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ContributionsPostmortem

Mosaique: A Music-First Approach

August 27, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Winning Blimp specializes in science-fiction themed games with a 16-bit era flavor. Based in both Osaka, Japan and Florida, USA, Winning Blimp was founded in 2012 and is headed by Bear Trickey, a former game designer from Kyoto-based studio Q-Games, and Alex May, a multi-discipline graphic artist and musician. Alex May tells the story of Mosaique, a cerebral puzzle game. 

The Birth Of The Blimp

Mosaique was a critical project for us as a team, as its development runs parallel with the formation of our company and solidified an excellent collaborative relationship between us as developers. Despite Mosaique being our second title, it was actually the first game prototype that we worked on together. Bear had been toying with a simple mechanic that involved a shooting device that traveled around a spline and shot projectiles at various obstacles, somewhat like an orthographic Tempest.

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The first prototype. Dig that programmer art!

Bear was working with an old iPod Touch at the time and was having difficulty with the layout logistics of the smaller screen. It just wasn’t possible to get both controls and captivating level design into that small screen area. He decided to shift the concept from an action game to something more cerebral, his hope being that the puzzle genre might accommodate the limited screen area better. This resulted in the next prototype; the shooting device was now rotating around a square grid and the objective was to shoot objects in the middle with a limited number of shots.

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Scary baddies.

This was the first prototype that Bear showed me, and incidentally the catalyst for the beginning of our relationship. Like many other game companies, it all started with a “Hey, could you help me out with some graphics for this?” The Blimp was born.

Without any concrete ideas for the context, we just threw together a quick placeholder virus-buster type setting where you control some kind of TRON-like unit zapping viruses on a grid. Highly unoriginal, but as Bear says, sometimes it pays to just jump first and think next. We coined the name “VRAXIS”, which was a mash-up of “Virtual” and “Axis”. I knocked up some quick graphics to get some momentum going.

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Looks a bit like TRON meets Battleship.

For about two months, we wrestled with this idea, but it was like a greasy pig, constantly slipping from our grasp. After numerous iterations, we just couldn’t seem to find a good direction to take “VRAXIS”. Bear experimented with ideas involving disappearing and reappearing targets as well as a few other quirky twists, but in the end, we concluded it was all just feeling too ordinary. Who knew that Blimp cockpits had shelves that were so handy for storing sad, failed prototypes.

From The Ashes Of A Brick-Breaker

One day during a session working on “VRAXIS”, a frustrated and distracted Bear was struck with an idea for an action game that was a mixture of Pong and Breakout: a dual-paddled brick-breaker game that was played on a vertically scrolling play field. Bear showed me a loose prototype, and we both agreed that this idea had the potential to become something great. Our first pivot ensued (airships can turn really quickly when they need to, you know). For whatever reason, ideas came fast, and before we knew it we were releasing our first ever title: Ambi-ON.

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16-bit era graphics FTW.

Ambi-ON was less than successful. We had produced a game that looked good enough, had a killer soundtrack, and played well, but due to a few key shortcomings in the game design, too little effort put into marketing, a lack of practical experience with freemium models, and perhaps just a general lack of attention for the entire brick-breaker genre itself, Ambi-ON simply failed to secure any lasting attention.

This was the birth of Mosaique. Frustrated that our beloved Ambi-ON failed to garner any popularity, we wanted to seek revenge on the entire industry and create Ambi-ON‘s exact mirror image; an “anti-Ambi-ON” if you will. Where Ambi-ON was a dark action game with a particularly sadistic tone (it even has an “Ultimate Pain Mode,” as well as a cyborg that pops up to insult you and all humankind at Game Over), it was only fitting that Ambi-ON‘s opposite should be something that was serene, calm and light. We concluded that with some judicious massaging, “VRAXIS” had the potential to become this. Back onto the workbench it came.

Our Music-First Approach

For no particular reason, during Ambi-ON‘s development, I actually created the music first. As it turned out, doing it that way served us very well. We found that using music as a guide to keeping the various elements of the game consistent was actually extremely effective. Compared to post-it notes on a whiteboard or concept art, music has a far stronger capability to evoke emotion, and it’s that emotion that can be used as a compass to guide the design of a gaming experience. In addition, centering a game around the music also makes the planning and tweaking of game pace and momentum very easy. To fit with the profile of being Ambi-ON‘s opposite, I created a 10 minute long semi-ambient electronica track in 5/4, aiming for a peaceful, sophisticated and also accessible feel. This would become the spine of the game.

Bear started to work through ideas for puzzle mechanics that were more relaxing and fitting with the music. A game that came to his mind was one of his old SNES favorites Zoop, which had a great colour-matching mechanic, but was time-based and very stressful. He injected that Zoop colour-matching mechanic into “VRAXIS”, but left out the other white-knuckle aspects of the system. Our game was to have no time limit and very little pressure put on the player, but still needed some way to get a Game Over. We resurrected the original limited shot count idea from “VRAXIS”, and added it as a gauge style shot counter.

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VRAXIS prototype resurrected.

In line with the music, the mantra was “sophisticated yet accessible”. Puzzle games are all too often totally abstract (with good reason, in most cases), so to retain some sense of accessibility, we decided to ground the visual interface firmly in reality. This called for a design that resembled an actual hardware device instead of a software interface. The idea was that you would hold in your hand an actual functioning puzzle game, not a mobile phone running puzzle game software. This was the result:

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Buttons that say “push me”.

Further tweaks were made to the colour scheme to pull it closer to the music’s slight tinge of sadness and melancholy. And finally, the name “VRAXIS” had to go. It was an awkward remnant of the old setting. We decided on the name Mosaique, intentionally choosing the French spelling for no other reason than it feeling more sophisticated to us (you guessed it, neither of us speak French) without seeming inaccessible or foreign.

The core mechanic to the game was completed, the music was done and the interface was in place. Unfortunately it was at this late stage that we realized this game would be a great experience once, but didn’t inspire much incentive for replay. Bear then had the idea of introducing a mechanism that would encourage the player to play the game every consecutive day for bonuses. As the game was completable in 10-minutes (to match the length of the soundtrack), this was the perfect complement. The short game length would impart little burden on the player’s daily schedule, and directly giving them incentive to play just a bit every day would keep them coming back.

Again, as a reaction to our inability to create a successful freemium game in Ambi-ON, Mosaique was to be proudly premium. 99¢ would buy you the entire experience. No limitations, no wallet-fondling, just good old fashioned value for money.

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Mosaique ready for the world.

