Our Demo: 1 Year Anniversary

One year ago, on November 1st 2016, we released a free Demo build of Where Shadows Slumber to the world. This marketing build has just 10 Levels and a cutscene at the end, yet it’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times by gamers all over the globe. We don’t get a chance to talk data often, but this post is dedicated entirely to discussing the performance metrics of our Demo. Towards the end, we’ll answer the burning question on your mind: was it worth it?

 


 

 

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Google Play Lifetime Stats

The Demo performed the best on the Google Play store. I have a feeling that’s because the Demo is free, and people on the Google Play store tend to be younger / less willing to pay for games. When they see a free game that looks beautiful, of course they’re going to download it! Let’s dive into the Google Play Console and check out some of our stats…

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Left: the chart of app installs. Right: the chart of app uninstalls.

Installs and Uninstalls

First, the obvious: we’re two no-name developers living in Hoboken, New Jersey and 250,000 PEOPLE DOWNLOADED OUR GAME ON ANDROID!!!

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*Ahem*

The lifetime chart of the Demo on Android shows that it went live in November and hit its peak in December, probably due to the Christmas holiday. I think it’s interesting to note that the first two months an app is live appears to be “prime-time.” Look at all those downloads!

Yet, even though we hit our lowest point (since the November we launched) in May 2017, we’ve consistently gotten more downloads every month after that. Rather than plateau, the app continues to outdo itself month after month. That’s crazy. I’m proud of that, and I hope this month’s downloads eclipse October’s, which is 26, 467. That’s pretty tough to beat!

Of course, the downside is that nearly everyone who installed the app promptly uninstalled it, most likely after completing it. I’m not shocked by that. This is just a demo. People want to play it and then get rid of it – it doesn’t really deserve to stay on their phone. I expect this behavior will continue with the final game, save for a few thousand people who feel sentimental and can’t bring themselves to delete it. I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to clearing space on my phone’s hard drive, so I don’t blame people for not sticking around. You might say our “retention” is terribly low. But I also don’t think it matters for Premium games the same way it does for Free games.

 

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Top: Our rating. Left: A chart of our rating over time. Right: A sample review.

Ratings and Reviews

As you can see in the charts above, our lifetime rating is quite high and we’ve received thousands of ratings. People have responded very positively to the Demo! The majority of our ratings are 5 Stars (4,149) with only a sliver of negative 1 and 2 Star reviews.

The graph of our rating is interesting. Starting with a perfect 5 Star rating at launch, we slowly drip down to a 4.6 (the bottom of the graph is 4.6, not zero!) by May 2017. Then, as indicated, the build adding a finale cutscene goes live. From there, our ratings steadily increase to the point we’re at now.

This is a really important moment in time, because Jack and I were nervous about how the story would be received. It’s a bit off – not quite what you’d expect from a puzzle game made in the image of Monument Valley. We expected more negative reviews. Instead, they’ve been largely positive. We kind of left people on a cliffhanger and they’re eager to find out just what the heck is going on.

At right, you’ll see a common review. Most of them are like this: people love the game, say they’ll buy it, but are disappointed that this is just a Demo. Truly, I have no idea how people missed this! The title of the app is Where Shadows Slumber Demo (Beta). There’s two keywords in that title that would tell you this is not a finished thing! But you can file that under “nothing is too simple for people.”

If you want to read more reviews, go to our Demo’s Google Play app page and flip through them. I could read them all day, but it would make my head get too big.

 

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The top 5 countries that downloaded our Demo.

Who Is Playing?

The top five countries that downloaded our game are South Korea, India, the U.S., France, and Mexico in that order. France and Mexico are nearly tied, and the U.S. isn’t too far ahead of them. But India has double our installs, and South Korea blows everyone out of the water. What the heck is going on?

It’s important to note that Jack and I went through the arduous process of paying for 14 languages of translated text and put them into the Demo. That means Indian players see the game’s app page in Hindi, as well as the in-game text. That’s a big deal. It means we’re meeting people where they are across a global market. We didn’t translate the game into any African languages, so it’s no wonder that entire continent is grey except Egypt. (We did translate the game into Arabic…)

Free games are really popular in Asia. To the extent that this Demo is a “free game,” that explains its success in South Korea and India. After all, it is a game that costs no money. So it is technically a free game! I do not expect this same success once the game costs $0.01 or more. We’re going to have to target the Asian market with a lower price than normal, or perhaps even a try-before-you-buy method where the first half of the game is free. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that these people downloaded our game and clearly loved it. But when the business model flips and we ask for their cash up front, I don’t expect to see South Korea or India to even make it into the top 10 list.

 


 

 

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App Store Performance

The App Store’s analytics aren’t quite as easy to decipher as Google Play’s… also, our performance on Google Play dwarfed the App Store in every possible way!

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From iTunes Connect – a chart of our App Units.

App Units vs. Impressions

Our performance on Apple makes more sense to me. We only “sold” 32,285 app units. We got over 200,000 lifetime impressions, but I don’t know what that means! That may just be when someone sees the game but doesn’t necessarily act upon that.

The chart of our downloads follows a pretty standard “flash-in-the-pan” trajectory. This may be partly because we were never able to upload our language translations to the App Store. I’ll discuss that a bit more when we get to my conclusions, but that’s my guess as to why we plateaued in May and never really rebounded.

It should be stated that App Store customers are the polar opposite of Android people – App Store customers probably want paid games and see “Free” as a mark of low quality. I expect these numbers to swap when the final game is released.

 

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Our dashboard for monitoring reviews. Note the total in grey on the right.

