Monday, September 23, 2013

Hiroshi Yamauchi

Last week the video games business lost a legend. But Hiroshi Yamauchi shouldn’t only be highly regarded within electronic entertainment circles; he should be applauded for what he enabled others to do.

When I watch Dragons' Den (the original UK version) I’m nearly always astounded by what a complete lack of vision some of the so-called dragons have. Anecdotally, based on my own sporadic viewings, it seems that Duncan Bannatyne is the key offender.

Hiroshi Yamauchi - I bet he's not really playing anything at all...

He is from the insidious “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” school of thinking, it would appear, a form of thinking that caused British manufacturing to crumble under old practices while the Japanese decided that even unbroken things can be better.

I propose we introduce a new verb to the English language – Bannatyning. To Bannatyne is to put down an idea simply because something else that sort of does the job already exists. 

For example, if the elevator didn’t exist and you went on Dragons' Den to pitch the idea to them you would be Bannatyned in the following way: 

You’ve pitched your idea and mentioned all its virtues and Duncan starts, “Hello, I’m Duncan.”

To which you reply, “Hello Duncan,” for this is Dragons' Den etiquette, rather than saying, “No shit, I have watched the show!”

Duncan would then proceed, “In my offices I already have something that does this job. They’re called stairs, and they don’t need any electricity to make them work, I just move my legs up and down and I change floors. I don’t have to wait for them to come to me either, and for that reason, I’m out!” 

You’ve been Bannatyned!

As a kid that grew up playing games on computers, rather than consoles, and I looked down on Nintendo. After reading David Sheff’s excellent “Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World” 20 years ago my general point of view wasn’t altered much. I was left thinking it was a damn good read, and that Yamauchi was a dick whose company dictated what games should be, even demanding significant design changes of games that companies wanted to release on their console. To me they diminished the artistry of video games. 

I was only just an adult at that point in time and although I still agree with that original takeaway I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of the man and the company. Yamauchi created an environment where he believed in the power of invention. Not only that but he trusted other people with his money, his family legacy in fact, despite the fact that it didn’t always pay off. 

Okay, so his initial inspiration was the fact that the bottom was falling out of Nintendo’s core business of hanafuda playing cards and he didn’t regard himself as a creative person, but many have simply watched their company die in the same position. 

He believed in innovation, or did after fate coerced him, the real kind of innovation where you create something new and offer it to the world; not the more prevalent runt of innovation, where you just make things cheaper, which normally involves exploiting people. (Sadly these two forms of innovation aren’t mutually exclusive).

If Yamauchi was on Dragons' Den the other dragons would laugh at him and all his investments. But by my reckoning he was worth more than all the dragons put together, despite his Nintendo shares being far less valuable than they once had.

Even more impressively, with Nintendo starting life as a maker of playing cards, Yamauchi explored many angles on where to go and grow in the years after he took the reins. The company even owned a few Love Hotels at one point. But it generally chose “play” of a different kind to pursue its fortunes, and dance with bankruptcy. Imagine if Yamauchi had been cut from the same cloth as Duncan – “I already have a thing I can play games on, it’s called a card table! Because of that… Sayonara!”

Actually, he probably said that to lots of ideas, but he accepted plenty of crazy stuff too. The success of Pokémon is only obvious after the success of Pokémon, there’s nothing about it that fundamentally screams, “infinitely rich vein of cold hard cash!” We only think that in hindsight.

So, if you want to be great, get yourself some innovators, and then trust them, or at least pit them against each other in a dog fight for supremacy, as Yamauchi did. 

No one will remember the dragons ten years after the show ends, unless I do manage to get bannatype into the popular conscience, but Yamauchi will forever be a legend. 

If you want that kind of mighty reward, you have to take the same mighty risks.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

One Page Game Design Document Pt 2

Last week, when I was posting on the subject of gamification and beer I noticed that one of my first ever posts on this blog had been viewed a few times that week. The post in question was on the subject of the joys of creating a one page game design document. Without actually checking the post I wondered whether I'd actually attached the one page game design in question, or whether I was still keeping it under wraps at that point.