Mosaique Takes Flight

The release of Mosaique went extremely well. It was featured on a number of high profile sites (including Gamespot, C-NET, Joystiq, Gamezebo, and Touch Arcade), and also had a consecutive run of three weeks on or near the top of Apple’s App Store (New & Noteworthy, What’s Hot and Popular Puzzlers). Also, this:

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Don’t have to test Mosaique on iOS7 now! Thanks Apple!

Yes, that is Mosaique in Craig Federighi‘s demo of iOS7 during the Apple’s 2013 WWDC Keynote. Of course, an accolade like this does not lead to much in the way of downloads (who would see that screen and then go and buy the apps on it?!), but it certainly was a thrill for us and makes for a great story.

The 99¢ price point has meant that Mosaique hasn’t been hugely profitable, although it has successfully recouped all of our marketing costs. Regardless, we are simply happy to have achieved some modest success with a “proudly premium” game in the casual puzzler genre; a genre that is so saturated with high quality freemium alternatives. It’s also been a deeply gratifying experience having some degree of popularity for something we created together. It showed us that there is merit in the process we followed, and also great potential for the future of our creative relationship.

Patience is a Virtue

There was one interesting road bump in our development process for Mosaique: when you follow a process that involves a rough playable prototype that is eventually refined with finalized graphics, do not lock down the graphics too early. If there is any additional work required on the prototype to improve user experience, game features or replayability, by adding final graphics too soon, all you are doing is creating inflexibility and possibly reluctance to consider all options.

The visual and interactive elements of Mosaique were all fully formed at the time we realised the game needed more replay incentive. Had the game still been in a light, flexible and adaptable prototype stage, I’m sure that there would have been potential for a far greater range of solutions to the problem of replayability, and also greater freedom for brainstorming.

So for our future games, we intend to try and complete a fully encapsulated prototype prior to adding any finalised graphics. Hopefully this way, all the core elements of the game will be more visible without the distraction of pretty graphics, and drastic changes can be more efficiently applied if necessary.

Winning Blimp is gravitating towards platforms that are conducive to more interactive bandwidth and extended play sessions. They are always looking to connect with players, developers, and artists, so feel free to get in touch through Facebook or Twitter.

ContributionsPostmortem

Post-Mortem: MADFINGER’s Dead Trigger (iOS & Android)

June 26, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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The MADFINGER team, founded in 2009 by four game industry veterans who were sick of the over-managed development process of big console and PC games, received a lot of praise for their mobile games Samurai and Shadowgun, and within two years, grew from four to thirteen members. Then in late 2011, they started thinking about a ‘side’ project, which MADFINGER could develop along with the planned multi-player game Shadowgun: DeadZone, to use to experiment with new features, technologies and gameplay ideas – or simply kill after some time, if it wasn’t viable. Petr Benysek, Senior Programmer, talks about how the Dead Trigger project started as an experiment and where it went from there.

MADFINGER Games

The Beginning

Since there weren’t enough people for two projects, Mara, Emeth, Babec and Robotom, the founders of the company, decided to hire three more people, who could be fully dedicated to this new project, along with Emeth, the graphic artist and project leader. We are all long-time friends and have worked together in the past, so it didn’t take me a lot of thinking to take this opportunity and join the team in February 2012, along with two coders: Tomas Stepanek and Martin Capousek. Since we joined MADFINGER right after finishing a big console project, the first thing we actually did was to go on holiday. You can hardly be creative and fast when you are tired, and fortunately, MADFINGER is a company where people know this (we all have seen the results of infinite crunch too many times). There were several goals that this yet-to-be-born project should try to achieve:

Dead Trigger Logoo To serve as a training ground for the three of us, who already had a long history with games development, but not with mobile platforms and the Unity engine.
o To experiment with short and quick missions, as opposed to the huge areas and story-driven gameplay that we had been used to.
o To explore the new field of In-App purchases.
o To develop new technologies, such as cloud service and social network integration.

We had a time budget of 3-4 months to finish it. Coming from a ‘triple-A’ industry, I saw this as a joke more than a serious plan. Just imagine having to master the new engine, get familiar with C# (which none of us was seriously using before), create a completely new game and publish it on two platforms we didn’t have any experience with! But Mara’s answer was just: “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”

Fortunately, we could stand on the shoulders of the Giants. We got support from Babec, the character artist, Robotom, the sound engineer and Ondra, the animator. We also got the full range of MADFINGER’s talent at our disposal for the last month before the initial release, and the entire team stayed onboard for few more weeks after the release to help us with our first updates. We were able to draw from the extensive knowledge the other team members already possessed of Unity and iOS/Android platforms. That way, we wouldn’t have to spend more than a few minutes looking for an answer to our questions. Mara was also able to take the code base from Shadowgun and establish the roots of the project, with the game’s framework and some tools. Of course, I also have to mention the Unity engine itself. I’m still blown away by how fast you can iterate, how easy and intuitive it is to extend and to add new things. Working with complete and satisfactory technology is essential when you want to make things fast and well.

The first thing we actually did was to go on holiday

The Design Decisions

We had neither much time or people at our disposal, so we had to be wise with our decisions. What kind of theme would it have? Zombies, of course! People like them, it’s positively necessary to mow them down and they don’t need to be super-intelligent, so you can spend less time debugging your AI. What about mission size? That had to be small, of course. Small missions can be created or redesigned quickly, and you can stuff them into the memory without the need to stream. As for gameplay, we went with several gameplay modes plus generated missions, with the possibility to have scripted story missions. Players should level up as well as the enemies and be able to unlock new game content.

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People love zombies!

Next step: story. Having one would be nice! So we ended up with our apocalyptic version of the events of the apocalyptic year 2012, creating the Dead Trigger story. For the main menu, we chose to have a city map, which would allow us to connect the missions, story, shop, equip menu and other areas that the player could visit. It’s clear and expandable. As for the devices it should be played on: anything that will have enough memory and power to render our environments with six zombies spawned at the same time. After some tests, it turned out that we could run it on the iPod 4 Touch and comparable Android devices if we used lower level detail models, environments and shaders. We also created an ultra high-end version for the Tegra 3 and the newest iOS devices.

Small missions can be created or redesigned quickly.

Cuts, Redesigns…?

One of the great things of the Dead Trigger project was that nobody was forcing us to do anything. It was all up to the few people determining the direction of the game to discuss and decide what we were going to make. There were no publishers with their “amazingly cool ideas” that we had to implement, no producers trying to stuff ideas from other games that they just played into our game, no management guys cutting things they didn’t believe in, no design documents (that usually become obsolete as soon as you finish what’s in them). There were no designers, we all were designing the game with the passion of those who have the freedom to create what they wanted. For this reason, there was very little to cut or redesign and most of it was done on paper, before we even touched our keyboards or other input devices. For every considered feature the first criterion was: can we make it on time? If so, is it worth the effort, compared to other features?