Ratings and Reviews

We didn’t get nearly as many reviews on the App Store – just 26 in one year. That’s probably all an indie developer can expect, but it doesn’t explain the disparity between this and Android. The reviewers were quite kind, and we have a 4.9 out of 5.0. However, with such a small sample size, that’s not as impressive.

 

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Who Is Playing?

Surprisingly, China is our top country on the App Store. I didn’t even know we had access to the Chinese App Store! I don’t know if we can trust those numbers. In second place we have the United States, and then Russia, Japan, and South Korea. These numbers are too small to really tell us anything meaningful, except that we should focus our efforts on China for the iOS release of this game!

 


 

 

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Amazon App Store Performance

The Amazon version of our Demo went up earlier this year, but there’s no way to really see how much traffic it has gotten. My guess is that no one besides Jack and I have seen it, since the only review is one that I left on the company account.

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My very serious review

If you have a Kindle or a Fire, please check out the Demo there! We’re doing a lot by trying to be on as many platforms as possible, and we could use the testing feedback.

I hope things will be better in the future with Amazon, but this isn’t promising. The company has gifted us four mobile devices to use for testing, as well as a guaranteed spot on the Amazon App Store feature banner at a time of our choosing. Let’s hope they have the install base to make it worth our time! We will not be coming to Windows Phone since those devices have been discontinued – I hope the same fate does not befall Amazon.

 


 

 

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Retrospective: Was It Worth It?

After having our Demo available for free all this time, people often ask us “was it worth it?” What’s the point of releasing a demo so far in advance of the actual game? Don’t you want those people to pay for the real version? Won’t they forget about your game by the time it launches? Does anyone even make demos anymore?

That’s true – mobile gamers who stumbled upon our Demo a few months ago probably already forgot about us. They’re not eagerly anticipating the release of the final game. It probably isn’t even on their phone anymore! Just because this game is the center of our world, that doesn’t mean we can expect the same loyalty from some people who played a 15 minute trial. (Shout out to everyone reading this blog, because the previous paragraph clearly does not apply to you!)

It’s fine though, because none of that was ever the intended purpose of the Demo. All we needed were the following things:

  • A proof of concept that shows we can actually make something great
  • Something that claims the name Where Shadows Slumber before anyone else
  • quickly deployable version of the game to showcase at events
  • An easily submittable build that we can send to judges for contest submissions
  • Something that gives us experience dealing with the App Store and Xcode.

By these metrics, the Demo was a whopping success!

We proved to ourselves and our fans (and shadowy unnamed figures who can’t be named) that we can put together an awesome small indie game. Making something a little larger would take more time, but we already had the talent and the drive.

Judging by a Google search of “Where Shadows Slumber”, no one else has been able to claim that digital territory except for an old song from 2007. We’ve been in Google’s search algorithm for over a year, which can only help us in the long run when people try to find us online.

“The Demo has given us an air of legitimacy that many indie developers never consider when releasing their game into the wild.”

Any time we go to an event and the current build of the game isn’t ready to show real people, we just default to the Demo and it’s no problem! In fact, those events go even smoother than when we try to show off the development build. As for contests, having a no-strings-attached build out in the wild makes online applications a breeze. I’ve already got a folder filled with screenshots, videos, and a recent .APK that I can throw in there. I don’t know how many festivals want to feature our Demo, but at least they’ll remember us when we return next year with a finished game.

The App Store is an odd one. Technically, our Demo shouldn’t even be on there because Apple forbids you from submitting them. We slipped through the cracks five times! I don’t think that’s an endorsement of our talent, but rather an indictment of Apple’s system of judging builds. Perhaps we’re on borrowed time, and they’ll delete it any day now. Who knows? It doesn’t matter – between our Demo and the previously released SkyRunner, we’ll be Xcode pros by the time we jump in there a third time for the final release of Where Shadows Slumber.

In the end, it was definitely worth it to produce our Demo. Yes, it’s maddening to watch our game grow better every day knowing that people’s only conception of it is a year-old marketing build. But it will all be worth it in the end when we get to show the world what we’re working on! The Demo has given us an air of legitimacy that many indie developers never consider when releasing their game into the wild.

In the meantime… (I’ll have to train myself to not say this automatically, because I’m so used to it by now) …download our Demo. It’s free!

 

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Thanks for reading this long-form business analytics update. If you came here from Reddit, please be kind! You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

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State Of The Art – October 2017

Welcome to State Of The Art, October 2017 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

Sadly, I was out of town for most of October on business trips to Texas, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Although I got a lot out of them, I did not get a chance to do as much artwork as I would have liked. Sorry that I don’t have more to show you!

Without further excuses, let’s explore the major leaps forward we took in October!

 

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World 5, The Hills

Cold, abandoned tombstones. Whining wrought iron fences, covered in moss. An abandoned log cabin, now in ruins. Suddenly, a chill in the air – snow begins to fall.

The Hills represents a turning point in our game, which is represented by the change in weather halfway through. I really love this setting and the mood it conveys, and I’m proud of how the artwork for this World came out. Every Level in the game will need to be “polished” before the artwork can be considered finished, and World 5 is no exception. But I think you’ll agree that these Levels are already looking pretty awesome!

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5-1, “Cemetery” – I can’t wait to change the temporary Phantom model [ v_v]

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5-2, “Family” – Not too much changed since last time, since this Level is so solid.

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5-3, “Ray” – I love how the log cabin came out here.

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5-4, “Drop” – This Level should look snowier, that’s coming later!

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5-5, “Rest” – Ignore the large A’s on this Level, they’ll be replaced!

My favorite little aesthetic touch in this World has to be the stone pathways. It took forever to get those right. I started with massive stone slabs, but it felt too video game-y. Then I went with smaller and smaller pieces until I decided to basically do a mosaic of little flat rocks. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Note: I’m going to change 5-4 to make it snowier. It’s odd that we jump directly to snow, and that was never the intention. I’m just not sure what to do to make it seem like it’s only snowing a little bit.

