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Post-Mortem: Digital Dreams’ Cowbeam (iOS)

January 10, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Digital Dreams is a Dutch indie game developer that designs and develops playful experiences. It was founded by programmer Thijmen Bink, level designer Roy van de Mortel and game designer Geert Nellen. Currently, Digital Dreams is focussing on creating games for the downloadable console market, However, this post-mortem is about Cowbeam: their first, and probably last, iOS game.

Digital Dreams from left to right: Thijmen Bink, Roy van de Mortel, Geert Nellen
Digital Dreams from left to right: Thijmen Bink, Roy van de Mortel, Geert Nellen

How everything got started

Let me start by saying that Cowbeam had virtually nothing to do with our former and current business strategy and portfolio. That is not meant as a disclaimer, but it is important to note because from the start this was an important factor in the decision-making processes during the production of Cowbeam. The idea came together due to very circumstantial and coincidental factors and it just seemed like a cool project to do at the time. In hindsight, this is not the way you want to make important decisions.

We naively started development of Project S because we basically thought everything was settled and done

We started out doing an assignment for another company somewhere early 2011. We were developing a hidden object game with a twist for them, of which the design document and assets had already been handed over to us. Let’s call it Project S. Without actually signing any contract yet, we naively started development of Project S because we basically thought everything was settled and done.
Our team was quite excited about Project S, because not only were we struggling to make money at that point, this was not some lame technical job. We were developing an actual game that we were enthusiastic about, although it was not something we would normally do. That’s why it seemed wise to let one of our team members start with Project S in advance. He created a technical backbone, so production could start off swiftly once we signed the contract.

Two weeks later we received a call from the other company. We were told they had to cancel Project S because of budget cuts. Now we were left with a half-finished game with which we obviously could not do anything due to copyright infringements. We were disappointed. Not only had we already invested time and resources in this project, we planned around the development of Project S. So basically we had nothing else planned in the upcoming period.

So with nothing on our hands, we thought about what code we could potentially reuse to make it not a complete waste of our time. One of the things we already developed for Project S was a simple but elegant system to show the player new objects he/she needed to find, and along with it, a way to arrange, dispose and organize these new objects in the HUD. New items would come into play sliding from the right until they bumped into a previous item that was already in place. Whenever an item was completed it would disappear and all remaining items would slide and arrange themselves into place. This system eventually led to a gameplay mechanic that resulted in the current hint system of Cowbeam, located at the top of the screen.

The arrange, dispose and organize-system that resulted from the left-over code of Project S
The arrange, dispose and organize-system that resulted from the left-over code of Project S

The new concept was called Cowbeam. A quirky little casual puzzle game, which puts the player in the shoes of Hank, a cow-hoarding alien. The player had to navigate a small galaxy and collect hints, which eventually showed on which planet a cow could be found. When the player finds the cow, the level is completed and the cow is shown. A big hook of the game were the cows, which resembled the planet they lived on. For instance: if the planet is red, the cow is red; if the planet is close to the sun, the cow would wear sunglasses or a sombrero, etc. We thought this was fun to see, and it was interesting for the casual audience on iOS as well.

Bringing Cowbeam to life

We had to start thinking more about our future and the monetization of our projects.

After the new concept was pitched internally, it took quite a few weeks for the idea to sink in and the team to pick it up and start prototyping the concept in Flash. The first few weeks of development went swiftly and the game came along quite nicely. We started building Cowbeam in Actionscript 3 with the idea to release it as a free browser game and get our money from advertisements. However, after 2 months of development we had to start thinking more about our future and the monetization of our projects. This meant for us we wanted to start using Unity3D. Another reason to switch to Unity3D was that the game felt not quite right on Flash. Mainly because you needed to swipe through galaxies which just feels weird with a mouse. We thought about releasing a Flash and iOS version simultaneously for a while but a Flash version just seemed redundant somehow.

Development of Cowbeam, after switching from Actionscript to Unity3D
Development of Cowbeam, after switching from Actionscript to Unity3D

We threw away everything we had so far in Flash and started the Cowbeam project all over again with a new engine to build with, a new language to write it in, a new platform to build for and even some new interns to work with. This was the first big change we made to the initial concept. Luckily Unity 3D is an easy engine to learn but this shift really put us behind schedule for quite some weeks, if not months. As an indie studio our deadlines were never really set into stone. However, we did know that by the time we started developing Cowbeam in Unity, we had planned on having the game completed in Flash.