City Editor
“Knowing the limits, we wanted to achieve a scalable building set, composed of a game core that can be extended with any number of missions, types of gameplay, enemies, weapons and so on.”

With this simple approach, we’ve selected the most wanted features for the first release and left the others in our backlog for future updates. Knowing the limits, we wanted to achieve a scalable building set, composed of a game core that can be extended with any number of missions, types of gameplay, enemies, weapons and so on. We also wanted to re-use our environments as much as possible, so we created a system for defining spawn zones, gates, objects, enemies and objectives. On top of that, we created a data-driven game flow manager which generalizes the randomized missions and provides scripted story missions based on the player’s rank. In our first release, we had four different types of gameplay and just four maps. With that, we were able to generate over 60 unique gameplay configurations, which resulted in about 10 hours of fun.

…no management guys cutting things they didn’t believe in…

Release

As we were approaching the end of our four month deadline, the game was shaping up and it became apparent that it really is possible to finish and release a solid product within that timeframe. Still, we had a lot left to do, and we knew that some really cool things would probably have to wait until future updates, so the company decided to pause other development and allocated everybody to Dead Trigger for the last push. It was a huge help, because they contributed with new content, by polishing existing stuff and also by testing (it’s always a good idea to ask your friends’ opinions, since you will lose your objectivity after some time).

Paymium vs. Free2Play

One of the last things to decide was the business model. We definitely wanted to make the game very user friendly and affordable for everybody (we really disgust pumping hundreds of bucks out of players for virtual goods as some other games do), so the prices in the game were set fairly low, and we paid a lot of attention to balancing the game. That way, it’s playable without the need to spend money, while keeping it interesting for those who want to enjoy the game even more with premium weapons and gadgets. In the end, we set the price at $0.99, keeping the option to raise the price after release or to change it to a Free2Play model.

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“Nearly all aspects of the game, as well as the price, blew people away.”

After four and a half months of development, full of expectations, we hit the release button and went to a pub to celebrate! We already had a few beers when the first player reviews started to appear and we finally knew that we did a good job, because all of them were fantastic! Nearly all aspects of the game, as well as the price, blew people away.

We finally knew that we did a good job

Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned

Although we’ve played it safe with most of our decisions, there were several areas that we had yet to explore, to learn how we could use them to our benefit and that of the player. One of those was In-App purchases. We’ve realized that some people didn’t expect them in the game (Dead Trigger was the first MADFINGER game with those) and were giving us one-star reviews just because of that. Unfortunately, somehow they didn’t realize that they could earn enough funds just by playing the game and don’t need to spend anything! Lesson learned: highlighting such facts clearly in advance should prevent any confusion.

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“We realized that the game gets too hard for players who do not have any experience with First Person Shooters on phones or tablets.”

We’ve also recorded a significant drop in players after the first few missions, so after some research, we realized that the game gets too hard for players who do not have any experience with First Person Shooters on phones or tablets. Another lesson learned: make it even more casual in the beginning and slowly increase the difficulty. At the same time, provide harder difficulty missions for hard-core players. Related to that previous point is one of the things that we’ve omitted for our first release: the tutorial. It’s usually a pain in the ass to make, and most players skip it anyway, but it definitely helps the casual audience along, and there’s a lot of casual players on mobile platforms. Yet another lesson learned: to provide a tutorial even when you think everybody will understand your controls anyway.

Last but not least, we wanted to give players an easy way to contact us, so we added a mail form to the game (the Post building in the City). But we underestimated the number of players who would actually use it and moreover, didn’t expect so many (iOS) players to click “Send” rather than “Close” when they change their minds. The result was our mailbox getting spammed with hundreds of thousands of emails with just a preset signature in them – and some really important messages from players got lost (at least for week or two).

The Day After

The success of the Dead Trigger game exceeded all our expectations. The initial interest players took was amazing, and it only increased enormously a few weeks later when we decided to make the game free, relying just on the in-app purchases. Since then we’ve released around ten updates for each of the platforms, adding new content and improving the existing features in each of them.

Within nine months we’ve achieved seventeen million downloads (iOS +Android)

Within nine months we’ve achieved seventeen million downloads (iOS +Android), and even now have over fifty thousand daily installs and more than five hundred thousand daily active users. The game got several highly regarded awards, of which I should mention at least Unity’s Best Technical Achievement and Community Choice, Apple’s Hall Of Fame, Editor’s Choice or App Store’s Best of 2012 Showpiece Games, which we really, really value.

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The game got several awards, including Editor’s Choice or App Store’s Best of 2012 Showpiece Games.

During the few weeks after the launch, all of us got back to work on Shadowgun: DeadZone (a great and challenging multi-player project), while revisiting Dead Trigger from time to time to work on updates.

MADFINGER Games successfully released Shadowgun: DeadZone back in November 2012 and right now are working on support for both Dead Trigger and Shadowgun: DeadZone, while also creating two new games; one of them being Dead Trigger 2.

Video Coverage

Alawar’s Alexander Dubrovin on NHN and the Importance of Free-to-Play | Casual Connect Video

May 30, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton

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DOWNLOAD SLIDES

At Casual Connect Asia, Alexander announced that they have formed a partnership with NHN, and will be releasing their first free-to-play game together. Alexander Dubrovin, VP, Sales and Marketing at Alawar Entertainment, has been in sales and marketing for the past 15 years for several companies, so this was the perspective he brought to Alawar when he joined the company in 2009 and became responsible for market research and analysis and promoting the company’s online resources and game brands. In 2011, he was appointed VP of Mobile Platforms, and in 2013, as the company was restructured, he was still responsible for iOS and Android mobile, but also became involved with leads and branding for the company.

The Effects of F2P

Alexander Dubrovin
Alexander Dubrovin

Alexander emphasizes the importance of the free-to-play model, since now one game can generate over one million dollars in revenue each day. He sees examples of this in Alawar, pointing out that, even though they do not as yet have cross-platform capabilities, when they release an iOS game in Android, they immediately see their sales in iOS begin to rise. Alexander tells us, “This is because if we release a game on two platforms, players can play each other simultaneously, growing more and more users for the game.
The most important emerging trend in the game industry, as he sees it, is “Google, the 24-hour company with free-to-play cross-platform games.” Alawar expects to become involved this year with ten new titles that Alexander hopes will be cross-platform free-to-play games. At Casual Connect Asia, Alexander announced that they have formed a partnership with NHN, and will be releasing their first free-to-play game together. At the last Casual Connect Asia, he met for the first time a guide from NHN. Soon after, Alawar and NHN signed the partnership contract, with the new game coming soon. Alexander expresses that he is excited to work with Casual Connect Asia and believes that it is one of the best events in the world. Every year, they find new partners, new projects and new ideas, so they really enjoy the event.

