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ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Shapist: A Seamless Journey Through a World of Puzzles

April 2, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Shapist, a sliding block puzzle game where you need to clear the doorway out of obstacles, was born out of a collective effort of two people who have never met in real life: Ori Takemura (design & concept) and Dmitry Kurilchenko. They found each other through a Unity 3D forum where Ori was looking for a freelance developer or a partner who would share his excitement about what used to be the original Shapist idea. Dmitry turned out to be a perfect match. Later, in the development process, the fact that they had a very similar opinion on what a puzzle game should be like and what is most valuable to the player helped them create Shapist in a very consistent way. Ori shares the story of providing a journey through a seamless world of puzzles.


A Game That Would Physically Feel Like a Real Object

The story of Shapist started in 2012, when I was using a lot of Gmail on my iPad, and the sensation of how intuitive sliding in the UI felt on touch devices got stuck in my head. Later, in 2013, that impression grew into a concept of a game experience based around bringing a very tangible and physical sensation into a digital game, making a video game feel as natural as a real object.

What we had in the beginning was a list with a rough description of mechanics that would feel natural on a touch device, where “dynamic meaning” and “control meaning” would be synonymous. ‘Control meaning’ is something rarely discussed in game design. However, with modern technologies like touch screens, VR, and those similar to Leap Motion, there is now a great opportunity to build game mechanics and UIs around the sense of intuitive discovery that you would get in the physical world. Controls and meanings in the design can be subconsciously understood just because you are subject to human conditions – this is what we mean by the ‘feels natural’ mechanics type. Let’s say, if a tile in a game disappears as a feedback to a touch move, this mechanic would not feel natural, because usually objects we physically interact with do not vanish in an instance. However, you can fold and collapse things in real life…

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The Shapist team: Ori Takemura and Dmitry Kurilchenko

There was also an idea of “teleporting” between puzzles, when a phone becomes a portal to another dimension, but then a puzzle hits the screen and blocks your from further movement to the ultimate goal. We had a folder for a game called “Something Small”, as the final name hadn’t been made up, and it felt like the whole thing would be ready in a relatively small amount of time, a few months at maximum. Little did we know it would take us almost a year. Since sliding was the most basic interaction in the game, we felt that a sliding block and something similar to a 15-puzzle game would fit our concept best of all. We thus decided to adhere to unified block sizes and grid-like level design.

Sliding, Rotation, Detaching, Attaching, Collapsing and Transforming

Not all our ideas made it into the game. We deliberately focused on those clearest for understanding, because they’d feel natural: the sensation was crucial for us. Dmitry spent tons of time polishing the blocks’ reaction to the touch. We didn’t want rail movements within a strict grid, like most block sliding games have, and yet we needed to auto tune the position for better comfort.

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Teleporting between puzzles: a phone becomes a portal to another dimension

Finding the perfect balance took a lot of time. We had ideas of goo-like blocks and other overly complex mechanics that only benefited the player viscerally but added nothing to the core values, so they were discarded. We ended up with five main interactions: sliding, rotation, detaching, attaching, collapsing and transforming.

Zero UI for a Natural Experience like a Rubik’s Cube

When you interact with a physical object like a Rubik’s Cube or a volume knob on a stereo system, you don’t have a block of text floating in, obstructing your view and experience; there’s no tutorial that would keep you from discovering the object by yourself. We wanted Shapist to feel as natural as that, with no barriers between the experience and the player. That is why we made what is called zero UI: we don’t have a single word, letter, or digit in Shapist. Never do we punish a player, rush, or mislead him or her. We do provide a very subtle guidance for the player to feel the enjoyment of a discovery.

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The Shapist concept: zero UI, neither a single word nor a letter or digit

Our puzzle design follows the same concept. Very early in development, we understood a need for a consistent method to introduce the player to a new interaction type. In Shapist, the user gets to discover every new mechanic within a familiar puzzle design around the very first level he or she would ever see in the game – familiar yet different. As for the difficulty progression: all the puzzles in the game have been designed by hand (Dmitry made the editor while I created the puzzles) and not computer-generated, so we were able to very carefully control the excitement the game provides. The biggest benefit of designing everything by hand is the ability to plug in puzzles that feel very different and require the player to think creatively. In puzzles where a system is first hand-crafted, and then it generates challenge situations for the player (like in Tetris), it’s done procedurally, which makes it harder to control over that ‘flow’ through the game. While we wanted to tell a story though the mechanics, with surprise on the way, we believe that those special levels create richness and diversity. We wanted the game to be a journey with a challenge rather than 100-something levels of boredom.

