Thursday 24 May 2012


So here's a thing:

When I first heard of this it seemed pretty irrelevant to me. Control of prices isn't something I've personally had a problem with, and it's certainly not the direst problem in the world. Seemed a bit of a silly thing to make a fuss about.
But thinking about it some more, maybe I am indirectly affected. I'm affected by expectations of what the costs of games should be, for what a game of a particular cost should look like. I'm not entirely free to set prices how I like, if I need anyone to buy them.

One review of Vertex Dispenser said "this would be a great game at $7, but at $10 I can't recommend it to anyone".
Oh yes.
Couple of days ago a customer review of Zaga-33 said it wasn't at all worth the price (along with being very bad, a scam with fake reviews, etc.).
It cost a dollar.

So how much should a game cost? I don't have a clue; for mine I've been picking numbers fairly arbitrarily and probably getting it wrong. It's tricky because the value you're trying to maximise (or at least to get high enough to cover living costs) is Price*Sales, but you can't know the number of sales in advance and it's going to depend somewhat on the price. If you're selling hundreds of thousands of copies (as some are) then this will come out high enough no matter what, but when sales are low the other factor is important. Apparently my games are "niche" (i.e. most people don't like them) which means I should be charging more per unit than someone with a bigger audience does.
So while I kind of get the point of this sale, I feel like it's going about things backwards.  Dropping prices - well hey, they might be too low already, the thing to celebrate is being able to set them higher. Get out of this race to the bottom.

So I've signed up for the sale. And it amuses me to set the sale prices higher than the originals. Make of this what you will.

Vertex Dispenser is on a "50% on sale" for $15.01, antidiscounted from $9.99.  (If prices ending in .99 make you a bit more likely to buy something, maybe the .01 will slightly deter you.)
Glitch Tank and Zaga-33 are both at $6.99, antidiscounted from $1.99 and $0.99 respectively. The apple store doesn't allow prices that don't end in 99 - a mark against them.

Gotta mention Sophie Houlden's price-swinging sale somewhere here because she did something similar and it's a great story: link.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Score, Comment Threads, Dominant Ideologies

Came across this article yesterday: Score in Videogames. I agree with much of it, but not all. But what I wanted to talk about was how some of the responses I've seen to that article got me thinking. See e.g. the comments on that article, or where it's linked on tigsource, or on RPS. Or actually don't bother, because comment threads are unpleasant places to visit, I'll sum it up for you here.
(Aside: I saw a discussion recently about how much of a nicer place the internet is if you block out all comment threads. But the truth is that it isn't always a nice place, and neither is the world, and there's honest human expression there. Better to engage with unpleasant realities as they are than to construct a filter bubble to censor things you're not comfortable with.)

To summarise: a lot of people take issue with him making claims about what games "should" do, especially where this conflicts with a particular game that they liked. This doesn't come as a surprise; I've seen the exact same response to similar claims before. Nobody likes being told how things "should" be. And that's mostly fair enough, placing restrictions on creativity is a bad thing.
I wrote about definitions before; basically with this kind of article I'd prefer writers to precisely specify what they're talking about - here Keith is implicitly discussing endlessly replayable single-player games (and I largely agree with his conclusions when seen through this lens), and it might have been better to make this explicit from the start. Not all games should aim to be endlessly replayable, and when that's not your goal you'll have different conclusions about what you should do. I don't agree that putting stories in games is a terrible idea overall, but it definitely does conflict with replayability - e.g. Planescape: Torment is akin to a fine novel and I will replay it in a few years time, but most story-based games I'll never play again and ZiGGURAT I'll replay tomorrow. The question of what's "wrong" depends on what ideal you're aiming for.

But there's something I love about such claims, the boldness of saying "you're all doing it wrong, your taste is wrong, this is how things should be done and I'm going to do it better to prove it to you!". It's a fantastic motivation to make stuff. I love that Keith has strong opinions about how games are doing score wrong and how putting stories in games is a terrible mistake, and is making games to show how to do it better. I love that Jonas Kyratzes has strong opinions about how stories in games are important and that people who think we should consider them in a strictly mechanical way are wrong, and he's making games to show how to do it better. I love that Tale of Tales expound their opinions about what games should be doing and are making games to show it - even though I think they're pretty much wrong and their games are kind of terrible. Fighting against the way things are usually done is a good way to make things that are interesting.
I'm more interested in the art that comes out of these opinions than in words written about them, but writing words is a good way to enter a structured mode of thought and clarify ideas for personal use. It's also useful to communicate these ideas to an audience that isn't necessarily ludoliterate enough to interpret for themselves what a particular game says.