Obviously, moving the game to the iOS platform pretty much meant a complete redesign of the concept as well. This forced us to rethink the game and strip it down to its bare essentials, which is using hints to narrow down your choices of picking the right planet. It cost us a lot of time to figure out what the most fun aspect of the core mechanic was for the player, which was a direct result of making something unique. We could have prevented this if we paper prototyped more, or incorporated playtests from earlier on.

It didn’t really feel like the game was complete and fun to play yet, so we had to make more design changes. A lot of features were cut at this point to make the game fun and suitable for the casual iOS market. These cut features include:
– Resources that could be gathered from planets;
– A currency system to buy hints;
– Time based gameplay and score system;
– Selecting and writing off planets.
Also using Unity3D, which as the name suggests is essentially a 3D engine, meant a complete redo of the graphics as well. Other than the menus and such, Cowbeam was now a 3D game instead of 2D.

On the left: The Flash version of Cowbeam; on the right: The iOS version of Cowbeam
On the left: The Flash version of Cowbeam; on the right: The iOS version of Cowbeam

This shift to 3D actually turned out great for the game itself because we were now able to rotate around the planets. We experimented with this rotation in combination with a number of features. We found the most interesting use of 3D was hiding certain characteristics from the planet out of plain sight. 3D also gave us more space and freedom to make the planets features more visually appealing and identifying.

Mistakes made, lessons learned

It was hard to think about killing our darling

The doubt we had with Cowbeam started to reflect on the team after a while in production: Is this game really going to be worth our time? Is it going to be fun enough? Is it even profitable in the end? Should we release this under our Digital Dreams brand when it’s this different from the stuff we want to make? Eventually it was a casual game, something completely different from the hardcore indie games we liked to make. The most important reasons to complete and release Cowbeam anyway were the amount of time we had already invested, everything we wanted to learn about Unity3D during the rest of development and wanting to have an actual finished game in the App Store. Especially the time we had already invested was a big factor in completing Cowbeam, it was hard to think about killing our darling.

Not playtesting enough fueled the doubt we had. Because we ran so far behind schedule, we somehow, without even really thinking about it, decided to scrap most of the playtesting and finish Cowbeam as soon as possible so we could start with our next project. In the end, we only playtested with visitors at our office and at the Festival of Games, a large Dutch event for people from the industry.

Our primary goal with Cowbeam was to master Unity3D and we succeeded at that

The doubt we had perhaps also lead to not properly marketing Cowbeam. All we really did was send out a pretty standard press release to our press network and hope they would pick it up. Of course we knew about the horror that is standing out and getting noticed on the App Store. But somehow we hoped it was going to be different for Cowbeam, because the concept was very unique and we believed it could stand out on itself. This wasn’t true. Sales were disappointing to say the least. On the other hand, it felt good to know we successfully published a game on the App Store ourselves and raised the bar for ourselves with the GUI and user-friendliness. Our primary goal with Cowbeam was to master Unity3D and we succeeded at that. Therefore we weren’t that disappointed about the sales in the end.

Just a few months ago we accidentally came across some little kids of around 12 years of age playing and really enjoying Cowbeam. This was actually the first time ever we saw anyone genuinely enjoying our game. Although it was a very cool moment it also brought us to the conclusion we should have seen this coming. We should have marketed and playtested for this target audience and maybe even design the game specifically for them.

Development tips

Our biggest pitfall was, as usual as with us indies, the lack of marketing knowledge and execution. Get someone to do this for you, find a good partner or really plan ahead and take your time to do this properly yourselves.
We should have considered micro transactions, freemium or other means of monetization over a somewhat outdated simple pay once model which we ended up going with. The reason we went with this is mainly because of the extra programming and design effort it would take to implement micro transactions. We did try to weave it through the design when we were redesigning the game, but couldn’t really make it click when we did. Again, in hindsight, this time might have well been worth our effort.

We think the chances are very slim we’ll ever return and develop for the App Store. The market is too competitive for a small developer and the marketing power of big companies is killing for us. We believe the only way you can succeed on the App Store as a small developer is to have a really original and well-executed game and marketing plan. Even then, every investment is a very risky one.

