Living the App Store dream

If you want a clear picture on the life of an app in the App Store you could do worse than read Noel Llopis’s blog post on the 9-month saga of Flower Garden. It’s a story full of ups and downs and various travails complete with handy charts and graphs to illustrate his point.

Noel hits upon a certain point midway through the post that I feel is pretty important. At the end of last year with sales declining again after one last attempt to extend the game he ponders if he should move on at this point.

You’d think that I would give up at this point, wouldn’t you? And I don’t say that with pride. I mean, it probably would have been smarter to quit a long time ago. But somehow, every time I was ready to move on, something else would come up that would entice me to try something else with Flower Garden.

The beauty of releasing a game online for the web or on the App Store is the ability to continue tinkering your game far past the initial release. Finding that secret sauce or right combination of gameplay and content and stickiness that attracts people to your game can often be quite difficult and take countless iterations to successfully find. In the story of Flower Garden so far it finally seems like Noel/Snappy Touch has found that balance. Oftentimes its not the best idea that wins, but the one with the most dogged determination to continue going on.

Bam, straight to the moon!

A week ago the Independent Games Festival announced its Student Showcase selections for 2010. The Student Showcase has for quite a few years been a great place to see some of the best unique games and the upcoming future talent within games. Standouts from year’s past include such games like Cloud who’s team went on to create thatgamecompany (and their two award-winning games flOw and flower) and Narbacular Drop who’s ideas and team members were eventually repurposed in Portal for Valve.

This year is as strong as any other with standouts like Continuity, Paper Cakes, and Devil’s Tuning Fork. But the game that stands out as a whole experience the most is the lovely Dreamside Maroon, a game of sorts that definitely takes a little inspiration from games like Cloud, Flower, and Noby Noby Boy.

In Dreamside Maroon you play a strange little creature with a singular goal: to walk on the surface of the moon. Naturally the only way to reach the moon is by jumping on top of your infinitely-growing vine and snake your way through the starry night. There are no enemies and the puzzles are few and far between. The game is mostly pure exploration as you ride your vine across the floating islands searching for little lanterns to light and fireflies to collect. This non-threatening gameplay combined with a soothing soundtrack and a lush visual style creates an immensely relaxing environment.

The most obvious cues for Dreamside Maroon come from the games of thatgamecompany. The gameplay is highly reminiscent of flower with the same focus on moving across a landscape and finding little objects of interest that further progression. There little in the way of confrontation or conflict, but instead the player gets to dictate their own pace in completing the game. Superficially also the game lifts a lot of the stylistic elements of these games with watercolor paintings used during cutscenes and abbreviated lines of dialogue and text extending the story.

But the growth and shrink mechanic of the game also reminds me a lot of Noby Noby Boy, the game/toy/piece of abstractness from the mind of Keita Takahashi. There’s a little bit of that ingenuity in the design of the levels, especially in places where the growth of the vine and its weird movement patterns naturally lead to the next area of exploration. And creating a little spiral around a lantern trying to collect the newly-released fireflies feels just right.

Like most student game entries Dreamside Maroon suffers a little from areas that could use a little polishing. The level design is weak in a few places and they could integrate the uniqueness of growing and stretching the vine in a lot more interesting ways then they do currently. But still, the experience of the Dreamside Maroon overrides these concerns while you’re playing it. Here’s hoping the developers of Dreamside Maroon can take this idea and run with it.

Introversion and why you gotta keep moving

In an excellent two-part interview with CVG (part 1 and part 2), Mark Morris of 2006 Seamus McNally Grand Prize award winners indie darlings Introversion gives some pretty frank answer on the problems with developing Darwinia+ for Xbox Live Arcade and some of the pitfalls in general with being an indie.

(Note: At one point Introversion created a whole website talking about the difficult process of bringing Darwinia+ to XBLA including detailed posts talking about every step of the process with accompanying internal emails within the company and from Microsoft. They said they had cleared this information with Microsoft, but apparently someone else thought otherwise so this great little resource is now gone. One of the most memorable passages from these disclosures was that during the release party for Multiwinia they rigged an actual counter to see sales go up in real-time upon uploading the game. The counter was moving so slowly they had to check and make sure that it was functioning properly.)

One of the interesting topics broached in this interview is the general business on how Introversion (and most indie studios for that matter) survive in their business.

How much does Introversion need Darwinia+ to be a success? Are you banking on it financially?

Morris: Our success is inextricably linked with every project that we make. We haven’t been able to get away from serial game development yet, which means that all of our money is generated from sales of the previous game and some back catalogue sales that really help out – Valve helps us a lot.