 

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World 6, The Summit

Obe ascends the snow covered steps to the Summit. Darkness falls and his lantern dims in the wintry air. Shivering, he makes his way toward the castle at the peak of the mountain. The journey will be over soon.

I’m so excited to show you World 6, the Summit. Inspired by snowy game-ending mountains like the one in Journey and the recent Tomb Raider reboot, the Summit World is a snowy mountain peak with an abandoned castle at the top. It’s just getting started, so these Levels are a little rougher all around. Essential polish things, like actual snow falling from the sky, are unfortunately still on the back burner! Check out what I have so far:

Level 6-1, “Pass” shows off the unique way World 6 works. There’s a hidden shadow world that occupies the same space as the ‘real’ world! Use your shadows to uncover hidden dudes like this walking guy, who can press Buttons for you. It’s one of the coolest things we do in the game with shadows, in my opinion!

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6-2, “Blind” – This Level is all about the secret World waiting for you in the shadows…

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6-3, “Chains” – I may end up moving the gateway toward the center and rotating it.

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6-4, “Watchman” – Finally, inside the Castle! Snow pours in through decrepit, broken windows…

There’s one more Level I can’t show just yet (6-5), because it’s a super work in progress right now and I don’t think you’d be able to see what’s going on. But this is World 6 so far!

What do you think?

 

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November – Returning To Skipped Levels

Observant readers of this monthly blog will notice that sometimes I skip a Level and never return to it. Those Levels haven’t been cut from the game! They just posed a significant challenge for one reason or another, and I couldn’t find time to dedicate to them.

The theme of November is going to be “returning to skipped Levels.” I won’t spend all month on that of course, but expect to see an assorted, seemingly random collection of Levels in next month’s blog post. It’s all part of putting everything together, which is more important now that we’re getting close to finishing the game.

 

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This is the kind of face that makes you want to say “That guy? That guy kind of sucks.”

Please, Criticize Me In The Comments

I don’t normally do this, but this is a call for comments! WordPress lets you leave a remark under each blog post. Please take a look at this artwork and give me some critical feedback. I always listen to it and it will really help to have a third, fourth and fifth set of eyes on my work.

You can tell me how much you love it if you really feel like it, but I’m mostly looking for ways to improve. Stuff like “this part looks a bit off” or “this color stands out in a bad way” or “this section looks unfinished.” That’s what I need to hear! Constructive criticism is welcome and encouraged.

I look forward to hearing from you below, and I’ll try to respond faster than I normally do. Cheers!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

The Last Mobile Games Forum Ever!

Last week I went to Seattle for the Global Mobile Games Forum. It was my first time going to the event and I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s also the last MGF ever, but we’ll talk more about that later. Read on!

 

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Suddenly, Mobile Games Forum!

Originally, I wasn’t planning on going to the MGF. Usually I know which conventions I’m going to travel to, and I plan it out way in advance. With this show however, I was notified of it by a Mysterious Unnamed Person who was also going. He told me to check it out.

So I looked at their website, which didn’t have a ton of info, but it had a link to download an information packet. I put in my detailed info (email address, phone number, job title) and got the PDF. To my utter shock, I then received this message on LinkedIn from a woman named Louise Gibson-Bolton.

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This is a first – being invited to an expo for downloading a packet?

I assume she was monitoring the downloads and looking for more people for this show. I asked her what the catch was – no catch! They just wanted more people, especially developers, to come to Seattle.

Immediately, I was super suspicious of this. Who does that? Who invites a no-name developer like me to a show? What do the tickets normally cost? Did anyone else get this red carpet treatment?

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My decision – stay at the Belltown Inn. It was quite nice, and just three blocks from the expo.

I couldn’t say no to that offer! In addition to the free pass to the show, I was also going to be in Idaho the weekend before the MGF to attend the wedding of a close family friend. That meant travel was already paid for on the way over – I just needed to get a hotel quickly and then pay for a plane ticket home. Why not stay in Seattle and see what the MGF had to offer?

 

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Louise Gibson-Bolton Vanishes

During the opening keynote on the first day, the crowd got two unexpected pieces of news about the Mobile Games Forum. First, it has a new director named George Osborn (pictured above) who has worked on this show previously and is now in charge. Second, the show is being rebranded as Gamesforum, making this the last true Mobile Games Forum ever. The idea is to branch out into other platforms besides mobile, especially since many games are going multi-platform these days.

Louise, the woman who invited me, was nowhere to be found! I never got the chance to properly thank her. I gather that she must have been fired or forced out of the organization, because I can’t imagine why someone would quit in the weeks leading up to a really important show. Don’t quote me on that, though. The official line is “she’s since moved on.”

The reason I’m harping on all this is because there are some parts of MGF that were really disorganized, and some parts I loved. I choose to believe that the worst parts of this convention were due to team politics and shifts in management. My hope is that the new director can improve on this show and take Gamesforum in a better direction.

 

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Talk About The Convention, Frank

Please don’t assume that these blog posts are narcissistic bragging about my world travels. My goal here is always to give people a warning about what they’re getting into when they buy plane tickets and fly across the country to go to an expo. If you’re not an industry veteran, you’re like Jack and I – we never know what to expect and money does not come easily. Here’s my honest accounting of what the show offers and what needs improvement. I don’t score these shows, I just leave it to you to make a judgment.

 

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Sponsored Talks Are Dry and Fruitless

This might ruffle some feathers, but one thing I hope Gamesforum changes is relying on sponsored talks by companies. Not all of these were bad! I caught the last half of the EA Plants Vs. Zombies talk on the second day, and it had some interesting revelations about how they retain players.

