of the game like members of your tribe that are very quirky, that will do this and that and they start to bond friendships. People come up. They fill in the blanks with these stories that happen in the game.
In fact, people do this and focus so much on the families in their tribes that we realized we needed to make a game that was just about these family units. That's what led us to the idea of making a family simulator.
Interviewer: Yeah, I was visiting your Virtual Villagers forum, and I was just amazed at how many people are actually writing stories about their families. What trends have you noticed with that, and do you see any kind of direct correlation as you actually tweak, I guess, some of the features so that if you're going more story oriented you're going to write less about their family? If you're going more sandbox oriented, they are going to write more about their family. I mean, do you notice any kind of correlation?
Arthur: You know, we don't do a lot of data gathering on that, but I would totally agree with what you are saying. I think the more you write the story for them the less they are going to fill in the blanks.
It's just like when you see a movie about a book that you loved, and they take away all of the parts that you can imagine and they play all that for you. So, we definitely want to leave some parts of the game to the imagination, let's say. That's where we come in with gaps in the story and emergent elements. I totally agree with that.
We listen to these narratives as players, too, and to us it's much more informative than asking them what they want in a game. If you ask them what they want in a game, they inevitably are going to be like, we want pets. We want them to have a kitten, and the kitten should have a pet mouse. It's kind of funny.
We listen to them and we want to put these things in, but then we look at what they really talk about and what they really care about, and it's always these fictional marriages between tribe members. That's not even supported by the code, and so we're like, that's what they really want. They are asking for this. You give it to them and they're like, OK but you could have done it better. Instead, we're trying to give them what they really want not what they think they want.
Interviewer: Sure. Can you talk about what they really want? I mean, you talk about the marriages. Is there anything else that you've seen that has resonated with your audience?
Arthur: I think that players ask for things they absolutely don't want, and this is something we've learned and it's very interesting as a designer to try and come to terms with asking a player what they want. A lot of players will say I want this to be easier. I hate it when this happens, and if you remove it, you take the soul out of the game. When you remove consequences, you make the victories meaningless.
Arthur: So, we pride ourselves in not giving them what they ask for instead of giving them what I think they want.
Arthur: Apart from that, we do see them talking about families and marriage and, you know, they are kind of playing doll with the Virtual Villagers which I love. And so, let's put them in a dollhouse, and we're not trying to be the Sims. That's not the Sims. The move you look at it, the more you realize the game runs in Real Time. They have a very finite life. It syncs night and day cycles to your local time, so at night it's dark in the game and they are sleeping.
The game is not about buying IKEA for your house and decorating. The game is about being happy and making a family and finding a compatible spouse. And there's kind of a dating algorithm, and it gets harder the longer you wait, and there's an illness algorithm where people catch a cold that goes through the house and you have to deal with that.
There's a lot of these aspects that people are writing about on their own, and we're giving them algorithms to support that dialogue and that narrative.
Interviewer: Now, are you doing anything where players can socially interact with other players within the context of this game, or is that even happening? Or how does that work?
Arthur: We are inching towards connectivity. We are not going to have a large connective element in this game, and partly that’s because of philosophy. When we first design these games, we call them single player system for two worlds.
Arthur: It came out of my enjoyment of playing World of Warcraft, but going somewhere all by myself and doing something on my own but knowing that the world was persistent, and I enjoy that so much. Sometimes, I didn't want to see the other players. I just wanted to be in a persistent world, so we tried to create that in a single player game.
So, all the games, obviously, when turn them back off and back on, time has passed. The children are a little bit bigger. Everyone is a little bit hungrier or wealthier or deader. It depends. And so, we're kind of embracing the single player persistent world. We tampered a little bit. We kind of experimented with connectivity on Virtual Villagers by letting people exchange stats and compete with our kind of arbitrary game stats.
Since then, we've come to the belief that it's one of those things that you should really dive in and do really well or really steer clear of it. For now, we've staying in the single player persistent world, but we have some plans for later in the year for some really connected products that were really designed for a connectivity point of view, unannounced products though.
Interviewer: Sure. Can you talk about the - you said there was a meta story or meta template. So, you have that lever between pure sandbox versus story. What are the templates that you are using in terms of the story, and can you talk about the specifics in terms of how you're actually balancing out pure story versus pure sandbox?
Arthur: Absolutely. You know, if you look at a game that's pure sandbox, like SimCity, you get a certain emergent story. Like, you build some really weird city and you can come up with some of the parts, but it becomes a little bland in a way because it's so emergent that every game is totally different but in a way totally the same.
With Virtual Villagers 3 as an example, we put in a story that continued the first story, and it's kind of a story that you can compare to the TV show "Lost" where there is this mysterious island and we're continually giving them little bits of background of who was there before. They're rebuilding ruins. There's a lot of mystery, and we let them rebuild the ruins in whatever order they want or not rebuild them or do this or that.
So, the game is basically sandboxy but they hit milestones where we actually will pop in a cinematic screen. This pre-rendered story is really important in these indie casual developers, and they need to understand that it's great to give a little more soul to the game, but it's also important from a branding perspective. If you make a strong story like this, you can copyright it, and people won't try to clone your game and copy your story exactly but try to make their own story.
If your game is successful, people will start to care about your world, and it's the number one defense against people copying your game. These stories and the story of Virtual Villagers takes place on an island called Isola, and about the third or fourth chapter people care about this island. They want to know what is going on here. They don't care what's happening on the clone island that someone else came up with.
It's just like Harry Potter. People read book two and they get into it or read book one and they want to read them all, and they don't want to read some other copycat story. They care about Harry and Harry's world. So, it's effective as a mechanic, and it's effective for branding.
Interviewer: Can you talk about other things that the indie and casual game developers could use to either appeal to their audience more or cater to their audience more?
Arthur: I think that we're seeing another kind of emergent demographic within the casual demographic that people are calling more and more the enthusiast players, and this is an open door for any developers to get into these casual portals.
The portals are becoming more and more open to it. When we started launching these games, they were a bit too poor for the portals, and we had a real fight to get them listed, but we're almost surprised at how well they did.
I think that indie developers like myself need to put on the sheep's clothing and start really accepting that their game can be a casual product and be involved in casual distribution and the wide distribution that's available there. I think the traditional indie gamers tend to be a little proud and put their game on the indie sites, and I think they need to wrap them a little differently, get the casual game's best standards in there, where the buttons should be, just to make a few tweaks and realize that these are the best casual games that there can be.
The casual games that are being created as casual games often by suits are a bit repetitive and unimaginative and they are profitable and they make their money and then go on. But the indie games that are in the casual space have legs. They sell and sell and sell.
Interviewer: Can you talk about other tycoon or simulation games you've seen in the casual game space that either inspired you or that you found compelling?
Arthur: Yeah, well, there are certainly other successes in the Sim genre casual, and you look at games like BuildALot by Headsoft. We're friends with them and we think that we made it a little easer for them to distribute their arguably Sim title. They made a real accessible game that casual players love, and it just has a huge tale. It sells and sells. That's a great example.
There are some other tycoon games out there, but I think BuildALot is a great example and I know their story is fun, too, because they created a game that was based on Warcraft, the original not the MMO.
Arthur: They created a game that was the building part of Warcraft, that kind of ends when the war begins. It just boils down the construction and infrastructure part of that game, and they made it casual. I think that's exciting and I like how they did that.
Interviewer: Let's talk about, now, new platforms for your games. You talked about iPhone. I know before you were kind of talking about you had some demos in flash. Are you now embracing some of these more web friendly platforms so that you can implement the kind of social activity that you're talking about that might happen in future games? How is that working out?
Arthur: The web friendly is one of our Achilles heels because we're known in the casual space, but we're kind of an indie developer, and our games have a little more under the hood than flash wants to let us do. It's a little tougher for us to bring them into web label. We have done it historically.
Other platforms like iPhone are another story. The games were actually conceived on the Palm Pilot years ago, so the innate design is touch screen friendly and they're just a natural fit for iPhone. So, what we're doing now is jus bringing in a whole catalogue to iPhone almost as is, a few adaptations for the hardware and people are loving it.
That's kind of the first thing we are doing for in-house alternative life form work. After we finish bringing the catalogue over some time this year, that will include Virtual Villagers 3. Virtual Families will come to iPhone immediately after the desktop launch in about a month or six weeks. We're aiming for kind of a May 1st rollout for Virtual Families, then probably Virtual Villagers 3 after that.
Then, we'll start to implement some exciting custom designs for iPhone. It will be smaller, evolving games with more connectivity, a little bit more experimental, and we can do that because the development costs are still relatively low on that platform.
Interviewer: OK, great. Any last words then for other indie game developers out there who want to make an impact?
Arthur: I like to talk to the indie gamers, and I've spoken at the Indie Summit, and I really connect with these developers the most. I hope that I can be an example for them, that you can take your indie game and turn it into a casual game. You're not selling out. You know, you're just, maybe, making more money.
We're seeing some people start to do this, and some runaway indie hits, like World of Goo, and they're starting to crossover, but I think it could be done a lot more. I am going to be evangelizing that as well all year. I'm going to keep telling people that until their ears bleed.
Show Notes: Interviewer: I'm here at the Game Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Adam: Hi, this is Adam Schroeder from flashgamelicense.com.
Interviewer: What's your site about?
Adam: Basically, we're a marketplace for flash developers. You can upload your game to our site. We put you in front of hundreds of different buyers. They bid on the game, and we get you the most money possible for it.
Interviewer: So, if an indie wants to actually... Why would an indie use this site aside from, I guess, getting more money? Are there other benefits to reach this site?
Adam: Yeah, in the whole community there's about 4,000 developers now. We have really active forums. You can get feedback on your game or coding help. We have a sister site, FlashGameArtWork, where you can look to find artistic talent for your games.
We have a first impression service where you can quickly order reviews of your game and get sort of iterative feedback within a very short time period, make changes to the game, run it again, make sure people are understanding the directions and the game play, and sort of getting into it really early.
Interviewer: How much is the sponsorship range in terms of prices that games can get on the site?
Adam: The prices range all over the place. A really high end flash game can make 5, 10, 15, 20, even more money. What we try to do for the really high end content is structure a deal where the amount that an offer receives is directly proportional to the value that the sponsor gets on the game.
Usually, that's under some sort of CPC model where you get, say, 5,000 upfront and then five cents per click for a certain period of time. Under that model, a really popular game can really generate a lot of revenue.
You can also put in-game ads within the game which can generate lots of money. There's lots of different ways of licensing the games. What we really push people towards is what we call primary license where the person is sort of buying the rights to brand your game for the general distribution, sort of the free version of the game that can go all over the Internet.
Adam: But, you still have full rights as the developer to sell versions of the game to single sites that remove all of that branding or make any other change you want as long as that version of the game is locked to just that single site, that single domain. Of course, you have full rights to sequels and anything else you want to do.
Interviewer: How much does it cost an indie to use this service or to put it on the site?
Adam: It doesn't cost anything to use the site. If you sell the game through our site, we assess a 10 percent commission. But other than that, there's no cost to upload it and get the feedback from developers.
Interviewer: Do you know what games, I mean, does it change in terms of what games are getting sponsored recently? Is it like, genres have their own trends or how does that work?
Adam: Yeah, any really good game is going to find a lot of interest. I guess some of the hot stuff right now - tower defense games are still real popular. Physics games using the box 2D engine are very popular.
Interviewer: What about multi-player games?
Adam: Multi-player is much harder. I mean, the big issue with the multi-player game is supporting that back end server. It's a lot less of an open market on a multi-player game. You almost have to pick the publisher that you're going with before you build the game in order for everything to work out and scale correctly. It makes it a lot harder to just build a great game and get the most value out of it because you're kind of got to make a deal ahead of time.
Interviewer: Now, sometimes indies will just put together a game in a week or a few days. Is this even an appropriate site to try to get sponsorship for that, or what's the type of quality that you guys are expecting?
Adam: The brilliant thing with flash is how fast you can really put together a game, and obviously production value is important. You need to have that initial first impression of someone that it's going to be a quality game, high quality graphics, but it doesn't take a lot to really make a great game. Just a simple game mechanic that it might only be a day to put together and just build something around that. It can be a very successful game.
Interviewer: Can you talk about your sister art site? How many people use that, and how can it help indies then?
Adam: Sure. The Flash Game Art's a new site we just launched. We're just getting started. Currently, it's just a way to upload portfolios of your work. We have a really active collaboration forum on Flash Game License, so that's where people are connecting. Then, if you can link to the FlashGameArtWork, people can see all of your work.
The future edition of the site will have more work flow and product management pieces, but currently it's just kind of a portfolio...
Interviewer: Can you talk about the community and the forums then for Flash Game License in terms of how it can better fit indie game developers?
Adam: Yeah, I mean...
Interviewer: And is it Flash Game License or Flash Games License?
Adam: It's Flash Game License.
Interviewer: So, corrected. OK, cool.
Adam: Yeah, the community is very supportive of one another, and it's definitely something that you want to take advantage of and use our site. One, you get free feedback from other developers that play your game. If you have any specific programming challenges, you can ask in the forums and get answers to that.
There's all sorts of articles and resources people have linked to, so you can just really get a nice start to everything.
Interviewer: Is this then a place for part time indie game developers, or are there people doing this full time, or is this a way for indies to go full time with their flash games?
Adam: Potentially, if you have really high end content, you can definitely support yourself full time with it. Most of the flash developers now are still doing it part time or hobbyists. There are a lot of college students or even high school students that are coming out with really good games.
Interviewer: Oh, really? OK. Are there any last words or suggestions you have for indie game developers who are interested in getting their flash game sponsored?
Adam: Check out Flash Game License. In the past, even just as short as a year ago, there were only a few sites that people really knew of that were sponsoring flash games. So, the developer didn't have a lot of options, and those sites had a lot of power and weight over the games they take and what they pay for them.
At Flash Game License we now have hundreds of buyers that are interested in flash games. We've sort of opened up the marketplace to really anyone that wants to buy flash games could come to our site and compete within it where before they never even had the opportunity to do so.
Interviewer: Compared to other sites, what's the benefit of going to your site versus some of your competitors?
Adam: There really isn't another marketplace for flash games, so you can't really get what we have anywhere else right now.
Interviewer: Sounds good, so flashgamelicense.com.
Hi. Welcome to the Indie Game Development Podcast show. How about you introduce yourself?
Billy: My name is Billy Garretsen, and I am the President and Founder of Perfect Dork Studios located out of Austin, Texas. Thank you for inviting me on the show today.
Action: How did you get into games?
Billy: My first experience, well, with games was when I was a kid. My parents had an Atari 2600. The first system that I owned was the NES, and I've just been a gamer ever since.
My first experience as a developer was when I was in college. I was attending the University of Texas here in Austin. I was 19 years old, and I got approached by a friend whose older brother was forming a game studio. It was a bunch of coders, and they needed someone to generate the creative content. They hired me on to just basically come up with a design document for a game that they thought would take three months.
What ended up happening was I got a chance to design my dream game, and it took 12 months. I learned a whole lot just kind of making mistakes and stumbling into it. That was a game for the pocket PC called Blade of Betrayal. It started off; we put it out and got really good press, really good reviews. Almost every review that we had for it was almost a perfect review. It got Action Game 2003, but it did not sell at all. We made zero money, so there were days that I thought I might have been done with it and that I was just going to be a game player, basically, be a watcher instead of a doer.
Billy: When you get down on yourself, it's real easy to do that. But, I think right around the time I started getting into Guitar Hero, just my mind was exploding with different ideas for cool, simple rhythm games but with a twist.
Then, one day, I think this was in 2006 I had this concept, this concept for a game that I felt I had to do. I felt like I had to pursue this idea. The game was called Melody Strike, and it was a music rhythm game with a fighting game element to it. It's not really at all like the battle modes in Guitar Hero.
If you're familiar with the game, Puzzle Fighter, like the street fighter puzzle game where you are playing a puzzle game but down at the bottom of the screen the two little characters are fighting. Each character has got their set of special moves, depending on how you let the blocks fall.
Well, that was the main inspiration for this game called Melody Strike. You, basically, played a rhythm game that was like Guitar Hero, or like the interface actually looked more like Guitar Rhyman [sp]. On the bottom of the screen there were these little characters that were beating each other up based on your performance, and as you built up your special meter you had the ability to pull off super moves and stuff.
So the concept, the core concept behind it was: let's play the game like a music game, but let's think in our heads and strategize like we're playing a fighting game because you don't know. You don't want to unleash your super move at the wrong time et cetera so you do have to strategize.
At that point I didn't have any programs or anything. It was just me, just me and I hadn't even formed Perfect Dork Studios yet, but I saw that as a great opportunity to form a company and hit the ground running with independent game development. In my mind I was like, you know what? I want this game... What platform do I want to be on? That's one of the questions I always ask myself now after putting Blade of Betrayal on what I thought was the wrong platform at the time.
Now, I always think: what audience would like this, and what is the platform that makes the most sense? I was like, you know what, Xbox Live. I know that I'm probably not going to have a lot to put out of physical product, so let's do a download game and what are the downloadable services?
Well, I knew that there were a few hoops you had to jump through to get a dev kit for the PlayStation network. At the time I didn't even own a PlayStation 3, so I didn't have a lot of interest but Xbox. I love my Xbox. I said, you know what, we're going to make an Xbox Live Arcade title.
So, I went and did research on how to actually get that done. I got in contact with the Xbox Live Arcade team. My new directive was I'm going to build a prototype. I'm going to build a prototype. I'm going to submit it to the Xbox Live Arcade team. They are going to love it. We're going to make the game and that was that, plain and simple.
OK, well, we got through making the prototype, and it's a pretty polished prototype. We got a chance to show it at GDC in 2007 and, you know everyone who saw it, they thought it was kind of cool. I submitted it to Microsoft, and I didn't hear anything back for about six weeks. At the time my whole future of my studio was kind of dependent on this game having funding and getting out there.
It's funny because at the very last minute we added a feature again. Here's me being a feature creeper, but we do learn from our mistakes. Anyhow, I was feature creeping. I was like, you know what? This is a music game, and people love Guitar Hero. Rock Band is about to come out. We have to have guitar support. We have to throw that in there.