There is a minimum sales figure for Darwinia+, a level that it has to achieve. If it doesn’t achieve that then we don’t have enough money to continue going – simple as that. We know how much money we’re going to make from the back catalogue next year so we have to hit this minimum sales level.

So if fans want to see more they should buy this game?

Morris: Yeah, basically. That’s the message. There isn’t any other mystic source of income for us, we haven’t got reserves.

Being an independent developer who effectively doesn’t do either freelance games or licensed products, but exclusively works on their own projects is a tough road. It’s tough when a studio is a simple one or two-man operation and it becomes even tougher once you start becoming a larger indie studio like Introversion (which I believe has over 6 employees working full-time). And in a situation where you’re only as good as your last product it produces enormous pressure to not only deliver hit after hit (or at least moderate success after moderate success), but also do so in a timely fashion.

Introversion is lucky in a sense that they managed to survive one misstep, the poor marketing/release strategy for Multiwinia. And if Darwinia+ is successful on XBLA it looks like they’ll be back on track to deliver Subversion (the game) which even in its early prototype phase is already intriguing. But it’s sobering that one of the original stalwarts of the rise of indie gaming with such critically-acclaimed and loved titles like Uplink, Darwinia, and Defcon is still a single poor release or unfortunate delay away from ceasing to exist.

The style of thatgamecompany

flower1

One of the unfortunate drawbacks of the modern game creation process is the loss of stylistic lineage that can be traced directly back to a company or even a single person. Directorial influence can be difficult to discern when there are dozens if not hundreds of people involved in the creation of a game.

Of course it didn’t use to always be this way. One only needs to go back two decades or so, when games were created by small teams or even a single person to see how influences could be attributed. It was not unusual for publishers on these older systems to directly tell gamers who was responsible for the game on the box much like movies with their “directed by” bylines.

Recent indie games harken back to those days. It’s easy to tell the difference between Edmund McMillen game and a Nifflas game. And no person or company for that matters best displays this singleminded adherence to a particular style then Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany.

flow1

Last week’s release of Flower for the PSN is the 2nd official release for thatgamecompany and the 3rd in a line of games that clearly demonstrate the similar design principles and concepts. These games (Cloud, flOw, and now Flower) in one way or another derive influence from Chen’s thesis on flow in games.

The thesis is mainly concerned with how to optimize changes in game difficulty to accommodate the best experience for players. But I feel the particular style that thatgamecompany’s games have adhered to this point have expanded beyond just that. Game difficulty still is largely in the player’s control, but these games have also minimized the chance of failure or outright done away with the idea. Players can do better or worse in these games based on their own metrics, but the game doesn’t consider or punish or reward players for better or worse play other than an increasing the visual and audio stimulus. The end result is a relaxing environment where players are free to explore, experiment, and do nearly whatever they please at their own accord.

cloud1

Cloud, flOw, and Flower also focus heavily on the audio and visual components to entice players into this state of ease. The graphics tend to favor the bright and well-lit, there’s a softness to their images that takes the edge off. The audio is similar, the music and sound effects are warm and inviting, stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in a New Age album. In some moments there are even hints of a bit of procedural music as the sound effects are chimes and notes that tie into the main melodies in a soothing way.

Styles are useful and important. Useful because they allow players to implicitly follow and trust release to release from a company or person. Companies like EA or Ubisoft are too large to have a company-wide style. Even the individual dev teams from these companies have to many cooks in the kitchen to effectively parse, at best you hope that certain directors or designs you know and trust can keep the soup from turning out bad. But when there’s a new release from thatgamecompany people already know a lot of what they’re going to get. And fans of previous games can take comfort in trying out newer or older releases with that knowledge in hand.

And these game styles I feel are important for the maturation of games as art. It becomes important for us as consumers of games, as observers of games, and critics of games to see such direct descendants from game to game. Going from Cloud to flOw to Flower you can see the changes, the lessons learned, and the subtle nuances each new game adds or subtracts as the company, the development team, and the creator grow into their own. These personal styles for a company or specific developer/designer aid in this analysis.

It’s a wonderful aesthetic and style that thatgamecompany has found for itself and its a wonder that they’ve taken such a contrary position to just about all the norms established in the game industry and managed to find themselves Sony’s poster boy for the PSN network and their own indie contingent. Here’s to more “flow”-ful games in the future.

Thoughts from the Global Game Jam

This past weekend as you may have noticed was the 1st Global Game Jam. The Global Game Jam is a worldwide game jam that was hosted at over 50 different sites this year and had over 1500 participants. By the end of the weekend hundreds of games have been made and those games are now in the process of being submitted. Everyone is encouraged to go to the online game browser and check out the submissions. With so many games its hard to get through them all, but I definitely encourage everyone to check out anything that’s remotely interesting to them. Students, developers, and just about everyone in between worked extremely hard over the 48 hours to create something original and interesting.