But for the most part, the smaller the company, the more useless the talk. These minor players are clearly just trying to sell you something (“Buy Appodeal!”) and they don’t have enough experience to give you case studies you can apply to your own game. It’s really just a sales pitch disguised as a talk. Pass on these whenever you can. The Appodeal one in particular was just this dude reading from slides, and I still don’t really know what their business does. Because they were the main sponsor, this talk came right after a keynote by a woman from Minecraft. Sadly, MGF had a lot of “Appodeal” talks!

 

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The Panels Were Better

I actually really enjoyed a few of the panels at this show. They sat industry veterans down and just asked them candid questions about their business. The Mobile Games Forum is hyper focused on finance and marketing, so it’s not like the Games Developer’s Conference. You won’t find any info about how to make artwork, or music, or program – but you will get insights into developing business models and doing business overseas.

The panel pictured above was all about doing business in China. I always love hearing about other cultures – especially Chinese culture, because their government has a ton of crazy rules and restrictions keeping you from just putting whatever you want on the App Store. I’ll give you a quick one, it’s the most insane thing revealed by Hu Ning of iDreamSky about publishing games in China. Apparently, when you submit your game to the Chinese government for approval, you don’t send them a digital file. You send them a phone with the game installed on it! The rest of the panel was very illuminating!

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Some panels gave me a wake-up call. There was one panel about cloud-gaming that started with the blunt question: “are premium games dead?” Their conclusion: yes – premium is just 7% of the market at this point, and it’s shrinking. Yikes! Now, this panel was kind of just an advertisement for Hatch, which essentially markets itself as a Netflix for mobile games. But it also had a ton of depressing insights from developers like Ryan Payton, who told the audience a sad tale about how République was a financial failure despite releasing as a premium, episodic title with the full backing of Apple’s marketing team.

We’re not changing the business model of Where Shadows Slumber just because I got frighted at a panel. But we may be more open to experimenting on some platforms, especially Android, where premium doesn’t do well anyway. I never want to do ads or some kind of energy-store though, so don’t worry. (We even made an April Fool’s Day joke about that…)

 

The Food: Excellent

We never wanted for food at this show. Look at that menu! They had breakfast and lunch buffets, and even a snack bar around 4 pm when things were dying down. When I say a snack bar, I mean a literal buffet of candy. If that’s not worth the price of admission, I don’t know what is. This probably has more to do with the choice of venue, but hey – it’s a good choice and it should be noted.

 

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Go Home “Meet The Publishers,” You’re Drunk!

One of the messiest experience was the Meet The Publishers event. If you’ve been to publisher “speed dating,” you know what to expect: the publishers all have their own tables, and developers take turns making their way through the room in an orderly fashion pitching their game. Everyone has 5 minutes with each publisher, a bell rings, and it’s time to hand them your business card and move on.

Meet The Publishers at MGF was not like that at all. The publishers had their own tables, but there was no way of organizing the developers. George told everyone to kind of just find someone to talk to and go up to them. Developers often pitched their game with other developers right there. It wasn’t clear how much time each developer got, and George didn’t have a megaphone or a bell to ring when five minutes were up. Instead, he had to just shout over the din of the crowd when it was time to move on.

Some of the Publishers I talked to afterward were pretty angry about this. They wanted to see games, but since it was so disorganized apparently non-developers were going into the room and pitching to them. (“Buy Appodeal!”) George had to explain to these guys that this wasn’t the purpose of the event, but I can’t quite blame them for taking the opportunity. I kind of felt alienated since most publishers were looking for freemium games, and I got brushed aside by all but one.

We’re not seriously considering getting a publisher (except for China!) but I would have appreciated their feedback. Maybe I should just stop going to publisher speed-dating since we decided we’ll handle the global roll-out on our own…

 

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Adrian had a particularly impressive setup for Meow Wars.

Amazon Developer Showcase

I thought it was great that there were some actual games being featured at the show in the main hall! You could walk right up and play them, or talk with the developers. Or both! At a strictly business conference like this, sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re publishing games, not virtual slot machines. There weren’t many, though – I think it was just Meow Wars, Cat Date, Tiny Bubbles, Tumblestone, and one other whose name escapes me. This section probably should have been larger.

 

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Marketplace

Nothing really appealed to me in the marketplace, which was a separate room where companies set up tables to sell their products. This would probably be more appealing if there were games here – or if the products were designed for a premium title. But, understandably, there were a lot of ad networks in this section.

PornHub had a table (not pictured) which I find extremely distasteful. There were no kids at this conference, but even so, it’s important to have standards about who you invite. I think the MGF can get by without PornHub’s $2,000 table fee, and I recommend they be more stringent about who is allowed to showcase at their events. If they want, I’ll pay them not to include PornHub and other such companies. This is hardly the place for a preachy article about how sex trafficking thrives on the porn industry, so I’ll move on and let you Google that on your own. Needless to say, I found that disturbing and I didn’t spend much time in this room.

 

Dinner

New Friends, and a Virtual Reality Party

Shows like this are great for meeting people! We had a great time going out for drinks and dinner before the official MGF party. This is probably the best reason to go to a conference like this, because you never know who you’ll meet – or where they’ll be working in 3 years. It’s a small industry, and everyone knows each other. So you have to make sure you’re part of “everyone!”

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This was pretty cool, too: the official party of the show had a few VR stations by this company Portal. They were showcasing mini-demos like the Star Wars VR experience, and larger titles like Valve’s The Lab. This is kind of where VR shines, honestly – a fun arcade experience where the expense is handled by someone else, and you have fun while looking goofy in front of your friends.

