“Make your game easy to play, but hard to master”, explained Mike Swanson during his session at Casual Connect Europe 2015. He shared his experiences with the audience in managing game production and designs while striving to appeal to different player types on Age of Empires Online and the upcoming Game of Thrones from Bigpoint Entertainment. Ease of entry (also known as the funnel) is intrinsic in hooking a player. He states, “Keeping this funnel really crisp coming in is key. It doesn’t matter how big the game is”.
Animoca Brands‘ CEO, Robby Yung, shared his thoughts on leveraging brands in mobile games in his session at Casual Connect Europe 2015. One of the key challenges in his job is to keep brands at the table. “We try really to maintain close personal relationships with the people,” Robby says, “so that they are aware of our schedules, pipeline, and products. The better informed they are, the less likely they will be to look around to better opportunities”.
Moondrop is a small indie game studio located in Hamar, Norway, focused on making games that are interesting, beautiful and respectful towards players. Two full-time developers, Stig-Owe Sandvik (designer/artist) and Andreas Fuglesang (CEO/programmer), determination, experimental methods and compulsive behavior are key ingredients when Moondrop makes games.
“What should have been a short project with combat mechanics and no story ended up as an atmospheric story-based puzzle game that took a bit more than 4 years to make”, the developers recall as they share the story of their game Amphora.
A Clear Idea of What We Wanted To Do
We were three guys freshly out of college, with very clear ideas of what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to make games that were not exploitive towards the players, but would make their life more fun instead. We chose to focus on gameplay, though we also value originality and harmonic beautiful audiovisuals. With Amphora we thought we were making a small-ish game in terms of timescale on production, but after all we learned to never underestimate circumstances that are over your head.
A Game for Different Stages of Player Involvement
We don’t want to reveal too much of the storyline, since we’d like the players to figure out as much as possible on their own. Against conventional wisdom, the player is not who the primary story is about. The player guides the story, and is still the most important aspect of it, because without them time stands still. But since our main mechanic makes the player a very powerful being, and very different from the other inhabitants of the world, we found it difficult to make the player avatar an equal participant in the story, and so the focus is on the more common characters that don’t have any special powers.
The story focuses on a girl whom the player witnesses growing up. This is symbolical, as the player also “grows” while playing, understanding what the game is about and what they can and cannot do. There was also a goal to let players enjoy the game on several different layers, based on how involved they are. One can enjoy Amphora by just experiencing nice visuals and soundscape, but if they want more, they can discover a story unfolding, or the real story underneath, or uncover deeper meanings — but we don’t force or require players to dive into that, leaving the choice up to them.
Without A Single Word
We decided that a text-based story or tutorial wasn’t something we wanted to delve into. Both because it would be another element we’d have to create and use resources on, but also because we felt text is too often used as a crutch in games.
It was also a part-experiment to see how far we could push a game to teach something without telling the player straight up what to do. Doing this gave us many headaches when designing levels, but in the end we managed to construct something that performed what we wanted. Now we just provide a few icons to teach the controls and the rest is up to the player to figure out. We want the player to play, not read text or see long tutorial videos.
Not All Users See The Story, But Most Do Enjoy
So the Amphora story is told completely through the visuals and gameplay without a single word. It’s risky, since a couple of playtesters did not pick up on any of the overarching story. Later we made some things more obvious because of this. Still, a small fraction of players anyway didn’t get a coherent story out of the game, and one did not see any story at all. These players still said they were impressed with the game and enjoyed themselves, so we decided not to do major changes to how the story was told.
Making the tutorial was quite difficult, since part of players would never try to experiment. If they just tried to press anything they’d notice the interactivity, but instead they sat there staring at the screen. It took some very careful observation of the players’ reactions to get this right without them ending up completely confused, but we feel we managed to get this aspect mostly right. We will use these learnings in other games, as they seem to make the tutorial phase more enjoyable for the majority of players.
Mechanics, Design and Playtesting
The main mechanics is about lifting and drawing cords that can be attached to almost everything in the scenes. One issue was that this mechanic made the player very powerful, and therefore we struggled quite a lot to design puzzles that wouldn’t be trivial. Had we known how difficult this would become, we’d probably have taken steps earlier to either change the goal of the game, or even make the mechanics different. The game was planned to be longer, but the difficulty of designing as well as aiming for the highest quality restricted it.
We decided quite early in development that we would structure the game in singular limited scenes. This was part-technological – to avoid optimizations to make the engine run huge levels, but also a choice to be able to more rapidly iterate, rearrange and scrap scenes. We found that naming each scene something topical made discussion and editing easier, even if the names were never exposed to the players.