Believe it or not, not very hard. Not very hard to actually implement the controller because the controller, all the buttons and everything, they are triggers based on what's on the standard controller. So, implementing it wasn't hard but this is what killed us because when we got our feedback, when they rejected it, the concept as far as moving forward with publishing it, the main reason was there were too many guitar games in their portfolio.
So, the fact that the game had guitar support actually killed it because they no longer saw it as just a music game or a hybrid music fighting game. They then only saw it as a guitar game, and then they focused on: well, there are not enough people with guitar peripherals so we can't really market it as a guitar game.
I was really beating myself up because I said, if only they looked at it as what it was, which was a music game with a fighting element as opposed to a guitar game. We were not trying to cash in on the guitar craze. So, again a little bit of a disappointment because some real time and money went into this because I had to pay my programmer.
At the time it was just myself and my senior software engineer named Alan Uthoff, a brilliant guy. And then we brought on a couple more guys at the very end of that prototype to help finish it out. And so, my team grew from just myself to four guys in a span of six months just over this one prototype. Would you like me to continue?
Action: Well, I was going to ask, basically, is there any reason why you chose Xbox as compared to the Web as the platform or something that was, say, downloadable or even flash faced?
Billy: I believe the reason why I went with the console is because that's just what I know. I haven't really developed internally in my own capacity or experienced a lot of Web games. And so, I felt more comfortable. My hands are, basically, tailored for a game pad so my designs are affected by that.
Designing a good Web game as far as how it controls and the optimization for it is not necessarily my strength so at the time I was just thinking, what do I know? You go with what you know, and what I know is console as far as from a game standpoint.
Also, at the time this was pretty early on into Xbox Live Arcade. There wasn't a lot of content on there, and there was especially not any content like what I was going to create. So, that factored into it, too. I thought it was a good chance to get high visibility and also put on a platform that was a little in its infancy. At the time there might have been 40 games out, so it just seemed like there was room for a game like mine there.
Action: So, after that experience what was the next game, and what were you thinking in terms of strategy and where the studio was going to focus?
Billy: OK. So, this is where the big breakthrough happened as far as... This is where I made this big kind of change of direction. Being able to acknowledge your own limitations is a huge thing just for personal growth and also as a good designer. You first need to set goals that you can meet. That's step one. I felt like I was kind of getting a little out of my league by seeking a publisher at that point because at the time I really didn't have a lot of leverage, you know what I mean.
Why would they go with a little guy like me? I didn't have a lot of proof under my belt that I could even put together the game. I understand from that perspective, so because of that I decided, you know what? I'm just a little tired of trying to convince people to believe in my product when I know it's going to work, when I believe in the game, you know, and I know it's going to do well.
I decided right then and there that I wasn't going to seek a publisher anymore. From here on out, I'm going to try to do everything on my own. Sure, that means that you are going to have to go a lot smaller and not expect the big dollars but, at least, you have complete creative control. That's one of the reasons why I formed my own studio as opposed to go out there and chase down bigger studios to hire me. I want to make the games I want to make and provide my particular point of view into the gaming space.
It was after Melody Strike was rejected by the Xbox Live Arcade publishing team that I put that project on hold. I said, you know, my heart doesn't even like this project. This was just a project that I thought made a lot of good business sense. I obviously don't regret going into that project because it's what kick started the studio. It's what got the ball rolling on where we are right now.
Instead, I took some time just by myself and did a little soul searching and just thought, what is the game I really want to make? What's the game that I really want to put out there and share with everyone? And what are my particular points of view as far as an artist and a game designer?
That's when the idea for our new XNA Creators Club game. It's a game called Box Macabre. That's b-o-x-m-a-c-a-b-r-e. So, macabre like, you know, morbid and stuff.
Billy: That's where the idea for that came up. If I could just describe the game in a phrase, it's imagine if Tim Burton made Metroid. That's kind of what I tell people at first in order for them to put the game in a particular space.
It's a high artistic vision mixed in with a lot of exploration and action. It's a 3D game so it uses a 3D engine. It's based off of the Torque X but it's the new Torque X 3D engine from Garage Games. We're using that to put this game together, but it plays like a 2D game. So, it's 3D graphics, 2D game play. So, it's a little retro but it's a little new. That's kind of...
My artistic visions always kind of go back to: let's bring something familiar but let's make it fresh. Let's make it compelling to play these games that we feel like we've played a million times already. That brings in old fans of the retro gaming and also new fans who may not have experienced those games.
Anyhow, so the general idea behind this game as far as just from a design standpoint is I wanted to introduce, have a game where you started off very under powered and as you started getting more and more abilities that increased your movement ability and how you traverse the world that the game actually evolves.
So, you start off and the game is more of a platformer, like Mario, and then eventually you get a swing. You get an arm that you are able to extend out and grab surfaces and then swing similar to like a grapple beam or like Bionic Commando. Then, the game starts feeling a lot more like a Tarzan.
A little after that, you get the ability to shoot projectiles, like little fireballs. So, now the game feels a little bit more like Mega Man. As you are getting these new abilities, the general core of the game feels like it is evolving with it. So, you're not just doing the same thing over and over and getting better stats when the game is actually changing 'til eventually in the game you get wings and you can fly and do everything else that you can already do.
Then, it feels more like a flying shooter. From beginning to end I'm trying to take the player on this kind of adventure where they feel really overwhelmed at first but by the end they are kind of like the masters of this world.
Action: Can you talk about, since you come from the art perspective, how you go about game design?
Action: And some of the challenges and whether or how you prototype because if a programmer is doing game design he may be able to program it or pick it up. What's the strategy that you use?
Billy: OK. Well, first of all, I will go ahead and say that prototyping is one of the most important things anybody can do because it proves whether or not your concept can work without you have to get through months of development and lots of dollars to figure out that something is not going to work in the end.
Billy: How do we go about that? Well, let's see, I will begin with a concept and then I will kind of start talking about it with the rest of the team and my lead designer, a guy named Brit Baker. He's a great guy to bounce ideas off of, so a lot of times I'll come up with a core idea that he will help refine. Then, I'll take it to the programmer; so Alan Uthoff, as I said before and another guy named Charles Speer, who is my lead programmer, jack of all trades kind of guy.
This is another important thing. You have to have people that can wear multiple hats in a small outfit. Otherwise, things are going to be slow and you're going to have a lot more trouble. So, definitely seek out people who have many talents. So, anyhow, it starts with me.
Then, it starts branching out to the other designer, and then it branches out to the programmers because we need to get their perspective on something. If I talk about a feature like the swing, for instance, to me I've used swing in some many games that I take for granted if it's difficult or not to do, so I throw that idea out there and they kind of give me a reaction.
Based on the reaction, I know how much time I need to allot for them to try to prototype that because if they think it's going to be hard, then I want to give them as much time as they can to work through it.
Once we establish the core game play of the game, like, for instance in Box Macabre you can walk around. You can jump. You can shoot things, and you can grapple things. So, once we establish those are our expectations for the game, well then we go into prototype mode where I'll put together a really rough test, almost playground version of a level where it's just basic primitives - blocks and platforms, nothing fancy, no textures or anything. You just put it together and then we start playing.
The programmers start programming in feature by feature, and then we'll all sit down at these milestones. Usually, it's every two weeks we have a milestone review, and we will look at the game and play it. Everyone has feedback and based on that feedback our next milestone is affected.
There is not this very defined road... There's obviously a road map from beginning to end, but like the points along the way are not so clearly defined to where we can't be flexible around things because things that you think are going to be easy end up being the hardest thing in the world. And things that really seem really complex on the surface are super easy. It's really hard to account for all those things if you haven't done them before.
Action: Is two weeks a long time for prototyping? I've read articles on how some people proposes either prototyping in a week or even a day or two days. How does two weeks work for you?
Billy: I think part of it in our particular case, there's a couple of factors. One factor, it's a big factor, is that we all do have day jobs so half of our development time is cut because we all have responsibilities elsewhere. I probably put in a full day at both jobs. I go to bed every night at four in the morning, but not all of us can do that. So, that slows down the process just a little bit.
Another factor is we're using new technology to put this game together. Everything we've put together on this game is based off of the Beta of Torque X 3D, that, I think, Garage Games made available last summer. This is an engine that's actually not even done. It's not even fully released yet so there are certain technical hurdles. There's certain things that are going to be included in the engine that aren't yet, so my guys are having to do a lot of custom engine work to get the results that we want.
It is not just as easy as knowing what the task is and then just doing it. There's concrete walls that we have to either break through or bypass almost every step of the way. I think the best thing to do there is just if you know it is going to happen, it won't be a surprise. So, just always assume that there's going to be speed bumps and things that are going to try to get in your way. You've got to be flexible, you know.
Action: Once you finished that game, what happened then?
Billy: Which one, Box Macabre?
Billy: Box Macabre is actually currently still in development. What we completed which was a huge accomplishment for my team, in particular, because none of us have made a game with a 3D engine before. We all have a 2D background. What we accomplished really was a game that felt like it belonged in the 2D era except we brought it to life in a way that...
Other games are using 3D graphics to mesh with 2D game play, but we actually incorporate the 3D. It's almost like-do you know how in Paper Mario you can flip the world to a different axis on the fly? We have elements like that in this game, except you never leave your axis, but you are able to rotate the camera and explore the world around you and see things that initially weren’t visible just by moving the camera around and stuff. There's other ambient things that we're able to make the world feel more alive because it's in 3D.
We put together this prototype. It's a three level prototype of the game in about three months time, and our deadline was last GDC, so GDC 2008 in Austin, Texas. And our goal was to show it to Garage Games and try to get some feedback from them and support.
Well, what ended up happening, we finished this prototype, maybe, two days before GDC, and we show up on the day of the Expo where Garage Games was setting up and they let us load the game on one of their laptops. It was getting a lot of recognition. It was getting a lot of attention from just people walking by and just seeing it.
I really think that Garage Games, they noticed that we were using their technology to do something that it probably wasn't intended to do because a lot of people use the Garage Games 3D engines, at least, to make FPSs and/or racing games.
Billy: We're making a platform, a 2D platform with it, and so we're doing the least obvious approach. Ever since GDC in 2008 when we got a chance to actually meet the Garage Games people in person and they got a chance to see the game, we have been in constant communication with them.
They have expressed that they are willing to let us show the current progress of Box Macabre, the full version not the prototype, at GDC in March coming up in San Francisco.
Just that alone, making that prototype, has created a relationship with a partner that can really help us out, and we help them out. We make their engine look good and help other people be encouraged to use their products. At the same time they are able to give us a whole bunch of free press and marketing, so it's a win-win.
Action: How useful would you say being able to interact with another company at that level, at a closer level because I know you mentioned that you wanted to avoid publishers based upon experience in the past? How is this experience then?
Billy: Phenomenal, to say the least. It's nice to know that you've got support, that's for sure. Garage Games has never forced itself upon us, and they've never approached us to try to come in and swoop in and take our idea. They want to let us run the ship how we want to run it, and that's their MO as well.
They want to give developers all the freedom that they need to make their vision, and so in general I think it's really important to have friends in the industry because they are the ones that can give you the feedback and constructive criticism that I think can really help you improve your product as long as that mutual respect is there.
So, yeah, I'm not looking for a publisher or anything but what Garage Games is providing is they are providing tools and support to help us make the game we want to make. In return, we are giving them a great game that, basically, everywhere that you see the name, Box Macabre, aside from Perfect Dork Studios you see powered by Torque X and the Garage Game logo.
So, there's just this whole joint marketing thing going on, and they just revamped their website, actually, garagegames.com. If you look under their engines and their console engines, and if you click the Torque X button we're actually featured, our game. They have screenshots from the prototype, and they have our trailer that you can also see at boxmacabre.com.
That was really an unexpected twist that I embrace wholeheartedly because we just want to help each other out. If you can have friends like that, that you're making in the industry that you're just helping each other out, that's totally priceless.
Action: Since you are using the Torque engine, can you convert it to a downloadable then or a Web enabled version, or how does that work?
Billy: That would be a better question for my technical staff.
Action: Is that something you guys have looked into, or are you going to?
Billy, Well, yeah, I talked to Brett Seyler over there. He's the VP of, I believe, sales or product development. I forget the titles. But, at GDC he took a lot of time to talk to me about where to go from there, and that was totally great for him to do that.
He is really interested in getting more titles for the Instant Action platform that they've currently started up.
Billy: So, it's Web browser games that all you do is you go. You sign up for it, and you download. It's a plug-in for your browser, both PC and Mac compatible. You sit there and you play like popular titles, like Think Tanks and Marble Blast.
You could play for free, and apparently all you have to do to get your game up there is there's a certain tool that you get through Garage Games that can convert your project to that service. I'm sure there's some other back end stuff in there like scoreboards and leader boards and networking because they have chat enabled and everything into that service. I'm sure you have to program it to your game.
He expressed, what about bringing Box Macabre to Instant Action? I knew deep down that it wasn't right for that particular venue or forum.
Billy: Just because the game is a single player adventure action game. I really think that when you are online you can have plenty of fun by yourself, but I really think that online is largely a multi player, both competitive and cooperative forum. I just really didn't think Box Macabre would do as well with that audience.
Now, that's not to say that I am leaving out the PC audience completely because since we're creating Box Macabre for the XNA Creators Club we are using XNA 3.0 as the framework, and that can also be deployed to PCs. So, when Box Macabre goes on sale for the Xbox, the XNA Creators Club this October, we are also going to simultaneously release the PC version on a number of downloadable channels.
And we're looking into Steam and Greenhouse, and Brett even offered to put the game up on Garage Games own store. There's no shortage of places where you will actually be able to find Box Macabre, both on console and on your computer.
Action: While you are working on this game, are you working on any other games, too or is it primarily...
Billy: Oh, absolutely. Box Macabre is the persistent game that I go back to all the time, but putting one game out a year is not part of my current business model, my current business strategy. Even if the game is a hit, I just don't really think it is going to generate enough money for us to go full time with the studio. That really is the end goal here.
Billy: I imagine at any independent studio the end goal is to work on games full time, no longer working for an outside party for most of the day and doing this at night in your basement or something. The idea is to go full time. Part of my business strategy is to continue to put out releases throughout the year leading up to the big release, which our big release this year is Box Macabre.
In between there, there are two, for sure, titles coming out with a couple in the works. I am working with Aaron Murray from Tandem Games which I believe you interviewed him just before this interview. So, that's a nice coincidence. Aaron's a great guy and I met him at the Independent Game Conference last November here in Austin, Texas. We just kind of hit it off real quickly off the bat. Without really knowing it, I'd played some of his games before. I played an adver game that he made for VMC Labs, so I commented on how much I liked that.
Well, he brought me in on this new game that he is doing called Bumble Tales which I like to call - It's like Bejeweled meets Sin City but for casual players that like strategy games.
Billy: So, it's like you're a playing Match Three game but at the same time you're kind of building up resources to build a little city on the side. It's awesome, I mean, I fell in love with the concept as soon as he started telling me about it. Just as quickly as that, the numbers made sense as far as when he wanted the game to come out, what platforms he wanted to come out on. Like, he's doing it through Big Fish Games. He is going to release it through that portal on PC probably around May of this year.
Billy: I started doing iPhone development. I said to Aaron; I said, hey Aaron, what do you think about the iPhone? How about I license the title from you, and I publish the iPhone version of Bumble Tales through Perfect Dork Studios? It didn't take any convincing at all. Immediately, as I said it, he was like, it's a good idea.
Right now, we are simultaneously working on the PC version and the iPhone version of Bumble Tales. What's great about it is that I'm creating all the art ads myself, so I know I basically don't want to over think this and I'm going to take the art assets for the huge resolution game and make it more compact for the iPhone version.
That's all happening simultaneously, so they don't call them Tandem Games for nothing, right? We're building both of these games in tandem.
Billy: Let's see what else. I wanted to add there that the iPhone version is coming out at the same time as the PC, and here is where this really sweet trifecta comes together. The PC version of Bumble Tales is being created with the Torque game engine by Garage Games, and the iPhone version is getting created by using iTorque that Garage Games has recently put out.
Right now, we are almost an exclusively Torque driven studio. Nothing makes Garage Games happier than to hear that their products are making people's dreams come true, right? Upon hearing all of these details that just showed our conviction to continue to support them and their continuing to support us. A lot of things just fall into place like that. You start looking back and saying, that makes good business sense, you know. I'm going to bring all these forces together to make sure that my product has the maximum success chances, right?
Action: Yeah. Can you talk about, if there a difference in the iTorque engine versus the normal Torque engine? Is it pretty easy to port between the two or how's that, how does that work?
Billy: I'm pretty new to iTorque, but my programmer on iTorque, a new guy that I just brought in, a guy named Dylan Sanders; he is already able to deploy to the iPhone using stuff through the engine. My guess is that if you know what you're doing, you can get your game running.
What I initially heard, though, was that it was a little tough to get that engine running on the device, but the reason why I went in that direction definitely was because I wanted to cross market with Garage Games on this title as well as Box Macabre.
Billy: Also, since Aaron had built a lot of things using Torque Script I believe those things carried over so a lot of the source code, I think, is going to be able to plug right in. Then I think and I'm sure someone is going to correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that what you do is like you're programming using Torque Script but then it outputs to something that Xcode can understand.
Action: I see.
Actually, again, I'm not going to claim to be a programmer. I try to understand as much of it as I can, but to my understanding that is how it works. Theoretically, it should be a very easy port.
Action: You guys have also released an iPhone game already, right?
Billy: Yes, and my apologies for not mentioning it sooner. It's a game that we did not develop internally, but we were hired as the creative outsource. It's a game called Aim for the Brain, the zombie whacking game, and that was developed by Westttlake Interactive.
Billy: If you do your homework, Westlake actually has a long history of working on Mac products. He's a co-founder and also he was the lead co-programmer on the project, Phil Sulak. It was supposed to be like he was going to be able to jump right in and make the game, but we came to find out that even people with a lot of experience on Macs can still have trouble with the iPhone platform. But, we learned a lot through that project.
Anyways, to tell you a little bit about the game, it is essentially like a souped up version of Whack-A-Mole so it's super simple. Zombies pop up from behind things. There are a number of games out there that have this same general premise.
What I'll tell you about this game is that, well, it's better but I say that not because I was part of it. I say it because it's the one that I actually go back and play as a gamer because you get into a Zen like you do in Guitar Hero where you're getting notes right and you keep going and you don't want to break your streak. You keep getting multipliers. That's how this game feels.
