Leap into Motion

This week, we’ve been participating in the LeapMotion Game Jam, adapting our game to use the motion control device. It works remarkably well!

Whilst we’ve only announced the game for Wii U so far, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get our hands on some cool motion control technology that the LeapMotion provides.

On a basic level, the LeapMotion is a little blocky device that detects hands hovering over it, tracking their movement as well as the movement of individual digits and joints. It’s been out for a while, initially being touted as the first half of the cool looking holographic UI’s seen in many a sci-fi movie.

Although UI designers might argue that the ergonomics of such interfaces are deeply flawed, the LeapMotion is more than that, and really is only limited in its uses by what developers can imagine.

scifi interfaceTo that end, LeapMotion have launched their 3D Jam competition to help spur developers into thinking of new and innovative uses for their device.The other angle to the jam is in using LeapMotion to plug the gap in VR development where there is otherwise a lack of suitable input devices. The Leap Motion device sitting on the front of the VR headset and allowing developers to see their hands in front of them.

Personally, I’m slightly cynical about VR technology, in the sense that it’s exponents come off as being technological perfectionists. Allowing existing design paradigms (specifically first-person perspective games) drive development, rather than letting VR be its own thing, and force designers to be creative within the limitations of the system. If having to be imaginative with using existing input devices is what’s needed, then all the better.

For us though, our game is already designed for motion control, so the easy with which we’ve been able to sub in the LeapMotion for Wii Remotes has validated many of our design decisions.

We even managed to get the multiplayer mode working, though with four hands all vying for attention within the LeapMotion’s slightly limited detection range, the constant loss and re-detection of different hands quickly mixes things up till everyone is controlling a different character to the one they started with! Still, as in the above video, it works great for two players.

Next step will be to neaten up the game in terms of UI and playability when no one is around who has played the game before to necessarily teach others how to play. (Something that’s a really big problem for the game anyway)

 

 

Name Our Game Competition!

Turns out we’re terrible at thinking up names for our latest game. The working title “Colour Park” was never going to fly. So instead we’re having a competition to see who can come up with something better!

Anyone who thinks they have a good name for our game has until 23rd November to submit their entry to our website to be in with a shout. After then, the top 5 entries as picked by us will receive a free copy of the game and go into a public vote to see which of them will forever adorn our game.

Enter the competition here: http://www.crystallinegreen.com/competition/

The game itself is an on-rails motion control game for Wii U, and is scheduled to be released in the first half of next year. To celebrate and inspire people, we’ve created two new videos to show off different aspects of the game:

In single player ‘rhythm’ mode, players glide gently through the air in time to relaxing music, using their Wii Remotes to match coloured objects along the way for points and high scores.

In local multiplayer ‘race’ mode, players match colours using their Wii Remotes in order to gain speed boosts, collect powerups and choose different paths. The closer you match the colours, the faster your boost!

We will be adding more levels and environments to the game prior to release, from underwater coral reefs to dune sculpted deserts, as well as additional playable characters.

Finally, those who wish to play the game for themselves can check it out at Insomnia 53 Gaming Festival, at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry, UK, where we will be exhibiting it from 21st November to 23rd November 2014.

Mixed Opinions: IndieCade Feedback

Back in June, we submitted a really early version of Colour Park to IndieCade. The game didn’t get nominated as a finalist, but did get feedback from a number of jurors. Interestingly, they all had different things to say. Note, the jury system is anonymised, so I’ve instead labelled them as Juror #1, #2 and #3 respectively:

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Juror #1:
This was obviously very early in development, but it shows potential for being something good. It took a few minutes for the concept to click, but once it did, it was easy to get the hang of it.

