Ask Us Anything on #AMAFeed!

Over the weekend, Mandy from AMAfeed reached out to us via email and invited us to host an AMA using their service. This blog post contains all the details you’ll need to know if you want to participate!

But first, for those of you unfamiliar with the acronym ‘AMA’…

 

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A verification photo of the AMA in progress.

What The Heck Is An ‘AMA’?

The acronym AMA stands for “Ask Me Anything.” It’s a time honored tradition on the web that goes back to the days of AOL and message boards, where users would open themselves up to any line of questioning for a short period of time. The practice has gained recent popularity on the website Reddit, where even Barack Obama hosted one of these events during his tenure as President of the United States.

These tend to be accompanied by some kind of verification photo (see above) to prove that the person is who they say they are. It’s unfortunately very common for people to pretend to be Morgan Freeman when they are in fact not Morgan Freeman. The good thing is, we’re too small to even get copy-catted. It’s definitely us!

We always answer your fan emails and Twitter messages. But the purpose of hosting one of these AMA events is to take questions en masse for a few days and also advertise the game to complete strangers. As the name implies, you can ask us anything – the only questions we will refuse to answer are those that would cause us to break a contractual Non-Disclosure Agreement.

 

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How Does This Work At #AMAfeed?

Our AMA can be found at this link. In order to ask us a question, you’ll either need to make an account with #AMAfeed or connect an existing social media account. Personally, I prefer not to make accounts with websites like this that I may not use too often. I just connected the Game Revenant Twitter account to #AMAfeed and it’s worked just fine so far.

You can ask whatever you want, whenever you want, and I will answer. However, my answers will not appear until Wednesday, December 20th at 3:00 pm when this thing officially launches. It’s cool – they give the hosts a grace period of 48 hours to answer questions so that it’s not overwhelming. When Morgan Freeman did one of these, he was getting at least 100 questions every hour. (But was that truly Morgan Freeman?)

This event will end on December 24th at 3:00 pm since I won’t be available to answer questions during Christmas anyway.

 

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What’s Next?

The Where Shadows Slumber team looks forward to your interesting questions! See you on #AMAfeed…

And stay tuned for our April 1st #AMAfeed post, where we’ll be pretending to be award-winning actor Morgan Freeman!

 

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Don’t read this bottom thing! Ask us a question on #AMAfeed! 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.

Frank Opinion: Why Our Game Is Premium

Believe it or not, Jack and I don’t spend every waking minute of our lives with our heads buried in our computer screens working on Where Shadows Slumber. Occasionally, we take the time to read up on current events in the game industry!

The big news of last week was Star Wars Battlefront 2’s controversial loot-box system, and how EA and Disney tried desperately to pull up as their starship careened toward the surface in a full nose-dive. I’m not a journalist, so I’ll let you look up the story on your own. Personally I’m a huge fan of this YouTuber YongYea – watch the last 5 or 6 videos on his channel and you’ll get the full story. (Coarse language warning – YongYea gets pretty passionate about this subject.)

Honestly, the headlines of these videos alone are enough to give you the idea. Are you an expert on lootboxes and the EA controversy yet? Yes? Great, let’s dive right in!

 

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Why Are You Blogging About This?

It may seem odd to bring up EA and Star Wars Battlefront 2 in a blog that’s dedicated to following the progress of our mobile puzzle game. However, Jack and I write these blogs for a few reasons. Progress updates are great, but sometimes we like to take the time to spill our guts and let you know exactly what we’re thinking and why we made certain key decisions along the way.

Recently I attended the Mobile Games Forum. As I wrote in my blog post, I felt a bit out of place at that conference. Industry executives are really moving away from premium games! Nearly everyone I met was either a free-to-play developer or an ad network executive trying to sell us their services. Sometimes I felt downright insulted by the comments these guys made towards me and my “ancient” business model. I heard things like “the market is only 7% premium these days” and “game developers are the only ones who miss the premium model.” At the limit, I heard the scariest thing imaginable: The premium market is dead.

So I’d like to take this week’s blog post as an opportunity to talk about the recent controversy with EA, and relate it to the apparent death of the premium business model. But first, we need to define these terms in case I’m using technical jargon you’ve never heard before. (This is an educational blog, after all…) Then we need to mention some disclaimers so people don’t flame me in the comments section.

 

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Disclaimers and Definitions

Before we dive in – what the heck am I talking about? To someone who doesn’t study the entertainment industry, this blog post is probably a bit confusing so far. Here are the terms I’m going to use, and what I think they mean. Hit me up in the comments if I make a big mistake and I’ll update the blog.

PremiumYou see a game on the App Store. It costs 5 dollars. You pay the money, and download the game. You play it. You never have a reason (or the ability) to spend more money in-game after this point. There are no advertisements or “time-wasters” in the game.

Free, With Ads: You see a game on the App Store. It costs 0 dollars to download! You download it for free and play it. During the game, advertisements for real-world products pop up at regular intervals. These can be images or videos. The developer makes a fraction of a cent for every ad you watch or click. You may also be given the option at times to opt into watching an ad to get some kind of in-game bonus.

Free, With In-App Purchases: You see a game on the App Store. It costs 0 dollars to download! You download it for free and play it. During the game, you notice that certain player abilities, player accessories, or levels are locked. To unlock them, you need to spend either an in-game currency, or a real-world currency like USD. The in-game currency doesn’t go nearly as far as the real-world currency, usually at a conversion rate of something like 100:1. You can do everything in the game without paying money, but it takes a ton of time.

Grind: Known as grinding or “the grind,” this is the process of doing something repetitive in a game in order to earn enough currency to buy something. I assume the name came from the agonizing process of pushing a millstone around in circles in your bare feet.

Lootboxes: Digital grab-bags filled with randomized treasure. Lootboxes are often purchasable in-game with in-game currency, but the grind to get them is time intensive and dull. These lootboxes can always be purchased at a great discount with real money, so the incentive to pony up is always there.


 

Finally, I want to mention that there are plenty of free games I have played and enjoyed.

I used to play League of Legends with my friends when we were all into the game – that one is Free, With In-App Purchases. Because you never were able to buy powerful items in League of Legends, I never spent money on the game or even felt like I needed to. In that game, you only purchased different costumes for your heroes. I felt it was a good way of doing that model, and Riot Games has been quite successful.

Currently I really enjoy the digital card game Hearthstone, which is also Free, With In-App Purchases. That one is dicier because they have lootboxes in the form of card packs. Since you can buy card packs to get good cards and put them in your deck, they’re essentially selling power. I think they get away with it because Blizzard still has a good reputation. Also, this business model is as old as the real-world card game Magic: The Gathering. Perhaps players are used to it by now. However, the pay-to-get-good-cards model is harming their ability to capture new players, so not all is well in the land of Azeroth. The impact of this business model remains to be seen.

Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp just launched today and I’m definitely going to play it no matter how weird it is. I love Nintendo, I love Animal Crossing, and I’m well aware this is probably going to be a free, with in-app purchases minefield. By this point though, I’ve gotten pretty good at playing these games without paying a cent.

Now that you know I don’t hate every single free-to-play game, let’s talk about why this business model can easily be corrupted.

 

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The Right Way and the Wrong Way To Do This

Let me tell you what I like about free games when they are done correctly.

In my view, when a game lets you download it for free and largely ignore the in-app purchases, consumers will enjoy the experience. I get a strange sense of accomplishment knowing that my Hearthstone deck, which I built over time for free, can beat some nerd who paid $100 in card packs. The reason why I don’t play games with ads is because there’s no way to ignore them – they are shoved into your face on purpose.

This is what makes Star Wars: Battlefront 2’s lootbox system so egregious. They’ve gone with the controversial Premium, With In-App Purchases model. Recently, this has only been done successfully by Overwatch, probably due in no small part to Blizzard’s stellar reputation in the industry. More importantly, Overwatch’s lootboxes never contain any items that materially affect gameplay. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your costume is – you’ll still get dunked by a regular player who didn’t pay for lootboxes if they are better at the game than you are.

EA has flipped the script, totally ignoring cosmetic items and focusing instead on selling Star Cards: boring passive abilities that make your character better in unexplained, unrealistic ways. By selling players the random chance to get incredibly powerful abilities and forcing other players to grind their way to these same powers, EA is simply setting free players up to fail. After you’ve paid $60 for Star Wars: Battlefront II, you really haven’t finished paying for the product. What’s worse is that now you don’t even get the option of laying out more money to get what you want – such as the ability to play as Darth Vader – but instead you need to gamble with your time and money. Whatever happened to video games just being fun experiences? Aren’t we in the entertainment industry? One side (developers) is not respecting the other side (players), and the players are largely just accepting this brutal beat-down.

 

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Premium: A Business Model Based on Mutual Respect

Finally, the conversation can return to Where Shadows Slumber, our upcoming premium mobile puzzle game. It took me a while to lay the groundwork for this, but I wanted to show you where my thoughts were coming from.

Jack and I didn’t choose this business model flippantly. It’s not like we had the chance to make a free-with-ads game and then said “eh, what the heck. Make it premium. Who cares?” There were a number of factors at play when we made this decision, back in 2015.

1. Inspiration from Monument Valley: As we’ve noted many times, the premium smash hit Monument Valley and its successful sequel inspired us to make this game. They offered the game for a premium price, and only charged players more money later when they created more levels. That always seemed more than fair to us. If they made millions, why can’t we?

2. Game design: Similar to the point above, we decided that a linear level-based puzzle game just couldn’t be reconfigured to work with a free-to-play business model. Our entire game was based around the business model: an assumption that this was a relaxing, creepy puzzle experience waiting to unfold before you. Your character can’t die in our game, and there are no enemies. That means we can’t sell lives or power-ups. Since the game is a finite single-player experience, we wouldn’t get much mileage out of selling cosmetic items. Who cares what the character looks like? The game lasts just a few hours and there’s no one to impress. We could put ads in-between levels, but there aren’t even a ton of levels so we wouldn’t make much money per player. We simply never had any desire to mutilate the concept of our game in order to make room for a pigeonholed free-to-play business model.

3. Hedging our bets against free-to-play: Every bubble bursts eventually. Right now, the business executives making these decisions are looking at the success of their competitors and simply copying them. This is often called reactive development. Responding to the environment around them, business executives see that every game is free to play and decide to follow suit. But I think it’s better to be proactive and look toward the future. Next year, when our game launches, what will players think about the game industry? Will they have a negative or a positive reaction to a $0 price tag on a game? Has Star Wars: Battlefront II poisoned the well? Jack and I are taking a gamble by pursuing a business model that makes very little money. But we do so with the confidence that free-to-play’s stock is falling, and an informed group of players are getting tired of seeing good games get ruined by the greedy demands of executives.

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This Industry Needs Mutual Respect

The thing that combines the three points above is the principle of mutual respect. Call me old fashioned, but I’m used to the traditional way of doing things.

As a player with money to spend, you scan the market for interesting video games. Something catches your eye – it’s a beautiful indie puzzle game about a strange priestly-looking dude with a lantern. The puzzles in the game are weird. Objects in the level change with shadows? You’ve never seen that before.

Before you take a leap of faith with your money, you try the free Demo on the store. It’s polished, the puzzles are quirky, and the story ends on a weird cliffhanger. Curiosity overwhelms you and you’ve made up your mind! You’re going to buy “Where Shadows Slumber.”

It may not seem like it, but this is a sign of respect. You’ve trusted us with your money. You respect us enough not to pirate the game or just watch someone playing it on YouTube. You trust us to deliver on what we promised in our Demo. You believe that our screenshots are genuine, and not Photoshopped to make the game look cooler than it is. Even though we’re indies straight out of college, you take a chance on us instead of taking your business elsewhere.

In turn, we as game developers should respect you. We should respect you by delivering on our promise, giving you an entertaining experience that matches or exceeds the value of the money you’ve paid. This is where my disdain for in-game advertisements comes from. It’s impossible for me to see it as anything other than a show of disrespect. When someone entrusts you with their time, how could you shove a commercial in their face and then demand they pay up to prevent their time from being wasted?

Time is the most precious thing we have as human beings. I’d gladly pay any sum of money for more years on this Earth, and more years for the lives of my loved ones. This is impossible, but the urge is always there. That’s what EA is exploiting when they devise a system that requires players to grind for 80 hours just to unlock one character. They’re holding your entertainment hostage and asking you to make a terrible choice: give up your time (precious) or an unknowable sum of money (also precious, in large quantities). By some estimates, you would have to spend close to $2,000 just to guarantee that you’ll unlock all Battlefront II has to offer. You’d never spend that much on a game upfront and they know it. In a sign of disrespect, they’ve devised a system to coerce you into playing their game or paying a ton of money over time without realizing it.

If that’s what the premium business model died for, it died in vain.