It was also probably not great that the party happened the night before the game pitching contest. Speaking of which…

 

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The Game Dev Showdown

There was a contest at the MGF to pitch your game in front of 5 industry judges. I knew about the contest beforehand, but I didn’t try to join it before I got to the show. On Tuesday, I just said “screw it” and went for it. They mentioned during the opening ceremony that there were two drop outs and I asked Anna if I could join. She told me I’d need a PowerPoint Presentation and a pitch ready to go by 1 pm the next day. I said “count me in!” and got the very last slot in the contest.

I was up until 2:30 am on Tuesday night, but I got it done! There were six games in all, many of whom were on display in the main hall of the expo center as part of the Amazon Developer Showcase. My pitch went quite well, and I got to use a clicker for the first time in my life. Afterward, people commented on how impressed they were with my polished delivery, especially considering I only had a day to prepare. I don’t mean to sound self-centered, but this is one area where I can claim some significance. I’ve done performing arts since 6th grade, and even some improv in college. It’s not a useless skill. My competitors were nervous, and for many this was their first pitch ever. Jack and I both did a bunch of acting at Stevens, and it’s a skill that stays with you – just watch his impromptu interview for PAX East if you need proof of that!

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Image Credit: Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat

You can see us lined up nervously on stage as we await the announcement. The winner was… Tiny Bubbles! It’s a polished puzzle game by Stu Denman, and it deserved to win. He went first and had a bunch of tech issues that weren’t his fault, so I was hoping they wouldn’t count that against him. Then he wowed the audience with his crazy bubble simulation physics, as well as a touching story of how his grandfather inspired the game’s design. Well done! (Thanks to Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat, one of the judges, for the photo above that was used in his article about Tiny Bubbles) Check out the Unreleased Google Beta for that game here, it’s awesome!

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Where Shadows Slumber won 2nd place (runner-up) in this contest, and they gave me a whole bunch of Amazon goodies! Pictured above is two Fire HD 8’s a Kindle Fire tablet, and an Amazon Fire TV. They also said that both winners would get a feature spot on Amazon’s App Store when we launch!

I was a little stunned when they announced this at the end of the second day. I had done it again – just like when I muscled my way into the Big Indie Pitch at GDC earlier this year – I won a pitching contest just by randomly entering at the last minute! Afterward, George congratulated me on my 2nd place win – not just because he liked the game, but because in his words “you stepped up.” If there’s anything to take from this article, that’s it. So much of success is about showing up, volunteering, and taking risks!

 

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Don’t Give Up On Gamesforum!

The Mobile Games Forum was a bit messy at times – but it’s over now. From here on out, it’s Gamesforum. Under the direction of George Osborn and Anna Bashall, I have confidence in the future of this conference. It seems like previous leaders put them in a horrible spot, where they had to run a conference on their own at the last second. I don’t envy anyone in their position.

With more time to plan and do things their way, I’m sure future expos will be even better. Hopefully they heed my advice about the corporate sponsorship and try to make talks more relevant even if they are disguised sales pitches. (“Buy Appodeal!”)

This team is based in the United Kingdom, so their next show is over there. I can’t make it to London for the first inaugural Gamesforum in January, but when they return to the United States I’ll look them up! Maybe I can persuade them to come to the east coast? (Psst, it’s a shorter flight for you guys!) In any event, I wish them the best of luck and I’d like to thank them for incredible opportunity!

 

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You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Hacks Versus Designs

I remember back in the day, when computers and programming were first becoming somewhat ‘cool’. Back then, the coolest thing you could be in the computing world was a ‘hacker’. Hackers were awesome renegades who could tear down opposing systems using nothing but their superior intellect. Being able to hack was one of the best skills you could have. Now, after studying and working in computer science for a while, the term ‘hack’ has taken on a very negative connotation.

When you’re writing code, there are several things that you’re aiming for. The two broadest and most important of these are:

  1. The code works – it does what you intend for it to do.
  2. The code is good – it’s efficient, understandable, and easy to use/improve.

It seems like these two things would go hand-in-hand, and for well-designed code, that is often the case. However, the road to that ‘well-designed’ code is often fraught with terrible, terrible code. So, what’s the intrinsic difference between these two goals, and how does it lead to bad code?

 

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Hack First, Ask Questions Later

When you’re working on a large, intricate system, and you need to add something or make a change, these two goals lead to two different types of results – a hack, or a design:

  • A hack is a piece of code with only the first goal in mind – you’re just trying to ‘make it work’. You don’t want to put a lot of thought or time into the implementation, you just want it to work.
  • A design has both goals in mind – you’re spending time to come up with a good solution. You’re willing to work a little harder to end up with a more robust, long-loving solution.

Designing a solution to a task leaves you with good code. It’s easy to understand, easy to use, and easy to update. The algorithm makes sense, not just in terms of “does it do what I want”, but also in terms of “does it make sense with the theory behind it”.

Looking at these two descriptions, it’s pretty easy to see – designs are better than hacks. So why would anyone ever want to use a hack to get something done? There are a few reasons.

Designs take more time. You have to come up with a solution, consider its long-term viability, consider how it will interact with every part of your system, present and future, tweak it accordingly, and make sure that it still matches the theory of your application. A hack, on the other hand, involves simply coming up with a quick and dirty solution, and implementing it.

Designs require deeper understanding. In order to fully understand the impact of your newly-designed code, you have to completely understand the current state of your application, remember all of the assumptions you made when coding it, and ensure that your new stuff won’t interfere with any existing stuff (Note that this is much harder to do on a larger team, as there are areas of the code you may not be as familiar with).