I don’t feel like there’s much meaningful feedback I can give at this point, as the game only has the very basics in place right now. I would like to see you take this further and resubmit next year.
—–

Juror #2:
I think the attempt to make a motion control game that uses the motion to map and match a color felt unnatural. I am aware that this suppose to be what the creator actually wanted to experiment with and make unique in the game, but it doesn’t seem to work well. The game plays like racing vs. guitar hero, however the motion controller is not a tight input like buttons, which makes controlling the game very hard, often hard to control tightly, and therefore frustrating, I also expected that such a game has progressive and dynamic music that follows the gameplay.
—–

Juror #3:
Game has interesting presentation and is relaxing to play. As a tech demo, it runs well and shows potential.

Goal should be more compelling, if there was any depth beyond matching colors it was unclear. Multi player gameplay did not seem to add much. There was no way to attack other players or interact.

There should be better feedback when users ‘hit’ or ‘miss’ their color. Soundtrack was interesting, but got repetitive after a couple of minutes.

I understand this is an early demo, and has an interesting idea (using the controller to find colors), but you might want to iterate on the concept and try out a couple of other ways to interact with the world, and other players.

It’d be easy to dismiss Juror #2 as simply “didn’t get it”, especially after reading the first Juror’s comments. However, the game has garnered similar feedback in the past from others. That they are fighting against the controls the whole time, and that makes the game frustrating.

The suspicion is some players are performance optimisers or perfectionists. Not a criticism I might add. As any sports person or musician will tell you, when your fingers pluck the wrong string, or the tennis ball hits the edge of the racket head, it feels off, and that registers long before you hear the accompanying discordant twang or see the ripple of the net. In guitar hero, you know unambiguously whether you’ve hit a note or not, both from on-screen indicators, and simply because you felt your finger press the wrong button. On the surface, Colour Park looks a lot like guitar hero and similar rhythm games, so it’ll both naturally attract those types of players, and potentially annoy the hell out of them.

Since the version submitted to IndieCade, the game has had effects added to show whether the player “hit” or “missed”. Even that is misleading though, since it’s a continuous scale: The closer to a colour match, the more points, or bigger the speed boost you get. The next step will be to reflect that on screen. The closer to a match, more particle effects go off, the more individual particles each effect produces, the brighter those particles, the faster they move, the longer their lifetime, and so on.

The rest of the comments from IndieCade just back up the experience from a couple of weeks ago. The game needs more layers of depth to keep people playing once the initial challenge of mastering the controls has been accomplished.

It’s in the Eyes

Last week I participated in a game jam using eye-tracking technology. The jam was sponsored by Tobii, who supplied the EyeX eye tracker kits used. Historically, eye-tracking gaming has been decidedly niche. For example, being used by disabled gamers who have limited movement. Interestingly though, Tobii are looking to mass market the EyeX, with a particular focus on core gamers. The principle being that certain parts of a player’s game can be improved using the eye trackers.

The example Tobii highlighted was of aiming with the eyes in an FPS, but otherwise using normal mouse and keyboard controls to move around. Not having to physically move the mouse over an enemy, once identified, made players’ aim far faster and more accurate.

No Strategy

Taking that on-board for the jam, I decided to experiment with another core genre – strategy. The eye tracking technology itself is wonderfully responsive and integrated relatively easily with Unity. After some playing around, I decided to go for some sort of area control mechanic. Players would draw shapes on a map with their eyes to capture territory.

However, people’s eyes have a tendency to flit around the screen, often to things they wished to be inside or outside those shapes. Which of course, led to people drawing through the middle of those objects instead of around them.

One solution I explored involved a snap-to-grid based system. To place a shape boundary point, players just had to keep their gaze roughly inside a single square on the map for half a second. Unfortunately, it takes an uncomfortable level of mental effort and puts too much strain on the eye to artificially stare at a set point for any more than your subconscious wants.

Small Things

Another mistake was the timer. I already had a cursor to show where the player’s current eye gaze was. However, to give more feedback I added a radial fill timer around it, to show how long the player had left to gaze on a fixed point.