Then on Monday, Kah Chan from Victoria University of Wellington shed some light on these curious viewing stats by asking if he could have a copy of the GDD in question. It turned out that I didn't publish the one page game design document. 

So here it is...
This is an overview design for Warp Gun, which turned into Alien Avian Attack, which you can get for your handsome Android device...

Friday, August 23, 2013

Gamifying the Core of your Product

Last week I wrote about the fact that you don't really need to use game elements in gamification at all, you can instead focus on interaction.

For smaller scale operations the interaction part isn't so much of a challenge - smaller companies are often closer to their customers. But if you want to do more, and your budget is tight (which it always is) you much make sure that any gamification couples well with their own ambitions. 

Down the road from where I live there is a brewery, called the Garage Project, which is a fine and good thing.

It was established a couple of years ago by Pete Gillespie and Jos Ruffell, with help from Pete’s brother, Ian Gillespie.

They began with not much of anything really, and despite the fact that setting up brewery is surely always a good idea, it’s still not a product that sells itself!

When the Garage Project opened a couple of years ago they needed a way to get some attention. Both Jos and Ian have worked in the video games business, which means that they must have known straight away that the plan they cooked up to get some attention had a good chance of success.

Humans have a very strong collecting instinct. Many of us like to accumulate stuff. Digital media has been a godsend for me because it means I can hoard music and games without having physical media clogging up my life.

Coupled with this is our need to categorise, so we get folk with collections of teapots or erasers or things with cats on. Further tied to this is a sense of adventure, because you have to hunt these suckers down, even if you're an ambient searcher, not going out of your way to find things, there’s still a part of your brain, always looking, wherever you go.

There’s only one problem with these things in real life – it’s rarely possible to complete the collection. Many collections have no end, although some do, and these can often be the most expensive - a complete set of Star Wars figures, first editions of the works of Beatrix Potter, every Ferrari.

Games allow you to collect, and collect ‘em all. In fact you gotta. It might take you a while, but it can be done. (Don’t talk to me about completely open ended experiences like World Of Warcraft, I’m not listening, la la la la la la!)

And this beautiful model of collecting completion is what the Garage Project took and brought to beer. In the first 24 weeks of their existence they launched a new beer each week. Over 24 weeks they released 24 beers and called it 24/24 .

They started with a 50 litre brew kit, because that’s all they could afford, so large scale production wasn't possible anyway. But they turned this to their advantage.

Few managed to sample all 24 beers, but that didn't stop folk trying, and it garnered the right kind of publicity. It also acted as a way to get feedback on each beer, via special beer mats, and help them decide what to make more of in the future. So customers weren't just getting feathers in their caps they felt like key players in the future of the brewery.

Importantly the game wasn't a distraction from the core business of the brewery, instead it had value to them. The Garage Project continues to create a wide variety of beers, making drinking in Wellington more exciting, I like to call it adventure drinking.

And no, I didn’t get to try all 24 beers, but tracking down re-brews and beers I haven’t had now makes my drinking a noble pursuit!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Print Us!

Over on Kickstarter me and a splendid bunch of revolutionaries are trying to change the world of gaming with Pop, Lock 'n' Rooooll, a combination of cards and dice, which you can print and play for FREE. And it's open source to boot.

Below are some of our self advertising little Rumble Bots. Go on,, click on one to see it full size, then print and make it now!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

How Much Game Is There In Gamification?

Gamification can be a distracting term. Game itself is a very loose term, some will define it as something that requires challenge and a specific win/lose state, others will apply it to pretty much any activity that doesn’t really produce something. I’ve explained whole virtual worlds, like Second Life, to folk and asked them if they’d regard that as a game. The results of my small poll can be typified with the statement, “well it sounds like a game to me”. I’ve heard jigsaw puzzles described as a game. They’re puzzles, not games!

Christmas trees and light shows - read on...