I guess part of why this appeals to me is that this is largely my own motivation for making games. Everyone else is doing it wrong and I can do better. If enough other people were making stuff that I considered satisfactory I wouldn't bother, I'd go do something else. (Personal aside: this might explain why I've struggled to maintain motivation in doing mathematics; for the most part I'm satisfied with how everyone else is doing it. There are some things they're doing wrong that I might have to fix sometime, but overall I'm happy with what others are doing.)

However, not all goals are equal! I've maybe veered towards being a bit wishy-washy here. Design choices should be evaluated in terms of your aesthetic goals, and conclusions that are valid for one set of goals may be invalid for another, but the goals themselves need to be evaluated. There's not one true aesthetic that we should all aim for, but there are better and worse aesthetics.

The dominant ideology in videogames follows from the necessities of large commercial studios; the need to sell to a large audience, the need for a clear pipeline that outputs games in a predictable amount of time and can have lots of people working simultaneously on different parts, the need to keep selling new things each year. There's no reason to expect that fulfilling these requirements will produce something that's artistically valuable, that's good for people. And there's every reason to expect that it won't produce something endlessly replayable. (Subscription-based games and the so-called "free-to-play" model work slightly differently, aiming to continuously harvest money from players in a single game rather than selling multiple discrete games; this tends to lead to an even worse aesthetic.)
The necessities of an independent developer are somewhat different; we can survive selling to a smaller audience, we don't need to coordinate large groups of people. We still need to produce new things regularly and sell them to a non-trivial number of people to survive though. (Exceptions of course for people making games as a hobby while getting their income somewhere else, but my experience is that it's really tough to get much done at all this way. Oh, and a big exception for notch.)
But the unfortunate thing is, much of the current audience for games has bought into the mainstream ideology, the types of games that it produces are what they're comfortable with, and so there's a feedback effect that affects all developers - people like what they're used to, it's easier to sell them what they already like, so it's more viable to create things in the same mould, and so that continues to be what people are used to.

I've been thinking a lot recently about what games to make. I kind of need to figure out how to make games that people will buy - not necessarily for everything I make, but enough for a sustainable income. But more importantly I want to change the world, I want to make things that will influence people for the better. The paradoxical thing is that at one level these goals are well aligned - more people playing my games means both more people buying them and more people I'm having an effect on, but at another level they directly conflict - the aesthetics I believe are beneficial are opposed to what sells, what people are comfortable with. I don't have a resolution to this yet.
(Either way, I'll show you all how you're doing it wrong.)

Sunday 6 May 2012

zaga 33 assorted comments

Zaga-33 seems to have gone down really well - I've had lots of positive comments about it, and I'm just really happy about that (and no really negative comments, which is even better). The iOS version's sold ~1200 copies so far, which I guess isn't super amazing or anything, but I'm still pretty pleased with it.
It's a bit of a weird one for me because the game isn't really "innovative", at least not in the way I usually try to work - it's more of a fresh combination of old ideas rather than having new ideas.
Just wanted to make a few more comments about it, address a couple of things that have come up in user reviews and such. Quickly written poorly-edited post.

Gamecenter. Before release of the iOS version Brandon recommended I add an online scoreboard thing because people like that. I decided no. A few user reviews have said they'd like it. I'm still leaning towards no.
I decided no after listening to Bennett Foddy's GDC talk this year, in which he attributed some of the popularity and social-mediability of QWOP to the lack of any built in social media elements which forced people to find their own ways of sharing things. Lots of videos posted to youtube of people inching their way along on their knees terribly slowly, which they were proud of because they thought they'd beat the system. If there's an online leaderboard, instantly everyone can compare themselves to the best in the world and feel inferior with their lesser achievements.
So in Zaga-33, I'm seeing people being proud of getting to level 17 say, and feeling like it's an accomplishment - and I totally support that, it *is* an accomplishment, level 16 is damn hard. If they knew that @rocketcatgames had scored 40pts within a couple of days of release it would deflate that whole sense of achievement. If you're familiar with playing roguelikes, it's not too difficult to complete it; the leaderboard will full up with COMPLETION scores in no time; without a board everyone can just compare to their own best and feel good as they improve.
Also, there's a limited range of scores. Score is "level reached", plus if you kill the end-boss 5 points for killing him and 1 for each item left in your inventory. I think leaderboards work best if there's a wide range of scores with more incremental improvements. I'm by no means ruling out doing it for a different game.