The problem with this approach was that the eye would start looking at different parts of the timer to see what progress it was making, thereby changing the position of the cursor. Locking the cursor position onto the centre of the grid square, and having the cursor snap from place to place felt unnatural. Furthermore, the eyes would see that the timer was just about done, and so flick to the next place of interest in anticipation of being able to lay down a new point or do whatever else, thus cancelling the current action at the last moment. To say this was incredibly frustrating would be an understatement.

The general idea of a cursor however, worked well. Almost all the other jam participants had some form of cursor or object in their games to show where the eyes were looking at any one time. Universally, those cursors were small. A little cross or dot wouldn’t distract or get in the way, but was still useful. In the first place, to let the player know where they were actually looking. Since the eye tracker technology needs calibrating, the player could see if it was slightly off, and so readjust the screen or their seating position.

Moreover, it’s disconcerting to have things react on screen with no visible cause or other in-game object to interact with. The cursor acting as a proxy for the player helped plug that gap.

Halve the problem

Much of what I was doing came down to completely swapping out a traditional mouse/keyboard or controller with eye tracking. As I discovered, trying to do both selection and interaction (clicking/pressing) at the same time isn’t possible with a single input. Many of the other developers doing the jam instead sidestepped the issue.

The game Island, simply took controls away from the player. From their God-like vantage point in the sky, players would gaze down over the slowly rotating eponymous island. With movement already taken care of them, their eyes were thus set free to plant trees or watch over the tiny citizens roaming around the island, (or whatever else Gods do in God-games). The slow pace of the rotation added to the chilled out atmosphere of the game.

Medusa’s Tempest was a twin-stick shooter that had players aim with their eyes, whilst moving their ship with more traditional controls. On the surface, it still had the problem of players having to look both where they are going, and where they are aiming at the same time (which is obviously impossible). In practice, once they’d played the game for a short period of time, players were able to remember that they’d pressed the stick in a certain direction for so long, and so gone so far. Thus could building up a rough mental map of where on screen they were at any one time.

Another feature of Medusa’s Tempest was to replace bullets with a constantly streaming laser. No need to scan around checking your bullets’ progression to their target. Equally, no accidentally firing your next bullet at the last bullet you just fired. Instead players can just concentrate on the targets.

Additionally, having a constant line from the player’s gaze point, back to their ship, assisted in keeping mental tabs on whereabouts their ship was, whilst not interfering with shooting.

To The Rhythm

Beat Shot, which took home top prize at the jam, in a similar vein to Island, also had a less-is-more approach to controls. Only this time, in the form of a rhythm game. On every beat of the music, the game would send out a pulse from the point where the player was looking. If any targets were within pulse range, the player would “hit” them. The game worked so well in large part due to the timing. There was just enough between beats to process the results of previous hits, glance between potential new targets, and then concentrate on one in time for the next beat to fire off.

The music was set to 120bpm, which gives you an idea of just how much the eye can take in and brain process in such a short space of time.

There are also aesthetic considerations as well. The maker of the game EyeBall, (think basketball, but aiming your passes and shots with your eyes), started off the game in first person, but changed to third person. Simply because it was a more satisfying way to watch the ball arc through the air.

Before the jam, we were told the best eye-tracking games were all about movement (something I really should have listened to!). I’d probably qualify that by saying the best put the player’s eye movement at their core. That could be directly moving things with the eyes, such as in Medusa’s Tempest. But also simply working with the way the eye moves around a static scene, as with Island and Beat Shot.

Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to Alice and the team at London Game Space / Scenario Bar for hosting the jam. Also for the charity Special Effect, who already do a lot of work with eye tracking in their quest to make games truly accessibly to everyone, and were able to come down to the jam on day one and give us some pointers and tips.

Insomnia Takehomes

There’s nothing like testing with real users, and demoing Colour Park at the Insomnia52 Gaming Festival highlighted a number of unforeseen issues

Last weekend, I demoed Colour Park at Insomnia 52 Gaming Festival in Coventry. Top of the list of things to test were the colour blind modes. Whilst something in the range of 1% to 5% of men are colour blind (it’s very rare in women), the degree can vary between individuals, all the way from some colours being slightly weaker, all the way to being utterly unable to distinguish between certain colours.