 

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Moral Arguments Require a Virtuous Community

It should be obvious by now that I’m not making a business case in favor of the Premium model. It’s dead or dying, and I get that. I don’t have any numbers to back this up. All I’m saying is that there’s a morally right way of delivering entertainment, and a morally wrong way of doing it too. Some publishers like to dance close to the fire, and EA jumped right into the furnace. (There’s a business argument for you – reputation matters.) But since this is a moral argument, it requires a community that cares about right and wrong in order for it to carry any weight.

Jack and I will need your help to pull this off. We want to be able to pay Alba and Noah and give them a good bonus through sales of the game. We want to be able to repay Caroline for her work on the website. I want the sales of Where Shadows Slumber to lay the foundation for Game Revenant’s future so I can be in business on my own. I want this game to make enough money so Jack never has to work another day in his life, especially after the sacrifices he’s made to create this beautiful game.

In order to do all of this, we need your help and we need it now! Now is the time to share this article with a friend, or show them our game’s website. If you haven’t downloaded the game’s Demo, do it today and send the link to a friend. Sign up for our newsletter so you can be there for us on day 1, leaving a good review and boosting our standing in the app charts.

Remember that there are four ways to vote in this marketplace:

  1. With your money – a symbol of what you place value on and what you do not.
  2. With your voice – what games are you talking about and sharing on social media?
  3. With your ratings – a sign of how you think other players should view the game.
  4. With your time – everything is tracked these days, and play time equals support.

 

Premium isn’t dead – but it will die when the gaming community overwhelmingly votes to support disrespectful business models and neglects to support indies. Big publishers like EA are probably beyond saving, but Game Revenant isn’t.

Not yet.

 

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The views expressed in Frank Opinion don’t represent everyone working on Where Shadows Slumber. 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.

 

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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.

IndieCade 10 Disappoints

Directly after my trip to Unite Austin, I flew straight to Los Angeles for IndieCade. I had never been to the show before, even though I’ve known about it for a few years now.

Ever since the Mr. Game! days, I’ve submitted games to their contest. It was a long-shot to assume that SkyRunner would make it in, but I thought we had a better chance with Where Shadows Slumber this year. I’ve never made it in to the showcase, and this year was no exception, but I’ve always wanted to figure out what kind of games IndieCade is looking for. On the bright side, they allowed me to show off the game during one of their show and tell segments! More on that later.

Jack and I went to IndieCade East a while back and really enjoyed it, so I thought I would do some field research on the main event and get some game testing in at the same time! Unfortunately, as I sit here writing this at my desk back in New Jersey, I’m struck by this awful realization: after 10 years in operation, IndieCade still doesn’t know how to put together a well-run event.

 

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Red Flags From The Start

Friday morning was incredibly stressful, and that feeling lingered on for the rest of the day. When I went to pick up my badge in the morning, I was dismayed to find a long single-file line that lead to a tent where one person was slowly handing out wristbands. As we all burned in the unforgiving Los Angeles sun, I started to freak out. IndieCade scheduled a talk with me and Oculus that morning and it didn’t look like I’d make it in time. Fortunately, Anita swooped in at the last second and just brought me to my meeting.

Oculus’ outreach team wanted to meet developers at IndieCade, and not just the ones presenting. Even though I’m working on a mobile puzzle game, I was able to meet Chris Jurney of Oculus! I tried to meet him at GDC 2017, but he was in meetings all day. But this time, I was the meetings all day >:). We discussed Where Shadows Slumber, and my post-release plans. Although this game can’t really ever come to VR, I do find the virtual reality medium pretty intriguing. They’re going to hook me up with an Oculus headset, which is insane. I’ll take it!

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From there, I went over to Game Tasting. Although Where Shadows Slumber was not an official IndieCade selection, they were nice enough to invite me to show off the game between 12 pm to 2 pm during the Game Testing segment. This is like IndieCade Lite, a quick look at some games that didn’t make it. To be honest, I liked the games near me even more than the ones at the official showcase! But we’ll discuss that more later.

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How can you say “get out, bum” to this face?

Due to some persistence (and my innocent baby face) I was able to get a second Game Tasting slot later that same day between 4 pm to 6 pm. In between, I saw a depressing talk about how Xbox Live Indie Games as a service is going to be shut down. That’s the first time I ever heard of that! It went offline the next day.

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After I fulfilled my obligations to IndieCade, I finally got a chance to grab dinner and explore around 7:30 pm. What I saw did not impress me. Although the Japanese American National Museum is a beautiful building, it makes for an awkward venue. Games seemed to be strewn about haphazardly, taking up space in crowded rooms while other larger halls remained inexplicably empty. Perhaps the most striking visual dissonance I witnessed was the IndieCade banner standing in front of a reproduction of a Japanese Internment shack. The banner screamed Enjoy some unique cool games! while the shack screamed Franklin D. Roosevelt violated the constitutional rights of over 100,000 American citizens and some people still say he’s their favorite president.

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Recreation of Japanese internment shack (left) and IndieCade’s banner (right)

It appears that this is their first year in this new venue, so I’ll cut them some slack on that end. They need to find their footing by next year’s IndieCade though, because this could really sink them. Many times, the exhibits on Japanese-American history were more interesting than the games being shown next to them. I don’t know why IndieCade has chosen to distract attendees from their games by putting them right next to compelling American history displays. Many times I found myself walking away from the dry non-games being exhibited to read more interesting plaques about Japanese immigrants coming to America. Perhaps the choice of a museum is to remind everyone that games are art and not just commercial products, but the venue put unnecessary strain on a show that’s already hanging by a thread.

 

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The Main Showcase

The main showcase of IndieCade had some of the strangest games I’ve ever seen. I believe that is the point of the show – to showcase the odd side of video game innovation. There were role-playing games that used only food and speech as a medium. Some games had unique controllers (like a giant inflatable sphere you played inside) that could never be mass produced and sold, which is why they can really only be displayed at IndieCade. A few games required large spaces to play in, or elaborate setups like a mock office area. As my friend said to me on Saturday, “IndieCade is good, because if they didn’t showcase these games, how would anyone else find out about them?”

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He’s right, of course. However, these games lose their power when stacked on top of each other like this. Although they may stand out at a conference like PAX East, at IndieCade everything blurs together into a politically left-leaning parade of grad-student quality propaganda. It’s hard to stand out when you’re put next to 29 similar games in a room titled LOOK AT ALL THESE THINGS THAT ALL STAND OUT!

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“The Hackers of Resistance (HORs) is a queer transfeminist hacker collective of artists, activists, researchers, cyborgs, witches, and technologists, of color.”