The requirements for this first game jam came in three parts. First, all games needed to be 5 minutes or less. Second, each game needed to be themed according to this quote, “As long as we’re together we’ll always have problems.” Finally, and this was different for each time zone, the game needed to demonstrate one of the following attributes: pointed, persistent, or illusionary. It was a semi-difficult theme that seems to be heavily influenced by Jason Rohrer’s The Passage.

That being said, I’d love to recommend some games from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area (the Triangle). I may be slightly biased due to being the lead organizer for this site, but I think the games made here were all incredible for the time created and they all are unique entrants for the Global Game Jam.

breeder1
Breeder by Team Minions
An interesting click-and-destroy game by Team Minions. You click to kill enemies and the goal is to survive for as long as you can. Enemies have a life cycle of sorts and will start mating and reproducing if left alone too long. Wait long enough and new enemy types will emerge that make your life even more complicated. A solid effort that shows how you can pack a lot of interesting ideas into even a small game.

robotlove1
Robot Love by Robot Love
Robot Love is a game lovingly inspired by The Behemoth’s Castle Crashers. The gorgeous artwork and surprisingly addictive music coupled with tried-and-true gameplay creates a pretty solid little side-scrolling shoot-em-up that shows with a little grit and two talented artists you can create a great demonstration in just 48 hours.

spacefish1
SpaceFish by Carbonated Bacon
SpaceFish is an entry that vaguely reminds me of Geometry Wars in its design. The original game title was “Buttons and Mindy” like the old Animaniacs characters where the black hole is Mindy and you play the orbiting globe Buttons. Feed the Space Fish (or Mindy) the bad red energy balls and avoid feeding the blue energy balls to win. The grab and slingshot mechanic makes for an interesting dynamic as you avoid trying to bump into other balls while maneuvering close enough to grab them.

tether1
Space Defenders of the 23rd Century by Team Tether
The fourth and final game on the list, Space Defenders (formerly just called Tether) has you or a friend control two equally powered ships that are tethered together. You need to navigate your environment while destroying enemies and avoiding asteroids. What’s even more cool than the initial first level (and hopefully something we’ll see soon) is the versus soccer level where players can use their tether to bounce an indestructible asteroid back-and-forth as a loose “ball” to score goals.

I need to stress again that all four of these games were made in just under 48 hours. It’s an impressive amount of work accomplished in such a short time and even though these games are a tad unpolished and a tad unfinished, you don’t need to look very hard to see the potential in all of these games. So enjoy them and all the other games made from around the world this weekend. And that’s all until the 2010 Global Game Jam!

Evert! Evert! Evert!

eversion1

Continuing a theme of cool games in tiny packages, I present for your consideration Eversion. Eversion is a great little platformer created by Zaratustra for the TIGSource Commonplace Book Compo. It’s a short game that should take on average a half-hour to complete. And much like another recently discussed game to read about Eversion before you played it would ruin a pretty important aspect of the game and compromise the nature of the work.

So go on and play it! No accompanying review today, but there’s not a whole lot else to talk about. It’s a indie platformer with a few flaws such as overly demanding pixel perfect positioning for the platforming (say that three times fast) and a few puzzles that can be quite frustrating (but the constant checkpoints help a lot). But the flaws are insignificant to the ingenuity displayed throughout the work. Just go ahead and play it with no expectations and I think you’ll be pleasantly… surprised.

The genius of Gravity Bone

gravitybone1

Before you read this post I stress that you go download and play Gravity Bone by Brendon Chung. Do it, it should run on any old computer (it uses the Quake 2 engine for crying out loud) and a typical playthrough won’t take you more than half an hour. Use your lunch break or something. So stop reading this now and go play it. Or stop reading this now, play it later, and then come back.

Alright, have you played it?

Good. Because if you were anything like me you enjoyed the hell out of Gravity Bone. And don’t feel like you’re alone, everyone from Destructoid to Rock, Paper, Shotgun to TIGSource has also loved this game. Gravity Bone would be the first indie darling of 2009 if it wasn’t released in 2008. And the praise is well deserved.

It would be easy to say Gravity Bone fits into the recent mold of games like Portal or You Have To Burn The Rope, short-form games that seamlessly integrate a humorous narrative and gameplay into one memorable ride. But that would be selling Gravity Bone completely short. Yes, Gravity Bone on the surface matches well with these other games and other comedic games before it. But in its short two levels, Gravity Bone jams in not only a ton of humor, more than a few memorable game moments, and a semi-cohesive story, but it also creates a comedy that’s inherently ludic in nature. Gravity Bone is humor that only works because it’s a game.