Colour.. It’s in the name

In the case of Colour Park, and it’s dependency on colour, some people who were just a little bit colour blind/deficient actually preferred the full-colour modes. Whereas others who I tried on both colour-blind and non-colour blind modes, were clearly benefiting from the colour-blind-friendly palettes. Whilst not especially scientific, the testing confirmed my view that letting people choose their own colours (with properly set up defaults / presets) was the way to go.

tritanopia_test2Tritanopia – One of the rarer forms of Colour Blindness

I also had some really useful discussions about a different way to solve the problem. Specifically replacing the blocks on the track with arrows, pointing at the angle the player needs to rotate their colour wheel to.

Not only does this remove the total reliance on colour in the game, but makes the game easier as well, giving more cues to the player about what move to make next, versus only going by what colour the approaching block is.

Easy…Right?

This should hopefully help with my second big observation, which is that the game was too hard! In particular, I’d set people up to play race mode, and with settings that ramp up the speed (and thus difficulty) quite sharply. Once the player gets a few blocks in a row, they really start to zip along.

That’s great for giving the game a sense of flow and adrenaline pumping action. Less so for kids. The  game requires both fine motor skills and quick reactions, neither of which kids under about 10 or 12 years old have.

Also up for consideration is introducing a “Super-easy” difficulty setting, which has just two colours on the colour wheel. The problem is that the game’s premise hangs on motion as an analogue action, which has a full, continuous range of inputs: The closer you are to a colour, the bigger your speed boost and the more points you get. With just two colours, players can just push the Wii Remote to one extreme or the other. It removes a large element of the skill from the game, making it a simple reaction game that could probably be played with any old regular digital controller (press button A for green, B for blue).

30 Minute Challenge

At the other end of the spectrum, teenagers and adults were largely able to get the hang of the game, and generally responded really positively to the game, often offering up that they really enjoyed it (or at least liked the concept).

However, I’d set the game up to have a run time of about 2 or 3 minutes for a single race to the end of the track, after which the game would declare a winner and points score. Typically, after just one or two play-throughs, people would put the controllers down satisfied that they got the idea of the game, and then wander off to see what other games were on offer.

Compare that to the other indie games in the area around me, and people would sit down to play them for stretches of 30 minutes or more. It’d be easy to dismiss that as down to the nature of the different games, with the puzzle platformers or FPS games around me somewhat demanding that players get to the end of their respective levels.

In reality, the game is not engaging enough. Part of that is down to the way the game was set up. Players would spend the first minute or so learning the colours. Then there would be maybe another minute of play – just enough track for them to get good at the controls and the game produce a satisfying sense of accomplishment when the end arrived.

Leaving rhythm mode aside, the race mode needs more to compel people to want to play again. A fixed track (as opposed to a random, procedural one), with splits that allow players to take different paths should give players an extra layer of information to learn, and give them more choices in the game. Equally, having the track as a loop, with races over multiple laps, will allow players to correct mistakes (e.g. from taking the wrong path last lap,) within a single race, rather than having to wait for the next one.

Other things, such as indications of whether a player is 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc, and ghosts of the other players zooming past them on the track should make the game feel more competitive. Having sections without blocks, so players can take a breather, will also help, as they can take stock of how well they did in the section just completed, and also compare their progress against everyone else.

There are other options, such as multiple “lanes” on the track, which players can switch between using the buttons on the Wii Remotes. Though at that point, the game starts to look like it’s wholesale ripping off Audio Surf, rather than just taking inspiration. For now, the target will be to have people playing 30 minutes or more over multiple races.