Colors that Help Concentrate on Puzzles

Colors play a special role in Shapist. There is a functional aspect. For example, interactivity is always highlighted with orange color. Color palettes tell the story during the journey though the game, with vibrancy and excitement shifting from bright colors for easy levels to more pastel, serene colors that let players concentrate on harder levels as he or she advances.

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Functional color palettes have been inspired by Sinapore, Japan and the feeling of nostalgia

One color palette was inspired by the colors of Singapore, where I currently live. Among our five palettes, there are some resembling the feeling of nostalgia and serenity, and the last chapter of the game has colors inspired by Japan.

Consistency in the Game and Beyond

Shapist was only possible through great teamwork and an identical vision of the game and its core values. We were blessed with fantastic people in and around development. Jorge Vinals wrote us an amazing ambiance for the background that contributes to the overall feeling of the game in the most perfect way. We wanted to highlight the experience of a never-interrupted journey throughout the game, where there are no loading screens or level titles. We translated the same sensation of flow to the website we launched together with the iOS version of Shapist for iPad in the end of February 2014. There’s a seamless transition between the HTML site and a web demo of the game. We are now working full time on bringing the game to iPhone, Android and maybe Windows8 phones in a few months.

Right now, Shapist is available for iPads, while the demo version is online and works with most desktop OS. 

 

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Blackbeard’s Escape: Prioritizing Players’ Experience in Point-and-Click Games

March 25, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Just Pine Games is a Croatian indie game development company founded in the summer of 2012. It started from the development of their first big video game Perishing Sun, which is still under active development. Meanwhile, the team started a series of small games (mostly mini point-and-click adventure games) that target web and mobile devices. Blackbeard’s Escape is one of them, and Vjekoslav Krajačić is one of the studio’s founders. He shares the story of the game they presented at the Indie Showcase at Casual Connect Europe in Amsterdam. 


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“Blackbeard’s Escape”: a game all about an unforgettable experience for the player

The team that worked on Perishing Sun was already well-established, and this was our fourth game in this genre. Tomislav Podhraški and I have been working on game design and implementation of the game, while Vladimir Koščica was in charge of graphics, where he proved himself as an excellent artist capable of creating beautiful game atmosphere. Just Pine Games is self-funded with no investors, meaning we had to face the fact that the game may fail to find a potential buyer. Risky business, but the team was optimistic from the start.

As the development progressed and the game began gaining its final shape, the whole team got more confident about its the future. Although the development process lasted for only a few weeks, we were all relieved once the game was sold, and our hard work and patience was rewarded.

New Games in the Market Inspire Making Something New

Everything started in our favorite pub called Scout, here in the city of Samobor. It’s funny how our imagination functions better after a few beers in a relaxed atmosphere at a table full of friends. After devising a story and theme for our game, followed by a process of sobering, we arrived in our office on Monday. The whiteboard again proved invaluable tool. We thoroughly researched the internet for all useful references, and our board contained a list of all relevant and important information about our future game.

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We researched the internet for references, and the board contained a list of all relevant and important information about our future game.

A careful elaboration of the story and all the puzzles to appear in the final product followed. In the end, everything was transferred to a digital format for easy editing in the future and quality documentation. The creative process seems easy at the first glance, but it could take up to several hours to design a new puzzle which the whole team would be happy with. What greatly helped here is our love for this genre and dedication to playing new game titles that appear in this market. At the moment, we’re working on something that would allow us to actually test the game while it’s still on the stage of puzzle designing. We want to see if all of our puzzles make sense once they’re put in the game before the artist actually makes graphics. That should reduce development time, since sometimes we have to change the graphics once everything is inside the game and we notice something isn’t quite right.