It's very easy to write it off as a very dumb, simple Whack-A-Mole game, but the actual design behind it is pretty awesome. A real shot out to my friend, Tony Salvaggio, who did that. Believe it or not, he writes for Tokyo Pop.
Action: Was there any other challenges to getting this game out on the iPhone or any surprises?
Billy: Yes. One major surprise was just the enrollment process to become an iPhone developer.
Action: Yeah, it seems pretty strict.
Billy: It's strange how it comes across as being very, very strict and exclusive, yet you've got a lot of shovelware coming out with a platform. When you have a fart sound machine in the top 25 to 50 apps constantly, you start to wonder where the content control and the quality control really lies.
The process was a little tedious because you would, basically, sign up. You would do a lot of online forms, send it in and you, basically, just wait until they get back to you. They make it seem like it takes a week or less but, you know, in our case I know that Westlake Interactive couldn't even get enrolled for probably two months or more. There was a lot of mix up, and there was a little bit messy getting enrolled.
So, the game was done. The game was done in November some time, but we couldn't even release it until December because Westlake wasn't able to get enrolled. If you're not enrolled, you have no access to the portal where you can actually upload the game itself.
Action: And were there any other challenges to releasing the game, or just...
Billy: And so, another benefit that you have for developing for iPhone is that there are only a few devices that exist in that product line so testing on it is very easy, right?
Billy: I remember it being very, very difficult to create the certificates of permissions to get my particular device to actually be able to debug the game. I think we spent the better part of a day just going through the certification process for my device, just trying to register my device and trying to get like the keychain working well with it. I think that it's not as plug-and-play as a lot of people might expect is really the core of what I am saying.
Now, having to go through it a few times because I've hooked up some certificates on devices for my own internal development, that the documentation is all there. Apple is really good about documenting things, so I'm certainly not knocking them. But, I will say that they're definitely putting themselves out there as very plug-and-play, but you still have to know a good deal about what you're doing to actually create a game and get it to deploy to the device.
Action: There are stories of people making apps in a day or two and making 10 or 20,000 a day or something like that.
Action: Did that inspire you or motivate you to, maybe, just focus primarily on iPhone or how was it out there?
Billy: I'll be honest that I have mixed feelings about those stories. I want nothing more than the little guy to have his day. That is for sure because I am currently a little guy trying to have my day, and I believe it's coming some time soon. I try not to get too deep into it, but I do approach all the projects that I do as this is me spending my personal time creating something. And I want to create something that is very compelling and is not going to just be forgotten in a day.
When I hear about the success stories for certain products that... I really don't want to name names, but I think everybody has an idea of the kinds of products I'm talking about that are just not games.
Action: It would allow you to go full time, so that's the balance.
Billy: It's true. It's true. It's true but then do I do that? Do I establish my studio as the company that made that game, and then when I make something compelling the serious people that I am trying to attract, are they going to pay attention to me or is that going to taint me forever?
Those are the kinds of thoughts I have because there's a lot of things that I think, I can do a quick cash-in on this or I can do a super quick development and cash in on that. Or, basically, just try to do what I think has plagued a lot of other systems, too, is just throw tons of content out there and just hope something sticks.
All you are doing right there is you are perpetuating this cycle of saturation of the marketplace. I don't think that's going to create a healthy marketplace. It's exactly what happened to the pocket PC which was a reason why our initial game, Blade of Betrayal, didn't do so well. It was because there was thousands and thousands and thousands of games for the device. How do you get seen? How do you get visibility?
I believe that is where the iPhone is going right now. If it doesn't get any kind of regulation soon, it's definitely going in that direction. It's going to be so saturated that even the greatest games are not going to sell as well as they should because people aren't hearing about them People aren't seeing them, and people just have way too much. The choice is great obviously, but I think you know what I'm getting at, anyhow. At one time I'm like, I'm very happy for those guys.
Billy: But on the flip side of the coin, I get really worried because when it's my time to release my products that I put a lot of time and effort into making sure they are of top quality if anybody is even going to care or see those games.
Action: Can you talk about, because a lot of it sounds like the apps that you're working on for the iPhone will take a little longer to release and the rush is now. How do you balance the fact that the opportunity is now with the need to take time to do it?
Billy: So, you say the rush is now and I would actually...
Action: Actually, the rush supposedly was before, but I guess it keeps on getting better. Supposedly, the rush was last summer.
Billy: Yeah, well anything that got out last year probably did well, even if it was bad just because you didn't just have the competition. You didn't have everyone trying to get in on the marketplace, and people were experimenting with a lot back then. And a lot of times it worked, you know. People were selling games for higher price points.
I think a game like Enigmo costing 99 cents now, that's crazy to me because that's a full game. Same thing, basically, with all Pangea software. Its titles, these are old Mac games that are full scope games. You can get them for a buck ninety-nine, 99 cents. It's absurd to me. As a consumer I think it's great because I get all these great games for super cheap. As a developer I think that people, if this game were coming out on a disk, people would be paying fifty bucks for this game. Yet, on the iPhone they expect it to cost five dollars or less.
That kind of factors into why I won't go full time in iPhone development. It's because I know that it's necessary to move forward. I need to have some skews out there on the device, but I know it's also good to branch out and diversify.
Action: Did you also explore different business models, you know, instead of just straight up selling it - using advertising or something else like that?
Billy: I've been approached about things like that, about doing cross promotion through the games and having advertising make the money for me and sell the game. Again, it's one of those things where I'm not comfortable enough, like my experience in the development, in game development. I have a lot more experience in history in making games, and I'm just now this past year getting into the whole business side of things. And that's just one model that I'm not familiar enough with to jump head first in, so perhaps in the future.
Aaron touched on a really good thing in the last podcast where it comes down to where I want to make games my way. I really don't want to involve a third party that's going to try to direct the game in any way that is contrary to my beliefs and my vision for it.
That's not to say that it's my way or the highway. Our games, Perfect Dork Studios games, are the culmination of everybody's input. Because we're so small, everyone's voice is very loud. If we're going to have a healthy team, we're obviously not going to ignore someone's criticism or comments on something. I'm definitely open to collaboration, but I think that when you start bringing in a third party who their number one goal is to make money and then make a good product second, that's the opposite of where I am.
That might sound a little, I don't know, naïve or whatever but that's how I approach things. I go about making a good product first, and then I worry about how it's going to make money because I think good products will sell, you know. You have to market the well, but you can market a bad product and have it sell great. But, if you market a great product and people fall in love with it, you're building a relationship with your audience that can last a decade; you know what I'm saying.
Action: Sure. You mentioned that you have your full time job, and then you're working on this kind of as almost another full time job.
Action: What convinced you to attend conferences? You know, some of the other part-time indies I know, they're like, well I do this for fun or as a hobby. Investing in a conference, that's still a decent investment.
Billy: Oh, yeah. Well, if you're talking dollars, yeah it's a big dollar investment because all those dollars for the passes and the dinners and all that stuff you could put towards developing your game. I just think that... I look back at it this way. Had I not gone to those conventions, I wouldn't have met the contact at Microsoft that I was able to submit Xbox Live Arcade game to. I wasn't able to meet the people at Garage Games face-to-face and have them know me and trust me with well representing their engine.
I wouldn't have met Aaron Murray. I wouldn't have... The composer on Box Macabre is a guy that I just ran into playing Pong on the show floor at GDC. A guy named Drew Sigler ends up being one of the most talented musicians ever, but I would never have met him or even known about him had I not attended these conferences.
I'm privy to knowing that this kind of serendipity can happen, but I think the main reason initially why I chose to go to these conferences is: well, in the long run I want to be part of this industry to whatever capacity I can be in. In order to be successful in that, you have to know people. It's not like I was just going out there self-promoting, but I was going out there and trying to learn as much as I could about...
Through the seminars I was able to learn a little bit more about how to approach publishers, if that was the road I wanted to go to or learning about using a middle ware engine, or even learning about the different downloadable forms for your game.
These are things that you learn from experts that you would never learn anywhere else. It's kind of like, you make that personal investment, both time and money investment to go out there and be full force to soak up everything you can as far as the education and then meet as many people and network out as much as you can. There's nothing like meeting somebody face-to-face because when someone can put a face to your name - I'm almost sad that this isn't a video podcast.
Billy: But, if somebody can put a face to your name and they can see the sincerity in your face and kind of the passion in the way you talk and everything, I think that's what really creates these good collaborations. I think that in the independent forum you have a lot of people like you and myself. I started off trying to do everything on my own, but I'm seeing now that partnering up or doing collaborations or co-developments really, really helps out and is probably more likely to be successful.
Action: What conferences have you found worthwhile to attend?
Billy: GDC so far has been the number one that I've gotten the most benefit out of.
Action: The one in Austin or the one in San Francisco?
Billy: The one in Austin. This March is the first one in San Francisco I'll be attending, and I'm taking my entire team with me. That's part of their bonus. I'm going to fly them out to San Francisco, and they're really excited about that. It's a lot of motivation to get us in gear and try to get this thing put together in time to show a really good demo.
Yeah, I'm primarily speaking about the Austin GDC. It's really convenient because I'm based out of Austin.
Billy: It's just a drive down the street to the Convention Center. It's not as big of a money investment because I don't have to fly or pay for lodgings, but I invited my team as well for that.
Action: You mentioned Independent Game Conference. How was that?
Billy: That's IGC. I believe, just like GDC, they have located in different places throughout the year.
Billy: I think the next one is in Boston, so from Austin to Boston. It's very small. It's not like GDC at all as far as the scope of it, but what you get is you get a much-I don't know-a much more intimate atmosphere. So, it's not so loud. It's not so crowded. Their Expo room was of the size to where everybody that was showing off, whether it be hardware or software, that they got a lot of visibility because there just wasn't a whole bunch of signage and a bunch of loud noises.
Basically, EA was in the middle of it trying to get everyone's attention. So, it was a much more intimate forum. We're talking about 200 people, all developers, and all the panels, again, were other developers. Basically, it's developers teaching developers, and it's not so much like people there trying to do publishing deals and stuff although I did meet the guy who is the head of the PlayStation network.
He actually informed me a little bit about what it would take to get a game out on a platform, so actually later on this year we are considering bringing Box Macabre to the PlayStation 3 via the PlayStation network. The biggest hurdle there is definitely deporting the code because XNA is a Windows based framework that will not run on PlayStation 3. They have their own proprietary thing.
Billy: If it's a project that will take more than six months, it will be really hard to convince me to do it. I'd just rather make a brand new title, like a whole new IP and establish it on the PlayStation network or something versus working on the same game again for six months. Basically, I would feel like I would be losing momentum at that point.
Action: What are some of the other challenges of running a studio while you're also doing a full time job?
Action: How do you balance that? There are some indies who are listening to this podcast and that's what they are doing, too. How do you actually make a lot of progress? You have to have accountability at work.
Billy: Yes, I am not quite sure if this is a blessing or a curse, but so far I've been able to run off of very little sleep.
Billy: That's one. Seriously, this week I think I went to bed at four o'clock in the morning. Last night I went to bed at five o'clock in the morning, and then I wake up at eight thirty and I go put in eight hours a day at my other job which is also doing art for casino gaming. I'm also a production illustrator at another game company, so I basically live, breathe and sleep game development.
I'll say that if you are in a situation like this it makes you fast, like I'm basically practicing all day long for the job that I do all night long. And I feel like I can do things twice as fast as I used to than probably a lot of people, and that's not a quality thing. There are a lot of artists that are a lot more talented than I am, but I know the process of creating game art so well now that I'll bypass a lot of wasted time and second attempts and stuff.
First of all, you have to be able to sacrifice that kind of time and maybe a little bit of your health to put in the time. That's the thing. If you want to make a good product, you have to put in the time. I don't know if anyone else is partnering in another game studio and trying to do game development on the side, but I was able to get permission from the company I work for to pursue this on the side because it's not a conflict of interest because I'm not going into the gambling space.
Billy: So, they saw that as being completely safe and so I don't have to be sneaky, you know what I mean. If I have to write an email or something from my day job that pertains to Perfect Dork Studios, I don't really think anyone is going to cry or cry foul.
Billy: But, it does make it hard to do stuff like meetings. Most of my meetings either have to happen late at night or on the weekends. Basically, all my weekends are like double the time to work. I don't really have any time off ever, so that's another thing that you have to understand. If you really want to make it work while having a day job, you definitely have to learn how to start sacrificing your time to make it happen.
There's a lot of stamina required and you just have to put in the hours, right? It's really hard to have daytime meetings. Obviously, I was going to say if a task has to be done and delivered to someone in the daytime that's incredibly challenging because you don't have those hours to do things. Coordination is a big challenge.
Action: Compared to previous years, you're releasing a lot more games this year. What changed that in terms of how you manage your time or your development process so that you're able to release a lot more games this year, say, compared to last year or the year before?
Billy: I think being able to help is what changed that.
Action: When you say help, are you talking about people helping your studio? Are there other people working at your studio?
Billy: Yeah, yeah. I'll subcontract other artists now. I used to handle everything on my own. We're talking everything from interface to 3D modeling to marketing materials like flyers and websites and stuff. Everything was handled by just myself on top of trying to manage the team and the scheduling. If I want to be a good boss, I have to be there for my team when they need me, when they have questions or when they have issues that pop up that they need your input in stat, you know what I'm saying?
Billy: So, I was able to manage that when I only had one game project that we were working on which was last year. Box Macabre was the only thing on our plate. And then starting with Aim for the Brain, that basically opened up a floodgate of new iPhone projects that we started up.
My time went from almost nothing to-I don't even understand how I can pull it off. Hopefully, my team's not listening and getting nervous. It's a constant reminder that every minute counts, and there are certain things that I feel that I have to do in order for the product to be good, in order for myself to feel fulfilled. If there are tasks that I can delegate to another artist that I trust, then I do it and I've finally been able to come up with the means to do so as far as financially because I definitely like to pay the people that help me out.
Billy: If you can swing it, yeah, if you can afford it, bring on help because these are the people that are going to free you up to the job that you are actually supposed to be doing. I think I traded Photoshop in for Excel or something because I spent more time doing schedules and looking over our milestones than I'm actually doing the art. There's still a lot of key art that I'm in charge of.
Action: And you made this transition then last year?
Billy: I made the transition over the holiday so this is real recent.
Billy: And so far, so good. I am anticipating a little more free time after March. After GDC is done we'll have a little down time. Blade of Betrayal is actually releasing at the beginning of March so that development is at its tail end right now. It's not like I'm going to have four concurrent projects on all the time. I am actually looking forward to having a little more free time to devote to the other projects.
Action: Last year, how big was your team then working on that one project?
Billy: OK, so Box Macabre initially was myself and three others; myself, my lead game designer who also has a lot of experience as a lead in QA. He's actually able to QA the design before we even make stuff. So, before we even do things, he can say, you know what? You are going to have trouble with this so we might want to rethink that. It's really nice to have someone who can troubleshoot before even making certain decisions. It was myself, the designer and two programmers back last fall.
Since then, I've hired a concept artist, a very talented artist named Helen Zhu, who I also just ran into at GDC. It's amazing how you just run into people that are just perfect for your project.
Billy: Now, there's a concept artist on board, as I said before. We have a composer on board which is really nice because traditionally in the past I've done all the music as well. The particular sound for Box Macabre is a style that I'm just not really good with. I do a lot of techno rock, and Box Macabre is a lot more classical. It's orchestral and kind of Danny Elfman like, so it's really just not up my alley.
Six people are part of Box Macabre right now, and then I just brought on the iPhone developer so now we're looking at a total of seven people. It went from two at the beginning to four and now seven in a span of, I guess, since the beginning probably about two years now. I would say pretty rapid growth, considering our projects.
Action: Yeah, I was just going to mention that. You mentioned that you were working with other programmers. Did you find that accountability or the fact that you and the programmers were responsible to each other one of the reasons that you were able to do this in addition to your full time job?
Billy: Absolutely. You have to have people that are self-motivated and just as ambitious as you are. Otherwise, you are going to expect a lot out of them that they won't deliver.
Action: How are you then balancing the fact that they also have other time commitments besides this and their job?
Billy: Well, I would say that a little goes a long way. I do everything that I can in my power to make my team happy. Sometimes, it's through money but more often than not it's not about money. It's more about giving them the chance to contribute more than just what their title says.
Everyone deep down has an artistic vision, and so on our projects I allow them the chance to really be not only the master of their own craft but really contribute to what everyone else is doing. Any time they need anything, I'll get them stuff whether it's like books or resources, tools. I take them to conventions.
Basically, I do everything I can in my power to let them know that they're not just hired guns to me, that they are a team and that we're a team moving forward together. I think that when people feel that way it's really easy for them to go above and beyond and be ambitious and be self-motivated because they know that if they let one of us down they let all of us down. Nobody wants to be that person.
Everyone cares about the project as if it were their own because it is. That's how, I believe, I keep them motivated plus these are guys that this is the kind of game that none of us have ever done before. There's a lot of breakthroughs that we're all making as far as our experience and education that pushes us forward. There's nothing like learning new things to help motivate you to learn more new things. Once you have a new toy to play with, you could be at it for weeks.
Action: Can you talk about the benefit of working with a programmer in person versus just contracting it out somewhere else?
Billy: You can get immediate results. For instance...
Action: Have you tried remote development, or are all these people pretty much local?
Billy: Yeah. Actually, the first company I worked with for Blade of Betrayal, at the time they were called HBT Interactive. They have since changed their name to Conjured Realms. They're based out of Houston, and they're still based out of Houston.
From day one I was an Austinite. I had to work off site almost that entire development. There would be times I would drive into Houston for long weekend sessions where we would be in the same room. I tell you what? We got more done in two days being in the same room together than we would have in the two weeks that we spent apart.
That's because as soon as a change gets made we can all experience it. We don't have to wait for someone to get around to write an email or uploading a build to the build server, or what if a build is available but I'm off doing an errand and I can't even see it until three o'clock in the morning and that programmer is waiting on evac on me before moving forward. All that time he could have been working. Instead, he is waiting on me.
Instead of that, when you can be in the same space with somebody, you can give them immediate feedback. You can get almost instant results, and you can explain yourself in a way that sometimes is hard in writing. For instance, if I say I want the jump to feel more like this. If I write that out and then the programmer understands it in a way that I didn't mean, I'm going to get results that I don't want which is more time wasted.
