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ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: Creatures from NTFusion

June 6, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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NTFusion

NTFusion is an independent game studio based in Guangzhou, China. They created their first game, NTCreature, in 2011. In two years, it has grown into a series of games: NTCreature, NTCreature2, Pocket Creature, Pocket Creature PVP and the newest Pocket Creature Shakespeare. They have been popular in global game arcades. Zhifeng Chen shares the experience and lessons they learned while making the whole series.

Our Love of Tower Defense and Playing Pokémon!

We are fans of tower defense and Pokémon. So it made send that our first game idea was a combination of tower defense and creature-raising. Players have to defend their castle from waves of enemies, and they can control a creature of their own. Their creature can eat different types of enemies to evolve and each have unique attacks and abilities.

Tree

We worked for four months to make our idea a reality. The result was NTCreature. It won us the grand prize at Mochi China Flash Game Developer Contest, which was very important to us. It was our first game and it won! It felt like we were on the right track.

More Creatures and Game Modes

After almost half a year, NTCreature2 comes out, and we added two races of creatures, five game modes and even more towers. However, we felt that we were beginning to lose control of the game. The complexity of NTCreature2 has made difficulty balancing a really tough job.

Game Modes

Now there was too many controls and strategies for the players: WSAD for directions, SPACE for abilities, E for eating, attributes adding, evolution, all while building different towers to defend every route. Players found it difficult to get familiar with all the staffs of NTCreature2. Many of them gave up after playing only 5-10 minutes. Even worse, only 0.1 percent of the players completed the whole story mode.

Simple but New

We decided to simplify things with the next game, Pocket Creature. We kept the creature’s evolution strategy, but made the battle simple: players didn’t have to make decisions during battle. The only thing to do in Pocket Creature is build your creature team and feed them for evolution, and then watch them fight!

Team

Surprisingly, Pocket Creature, which only took us one month, is more popular than NTCreature2. Many players asked for a new version of Pocket Creature. With their voice, we decided to go further. Based on the players’ feedbacks, they want more diverse strategies and a system that can challenge the creature teams from other players.

We design a new GEM system to let players put GEMs on their creatures. Each GEM can increase creatures’ attack damage, HP or elasticity. With the GEM system, players can have plenty of strategies even with the same team. They can choose a high damage team with range knockback creatures, or a high HP team with all melee guys, or a balance team with both high damage and elasticity creatures…there are numerous possibilities!

GEM

Of course, we have another exciting system, the PVP system in Pocket Creature PVP. Players can challenge other creature teams from all over the world. And with the GEM system, you’ll find lots of fun in doing so.

The release of Pocket Creature PVP has been a big hit on flash game arcades. It has been featured on many big game sites like Kongregate, Newgrounds and Armorgames. And now we have the newest version of Pocket Creature, the Pocket Creature Shakespeare, has three new levels, seven more legendary creatures and a Free Lucky Draw system for getting rare creatures.

Lucky Draw

So, What Have We Learned?

1. Be creative, but don’t make the game complex. Letting players focus on one single creative point is just OK.

2. Listen to the players to learn what they want (PVP system, for example), but you may not know how they feel (some may find it hard and some may find it easy). Just remember to watch the statistics!

3. It is a good strategy to make a series of games. But if you find you have lost control, feel free to redesign it. You will be surprised with what you can do!

To keep up with NTFusion news, follow them on Facebook!

ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: The Voxel Agents’ Puzzle Retreat (iOS & Android)

May 21, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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The Voxel Agents are developers of original handcrafted games for “on-the-go” fun. They are one of the most exciting indie teams in Australia, and are situated in the game development hub of Melbourne. Creators of the smash hit Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat, The Voxel Agents are proud producers of addictive game substances for millions of players worldwide.

How Puzzle Retreat Started

Puzzle Retreat has gone through many iterations and has changed a lot from it’s inception 21 months ago. Yangtian Li, our in-house artist at the time, pitched to the team an elaborate design for a lumberjack-come-carpenter game. The player had to fell trees in a forest, bring them home and make furniture.