Designs are often much larger in scope. When designing a solution, it will often involve creating a ‘system’ or ‘engine’ of sorts. Not only does this take longer to think through and implement, but it also opens the door to a lot of subtle interactions between systems. Hacks are (usually) much more localized – “I’m gonna make this hack here, but I won’t use it in other places”.

You don’t want to spend a lot of effort on code that will be replaced eventually. This is really just a combination of the above points, but it’s an important reason why hacks exist. If you have to update a small piece of code, but you know that you’re going to come in and change the whole thing next month anyways, why would you put a lot of time and effort into designing a solution when a quick, hacky fix will do the trick?

Looks about right Cropped

This is what happens when you leave hacks in your code!

 

Here’s An Example

Let’s say you’re you’re working on a pretty simple game in a pretty simple game engine, using a pretty simple programming language (hint: this means I’ll be using pseudo-code rather than real code). You’ve got your character on the screen, and you want to make him move back and forth along some flat ground whenever you hit an arrow key. You might start out with something like this:

if (keys.leftArrow) {
  dudeGuy.position.x -= 10;
}

if (keys.rightArrow) {
  dudeGuy.position.x += 10;
}

Pretty simple and straightforward – if you’re pressing the left arrow key, move your dudeGuy to the left, and if you’re pressing the right arrow key, move him to the right.

So, you use this code for your movement, and it works, and you continue working on your game. Then, suddenly, you have an epiphany – what if your dudeGuy could jump? You add a variable and hook it up:

int jumpingTimer = 0;

...

if (keys.spaceBar && jumpingTimer == 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y += 30;
  jumpingTimer = 3;
}

if (jumpingTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y -= 10;
  jumpingTimer--;
}

As you continue making your game, you design some levels where you realize that you want the gravity to be less strong, so you have to account for that:

float gravity = 10;

...

if (keys.spaceBar && jumpingTImer == 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y += 30;
  jumpingTimer = 30 / gravity;
}

if (jumpingTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y -= gravity;
  jumpingTimer--;
}

Then you realize that your back-and-forth movement looks pretty choppy, so you decide to add some ‘smoothing’, so your dudeGuy speeds up and slows down:

int movingLeftTimer = 0;
int movingRightTimer = 0;
int jumpingUpTimer = 0;
int jumpingTimer = 0;
float gravity = 10;

...

if (keys.leftArrow) {
  if (movingLeftTimer < 3) {
    movingLeftTimer++;
  }
} else if (movingLeftTimer > 0) {
  movingLeftTimer--;
}

if (movingLeftTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.x -= 10 / (4 - movingLeftTimer);
}

if (keys.rightArrow) {
  if (movingRightTimer < 3) {
    movingRightTimer++;
  }
} else if (movingRightTimer > 0) {
  movingRightTimer--;
}

if (movingRightTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.x += 10 / (4 - movingRightTimer);
}

if (keys.spaceBar && jumpingTimer == 0) {
 dudeGuy.position.y += 30;
 jumpingTimer = 30 / gravity;
}

if (jumpingTimer > 0) {
 dudeGuy.position.y -= gravity;
 jumpingTimer--;
}

And,  before you know it, with only a few changes to what we were trying to do, we end up with a piece of code that’s incredibly messy, almost impossible to understand, and prone to bugs and off-by-one errors. Honestly, I just wrote this thing, and I have no idea what it’s supposed to be doing.

Now, this example is a bit of an esoteric one, just to prove a point. However, it is definitely not the worst code I’ve ever seen (or written), and that’s saying something. What should we have written instead? Well, if you couldn’t guess, the above code is an example of a hack (or a number of hacks put together). Rather than examining what it was we needed in the long run, we repeatedly implemented something that did the job in the short term. So, let’s make a design for this use-case, and think about what we need overall.

We want to be able to move left/right, jump, have different values for gravity, and have smoothing on our movement. This sounds a bit like actual physics, so lets steal some important concepts from them – acceleration and deceleration. We’ll determine some rules that match our design, modify the dudeGuy’s acceleration in each direction based on those rules, and then move his position all at once:

float maxSpeed = 10;
float acceleration = 3;
float jumpAcceleration = 10;
float gravity = 3;
float friction = 5;
float minY = 0;

float vx = 0;
float vy = 0;

...

// If the left arrow key is down, accelerate to the left
if (keys.leftArrow) {
  vx -= acceleration;
}

// If the right arrow key is down, accelerate to the right
if (keys.rightArrow) {
  vx += acceleration;
}

// If the spacebar is down and the dudeGuy is on the ground, accelerate upwards
if (keys.spaceBar && dudeGuy.position.y == minY) {
  vy += jumpAcceleration;
}

// Accelerate downwards for gravity
vy -= gravity;

// Decelerate for friction
if (vx > 0) {
  vx -= friction;
} else if (vx < 0) {
  vx += friction;
}

// If we're going to fast to the right, slow us down to the max speed
if (vx > maxSpeed) {
  vx = maxSpeed;
}

// If we're going to fast to the left, slow us down to the max speed
if (vx < -maxSpeed) {
  vx = -maxSpeed;
}

// Update the dudeGuy's position based on our current velocity in each direction
dudeGuy.position.x += vx;
dudeGuy.position.y += vy;

// If the dudeGuy is below the ground, move him up to ground level
if (dudeGuy.position.y < minY) {
  dudeGuy.position.y = minY;
  vy = 0;
}

While we have a similar number of lines of code here, it’s much clearer what’s happening on each line. Every block serves an easy-to-understand purpose, and making changes to the ‘rules’ of movement is very easy. There are a lot of different ways to improve this code, depending on your game’s overall design, but this is a decent, and most importantly simple, place to start.