Once you're in synch with a programmer and you guys speak the same language, I think it's a little easier to spread yourselves apart. That's why I keep working with the same guys because we're getting that. I can say one thing, and they can understand the full weight of it.
Action: Can you talk about the transition you encountered as you shifted from artist now to more of a producer?
Billy: Well, it felt pretty organic. It's not like I went to business school or game producer college, but I feel that just being a lifelong gamer and also someone who is technically knowledgeable about how to make them, it felt like a natural progression. It's almost like my father, for instance. He is a project manager at an engineering company, but he started off welding bolts on pipes.
Billy: Because he saw it from the ground level he was able to take that with him as he moved up, and his understanding of his craft is so absolute that no one can really question his authority on it. And so, that's how I am starting to feel where because I know the actual production side of it as far as creating assets and implementing assets and things like that. I now know how to speak to others that are going to be creating those assets for me, if you follow.
Billy: The thing that I've had to learn more than anything is just really time management, and learning how to prioritize is a big thing. I can't stress it enough how much you just have to be flexible because if you set an expectation that something has to be a certain way or else it can't work, then it probably won't work.
You have to leave yourself a little bit of room to move around problems, you know what I'm saying? A lot of times you can have a lot of happy accidents because one feature that you think could be a core feature, if it doesn't work, it might lead to something that actually ends up being more fun.
Action: How do you keep up then with the industry and changes, upcoming games and stuff like that?
Billy: Oh, well, through podcasts.
Billy: I get a lot of news that way. I am a frequent visitor of sites like Takotu and Joystick. I've got an account through Game Press, so as official press release stuff comes out I get it all the time.
Billy: And I'm pretty up to speed with-I would say-the industry in general. Actually, oddly enough, I spend more time paying attention to the big guys and not as much as the indies.
Action: Oh, really.
Billy: I probably should spend more time because I'm an indie myself, but I get informed on a daily basis through a number of Web publications.
Action: What other podcasts do you listen to?
Billy: Well, unfortunately, Oneup, all of those guys got laid off but that was my favorite podcast, just one of FM and one of yours.
Billy: Because they brought the news but they also brought their personalities. I think that's really important as a developer because we're unique and we're distinct among the AAA titles as far as we can do things that they can't. Our personalities come out through our games.
Billy: And so, if people like our games chances are they like us. I think building that personal relationship as a developer is really important because the main thing that I really want to develop is that Perfect Dork Studios is a really versatile company, like we're going to make all sorts of different types of games but that they are all going to be good. I want to deliver on that promise, and every single time someone sees that Perfect Dork Studios is attached to something, I want them to understand that means it's going to be a good product.
Action: What do you see then in store for the future of your studio?
Billy: OK, well...
Action: So, you have these upcoming titles.
Billy: Yeah, on the docket right now the definite plans are we are releasing Blade of Betrayal on iPhone in March of this year followed by Bumble Tales on PC and iPhone in May. Then, if nothing else comes up we are releasing Box Macabre on both PC and XNA Creators Club in late October is our target. If we can squeeze it in there I am really, really trying to do a smaller side story, Box Macabre for iPhone, because anyone who wants to play that game I want to be able to give them an opportunity to do so.
It's really less of a money generating project and more of I want people to be exposed to the game and to its world, and I want them to fall in love with the character. Hopefully, it inspires them to, if they have an Xbox, jump on and buy the full big daddy version or jump on the PC and buy it. Those are the definite things that are happening this year.
You see that there's a nice stretch in the summertime where we don't plan to have any releases. That's because I want to give us as much time as we need to really make Box Macabre fulfill its potential because I really don't think there's a title like it on the platform on XNA Creators Club.
Billy: I really think that it's going to be a game that players are going to want to play, especially fans of 2D adventure games, such as Super Metroid and the Castlevania Symphony of the Night, so basically like Metrovania type games.
It kind of goes similarly in that formula, but it's a new IP and it's a different world in those games. We do things differently, and so I think it is going to be familiar as far as your particular objectives, but the overall experience, I think, is going to be fresh.
I think fans of those types of games are just really going to love it because I'm a fan of those types of games and I love Box Macabre. It's not even because I'm making it. I'm making the game that I love because it's the kind of game I want to play.
Action: What is the goal then of your studio long term? I know you mentioned that, I mean, is there any specific type of games that you want to make? Is it mainly about the games that you want to make?
Billy: My team is not quiet at all about doing a follow up game to Box Macabre as an action RPG. They want nothing more than to do a RPG. In fact, they've already started thinking about the story, and they are already putting it together in the back of their minds. I love the fact that they are already looking to the future. They are invested into the studio so much. How am I not going to do it, you know what I mean?
Billy: The games are as good as the developers. If the developers have their hearts in them, then the games are going to be fantastic. I believe that the next thing on the plate to follow probably-it's going to be definitely 2010. I really doubt we'll be able to put out an RPG before 2009 is up, but that's where it's looking like we are headed.
I have invested in my iPhone developers well, so I wouldn't be surprised if we have roughly three to four iPhone games coming out every single year and probably more as we grow.
I'm still an art outsource company. If a really good opportunity comes up to collaborate with another studio that needs a content creator, then I'll probably do that as well. It's about just the timing being the right time and all the business making sense.
But, the ultimate goal is to have enough revenue coming in from our product to be able to do it full time. I can't even imagine how much more we will be able to accomplish if we're all doing this full time. We've got the taste in our mouths right now. It's going to be really hard to sway us from this goal. It's likely to happen in 2010, so I would keep an eye out on us, right?
Action: Are there any other things that you are doing to promote Box Macabre right now?
Billy: I actually just hired - a buddy of mine owns a marketing company, Zocore Marketing who is helping me. He is helping me get the name out there. He's got a lot of experience. He did stuff for Right Guard and RGX campaign. I don't know if you remember that, the body spray or not, but that was his.
Anyways, I want this thing to succeed so bad. I know a lot of this is beyond my capability because there are only enough hours in the day. If I had to project manage and create art assets and get out there and try to do PR, I couldn't. There are just not enough hours in the day plus I have a family, too, you know what I am saying? And they're just as important as my business ambitions.
So, I hired my friend and he's already started to get the ball rolling on our marketing strategy. He's really good about focus groups and target audiences. We're not going to spend a whole lot of time marketing Blade of Betrayal which is a hard core TV sites action game in the vein of NinjaGate and Castlevania. We're not going to spend a lot of time marketing that game on a casual portal that really caters to young children and/or older adults that just want a more casual experience, like a puzzle game or a non-combative game.
We're going to put marketing for Blade of Betrayal out on hard core gaming sites and gaming sites that are more tailored to our target audience, which are 10 to 30 year old males. I say 10 year old males because it stars a young man but it's all action. It's all fighting.
Billy: There are all sorts of creatures in it. And then, I say up to the 30 year olds because the game is a throwback to the 8-bit and 16-bit era of platformers and action platformers. So, that would be a vast market. But, yeah, those are the people that we're going to target.
How are we going to do it? Well, we're going to do it through Web advertising, so Web advertising space and, of course, it's going to be the URL. Bladeofbetrayal.com, that's going to have even more info and how do we direct people there. Well, we throw up, maybe, YouTube videos or other embedded online videos of the game in action where people can click on it and it takes them back to the website.
The Web is a really viable place, especially for a game that is going to be downloaded. This is your market, people who are comfortable with using the Internet. People that are comfortable with making purchases over a digital copy of something. They never get a physical product. These are the people that are going to buy your game, and so that's the approach.
There's a lot of Web stuff though. At conventions I have done print in packages. I paid the sponsorship money to have flyers for Perfect Dork Studios packed into people's goody bags and stuff.
Action: What would you say are the top three learning lessons you've had since starting your studio, things that you wish you had known that would have accelerated your progress?
Billy: I would say of the things that I wish I had known that would have accelerated the process? OK, I wish I had more confidence earlier on in myself and the team's abilities to do something on our own as opposed to spending a lot of time really trying to put a lot of faith in somebody else to make it happen for us and, I mean, like a publisher.
Billy: Just kind of praying for that golden goose to come down and give you the absolute freedom.
I think that in the past I wish I had seen those times that I felt so down on myself about those "failures". I wish I would have seen those as blessings in disguise because I really go back and I think about what if Melody Strike actually got picked up, and the next eight to nine months of my time even up to a year, were spent developing that game.
Looking back, I don't know that I could have made it the game that it has the potential to be. So, I think that would have been upsetting to take it to the end and have it not do well. But, what it did lead me to do was what I am doing now which is far more opportunity than I had before.
I'm trying to think of something technical that I've learned. It can't all be this kind of pseudo artsy emotional stuff.
Action: Well, you talked about hiring other people, and that's seems to have been a huge breakthrough, right?
Billy: For a very long time I have been very proud that I can do a lot of different tasks and I think that's a necessity. Like I said before, everyone needs to be a multi-tasker and have multiple talents so that your time can be used very efficiently.
Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you're the best person for that particular job and I learned that. It took some time because a lot of time you're like, why would I bring someone else on if it's something that I can do myself?
The answer to that question is, well, a) because you have more important business to attend to. And also, that person, even though you may be able to do the job, they may be better at it or faster, or they may know things that are more relevant to the project. As far as, I don't have a lot of experience with real-time 3D engines and creating animation for that, for instance.
I'm decent with modeling and texturing, but when it came to the animation I was like, you know what? I've got so much other stuff to do and I know that my buddy, Tony, who was the designer on Aim for the Brain, he's awesome at animation. He's helped me out there.
Being able to accept that and not take it as a knock against your own pride, it's the only way you can keep your momentum going. That's definitely a big learning point, accepting help, knowing to let go, you know what I mean?
I think, if you'll let me add one more, knowing when to make cuts. That's a huge thing that I've learned is that a good game doesn't necessarily mean a game that has every single little idea that you thought of for it. This is something you will hear other people say all the time, but I don't think it carries the kind of weight that it has to until you experience it firsthand.
It's definitely quality over quantity. I can't stress that enough. You can spend all of your time throwing in tons of content but if all it is half baked, if all of it is two, three star material when you're looking for a five star material game, you're just not going to get it because you're too focused on the amount of content versus the quality of the content. I think that people are going to walk away feeling better about their purchase and better about their experience if they feel like they walked away from a high quality game.
Action: OK, great. Any last words then for other indie game developers out there?
Billy: I would say I encourage anyone who is interested in making games to just do it. You can read up all day long on the processes. You can buy books. You can listen to other people like me talk about it all day, but for real the only way you are going to just do it and learn how to do it is by doing it.
That's how I learned and I think my understanding of it is far deeper than if I was formally taught. And those being formally taught at trade schools and stuff, just go for it. You guys have an edge, actually. You guys are going to be able to bypass a lot of the hurdles that the guys without any experience are going to be stumbling upon. I think it might benefit you to find enthusiastic people that you can coach along the way, so your knowledge is very valuable.
It takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of stamina, and there's a lot of times when you may feel like it would be easier to quit, and I would tell you not to. Just keep it up. If anybody needs a pep talk, just send me an email, email@example.com and I will talk you up all day long. I'll make you feel good about yourself, and you're going to be ready to make some games.
You have to have a lot of love for it. If you don't love games and if you don't want to be part of that industry and if you don't want to be part of that world because it's just not in you, then you're going to have a harder time. I'm not saying it's impossible to create stuff because I've known plenty of people whose hearts weren't in it that actually got through things, but it was very difficult. There was always the struggle. Every step of the way they were asking themselves: is this worth it? Is it worth it? Those are the people that don't go after it again.
I'm on my sixth or seventh independent game now and each time has gotten better. Each time has gotten more efficient, and believe it or not, each time has gotten more and more exciting. We're learning and growing at the same time.
If I have a chance to just give my contact information again...
Billy: It's firstname.lastname@example.org. That's p-e-r-f-e-c-t-d-o-r-k-s-t-u-d-i-o-s .com. If you go to the website, perfectdorkstudios.com, you'll be able to find links to all the games that I talked about, including Aim for the Brain and Box Macabre.
I'm really grateful for the time. Thank you for allowing me to talk about the studio and our games. I really hope that anyone listening right now, just keep an eye out for our games. I hope you play them. I hope you love them, and I'm just going to keep making them.
Action: Great. We're talking with Billy from Perfect Dork Studios. Thanks again for your time.
Show Notes: Aaron Murray: Hi, my name is Aaron Murray, and I am the founder of Tandem Games.
Interviewer: How did you get into games?
Aaron: I am a programmer by trade and I've always been messing around with projects with friends for a while. A couple of years ago a buddy of mine and I started doing some game demos and there you have it.
Interviewer: What types of games did you initially do? Like what types of demos? Any specific genre or just playing around?
Aaron: We had always kind of talked about Xbox live sort of games.
Aaron: Redstro action-type games, but we ended up doing our first demo as a casual game.
Interviewer: And so, you do the demo. What happens after that? Did you show it to people? Did you release it on the web?
Aaron: For this demo, we took it to the Independent Game Conference in Austin, Texas, and displayed it there at the Game Demo Night. It ended up winning second place in the votes, and it just motivated us to keep doing games.
Interviewer: After that demo, were you thinking about doing another casual game or experimenting with another type of genre?
Aaron: We had the goal of taking that game and finishing it and releasing it on the portals, but a couple of days after that show we got contacted by a company called Critical Mass. They wanted us to do an advergame based on that game which we did.
Interviewer: Was it pretty much then reskinning the game for a specific advertisement, or was it a new game plan entirely or how did that work?
Aaron: The way it was pitched to us was a reskin. We thought that would be a great idea, and we started the reskin and decided that we didn't want to use up our idea on this advergame. So, we changed functionally how the player advanced through the game. So, it's kind of a hybrid.
Interviewer: Once you finished the advergame, were you thinking about, "Hey, I could, maybe, start an Indie game studio around advergaming" or what were your thoughts then?
Aaron: I was definitely against continuing down the road of contract work. That's been the major downfall of games. You get locked in contract mode and as soon as there are a few months where you're waiting on a publisher or something, the whole company can collapse. So, because of that I really wanted to self-fund and be stable.
Interviewer: Were you even hesitant to take the adware gaming thing because what I've seen is that some Indie game studios will be like, "I want to do Indie game development", and then they kind of get sucked into the whole contract gig cycle. And it's like an addiction to an extent because you... It's good pay. It can be good pay or it's a good experience or whatever. But at the same time, you know, to do a good job there you are kind of cutting resources on, maybe, your own projects or something else like that.
Aaron: It was enticing. The reason we took it was because the company we did the game for - they are giving the game away for free on USB key chains at the GDC.
Aaron: We thought that was kind of cool to have our game be schwag. But, then we did get, man, probably three or four more offers right after that game for other games and turned them all down because of, like you said, doing those games means we can't do our own games. Doing stuff that I don't want to do is like a normal job, and I have a normal job.
Interviewer: Did you start going to GDC then around the time where you started developing these demos, or did you just focus on the local community where you were at to get game development inspiration and stuff like that?
Aaron: I went to the GDC in San Francisco last year for the first time in 2007 - 2008, sorry. Then, I went to the Austin GDC. This year I'm going to San Francisco again. I'm actually taking a couple of employees with me, so that's cool.
Interviewer: How would you compare the Austin Game Developers Conference versus the San Francisco one, like in terms of the expense for you?
Aaron: They are very different. The Austin one is almost entirely dedicated to online gaming. It's a lot smaller and more focused. Since I just launched an online game last year, it was perfect. If you have online games or an interest in that, Austin GDC is definitely THE show.
Interviewer: Getting back then to you releasing the advergame and getting three or four more offers after that and you decided to work on your own game. What was the next game you guys decided to do?
Aaron: We originally planned on taking that first demo and finishing that game, but as it turned out we had one guy who needed to take a break, the sound guy. So, we came up with a random idea to do a web-based MMO that was kind of like an old MUD, text-based. Without flash, without plug-ins, so that you could play it at work.
Interviewer: Was this around 2007 or 2006?
Aaron: We started that in March, 2008.
Interviewer: Oh, really, wow. Awesome. That is tight. So, you decided on doing this MMO. Now, around that time you must have been hearing about some of these other Indie MMOs that have gotten out there and they were getting a lot of users. Were you concerned that it may have been too late to do the MMO, or what was the strategy then to get this MMO out and to do it quickly because it sounds like it was just a short while ago when you were just thinking about the idea?
Aaron: It was a short while ago, and I'll be honest. I didn't play any other web MMOs so I was really in the dark as far as what was out there. I wouldn't recommend that, but it worked out for us.
Interviewer: And so, you decided to do this MMO. How long did you think it was going to take to develop?
Aaron: Well, I've got a lot of experience with web development, so I thought I could do the game in three months which seems fairly absurd, I'd say, to most humans.
Interviewer: Yeah because it's an MMO. Did you say you were going to bypass Flash then?
Aaron, Yeah, no Flash.
Interviewer: Because there's some MMOs where - you're right - they are just pure PHP-based. Is that what you decided to do, go with PHP or was it another type of language?
Interviewer: Wow. When you started developing this thing, were you working with anyone else doing it, or was it mostly a solitary thing? Because I know sometimes coordination on these things, especially if you already know all the technology, might hinder rather than accelerate things.
Aaron: I was the only technical person, and I had one partner who did art work and story.
Interviewer: Did you tell anyone else about your MMO idea before you got started? Was there any other feedback or suggestions from a lot of people?
Aaron: I talked to a few developers. That was about it.
Interviewer: What did they say? Did they say that it would work or let's see what happens?
Aaron: Most people kind of laughed.
Interviewer: That means you're on to a good idea.
Aaron: One guy was particularly critical who is notorious for being anti-everything. We chatted for about four hours. At the end of this chat he said that, maybe, it'll work out which is about the best compliment I'd ever heard from him. I thought, maybe, this will work.
Interviewer: You started developing this thing. How did you balance working on the technology versus working on the game play, making sure that the game is balanced in the point system and the economy and everything else is working?
Aaron: I went into that fairly blind. I was working on the technology. Because we're not using any plug-ins we had to develop a way to use Ajax purely, to have real time chat, real time battles in a web browser without any plug-ins. It was a decent task, so I hit that pretty hard and then released a really, really rough open beta. Players started playing it and said, "Wow, it's really simple but pretty fun and different. So, why don't you add all these features" and then that led to the next four months of development of all the features.