We did early playtesting standing behind people’s backs, which might have made them perform worse than if they were playing the game at home, since they might feel like they are being judged. It’s been time-consuming for us as well, but for me it turned out easier to read what was going through their mind as they were actually playing, than watching recordings afterwards.
Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went there? Don’t worry you’re not turning demented, it’s a common psychological phenomenon involving how our ancestors needed to think differently when they entered different environments. We’ve encountered a similar thing a lot with playtesters of Amphora. We wanted each scene to be unique, both visually and thematically, but it resulted in players suddenly forgetting the mechanics they had already used several times. For this reason the game became a bit easier and more straightforward than we planned – any small detail that could confuse players would confuse them.
A Team Member: Not Just Work Capacity, But Also Knowledge
Our biggest setback was when one of the teammates had to leave us. With him we lost a lot of knowledge that took much of our time to regain (by learning it ourselves). He was also our CEO at the time (as well as graphics programmer), so two important roles had to be filled. This pushed the team to being one artist/designer and one CEO/programmer, meaning almost double workload for both. Losing a team member means not only losing their capacity to work, but their knowledge as well.
We took up the burden of finishing the game, since we didn’t find anyone to replace our former team member. Our programmer did learn what that guy knew, but the time it took made us postpone the release for almost a year. This was great for the company as a whole, but the time lost made us reach the boundaries of budget.
Pragmatic Approach To Pretty Art
One of the more constant aspects of our game has been the art style. It was one of the reasons why we picked this project. And since silhouettes require less details and still look good, it would be possible to accomplish the project with just one part-time artist. That made the effects and colors ever more important as to not make the game look cheap, so we invested some extra time on image effects and particles etc. We got a lot of amazing feedback on our art, people seemed impressed, and so we were really happy with how that choice turned out.
We are also proud of our smoke effect, which was both a blessing and a curse. It made effects easy to create, has a great unified style, but also came at a great cost of rendering lots of pixels with many dynamic textures. And its limitations made it difficult to work with and ended up taking a lot of time.
Good Audio On A Budget Turns Award-Winning
Not having a huge budget for audio, we commissioned a friend, Paal B. Solhaug, to do the music and let him retain most of the rights for it. We may have had him set to work a bit too early as we only had a few concept images and a not-so-clear description of the game. Even though he felt he didn’t have enough to work with, we were happy with the tunes he made, and they helped us set the vibe of the game.
As for sounds and ambience, a guy found us by pure chance when his teacher asked the students if they could make sounds for our project. One of them, Kristian Brastein, had the vision for the game that we were after, and ended up being a great addition to the project after he finished school.
Their efforts were praised not just within our team: Amphora won the Best Game Audio award at Indie Prize at Casual Connect Amsterdam 2015.
Remaking An Engine With A Working Prototype
When our team was graduating from school, our main skills were Flash and C++ development. We wanted more out of the game than what Flash could offer, so naturally went ahead and began writing our own engine in C++. Using some third-party libraries we managed to get an early version of the game up and running, though that’s when we noticed the downsides of our choices. After a year of feeling this effect we ended with the worst possible outcome: having to rewrite the engine and discard the pieces that didn’t work with our vision. It was a difficult decision that we agonized over for some time, but in the end it turned out the right thing and recognizing this was crucial for the continuation of the project.
Rewriting the engine while already having a working prototype meant that we knew exactly what was required of the engine when starting anew. This made the engine more robust in a way that supported the game better and enabled us to continue development much more smoothly from that point onwards. It made us realize the importance of what a more complete prototype could do for the success of making good tech choices, and how to know exactly the requirements of an editor for the game.
We decided on making an in-game editor, which may or may not have been a good idea. It was great that we could easily switch between the working game and tweaking every setting of a scene, but the editor suffered from not being a priority and had issues that never got resolved.
A game is in essence a sophisticated way to display data that is interactive, but we made the engine data-driven way too late to understand the importance of this. An important discovery was when we made the decision to buy/use RUBE. This was by far the greatest tool that closed the gap between the tech and how the designer wanted to create the entities. It enabled the artistic feel of the movement of the characters and eased the development of content.
We have chosen to not use our own engine any time soon. We will continue making stylish games that focus on new types of gameplay, but will heavily reduce development time by using third-party tools and make our process more streamlined.
The team is currently busy making their next game Degrees of Separation. It will have some of the same design aesthetics as Amphora, but less experiential, as the concept this time is based on a working prototype. Amphora is available on Steam, Humble Store and Glyph and will soon be available on Mac.
“Free is an incredibly powerful marketing label, as we all know. Long before casual games came along, in fact long before the internet came along, marketers were using this word free and regulators were looking at how they did so”, stated Paul Gardner during his session at the Casual Connect Europe 2015.