The strangest thing I “played” was an interactive experience called “Hackers of Resistance” that took place in a 10 x 10 area enclosed by pipe and drape. The designers of the experience decorated the room like a makeshift hacker den out of something like Mr. Robot. As we hacked our way to destroying the Trump administration, I couldn’t tell if I was taking part in a delusional liberal fantasy or brilliant conservative parody. (Seriously, read that caption again and tell me that doesn’t sound like something Kat Timpf would write)

Given the setting, I decided it must be the former, but the dreadful acting of the performers kept me guessing until the very end. Since this game is essentially an interactive installation that requires a physical space, you can see why IndieCade is just about the only place it could be setup. That’s fine by me! But I can’t help but think that IndieCade is doing its political messages a disservice by painting them as obscure. Think about it – they’re highlighting the strangest elements of the left-wing game industry and then purposely branding them as “weird” and “strange.” Don’t they want their political beliefs to be seen as mainstream instead? In its desire to seem weird, it makes them seem weird, too.

I’m quite used to blatant political messaging in the game industry these days, so that wasn’t even my biggest problem with IndieCade. What bugged me is that the show seemed dreary. The showcase was supposed to stay open until 10 pm, but by 8:30 many developers had abdicated their booths. I don’t blame them – many said they had been there since 4 pm. Giving people a long shift like that at the end of the day is bad planning on the part of the organizers. I would have liked to play more, but the venue depressed me. Around this time, a show like Unite would just be getting started with fun parties that last until 1 am. IndieCade was like an old man who was up past his bedtime at 9 pm, and went up to bed before his guests went to sleep.

 

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It’s Not All Bad

Before you think that I’m just a mean-spirited wet blanket who flies across the country to have a miserable time on purpose, let’s talk about my favorite three games from the showcase!

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Bit Rat is a cool futuristic puzzle game for PC where you play as a rogue A.I. construct trying to escape your company. I didn’t get a chance to play it because the tables were always packed, but you should check it out! The pixel aesthetic really works for the type of game this is, and the puzzles seemed quite difficult.

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Keyboard Sports: Saving Qwerty is an absolutely hilarious PC game where you use the keyboard to control your character’s position. That may not sound special, but I mean that quite literally: you don’t use keyboard keys to issue commands like “go right” or “go left.” Instead, the keys on your keyboard are mapped to physical locations within the game! See the tutorial level above, for example, where the spacious couch (hehe) is mapped to the space bar. There’s always an overlay on the screen so you can kind of gauge what to do, but it’s constantly changing which adds to the humor.

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Detention is a point-and-click horror puzzle adventure game set during a dark period in Taiwan’s history. I could have used less jump scares, but the overall experience is really tight. The actual mechanic this game uses for its monsters is one of the creepiest I’ve ever seen, but it’s apparently pretty common in China. You hold your breath to avoid being captured by ghosts! I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s very scary and I wish more games would do stuff like this. Incorporating folk tales into games is a great source of inspiration.

These three games showcase what IndieCade should be about, in my opinion. Alternative control schemes like the one found in Keyboard Sports are innovative, but still accessible to a wide audience. Cultural inspiration, as seen in Detention, doesn’t have to be overly preachy. Games can be weird and still be very well-made and polished, like Bit Rat. Too often, games at IndieCade use their “strange” identity as a shield to protect against the criticism that all game developers have to deal with. There’s no excuse for bad artwork, buggy code, or toothless gameplay – the label “indie” does not mean “I get away with delivering a lower quality product.” Anyway, instead of castigating more of IndieCade’s worst offenders, I’d rather show off the ones I enjoyed playing. Best of luck to these three games!

 

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By Sunday, The Nominee Gallery Vanished

By the final day of IndieCade, the Nominee Gallery was closed because an unrelated event was taking place in their room. (It seemed to be a Japanese-American dinner honoring some of the elderly in the community, but I didn’t pry too much.) Standing outside the venue, I heard quite a few people complaining.

“I was going to see the Nominees on Sunday, but they’re gone!”

The only thing more disappointing than not enjoying the official showcase is being robbed of an entire day to experience the official showcase. It’s just another bad choice by the staff – why wouldn’t you make sure your main showcase runs all three days? They were forced to do this because of the previous bad decision to host the event in a busy museum. Fortunately, I saw all I needed to see of the Nominee Gallery. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who bought a Sunday pass!

 

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The Talks Depended on the Room

I stand by the statement above: your experience going to the panels and talks at IndieCade will vary wildly depending on which ones you attended. The deciding factor seemed to be the room you chose.

I quite enjoyed the puzzle talk by Linelight creator Brett Taylor and Semblance creator Ben Myres. There was a talk about how to make “AAA Indie Games” by husband-and-wife team Tristan and Aby Moore. “50 Ways to Fail in VR” was a ton of fun, a great talk by Mike Murdock about hard lessons learned making virtual reality games. What did these games have in common? They took place in small classrooms with a simple projector screen and whiteboard. They also filled up quite fast!

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Brett and Ben tell us a bit about their games before their fireside chat about puzzle design.

The talks that served only to waste my time took place on the main stage; a large theater-styled presentation area with a massive projector, a tech booth, and tons of audio equipment. The IndieCade staff seemed woefully inadequate at operating this room. One talk started fifteen minutes late due to technical difficulties. At one point, ten minutes deep into technical drama, an exasperated technician scolded at the audience:

“Does anyone have an HDMI to VGA cable?! That’s what’s holding us up here!”

…as if I flew across the country and booked a hotel in an expensive area of Los Angeles just to personally hand-deliver you a cable you had months to purchase. Seriously, dude?

 

It Gets Worse Before It Gets Worse

But by far, the worst talk at IndieCade was the final one with Keita Takahashi, of Katamari Damacy fame. This was supposed to close out IndieCade with an intimate chat between the audience and a veteran game developer. Instead, it served to expose more flaws in the organizational structure of IndieCade. Find it online if you want to waste 50 minutes of your life.

I don’t have anything against Mr. Takahashi. He seems like a cool guy, and he has a wonderfully child-like sense of humor. But they evidently didn’t give him an agenda for this talk, because he began by trying to find his childhood home in Google Earth. As he struggled to do this, I realized both he and Brandon Boyer were trying to run the talk via their mobile phones for some inexplicable reason. This would become a recurring feature of the talk – waiting for the screen to slowly load whatever was on their phone.

The decision not to give Mr. Takahashi a translator was also mind-boggling. I felt bad for him – English is not his native language, and he is not fluent by any means. With no talking points or written speech, he spent half the talk fumbling around in Google Maps until that got old and they transitioned to Question and Answer time. It’s a shame they didn’t focus more on the few interesting bits of the talk, like his inspiration from Japanese sculptor Taro Okamoto. Without a solid plan, I can’t blame them for bombing on stage. When it comes to stuff like this, I usually blame whoever is at the top making the decisions that cause people to fail.