Interviewer: When you said real time, did you ever think about doing it more asynchronous interaction instead of real time, or do you think real time is a key component of this game?
Aaron: I did look at a couple of RPGs, web RPGs, after the development. Most of them are: you go to the page where it's your inventory page and then you click a link and you go to the page that you want to fight a monster. It didn't feel like a game to me. It was more of like using a business application. I just wanted it all to be one page. I never wanted to leave the page. I never really wanted to wait for anything, so that's why it went to real time.
Interviewer: Did you decide to give this MMO a name? I don't know. You're releasing it in open Beta, so maybe you're flexible on a name.
Aaron: We got the name early on. It was Domain of Heroes.
Interviewer: Great. And so, you release it. When you say open beta, did you mainly get developers coming in? What demographic did you target this thing towards?
Aaron: The original idea was people who were at work, so that was the demographic. For a long time I've said, "You can play WOW when you get home, but you can play DoH when you are at work". DoH is the nickname I use for Domain of Heroes.
Interviewer: Then, you targeted business forums.
Aaron: [laughs] You assume that I had an advertising campaign back then and I didn't.
Interviewer: You don't have to advertise it. I think it's novel enough where you could literally just release it anywhere as long as it's targeting your audience that can spread it word-of-mouth or something.
Aaron: I didn't go around and tell anyone. I don't know how people found it, to be quite honest. But, a couple people did and a couple people told their friends. Early on, we'd get one or two people a day would sign up.
Interviewer: Were you guys keeping track of metrics and all that other stuff early on, or was it just looking at how many people registered for the day?
Aaron: I am a huge fan of metrics. Somebody once told me that anything worth improving is worth measuring. Because of my enterprise software background, I track everything. I'm kind of a freak about that, hovering over that data.
Interviewer: You do more than just Google analytics. You have your own built-in system.
Aaron: Everything is custom.
Interviewer: You said that you got feedback from your beta users. At that point were you thinking about doing another game or just continuing on this? What was your decision process at that point?
Aaron: I just assumed that it would be put out there, just kind of a fun trinket. And life would go on, and I would work on another game. But, it quickly turned. I was getting a lot of email and a lot of posts on the forums, people wanting feature requests.
Aaron: I was chatting with them in-game, so I was, basically, just rapidly developing all these enhancements as people wanted things. They wanted guilds, so I put in guilds. They wanted trading, and they wanted this, that and the other. So, I just started adding features constantly. I think that really was key because players like to be able to connect with the developers, and they like it when they can say, "Hey, how about if we have this idea?" And then that week have it be implemented.
Interviewer: How fast did you have to add in the features because it sounds like you were getting a lot of feedback? Did you pretty much let them know when things were going to get released, or was it more like, "OK, this will happen in two weeks" or you tried to implement as many features as you could every week?
Aaron: I was doing daily updates, and I didn't tell them when updates would happen. I didn't tell them what features were coming. I was doing daily updates for a long time. Now, it's probably a few a week. But, some people would literally email me with an idea and it was simple to implement, and they would have feature that night. It was kind of shocking to them. That's probably why they told their friends, more of the novelty of that than even the game.
Interviewer: Yeah, definitely, the community. Can you talk about some of the features that you felt had a huge impact in terms of the game experience? Some of the features that they suggested that you implement? You mentioned the guild system. How does that guild system work, and how long did it take to do?
Aaron: The guild system works so someone, a player, can start a guild. I guess to give you a little bit of a background, the game is free. There is no limit to the quests or the items that you can get. The way that we monetize it is we sell wishes, and then you can make a wish and customize the game or add a convenience feature - become powerful because you're rich. I'm just very much against selling the greatest sword to the rich players. So, you can start a guild, but that's not critical. You can start a guild for wishes, and then you are essentially the founder of the guild which gives you all of the rights. Then, you can invite players who are guild worthy and promote them. There's a guild vault where people can donate items and you have to gain experience from other players in the guild who are playing and these various guildy-type things. That took, maybe, a couple of weeks to do.
Interviewer: What the guild gamer's experience is that they compete against other guilds or is it to help the players in the guilds with their RPG quest and stuff like that?
Aaron: It's primarily a way for guilds to be higher ranked and competitive because the guilds would go in levels. So, a few of the top guilds are constantly vying for that top spot on the leader board as a guild.
Interviewer: When you talk about quests, are these then things that you designed that people go through, like in terms of just some kind of journey, or are these things that other users make up?
Aaron: The quests are all developed by us, currently. You can go to an inn and talk to the barmaid or whoever is in there and get a quest. So, we've created all those. We originally were going to have players write them, but content quality becomes a concern. So, we may end up having a land that is purely player-based, things like that, but I don't know that we'll mix that in with the regular-based game. It's really difficult to manage.
Interviewer: How long does it take then to make a quest, and how long does it take for a player to usually play a normal quest?
Aaron: The quests are very much just like a few paragraphs of story, so some quests are quick to write. Some are a labor of love that take a while, but the writers usually can do a quest an hour when they've got some plan in mind.
Interviewer: That's good.
Aaron: And the players can do a quest in minutes, or it could potentially not be beatable at that time if they're not strong enough to face some boss or something.
Interviewer: I've seen some of these quests being implemented, and one of the things I've seen is that they have mini quests within the larger quest. The larger quest may take a few weeks or a month, but the mini quest within the major quest, at least, gives the player the sense of progress toward something. I wasn't sure if that's the strategy you use or if it's something else.
Aaron: Yes, you're right. I always want to have there, to be something immediately that the player can advance or get or do so that there's always something fun to do within the grand scheme, kind of like Diablo II was a big influence on me. One of their designers said that they had the five minute carrot system which was every five minutes they wanted the player to be either leveling up or finding a treasure or getting a quest, something like that.
Interviewer: These quests, do they have their own quest points, or do their RPG points determine whether they can defeat the bosses in a specific quest?
Aaron: The quests have prerequisites. In order to get a quest, you either have to be the right race or the right class or the right faction or the right gender at the right level. Once you get a quest, at that point it's technically possible to beat it, and then it's up to the player to be prepared for that challenge.
Interviewer: Do you focus then mainly on quests for more experienced players or for newbie players?
Aaron: Currently, most of the quests that we have out released are for new players. The first 20 or so levels have a pretty good selection of quests that are constant. It starts to fizzle out from there, but we're actively writing tons and tons of quests. Currently, we've got about as much text in the game as the book, "Huckleberry Finn". It's taken a while.
Interviewer: That's good. That's awesome. Do you mainly then have writers locally do this, or do you try to contract out writers to write some of these quests? What's the best strategy to do that?
Aaron: Well, it certainly is easy to find people remotely, but I really struggle with effective communication on creative projects with people who aren't local because it's so easy to sit down next to someone and say, "You know, that sword - what if it did this or looked like this one" and be able to rapidly reiterate over that versus if I sent an email and tomorrow the guy reads it. And then the next day I get a sword, and then tomorrow I give him another. It could take a week to get that sword where sitting next to someone it takes 10 minutes. So, I like to work with local people.
Interviewer: One thing I've also seen work was that you may usually have really dedicated fans of your MMO that hang out in your forum and having them do work or contribute in a more interesting way sometimes works.
Aaron: We have done that. Actually, all of the attack animations were done by one guy who volunteered for that.
Interviewer: It's called passion sourcing. Instead of outsourcing, you just find people who are really passionate because, quite frankly, they are probably going to do a better job.
Interviewer: That's cool that you noticed that also happened. Do players get tired of the game? How do you keep players constantly engaged, aside from adding more content?
Aaron: I'm sorry.
Interviewer: Aside from adding more content, is there anything else - do you have players that have been there for a while, and they're, "Well, now, it's getting a little boring" or do you have to focus on that other game more? Or is that something that hasn't been an issue?
Aaron: Well, I think it has been an issue, and I think that's where I have run into the trouble of being just one guy. Players would get bored, right? They can do all of the quests faster than I can get them written. What I rely on to keep players engaged is just functionality updates because I have control over that. I can add new features all the time. It's an alternative to giving you more quests to do. While those quests are getting written, here's what I can do for you. Do you want to able to whisper to people? Sure. Let me do that tonight. It's not perfect, but it's what I can do.
Interviewer: Something that I've seen other people do is - you mentioned use of generated content. Right now, it's kind of restricted in your game, right? Or is there still an opportunity for a lot of these regenerated content?
Aaron: People can't make quests or lore. They can take over land and get their name displayed in the game and put more items in the shop, but they can't really create story in the game right now.
Interviewer: I've seen some games where they don't necessarily add a lot of content. You know, when you talk about quests and stories because they have some kind of game dynamic or mechanics that literally as the players are playing the game they are generating content for other players. Is that something that you've looked into because that's just seems more scalable than having the pre-made system?
Aaron: It is. It's a good point. I would argue that they are actually different because I think players know when they are dealing with generated "content" because it has the same structure or format versus when you get the new quest written and it's talking about this guy's greasy handlebar mustache. You know that's just not going to be generated and be quality. What I want to do with what your suggestion was, was have players that are high level in the game become targets for other players and deal more with the faction element. We have these three factions that are constantly warring over land because they'll get double experience and better items if they control land. To add more like that, wanted posters and those sorts of things.
Interviewer: Right now, can players battle each other?
Aaron: Yeah. They can do one-on-one battles or actually huge faction battles.
Interviewer: Did you run into issues with balancing the economy and the point systems and making sure that the game mechanics and the reward systems are set up in a way that it keeps staying fun? I don't know if you've run into that issue with the economy.
Aaron: Well, the economy doesn't suffer inflation. Maybe, it does suffer inflation. The shop is so different than any other game. It's only what you see in there aside from potions or weapons that other people want to sell. So, it's like a big garage sale. As far as balancing, that's just the bane of my existence.
Interviewer: Do you have any strategies for doing that well? Literally, if you change the reward system from one point to two points, first of all, a lot of people are going to notice it. It might actually make it a lot more fun or a lot less fun. How are you testing to make sure that this thing just keeps getting more fun in terms of the reward system?
Aaron: That's a good question. Well, your first question was about balancing. The things that I planned out, graphs, min and max, the case scenarios and all that stuff, those are balanced and have stayed balanced nicely. The things that I just shot from the hip and said, "This will probably work", thumb in the air. Those have destroyed my free time with hate mail. Don't make that mistake, if at all possible, because I'm still reaping what I've sown in that area.
Interviewer: So, then can you talk about the process that you used to actually make the right types of balanced decisions? You mentioned having graphs and stuff like that.
Aaron: For example, the stat points, in every level gaining stat points. The way the game works is you get a certain number of stat points due to your race. A certain number of stat points due to your class automatically assigned to your different attributes. Then, you also get five. It's not too hard to figure out how many stat points that people have in total when they are maxed out by level and everything. Using those numbers, I could see what was the most power a person would ever have at base or the most luck. Using those boundaries, then I could work within the game as far as formulas and how much power is good and those sorts of things. That worked well. The way I did skills which was, "Yeah, five percent per level sounds perfect for this fireball spell". That didn't work at all.
Interviewer: When it didn't work, how did you actually go about fixing it?
Aaron: Basically, I sifted through millions of emails telling me that I was stupid and incompetent and then tried to distill the truth in their emails that was either the skill was either too overpowered or too underpowered. Then, I just constantly tweaked those values. People will cry out in pain when either you're really close or you're just a little bit off either way. As soon as you start getting close, you can just tell. A thousand emails a day will turn into a hundred, you know. You go from there.
Interviewer: If you had to do it again, how would you do that design differently? How would you prep to make sure that you wouldn't have run into that issue?
Aaron: I would find someone who's a lot smarter than me and have them do it, someone who is really into item balancing. And that's actually what I've done now. I have a guy who is just so into that sort of thing. He is rebalancing all that stuff, and that's his job.
Interviewer: For him to rebalance everything, does he then just run it through some kind of Excel, like some simulation or something else where he can see what's working?
Aaron: Yeah, we use a lot of Excel [laughs] as weird as that sounds.
Interviewer: Well, you run scenarios about if this person was battling this person with these kinds of weapons, what would happen and stuff like that? Is that the scenarios you run in Excel, or is there anything else you guys do?
Aaron: We run the possibilities. We crunch the possibilities through Excel, and then I have a program that I can actually bring up the characters, any characters I want, give them any items, any stats, not in a web page but in a program. And then run through all the game formulas, separate from the game and just run them. We do it that way.
Interviewer: That's interesting. Then, do you guys quote unit testing on the game balance?
Aaron: We do have some unit tests, but the game is far from having complete code coverage.
Interviewer: Aside from that, how do you actually make these changes because you're making a lot of these changes in real time when people are actually used to a certain version of the system? How are you balancing that issue with the need to actually make sure that new component is balanced properly?
Aaron: I can't claim to do it as well as the big players, like WOW or Age of Conan or whatever. I don't do it perfect. I know that I can't.
Interviewer: How are you also then, since it is a small team and you said you are primarily in charge of development, these MMOs are more like services. They're not necessarily like a shrink wrapped game. So how are you dealing with managing the community, making sure that you are responsive to the community while at the same time being able to focus on development and handling all these other issues that may pop up?
Aaron: That's a great question, actually. I have just been transitioning recently through that. Before when there wasn't a lot of players, it was easy to monitor all the forum activity and answer the emails in minutes. It's becoming a lot harder. For example, today we've had over 20,000 hits to the site; 1,300 logins. It'll be probably close to 2,000 by the end of the day, and that's just a lot of people that are wanting my time. I finally hired a couple people this last week and another person earlier this month. I am trying to not do it all now because I can't and get more help.
Interviewer: The people you hire, are they community support representatives?
Aaron: No, I hired two artists and a writer and then I have another guy doing the item balancing. We just share the work. We have many hats in a sense.
Interviewer: Did you find these folks from your community forum, or was this just local, as you said you prefer to do?
Aaron: The two artists I just got were from an ad that I posted on Craigslist. And for any Indie independent game companies that want to find employees, that was amazing. I posted for $25 an ad and got 10 resumes an hour until I turned the thing off.
Interviewer: Oh, wow.
Aaron: It was striking how many resumes I got.
Interviewer: So, Craigslist is then the best way to do it instead of Flicker. Have you tried to post on GameDev or any of these other places? I'm not sure actually if that is the best place to find stuff for this kind of new type of genres and types of technology. I wasn't sure.
Aaron: It may not be the best place for certain. I did also email a guy, a professor at a local community college, and I got one of the students who had worked on a game project that I saw last summer. So, I did get one person through there and one person through Craigslist. I didn't even get a chance to post on these other places because I immediately had 50-60 resumes.
Interviewer: Now, you have found other people. Has that helped? Has it been more challenging as you transition from development to managing?
Aaron: You're right. There is definitely an overhead of managing people and preparing their work, what they need to work on and answer questions and get them up to speed, all that kind of stuff. I was prepared for that. I knew that that was coming, so that type of thing doesn't bother me. Luckily, it hasn't been greatly unproductive and I see that so it's a long-term decision.
Interviewer: In terms of technology for the game, you mentioned using .net and Ajax. What are you using for a database? Is that MySQL?
Aaron: That's actually SQL Server 2005.
Interviewer: Oh, wow. Are you running into any scalable issues then with your game as it keeps growing?
Aaron: I've been thinking about that question since day one, so I've been fairly prepared. I've never had a situation where I couldn't handle the load. The main scalable thing I'm dealing with now is just making sure memory is used reasonably because of all the players and the data and all that stuff. I've also spent tons and tons of time making sure that the hards are monitored and used sparingly because that's usually the first thing to slow a system down.
Interviewer: What's monitored?
Aaron: Like hard drive.
Interviewer: Oh yeah, OK. You're running this off of one server, then?
Aaron: Yeah, the game is running off of a single Dell server that's dual quad core Xenon processors, 6 gigs of RAM.
Interviewer: Are there any other surprises with the technology? Do you back up the database every day then?
Aaron: The database gets backed up multiple times per day and then shipped off to another server so that I don't lose it in the great hard drive crash of May or something. As far as scalability, the band width usage quite a bit is an issue. Currently, the game has 79 players on it, and it's using about 20 kilobytes of band width for all 79 players to be doing real time chat, real battle all that stuff.
Interviewer: Are you using HTTPB compression? Did you turn on compression on Apache?
Interviewer: How is it then using proprietary because it seems like you have a proprietary set up compared to, say, doing an open source solution for your game? Do you think that was the best decision, or is it actually better because now you have some support and stuff like that for the software that you are using?
Aaron: Oh, you mean, why use SQL Server when I could use MySQL, that sort of thing?
Aaron: Well, I used both and both have treated me fine. I'm just very comfortable with the "enterprise" stuff.
Interviewer: Well, IAS is also a proprietary solution, right?
Aaron: It's Microsoft's.
Interviewer: Is there any reason to use that compared to, say, Apache?
Aaron: Well, since the website and everything is written in ASP.net, it runs easiest in IAS without having to try to set up a mono server or something. That's riskier. If I was using PHP, then it would totally make sense to use Apache.
Interviewer: Have there been any other surprises with the technology that you've used?
Aaron: This last week I've run into a hash table size bug in the .net which bit me like a viper in the face, but other than that it's been fairly smooth.
Interviewer: Do you measure then the response time of how quick players are getting data and moving on and stuff like that because I read an article somewhere where Google a hundred millisecond delay would actually decrease their usage rate by 20 percent? I don't know if that's something that you've paid attention to, or if that's something that's important to your game.
Aaron: It's fairly important to me. I've spent a lot of time on that. I'm always tuning that, but I cache as much as possible on the client. And I make sure that I only request files from the server when it's absolutely necessary and to try to speed that up because people don't like lag. When you have a game that you don't have a plug-in and you can't do a download that's been a pretty good struggle for me. How do I give you "Huckleberry Finn" and junk instantly without a download screen that has a circle on it?
Interviewer: When you say caching on the client, how are you caching on the client?
Interviewer: Do you do any caching on the server side, like Mem Cache or Mem Cache D or something else like that?
Aaron: It's all again proprietary so the game runs as a Windows service, and the web server connects to the service to interact with it. There's a whole layer of caching that sits over the database so that every one second I'm not asking the database for every player updates and things.