Henrik Pettersson, one of our former designers, was immediately inspired by the puzzle potential of felling trees in a forest. His first design was a puzzle game where the trees fall into each other and knock each successive tree down like dominoes. The second design, and eventual winner, focused on your player character who stands behind each tree to push it over. There must be enough space to stand behind the tree to push it down and there must be space for the tree to fall into. This puzzle design requires you to find the right order to knock all the trees down whilst keeping the appropriate spaces free, and not locking yourself in.

Forest Theme

The team really liked the potential depth of puzzles this mechanic presented, and the simplicity of the interaction in the very first playable prototype. The theme of cutting down trees in a forest on the other hand, did not rest well. We decided to explore over 20+ designs in art styles and themes and finally decided to stick to the original forest theme, but instead of cutting down the forest, the player was saving it by cutting down evil degenerative trees.

We’re BIG on Playtesting!

Our development process has always had a significant emphasis on playtesting, whether it be in-house within the studio, taking our tablets out on to to the friendly people of Melbourne in the city streets, or even amongst other local game developers. Playtesting can be heartbreaking at times, because it can reveal the hard truth that your design does not work. Being mobile players ourselves, we understand the importance of designing games that are easy to pick up and play straight away and playtesting let us verify this.

Early on, players struggled with understanding the objective and how to interact with the game. Some players were able to work out what the objective was and how to progress. However, some players weren’t able to without any assistance during playtests.

Leafy Character in the Forest

Players were also getting confused between what they could and couldn’t interact with on screen. For example, the affordance of non-interactable wooden logs, produced after cutting down a tree, made players try to pick them up and move them. We discovered that wood cutting wasn’t a great metaphor for the game mechanics and that the third-person character was a major distraction from the actual logical puzzle solving.

A Minimalist Design Approach

In the end, we adopted a minimalist design approach and stripped the game back:

– We removed the third-person character.

– We replaced the core mechanic with one of it’s variations, where trees were covered in ice and could slide over icy logs.

– We removed the ‘stand behind rule’ to cut down trees, this helped with opening up a larger space for puzzle designs.

– We reworked the theme into something much more simple and understandable.

The game received a much more positive response from playtesters after removing rules and making the game much more simple.

Final Game

We managed to get the game down to two simple rules:

1        Slide the blocks to fill the holes.

2        Use all the blocks.

Relax, Unwind and Focus

While we were stripping back the design, we took the opportunity to look broader at who plays these types of ultra-minimal, logical puzzle games. We found that the audience of these games is more mature and predominantly female. The majority of logical puzzle game players solve puzzles to relax, unwind, de-stress and get some “me time,” the same reasons why we play. With this in mind, we crafted a world free of stress and distraction. By letting the gameplay be the focus, and pushing the art into the background, the game could really shine.

Through our journey, we have learned that the very best logical puzzle games leave very little in between the player and the core problem. All the information to solve the puzzle is directly in front of you, and you just have to solve it. By carefully handcrafting each puzzle and cleverly pacing out the puzzles in each pack, we have been able to give players a great euphoric feeling and make players feel really smart after solving each puzzle.

Puzzle Retreat is available on the AppStore and Google Play. The Voxel Agents still have a dedicated team adding more content and features to the game. The plan is to bring Puzzle Retreat to more platforms in the future. The Voxel Agents also have another game in development that is planned for release later this year.

ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: Kiragames’ Unblock Me

May 15, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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kiragamesKiragames is an independent game studio based in Thailand. It’s flagship game Unblock Me was released four years ago in 2009 and became the most downloaded application that year and to date is currently the #17 most downloaded game of all time in the US AppStore. Kiragames’ actual roots started from a sole indie developer named Kirakorn Chimkool that worked on Unblock Me to learn a new programming language for him. Little did he know it would be one of those life-changing moments and lead him to go full time with his game career path and establish Kiragames later on in 2011. Aun Taraseina, COO of Kiragames and a developer of Unblock Me, discusses the creation of the game.