Written by Pini Yakuel, CEO of Optimove
One of the holy grails of personalization is the ability to implement real-time, data-driven player marketing. In other words, social gaming publishers that can deliver highly-relevant messages to individual players at the exact moment of greatest relevance will thrill those players, engender more loyalty, and gain an important edge in this competitive space.
When describing their game Super Saw Bros., the developers Fouad Tabsh and George Habr simply summarized it as “an indie game by a few dudes from Beirut. Take control of two lumberjacks and their two-man saw as they rush through the forest.” Wanting to share the insights they gained from conceptualizing Super Saw Bros. to producing a final award-winning project, Tabsh was kind enough to provide Gamesauce with a unique look into the creation of Super Saw Bros. and their studio, Groovy Antoid.
Super Saw Bros.: Inspired By A Phrase Of An Old Grumpy Math Teacher
George and I have been friends since primary school, but after graduating from high school we went to different colleges. We remained friends, and on our summer break after three boring college years we stumbled upon a poster for a game development competition that was going to take place in our hometown of Beirut, Lebanon. Wanting a personal project that we could share, George and I decided to go for it.
We managed to register for the Netherlands Game Award competition in Beirut on the day of the deadline. After fully committing to this competition, George and I then began brainstorming ideas for a game. Our first idea involved a complex plot in which a neglected, old, dusty game cartridge transforms the world into a pixelated nightmare. We quickly realized that this idea would be too complicated for our first game.
One summer afternoon I was reminiscing of old school days. In particular, I was echoing a phrase our old grumpy math teacher used to orcishly repeat as the default example for almost anything he taught, “Segment…AB!” That was when I got the idea of making a game that simply involved two points and a segment. This quickly evolved into lumberjacks running with a saw through a forest. This would be the start of Super Saw Bros.
Growing a Forest to Chop it Down: Prototype and Controls
With a realistic concept for our game I picked up an Android game development book and George began studying basic pixel art tutorials, and we both dove head-first into our very first real-world project.
Prior to this I had done some programming, but had never written applications or games for mobile devices before. But after George drew a basic pixel art cube, I programmed the first prototype for the game, with just that cube for the graphics. George would go on to draw a tree and a pair of lumberjacks, and I developed a second prototype which greatly resembled what we had in mind. This prototype featured a grassy green background, two lumberjacks, some trees, and a simple line segment for the saw.
The controls for the game were designed through a lot of trial and error. We used tilting to control the lumberjacks but changed this when decided that touch controls felt more intuitive. With the basic mechanics and controls agreed upon, we dove into creating our alpha version of the game.
Feedback Opens Eyes To The Things Taken For Granted
We were pleased that after demoing our alpha version we received praise for the game’s originality and creativity from our game development community. However, before we began working on the beta version of the game, we had colleagues at our respective universities try out Super Saw Bros. This feedback proved to be invaluable to our development.
Opening our eyes to issues we had taken for granted, the second round of feedback highlighted that the player’s fingers completely covered the lumberjacks on the screen. In addition to solving this problem, the beta version had the graphics overhauled by Habr, we originally had a one-hit knockout system but changed this because it seemed too harsh towards players, and included a timing to encourage and reward people for streaks.
First Competition, Third Place – Confidence Boost and Open Door
Meanwhile, in the competition we started it all for, the beta version of Super Saw Bros. earned the third place out of almost a dozen other submissions. Considering that this was our first attempt and that we were competing against teams with experience in making games, Habr and I are proud of this accomplishment. Third place was not only a huge boost for our egos, it also won us a trip to the Netherlands and an opportunity to showcase Super Saw Bros. at Casual Connect’s 2014 conference in Amsterdam.
An artist named Samir Kazah was also a participant in the Netherlands Game Awards, and we met him during the competition. He joined us shortly after the event ended. Since then, he completely upgraded the game’s graphics. You can find the latest screenshots (as well as a couple other photos) on my blog.
More importantly, George and I look back at this experience and are not only proud of the fact that we’ve created our own videogame but also excited that we have finally made a project of our own and found a career path that we can be passionate about.
Sadly, Fouad got caught in college work and George in “normal” work, so they had to put the project on hold for quite a long time, leaving it in beta status. However, Fouad graduated and George quit his job, so they’re about to get back on the wagon and see Super Saw Bros through until its release.
The team is also having workshops in game development to give back to the awesome game dev community. “We gave the first workshop on Feb. 27 at AltCity, the guys who hosted the Netherlands Game Award and took us to Casual Connect. We might be giving one next month at the American University of Beirut, the college I graduated from”, Fouad shares.