Interviewer: Since you are doing ASP.net and some of these more proprietary solutions, is that going to be easier or harder to find, say, people to help you with development, or do you think that's going to be a need?
Aaron: I actually believe it will be a benefit because when I need someone to help me with some obscure tuning issue there's a lot of professionals, especially locally here in Austin, that I can hire to have them get nitty gritty with some code with me. I don't need them to be game specific people. I need them to be - this guy knows more about object serialization than anyone on the earth, so let's get that guy in. In a weird way that works.
Interviewer: Let's transition then into business models. You mentioned that you use wishes that people can buy.
Interviewer: When you were first developing this game, did you have any idea on exactly how you would make money from it, if that was a thought even at the beginning?
Aaron: That wasn't thought of initially. Originally, the plan was to have some ads thrown up on the page and, maybe, people would click them, like that. I was also pretty adamant against, like I said, having to pay for access to the new quests or that kind of thing because that's irritating when you hear the game is free. You play and it's really not free to play. What you really got was a demo.
Aaron: So, I didn't want to bait-and-switch things. Early on, I came up with this idea. It's called the three C's which are core, customization and convenience. The core game is always free. customization and convenience are not critical, and players can pay for those. An example of customization would be like changing your color in chat.
Interviewer: What's been the most popular customization then in the game?
Aaron: The most popular upgrade?
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron: That is a pretty good question. I don't have the answer for that, but I can get it for you.
Interviewer: You didn't think about doing a subscription?
Aaron: Well, actually I didn't want a subscription because of various things. Actually, let me tell you. I just found out what the most popular upgrade is: new characters, creating more characters. You get one for free, and you get a free wish so you could have two characters. But, if you want more then you buy wishes to make more. Increasing material and reagent capacity. Everything in the game is made out of materials and the enchantments are made out of reagents. We're holding those to re-enchant your items essentially. The capacity, the inventory capacity, is huge. Back to your question...
Interviewer: Oh, yeah. The other question I had was: you just mentioned that people can have more than one character of the game. Do you know what the average number of characters most people have?
Aaron: The average characters?
Interviewer: Is it popular to just focus on one character, or do people like to have three to five characters and they're different races, different types? Just play with one one day, then play with another another day or something else like that.
Aaron: Most players have one character, but the players who stick around for more than about a week or so typically have five or so characters. And usually one of those is an item finding character, those sorts of things.
Interviewer: You also mentioned trading. Going back to trading, how popular is that in the game and what are people trading? Can you trade customization features, some of the customization features, or is that focused more on the core elements of the game?
Aaron: You can trade customization features, but you can trade wishes. That's one thing - it was a really tough decision to make. Can players trade wishes because I was worried that players would circumvent buying wishes if they could get them some other way. So, what I did was any wishes that are purchased tradable. You can trade it, and that way it really reduces the chance for exploits. Then, they can trade really anything in the game: items or coin or materials or reagents or wishes, and trading is very popular.
Interviewer: For your trading interface, is it then mainly going through that store where someone says, "OK, this is what I have to trade" and someone's like fine, "OK, fine, I'll buy it for this much, or I'll trade you this for this. How does that exactly work?
Aaron: The trade interfaces, you can click on anyone in chat and offer a trade to them. They can click 'accept'. Then, it brings up the trade screen for both players, and they can choose any other items that they have to show. And then enter any wishes or materials or reagents. So, it's very similar, like Diablo or WOW. They can choose what they want to show and then click, "Yeah, that is what I want to trade". And then they trade.
Interviewer: Going back to the subscription stuff, you decided then against the subscription. I know some MMOs they do have a subscription. WOW has a subscription, but obviously that would go against free-to-play. I wasn't sure if you ever considered it.
Aaron: Yes. The main problem with subscription; there's a couple problems with subscription. One good thing is that it's monthly money. You know you're getting $15 a month from this person. The downside is that in order for that person to convince their friend to play, that friend now has to play $15 a month. You are burdening everyone that you tell about the game. You are saying to them, "This game is as good as Netflix. You should use your Netflix money and play this game. They are saying, "Why, I already pay WOW. I can't". People's brains, they see subscriptions as almost mutually exclusive, like it's a buffet. Why would I purchase two buffet meals? I have all I can eat. I just don't see the subscription model working for most games in the future. I think it will work great for things like WOW or the shiny star of the genre, whatever that is. But, everyone else will have to, if they're smart, let their players tell other people about the game without requiring them to burden their friends with more money commitment. That's one of the major problems I see with subscription.
Interviewer: Speaking of getting friends involved, do have any kind of in-game systems to promote people to share the game with their friends where they could get wishes or something else if they can convince them? A wish could be like a magical wish where you try to send a wish to a person who's not in the game. If they respond to the wish, they get more wishes or something like that.
Aaron: Well, there's no magical wish. There is a link that everyone sees on their wish page that if they use they can post it on forums or in email or whatever. If people sign up using that link, then forever and ever whenever those new people make a purchase the player who sent that link out will get 12 percent worth of that purchase called referral points which get redeemed automatically through wishes whenever they add up to enough. It's really worked out well for a few players that posted on some of the major forums and gotten people to come to the game, and then they get free wishes every day, lots of wishes. Some people become very popular.
Interviewer: What about creating either pictures or some kind of image that they can share with other people outside the game? Is that something that your game does? Like, for example, showing off their character with stats or something that they could post as a signature on their forum or some other place.
Aaron: They don't currently have the option of doing a signature thing, but every player does have a link to a special page on the website that has their stat breakdown, what quests they have completed, those sorts of things. They can share their character with other people. They can upload their own Avatar images and things. If they do want to share it, they can.
Interviewer: Are there any other techniques you're looking into or ideas you are going to pursue in terms of making it more viral, the game more viral in addition to the links that you mentioned?
Aaron: That's the magic work right now, right? It's viral. To me in my opinion it's basically a reskinning of the phrase, word-of-mouth. The way to do that is to have a compelling product or to have a compelling feature or something that is interesting enough that someone is going to tell somebody that that person may not have heard of, right?
Aaron: The way I do it now, I just gave out a thousand business cards to a local comic shop, and front is just the Domain of Heroes logo. The back has a code on it for one free wish in the game so that they can put one of those in people's bags as they buy the latest Dungeon Masters guide and, maybe, try the game out. I am trying different marketing methods. I just purchased an ad in the Beckett Massive Online Gamer Magazine which is about 100,000 circulation. So, we'll see about that.
Interviewer: 100,000 circulation. Is that an online magazine or is that off line?
Interviewer: That's what I meant to say. It just seems that with off line the economics are so crazy because you look at how effective these off line prints are. The thing is though people have to read this, and then they have to go to their computer. Then, they have to enter in stuff. It just seems like if you did it on an online magazine where people are already online that it's just much easier, but you have to do a lot of experiments. What inspired taking that route compared to just saying, "I'm going to invest all of the money in some online thing".
Aaron: It's more money than I've ever spent online, so it's huge, thousands of dollars.
Interviewer: What inspired that compared to just saying, "You know what? I could probably do YouTube videos or I could literally give my players some unique item that they could take to their work". It would be a talking piece. You talked about doing a unique experience, right?
Aaron: I do give away a t-shirt every week to one lucky player. It's kind of let's try and get something tangible out into the world about the game. The reason I want with the print is, basically, a test. Essentially, I want to test it. The compelling part about what I am going to do with the print ad is, again, give a code in that ad that the player will get a wish. It's worth a dollar, whereas the online ads are not going to give you a dollar. That's the call to action within the print ad that I am hoping it will make it poll enough because you're right. For someone to sit there and read the magazine and go, "Oh yeah, I want to play this game and let me go type in this code", it's a lot of work versus a stroke...
Interviewer: Also, you have to remember - once again, I'm just the host. What do I know? But, you might also want to keep in mind that, basically, you are targeting gamers already with that game whereas it seems your core demographic right now are people who are normally doing business stuff. They're not even necessarily hard core gamers. I don't know if that is the case or not, but it sounded like you were targeting people who were just like, "I just need this for a little fun while I actually do work". So, this is more targeted toward casual gamers where this print magazine is targeted more toward hard core gamers. I don't know if that's an issue or not.
Aaron: Well, conceptually what you are saying is true, but the game itself is, I think, complicated enough fortunately to be more of a hard core type game. Anyone who has played a pen and paper role-playing game will be at home with this game. Anyone who has played a MUD, telnet game or something will be at home with this game. The reason I specifically went with this magazine is because Domain of Heroes is text-based for the most part. I know there's graphics and stuff. You don't walk an Avatar around. The magazine delivered to 100,000 people who play online games enough to want to read about them. What I have right there is 100,000 who play my type of game and that read.
Interviewer: Yeah, that's true.
Aaron: If you think about it, it's 100,000 people that really could potentially play this game whereas I've done Google ads. Google ads in and of themselves are an art form because you can blow through a zillion dollars a day doing Google ads and get nothing from it as far as conversion. I track conversions. I track sales per source, and I've pretty elaborate sales tracking. I know where every penny of marketing is and how many pennies that's returned. I cut everything off at the knees if it's not getting me even close to break even.
Interviewer: And that's what I was talking about, the viral technique, for example, "LolCats. I don't know if you have heard of "LolCats" because I always see all these images of cats and some quote in them. People will willing post them everywhere because it's all funny. That's free marketing for them. At the same time it's allowing the users to communicate with their friends in a funny and interesting way. That's what I found fascinating. Like you said, experiment and see what happens.
Aaron: You need to have that idea and you need to deliver well on that idea. You have to come up with that idea and then get it out there enough.
Interviewer: That's true.
Aaron: I don't have any good pictures of cats, so I'm just ruined on that.
Interviewer: Well, you have your characters. Are there any other techniques or things that you are thinking about trying in terms of getting the word out?
Aaron: I do have a thing in the game where players can vote on the "top" sites. There's a series of sites that rank online web RPGs. If the players go and vote for Domain of Heroes on those sites, they get referral points which turn into wishes. That has escalated my ranking fairly well.
Interviewer: Do you have a Wikipedia entry then as another way to gain exposure for your game?
Aaron: I do have a Wikipedia entry. I would advise anyone that's thinking about getting a Wikipedia entry to save the text that you upload and to get ready for that thing to be deleted and for you to spend months figuring out how you can convince some pedant that your game is good enough to warrant a Wikipedia page. You will be crushed instantly and it's heartbreaking, but I've got 10,000 players in Domain of Heroes and talking to some guy on Wikipedia and saying, "10,000 is more notable than 90 percent of the Indie bands in the '80s TV episode pages that you have. It turns into the battle of the wits. That's frustrating.
Interviewer: What's in store for the future now? Are you going to focus on this MMO or try to do another MMO? What's the game plan?
Aaron: I don't see any more MMOs on the horizon. We're currently working on another game called Bumble Tales, and that's going to be for casual portals. That's the immediate workings.
Interviewer: Do you have any suggestions then for Indie game developers who want to make their own MMO?
Aaron: Yeah. Hopefully, you have one or two people that are really good at most of the stuff that needs to happen; technically; artistically, if it's a visual game. You need to be ready to be dealing with payment gateways because you can't screw up the money. As soon as you screw up the money, people will freak out and that's the end of you. You'll need to be figuring out your scaling situation before you need to scale it. Luckily with MMOs, piracy is not so much of an issue if you require them to connect to the server. Be ready for perpetual development ultimately because you're not going to be able to ship it. That's one thing I really don't like about it is other games, you can just ship them and you're done and you go to the next thing. If you're the type of person that can't persevere and stay focused, it will ruin your life.
Interviewer: Great. Any other last words for just Indie game developers, in general, out there?
Aaron: Enjoy it. If you're not enjoying it, then you shouldn't do it because it's not a quick way to get rich.
Interviewer: If they are inspired to play your game, where can they find it?
Aaron: They can find Domain of Heroes at domainofheroes.com or through tandem-games.com. My email is on the site if anyone wants more information about anything.
Interviewer: OK, great. We're talking with Aaron from Tandem Games. Thanks again for your time.
Interviewer: Hi. Welcome to the Indie Game Development Podcast show. How about you introduce yourself?
Tom: Well, hello. My name is Tom Scott. I am from York in England. I designed Real World Racer and a load of other games. I am currently and accidentally Student Union President at the University of York.
Interviewer: How did you get into Indie Game Development?
Tom: Mostly by accident as with most things I do. I tend to get ideas rather than trying to go into certain fields. One day some idea will spark itself into my head, and I'll think, OK, I'll build that. I'll spend a few hours or a few days putting something together. If it works, great. If it doesn't, well such is life. Something else will be along in a minute.
Interviewer: So, you got some game ideas, then, I take it? How did you motivate yourself to do stuff quickly because I know that some other game developers, they get an idea. They'll put it on hold, or they'll just work on other stuff instead of the actual idea that they had.
Tom: I tend to find that's a good barometer for whether the idea is good enough. If it's a good idea and it's something that I should go with, then generally I find myself kind of compelled to code it.
And so, that's where I did it when I had very little else to do for a while.
Interviewer: For the audience, can you talk about what Real World Racer is?
Tom: It is a racing game designed around the Google Maps engine. It's got a Google Maps interface. You normally see those little red spikes that get driven into the ground on Google's maps. They are replaced with cars, and the poly lines that normally make up street directions become the actual race track.
Interviewer: So, you were in Helsinki. When did you get inspired by this idea, and what compelled you? Why did you feel that it was going to be really interesting to do?
Tom: I'm not entirely sure. I never am with ideas like this. I had been working on the Google Maps API for something else.
The initial thought was a kind of a battleships Risk-type game, Naval Command. After a couple of minutes it changed itself into a car racing game because that was sort of the driving directions, API and all these other things. And everything just came together. I thought, ""Yes, I'm going to build that. It's going to be great.""
Interviewer: And so, you had a week there and you just spent a week then building it or what was the process?
Tom: Pretty much. Where I was, my girlfriend at the time had gotten an internship at a company in Helsinki because I'm from England. She said, ""Do you want to go for the ride?"" I thought, may as well. So, I basically had an apartment to myself 9 to 5 each day. Nice little island off the coast of Finland to walk around, which is lovely but it did mean that I had plenty of time for ideas to spark into my head and for ideas to get written.
When you do have a net connection - by the way, the Finnish broadband is amazing. It was something like 10 megabits a second for some stupidly low amount. So, anyhow, a really good Internet connection and a laptop and nothing to do for a few hours. Then, yeah, I put it together.
Interviewer: You mentioned that you were traveling at this time when you got the idea. I mean, do you find that traveling and just getting out of England actually helps you with the creative process? Or how does that work because some of the other game developers I've interviewed have mentioned that some of the breakthrough ideas that they have gotten have come from when they are actually just traveling around?
Tom: Yeah, there are two places that I tend to get my ideas from. If you had asked me this a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have known the answer. But, the two places are travel, for one. That obviously is really expensive so I don't get to do it all that often and from friends.
The most important thing I can find to sparking off creativity is just being with people and just shucking ideas back and forth. If you think of something, run it past them and see if it works. If it gets a laugh, if it gets some interest go for it. If it doesn't, then don't worry about it.
Interviewer: So, your friends have to laugh at it for it to be passable.
Tom: For a lot of the video stuff, I do. It's not just getting development but just interest in things like that. I did a talk - Have you heard of Bar Caps?
Interviewer: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Tom: I help run Bar Cap leagues. I've been to a lot of the London ones over here in Manchester and Sheffield and all over the place. I did a talk about getting new ideas out of your head and onto the web.
The idea I've come up with is something called ""The Effort to Awesome Ratio"". Along the 'x' axis you've got not much effort, a little bit of effort, a lot of effort and on the 'y' axis you've got a little bit awesome, kind of awesome, really awesome. If the effort outweighs the awesome, you don't do it. If the awesome outweighs the effort, you do do it. It's a really fuzzy subjective way of doing it, but that's generally how I work out whether to do something or not. I mean, there are wonderful ideas. Someone came up and said, ""That was it"". So, I wanted to do a version of Portal. You know the game.
Tom: I wanted to do it as kind of a video thing. So, rather than a game I think I wanted to do Jackass with Portals. I obviously staged scripted CGI stuff and that would be really cool. But, the amount of effort required to get the CG looking good isn't worth it.
Now, on the other hand when someone says, ""We should do Mario cart in real life"". Well, OK, we can do that because that just requires a few coupled together carts, a few banana skins and mortar balloons. I think I can probably pull something together in a day or so.
If it doesn't work, there's not been that much effort invested. Unless it's an incredibly awesome idea, unless it's the best idea I've had in years, it's got to pass that test.
Interviewer: Going back to the Google Maps game, did you run it by your friends before you got started, or did you just make it and then show it to your friends? How is that process?
Tom: Well, because I was on my own traveling at the time, I had the spare time to do it. I thought I'll chuck this out. The worst thing that can happen is that it gets ignored, and I've wasted a few days putting it together. But, it kind of had all the signs from the start. Occasionally, if you get an idea you kind of know it's probably a good one. Do you get that?
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly.
Tom: That just hit me. I thought that's a brilliant one there. That's going to spread. For a while it didn't. For a while it just sat there on my site despite getting a couple of links. Then, after about 7-8 months, something like that, it got linked to by - how can I phrase this delicately - an adult oriented site in Spain. That got something like 50,000 hits in a day which was ridiculous.
I'm not entirely sure if there was a connection, but two days later it showed up in a German newspaper. I'm not sure if those two are connected. I don't know if someone in Germany was kind of looking at some parts of the web that maybe they shouldn't have been at work came across this. And it was Der Spiegel, I think, apologies to any German listeners. I'm no doubt completely mispronouncing that. They linked to it in one of their web columns and, of course, then it went from there.
The trouble was I had all this traffic coming in. I had all these people playing the games, and very few of them spoke fluent English. So, I got very little feedback on the game other than this hit counter that was going off the charts.
Interviewer: You're saying that once you finished the game, it just stayed on your site and really nothing happened for about seven or eight months.
Tom: I got a few links from a lot of the Google Maps blogs because I'd done a minor multi-play Google Maps game before. That had a lot of technical issues. I was trying to run it off a shared host, and it really wasn't up to what was needed. I got a few links off that. All I did is I got rid of that game because the tech back end had started to break down. So, I'll get rid of that and I'll replace it with this. So, a few Google Maps blogs linked to it. I got a few links in. It wasn't until basically a Spanish porn site came along that any of this became popular.