To fully grasp the whole picture of how Unblock Me started, you will have to understand the nature of its creator, Kirakorn Chimkool. He’s the type of person who is really shy and rarely speaks to anyone he doesn’t know. He has always kept an extremely low profile of himself, so it wouldn’t be strange if you have heard or played Unblock Me before but have no idea what and who Kiragames and Kirakorn are.

In 2009, Kirakorn was working at an outsourcing division in a company from the US. His daily routine would be consist of looking trough list of issues that he needs to get finish and send back to his employers in US. While it did have good pay, it wasn’t something he wanted to do for the rest of his career. Kirakorn said his dream has always been to create games. After hearing that Apple will soon open its gateway for developers in Thailand to sell their Apps through the AppStore, Kirakorn quickly jumped on the bandwagon and started learning the native language for the iOS platform. Kirakorn said that the main reason for his interest of the platform was mainly because of his geek nature; he wanted to learn something new and he wanted to try the new platform ecosystem that seems to be very open to indie developers. I remember at that time, Kirakorn start sending some game ideas to me and one of our friends, Tim Promwanna, who is now the Game Director at Kiragames, to get a feel of what we think of his idea. One of the last game ideas that he sent us was a link to an iOS game that was already doing extremely well at that time, Blocked.

Starting with Concept

As a gamer and developer, I have really high respect for Blocked. It was a fun game to play with great fluid design. And for all the good reasons, Blocked had a good level of inspiration to Unblock Me, but the core concept of the game and theme would be different. Kirakorn wanted a game that anyone can play, so he made sure that there were different levels of difficulties to the game, especially the easiest levels. He felt that solving puzzles is a human instinct, the instinct to find answers and challenges, so he designed all the graphics to match the natural elements that surrounds him, such as the sky background or the wooden blocks. I later asked him about the the name Unblock Me came from. His simple reply was, the name Blocked seems like it’s stuck somewhere in the puzzle so he named his game Unblock Me in contrast to Blocked.

Comparison
A screenshot comparing Blocked and Unblock Me in the early versions

Development

After all the core concepts were final, Kirakorn started his development by buying a $700 Mac Mini with 10-month installments and a $100 secondhand iPod. The development for Unblock Me took Kirakorn about six weeks during his free time to complete from start to finish, including the time that he used to learn Objective C, iOS development and Coco2d for iPhone, which was the game engine used for Unblock Me. The puzzles were generated by a C# program that runs on Windows, and another python script was written to sort out the difficulties of each of the puzzles that were generated. After that, he would manually copy the puzzles to his Mac Mini and work on Unblock Me from there.

Kirakorn recalls that he was very fortunate that the decisions he made throughout the development cycle were correct.He didn’t have any problems or delays with coding at all, but he did take a bit of time to work on the graphics for Unblock Me since he’s not an artist. If you see the work he had done with Unblock Me in the earlier versions, you can see it is much cruder. With newer versions of Unblock Me, we have professional artists to work on the graphics, but the same feeling of those early versions still remains. I tried asking him what he considers to be the most difficult issue during development, but he couldn’t think of any. Most of the features took a couple of days to work on during his time from his day job. And I can related to this, as a long time friend of Kirakorn and as a developer that has been lucky enough to work with many developers, I can really say he is among the most talented developer I’ve worked with.

UnBlock-Me-Updates
Screenshot as Unblock Me progress throughout the 4 years.

Getting Unblock Me to the AppStore

Kirakorn didn’t have much emotions after the game was completed. He felt that he really enjoyed the process of learning a new language, a new platform and getting back to work on games again all together. If the game will succeed or not wasn’t much of his concern since that wasn’t the point for Unblock Me anyway. This make sense to me now because the first version of Unblock Me in the AppStore came in two versions: the full version for 0.99$ with 1200 puzzles and the free version with 400 puzzles for free with no monetization platform. I still remember the night he was about to submit the game to Apple, he was talking with me and Tim on Skype and was asking questions like “Do you think my game will sell at all?” or “Maybe I should just release one version and release it for free, I don’t think it will make that much money anyway.” Of course, I was against going with one version for free but in the end, it was his call. He did however, went with two versions, which proved to be a key factor to Unblock Me’s success at that time.