Currently we shifted our focus to bigger projects for the downloadable console market, which was the goal of our company from the start. We worked on a prototype for a downloadable console game in the meantime and we are very happy we have an opportunity to work on that project now.

We hope you’ll pick up Cowbeam and let us know what you think!

Cowbeam is now available on Mac as well and has dropped in price in the App Store. Digital Dreams recently moved to a bigger office and is currently working on a new unannounced downloadable console project. They will also be sharing more in-depth insights on CowBeam during their indie-postmortem talk during the Casual Connect Europe conference in Hamburg, Germany.

Exclusive InterviewsIndustry

A Moment With Christian Meyer of GSN.com

July 31, 2012 — by Brian Anthony Thornton

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It’s one thing to own a successful brand. It’s a different thing entirely to be able to successfully leverage that brand across multiple different products and media. I spoke with Christian Meyer, Senior Vice President and General Manager of GSN.com, about how he was able to pull it off and where he was planning to go from here.

How were you able to successfully leverage your television brands across the digital sector?

Well, a lot of time is spent in activating a brand strategy where we license a third party brand, like Wheel of Fortune or Deal or No Deal or Family Feud for example, and ideally, they have both an acquisition value and a retention value. We’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. Sometimes you’ll get a branded IP that has a great acquisition value, but the conversion value as a casual game or any kind of game experience for that matter is a bit of a long shot. You end up with an under-leveraged investment because you spend a lot in licensing.

And you don’t make anything off of it?

You potentially don’t make anything off of it, yeah. But we as a company have an understanding that if we can acquire based on the brand IP and then migrate those consumers to a higher retention experience, then that works pretty well too. But certainly the home run is when you establish a great relationship with a brand and you can unlock the acquisition value of that brand as well as the retention value. Then you have the makings of something huge.

Which of your IPs demonstrated this investment strategy most successfully?

Wheel of Fortune is definitely the stand-out. It’s been the number one syndicated brand for probably thirty-five years. It amazes me still that it has such longevity, and that can be traced back to its accessibility. The brand does a lot of work. It acquires well, consumers love the game, and they can also envision themselves competing in it. You get this trifecta of properties that make it a very powerful asset.

You guys have been doing some interesting things with leaderboards in your games. Any plans to integrate them into the television show itself?

We’ve done a lot of research and development around cross platform play between the television and the web specifically. And we’re starting to do a bit more on mobile. Absolutely to your point. Consumers want to participate. Technology has been a little behind consumer desire in terms of allowing us to create something simple and compelling, but we’ll get there.

 

Business

IGG’s Kevin Xu on challenging the Chinese game market

September 7, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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The Chinese online game market is booming, but a very tough market to break into as a Western developer or publisher. IGG might have found the magic formula to do so, but not without the necessary planning. IGG’s COO Kevin Xu took the time to tell us all about IGG’s trials and tribulations while preparing to enter the Chinese market at GDC Europe in Cologne.

GDC Europe

How far were they prepared to go to make Heavy Rain?

September 6, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Quantic Dream’s CEO and founder David Cage was invited to GDC Europe to explain why, how and what happened after his team made Heavy Rain. Not before he started his talk criticizing the state of current games as being too much “defined by who you kill or what you destroy”. Cage argued that games have barely changed in the past 25 years, which are mostly based on violent actions, similar gameplay patterns, are emotionally poor and mainly target kids and teenagers. “I believe you lose something in this experience,” He stated. “Your experience can be much richer with all these great emotions. There is very little that you take away from your games.”

Why they did it
Cage continued to explain his opinion that games be art and not toys. Cage went on to call adult gamers an untapped market that is strongly interested in emotion and narrative. “Games do not have to be challenging to be entertaining,” he argued. “That’s fine, but as an adult, I have little time.”

“The market is ready for new paradigms,” Cage also suggested. “Our industry is about technical innovation, but very little conceptual innovation.” Accordign to cage, the game industry should stop doing the same things over and over, while the few people who want to innovate often do not have the opportunity to do so. Over a year has passed since Cage and his team had worked on Heavy Rain. Both Sony and Quantic Dream apparently did not expect the game to be such as a success.