Let’s review. In Gravity Bone, you play some sort of secret spy (maybe a galactic secret spy) who is sent out on two different missions. The first mission goes easy enough, it’s a short tutorial level that teaches you the basics of movement and navigation for the game. The second level seems to continue the tutorial trend. You learn new skills like using items, you have another relatively simple objective (outside the one misstep in the game, the pole-to-pole jumping puzzle) that seems routine enough to complete. It’s the sort of beginning any gamer with a modicum of experience knows by heart now. Games must begin with a slow learning curve, a series of simple levels that teach the basics for any player who may have chosen this as their first major game experience. Gravity Bone is no exception on initial glance, the game even hammers FPS basics such as using the spacebar to jump luring us into a false sense of security.

It’s one of the tropes of games that all of us have resigned ourselves too. So we work our way through the 2nd level of Gravity Bone with nary an incident. As we approach the exit button for the second time in the game, our Pavlovian conditioning has already set in. We ignore the lady smoking a cigarette across the hall, after all the first level in the game has taught us that NPCs don’t interact with the player. We’ve completed the mission objective, do our spy thing, and await another humorous mission debriefing.

And the first fateful gun shot rings out.

There are many forms of humor and perhaps the most classic of these is your standard setup and punchline joke. Gravity Bone is about setup. The little details in the introductory moments of the game are all put in place to set us up, to teach us certain “truths” about the game world that are reversed in those final moments of the game. The punchline is everything after that first gun shot: the shock as lie motionless on the floor, the chase sequence that climaxes as you run across the banquet table shattering the glasses, and of course the ending. As you slowly fall to your death and moments of your heretofore unexplained life flash before your spy’s eyes the game delivers the punchline. The end.

Not to be forgotten is how much love and style has been put into Gravity Bone. The big band music that perfectly fits every scenario, the boxy-papercraft art design that sells the retro spy theme, the humorous little pieces of writing that make up the “tutorial” for the game are all factors in making Gravity Bone a comedic masterpiece in games. But in the end this isn’t Portal where the dialogue of GLaDOS drive our laughs. This isn’t You Have To Burn The Rope where the pitch-perfect credits song is the joke. This isn’t even World of Goo where we laugh at the crazy misshapen creatures and people that populate the world. This isn’t even a game like the Lucasarts SCUMM adventures where the writings of the characters are responsible for the humor. Gravity Bone is hilarious because as a game it lays a trap of expectations on how games are played and pulls the carpet out from under our feet. It uses our collective knowledge of games against us with comedic consequences. You laugh at Gravity Bone while you play it, but I daresay you wouldn’t be laughing nearly as much if you were watching.

To end, I say to all those clamoring for more Gravity Bone to not ruin a very good thing. Gravity Bone is a full and complete game. A full, complete, and short game. But it’s short with a purpose and it only leaves you wanting more because it ends on such a high note. It’s just long enough to tell the joke, whacks us with the punchline, and leaves us. A longer Gravity Bone or a return to it would be incapable of matching the same highs simply because we are now in on the joke. And a joke is never as funny the second time around.

And the nominees are…

Yesterday the IGF announced the 2009 nominees for the Independent Games Festival to be held at this year’s GDC. A quick refresher for those new to the IGF: the Independent Games Festival represents one of the biggest chances for publicity for indie developers. If your game gets chosen it will receive marketing and publicity that would be unheard of for a typical indie game. Getting accepted into the IGF is not just a huge honor, but essentially the proverbial Golden Ticket for indies.

You can see the full list of nominees here. Some quick thoughts on a few of the games.

Dyson by Rudolf Kremers and Alex May
Dyson deserves mention for being not only one of the more unique entries (a procedurally-generated realtime strategy game), but also because it began its humble origins as a game created for the Procedural Generation competition on TIGSource. It’s not the first game to come out from that particular compo (sin(Surfing) was the first to that claim), but its great seeing

Pixeljunk Eden by Q-Games
The murmurings from the indie peanut gallery is showing some dissatisfaction with how Q-Games is handling their submission of their Pixeljunk line, first with Pixeljunk Racers 2 years ago and Pixeljunk Eden this year. Eden was nominated in 3 different categories (technical excellence, audio, and visual art). The IGF is seen more than anything as an opportunity to raise the profile of lesser-known indies. Q, with its publishing contract with Sony and its prominent line of games on the Playstation Network doesn’t seem to qualify as a developer who needs particularly more publicity. It’s a sign of independent games maturing as you get a larger range of developers that constitute “indie” and the related controversy with those on the edge.

More IGF review tomorrow!