Another important feature of this piece of code is that it is well documented. Every block is pretty small, but it still has a comment describing the purpose of the block. This is an extremely important part of programming in the context of larger systems – you want to make sure that you (or anyone else) can quickly understand what your code is doing, especially in complex cases. Even though some complex logic might seem simple to you, it’ll definitely seem more difficult when you come back to it in 6 months!

 

A Necessary Evil

Unfortunately, hacks are a necessary evil. While I would love to only ever have to deal with and implement beautifully-designed code, that world doesn’t exist. There’s always a timeline, there are always changing assumptions and new features, and there’s always someone who wants it to be finished yesterday. Inevitably, you’re going to have to write some code quickly, implement a feature that’s likely to change, or come up with a simple ‘solution’ to a difficult problem. In cases like this, you’re forced to use a hack.

Hack

I mean, it works… technically…

It’s not all bad, though. While hacks in general are pretty bad, they can be manageable if you make sure to use them correctly. In fact, I would be willing to bet that any system currently in production (of a certain size) contains quite a few hacks. There are certain qualities that hacks can have which make them a little bit more manageable, and you should try to aim for them whenever you find yourself implementing a hack:

  • Understandable – It’s important that, whatever your hack is, anyone else looking at the code can understand what you were trying to do, and how your hack works. This means leaving a lot of comments around your hack, as well as simplifying the logic as much as possible.
  • Localized – If you have to hack something in, you want it to only be in one place. Every time that code path is used, there’s a chance that something will go wrong. If your hack only touches a small part of your system, then its negative effects will be much less noticeable. This means that frequently-used code paths should never really have hacks in them, while hacks in rarely-used code paths are more acceptable.
  • Known – This is, to me, the most important part of making a hack. If you hack something in and then forget about it, when your system starts failing, you won’t know where to look. If you make sure you remember it (by writing it down somewhere and then telling every person you know), then you’ll know where to look if something goes wrong. On top of that, you’ll always have that hack in the back of your mind, so you’ll be more likely to think of a good design to replace it.

If you follow these guidelines and make sure to try to go back and fix them, then putting hacks into your code won’t end up destroying you.

I hope this was helpful to those of you just starting out in game development – or anything which involves designing complex systems! For those of you who already know a little something about computer science, I hope this at least reinforced your burning hatred of hacks!

 

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If you want to know more about how to deal with hacky code, or what kind of hacks are in Where Shadows Slumber so that you can exploit them, feel free to contact us! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

State Of The Art – September 2017

Welcome to State Of The Art, September 2017 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month. Without further ado, let’s explore the major leaps forward we took in September!

 

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World 3, Aqueduct

This World has been started and is looking promising so far. It’s one of the easier ones on the list, since this World is mostly deep water and narrow pathways. Compared to some of the other ones I did this month, that’s a cakewalk.

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The Aqueduct is a cavernous waterway built by humans that Obe explores midway through his journey. The Levels here often make use of light sources that don’t come from Obe’s lantern.

Aqueduct-1.png

This World is not 100% finished – but nothing ever is, at this stage of the process. Jack is currently modifying a water plugin I downloaded from the Asset Store to work with our strange lighting system. There are also highly specific items I still need to model. That always gets left as the last thing…

 

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World 4, City

I’ve been looking forward to working on this World for a long time. I loved the cool mountain desert aesthetic we had in the Demo, and it’s a shame that didn’t make it into the final game. This is even cooler though – a pueblo style city in the middle of a sandstorm! What’s not to like? (Sandstorm sold separately)

City-0.png

Creating these detailed environments takes time. As I sat down to write this, I realized that 3 of the 5 Levels in the City aren’t even in good condition to show the public! While every Level in this World is functional and the art has been started, very few of them are complete.

City-1.png

Get out of there, Obe! Nothing good ever happens in alleyways…

This World tells a complex story in a short amount of time, and a lot of highly specific artwork is still in the works. Look out for those missing Levels in a future update, and accept my apologies. I spread myself quite thin this month in order to cover a lot of ground quickly.

 

SotA-S-Header

World 5, Hills

I really stretched myself this month by going even further and starting World 5, the Hills. I hadn’t originally planned on doing this, but I got artist’s block on the City and decided to move on. This is usually a good idea – by the time I return to my previous work, I’ve had some kind of epiphany for what to do.

Hills-0.PNG

The Hills are modeled after the dreary cliffs of Ireland. We’ve decided to make this like one long graveyard, with mechanics to match: little tombstones that turn into ghosts when they’re covered in shadow. By the time you shine a light on them again, they turn back into tombstones… but they’ve moved. I think you can get an idea of how puzzles might work here. This is our own twist on the Boos from Super Mario, which behaved differently depending on whether Mario was looking at them.

Hills-1.PNG

The Hills require a ton of very specific modeling to complete, and have proven really challenging so far. I prefer to use modular tool kits because you get more mileage out of them. Even so, you can’t argue with the results! I threw out the aesthetic seen in the Level above because it was too formulaic. It obviously made use of one piece over and over again and I got sick of looking at it. Now the Levels in this World will all look more like the image below.

Hills-2.png

This is now my favorite Level in the game. I hope you can see why! (And it’s not even done, I still need to add little grass bunches)

 

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World 6, Summit

Since I was feeling insane this month, I actually got started on World 6, Summit. This is basically the top of a snowy mountain. It’s really not done yet – you could hardly call it “started”. I don’t even have any screenshots to show you! But maybe you can get a sense of what they’ll look like based on my Concept Art drawings of Jack’s finished prototype Levels.