A Lively Experience Without Stamped Graphics and Repetitive Logics

One of the most important decisions we made was that we would rather provide players with less content filled with original gameplay than a big, empty, and boring game full of stamped graphics and repetitive logic. We wanted the player to get a sense of pride and accomplishment after he/she finishes the game. Therefore, our game requires great attention from a person, who will need to solve puzzles that can extend to several scenes.

We would rather provide players with less content filled with original gameplay than a big, empty, and boring game full of stamped graphics and repetitive logic.

Also, we wanted a game that would feature beautiful and stylized graphics, along with a large number of animations that make the experience livelier and richer. A shot from a cannon and deck explosion, spinning the wheel, lowering the boat in the water – you name it.

As the game was intended for PC and mobile platforms, it was necessary to devise unified controls. Fortunately, the adventures are not too demanding in that part, so in a relatively short time we managed to design an engine that supports this.

With all that, we wanted to put a smile on our player’s face, so we included humorous monologues that place people into the role of the main character. It is important that the player feels like a part of the story, which we believe is a major motivator to continue playing and successfully finishing the game.

Bad Reviews, Better QA

Like in any other project, mistakes are inevitable. Each wrong step has a price, and we paid ours in a series of negative reviews in the AppStore. The mistakes were quite serious and came from immaturity. On the new iPhone 5 devices that have a longer screen, the “Play” button was not visible because of the way we scaled and adapted game content for mobile platforms. This angered many players for a reason.

The “Play” button was not visible on iPhone 5. This angered players for a reason.

Fortunately, the bug was detected in a short time, and we fixed it as fast as we could. We learned that in video game development, there is one thing that should never be lacking. Testing, testing, and testing. We’ve raised the level of our QA and set up a series of new criteria which our games must meet. More people have been included in the process; we’ve bought some new hardware and made a bunch of tests that our game has to pass. For instance, after the play button problem, we made a test where we check the game interface on all major screen resolutions to see if it fails somewhere. Also, we’re thinking of outsourcing this process, since there are a lot of professional companies out there that do a good job in this field. We actually met one at the Indie Showcase. The most important thing is that we admitted to ourselves that the iPhone 5 resolution mistake was caused by our negligence, and hopefully we moved from this project a bit smarter and more experienced.

Coolbuddy’s Non-Invasive Approach Led to a Long-Term Relationship

As with the previous games of the same genre, we worked with Coolbuddy, who again proved as a great sponsor, full of understanding and support. He hardly ever interferes with our game design decisions, and only complains if there are some technical issues that need to be fixed. It all started in our college years, when we were making some flash games just for fun. Coolbuddy was always interested in them, and, when we decided to make a business out of game development, he asked us to keep him informed. While developing Blackbeard’s Escape, we were exchanging new concepts and builds. This somehow allowed us to make Coolbuddy fall in love with our game and eventually led us to selling it.

He hardly ever interferes with our game design decisions, and only complains if there are some technical issues that need to be fixed.

Thanks to Coolbuddy’s non-invasive approach, the game turned out as one that 100 percent reflects our views in all aspects. What is more, he pays a fair price for our creation, and gives us a certain degree of assurance that Blackbeard’s Escape will find at least one interested publisher.

Looking for New Team Members Among Fans

If you are a fan of point-and-click adventures, please contact us with your experiences, wishes, and criticism. We’re always happy to talk to other players, since we are players ourselves. Regardless of your experience and previous work, be sure to talk to us: perhaps you’re a perfect reinforcement for our small development team.

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Perhaps you’re a perfect reinforcement for our small development team.

As always, we are trying to absorb as much feedback as we can from our players. Every experience matters, and we want to improve ourselves, as a team and as individuals in the industry. Therefore, we want our future games to be even more original and enjoyable, giving players a memorable experience.

Blackbeard’s Escape was released on Google Play and AppStore, and a web version has been recently launched. The Just Pine Games team is currently working on a new game called Crusader’s Escape. 