Anecdotally I’ve found that women have a broader definition of what a game is than men, but there’s nothing at all scientific about my study, and far too many of the men I know make games for a living.

My old economics teacher (he wasn’t old at all, but missing out “old” made the phrase seem wrong, what can I say, I choose beauty over truth ever once in a while) once posed the question about an expensive footballer, “is he worth it?” Naturally, there was some debate in the class before he asserted, “Somebody thought he was worth it, so he is worth it.” Economists have a tendency to oversimplifying systems, but it’s hard to argue with the pure logic of this approach to price.

I’m a pragmatist at heart so I’ve chosen to apply this logic to defining games – if someone thinks it’s a game, then it is. I can debate with someone why they’re wrong, but where’s the point in that, it’s a waste of time because they won’t change their mind. And besides, why on earth would anyone want to restrict the bounds of their occupation?

When viewing the word game through the lense of gamification you’re instantly in a world of vague to the power of vague. One way to approach the problem is to think of gamification as a self-reinforcing and (hopefully) self-propagating way for consumers to interact with your brand. Interact being the operative word.

The simplest, most obvious way of doing this is to create a game that features your brand heavily, and taps into a core aspect of its reality. PikPok and Oreo did this very effectively with their OREO: Twist,Lick, Dunk game for iPhone. It’s a simple game but it breaks down into a fast moving version of what a lot of folk do with their Oreos – twist them apart, lick the cream and dunk them in milk. An interaction from real life is mimicked in the game.

I’m really, really, really, hoping someone makes a Rich Tea biscuit game. For those not in the know, the Rich Tea biscuit is popular in the British Isles and is known for dunking in tea. Yet the dunk must be perfectly timed to get some soaking of tea into biscuit but not too much. For to linger just one millisecond too long is to see the biscuit cascade into an over-soaked state and gasp with horror as the tea stricken section shears off into the depths of the cup. Then a spoon is engaged for a spot of biscuit fishing. Surely there’s a game in there.

But not all brands or events lend themselves so well to a game though, in which case you can focus on the interaction instead. Give people the opportunity to interact with your brand in any positive way you can.

Telecom, New Zealand’s former state telco, puts up the coolest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen. Each is a cone of strings of lights that flow from the star at the top to the circular base. A total of 375,000 lights, and they can all be programmed and controlled, allowing for extraordinary flowing multicolour patterns. This alone would make these trees excellent attractions in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch, the cities that are lucky enough to have their presence, but they’re also interactive.

Firstly, the trees have telephone booths attached to them. Children can go in the booths and call Santa, whereupon their communication visibly travels up a length of fairy lights to the star at the top of the tree. It’s not a game, but it’s certainly interactive and nicely reminds people that this is a Telecom tree, and Telecom is all about things involving telephones. The ask of asking also helps remind adults that there’s also a collection campaign going on, where members of the public are encouraged to donate presents that can be passed on to underprivileged kids.

Secondly, all those light displays on the trees are designed by people. These trees are up for a long time, yet they display hours and hours of different patterns. The reason they can do this is because not all of the patterns are designed by someone working for Telecom. Instead, the public can go to the website and design their own light shows for the trees. Light shows have little to do with Telecommunications, apart from going online to design them, but that’s enough, because the whole interaction is so staggeringly neat and the trees look so good.

Is there a game anywhere in the whole process? Not that I can see. You’d have a hard time even saying gamification, there are no points or badges. But there is interaction, and that is the critical element if you ask me. And, like I say, gamification can be a broad term.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Pop, Lock 'n Rooooll - Trading Cards meet Dice in Open Source land!

Last week me and a plucky team if revolutionaries launched a new project on Kickstarter, which we think is pretty neat for three reasons:

  • Firstly, it’s a cross between a trading card game and a dice game, where the cards attach to the faces of the dice.
  • Secondly, it’s open source, so everyone who plays it is encouraged to change the design of everything as much as they like.
  • Thirdly, we’re giving it away for free!

It’s called Pop, Lock ‘n’ Rooooll. You should go back it on Kickstarter now, go on, please.