 

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Next time, Visit charming Little Tokyo, but skip IndieCade.

The Final Verdict

I’m not going to submit my games to IndieCade anymore, and I can’t see myself returning to the show any time soon. If you’re still interested in it, follow my guidelines below and I can help you avoid disappointment.

Should I attend IndieCade? If you live within walking or brief driving distance, there’s no reason not to go. Don’t spend money on a hotel or air travel, though. This show doesn’t deserve national or international attention in its current state. As a local show, it would be pretty awesome though.

What kind of pass should I get? I can’t see any reason why you would need more than a single day pass, probably Saturday. That had the biggest crowd. The games were all there. Besides, your wristband could probably get you in on Sunday too. They were all the same color.

Should I submit my game to IndieCade? Unless your game is as weird as some of the other stuff they highlight, don’t bother. There are two caveats: If your game is brazenly political and decidedly left-of-center, you’re good. Also, if you can modify your game to be super weird just for this show, go for it.

Will I fit in at IndieCade? Probably not. For a show that brags about its inclusive nature, it operates more like an exclusive club. IndieCade isn’t for everybody, whether its organizers want to admit it or not.

 

IndieCade Isn’t Fun

Before I went to IndieCade, I didn’t think all games had to be “fun.” I assumed that was a corporate label slapped on the industry that only applied to mass market games. “Games don’t need to be fun! It’s enough if they’re just engaging, interesting, or weird” I thought to myself. Oh, Frank-of-Last-Week… you were a fool!

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After playing scores of dull games at IndieCade, I’ve flipped my stance. I think fun is more important than ever, especially when you’re trying to make a game that deals with hard problems. I saw a lot of games that promised to tackle heavy issues (“this is a game about dealing with mental illness,” etc) but the only things the player could do were (a) walk around a 3D environment and (b) look around a 3D environment. That’s not innovative, and it doesn’t keep its promise either. The Spaces exhibit at IndieCade featured at least three of these. We wouldn’t stand for that if a AAA studio did that. Why do we accept this from indies?

What I think they’re missing is that fun is an important numbing device that helps people through painful topics. Without it, your work will just end up stressing people out and repelling them.

That stressful anxiety I felt since Friday morning was still with me by the show’s end. I felt it as I left the museum and passed by the ghostly faces of Japanese-American prisoners one last time. Death seems to haunt IndieCade, and I wonder if the show will be over for good sometime in the next few years. You’re either growing or dying, and IndieCade did not project strength during their 10th year in operation.

 

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Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber. The views expressed in this blog post are his own and do not reflect the opinions of anyone else on the Where Shadows Slumber team.

What Happens When You Forget to Write A Blog Post?

“Yo Frank, what upppp?!” I ask once he answers the phone call and his face shows up, larger than life, on my screen.

“Ey boii!” he replies, his voice booming through my headphones. The line falls silent for a few seconds, before we both speak up in unison:

“So, you’ve got a blog post planned for tomorrow, right?”

We stare at each other (well, as much as you can over the internet), our faces slowly transforming into masks of horror as we realize the ultimate fate we have incidentally worked together to bring upon ourselves.

“What will our millions of fans think?!” Frank cries, as the room around him is engulfed in flame.

“How will we ever persist without the precise instrumentation and scheduling that our weekly blog posts bring into our lives?!” I ask of the world in general, falling to the floor, unable to go on.

Then I meet Frank’s eye. I climb back into my chair as he slowly lifts his  hand, making both a fist and intense eye contact. I raise mine as well, shaking it in the air as we chant:

“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”

And that’s the story of how I got stuck spending last night writing this blog post.

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We all know how it feels to forget about a responsibility…

Not Really Though…

I really spent the whole week writing this post, not just last night (wink), but that story does a good job of showing how it feels to be behind, especially when it comes to our blog. We’ve made the conscious choice to involve ourselves in indie game development, without any real outside motives other than a love for games and development. Because of that, we do a lot of interesting and difficult things, and we talk about them a lot on this blog. But you know what interesting, difficult thing we do every week that doesn’t really get talked about that often?

That’s right – every week, one of us writes a blog post. Some of them are pretty good – a lot of them show interesting choices we made, or maybe they provide insight to other developers out there. But the point of writing this blog isn’t to write the best blog out there, or to prove ourselves as ultimate authorities on game development (hint: we’re not).

The point of writing this blog is to connect with people. We want to let people know about the struggles we’ve gone through to make our game as great as possible. We want to help other developers make their games as great as possible. We want to get feedback from anyone reading these posts, so that our game can be as great as possible.

 

How Hard Can It Be?

This is a fair question, and the quick answer to it is actually one of the reasons we ended up starting the blog in the first place – it should be easy, right?

And for a while, it was! We had spent a year and a half creating a game and only sharing the details of it with each other. We had a whole boatload of topics to talk about! We were itching to discuss artistic direction, algorithm implementations, and design decisions. I think there was a point when we had a full two months worth of posts already written.

However, that was the easy part, the colloquial ‘honeymoon’ period. Of course it’s easy at the beginning! But as the months have worn on (and we’re still less than a year into it), the obvious topics have started to dry up. “What’s our game about? Shadows? Well I already wrote that one…” You end up having to weave thinner and thinner topics into a real story – I mean, I’m writing a blog post about writing a blog. That’s when you know you’re at the bottom of the barrel.

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Running out of ideas!

That said, game development and Where Shadows Slumber are both pretty interesting, so we’ve been able to manage coming up with enough topics. The real hard part of this blog is the opportunity cost. We spend a few hours throughout the week writing, revising, and proofreading, and then another few hours finding and creating the perfect images to include. The problem with this is pretty clear – every day we have less and less time left for the game, and every minute spent on something else is a minute we’re not spending on the game. Spending a few hours a week, especially when you have other responsibilities, is a large portion of time to commit. Is it really worth it?

 

Then Why Bother?

When I pictured myself as a game developer, I never pictured myself writing a blog. Even when Frank and I were pretty far into the development of Where Shadows Slumber, I never even considered it. I mean, we’re making a game, right? Shouldn’t we just, you know, make the game?

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Obe does not engage in blogging. He engages in Gronging.

It turns out that, despite the fact that we could make a game without writing a blog, there are still some places where it’s pretty important. When the idea of the blog first came up, we weighed the positive against the negative, and decided to do it – we must have some reasons, right? And we do!