Challenges of the Mobile Market

The mobile market in Asia is very important to Alawar. China, Japan and Korea are among the top ten in their sales. Alexander tells us the market is huge and rapidly growing. The Japanese market in particular continues to increase in the app store and Google Play, until now it could be bigger than in the US. It has become one of the biggest and most important markets in the world.

Our Team makes a flashmob with blue balloons (Codefest Conference, Russia, 2012)
Alawar Team makes a flashmob with blue balloons (Codefest Conference, Russia, 2012)

He feels the biggest challenge he has faced in his career has been starting to work in the mobile game market. This market required making mobile games from scratch, although they now have big publishers in PC, Casual, and Mobile. They have now received solid reviews and have great games. Another tremendous challenge for Alexander has been meeting the company goal of doubling their sales each year, but he has been able to fulfill this expectation. During the last year alone, they released over one hundred games, a fact which definitely helps increase their sales. With the excitement of such a dynamic company, he believes the greatest fulfillment he will receive in his career is still in the future.

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.

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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.

BusinessDevelopmentExclusive InterviewsOnline

Big Fish’s Sean Clark on Point-and-Click Adventure Games’ Rebirth and Showing Passion for Your Work

May 9, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton

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Sean Clark has worn many hats during his time in the games industry. From designer to studio director and everything in between, Sean’s passion never seems to run out. He worked at Playdom, Electronic Arts, and LucasArts before settling as Director of Content Production at Big Fish Games. He enjoys everything he does in games, but what is most important to him is the fun of building entertainment experiences. “I get a rush from being a part of something coming together through a creative and collaborative effort, and I still get that rush working on great games at Big Fish,” he says. We were able to catch up with him to discuss his view on creating and producing games.

For the Love of Games

Growing up playing Pong and Atari games on the old family TV, Sean learned to love games early in life. When Atari released a Basic Programming cartridge, he immediately began learning the language and realized that programming consisted of a series of logical instructions. He discovered that building games could be an actual job.

Still, he did not plan for a career in the games industry. He graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in Computer Science knowing he liked building things in software, especially games. LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts) happened to be hiring junior level programmers at that time. Up to this point, Sean had only created games as a hobby, but this sounded like the perfect opportunity for him. He was right: it turned out to be a great time to join the company.

Sean Clark at LucasArts
Sean Clark at LucasArts

All of a sudden, he was working with a group of people just as passionate about games as he was; real artists, musicians, programmers– talented professionals who could bring unique creative elements to the product. “It was a blast!” Sean says. “It was also an experience that has helped me through my whole career, right up to today as 3rd-party Director at Big Fish, working to bring fun game content to the company.” In all the roles he’s done, he’s always shown his love of games. He looks for the same passion and excitement for a game from developers, both internally and externally.

Point and Click Adventure Games Anyone?

Having been involved in multiple projects in a variety of roles, Sean has a soft spot for point-and-click adventure games. While at LucasArts, Sean helped develop The Secret of Monkey Island in 1990, a popular point-and-click adventure. It was a great experience, but problems always arise, and the solutions were often unique. Sean learned a lot about problem solving and creatively mitigating issues during this project.

“I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.”

However, point-and click adventure games started to slip into the background. In an interview with adventuregamers.com, Sean stated that the popularity of point-and-click adventure games would return. When we asked why he thought they had fallen to the background in the first place, his answer was emphatic. “I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.” While 3D opened new areas of design, it also started a graphics arms race. Everyone focused on 3D graphics, with a game like The Dig being compared to Dark Force or TIE Fighter. But eventually, people realized that adventure games were a different genre to other games, like first person shooters.

He points out that in 2002, Big Fish took advantage of the 3D distraction and built a successful business recognizing and catering to the adventure gamer audience. Even Escape from Monkey Island still managed to do well in the “Adventure Games are Dead” era. Although there are not many classic 3rd person point-and-click adventure games coming to market, there is the very successful line of Hidden Puzzle Adventure Games that Big Fish is so well known for. These, Sean asserts, are a modern version of adventure game storytelling, similar to those he started his career with.

Another reason adventure games seemed to go dormant was the fact that retail space is both limited and competitive. Because attention was so focused on 3D games, it was challenging to interest retail chain buyers in adventure games. The big factor in changing the situation was the internet. Brick and mortar stores were no longer the only way to purchase games. Sean attributes Big Fish’s success largely to its creation of an online place to find and purchase great casual content, including adventure games.

Adventure Game Evolution

This new cycle of adventure games has evolved, bringing lower-priced games, which are also shorter in length, and tend to tell stories in chapters or episodes. According to Sean, these new games are still high-quality, well-polished games with great artwork, and compelling stories, although the format is different.

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Big Fish created a new format for adventure games, brought them to new audiences, and gave consumers a way to try the game before committing to a purchase.

Sean believes Big Fish has been instrumental in bringing more attention to adventure games in a number of ways. They created a new format for adventure games, brought them to new audiences, and gave consumers a way to try the game before committing to a purchase. They figured out how to make adventure games easier to find and consume, at a time when retailers had all but abandoned support for the genre.

Sean is just as excited about the future as he is about the present. “We expect 2013 to be a year of innovation in game, content, and delivery, with games on almost every device and in nearly all casual genres,” Sean says. “In March alone, Big Fish launched 2 highly acclaimed mobile games: Fetch for the iPad, an adventure about a boy on the search for his dog; and Match Up! By Big Fish, the first iOS game to have real-time, 16-bracketed tournament play. Add to that the world’s largest interactive streaming casual game service and continuing franchises like Mystery Case Files, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times, and you can see how there is something to excite all types of gamers.”

Sean reminds us that Big Fish is an incredibly talented and creative company, with exclusive partnerships with more than 140 developers all over the world. He expects Big Fish to continue bringing fun and innovation to the games industry.

Studio Spotlight

Creative Mobile – Drag Racers from Estonia

May 9, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton

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Creative Mobile Games, located in Tallinn, Estonia…about as far from the global “centers” of the game business as one is likely to get.

Despite that, Creative Mobile Games might be the most successful mobile game development studio that you’ve never heard of. CMG develops and publishes social and mobile games, including the Android and iOS hit,Drag Racing. They are ranked in PocketGamer’s Top 50 game developers, worldwide. Vladimir Funtikov, the CEO and founding member of this enormously successful Android-first studio, sat down with us to discuss this studio and its success.

What Makes Creative Mobile Games Special?