We set it going last Wednesday (NZ time) and so far we are doing reasonably well, we've got 14% of our 5k total. We also got ourselves some start backers:

Jane McGonigal made a pledge and tweeted about us, which isn't something she does lightly.

Peter Adkison also threw us a few shekels (his words) and as the man who spotted the potential of Magic: The Gathering I find that particularly encouraging. I should also note he has his own Kickstarter campaign running, which you should check out after you give us some money.

Of all the projects I've worked on over 18 years of game making this is the one I’m most excited about. We might be talking about a print and play game, which you have to get the scissors and glue out for (it doesn’t take long to make) but this kind of thing is the future – mass production of unique items is where it’s at kids!

Freedom, NOT freemium!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Zombie Sandcastle and its Business Model

Help me figure out whether my latest game should be free, proper free, not that freemium hogwash.

I spend a lot of time thinking about business models. And you’ll find it almost entirely surprising to find out that I quite enjoy it. This is just as well, because the modern game maker can’t really avoid the subject. As a game designer and producer I certainly can’t just avoid ignore it, I have to tackle it head on. Nowadays games don’t go away when you launch them, they linger, further begging for attention, and hopefully giving some revenue in return. This is problematic for the producer in me, but the complication of post release scheduling is nothing compared to what my game designer self has to contend with.

Zombie Sandcastle - what business model should I choose?

It’s not just a case that game designers have to worry about the business model, the business model is now a major part of the design. Even the simplest approach to the problem – we will sell the game for a price, the end, is a decision that can’t be made easily for most of us. Without having to tune any game component for retention or monetisation you reduce the number of moving parts in your design, making it possible to tune them faster; it’s more like juggling handkerchiefs than cats, it’s relatively easy. Although, if you get it wrong the handkerchiefs might turn into chainsaws and chop off parts of your body you quite like. Adding stuff to a paid app is still something you’re expected to do, but if you balance your game in a way the audience hates then they might see any post release tinkering as a sign that you were prepared to take their money before you finished the game, which can seriously lower their opinion of you, and your game may never recover, no matter how good your updates are.

Freemium games don’t suffer so much from this; if you’re making one of these then your audience already has a lower opinion of you.

Only a small percentage of players have this lower opinion because they think you’re a bad person. Those folks are often those that like their games to be more of a challenge and not just an activity, and they already think you’re destroying the very fabric of the universe. Those that do see games as more of an activity than a challenge, what we commonly call casual gamers, despite there being nothing casual about the amount of hours they play games for, have a lower opinion of you simply because your game is something they enjoy, games to them are not necessarily a pre-eminent form of entertainment, they are just a type of entertainment. They’re pretty sure you play games all day, in fact. 

So there’s paid, and there’s freemium. Not that freemium describes any one business model, there’s a myriad of options within the confines of its meaning: You can have micro transactions, where folk pay for hats. You can have adverts, which you might be able to pay to get rid of. Hard pay walls, which really just make your download a demo with an IAP unlock for the full game, or alternative pay walls, where you can annoy your friends on Facebook instead of paying. You can have buy everything for ever options, which are really good for kids games. Or the whole thing might be an advergame, which is really just the same as a game supported by many adverts, although you hopefully get paid up front. Pump and play has been brought back from the graveyards of the video arcades of my youth to be the new king of the hill (see what I did there, I apologise, but I’m not hitting backspace). There’s even the 72oz steak model where you attempt a challenge and only pay if you fail. And there’s a thousand twists on these and a whole world of ways of putting them together. 

If anyone ever says they’re using a freemium business model and fails to clarify the details of what that means then they probably don’t know what they’re talking about. 

There are also subscription models, but for the game I’m thinking about I really can’t imagine that being a goer. 

I’ve downloaded Minecraft three times now, twice on mobile touch screen devices. Now, I wouldn’t say that Minecraft isn’t still highly enjoyable on my iPad but nor would I suggest it was designed for the device, we all know it wasn’t. And we all know that although mouse and keyboard might not be the most accessible control set up, it is the best. (Rest in peace Doug Engelbart, your invention is one of the greatest tools ever devised). 