They have also attended the 2015 Arabic Game Jam, a 30-hour game development hackathon that took place at AltCity in March 2015. This time they didn’t get in the top 3, but got honorable mentions! More importantly, they’re going to polish their entry, a game called Brane, and release it very soon on Android and iOS.
In her session at Casual Connect Europe 2015, My N. Tran showed us how Storm8 brought Castle Story back from the dead and soaring into the iTunes’ Top 100 Grossing charts. A piece of knowledge she offered was this, “When you have a limited number of actions in your game, a compelling narrative is essential for maintaining player engagement”.
If My N. Tran could meet her childhood self and show her what she’s doing now, the two just might high-five. Why? Because Tran is doing exactly what she wanted to do as a kid — designing games.
Even back when she was younger, Tran would create her own games on paper and try to get friends to play them with her. She also played games with her cousins — which didn’t always work out for her. “They would always make me play as a healer, tank, or some sort of meat-shield while they got to be the hero,” she recalls. “Not anymore, now that I am the one designing games!”
Going for it
Getting into the game industry took a little more effort than making paper games and playing with others though. Since she graduated with a degree in Linguistics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Tran was intently focused on going into gaming all throughout her college life.
When My Tran would tell friends about her post-graduation plans to make a living creating games, many of them were skeptical, urging her to be more serious about her future plans. “I said ‘I (am), this is the plan, and I am going to laser focus on it,’” Tran recalls.
In the Storm
Tran has now been in the game industry for four years and has done work at Red Robot Labs and Kiwi Games. She has deeply immersed herself in start-up culture, donning many hats and learning a variety of skills. Her tireless efforts and natural talent have even earned her recognition — with free-to-play game design legend Scott Foe calling her “one of the brightest young stars” in the game industry.
Currently Tran is a game designer at Storm8, which was a bit of an unexpected surprise when she got the job. “I submitted my resume to Storm8 on a random day during the summer of 2013 and they emailed me back within a few hours. That was really cool to see, I did not expect them to respond to me at all.”
Tran continues to elaborate that the job allows her to be creative every day and gives her the opportunity of seeing her ideas come to life. She particularly enjoys being able to see how players react to new content immediately by looking at game forums. “The most rewarding part (of the job) is seeing people play your game and laughing at all the corny jokes you wrote,” she noted.
It’s clear that people love her work, as all of the games she’s worked on have made it into the Top 100 Grossing Titles in both Apple’s and Google’s App Stores, something she considers one of the highlights of her career and “definitely very cool.”
Among the most challenging aspects of her job are bringing game teams together and getting all the resources necessary to make a game. Tran is also no stranger to creative blocks either, however, she finds that by talking to other people and explaining her ideas to someone else, she can begin to figure out the problems and overcome them.
The Developer Lifestyle
In addition to her work at Storm8, Tran also runs a website she started called the24bit.com — a site dedicated to celebrating the game developer lifestyle. Tran interviews other game developers and does all the writing and photography herself.
As she looks at these developers, her job, and the game industry as a whole, she can’t help but wonder what the future holds. On the horizon, she envisions well-knownintellectual property being made into games and high quality games that could pass for a console title being played on mobile devices.
Throughout any predictions or musings though, there’s one thing she is sure of, “Mobile games are here to stay — and I am excited to see how the industry grows.”
The explosion of indie gaming in the past decade has not only allowed for smaller companies to enter the gaming market, it has allowed for people from various background and unique games to have a place. One such person and game is Erin Robinson and her game, Gravity Ghost. To learn more about Gravity Ghost, Gamesauce has talked to Erin Robinson about her background and developing games.
From Researcher to Game Developer – Leaving the Academy for Games
Seven Summits Studio is an award-winning independent game development company based out of Hyderabad, India. The studio was founded in 2013 by a group of passionate individuals who strive to create impactful experiences through video games.
Petite is an ambient experience that narrates a woman’s story while focusing on key incidents that happen in her life. Every level is a new situation, and each memory you unlock is a unique one, depending on the emotions you choose.
It is being designed by Asar Dhandala, who worked on Petite together with the writer of the story, Vishesh Chopra, and the programmer, P.V. Sanjeev Kumar. The development cycle of the game is being mentored by Shailesh Prabhu and Nawaz Dhandala. Asar shares the story of their freshly released creation.
Karel Crombecq is a huge believer that “Game design should not take place in your basement, but out there in the wild, as a social interaction between your audience, your friends and your team!” He told his audience at Casual Connect Europe 2015, “If you listen to other people, to strangers and you really listen and you accept their feedback and their critique, your game will be better for it”.