Vladimir Funtikov

CMG made the commitment to Android in 2009, earlier than most. Their reasons for doing this illustrate the power of perception in shaping our view of the world. Although Apple devices were available in Eastern Europe, they were difficult to get, expensive, and out of reach for all but the wealthy. “In contrast, there were a number of inexpensive and easily available Android devices,” Vladimir explains, “so this led us to believe that Android’s open platform would eventually be the mobile platform winner.” Vladimir, joined by partners Sergey, Sehriy, and Marianna, pivoted their business from porting Java games to making their own games for Android-based devices. Their experience in porting gave them both the skills and the perspective needed to support multiple devices, and made supporting Android a less daunting leap than it might have been for studios used to less fragmented platforms.

Today, CMG enjoys nearly 100,000,000 installs for their games, and a solid presence on iOS as well as Android…a huge success by the measure of any indie game studio, anywhere.

A Bumpy Start

Creative Mobile did not experience immediate success; in fact, the early years were a difficult climb. For a year and a half, they experimented with a variety of approaches. Vladimir remembers, “We began with very simple games at a low price point of 99 cents. The games just didn’t sell at all.”  We thought our games might not be good enough, so we worked hard to improve the games,” He continues, “They still didn’t sell.” Not ones to give up, CMG tried free games with ads next, and finally started seeing some signs-of-life. with enough revenue to support themselves. They continued using this model of simple, easy to create, free games with ad monetization on Android. The results were okay, but definitely not spectacular.

“All of a sudden, we were five guys desperately trying to figure out how to deal with overwhelming success.”

One day, Creative Mobile noticed Google had a racing category in Google Play, but there were no racing games there. This type of game appealed to them, since the company is filled with car nuts. “I only drive an Audi Q5,” Vlad admits sheepishly, “The roads in Estonia are too bad to drive a Pagini or Hennessy or even a Corvette, but someday I might own such a machine.” CMG created Drag Racing in six weeks to try to capitalize on this obvious hole in the market. To their surprise, the game was an huge, nearly-immediate success. Suddenly, the game had 80,000 downloads per day.  Were they excited?  “Stunned” would be more accurate. “We knew the game had lots of bugs and problems.” Vlad worried, “All of a sudden, we were five guys desperately trying to figure out how to deal with overwhelming success.”

They started growing, hiring, and growing again. They began learning how to run a big, successful, free-to-play game. After six months of extremely hard work, the game began to stabilize. Now CMG had developed a fairly large group of experienced team members. “Once the fixes slowed down,” said Vlad, “we saw an opportunity to expand their portfolio and create more games.” CMG decided to try to split into two teams: one concentrating on evolving the Drag Racing Franchise and the other would explore other games and new IP.

The first team did quite well. The franchise continued growing, and a new product, Motorcycle Drag Racing, extended the franchise.

The second team, however, was an abject failure, with no successful games.

Where Are They Today?

“We pulled the two separate teams and doubled-down on Drag Racing,” said Vladimir, describing their current position,We committed ourselves to really taking the franchise to the next level with team-based multi-player action, groundbreaking physics, and heavy social and community aspects.” CMG has felt since the beginning that game community is critical, so they designed better embedded tools for managing large communities. They developed much greater support for a variety of car performance envelopes and different kinds of racing, with improvements in real physics such as torque steer, advanced weight distribution, wheel grip, suspension, and weight transfer modeling. “Of course, we had some experience with branded OEM and aftermarket performance from Drag Racing, and we wanted more support for that – to give players a more ‘real’ experience,” Vladimir brags, “Last May, we launched our next-generation game closed beta, with Android first, of course.”

Creative Mobile Games Team

The company now consists of more than seventy employees and has also become a boutique publisher for select external studios.

AudioContributionsExclusive Interviews

Penka Kouneva on Game Audio Enhancing the Narrative Experience, the Interactive Design of Music, and Cinematic Experiences in Games

April 22, 2013 — by Nicholas Yanes

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Penka Kouneva was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she began piano lessons at an early age, and wrote music for children’s theater as a teenager. In 1990, she arrived in the US to study composition at Duke University on a graduate fellowship. In 1999, she moved to Los Angeles to begin her career as a composer for film, and eventually expanded into video games. Kouneva has composed on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Gears of War 3 games, and has orchestrated for the Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean films, on Angels and Demons, and most recently, as a Lead orchestrator on Sony’s Elysium. Her game orchestration credits include World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Diablo III. Last year, Penka released an artist album with orchestral music titled A Warrior’s Odyssey available on iTunes and Amazon.com.

Nicholas Yanes: According to IMDB, you started working in the entertainment industry in 1999.  What inspired you to want to pursue this career?

Penka Kouneva
Penka Kouneva

Penka Kouneva: I arrived in LA in 1999. I love collaborating with other creative artists, and have loved film since childhood.  Scoring for media felt like the most natural vocation for me, since my music is evocative and dramatic. I was very passionate about becoming a film composer. I still am, but my heart these days is in games. I find game scoring to be more energizing and inspiring.

Lots of people want to have careers in entertainment, what do you think you did right to make it in your field?  Did formal education help you?

Formal education is essential, in my opinion. I came to LA recommended very highly by my Duke mentors, and my first mentor in LA was the Emmy-winning TV composer Patrick Williams, who is also a Duke alum. I connected with busy professionals right away. In 2000, I met my other most significant mentor, Bruce Fowler, Hans Zimmer’s orchestrator. It was not until 2004 that Bruce started giving me jobs. He also introduced me to Steve Jablonsky who later plugged me in on Transformers films and games, Gears of War 2 and 3 and on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, for which I composed 2 hours of game music.

As to what I did right…I have always been extremely passionate, devoted, hard-working and loyal to my clients. The hard work on a great variety of projects allowed me to develop great skills. I am also very proactive, stay in touch with my collaborators, foster new relationships. I am a good collaborator and try to be always positive and constructive, even in the heat of the battle.

To me, it seems that working as a composer on a film means creating an audio environment that adds to the narrative experience.  What does being a composer mean to you?

My job is to support the vision of the game makers (or filmmakers) by creating an environment of music and sound to support the characters, emotions, genre and, most importantly, the story. I breathe life into the images and add emotional depth to the story. With my music, I make the audience or the gamers feel deeply, laugh, cry, connect with the film or game and remember viscerally the experience of watching or playing.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered while being a composer for a film? For instance, was there ever a time you felt that the music should be significantly different from what the director wanted?

“To understand the director’s vision and support their vision, it sometimes takes more than one conversation.”

I work hard to understand the director’s vision and support their vision. Sometimes it takes more than one conversation, especially if they are unsure, or willing to explore various ideas. Usually good, open communication solves all problems. Composers learn to ask insightful questions of their collaborators. I ask a lot of questions, take notes and then think about it.