So a few months ago I decided to sit down and design a construction game for touch devices. Naturally I began with the fundamental question – how do I interact with the world? Even on a touch screen device there are a few choices here: Taps, swipes, drags, they’re all available but when it comes to construction, the obvious interaction for me was drawing. It probably helped that I do enjoy drawing on the iPad, and just with my finger, which doesn’t necessarily create great results but I enjoy it nevertheless. Perhaps the pencil in my hand also helped… curiously my mind then went to a destruction game, Where’s My Water – in that you’re always taking away, never adding to the landscape. But what if you could do both?

My little lunar lander (actually Phoenix Lander) game - note the meteorite strike forming a crater...

For me some games are pointless in 3D, one is Lemmings, the other is Worms, both of which used a destructible landscape layer in which all the action takes place. Thoughts of those two games set my scale all of a sudden and I was thinking about little dudes wandering around the landscape, and ones I couldn’t necessarily control directly.

Like a goddamn fool I’ve never learnt to code and instead noodle around with various game creators that infuriate me. One of which is Scratch, which is made and maintained by folks at MIT and is designed to allow kids to get into programming. It has a bunch of drawing functions in it and is able to run some rather interesting collision checks based on colour. 

Years ago I made a little lunar lander game using Scratch and realised I could define the landscape as one solid colour for the lander’s collision to check. And doing that also meant I could have a single colour for the BG and have meteorites strike the landscape and overdraw the ground in the BG colour, forming craters. Because the lander was checking for hitting a colour it could then enter these craters. I was pretty pleased with myself. 

In this game you and a friend can blow away bits of the planetoids or build new bits. Sadly, it runs too slowly to be playable...

Then, a couple of years later I tried to make a two player game that used the same landscape destruction technique but gave the players (it’s a two player game) have control over construction and destruction of the terrain. They also control little characters getting down to the scale of Worms and Lemmings. And they jump between asteroids, which they can also blow up, but that’s not important right now.

So I could imagine how to actually make a prototype of this construction game in Scratch. Which was kind of a pain, because then I had no excuse for not doing it. That first lunar lander game had actually been set on Mars, so I had an idea of the landscape being sand – remember, my technique only really works with a solid BG colour and a solid landscape colour. Naturally, sand deserves a beautiful blue sky. Now I was thinking about sandcastles. I’ve had a Lemmings-esque castle defence game in my head for donkeys years now. So all of a sudden I had little guys defending a sandcastle rather than a real castle. I don’t know where the zombies came from (does anyone ever really know where the zombies come from?) but I suddenly had a design for a game which had named itself Zombie Sandcastle

I made a prototype in Scratch and found that I had a game I really enjoyed playing and despite the environment not really being fast enough to do it justice, and really not being able to implement everything I wanted to, I found it all oddly hypnotic. This is not common in my experience. How many of you have made prototypes and found them to be promising but not compelling? I’ve been involved in a lot. Most importantly I’ve made a lot in Scratch and none have made me have “just one more go”. But Zombie Sandcastle did. 

Of course, I might have made a game that only I could possibly be interested in. But I can see the potential. And I decided to run an Indiegogo campaign to see if I could raise some cash to move the whole thing into a better state, which can be built on over time. Naturally, I’ll be hiring a skilled programmer for this task.

Tunneling zombies and guiding your survivors to new stashes of food sure does take its tole on your sandcastle...

Which brings me back to business models. You see, I was there wondering what business model I should use for a release version. Should it be a one off payment. That would work. But I could also imagine some quite interesting alternatives – I especially like the idea of selling catalogues of new gear like Steve Jackson used to do with Autoduel Quarterly for Car Wars. Of course, that was a tabletop game, but it was a really neat way of presenting new things.