Interviewer: So, it gets picked up by the German newspaper. Then, what happens?
Tom: And then, it just seemed to get linked around the web, mainly Europe, mainly in languages I don't understand. There's probably a lovely writer written in Hebrew somewhere. Obviously, that's completely unintelligible to me. I really wish I did speak other languages. It would make my life so much easier.
Tom: Well, it is Internet Explorer. It really is Internet Explorer. I don't know if you do any web development.
Tom: But, if you've ever tried to get anything kind of Ajaxy working in IE it's a nightmare. I'd get something working in Firefox and working in Opera and working in Safari, perfectly laid out, and you test it in Internet Explorer and it just failed - the number minor work arounds in the code and hacks that just had to be put in.
Interviewer: Did you ever think of trying to use Flash or using the Yahoo Maps API and using Flash and then just building the game on top of that?
Tom: I have developed stuff with that before. I've done all sorts of things like that. I would have had to start from scratch with a new API. I wouldn't have known if it had the capabilities I needed.
Interviewer: You mentioned a multi-player Google Maps game beforehand. Can you talk to me about that and what inspired that?
Tom: That was called Tripods. It think it basically was going from War of the Worlds or something like that. I had three-legged Google Maps marked as attacking Manhattan. You had a little green marker. You could give commands, north, south, east, west and fire which was good, but at the time I was using the Version 1 API of Google Maps which was many, many years ago. I say, in Internet time, many, many years ago, and it just wasn't up to it.
It did work, and it worked for about three months. Then, Google came out with a Version 2 of the API, completely defecated the old one. I would have had to re-write from scratch, and even then it would have the same problems. I just thought, no. I'm going to replace this. It's going to be a much better game. A multi-player just isn't possible right now. It would be possible if it had some kind of turn-based play by email thing, but I think some other people have stepped in to formulate that one.
Interviewer: Going back to the racing game, once it started taking off did you start thinking that you might make another racing game and actually try to make money off of it? What were your thoughts at that point?
Tom: It's finding the time to do it, that's the trouble. I'm all one of these people that isn't - I'm sure there's a psychological term for it or something - complete to finish it. I'm not a complete to finisher. There'll be about a dozen people listening who are just nodding and understanding what I mean by that.
I have a tendency to do new products in this burst of massive enthusiasm, and then when they're in an acceptable form just kind of put them out there and see what the reaction is. That said, there is actually some progress on this. While the game itself hasn't been updated in a while, I think it's going to be perpetually in Beta like a lot of things.
So, they came out with help from me, and they licensed the game. I created a new version for them. What they did is they emailed out to 10,000 people a personalized version of this game that went from their own home to their closest store. I utterly, utterly sold out, but frankly it paid my rent for the next couple of months so I'm not going to complain.
Interviewer: Sure. Did you know how that campaign worked? Did people like the novelty of the idea?
Tom: From what I've been told, it went very, very well. Some of them said they'd love to work with me again, so I don't think there are any complaints.
Interviewer: Awesome. How you thought of making any other Google Maps games then in the future?
Tom: I haven't come up with a killer idea yet. What will happen, possibly after this interview because you've now got my mind in the kind of place where it's making those connections it needs to. If something comes along, I may well think about it.
There's a wonderful idea someone came up with where you had to identify satellite photos on a non-satellite map. So, you get this kind of vaguely recognizable bit of coastline or something like that, and you have to drag the other map of the world close enough to it. That's a great idea. It doesn't have to be an action game or something like that. It can just be some kind of thing that uses the API.
As much as I'd love to, I can't force ideas. I've never been able to. Chances are I'll be in the shower at some point and inspiration will strike, and I'll be coding it the next day. Trouble is I've got a 9 to 5 job now which is really annoying. It really puts a crimp in your style for this kind of stuff.
Interviewer: You were mentioning that the games don't have to be action based or whatever. Are you then thinking of maybe something that is more multi-player that's more possibly strategy-based or even a...
There are possible ways to do it. There's Comet. There's Live Connection to the server. You could even, if you really wanted to play about with it, go for some kind of Flash communication server or whatever the replacement for that was. But, at that point you might as well just do the damn thing in Flash.
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly.
Tom: The advantage of Real World Racer is that it has that novelty value. That's the only thing that's selling it, to be honest with. Apart from that, it's a very, very rudimentary game, but it's the novelty value playing something like this on such a work-like, business-like interface.
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly. Aside from Google Maps games, are there any other types of games that you are working on?
Tom: The one I'm working on at the minute is a video game. I just realized how silly that sounds when I say it. It's a game involved video. It's kind of a throwback to the old CGI games where you have a video sequence and click on a certain area of the screen or push to one side or push a button at the right time - something like that which is a nice thing to go back to because you've got finally broadband speeds in enough places in the world that you can do streaming video. I think that's a great way to progress at the minute.
Interviewer: When is this game going to be out, and how is that development going?
Tom: I'm trying to launch new things every Wednesday at the minute, so a lot of things are just quick ideas. It will probably be in a few Wednesdays time. So whether it's a video or a game or something like that, I try and put it up.
I was just thinking there is actually a wonderful kind of genre emerging on YouTube at the minute. You know, YouTube has added video annotations.
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly.
Tom: You can put those little boxes up that pop up and do these things. There's an entire series of choose your own adventure games popping up on YouTube from people who have filmed them and then used the annotations as link boxes. So, it will say click here to go to this part. Click here to go to this thing. It's just this small branch in choose your own adventure that's evolved out of technology that was never designed to do this. It's a fantastic way of doing it.
Interviewer: So, you're saying that people can put in these annotations, and when you click on them it'll go to a different part of the video?
Tom: It won't go a different part of the video. It will go to an entirely different upload. So what they have to do is upload all the videos and then add the annotations that jump between them all. There are people putting days and days of effort to use this. That's great.
What we need is a platform for this. Someone could pull together some kind of interactive gaming platform where you upload the video. You select the area to click and it goes to this section of the video. That actually should be a really good way to get these things up that wouldn't require YouTube. But, of course, by doing that you are away from YouTube. You get one tenth the hits. You pay your money; you take your choice.
See that's what I mean. That's an idea sparked off just by talking to someone. The most important thing that you can do is keep chucking ideas back and forth at people, and these things will spread out a bit. It's brilliant.
Interviewer: The games that you mentioned are very different than the traditional games, you know, that people are used to. Do you mainly play traditional games, or do you like to play some of these new media type games or emerging gaming genres?
Tom: Oh, I wish I had time to play computer games. With everything else I'm doing at the minute, I very rarely get time to play stuff. When I do, it tends to be really quick, casual Flash games. I've never really had the patience for things like Civilization. I know a few people who found an old copy of Civilization 2000 recently. And there are people who are carefully, meticulously building up cities and then eventually chucking tornadoes at them.
I've never had the patience for that. I've always been one of these people who wants to go in, kill something - ideally, something controlled by another player on the other side of the world - and then get out about five minutes later having to de-stress for a while and go on to do something else.
Interviewer: In terms of Flash games that you play, are there any specific Flash games that you play online that you find really addictive or is it just any kind of Flash game that just takes a little bit of time?
Tom: It'll be generally whatever pops up in my RSS feeds. I'll just kind of flag it for having a look at later. What have I been playing lately? There was some game that really startled me and now I've forgotten which is not particularly useful for this interview. So, never mind.
Interviewer: No biggie. Have you played any of those YouTube games that you mentioned?
Tom: I've never played through. The reason I found out about it was I jumped to a related video, and it happened to be in the middle of one of these. It was a magic trick. Someone was doing the old magic trick. There used to be a web page somewhere on slopes.com [sp] or something like this.
You have been presented with a choice of six playing cards, and it would say: pick one of the cards, and I'll magically remove it. So, you wouldn't actually click on the card. You'd have six cards. You'd say, go to the next page and hey, presto, the card you chose would have magically disappeared.
Now, actually what they did because all the cards were picture cards is they just changed the six picture cards for five entirely different picture cards. So, no matter which one you chose that one would have gone. I've fooled a hell of a lot of people, surprisingly. What they did was they jazzed this up with video and put six cards out in front of the player. They wouldn't do as much hand gestures as I do this one. It's utterly useless for this interview as well.
They put six cards out, but the camera pointed down at them and said click on one, and the six video annotation boxes come up and say, click one of these. All six of them link to exactly the same video, but in the page refresh loading time your brain doesn't keep track of the five cards that you didn't choose. So, all five cards change and hey presto, they're psychic.
Interviewer: Cool. Aside from YouTube and Google Maps, do you see any other spaces where you think there is a potential for gaming to mix traditional game play or even game play with some of this with information or...
Tom: Oh, absolutely. Nearly anything that has an API can be turned into a game. I realized as soon as I said this there's three or four examples that can't. Take, for example, the Flicker API. I know people come up with Flicker games which are something like what this photo is tagged or something like that which is great. You just take the API and you make a game out of it.
Here's an idea off the top of my head. Someone can go build this because I'm not going to have time to. The Twitter API, you can use semis which are now searched on twitter.com. What it tells you every day is the currently trending topics.
Here's an idea. Actually, I might build this myself if I have time. Guess what the next trending topics are? Spot them before anyone else does. So, you register on the site. In fact, you can even use it as the Twitter API. You send direct messages to a certain user name. It logs your guesses and the time. If that shows up in the trending topics, it gives you more points the earlier you've spotted the trend. How's that sound?
Interviewer: Sounds good.
Tom: There you go. And then you've got a player ranking list based on actual Twitter ideas. Immediately, you've got the user base there. You don't have to get people to register. You can just use their existing Twitter accounts. So immediately, you've got a user base. You've got the inter-activity. You've got a scoring system that can't easily be cheated because people tend to stick to one Twitter account. Actually, that's a great idea. I may want to go and build that now.
Interviewer: Have you looked at other SMS games or using SMS to make interesting games?
Tom: There was someone at the Bar Cap Conference I went to. I'm trying to remember the name of his company. You are going to hear me typing now because my microphone is actually built into my laptop. There we go. It was MGami.
What they are trying to do is create a platform for games like this. They're out of Sheffield in the UK. They are trying to create a platform for mobile applications, like ultimate reality games, like things like that so that people who try a set of games like this but who aren't necessarily wanting to invest in all of the hardware. You can just come along and use their API to run the short games.
That's a fantastic idea. I love the idea of social gaming, iPhone games, things like that. But, the trouble is it's really, really expensive to run. If you want to do a location check on a phone in the UK, I think it's something like 20-30 pounds to check?
Interviewer: That is the main issue with SMS is that - in fact, does Twitter even work in the UK now?
Tom: No, it doesn't. You guys never liked it. You pay to receive text messages, or it is included in the plan. Sends and receives is included in your plan. You can even - I think, on some networks and emails.
What a lot of American developers don't realize is that in the UK the entire phone network is based on caller pays. So, you will find that if you are calling from a land line it will cost you more to call a mobile - sorry - call a cell phone. And we have entirely separate area codes for cell phone numbers so you know what the number you are calling is going to cost.
All of our system is great. It means that if you are sending out a SMS to a thousand people in the UK regardless, if you send the absolute cheapest way possible a thousand text messages are going to cost roughly 40 pounds or about $25-30. If you've got to send 100 of those for the game, that's a $3000 budget gone. I think my math is right, my arithmetic. No, it's $30,000. Yes, a $30,000 budget needed. It really does.
Interviewer: Well, you talked about iPhone games. Have you done any iPhone games recently?
Tom: I don't actually have an iPhone. I still have really a five or six year old brick of a phone that doesn't nothing apart from calls and text messages simply because I tend to abuse technology like that if it's in my pocket. My phone has been dropped at about 20 miles an hour onto concrete, and I would love to see an iPhone survive that.
So, I don't have one. I know a lot of people who do. I think the idea of having 3G and edge everywhere really opens some really fascinating possibilities, the idea that you can log onto a game whenever you want.
Obviously, the iPhone doesn't have - I was going to say that shows how old I'm getting. The iPhone doesn't have terminate and stay resident programs which is an old term from about DOS 4, I think, something like that. God, that makes me sound old.
Because you can only run apps in the foreground, it would be that you'd have to explicitly log on to the game. That's a great idea. Imagine if you're in a city like London or New York, you log on to this game and immediately reports by 3G where you are. And it says, find this player near you. Exchange this password. Go to this place. It would be a fantastic way of doing this. I'm sure, I'm absolutely certain that some corporate sponsor is going to come in in the next few months and release something like this. It's just the case of whoever gets there first.
Interviewer: What's in store then for the next three to six months in terms of development? Do you have any specific plans or are you going to do your weekly Wednesday release?
Tom: I never have any specific plans other than I'm going to try and put something out every Wednesday. The trouble is the job I've got. The back story is somewhere on my website.
I accidentally got elected as Student Union President at York which I have a job that goes anything from 9 to 5 until 8 to 8 which means I don't have much time for development any more over editing video or for doing any of the other things that I do. I'm desperately trying to fit in as much as I can, and all I can say is that as soon as the idea strikes I'll build it.
In fact, I may as well spend a few hours tonight trying to put together that darn Twitter game. If I do - when is this podcast being released, by the way?
Interviewer: Probably in about a week or something; a week or two. I'll set it up to do it next Wednesday.
Tom: [laughs] In that case, have a look. One of two things will get released next Wednesday. It will either be that, or it may be me trying to see if I can climb a wall using nothing but duct tape. It's going to be one of the two, one or the other.
Interviewer: Sounds good. Do you have any advice or suggestions then for other Indie game developers out there who want to make some of these emerging genre games?
Tom: Yeah, I guess. It's not particularly positive advice when you first hear it, but it's the kind that's helped me through. If you spend 10 pounds on your game - sorry - if you spend ten bucks on your game, whatever, it's likely to fail. I'm just saying there are so many people chucking so many ideas out onto the Internet that you're likely to get lost or somebody else would have gotten there beforehand or the public just won't be interested.
There are a million people chucking a million ideas a day at the Internet and for most of them just by the laws of probability are doomed to fail. If you spend a million pounds on a game, it's still likely to fail. And this is what big companies don't get about the web. It's that the odds of a million pound project succeeding aren't much greater than the odds of a 10 pound, $10, project succeeding simply because of that same weight of numbers.
You don't know what's going to capture the public's imagination. I used to think that people had a magical corporate influence detector, and that anything that big companies put out on the web was going to fail simply because people could detect that it was corporate. It's not the case. It's just the fact that corporate games are outnumbered so so greatly by the millions of people putting ideas out there. The odds are that the million pound games are going to fail just as much as the 10 pound ones.
My advice is don't worry about it. Chuck out as many ideas as you can. The only way to improve your odds is not to spend a year of your time working on that one perfect project. Put out a quick version of it. If it's successful, spend the time and the budget on that. If it isn't successful, chuck out the next idea instead.
The big bit of advice I always have is put as many ideas out as fast as possible. Be in as many places and as many times as you can, and then, maybe, one of them will be in the right place at the right time
Interviewer: Cool. We're talking with Tom, the developer of the Real World Racer game for Google Maps. Thanks again for your time.
Tom: Thank you very much. Can you give the website a quick plug?
Interviewer: Absolutely. What is the site, and what's the URL?
Tom: It's tomscott.com, s-c-o-t-t. Thanks very much.
Interviewer: And there will be a link to the game right there.
Tom: Of course.
Interviewer: Sounds good. Thank you very much. Take care.
Tom: Thank you very much. It's great being on here. Have a good night.
Show Notes (thanks to Grace for the great show notes): Interview with Brian of Pangea Software
Interview was conducted at the Austin Game Developers Conference
Pangea produced Enigmo for the I phone and I pod Touch.
Inspiration came because Apple always does good work, and they wanted to do a portable system. Also it seemed to be the easiest and most profitable way to go.
The biggest challenge was learning objective C, which Brian said was the most complicated programming language he ever used by a factor of 20! Yet it only took him 5 days to learn it! He says that games don’t need a lot of it since they are not UI intensive, they’re open GL intensive.
Most of the games the put on Ipod phone/touch were older games that they just ported over. It took them about 2 weeks to port a game over – dealing mostly with performance and memory issues. There’s not a lot of memory on these devices. They have excellent developer’s tools, and API’s. It’s a breeze to develop for.
There’s a simulator you can run on the Mac, so that you don’t have to test your games on the actual Iphone. This speeds things up a lot, because downloading each time you want to test can take around a minute. Everything about working on the Iphone is like working on a Mac. The debugger and the compiler are the same. Mac developers won’t even notice the difference.
Testing is difficult because there’s no way to distribute copies effectively. They just let some people in house test it. Then mostly they relied on the feedback from customers and sent out updates.
You can submit directly on the website, it’s automated and an easy process. It takes 3-12 days to get approved, and then it’s just out there.
Their stuff was featured at Steve Jobs’ keynote. Pangea was one of the first to get out there and their stuff was available to people when the iphone/ipod touch shipped. This was the best time to make the most money because the people who bought those devices were not concerned about price, they just bought what they wanted. First 1-2 weeks were amazing for sales, after that it leveled off to a little less than amazing.
3,000 to 4,000 apps with no competition. Only 820 games last he looked. 99% of the games out there are total garbage, with only a handful of games being very good. The good games all float to the top 10 list. So you’re only competing with a handful of good games. You can compete with price too. Large companies have to charge $10 a game, but smaller companies can charge a lot less.
There’s a cheater method out there for rising up in rank. If someone gives away a game for free and then starts charging money they will move up the list rapidly. There is a separate list for paid games and free games, but the popularity counter doesn’t change. Free games tend to get downloaded 10x more often, so if someone goes from free to 99 cents, they will change to the paid list but keep the popularity they gained from the free list. This is considered cheating and is frowned upon. People will leave these game developers scathing reviews. However, some of these people can make a fast 10k this way and don’t care.
Some designers like to use the excelerometer to death. They may require you to move the screen too much and then you can’t see all of the screen. Pangea tries to use it more subtly. They do use it often in their games though, because it is expected now.