1.) Getting Noticed. One of the hardest parts of indie game development is publicity. How do you get people to notice your game? If you somehow manage to build a fanbase during development, how do you keep a hold of them until your production release? Thanks to Frank’s orchestration of our process (which you can read about in his blog post about it), we found ourselves with a pretty good demo of our game, and we were still pretty far from a production release. Between a few conventions, a timely release, and an insane amount of luck, we have managed to garner over 200,000 downloads! The problem is, we’re still around 8 months away from a real release. What happens to all of the people antsy for more Where Shadows Slumber?

This is where the blog comes in – anyone who has played the demo and is interested in the game can find out more about it here. They can keep track of our progress and get updates about the game. They can get an idea of when the game will be ready, and they can keep it in mind. They can even hack into WordPress, figure out our home addresses, and then force us to finish the game, if they really want to!

2.) Marketing. Being open about our development process helps us to ‘build a brand’, and writing a blog is one of the best ways for us to do so. Our brand is something that’s very important for us to cultivate – when people think of Frank and Jack, we want them to think of two awesome guys, who are sharing their process and trying to be a part of the indie game development community. We don’t want the general perception of us to be that we’re secretive or shady. Would you rather buy a game from Sir Awesome Coolguy or Creepy McCreeperson?

3.) Helping Ourselves and Others. The biggest aspect of the blog, and the reason that we’re still doing it, is that it’s rewarding for us, selfish as we are. We were part of a panel on indie game development at PAX (which you can read about here), and that’s still one of the most rewarding parts of working on Where Shadows Slumber for me. It really means a lot to me to be able to answer questions or give advice that helps someone else with their game. I truly love game development, and if this blog helps a single person or team bring their ideas to life and complete a game, then it’s all worth it.

 

So, Why The Where Shadows Slumber Blog?

There are a lot of blogs out there. I mean, there are a lot of blogs out there. That’s one of the beautiful things about the internet (*cough* plug for net neutrality *cough*) – pretty much anyone can put something together and get their message out. So why are you, dear reader, reading this blog, of all of the blogs out there?

We aren’t trying to be the best blog on the internet. We aren’t trying to be the most insightful game designers. We aren’t trying to be the best at teaching programming or art. There are other blogs out there, and there are great ones for learning about anything you want to learn about.

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We want to share Where Shadows Slumber with all of the citizens of the world!

What the Game Revenant blog, at least as it pertains to Where Shadows Slumber, is all about is our progress. We’re a small indie development team, going through this process for the first(ish) time, and we want to let you all know about it. Whether you use it to keep tabs on our game, get tips on your own, or just learn more about us and our process, is up to you. Either way, we really appreciate you reading!

 

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Thanks for reading! If you want to know even more about our process, or have any questions about blogging in general, feel free to contact us, and 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.

Inspirations

Almost everyone involved in indie game development these days gets into it for the same reason – we played games, we liked those games, and they inspired us to make our own games. We want to capture whatever it was that made us love the games we played when we were younger. Whether it was the storyline, the art style, or the gameplay itself, these games made us who we are, and they influence every decision we make in our own games.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing game development with a friend when they asked me “what are your favorite video games?” After I rattled off a few, they asked another question – “Why?” This was followed by a really interesting conversation, because the games I chose were so different, and yet they all influenced the way that I design and make games now.

So I’m going to share that list with you now. I’m going to tell you my favorite video games and how they have affected my own game development, and I hope you’ll think about your own answer to the question as well; what games make you want to make games?

 

Monument Valley

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When screenshots of your game are good enough to be your part of your marketing material, you know you have a beautiful game

I’m gonna start here, because I mentioned it last week, and because everyone is expecting it. If you’ve played Where Shadows Slumber, then it probably reminds you of Monument Valley. This isn’t exactly intentional, but I would be lying if I said that we weren’t inspired by Monument Valley in a lot of our design decisions.

There are a few things that Monument Valley did that were very important. First and foremost, it’s beautiful. I’m not one who really focuses on how the games I play look, but Monument Valley manages to be beautiful beyond the point of ‘good graphics’ and actually into the realm of ‘art’. This aesthetic quality is something that isn’t necessary for a game, but if you go for it, it definitely wins some points.

Secondly, Monument Valley showed that you can have a game with an incredibly simple concept, yet still have intricate, mind-bending puzzles. Additionally, it does so on a form-factor (mobile) that doesn’t lend itself nicely to this type of intricate, high-quality game, and still managed to do well, despite the industry’s focus on the ‘freemium’ monetization model. Monument Valley showed, most of all, that if you really put a lot of work into making a truly incredible game, you can be rewarded for it.

 

StarCraft: Brood War

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Graphics aside, still one of the best games out there

Ah, StarCraft. This is really where it all began for me. This was one of the first games I really got into, and it became a very important part of my childhood. If I had to pick one game on this list as my all-time favorite, it would have to be StarCraft.

When I was talking about my favorite games and StarCraft came up, I tried to think of why it was my favorite game, from a game design perspective. StarCraft is a very complex and strategic game. The skill cap is incredibly high, and there’s always room for mind games and counter-play. I played a lot of competitive games of StarCraft, and I spent hours perfecting my worker split (for those of you who don’t know what that means, just be glad you didn’t have to do it). The depth this game has is fantastic – but are any of those really the reason I loved StarCraft so much?

No – the reason I loved StarCraft so much was the way it created memories of playing with friends. It wasn’t the game itself that made it fun, it was the people I played it with. When I think of StarCraft, I think of the 5-player game where one friend had nothing but a single pylon and about 40 Corsairs – every time someone else won a battle, those corsairs would arrive to finish off his fleet. I think of the time I won a game by building nothing but Ghosts and Valkyries, for some reason. I think of the EMP-Nuke rushes, the epic micro battles, and the mind games. Most of all, I think of laughing with my friends as it all went down, and even occasionally loading up a few replays and just watching them.

Children’s special on the meaning of friendship aside, these stories and interactions are the reason I love StarCraft. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really inform any of our game design decisions – you can’t build any of that stuff into a game. What you can do is make a game that has the potential for these stories. Make it so that your players can do crazy, funny, awesome things. Your game may be strategic, intense, and mind-blowing, but, above all else, you need to make sure that it’s fun.

 

Cave Story

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I can’t think of a quote for this picture

Cave Story is a testament to what indie games can accomplish. Cave Story was created, music, art, gameplay, and all, start to finish, by one guy in his spare time. And, aside from being an inspiring story, it’s also an incredibly great game!