But then I heard something interesting about the history of crowd funding. It turns out that someone once postulated the idea that software might be produced on a purely crowd funded basis, with the intent of releasing the product for free, thus negating any concept of piracy. That idea resonated with me quite strongly and it suddenly seemed to me that I was being a bit of a twat, asking the general public for money and then thinking I could have a second bite of the cherry and make money from a different avenue.

So the game should be free if its development is crowd funded. But then, isn’t that unfair on my backers, one of their perks being getting a copy of the game?

What do you think? Do you think it should be completely free, perhaps with an early release exclusively for backers? Folks, I just don’t know, I need your opinions! Please comment!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Zombie Sandcastle - Extreme Castle Makeover

In a version of Zombie Sandcastle that I would describe as anywhere near finished (i.e. not the current version) the player will begin with a building phase, where they get a bit of time to sculpt their sandcastle and place their survivors within it.  However, in the demo I have running there's no building phase, I simply supply the castle pre-built. Which means I get all the castle designing fun. Not wanting to let this little proof of concept go stale I've put a new castle design in the game, which I'm quite taken with. Here it is:

If you've every fancied yourself as a castle designer then sketch one up and send it along to me, it would be great fun to see how other ones play.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

PS4, Xbox One or OTHER!

It's been E3 this week and games news has been awash with PS4 (simple naming convention) and Xbox One (weird chronologically screwed naming convention).

But there is a much more important announcement this week - the launch of my first Kickstarter campaign. Check it out!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

By the Power of Brevity

I'm a fan of brevity, I might not be the best practitioner of it in the world, but I'm a fan nonetheless.

It's of particular benefit when trying to sell an idea - no one wants to have to read three paragraphs before you tell them what the hell your idea is all about. 

Be brief, be to the point and be exciting.

Normally I apply this to words, but recently I had the splendid idea of watching the opening sequence from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which has provided me with an excellent example of less being more in the world of moving image.

When I began my search I didn't expect was to bump into the the 4 minute version of Buck Rogers intro, in fact I had no idea it existed. It was used on the theatrical release of the pilot and you can suffer it here.

It's not all that bad, by itself, if you've not seen the TV intro. I guess the strange three minutes of women rolling around do convey some element of Buck's 500 year sleep, although I can't work out why he was so happy about being unfrozen, I guess all the rolling around got a bit boring. 

I certainly found it boring. Now have a look at the intro sequence from the TV series. It's a far superior piece of work, blasting the information to your ears as quickly and as punchy as possible. In fact, the whole thing is over in the same amount of time it takes the longer version to stop speaking.

Of course, if you don't have to explain anything then you can be even more brief. I expect the first teaser for Star Wars Episode VII will be a blank screen, then we'll hear the sound of a lightsaber powering up, just the sound, no visual, then perhaps Star Wars logo. Let's face it, that'll be worth $200 million in box office straight off the bat.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Finally, I say things and they happen!

At the start of the year I migrated from being a game designer to being a producer. Producers in the land of video games are nothing like film and TV producers, they're a lot more like project managers in any other field. Yes, no longer am I in charge of figuring out how things work, I just have to make sure they're done.

At least that's the theory.

This space monkey actually features very few of the space elements,  get the app to see  all!

I do actually still do a lot of design, so I have to tell myself off when I'm late. 

The perk of being the producer on a project is that I get to say what will get made. Lately I've ben working on a project called MonkeyMe, where you get to dress up monkeys in all kinds of crazy stuff. And when it came time to have more stuff I could simply say, "I want space stuff!" That's as far as I went, I don't believe in taking away the creative fun of artists by getting any more specific than is needed. It's always been my policy, and it's served me well, but probably never quite this well.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mind The Gap

When someone sent round a link to Mind The Gap at work, work ceased for a short time. I would have told everyone to get back to work, but I was too busy playing it. 

The game starts off simply enough - there are three stations and you can connect them by dragging train lines between. Passengers appear at these stations in the form of different shapes, and their shape matches one of the stations. All you have to do is provide a network that's good enough to allow passengers to hop on the trains that move along the tracks to get to a station that's the same shape as they are. And the passengers are smart enough to hop on and off different trains to get to where they want to be.