 

Europe 2014Video Coverage

Casual Connect Europe 2014: A Sweet Homecoming

March 10, 2014 — by Clelia Rivera

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This year was a sweet homecoming for Casual Connect Europe as it returned to the city where it all started: Amsterdam. It may have started with only a few hundred attendees back in 2006, but this time, about 2000 game industry professionals gathered in the beautiful Beurs van Berlage for three days to create new connections and learn more about the industry’s current trends. Over 120 lectures were presented by international speakers from companies such as Wooga, Youtube, Facebook, Google, and GamePoint. Lectures included information useful for the current game market, such as Godus creator Peter Molyneux‘s session on design re-invention, new technology, and mobile development.

Casual Connect isn’t just about the handy lectures, but also the professional relationships that are built through meeting and sharing with close to 1000 other companies in attendance. Whether during the day at the show or the sponsored parties at night, there is always the opportunity to reach out and help foster the growth of the game industry community. This was true not only for the seasoned veterans, but new developers as well. Over 100 indie developers displayed their work at the Indie Prize Showcase held at Casual Connect Europe. In addition, 13 teams won various awards, from Most Innovative Game to Best in Show. The winners can be viewed on the Indie Prize website.

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The Winners of Casual Connect Europe 2014’s Indie Prize Showcase

Looking forward to returning to Amsterdam next year, Casual Connect is currently focusing on the preparations for Casual Connect Asia, held in Singapore May 20 – 22, 2014. Check out the conference website if you are interested in more information: http://asia.casualconnect.org/

If you were not able to make it to Casual Connect Europe (or if you want to relive fond memories), videos of the presentation are available for free on Gamesauce and the conference website.

Casual Connect Europe Videos on Gamesauce:
Erik Goossens: Indie Developers and Advertising
Vicenç Marti: Community First
Inna Zaichenko: A Passion for Games
Scott Foe’s Evil Hilarity
Sebastien Borget on Educational Social Gaming
Yaniv Nizan: Don’t be Afraid to Win
Chris Natsuume: Making a Difference
Robert Winkler: Standing out with Substance
Cristi Badea: Opportunity for All, Even Underdogs
Teut Weidemann: Understanding Why Equals Win

More video articles can be found here.

Other Coverage of Casual Connect Europe:
 7 upcoming indie treats from Casual Connect 2014 in Amsterdam – Pocketgamer.co.uk
Video: Evil Game Design Challenge winner pitches F2P Evil Minecraft – Gamasutra
5 things we learned at Casual Connect Europe 2014 – Pocketgamer.biz
The DeanBeat: Developers need platforms that aren’t always in flux – Gamesbeat
14. Februar: Casual Games Association zeichnet Indie Games aus; Microsoft muss Schlüsselpositionen neu besetzen – Making Games
What Games Are: Going Small – TechCrunch
Spil Games will trigger ads at ‘cliffhanger moments’ in games by indie developers – Gamesbeat
Casual Connect Europe mit neuem Besucherrekord – Gamesindustry.biz
Mobile game Shapist was inspired by ancient Asian block games – Gamesbeat
GameDuell: “Spielerbindung deutlich gesteigert” – Gamesindustry.biz
If you want to score a good publisher, you need to think like a publisher – Pocketgamer.biz
Nextpeer makes it easy to challenge your friends in mobile multiplayer matches – Gamesbeat
Molyneux: “Geld zu verlangen ist kein Recht. Man muss es rechtfertigen.” – Gamesindustry.biz
Casual Connect feiert in Amsterdam erfolgreichen Neuanfang – Gamesmarkt
Is Christmas losing its sparkle? Flurry points to drop off in yuletide download growth – Pocketgamer.biz
The Dutch want gaming startups to sprout like tulips (interview) – Gamesbeat
Casual Connect 2014 • Drie Nederlandse winnaars bij Indie Prize award show – Control
Portrait of a Pretentious Game – Rappler
Casual Connect 2014 • De succesfactoren van Reus, de godgame met een indieprijskaartje – Control
Grand Cru: Console devs are ‘utterly failing’ at in-app purchases – Pocketgamer.biz
Game makers beware: Virtual goods purchases are about to be regulated – Gamesbeat
Casual Connect 2014 • Een bedrijf opstarten doet niemand voor je, vergeet niet te relaxen en wees een ster – Control
Asian companies account for nine of the top 10 game mergers and acquisitions – Gamesbeat
The Godus amongst us: Molyneux talks free-to-play farces, winning without chasing whales and his top score on Flappy Bird – Pocketgamer.biz
Peter Molyneux believes ripping people off with free-to-play games won’t last (interview) – Gamesbeat
Size matters: How to scale your game for overnight success – Pocketgamer.biz
FlowPlay helps developers like Joju Games differentiate their social-casino titles – Gamesbeat
Molyneux: Free-to-play is like ‘smashing consumers over the head with a sledgehammer’ – Pocketgamer.biz
Dandelions benoemd tot beste indiegame Casual Connect – Gamer.nl
Share and share like: Why developers need to care about their sharers – Pocketgamer.biz
Mimimi gewinnt Indie Prize – GamesMarkt
Flappy Bird was the perfect accidental guerilla marketing campaign, says Creative Mobile – Pocketgamer.biz
Casual Connect Amsterdam – Freegame.cz
Mech Mocha Founder Arpita Kapoor Wins Most Prominent Female Indie Award at Casual Connect Europe – Animation Xpress
Casual Connect Europe 2014 – Амстердам – ITC.ua