Your LinkedIn profile states you worked on the 2002 videogame, Enter the Matrix.  Why did you decide to begin working on videogames?

Actually, I became really passionate about games a bit later, with us getting a PS2, then PS3 and Xbox. The game narratives and visuals were stunning, the stories were engaging and the music was fantastic – inspired, ground-breaking and fun. The turning point for me was the BioShock games, Uncharted 2, and Gears of War 2. I decided to devote my full focus to games. I had never before felt so energized and inspired as I felt by these games. Enter the Matrix was a very complicated job, and my task was to support the composers on it. I didn’t play it until later.

Most people simply watch a movie from start to finish, but with videogames, there is the expectation that players will fail a level at first and have to replay a section of the game multiple times.  Does this affect how you approach composing for videogames?

Yes, it very much affects the interactive (dynamic) design of the music. The score has many elements (Drums, low strings, melodies, embellishments) and each layer is combined with various elements on consecutive plays, so that there is some difference and it’s not totally repetitive. I remember once playing Modern Warfare 2 and got stuck on a level for 2 weeks, and the same music kept playing over and over again.

I can’t imagine composing music for a film and not watching the movie.  How many times do you play a videogame in order to get sense of how the music should be developed?

Usually I receive concept art, characters, some early prototypes (stick figures and grey blobby 2D figures, with no color, no movement). On GOW3, we did receive animation (for the cinematics) but no one moved their hands or feet, they were just floating. I can imagine quite well how the animation would look in its final rendition. I also love art, architecture and design, so I am very visually oriented composer.

I’ve never felt inhibited by lack of moving picture. Usually the music is implemented before the game is playable, so I get “level walkthroughs” but never play the game myself while composing. My composing process is all based upon a combination of images, prototypes, written briefs about the story, and conversations about concepts, style, tone and ideas with my collaborators.

On this note, what are some differences between composing for videogames and for movies? In your experience, do the industrial differences between games and movies impact your work?

The similarities are being able to write great themes, to support characters and genre, and to create a sonic imprint for the world of the game or film. This is where the similarities end. While in film, all the music is composed to picture, in games, only the cinematics are composed to picture. The rest of the score is based on the concepts and function of the music. The score is delivered with a high degree of technical rigor – in stems, in 2 or 3-minute loops, in stingers, themes, variations. We receive incredibly detailed audio briefs that list 100’s of bits and pieces of music that are needed by the game. Then we have to deliver with utmost technical precision.

While I’m sure you’re proud of all your work, have there been some games that have stood out the most to you?

Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands (PS3, Xbox, PC) was my break-through job and my most cherished experience, because I was able to combine my Bulgarian background and deep knowledge of Eastern music with knowing the epic Hollywood sound. I also loved composing on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen a few big battle pieces and right now, I love the iOS games I am scoring (one Medieval and another exploration game).

There have been several debates about if videogames are becoming too cinematic. However, these discussions are usually about a game’s visuals. Why do you think gamers are more willingly to accept movie quality sound effects, but struggle with movie-like scenes?

In my opinion, some games benefit from being more cinematic (most console games like Uncharted, which is a very cinematic game).  On another hand, other games have absolutely no need to be cinematic (e.g., platformers, experimental games).  Probably gamers want to feel that gameplay is distinctive and different than sitting on your sofa watching a movie. I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.

“I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.”

With more and more games being developed for cell phones and other mobile devices that lack the sound systems found in theaters or houses, how do you think sound develop for games will be affected?

Well, most iOS games have slightly less elaborate and complex scores anyway. I think the quality of earphones is pretty advanced.  We are all required to submit stereo mixes for iOS games, not super-complicated stems as for console games which are mixed in “surround sound.”

Penka Kouneva is currently working on two iPhone games – Rollers of the Realm and Black Hole Explorer, via Indie Game Audio based in Toronto (and her collaborative partners) and another which she’ll announce when it’s released.

ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: Critical Force Entertainment’s Critical Missions: SWAT (iOS, Android and Web)

April 8, 2013 — by Martijn van Dijk

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Critical Force Entertainment Ltd is a new game development studio founded in Kajaani, Finland. The studio created Critical Missions: SWAT, a first-person shooter available for iOS, Andriod (released under Studio OnMars) and playable on Kongregate. The company focuses on developing premium and free-to-play crossplatform games with a special focus on the Asian market. So far, the company is self-funded, but investors are welcome. 

Veli-Pekka Piirainen is CEO and founder of Critical Force Entertainment Ltd. He is a former studio manager of Supercell North as well as a lecturer and head of Kajak Game Development Lab. Piirainen is also co-founder of NMP Games Ltd.

A student’s hobby project

Veli-Pekka Piirainen
Veli-Pekka Piirainen

In December 2011, I hired Igor Levochkin – one of the students at a school I taught at – as a programmer in my new startup company after following his work for the past two years. Igor and I would make games for the Apple AppStore, and we started making a prototype of a game called BomberBall. At the same time, Igor put his hobby game project in Kongregate. Early January 2012, Igor showed me that there were hundreds of players playing his hobby project game, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I just thought it could be a good marketing channel for our iOS game.

However, at the end of January 2012, there were a couple of thousand players playing it and I started to get more interested in it. I gave Igor a Sony Xperia Play phone and told him to port the game to that device. Igor managed to have it up and running in a matter of days. Next, I told Igor to port the game to iOS; this was bit more difficult since he was not familiar with Mac and Xcode. After a week, the game was also running on iOS. Now I really started to see some potential in the game. Despite all this work on Igor’s project, we also continued to develop BomberBall because I wanted to have a good prototype for the GDC in San Francisco. I demonstrated both prototypes at the GDC and Igor’s project, Critical Strike Portable, gained more interest from the public. After that trip, we decided to concentrate fully on Critical Strike Portable.

Keeping up with high popularity

Igor started fulltime development on Critical Strike Portable by adding new weapons and features. I still worked part time at the university and couldn’t fully concentrate on the game development. I trusted Igor and also a team of Russian volunteers, who supported us in the growth of the user community as well as map creation. Another important task was to make a proper and more user friendly User Interface (UI) for the game. Unfortunately, Unity 3D’s tools for this job were pretty limited and we didn’t have any artist or UI specialist in our team to design a nice, good-looking and functional UI. So Igor made a “coder-style” UI with many different settings and options inspired by Counter Strike style menus. That UI was easy to use with a mouse, but for mobile phones with touch screens, we needed a different kind of UI.

The user interface of the mobile version.
The user interface of the mobile version.