One of my rail networks, shortly before I become overwhelmed and made everything insane...

It is easy, at first, but each station can only have a total of 10 passengers waiting at it before it becomes overloaded and it's game over. Also, you only have five different train lines, so only 5 trains trundling around at any given time.

Just as I was getting really into the game Peter Curry, one of the game's co-creators, popped into the office and we (I mean me) all started throwing ideas at him about how it might be improved. Although we all conceded that all such ideas were incremental, considering the fact that the game is already brilliant in it's fiendish simplicity.

In conclusion, go play Mind the Gap, it might be the best game ever to come out of Wellington, and that's saying something because, for a little city, Wellington punches hard in the video games stakes.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Zombie Sandcastle

For far too long (6 years in fact) I've been playing around with a piece of software called Scratch. This little piece of wonder is made by smart folk over at MIT and is designed to get kids into programming. I've never learnt to program so instead I use Scratch.

Zombie Sandcastle, because this is the way the apocalypse plays in my head...

It has many problems, being a bit slow being its major one, but I can't get out of the cycle of having ideas and then trying to work out how to do them in Scratch. 

But then I had an idea that was actually pretty well suited to the environment, a game I like to call Zombie Sandcastle. I was actually trying to think of something along the lines of Minecraft but better suited to touch screen. 

The proof of concept that I've ended up with has no crafting in it, or any of a whole bunch of ideas I would put into a fully working game but you can do the fundamental action of digging up sand and putting it down somewhere (anywhere) else. And you have the pressure of zombies trying to eat your survivors and your survivors having to look for something to eat!

If you want to know how that works then play Zombie Sandcastle

Monday, April 1, 2013

Tilt Left, Tilt Right

The 14th of March saw the release of Ridiculous Fishing, and despite looking forward to its release and counting down the days I got completely distracted by cricket. (England vs New Zealand in Wellington, a total win win for an English ex-pat who's lived in NZ for 5 years. And literally a win win, as rain stopped play and it was a draw.)

Anyway, come Monday 18th, and just a few days after the release I got an email of my former colleague, PikPok art director and superior game design mind Peter Freer, telling me how much he loved Ridiculous Fishing and had completed it.


Naturally, I scurried home at the end of the day and set it downloading on my iPad. I then proceeded to play it for an hour, despite being pretty hungry when I arrived home.

Two nights later I was up late submitting an app to Apple and couldn't sleep when we wrapped up the process around about 1am, so I played some more Ridiculous Fishing. Two hours later I thought it might be best to get some sleep. 

The next night I completed the game, well, sort of.

I'm being deliberately vague because I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

The controls for the game are pretty simple - you tap to cast your line which then your hook descends through the water in a one screen wide gully. You tilt your device left and right to move the  hook left and right dodging fish, for as soon as it touches a fish it starts going up again, and you again can tilt left and right to hook as many fish as possible before the hook gets to the surface, whereupon all the fish launch into the air and you have to shoot them.

The further down you can get your hook without colliding with a fish the more fish you can have the chance to hook on the way up. There's also quite a variety of fish in the game, and the deeper you go the more different fish you will see and catch. To complete the game you also need to get the hook all the way to the sea floor. So, whichever way you look at it, depth matters.

I'm not particularly keen on tilt controls, so for me to like a tilt controlled game so much takes some doing. For one, tilt controls can be extremely frustrating and making them feel good is not a trivial thing. The most common type is the form seen in Doodle Jump, where tilting in one direction sends the protagonist arcing off in that direction, and the more you tilt the faster they go. Return the device to vertical and the protagonist returns to moving in a straight line.

Doodle Jump is an old game, by iOS standards, but it's still an excellent example of making such controls feel good. The most important thing to get right is the inertia on the player's character, which defines how quickly you can make it change direction, either switching the direction of travel from left to right or right to left. PikPok's Bird Strike suffers from too much inertia in the turn, which seriously hampers the feel of the game. As I was the senior designer at Sidhe (PikPok's parent entity at the time) I have to accept some responsibility for this, as I didn't spot the problem at all, although I don't understand why PikPok doesn't fix it in an update.