You Can Keep Your Rift On

I recently attended a workshop at University of Lincoln entitled “Performance and Games”. In this case, performance meant performing arts, which I was a touch apprehensive about, since it was invite only event, and an area where I have no prior experience (not counting my (in)famous dancing when on nights out with friends). As it transpired, I was far more useful for my ‘performance’ than the programming and game development skills I had intended to bring to the table.

I’d envisioned something much closer to a game jam, spending a large portion of the workshop laying down code of some description. In fact, we spent the entirety of the first day talking through a whole bunch of different ideas in teams of four or five people. That was quite a departure from what I’m used to in my professional work, where ideas are all but valueless, save for their successful execution in a finished game.

Rambling Awkwardly

My team’s suggested theme / starting off point for exploring was social awkwardness, which we discussed for a while before steering into a long conversation about sexual harassment and discrimination in the games industry and wider workplace. Having not worked in a “triple-A” games studio, and been largely independent, working alone or in small groups for the entirety of my career in games, all my sources on the subject are second hand. Furthermore, I seem to have, more by accident than design, ended up following a lot of feminists and those writing about issues of discrimination within the games industry on twitter or industry publications like gamasutra.com.

So it was interesting for me to talk to the others to see if some of the ideas I’d formulated on the subject tallied with their experiences or thinking. A discussion which itself is quite awkward to navigate when you’re still getting to know a bunch of strangers for the first time (the irony of which was not lost on us).

By the morning of the second day, I was fretting that my team would have nothing to show for our being there. Fortunately, the others in the team had done what I hadn’t, which was prepare for the event by bringing a large toolbox, (demo programs, code snippets and games they’d previously made which could be easily re-purposed). In just a few hours, we were able to solidify our ideas into a veritable game design, construct the game and play it through once, though from a technical perspective, largely without my help. Consequently, I felt slightly sidelined, and that probably goes some way to explaining my enthusiastic playing of the game itself.

Naked Quake

On the game specifically, I think we all recognised we hadn’t really reached a consensus on the harassment issue, so we rowed back to a theme we’d touched earlier on the first day, which was awkwardness around nudity with strangers. The example of sauna etiquette was discussed, in which different countries had different norms around what was acceptable to wear (or not wear) when in the sauna.

Our first idea to explore this was a first person shooter game in which players could upgrade their weapons by taking off various items of clothing. So a sock might only get the player a basic pistol, whilst they would need to take their underpants off if they wanted to get their hands on a rocket launcher.

Players would all be in the same room, but use Oculus Rifts (or other virtual reality headgear). This would mean they wouldn’t directly see each other stripping, but would still know the other players in the room were potentially nude or undressed.

Balancing issues and details somewhat put a dampener on everyone’s enthusiasm for the idea. Someone who was already good at FPS games might not need to lose more than a couple of socks and a jumper to defeat someone not familiar with the genre. Instead, we decided to run with the ideas about clothes equalling points in a game, and of using the Rifts as a sort of blindfold.

Clothes Points

The result was a game where each round, players would take off items of clothing and place them in a basket or designated spot. Each item of clothing would carry a different value (sock, scarf = 1 point, jumper = 2 points, shirt = 3 points, and so on). Whoever had the biggest points score would win the round. The winner would be the player who won the most rounds after everyone had run out of clothes (or decided they had reached their limit of what they were willing to take off). There was also a time limit on each round, to force players to make their decisions (and undressings) quicker than otherwise.

Both players would stand in the same room wearing Oculus Rifts, connected to Kinect cameras pointed at the other player(s). The other player would be represented as a 3D model of a person, movements of the model corresponding to the movements of the player. In this way, players could “see” each other’s moves without actually seeing them.

For our version of the game, there was also a “dungeon master” in another room, whose role was two fold: To adjudicate who had won the round, by means of being able to view webcams pointed at the baskets in which the players were placing their clothes, (but away from players, so as to not see them). And to add tension to the game, the dungeon master would also relay voice commands and special instructions to the players as the game went on.