How they did it
Cage went on to describe the biggest challenges his team had faced. “You need a very clear idea you want to achieve,” he explained. His team first had to face the problem of creating new paradigms that made Heavy Rain into more of a journey than a challenge.”What you see, what road you take, what you’re experiencing or feel, makes the difference.”

The second problem became the interface, with any average game controller limiting the animation of the protagonist to a number of buttons. This required Cage’s team to invent a new interface that supported strongly contextual interactions. “This is a big change and it solved many problems when people have to tell stories and create emotions in games.”

The third problem was hitting the right strings of emotion and meaning for the player. ”We wanted you to have something that resonates with you, that gives you food for thought.” According to Cage’s findings, many players reported that it really made them think about the relationships they have with their own family and friends. “I wish more games would explore this direction,” Cage admitted. “It is still unfortunately very rare in games.”

Heavy Rain also posed a lot of narrative challenges and required Cage’s team to invent a new language to convey the game’s story to the player, with no real reference material to work with. The team had adventure games and movies to work from for puzzles and dialogue, but that clearly wasn’t enough. “We could borrow the visual language from movies, but the interactive language had to be invented.”

Failing certain parts of the game had to become usual while playing Heavy Rain. Cage admitted that he was always against the fact that failing has always been a big punishment in games. His team found that some testers would fail pretty much ever single action scene. “When we asked them about the game, they answered it was easy,” Cage explained. “When we told the guy that he basically missed every single action scene, he was surprised.” It dawned on the team that the tester thought he couldn’t actually succeed in the game’s scene.

The 2000 pages of script for Heavy Rain took over more than a year in writing, but Cage highly doubts he could pull it off again. “The bad news is that there is no recipe,” Cage admitted. “If you ask me how you did it, I don’t have a clue.”

After they did it
Cage ended his talk by sharing some numbers on Heavy Rain. The game got a total of 4475 reviews with a 90,1% average worldwide. The game also sold out with 600.000 copies in the first two weeks and has sold over 1,5 million to date on full price. The title also won numerous awards, including Develop’s best new franchise and best independent studio. Though what Cage was personally most thankful for, was the support and respect he’d received from both journalists and game developers.

GDC Europe

Staying on top in the Chinese game market, the Tencent way

September 6, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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During his keynote talk on the first day of GDC Europe Tencent Games’ vice president Bo Wang talked about how Tencent reached the top of the Chinese online games market. While Tencent is best known as a leading provider of Internet and mobile & telecommunications value-added services in China, Wang spoke of the massive potential for growth in the Chinse market and how his gaming department had already generated $1.3 billion U.S. dollars in the first six months of 2010. Tencent currently has two of the top three online game titles in China.

GDC Europe

Playfish’s Jeferson Valadares on Intuition vs. Metrics

September 6, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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“It’s evolution,” argued Playfish studio director Jeferson Valadares during his talk on intuition versus metrics on the first day of GDC Europe. After offering a quick and swift introduction to the most recent and popular debate within the game development community, Valadares continued to explain why both are equally important and require two completely different state of minds. “Using both is quite hard,” Valadares admitted.” The single biggest reason, is because you’re using the wrong one at the wrong time.”

GDC Europe

Warren Spector warns for marginalization

September 3, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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During his keynote at GDC Europe, Warren Spector had a lot of advice and wisdom to share on how to mature the game industry. Having worked with several people in Hollywood, Spector addressed the matter of being careful, when borrowing concepts from other media might be fine and developers should step in to do their own thing.

Seattle 2010

Ten Years of Keeping People Working – Mat Noguchi, Bungie

August 22, 2010 — by Jessica Tams

Ten years is a long time for a game engine to survive. Bungie has managed to ship four (and soon five) games based off of the Halo engine. In this talk, Mat will go over one of the critical components of that engine, the tag system. The tag system is how everyone at Bungie thinks about and works with content, from designers who need to populate levels with gameplay and AI encounters, to artists who need to get textures and geometry into the game, to programmers who need to write the features that use all that content. Over the years, it has had to scale to an ever increasing amount of data, all while remaining surprisingly stable and consistent enough for people to get work done. It has been a long and arduous journey, and Mat will be sharing various lessons learned, not only practical but philosophical as well.

– Mat Noguchi, Senior Programmer, Bungie

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