Lack of a "wait" button (or diagonal movement). This makes combat a bit weird because the game board is bipartite; monsters move whenever you move so if an enemy has the same parity as you you'll never be able to get next to it without it getting a hit on you first, unless you find some way to switch your parity (fighting a different enemy or using an item). It pushes it away from 'realism' to more of a puzzle. I think most roguelikes go through this phase early in development before a "wait" key is added; in keeping with minimalism I chose to keep it and make the weirdness that comes from it be part of the game. If you could wait a turn, an item like the nuke would be way overpowered given the deterministic combat system - it would reliably let you clear a level while taking no damage.

"More powerups/monsters/levels"
I don't want to; minimalism is most of what makes this game any good. I totally get that this is the kind of thing people like to see in updates, but just adding more stuff indiscriminately would break the game so I have to be careful.

Lot of people complained about the touch controls. Something I'm learning making iOS games - no matter what controls you pick someone will complain about them. I don't like adding lots of different control options (Hard Lines has ~8 and they all have weird names so you can't guess what they'll do without trying them out). But I added swipe to move as an option you can turn on from the titlescreen, that seems to have cheered people up. I find the original controls (touch somewhere to move towards there) feel really good on iPad, but I can see why they're not ideal for everyone on iPhone/Pod, especially if you're trying to play one-handed.
If you're using the original controls and having trouble exiting levels - just tap on the @ when it's by the exit to exit. There's not touch-sensitive material past the edge of the screen, so obviously you can't touch there to move there.

One review suggested: "some kind of benefit to killing monsters, as it would another dimension to the game".
Most people seem to appreciate this but I wanted to address it anyway: adding a benefit to kill monsters would actually *remove* a dimension from the game. As it is, you have a choice about how to get past enemies - fight them, use items, or try to stealthily sneak past them. Or some combination thereof. It's a strategic puzzle to find the best approach to each random level while conserving resources (items/hp). There *is* a benefit to killing monsters - it removes them as obstacles. Most roguelike (or generally RPG-style) games give direct benefits from killing, usually experience levels making your character more powerful. Generally this means you're almost required to kill them; otherwise you fall behind in power level and won't be able to keep up as the game gets more difficult. It removes a choice; bypassing encounters is suboptimal. Omitting this killing-bonus restores that choice.
(aside: in some tabletop RPGs experience points are awarded for completing encounters regardless of the method used - whether you fight or sneak past or sweet-talk your way out of trouble; this is cool.)

The area-damage items (laser, bomb) damage monsters if they move into an affected tile on the next turn. I'm really pleased with this. It came about by accident (remind me to post about creating in a way that admits serendipity next time I'm ill). Because the monsters move straight away once you move they were overlapping the explosion animations and it just looked off. Obvious solutions were to delay monster movement, to make the explosions animate faster, or to make monster AI just not go there, OR to do as I did and make it destroy them as they move into it. Turns out this made for a really interesting mechanic! It interacts really well with the game of understanding the monster AI and predicting where they're going to move. Generates a moment of excitement when you use these items, because there's an element of gambling, you don't know what the precise effect will be because the monster movement has random elements. (Also made the items a little stronger, which felt generous.)
Whenever I play another roguelike now I expect area-effect powers to act like this and it throws me for a moment when they don't.

I really like that "how you have to limit yourself to something quickly" overlaps so much with "good design". I've started making roguelike games before and they tend towards complexity - all these different item types, spells, experience levels, character classes, etc. Just sticking with single-use items, a linear sequence of levels, deterministic combat, all monsters having 2hp - these were decisions to make sure I could complete the original game in a week, but they turned out to be really good design decisions as well. There's a lesson there about both the value of jams and how to do design in general. Roguelike Radio did an interview with Glenn Wichman, one of the creators of the original Rogue recently; what interested me was how much of the design of the game came out of the hardware restrictions of the time - things that turned out to be really elegant design decisions were forced upon them by technology rather than deliberately chosen.