Because I was inexperienced in game marketing, I hired Teemu Riikonen in April 2012 to lead the studio as well as take care of publishing and marketing of the game. Our next employee was Thanabodi Thongchat, a 2D artist from Thailand. She started designing backgrounds and UI graphics for the game in June 2012. Igor implemented more and more features to the game like new game modes, zombies, graphical effects, as well as fixing bugs. We released new versions on Kongregate weekly and got feedback from players on how to improve the game. At the end of June 2012, we had nearly 30,000 daily average users playing the web version of our game, but we were still growing.

We got over 1 million downloads in one month.

On June 26th, we released a free Android version of our game with exactly the same UI and almost the same features as the web version. Even though it was not so easy to use and the menu elements were pretty small on a phone screen, its popularity surprised us. We got over 1 million downloads in one month.
But the problem was that many players didn’t continue the game after their first try. Only hardcore players did so. We decided to create a totally different and simpler UI for mobile devices, because the current quality was not good enough for Apple’s AppStore to sell it as a premium game.

At the end of August 2012, two game development students, Olli Lahtinen and Aapo Lehikoinen, started their internship in my company. They started to build a totally new UI, added new controls for the iOS version of the game with a new NGUI toolkit we bought from the Unity Asset Store and started to design new maps for the game with Hammer editor. We also needed new character models, guns and animations for the iOS version. Modeling and animations were outsourced to freelancers in Thailand and our Thai artist was leading that work. Unfortunately, the quality was poor and delivery was very late. After that, all animations were outsourced to two Finnish startup game studios and for the modeling of guns, I hired another student.

A screenshot of the zombiemode of Critical Missions: SWAT.
A screenshot of the zombiemode in Critical Missions: SWAT.

Unfortunately, we had to remake all maps done with the Hammer editor (16 total), because our lawyer said we probably weren’t allowed to use that tool, since it’s licensing agreement is not clear enough. Our lawyer also recommended us to change the name of the game from Critical Strike Portable to something else, because that name reminds too much of Valve’s Counter Strike (Critical Missions: SWAT was born then). Our original plan was to release the iOS version in the end of September, but it was released in the end of November due to these difficulties. A new Android version was released just before Christmas, a Lite version in the beginning of January 2013 and the Mac version is in the review process as of this writing.

The iOS market is very competitive

At the end of the year, the amount of our players had increased dramatically. We had almost 200,000 daily players on the web and over 100,000 daily players on mobile devices, but all were playing our free versions. Monetizing with premium version seemed to be much more difficult than we thought it would be. The iOS market is very competitive and full of games, so getting visibility is very hard. We also had bad luck with a very important review, because the reviewer didn’t like our controls at all (many other not so significant reviewers did like them, however). Because of this, we didn’t start to get income fast but our server costs rose dramatically due to the massive amount of users. We also had some trouble with one specific server provider, who just calmly cut off the lines to our map server without any warning due to dramatically risen network traffic.

Looking back

Our biggest mistake was to save money in wrong places and get low quality from our international freelancers. We trusted our own artist’s capabilities to handle leading of the outsourcing, but she was too inexperienced for that. Of course, rates a quarter of the price compared to local studios were very attractive, but then the harsh reality revealed we had to do everything over again after that miserable trial period. It would have been wiser to use more professional outsourcing studios in the very beginning.

Our second mistake was not to solely focus on Critical Strike in the very beginning, but to also make the BomberBall prototype. Something else I would change was not to have a tighter management; everything went forward more or less without proper planning and scheduling. A fourth mistake was not to take a professional publisher to publish the premium iOS version. We thought it would be easy to self publish, because we had such great success with the free Android version, but we were wrong. A last mistake was not to pay enough attention to the server capacity, but that was more or less because of our inexperience with servers and also our idea to save money.

ContributionsPostmortem

Post-Mortem: Paladin Studios’ Momonga Pinball Adventures (iOS)

March 29, 2013 — by Bart Eijk

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Paladin Studios is an independent game studio based in The Hague, The Netherlands. The company was founded in 2005. In these years, they grew to a team of 10 developers coming from different backgrounds – design, animation and coding. Paladin Studios usually worked on contract-based projects. But apart from client work, they’ve always wanted to be an independent developer and create and publish their own games. Momonga is their first big self-published game.

In 2010, with the rise of the App Store in full swing, we felt the time was right to work on our first game. We wanted to start small, so we set our minds on developing and publishing an iOS game in two weeks. We started from scratch with an idea and our brand new Apple developers account. After two weeks of concepting, arguing and developing, we submitted the game to Apple. These weeks were just one gigantic learning experience, which laid the foundation of Momonga.

So there you had it, our first game on the App Store. We made it, we can do it! Now it was time to take things more seriously.

Game selection

One game caught their specific attention – it made their eyes twinkle and some even played the prototype for 45 minutes straight

With Jimmy Pataya and earlier prototypes, we underestimated the importance of a game concept and its selection. We had several concept-candidates for development, but lacked a good selection procedure. This led to discussions and fistfights, but most of all; it left the team with the feeling that this might not have been the best choice for us. So we figured we would not just start coding away on a big project. We needed a more formal selection process to get everyone on the same page.

For this, we used the stage-gate method as a starting point. In the stage-gate process, each stage has a “kill gate” where concepts get trashed based on predefined selection criteria. Everybody on the team had one week to bring in his or her ideas. At the end of this week we had a hundred ideas. What followed was a big pitch and vote session, which resulted in 10 remaining designs that we took to the next stage. We rated the concepts on different aspects, like innovation, feasibility, monetization, strategic value and remarkability. Eventually, we were left with three game concepts.

This is what the prototype first looked like. You can still play it here: http://www.teampaladin.com/pinball/

We developed a prototype for each one and invited testers to come over and play those prototypes. They sat down and played the games. One game caught their specific attention – it made their eyes twinkle and some even played the prototype for 45 minutes straight, trying to beat their scores. That game happened to be a prototype called “Pinball Forever”. It was an unexpected winner, and the start of a journey that lead to the release of Momonga Pinball Adventures.

After analyzing the prototype, we decided to drop the infinite game design and instead go for a level-based design. With a level-based approach, we had full control over the levels and could use that to dig deep into the story. From this point on, you could say the game was called ‘level-based pinball’, with a storyline.

World building

We started with building the world’s geography

The first step in building the story was to create the world in which the story takes place. When you look at international politics, the “Grand Strategy” theory concludes that every nation has specific needs for a sense of security. These needs are determined by the geographic differences like mountains, oceans and deserts. That is why we started with building the world’s geography. Drawing a map from scratch gave us poor results – so we looked at different random map generators, ranging from Civilization to Minecraft. We ended up settling on the map that was created by the Minecraft map generator.

