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USA 2014Video Coverage

Arseny Lebedev is Reducing Stress | Casual Connect Video

August 23, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Arseny Lebedev went over elements a game should have to be fun during his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “I initially thought that fun is a risk-reward thing, that fun is all about how much you are rewarded,” he explained. “But we’ll figure out that’s not really the case.”

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When Arseny Lebedev, co-founder of Signus Labs, spoke the first time at Casual Connect, he realized that this industry was right for him.

After that, he went on to co-found a development studio together with Ivan Tkachenko who already spent 10 years in game industry. “We have been creating amazing stuff with the talent and energy of our team,” indicates Lebedev, proud of the growth that the studio has experience in the last years, from 2 to over 35 members. “Our team has developed the biggest games and IPS in the world, making us feel proud.”

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Lebedev is proud of the growth that the studio has experience in the last years’ growth from two people to over 35.

A Cancelled Dream

But the progress of the company has not been continuously smooth. Over a year ago, they were given what seemed a dream project, a large mobile game with a large publisher. He claims the IP was his favorite of all time. However, a series of unfortunate events, including delays and corporate changes, led to cancellation of the project. He remembers, “I couldn’t sleep for weeks.”

Finally on one evening, he rationalized the situation and woke up the next morning feeling great. He feels this experience changed the way he makes decisions at Signus, simply because there are sometimes too many uncontrollable factors. He admits, “Now I’ve loosened up, and I think the team feels it.”

Lebedev at Casual Connect USA.
Lebedev at Casual Connect USA.

Relaxation Found in Games

For Lebedev, his idea of relaxing includes philosophy in seclusion, traveling the world, and of course, playing awesome games. Hungry Shark, Bubble Witch 2, and internal Signus projects are his current mobile favorites.

He is also an Xbox controller fan, following controller evolution closely since Sega Dreamcast. He is impatiently waiting for Witcher 3 because he also loves AAA games, especially those with strong story elements.

Finally, he seems excited about new platforms, especially tablets. “The iPad Mini is an incredible device! I’m still amazed something so small and light can exist!” he declares.

Neither Superior Nor Inferior

When it comes to business models for games, Arseny owns his strong opinions affirming that Free to Play (F2P) and Premium games should not be compared with the same criteria.

“F2P can provide amazing short bursts of fulfillment and joy over a game’s lifetime,” adding also “premium can give the same joy for a longer burst, but likely for a shorter total period.” “Neither design is superior nor inferior,” he concludes. Additionally, he points out the F2P empowers a title to reach a huge audience. His challenge is to create a substantial storytelling method within F2P design.

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Signus Labs’ Hidden Fortune, released July 2014

Because indies can develop a hit for almost nothing, on a profit margin basis, they can exceed the success of an AAA publisher. He expects console developers will also try to allow indies to develop content more easily. He claims, “We will see the return of the mods from the PC days.”

In July 2014, Signus Labs launched Hidden Fortune, which is its first hidden object game on iOS that allows play for real-life currency in the United States, thanks to B-Spot. By discovering and unlocking the objects, Hidden Fortune gamers can play just for fun or by wagering real money.

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.

Contributions

Indie Showcase: Abylight’s AfterZoom (DSi, iOS)

February 11, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Abylight is a Barcelona-based independent video game development studio founded in 2004 by Nacho Garcia, Alberto Gonzalez, Daniel Lopez and Ricardo Fernandez and based in Barcelona. The studio has been developing titles since 1990, resulting in more than 60 titles for various platforms, such as the Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii, and Sony Playstation Portable. Abylight has also released games for digital distribution platforms such as WiiWare, DSiWare, PSN, and iOS.

After the initial development and publishing of Fish’em All! and Stop Stress for WiiWare in 2009, Abylight sadly found itself depleted of resources. Only a very tight core team survived and no financial room was left to invest in any kind of independent development. Around the same time, the Nintendo DSi was released and the DSiWare digital store was launched. Earlier, in 2008, Abylight developed Elite Forces: Unit 77 for Nintendo DS, which meant that we had several development kits and all the legal authorizations necessary ready to develop for the platform. Although technically a DS is different from a DSi (i.e. camera-wise), we sorted it out easily, just ignoring those differences in our first productions. Moving from WiiWare to DSiWare was not an issue at all. The decision to focus on the DSi platform would eventually lead to the creation of our first iOS project: AfterZoom.

ContributionsPostmortem

Post-Mortem: Stolen Couch Games’ Ichi (iOS, Android, PC & Mac)

January 21, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Stolen Couch Games is a young Dutch game studio formed by six alumni from the Utrecht School of Arts who decided to continue working together after their college projects. A part of the team came together to make a multiplayer prototype for XBLA and PSN title Chime made by developer Zoe Mode in collaboration with the One Big Game initiative. Stolen Couch Games then reformed and expanded the core team with an extra programmer and artist. Gamesauce recently featured a post-mortem on their first game Kids vs Goblins.

Early 2011, everyone at Stolen Couch Games was still in school developing our exam year project Kids vs Goblins. Jay van Hutten, a fellow year mate, was developing a game of his own called Ichi. It was a elegant puzzle game that utilized a one-button mechanic in a way that didn’t feel gimmicky. The goal of the game was to guide a ball past a number of rings on the screen. By touching the screen you rotate bumpers, which caused the ball to change in direction. You could also hold your finger down to draw a line, once the ball hit the line it would travel back in the direction it came from.

About a half year later we spoke to Jay at a congress were he was demoing his game. I (Eric) shared my interesting in redeveloping Ichi for multiple platforms and making it a really great commercial product. Jay loved the idea and the day we finished Kids vs Goblins we were working together to make a bigger and better version of Ichi.

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