But Ridiculous Fishing doesn't work like that, instead each angle of tilt corresponds to an exact x coordinate on the screen. Holding the device vertical sends the hook along the centre of the screen, and any tilt to the left or right aligns to an exact path, not a drift in that direction, as shown in the diagram below.

Temple Run uses these controls too, but it's hard to appreciate on the narrow channel you run along. Again, inertia plays a part, the hook doesn't move instantly from one x co-ordinate to another, but the speed of manoeuvre that's possible is incredible, allowing me to thread the hook through the slenderest of gaps more easily than I could possibly imagine normal inertia controls. 

So, even if you, like me, don't usually like tilt controls, I strongly recommend you play Ridiculous Fishing.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Badges Come Full Circle

Over a hundred years ago Robert Baden-Powell launched the Scouting Movement. It's a fine institution, and I say that as someone who has never been part of it. Part of it is the rather neat factor of awarding Merit Badges for doing various things, like camping, canoeing, carpentry and game design. 

Yep, they've just introduced a game design merit badge. 

Boy Scouts - now enjoying the great outdoors activity of game design...

I don't know if the Scouts invented badges but they certainly popularised the concept. Now badges are everywhere, most notably in video games and a wide variety of gamified systems - some good, some best ignored.

Funny how things come full circle.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Of all the terms in video game design there is none I like more than "abilitease". This is a portmanteau of "ability" and "tease" and normally refers to the design trick of giving the player lots of powers at the beginning of the game and then taking them away a short way into the game. The player then has to earn back these powers to once again become awesome.

In the right circumstances this gives the game a cracking beginning, like the start of a James Bond film, which hooks the player in the delicate first few minutes when you must impress them most. But, of course, you need to be able to give the player new cool things as they progress through the game. So you take the toys off the player and then drip feed them back to them. As the player knows what they're missing, from their experience at the beginning, they also know what they're working towards.

Assassin's Creed did this and there was some chuntering about the significant downgrading of Altaïr's abilities after being awesome at the beginning, but I certainly think it's worth doing if it gives you a genuinely spectacular opening to the game.

Social games do it in a different way: They give you a whole load of whatever their hard currency is (the currency that you have to spend hard cash get in any significant quantity) which allows you to build things rapidly and progress in leaps and bounds and get yourself a nice stake in the game. Then you run out of this precious currency and your progress slows down. However, even if you don't buy some more hard currency there's still a good chance that you're sufficiently invested in the game to keep grinding along.

However, over the past couple of weeks I've been playing Supercell's lovingly crafted Hay Day. It's a farming game, and I've had a soft spot for farming games ever since I was introduced to Harvest Moon on the Game Boy Color. However, FarmVille never grabbed me and I was wondering if I'd just had enough of virtual crop growing, now that I have my own real life lemon tree to worry about. Nope, said Hay Day, you're still a digital dirt addict.

Naturally I've been playing it with the intention of not spending a single penny of my hard earned cash on the game, despite the extreme temptation. Around about Level 15 things were starting to take quite a long time to complete and I was starting to feel my progress becoming a little too slow. That's when a little errand boy turned up in the game and offered to go out and find things I needed to complete certain tasks. Brilliant, that was just what I needed. So I sent him off, and he found stuff and even though he needed to rest for over an hour after each errand he massively accelerated my progress.

Then, all of a sudden and without warning, I had to pay to use him. And his rates are steep, costing 15 diamonds a day. I can accrue diamonds without paying hard cash for them, but I probably earn about three a day, at most. 

So far I have managed to trudge on without the errand boy, even though he still stands on the road outside my farm, reminding me of the power he once gave me, and still could if I was prepared to get my credit card out. This, of course, is an example of abilitease and it's the finest example I know of because it very nearly made me do the thing that Supercell need me to do - pay. Expect to see a lot more abilitease, liberally sprinkled throughout the full length of your play experience of a game.