In my mind, the reason that Cave Story is so good is that it doesn’t make any concessions. Every part of the game is great. The storyline? Funky, but really cool. The gameplay? Skill-testing and engaging. The music? Amazing! For almost any facet of a game that you might ask about, the answer for Cave Story would be “yeah, it has that, and it’s awesome!” It just feels like an absolutely complete game. Comparing a game like Cave Story to a lot of the pretty good, mostly-finished games you see really drives home the importance of actually finishing your game. Rather than saying “yeah, the controls are a little off, but it’s not a big deal”, get in there and fix them!

The other big reason to talk about Cave Story on a game development blog is because of its development. Cave Story has become a sort of cult classic, in a good way. It’s so incredibly inspiring that one guy can make such a great game in his spare time.

 

Rocket League

RL

Calculated.

Rocket League, also known as Hot-Wheels soccer, is the game I’ve been playing the most recently. As such, I have a pretty good feeling for why I like it so much. There are really two reasons.

 

(1) The controls in Rocket League are phenomenal. Imagine you’re playing some other game, and you miss an objective (whether it be a goal or a kill or whatever). Inside your head you’ll end up saying “I would have had it if the controls were better”, or “I was trying to move to the left, but my guy didn’t go where I wanted”, or something like that. You can always blame the game, rather than yourself.

In Rocket League, you don’t have that luxury. Once you figure out the controls, it’s all on you – when you tell your car to do something, your car does exactly that. This can lead to a little frustration, but it also leads to some absolutely incredible plays from the pros, and it means that every time you do something right, you feel that much better about it. There’s no better feeling than flying through the air, using your boost and turning you car in exactly the right way to score a crazy goal, and knowing that it was all you. That feeling wouldn’t be possible without the most finely-tuned controls.

 

(2) The other great thing about Rocket League is what I’m going to call it’s ‘skill curve’. This is different from a ‘learning curve’ – a learning curve implies that the game gets harder as you go, so you have to learn in order to beat it. The ‘skill curve’ is the inverse of this. You’re never ‘not good enough’ for a game; rather, as you play, you get better. This is true of most games, but it feels the most rewarding in Rocket League.

When you first start to play, you have a hard time hitting the ball. With enough practice, you start to hit it pretty consistently – that advance in skill is noticeable, and it feels great. Just as you’re getting good at that, you realize you’re not rotating properly. When you start to master that, you begin doing aerials. You’re always getting better, and you always feel like you’re getting better – your skill level never plateaus, you just keep getting good at the game.

 

Rocket League isn’t what I would call a deep game. There’s no storyline, no (or very few) different levels, nothing really new about the game. Psyonix does release different game modes and new maps from time to time, but the core gameplay remains mostly unchanged. And yet, despite this, it’s the game I keep returning to. It never really gets stale, thanks to its controls and skill curve, which is incredible for such a straightforward game. Rocket League shows that you can give any game a lot of replay value just by making it well.

 

Portal

Image result for portal

In search of cake

Portal is just an incredibly solid example of a well-put-together game. At the time, it seemed to be a sort of ‘add-on’ game, a little nugget that Valve added into The Orange Box. While the other titles in The Orange Box (Team Fortress 2 and Half Life 2) were really awesome, it was Portal that stood out to me, and to most people that I talk to.

Why? Well, Portal wasn’t just another game. The thing that excites me most about any game is when it explores new design space, and that’s exactly what Portal did. There were no guns to shoot (well, no real guns), no enemies to destroy, no princesses to rescue. You’re simply introduced to the world and the theory of portals, and you have to make your way through it. Your only weapon is the portal gun, and your only enemies are the levels themselves. It’s a very simple distillation of the essence of a puzzle. This is something that I aim for when designing my own puzzles – if you still have design space to explore, there’s no need to complicate your levels.

Portal really provides us with a master class on not overstaying your welcome. Really, it was the perfect length for what it was. You learn the mechanic, you get to used it, and you advance through puzzles with it. By the time you reach the end, you’ve explored most of the design space, but haven’t gotten to a point where it’s become timesome or tedious.

Plus, Portal does a great job of indicating its short, jolly mood through the use of its witty writing. This combination of very pure puzzles and inviting storyline is a design marvel, as it makes it very easy to draw a player into your game. The biggest takeaway from Portal, for me, is that more game doesn’t necessarily make for a better game. Content is king, and having more gameplay is usually a good thing, but it is possible to focus too much on length, rather than good design or implementation, and end up ‘overstaying your welcome’.

 

What I’m Most Looking Forward To

In addition to games from the past, let’s take a look at a game from the future! The future game I’m most looking forward to (other than Where Shadows Slumber) is a game I saw at PAX East this year. I only got to play the demo for a few minutes, but I’ve been really excited for it ever since. And the winner is… The Gardens Between!

Image result for the gardens between

Check out the haunting cell-shaded indie goodness!

After checking this game out, I’m sure you’re not surprised that I chose it. After all, it’s an indie game with a cell-shaded art style, a slight metaphysical twist, and gameplay based at least in part on lanterns! How could I not love it?

Parallels with Where Shadows Slumber aside, this game looks awesome. The controls are very simple and intuitive, and yet the puzzles show a depth that promises very interesting and challenging interactions. The game looks relaxing, sleek, and challenging, which, to me, makes for an awesome upcoming game. Props to The Voxel Agents on what looks to be a great title!

 

That’s Not All…

This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, in an effort to pick my favorite games, I’ve left out some games that perhaps played an even bigger role in turning me into a game developer. There’s the first game that really got me into gaming (Runescape), the game that first got me interested in making games (Block Dude), and the game that I probably spent the most time playing (World of Warcraft), but, as important as these games were to me, I don’t really consider any of them to be in my top 5 favorite games.

Despite their differences, each of these games (and any game I’ve ever played, really) has had an effect on the decisions I make when working on Where Shadows Slumber or anything else. These games are all very important to me personally, and I hope I’ve done a decent job of explaining what each of them brings to the table, design-wise. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to examine your favorite games, and the design patterns involved in them!

 

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If you have questions about my favorite games, or just want to share your own, feel free to contact us on social media! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.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.

Where Shadows Slumber: Staying Motivated

One of the most difficult parts of game development is staying motivated. I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve started, a great idea and achievable goal in mind, only to have those projects fall by the wayside, almost but not quite finished. Last time I talked about dealing with adversity; this week, I’m going to talk about how to stay motivated when working on a game development project.

As game developers, we love games, and we love developing games. When you first come up with a great concept for a game, you’re excited about it. You have so many great ideas, and you just can’t wait to implement them. You have an image of what your game will look like in 2 years, and with that pristine goal in mind, you simply feel driven to work on it.