Our minecrafted Momonga world
Our Minecrafted Momonga world

The Grand Story

With the geography and politics in place, we could start writing the grand storyline; what was the main conflict in this world? We needed ‘one ring to rule them all’, ‘the darkside’ or a ‘Voldemort’ in our story. The epic conflict in the story, where we would base the much smaller game story on, was decided as:

The continent Aya has seen peace since the Great War. The civilized world is ruled by the Guardians, powerful animals who have sworn to protect the Element Sources. However, the Great War has left some species scattered and exiled. These Shadows live as outcasts, on the edges of civilization, waiting for their turn to come to once again overthrow the Guardians and seize the Sources. While the Guardians grow weak in their cities, the Shadow animals grow stronger in determination and strength.

This grand story sets the stage for the game, and it gave us a foundation to craft the game experience and characters.

Characters

Next up in the process were the characters. Based on our grand story, we decided to create characters by asking ourselves a couple of questions:

● What is their history?
● Where do they live?
● Who are they hanging out with?
● What events impacted their lives?
● What special abilities do they have?
● What do they look like?

Of the four characters that resulted from this process (Momo, Fry the Firefly, Panda the Panda and General Kuton), we’ll briefly introduce Momo and Fry the Firefly.

Momo

MomoMomo is our hero. Born and raised in the Momonga village, he lived a peaceful and carefree life. One day, a band of owls burned his village and took away his tribe. Momo barely survived the attack, and was saved by Panda. As the last free momonga, he sets out on an epic journey to defeat the owls and free his family.

Even before the game story begins, Momo already made an epic journey. He came to life as ‘Dash’, the little red ball with big eyes in Pinball Forever. When we switched to level-based pinball, we redesigned him. The world of Momonga back then was a universe centered around vegetables, with Momo starring as a radish battling evil broccoli, potatoes and pickles.

Radishes are tasty, but we felt that it might not “stick” with a casual audience. Fortunately, we were hooked on a website called cuteoverload.com. Our CEO remembered a picture of little cute animals sitting in a tree, that looked like they could roll up like a pinball. After going through several dozens of kittens, puppies and baby hedgehogs, we finally found the picture.

These cute little buggers are Japanese Dwarf Flying Squirrels. Japanese. Dwarf. Flying. Squirrels. We never looked back: we had our hero.
These cute little buggers are Japanese Dwarf Flying Squirrels. Japanese. Dwarf. Flying. Squirrels. We never looked back: we had our hero.

Fry the firefly

Fry is a firefly from a lineage of martial art masters. His father is the head of the Ha Chi Order, and one of the finest firefly warriors. Fry, however, failed to live up to the expectations of his parents: he was defeated by a bunny that he was supposed to chase away as an initiation rite. He left his hometown because of shame. After leaving his town, Fry got caught by the owl bandits. They used him as a light bulb for the owl camp. Bummer.

The final in-game model shows bright colors, big eyes and a “let’s go!” attitude.

In Momonga, you save Fry from a lightbulby life, after which he becomes your trustworthy sidekick. Fry is heavily conditioned in the firefly school of martial arts, and he goes into a frenzy whenever he hears a ringing bell. This comes in handy when you have to defeat a whole bunch of owls.

Real fireflies are red, and very ugly. The first sketches were fairly close to the real thing, and pictured a fat, lazy firefly. This didn’t really work, because nobody wants to drag around a fat firefly while playing pinball. So instead we made Fry an energetic and cute little bug.

Pinball Physics

One of the hardest things, and something we underestimated the most, were the pinball physics. Once you are dealing with pinball mechanics, it means you are dealing with very high speeds and collisions. The fact that the game needs to perform well on a mobile device only made it harder for us. We came up with the following solution.

The basics are simple. You take a ball and flippers, set up a table at an angle and let gravity do the work. It didn’t take long before we got the basic setup working and were able to shoot some balls. But the tricky part in physics is always in the details… and this is where you go one step forward and two steps backwards.

In an ideal world, the player has full control over where the ball should go, and the ball can go just about anywhere. However, we quickly found out that some places were impossible to reach. The angle of the ball was limited; it was very hard to get the ball to the sides of the level.

But the tricky part in physics is always in the details… and this is where you go one step forward and two steps backwards

The movements of the ball involve quite some variables, which can be manipulated in order to enable better control of the ball:
– Flipper rest angle
– Flipper maximum angle
– Flipper strength
– Flipper material (friction, bounciness)
– Ball material
– Ball weight
– Ball drag
– Table material
– Gravity strength
– …and many more.

Changing any of them affects the whole game, and this is where game physics starts to hover between science and art.

We created an isolated test setup to determine exactly how all these variables influence the ball trajectory. In this test, a ball gets spawned every couple of milliseconds, and the flipper is activated automatically. We then traced the ball to see where it goes. Now we could change one setting at a time, and see clearly how it affected the ball trajectory. This, combined with several prediction and correction algorithms, made the physics work well enough for the critical consumer.

The things we learned

Momonga was our first “serious” self-published game, so there were a lot of things we learned the hard way:

  1. Don’t underestimate marketing. Something you have probably heard before. Marketing takes a lot of time and needs a lot of funding. Publishers have the money and the time, you don’t.
  2. You can self-publish a game and do successful marketing for it, but your game has to be remarkable for anyone to talk or write about it.
  3. Making a pinball game is hard
  4. Creating a game takes longer than you think, especially when you are bootstrapping your way to the launch. And yes, even when you take this into account, it will *still* take longer than you think.
  5. The odds are against you when you launch a paid download on iOS.
  6. Think about your business model and target audience in the early phases. The decisions you make will impact every design choice along the way. We chose a story-driven, level-based game, so the game had to be a premium download. If you want to go freemium, make that decision from the start.
  7. The story and world you create can be a great foundation for your future games.
  8. Good level design takes a lot of time. No, really, a *lot* of time.

Momonga in numbers

So how did we do? Here are the results, six weeks after launch on iOS:
– Our invested budget was around $250k
– Momonga has been downloaded 39,577 times, with a total revenue of $33,530.67.
– Momonga has been played by 69,075 unique users. 39,577 came from the App Store, so we have 29,498 illegal folks (43%).
– We got 199 user reviews with an average rating of 4.35

Despite excellent critical reception and positive reviews, Momonga did not break even by a long shot. There are several reasons for this, all of which we are going to address in our updates:
– The game is short and sweet, but still rather short
– There are no viral features, no way to spread the word
– There is no way to try the game for free
– It is a great game, but perhaps not perfectly suitable for the mobile market
– It is too difficult for some people, and too easy for others

Currently, Paladin Studios is working on a v1.1 patch for Momonga, which will contain extra content, Facebook leaderboards, and several other tweaks. To see what they’re currently doing, you can check out their developers blog, Facebook page, or Twitter.

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