While the initial development of Unblock Me was a breeze for Kirakorn, he said that the most challenging process of getting Unblock Me to the wild was getting it to the AppStore. The game was stuck in the Apple submission process due to uncleared bank account info. Kirakorn said that the problem went on for about a month and a half, and during this time, he would constantly send daily emails to Apple for help regarding the issue. At the end, Kirakorn decided to apply for a new iOS Developer account and use a new bank for the account. The game eventually went live within days using the new iOS Developer Account.

Going Live and Wild

After the game went live, the paid version of Unblock Me was able to sell about 10 copies the first day and then 20 the second day and then 50 the third day, and it kept going on like this for about two weeks until it reached the #60 most downloaded game. Both the Free version and the Paid version did very well during its launch. The free version eventually became the #1 most downloaded app in every category within a few days and became most downloaded app of the year(2009) in the AppStore. A lot of Unblock Me‘s success has to be contributing to having a free version at that time. While the free version didn’t even have any ads in it, it created a huge buzz among blogs and forums. People have no problem trying the game for free, and most of them were willing to paid the extra 0.99$ for more puzzles. The biggest competitor at that time was Blocked, but it came with only 100 or so puzzles.

With the success of Unblock Me that year, Kirakorn decided to quit his day job after his contract expired. He continued to work on Unblock Me alone for another year before establishing Kiragames in 2011, which is when me, Tim and many more talented developers joined him.

Team

The Ongoing Development…

This is supposed to be a postmortem of Unblock Me, but I think everyone at Kiragames will agree that Unblock Me is still ongoing and everyone on the team is still heavily involved.  At the time of writing this article, I’ve just committed the last new feature for Unblock Me’s update on the iOS. Unblock Me on Android, which was released in 2010, will also get an update pretty soon, depending on how QA goes. We have definitely learn a lot from this four year process; we have seen how things quickly changed and got a better understanding of our users and the market in total.

Aun Taraseina will be a speaker at Casual Connect Asia in Singapore during May 21 – May 23,  and will be talking about “Key Points for Indie Success Globally.” Feel free to contact him via auntara at kiragames dot com if you are interested about the topic.

ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: Circulets – the Making of a Two-Player, Local Multiplayer Game

May 13, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Hashstash Studios is an independent game development studio from India working to develop and bring innovative and entertaining games that will hopefully tickle you to death. Their new game Circulets is an easy-to-learn family game designed for interactions between the players and includes a lot of playfulness. Kinshuk Sunil, the lead at Hashstash Studios, tells the story of creating Circulets. 

My name is Kinshuk Sunil and in April 2011, I started an independent game development company with two friends of mine – Yadu Rajiv and Mayank Saini. We spent the next year working on an Android game, Zap the Knight, which is out there as an unfinished game on the Play Store and would perhaps be best described as a vaporware for now.

As the calendar turned to 2013, our priorities had shifted from making games to just plain survival. Around that time, Yadu jumped into Global Game Jam 2013 with a few friends and ended up making ‘less than three’, a local synchronous multiplayer for the PC. ‘less than three’ (a play on the heart emoticon <3) was an experiment on a concept we have been planning to work on for some time and was received very well by friends at the Jam.

One Game A Month? Can We Do It?

During the Jam, we all started talking about taking part in One Game a Month experiment. less than three became our 1GAM entry for January, and the XP boost was relieving. We internally joked and poked fun on each other about our XPs. This led to us starting to discuss what our project should be for February.

It was evident that we needed it to be very simple, because we actually wanted to finish it in February. So before anything, we decided that the release date would be February 28. Vidhvat Madan, Yadu and Vasu Chaturvedi then actively started exploring ideas about what that simple game should be. The breakthrough came on February 3rd, when Vidhvat came up with a simple prototype of collecting circles.

Collect circles at a time and get points!

The idea was simple: a circle pops up on the screen and two players fight to collect it. The one who gets it, gets a point and the cycle repeats.

Wait, What Are We Making?