The three issues with Iphone/touch are excelerometer, touch screen, and network ability. Network ability isn’t very common right now. The whole technology is still very new. Pangea just submitted an adventure game recently and it’s the first full 3-D adventure game out there. The controls were a challenge. They ended up using a combination of the touch screen and excelerometer. There’s a learning curve for users too. He’s interested in seeing what other designers come up with for solutions to these challenges.
From a game development stand point, if you want to make money you have to do something unique. If you are going to create a game that’s not so unique then it needs to be one of the best ones out there.
He’s been doing Mac games exclusively for the past 10 years but right now he’s staying with the iphone/touch because it’s fun, he’s making lots of money, and it’s easy to develop for!
In the beginning he hired a PR company but it ended up being a waste, because the best advertising is the app store itself. Top 10 list or “what’s new” list are the way most people find games 99% of the time. If you’re not in the Top 100, then no one will ever find you. Two tips: Make a great game and Apple will help you by putting your icon into “what’s new” or on their “what we’re playing” section. Also you can compete by putting a lower price on your higher quality game. These two things will help you shoot up the list.
If you are on: Top 100 – safe for a while, but you’ll probably fall off Top 50 – very safe place to be, people will see you on top 50 list on iphone Top 25 – You’ll be on the first page of Iphone – so then you’re in Gold! Top 10 – Main page, premiere! Big bucks roll in!
Exponentially increase in revenue. Examples: Their #2 spot game is selling 45x the copies of their #72 spot game Their #10 spot game is selling at only 1/3 of what the #2 spot game is selling. At spot #100 you’re only selling maybe 50-200 copies a day.
It’s so easy to make money he’s not planning to do promo ware. Although they do offer a free photo app and they advertise their games on that. They say it helps a little bit.
Advice: Get in and get in quick! Preferably in the next few months!
0:00 - 5:00 Interesting game where you record a certain action and then it replays in the game. Game based on playing with time...
Prototyped game in flash and kept prototyping to get enough to hold a team down.
Did other prototype other games while doing this one.
Also used paper prototyping.
Focused on System Mechanics...
Did test board game prototypes on a few team members and users...
5:00 - 10:00 The call to recruit more team-members...
Had a recruitment meeting and showed demo to recruit other folks.
Put up a flier all over campus. Put out an e-mail blast...and went to classes, etc.
Thirty people showed up to the meeting...
All of them were pretty much designers. But they were looking for engineers.
Let everyone stay...and the person that kept showing up week after week...those are the ones with the passion.
Found a high schooler to help do the programming.
Visual design of the game is very unique... One of the designers was also an artist
10:00 - 15:00 One challenge was listening to an Engineer professor about using a 3D engine instead of Flash... so tried it for a month, but it wasn't working after a month...so went back to flash...it was hard to change to change back at the time, but it was a good decision.
At University of Southern California, the environment allows for innovation. Design on paper, etc. Even though most folks in the game design program there are not programmers, try to collaborate with engineering school to help with games. 2 things learned from game design school... 1) Prototype 2) Get the game out there
Future plans are to get the game out as a downloadable on one of the console games
Show Notes: 0:00 - 5:00 Two developers from the Ego City mobile game an IGF Mobile finalist
Started into mobile games at the beginning of the industry in North America
Challenges for the initial mobile games...was developing for handsets with very limited capabilities
Also, did not realize how difficult it would be to port games to mobile...and making them work across many handsets
Did a multi-player title with Box Sports Racing...did this a few years ago...and realized how hard it was to do multi-player in mobile. Gave a reality check
The main challenge was to figure out how to get networking to work across different handsets...because networking worked differently on different handsets
Also, was hard to network across different carrier networks
After that first multi-player games several years ago, came to conclusion to focus on more single player games...did feel that community games would be the future, but would immediately work on single player games...
There are a lot of large business challenges in the space...the marketing and sales channel is very challenging to overcome...because carriers control distribution Carriers are more into taking already-successful brands and bet on them...they do not want to risk effort on new titles, etc.
5:00 - 10:00 Tried to do another multiplayer game before ego city...did something that worked with bluetooth...but by the time got to market....bluetooth devices needed to make the game work were not available...
Design goals for Ego City was to leverage the mobile space...and focus on the strengths of mobile...mobility and connectivity So the goal was to focus on a community game
Question was... How do you create a social game in mobile space that allows people to social/connect with each other? So developed a system so that when communicated or interacted with other people in the game...would create a change on your ego as well as theirs
Asynchronous gaming vs. synchronous gaming and how it relates to Ego City design...focus on PASSIVE multi-player design. So when you are off-line, your ego can interact with others...the AI your ego gets is based on the stuff you did in game earlier.
10:00 - 15:00 Changes to the initial design of Ego City Development process was challenging because of hardware issues But also found that could put in more customization after initial design Pleased with that Was able to add different features like chatting, blogging, and social aspects End result was way more ambitious than initially started
User testing for Ego City... most important thing is to make sure game is really fun Target demographic was teens on up The biggest change as a result of play testing was... trying to match a social site like Facebook with the mobile experience
Initial idea was to make something that would complement a social networking site But in the end, developing something that was its own social site
Other thing realized was that people wanted to do a lot more things with their avatars
15:00 - 20:00 Empowered avatars to do a lot of interaction with others...like debate with each other, flirt with each other, fight with each other, hug with each other, etc. There is a lot of interactivity between avatars
Borrowing and learning from mobile games in Japan and Asia They do wish North America had the handset capabilities of phones in Japan and Asia could do a lot more stuff with the game
Inspired mainly by Nintendo and most of their games
Games with micro-transactions...inspiring future features for the game
Through actions, can change personality and unlock rewards based on gameplay instead of just buying features
How flirting and fighting works in the game... Can create interaction by doing something
Can always trigger competitions by giving folks gifts ... like if give flowers, triggers a flirt competition.
The website will complement the mobile experience. The flirt and fight club will happen on the website and augment mobility.
Ego avatar helps to express identity and visuals convey what to expect the person
20:00 - 25:00 How does the website relate to the game itself? Helps to extend the initial experience
Is Ego City in the same design space as Facebook ... or is it a different design space? Not interested in building a competing social network like Facebook. It's about gaming...and built a community around that. Wanted to integrate Ego City into current social networks...released a Facebook app to promote Ego city
May eventually allow egos to interact with other Egos on Facebook
Gaia Online released something on Facebook...and it took off. Is the goal to extend Ego City into Facebook and to get folks to join Ego City Yeah, goal is to promote the Ego City...and at the same time, the goal is to allow folks that have egos they are working on... and carry it into other parts of their digital world (like Facebook or other places they hang).
Each platform offers advantages... Mobile allows for quick messaging
Websites have different experience...sitting down and spending more time. So can have a longer game experience
With Facebook, with "Ego Mail" app...a great way to take your ego and share it with friends.
25:00 - 30:00 Are there any nuances and differences to developing a mobile community vs. a web community? A lot of these questions are unanswered...cuz pioneering the space. The main focus is on support once the folks buy the game.
Have a set up where other folks can interact with your ego even when you are off-line...so folks can interact with your ego...and you make friends while you are off-line
Is this a whole new design space ... for mobile vs. developing for the web? It is a little different because your ego can interact with other folks...even though you are off-line. So it was developing an AI personality that allows your ego to interact with others properly when you are offline...
That was the main design challenge.
Learn from game actions you take online to develop a personality ai that gets used for your ego when you are off-line
Also realized that to do a good mobile, not necessarily about graphics...it's about focusing on the FUN factor that takes advantage of mobile features
30:00 - 35:00 Another challenge for mobile is designing a game that works on many handsets
How does Google Android relate to doing mobile games? Google Android is promising...but hopes that it is more than just another platform Will have to wait and see
Where do you see the future of Ego City going? Find more things for the Egos to do That will be more clubs (Fight and Flirt Clubs)...lounges coming out related to having fun and dancing
What about building missions in the game? Is that relevant to the mobile space...or is it too real-time to work in the mobile game space? Well, it's a good time to talk about the other real-time game, Mobile Battles...where you do battle others and do have missions to unlock features. That other game does offer more opportunities for missions
Mobile experience can only offer so many maps or missions. Developed a way to make something that works with mobile and web. So you play mobile...and if liked that, then can continue the experience on the web.
Aside from these 2 games, are there any other games you're working on? There are other games getting done, but these 2 are the main ones we can talk about
35:00 - 40:00 Where do you see the future of mobile game development going? Seeing ports of console games where core experience ported to mobile experience There are 1 or 2 experiences....that are everlasting... You want to be powerful you want to have a social circle, friends
Future of innovation in mobile...is taking those core experiences...and figure out how to make it work in the mobile space Finding that core experience *and delivering it in a new way that is unique to mobile*
Business model challenges for mobile games... cannot offer stuff for free because of carriers
40:00 - 45:00 Their favorite mobile games... Games from Gameloft like Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell that took core experience and ported it to mobile
What are your last suggestions for indie game developers looking to get into mobile... a) There are porting challenges to overcome b) Need to think about ways to get marketing and distribution; hopefully carriers will be more open to innovative titles in the future
Show Notes: Podcast: 0:00 - 5:00 Introduces self Oscar from http://www.iikgames.com/ Talks about getting into games (by first playing them) Decided to go Online indie game developer so could reach folks directly Not many publishers in Mexico so it's easier to go Indie First game is Bouncy Qubes Did several games before, but did not have any intention of selling them Took 1.5 years to finish the game Developers on the team are all in Mexico too Work with family on the games Most difficult part of designing the game was dealing with the game mechanics related to changing the color
5:00 - 10:00 Art style was inspired by Nintendo games Issues with Game Mechanics while designing first game... Initially had a keyboard and that was very hard for users Switched to mouse Issues with developing a game for Vista Integrated it with the "Game Explorer" in Vista Security issues with Vista... Was saving all game data in program files directory, but Vista does not allow that, So had to save elsewhere on the user's hard drive...saved into the Application Data directory
10:00 - 15:00 Tested game as much as possible so that can have responsive and usable game Tested on very low end machines When released game, focused on Marketing Likes the book "Indie Developer's Guide to Selling Games" by Joseph Lieberman Sends to several shareware sites to promote games Right now, focused on porting game system to Mac OS
15:00 - 20:00 Goal is to make innovative, fun, and original games to the casual market Favorite Games: Chronic Logic Games Professor Fizzwizzle Games Last words for Indie Game Developers Try out indie game development, it's worth it Constantly Improve Skills and Do your Best
Show Notes: 0:00 - 5:00 Description of Anna's Secret and some of the mobile design features including geocaching
5:00 - 10:00 Educational goals of the game Interesting features and unique design properties in the mobile design space
10:00 - 15:00 More ways and ideas to leverage the "mobility" aspect in the mobile game design space User testing for Anna's Secret and surprises encountered Location Detection
15:00 - 20:00 Future mobile games that he would like to develop...mainly games that leverage location much better Multi-player games in the mobile space Developing a multi-player version of Anna's Secret Some of the features of a multi-player Anna's Secret
20:00 - 24:00 Ubiquitous Gaming Ideas for future mobile games Educational Mobile Games Suggestions for making games for the Mobile Space...like leveraging climate changes in mobile game design
Show Notes: 0:00 - 5:00 -- Introduction and description of the browser-based game called Horse Isle
5:00 - 10:00 -- Development needed and testing process to release the game
10:00 - 15:00 -- Description of how the world works and the underlying technical design of the game including PHP architecture
15:00 - 20:00 -- Benefits of rolling own backend server vs. commercial backend server. Future development and enhancements to the game. Techniques for marketing the game.
20:00 - 25:00 -- Game/Community limitations based on targeting an under-13 audience. Issues with updating a game that is always live....and having a test server to ensure stable releases. Time spent on technical vs. business issues related to the game.
25:00 - 30:00 -- Social elements of running a game. Lessons learned from developing a browser-based MMO. Suggestions for other indie game developers out there.
Feel free to add our new Indie Game Podcast Widget that allows your readers to easily access our podcast library... You can grab it here...
Thanks again for listening to the show and feel free to send over comments and suggestions on ways to improve the show.
We're also looking for more interviewees...if you've developed a game and want to contribute back to the indie game dev community....send us an e-mail ( support at indiegamepod dot com) and we'll go from there.
Feel free to add our new Indie Game Podcast Widget that allows your readers to easily access our podcast library... You can grab it here...
Thanks again for listening to the show and feel free to send over comments and suggestions on ways to improve the show.
We're also looking for more interviewees...if you've developed a game and want to contribute back to the indie game dev community....send us an e-mail ( support at indiegamepod dot com) and we'll go from there.
Show Notes: 0:00 - 5:00 Introduction
Talks about developing Toribash, his first game
Now there are 8 developers working on the game
Signed up for a game competition and developed Toribash for it
Toribash's Viral Growth
5:00 - 10:00 Developing tools/ideas to help empower the community
YouTube of Fight Scenes/Gameplay and its importance
Other ways to help create the game community... * The creation of clans * Fighting Leages, etc. * Competing with Clans, etc.
10:00 - 15:00 Using Forum Signatures to help promote the game
Using dynamic signatures
Physics Engine used for the Game, Open Dynamics Engine (ODE)
Benefits of using Physics to make a game
Develop on OS X, but release first on Windows
Developing a virtual world around the game
The game interface is extremely difficult, but it still gained popularity... the reasons why that happened
Now they are doing usability tests to find ways to make the game more accessible
15:00 - 20:00 If change physics of the game, it would change the player's fighting styles developed over the year. So the team can change everything BUT physics.
Changing the game mechanics would be really hard
Next Release will have some new game modes that the hard core gamers will enjoy
List of viral concepts used to promote the game including signatures, contests, and sharing content
20:00 - 25:00 Game Development Process...come up with an idea, and develop it as quick as possible A lot of iteration, a lot of prototyping, and trying it on real players
Usually do most of the prototyping alone...but once it's done, sends it out right away
Usually 10 iterations to find a solid prototype
Recommends playing lots of games, read up on books, and do experimentations to help improve game design/development skills
Favorite Indie Games
Prefers gameplay over usability
Goals for his game studio, the goal of being a major studio in Singapore
Talks about the Singapore Game Scene including many American companies there like EA, Linden Labs, etc.
25:00 - 30:00 Other indie game dev studios as role-models...such as Introversion
Also respects ID Software
Spends about 50% of time on technical and 50% of the time on promotion
Noticed that someone developed Toribash fight scenes in Second Life
Since 50% of time is business, most of the time spent on managing developers, paying the bills, etc.
Benefits of going through a publisher...to getting on a console
30:00 - 35:00 Developing on a console would take away focus from the PC app...so if did a console app, it would be after releasing version 3.0 in October 2007. That version will be feature complete.
Does not reveal features until release a game...so that folks do not complain if a feature gets cut.
Issues with working in an 8-person team... It takes time to make sure that everyone is happy Must make sure that folks have something to do at all times Having a good CVS system is important Having an update of what folks are working on...via e-mail Finds that working in a team is more fun than expected to be
The top 3 lessons learned... Trusting people has been very helpful to success
35:00 - 36:00 Advice for indies out there... Make a game that you think would be fun to work on 3 years later
Should create a game that would like to play yourself and be really fun to do
Audition is an MMO out there focused on dancing. Players have to perform dance moves to earn points. To perform dance moves, they use their keyboard to press the arrow keys at the right time. They can compete with other folks...you can also create dance routines with other folks too.
The game is free and their business model is the "virtual items" model.
Inspired by the Game Developer's Conference sessions and the interview by the Acclaim CEO...and a lost interview with Joe Lieberman (he had some great marketing suggestions, but the interview didn't record properly). He mentioned that there is an untapped niche...the "casual MMO"...
This series will focus on developing an Indie MMO.
We're going to do something different. I'm going to post notes from the GDC here. I've also noticed a couple "emerging" trends discussed amongst the casual/indie developers and will do a mini-tutorial on the topics.
In any case....here is day one... At the GDC checking out various indie game, casual game, and serious game sessions.
Attended a serious games session on doing MMOs. This applies to the indie scene because some of the indie/casual gaming sessions had the "big players" talking about their future strategies involving MMOs.
At this serious games MMO session, mentions some of the non-WOW (World of Warcraft) MMOs that do well online. This includes kid MMOs like clubpenguin.com, whyville.net, and other types of MMOs like Habbo Hotel.
The important thing to take away from the session is the concept that making an MMO is much easier now than before. For example, ClubPenguin is a simple flash MMO. It uses SmartFoxServer as the backend and flash for the client. It is important to note that there is a free version of SmartFoxServer for small MMOs.
I've used SmartFoxServer and it's well documented. The other main benefit of flash MMOs is that IT IS ACCESSIBLE THROUGH A BROWSER. There is no installation required so the casual gamer can easily enter an MMO (without all the hassle of installing, etc.).
I think this is a key feature. In an unpublished interview with Joe Lieberman, he mentioned the idea of an emerging new market of "casual MMOs"...so this a space that indie game developers may want to check out.
The next session attended was "Making an Indie MMO" by the Three Rings Founder, Daniel James.
Three Rings made the game "Puzzle Pirates."
In any case, he talks mainly about changing business models helping to increase revenues.
For example, Puzzle Pirates initially had a monthly subscription. They switched to a micro-payments model...where a user makes micropayments for buying a hat or coat within the game.
This seems to add up and has raised revenue significantly.
There was a Q&A session and one of the folks asked about developing an MMO in Java vs. Flash. Puzzle Pirates was done in Java, their future MMOs may be done in flash.
Afterwards, I attended some Casual Games Summit sessions. Most of the stuff rehashes things indie game developers know. There were two interesting things mentioned... a) MMOs could be an emerging trend b) A lot of the casual games company see mobile games as very important to their strategy.
A person from PopCap mentioned that they use the web to get the game out and start the distrution process and then use mobile as another effective medium to generate revenues and gain exposure.
Finally, attended a session on "How to Start a Casual Games Company"... the session had a few folks starting a game company. At the end, one of the PopCap representatives mentioned a list of potential business ideas they see as huge opportunities...here are some of them: 1) Creating a backend for business reporting and other issues that arise from the need for information interchange between developers and publishers. He said, there is a need for someone to be the "SAP for Casual Games."
2) There are huge needs for innovative ways to market Casual Games; new viral marketing ideas
3) A need for a company to do high-end contract work. For example, PopCap may make a game and need to port it to other platforms. They need someone that can do this well.
That's the end of Day 1. Will post notes from Day 2....