Thankfully, seriousness and tension went out of the window once the game started. Our dungeon master blasted the full monty theme tune through the speakers into the room as we made our choices, or gave us until the end of the A-team theme to get our trousers off. Quick fire rounds gave us 5 seconds to fumble with our shoes or belts.

More importantly, I won this first ever playing of the game, which we quickly named “You Can Keep Your Rift On”. And I didn’t have to even have to take my underwear off! In fact, at the end of the game, I found out I needn’t have gone anything like as far as I did, as my opponent was still mostly dressed.

Acting the Part

Context is definitely the key to understanding the game. The specific context for me was that I had spent the last day and a half with the other people in the workshop, found them to generally be liberal, open minded people. I didn’t have anything to fear from them, but at the same time, as mentioned earlier, I had a bit of a point to prove.

Being one of the architects of the game itself, I had plenty of time to mentally prepare for it. I actually made up my mind before I went into the game how far I was willing to strip down by the end of the game, and since there was a break between each round ending and the timer for a new one starting, I was deciding in advance what clothes I was going to take off that coming round.

In the end, we were a bit pressed for time, so only had one Rift hooked up with the Kinect. I still wore the other Rift, but without input, acting effectively as a very expensive blindfold. I think that lead me to concentrate on thinking more abstractly in terms of my strategy and how to out-psych my opponent, rather than trying to guess how he was moving. I did some fake moves as though I was taking off a shirt. I took my shoes and socks off in one round, but then didn’t place my shoes in the basket until a later round. I also pretended to take my socks off again after having already taken them off, which due to the imperfections in the old-style Kinect, apparently made it look as though I was turning myself inside out. I also had to think creatively, taking my phone, wallet and keys out of my pockets and using them as extra ammunition. Or placing the Rift’s adapter/connector box in my basket (since it wasn’t actually connected to anything) as an extra ‘item’ I could try and score points on.

As well as not worrying about the other player’s moves, I think not seeing the other player probably made me less conscious of what I looked like to them. I felt more self-conscious once the game finished, and I took the Rift off, than during the game itself.

Not to say I wasn’t self conscious at all, but, I actually went further in stripping off than I had originally planned. I had decided to stop before taking off my trousers, but knowing that I’d done no exercise since some time in January, I was aware that wearing trousers slightly too tight around the waist probably wasn’t especially flattering. Ditch the trousers and it wouldn’t look so bad. Body image isn’t something I usually worry about, but it was still a factor here.

The other half of it was that we had a small audience of 3 people in the room, which wasn’t something we’d really planned. I think it helped that the audience was all female, (and that goes back to the having-something-to-prove point), but also, as the game progressed, the combination of the dungeon master’s cheesy voice over, combined with the ever increasing fits of laughter from the audience that I could hear on one ear, combined with my competitive spirit, pushed me to go further than I’d initially expected.

Public Sauna

As for taking the game outside of that context, it would certainly produce a different result. For example, our team discussed the possibility of bringing the game to a public space. Have the players in a booth or temporary structure, so they couldn’t be seen from the outside once they entered. Or perhaps other members of the public outside could watch on some big TVs the same view as what the players and dungeon master were seeing through the Rifts and webcams. But not actually see the players in the flesh.

For me, if I encountered that on the street, I’d probably shy away from it if anything, especially if there was peer pressure from my friends. The main problem I’d anticipate though, which wasn’t an issue when I played, is trust. Players have to have trust in the game and the people who are running it, not to have hidden cameras and suddenly display them getting naked to all the public outside (or worse, live streaming to the internet).

They also have to trust the other player doesn’t take a sneak peek from under their Rift during the game. I think this is where the game breaks down slightly. It’s possible to put up a dividing curtain or put players in separate cubicles, but once you start giving them a sense of privacy from each other, at that point, those ideas around knowing your opponent is getting naked in the room with you (even if you can’t see them) start to erode. It begins to depart from the initial idea of awkwardness around nudity (though not necessarily public nudity) with strangers.