 

Europe 2014Video Coverage

Jonathon Myers on an Entirely Acoustic Experience of Story | Casual Connect Video

February 18, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Jonathon Myers is CEO and Co-founder of Reactive Studios, a company which he formed to create a new type of game called “interactive radio drama.” He explains, “It is an entirely acoustic experience of story in which you use your voice to play a role.” Their first title is Codename Cygnus, a spy-thriller released on iOS and showcased at Casual Connect Europe‘s Indie Prize Showcase.

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Jonathan Myers, CEO and Co-Founder, Reactive Studios

Myers comes to Reactive Studios with a background in entertainment industries. He was originally a creative writer and playwright, earning a student Academy Award nomination for a short film he co-wrote. One of his early experiences in the games industry was writing for Dejobann Games, a Boston indie company, working on the Valve Potato Sack ARG, which led to the release of Portal 2. He then began adapting story IP to Facebook for various companies. He worked as game writer for Zynga Boston on Indiana Jones Adventure World, which was named a top 5 social game of 2011 by Gamesutra. From there, he went to a narrative designer position with Disruptor Beam, planning the story and leading the writing team on Game of Thrones Ascent. He got into mobile through designing narrative and writing for Jack Lumber by Owlchemy Labs, and his focus remains on mobile today.

Community Support

Myers particularly appreciates the camaraderie of indie developers and the community of support among writers around the world. Boston holds several monthly meetups where they come together to share knowledge, discuss problems and demonstrate games. He enjoys the same community cooperation at trade meetings such as GDC and Casual Connect.

Jonathon Myers and voice actor Logan Cunningham at the PAX Indie Megabooth in Seattle.
Jonathon Myers and voice actor Logan Cunningham at the PAX Indie Megabooth in Seattle.

The games industry entices him with the challenges of creative problem solving both as a writer and a designer. Delivering an entertainment product satisfies his desire to reach others with his creative work. And because it is a booming commercial industry, he can take practical steps to grow both his career and his business.

Innovation and Interaction

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Their first title is Codename Cygnus, a spy-thriller released on iOS

Innovation is especially important to Myers. He reached a turning point in his career with the opportunity to explain the innovations in the narrative of Indiana Jones Adventure World when he spoke at the Games Narrative Summit in Austin, TX in 2012. He tells us, “We had worked very hard to do something very different with story for a Facebook game.” With this game, he says, “I felt like a pioneer staking out new territory.” And now, the use of narrative elements has become much more prevalent in the mobile/social space. He insists, “I try to walk that path of innovation in all my projects.”

He tells us interactive entertainment is a category he expects will continue to boom in parallel with more accessible development tools that allow content authors to have creative control. As well, advances in mobile hardware and peripherals will allow for more innovations in audio. The limitations in these areas have been holding mobile games back until recently.

Reactive Studios are working to reach the largest possible audience for interactive stories, using a focus on acoustic storytelling. They are targeting an overlapping audience of audiobook listeners and casual gamers, with game content driven by audience demand. For 2014, they plan to focus on partnerships for new titles, allowing for rapid growth of the company.

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