As you work on your game, however, that drive begins to falter. Where you once looked forward to sitting down for an hour or two of coding, you find yourself shying away from your computer. You look at your game and all the effort you’ve put into it, and you realize how far away you are from the perfect game you had imagined. Rather than tackling cool, big-picture things like core mechanics, you find yourself slogging through your levels, double-checking initialization values.

Basically, there comes a time in the development of a game where the fun parts are over. Your motivation is at its lowest, the work is the least interesting it’s been so far, and your noticeable progress has slowed to a crawl. You find yourself with a solid, but definitely half-finished game, and it feels like it will never be any more than that.

Depressing, huh? Let’s find out how to avoid letting your game succumb to this fate!

 

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“The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.” – Tom Cargill, Bell Labs

The Ninety-Ninety Rule

 

The ninety-ninety rule is a saying that describes a lot of the difficulties associated with software development. It works on two levels, both of which are relevant here.

First, the shrewd reader will notice that the total development time in the quote adds up to 180%. This, of course, cannot be true in a literal sense; rather, this is a reference to the fact that estimates of development time for a project are almost always woefully low. If this is to be believed, then these projects take almost twice as long as estimated! In my experience, this is very accurate.

Secondly, we can look at the values used above. We see that the last ten percent of the code accounts for just as much time as the first ninety percent! While this seems nonsensical, it is perfectly true. Anyone who has made it 90% of the way through a software project can attest that the last 10% always drags on and on. When developing Where Shadows Slumber, for instance, I found myself with a game in which every core game mechanic was completely developed within 10 months of starting! And yet here we are, nearly two years into development, and the game is still not complete (and not just because I’ve been slacking off this whole time).

The ninety-ninety rules helps explain why we start to feel so depressed as we reach what appears to be the 90% mark of our game. We feel like our game is almost done, and it’s taken just as much time as expected – awesome, we should be done in a few more weeks! What we don’t realize is that we’re really only halfway done. Since we don’t realize that fact, we don’t understand why our expected release date has came and gone. We missed our deadline, our project is dragging on, we aren’t really enjoying the work anymore, and we still don’t understand why the last 10% of the work is taking forever. With all of these things weighing down on us, it’s understandable when we start to lose faith in our game.

So, now that we understand some of the reasons behind this phenomenon, lets look at some ways to deal with it.

 

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Set Realistic Expectations

A big part of the problem is feeling like you’re falling short of what you should be doing. The problem, however, isn’t with your work – it’s with your expectations. While you may be falling behind the schedule you set for yourself, you’re actually right on track – with the actual schedule for the game.

I’ve worked on a lot of software projects, and I would estimate that only around one in a hundred are actually completed by the original deadline. These types of projects are simply hard to estimate, and often take much longer than you would think. That’s why, whenever I have to estimate the time for a task, I always take my best, most realistic guess. And then I double it. Even after all this time, my best guess falls far short of reality, and the doubled timeline is far more accurate.

In addition to schedule expectations, this tip also applies to your game itself. If you start your one-man project, aiming to create the best MMORPG the world has ever seen, of course you’re going to fall short! You have to decide what you can reasonably accomplish, and at what level of quality, and then aim for that. If your game is starting to look like your goal, you’ll be much more motivated than if your goal is a perfect game that you’ll never be able to make.

 

Avoid Distractions

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Credit: xkcd.com

I’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of fun activities – game jams, NaNoWriMo, Ludum Dares, etc. But, since we started the development of Where Shadows Slumber, I have refrained from participating in any of them. It’s not that I no longer enjoy these things, it’s simply that I want to avoid distractions.

As you work on your game, you feel less and less excited about it – it’s only natural. This loss of excitement can be very dangerous to your game. Other projects are still out there, and they probably still seem very exciting to you. But it’s a slippery slope; it’s all too easy to take a few days off for a game jam, then you take a week off for something else, and before you know it, you’ve put your game on hold so that you can spend a few months working on a prototype for a new game. Betrayal!

I find the best way to avoid letting other things take over is to avoid those other things altogether. Perhaps some of you with stronger willpower or more time might be able to risk it a bit more, but be careful – it really is a slippery slope.

On the other hand, you don’t want to take this too far. Getting burnt out is very easy to do, especially when you’re spending a lot of time on a game. Sometimes I’ll sit down at my computer with the intention to work on Where Shadows Slumber, stare dejectedly at the screen for a few seconds, and then boot up StarCraft instead. If other game jams are your StarCraft, then go for it. As long as you’re continuing to work on your real game, and you don’t spend too much time on other things, it’s healthy to give yourself the night (or the weekend) off every once in a while.

 

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Scheduling

This tip is something that I simply stumbled upon, but it has proven very helpful in forcing myself to work on Where Shadows Slumber. A year or so ago, I got a new job. My body still wakes me up by 8 am, but I don’t have to leave for work until 9:30 am! Woe is me!

This was actually an awesome development. Previously, I would work on my game whenever I could find the time – an hour here, twenty minutes there, etc. Now, I have an hour and a half every morning with nothing else to do. That time has become game-time; now I work on Where Shadows Slumber every morning for an hour or so.

One of the hardest parts of game development when you have a ‘day job’ is getting consistent time to work on it. I’m pretty fortunate in that the time I need was basically forced on me, but the principle holds. Find a schedule that works for you, and set that time aside as game-time. Don’t let anything else cut into that scheduled time – after all, it’s already booked! Whether it’s thirty minutes every Saturday morning, or two hours every night, blocking off a chunk of time for game development work will help you make consistent progress on your game.

 

Buckle Down

My last tip is less of an actionable item, and more of a mindset. There will be times when you sit down to work on your game, and you find that you simply do not want to. This happens, is perfectly normal, and is nothing to be worried about. As I mentioned earlier, when this happens to you, it’s absolutely fine for you to just take the night off and do something relaxing.

However… If you take a night off every once in a while, it’s fine. If you find yourself taking off multiple nights every week, you might be in a bit more trouble. Sometimes you don’t want to work on your game, but you have to anyways. You have to sit down, open up your game, and force yourself to work on it. If you never push your game forward, you’ll never get it into a spot where you want to work on it, and it will stagnate. This is an opportunity for your game to die, and you don’t want that to happen.

 


 

There you have it! These are my four biggest tips for staying motivated and continuing your game’s development. There’s obviously a lot more to keep in mind, and a lot of stuff I mentioned that’s hard to do, but I hope you’re able to put some of this to good use, and I wish you all successful, completed games!

 

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As always, let us know if you have any questions or feedback! You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.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.