Obe ventures out into the freezing cold. He’s completely alone… except for the ghosts of the damned! (Ghosts of the Damned sold separately)

 

 

Don’t Expect Much From October

I apologize for the lack of video this time around. I usually like to keep myself to the high standard of showing footage of the game instead of screenshots. (Video is harder to fake, which means I have to own up to failures in the game’s visuals.) This time around I took the easy way out, since I’m leaving today to go on a crazy week-long business trip. Speaking of that…

September marks one of the greatest leaps forward the game has taken aesthetically so far. To be honest, I was overcompensating for the fact that October is going to be a slow month. Because of this trip (and another during the middle of this month), I won’t have as much time as I normally do to make artwork.

In a perfect world, I would finish World 6 and 7 before we get to November, but I doubt it. Between Unite 2017, IndieCade 2017, and the Mobile Games Forum, I’m missing an entire 2 weeks of work this month. That’s insane! At least you get to hear my thoughts on the shows in next week’s blog post… [ ^_^]!

Just warning you not to get too excited. See you at the start of November for another recap!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

We Got Interviewed By TechRaptor!

This is so exciting – we can finally show off something that’s been in the works for a few weeks now. Since PlayNYC, Robert Adams at TechRaptor has been hard at work on an interview we did in the week leading up to the event.

In it, we discuss the origins of Game Revenant, my tragic corporate backstory, the game’s art direction, our progress over the past two years, mobile vs Steam, VR, release dates, price, and why Jack is our hero.

FULL LINK: https://techraptor.net/content/play-nyc-2017-a-conversation-with-frank-dicola-about-where-shadows-slumber

Check out the full article here! We’ll return to our usual blogging schedule next week, but this was too cool not to share.

 

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Are you a member of the media? If you’d like to interview the developers, reach out to us directly! You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

State Of The Art – August 2017

Welcome to State Of The Art, August 2017 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month. Without further ado, let’s explore the major leaps forward we took in August!

 

Rekt

Obe’s Feline “Friends”

This part of the update is directly tied to the cutscene discussed below, but I wanted to give it special attention just because I like how they turned out. I modeled some cats! They really only appear during a few short cutscenes during the game, but making each one took quite a long time. Here’s the Leopard:

Leopard

The spots on his coat came out way better than expected, although the top of the head is a bit off.

And the Lion:

Lion.PNG

The way his mane frames his face gets me every time!

I especially like the Lion’s mane. It was a struggle to get it to look as simple as it does. I kept making overly detailed 3D hair but it just looked wrong. At one point I considered using Cloth to simulate a glorious flowing mane, but I knew Jack would probably kill me so I backed off. I ended up going with a simple cylinder with a rotated back and it just looked right as soon as I saw it. I stepped out of my comfort zone and ended up with something super cool! Throw on Jack’s shader and voila – a glorious, friendly* Lion.

Astute observers will notice a few things about these models. For simplicity, they’re actually using the humanoid torso + limbs combo that Obe uses! But the reuse doesn’t end there. The Leopard and the Lion both have the same Head model, just with a different texture. The Lion’s mane does even more to differentiate them. A+ if you noticed this without me telling you!

* Watch the cutscene.

 

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World 2 (River)

The River World took a giant leap forward during the month of August. I’d show you a bunch of screenshots, but I made a pledge last month to show more videos of the game in action instead of just screenshots. This is part of pushing ourselves to be better – if the game doesn’t look good in video format, we need to work harder! You’ll notice of course that there’s still no sound, but we’re working on that.

 

The core pillars of the River’s design are its gross yellow water, jet black dirt, log wall structures, and rickety boardwalks. There’s a really cool interplay here between the water and the black foliage – it makes it look like more things are in shadow than there really are. I love how the trees look, stretching out into the water / sky. This is one of my favorite Worlds!

Enjoy the highlight reel of all five Levels in World 2, above. Don’t worry – there’s no spoilers for puzzle solutions, just a walking tour of what each Level looks like.

 

Cutscener.PNG

“Wardens” – The First Cutscene

You walk through the forest, alone and lost. You come to an intersection… which path to take? Suddenly, a Lion appears from behind the shadowy veil. To your left, a Wolf! As they bear down on you, you wonder if they are friend or foe. And what’s that sound behind you?

This cutscene is not quite 100% finished yet, but I’ve reached the point where it’s time to leave it and move on. I’m going to throw some facial animations in there, but I’d like those to coincide with sounds (roaring, laughing, screaming) so I’m avoiding it for now. Of course, as a final pass, we’ll need to add sound effects.

There are also minor touch-ups to his clothing that I need to do. I didn’t have to animate his robe or his chasuble, which was a godsend. But with automated animation comes other issues… notice how his clothing clips through his body and the ground sometimes. It’s possible to fix this – and it’s possible it won’t even be noticeable on an iPhone – but it’s one of those things you need to leave until the end of the project. Focusing all my energy on it now means neglecting the rest of the work on my plate, so it’s not an option.

 

Enjoy the cutscene (above) and look forward to a 100% version later, with sound!

 

CityWIP

What To Expect From September

This coming month, my first task is going to be World 3 – the Aqueduct. We’re pretty much going chronologically here, so that’s next. I’d also love to move on to World 4 – the City. The City has been started, so one Level is already basically done. Getting those two Worlds finished would be awesome! Time will tell.

I’m satisfied with how I animated the Wardens cutscene, which means I might take a break from cutscenes for now. I really just wanted to get that first proof-of-life cutscene done so our audio crew can have something to work on as a reference for how cutscenes work.

Speaking of audio, that will also be my focus this month. I won’t be working on audio per se, but I’ll be paving the way for an audio person to come in and start adding stuff. That means some light scripting and a lot of brainstorming. It’s not visual, but it counts as “aesthetic”. Maybe I should rename this monthly post State of the Aesthetic? Is greater accuracy worth wasting one of the greatest puns of all time? Surely not…

 

See you again in October!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.