It was an interesting prototype, but not a game yet. Vasu, Yadu and Vidhvat were hard-pressed to find a game here. Yadu went ahead with experimenting with the idea of multiple circles instead of just one. But that made it a little confusing. There was no conflict anymore, each player could collect their circle at their leisure.

Focus on your color, please!
Focus on your color, please!

That was about the time when we set our first design objective: “It’s not about winning, it’s about who you play with”. And so we defined two factions. Each player was now assigned a color and they had to collect only their own droplets. That was what the game was called then, “Droplets”. Along with the two sides, we introduced a bonus color that was the bone of contention between the two players. With the addition of a timer and limited time, the game instantly became a riot.

Building a Game…

Around the same time, I finally jumped on board the team, primarily to take care of sounds. We were now four – Me (Kinshuk), Yadu, Vidhvat and Vasu. Between Yadu and Vidhvat, all game programming was taken care of and a huge chunk of design. Vasu added on top of it with more design. I brought sound and production to the table.

The game did not undergo any major changes since then. The base premise persisted. We did explore a different arc with a radical UI-redesign and a possible scenario where there were many more types of circulets and different behaviors in an effort to bring some tactical gameplay to the game. By this time the game had changed its name from “Droplets” to “Circulets” and that was going to stick.

…is not easy

By this time, we were fairly done with the game and started showing it to friends. The responses we started getting were amazing. A lot of them requested us to consider this as a game and treat it accordingly, and not just as a 1GAM project. Finding sense in the argument, we formally brought in the game to Hashstash and announced it to the world on February 24, 2013. At the same time, we opened up a beta with about 25 people testing out the iOS version and about a 100 for Android, we submitted the game to 100% Indie program by Samsung & Chillingo and they graciously accepted us, and Casual Connect Asia selected us for the Indie Prize Showcase at Singapore.

And then we realized a major problem in the game. While we were developers and understood what was happening inside the game, the beta players did not. What we observed was that most were not partaking in the conflict and only concentrating on their own colors. Even the bonus colors were being ignored. So began our crusade to bring a little chaos in the game world.

Over the beta, we explored different solutions but what did the trick for us were some subtle changes in visual and audio feedback within the game. Some of these were:
– while the circles popped up in their own sides, we made them slowly move towards the other side, unless they were moved by one of the players
– by throwing their circles in the other player’s side, players could now make the other player lose points
– we experimented with many audio cues for positive, negative, bonus score contributions and the current 8-bit sounds had the best influence on players
– the soundtrack samples were structured such that the pacing increases every 30s and becomes more frantic (the gameplay is structured in tiers of 30s)

The little waves from circles being collected added much life in the game.
The little waves from circles being collected added much life in the game.

 

To Infinity and Beyond

We also introduced a new “Infinite” mode in the game, which reverses the complete time mechanic. While the game was originally about collecting as many circles as possible in limited time, the Infinite mode lets you collect a limited number of circles in infinite time. What this does is give players an open sandbox to explore with another player. However, it is not much incentivized yet.

The whole minimalism of the game has proven to be a double-edged sword. While it brings a level of hypnotic beauty to the game and the simplicity makes it very intuitive for players; at times, it also leaves our players bewildered and confused. The limited beta was not a good enough sample for us to do anything about it quantitatively, but we are looking forward to real players and their behavior to bring in more gameplay to Circulets. Some of the concepts high on our priority list is exploration, interactivity and engagement between players.

That Hazy Glow…

All development come to a close on April 6th and we finally submitted for certification on the App Store, Samsung App Store and the Amazon App Store. We were certified and ready for sale on all our marketplaces by the 18th of April and the PR process kicked in.

Next came our trailer, the objective of which was to focus more on the interactions of people through the game, and not show the game itself. The end result proved to be pretty interesting.

Now as we try and take a breather from all the action, the chaos of first launch is on us. And it is a fun ride in itself. Circulets finally came out on May 9, 2013 on the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, Amazon App Store and the Samsung App Store.

Hashstash Studios is actively working on getting Circulets out to the world, as well as started work on their next project titled Vertigo, which will also be showcased at Casual Connect Asia 2013 along with Circulets. Connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

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