As well, one person asked me whether I would be more willing to play again if I was up against someone I found sexually attractive. To which I couldn’t honestly say No. We often skirt around the subject of sex in games, which is exactly what I’m going to do as well, but it’s definitely another dimension the game has to it.

The video of me playing still needs editing and uploading, so meantime, here’s one of the other workshop team’s creations: Mario Kart being played with a violin as controller:

Mini Manifesto

I read about game development and the games industry a lot, and apparently, games aren’t interesting, varied or “innovative” enough. Indie game developers are supposed to be the solution, free to take risks and unencumbered by meddling corporate higher-ups.

I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple. Most indies I know are limited by serious resource constraints; financial in particular. Some turn that around and use it to their advantage, but most are actually very cautious, sticking to technologies, mechanics and themes they know.

I’m in the fortunate position of having an independent income, meaning I can (just about) afford to work as an indie game dev full time. Bearing all that in mind, here are a few guiding principles I want to lay down:

Walk the walk
No point criticising from the side when I’m in a position to actually experiment. I’m definitely running Crystalline Green as a serious, professional business, but between working on fully realised, commercial products, I have the time, space and tools to get creative. No excuse to do otherwise.

Stop overcomplicating
Instead of endlessly hypothesising in my head about whether an idea will work or not, just get on and try it.

No space
I love all things space themed. Rockets and lasers, galaxies and nebulae. But so do lots of other game developers, and there are a preponderance of games out there to keep my inner astronaut happy for a lifetime. Better to see instead what those arts and cultures that don’t often feature in video games can bring to the medium.

Games Industry and Quality of Life platforms

I should preface this by saying I’m coming from a purely games industry perspective here. I have no insight into health and fitness industry or related products aside from my own experiences as a consumer.

According to recent reports, Nintendo are planning a new “Quality of Life” platform. Quite what that means is a bit vague at the moment, but here are a few examples of the sort of problems/people/products that Nintendo (or indeed other companies in the games industry) can solve in the health and fitness sphere:

Elderly

In rich, developed countries, there is a huge demographic shift towards ageing populations, and it’s already well under way. The “baby boomer” generation, born after World War II are reaching retirement age. Improvements in healthcare mean that they will live longer, and so be a bigger drain on pension funds, government social welfare programs. They will also be spending more on those increasingly advanced healthcare systems that are keeping them alive.

At the same time, they hold a larger proportion of the wealth than younger generations, who in turn are smaller in number. The tax receipts generated by the working population is going down at the same time that costs are going up.

This trend is most accute in Japan, and as a Japanese company, Nintendo will be aware of the anxieties around this issue in the general population. But it also afflicts countries like Germany, with it’s declining birth rate, China with it’s only-recently relaxed one-child policy, and in countries like the UK, where it is only recent waves of migration that are masking the effect.

From time to time, here in the UK, we see on the news a feature about a new kooky looking robot from Japan, which claims it will be the care home worker of the future. Whilst it’s easy to get cynical about such ideas, there is definitely a huge market for products that will help the elderly in some way. Whether it be straight up monitoring devices, devices to keep the elderly active (and so healthier), or a combination of both.

Nintendo saw a huge surprise hit with older people in the form of it’s Brain Training game for DS, which espouses mental stimulation as a way for the elderly to keep their minds active and healthy. The precipitous rise in cases of Altzheimer’s/Dementia is a particular worry for many older people and healthcare professionals, and traditional forms of staying mentally sharp in old age, such as chess or bridge, can all be enhanced by taking them into the digital age, even where frail individuals aren’t necessarily being encouraged to fling their limbs around.

On the monitoring side, there are simply less of the younger generation around to wait hand and foot on the elderly, make sure they are ok and generally look after them. A console-like quality of life monitoring device might not be able to dress a person, tuck them into bed, or help them go to the toilet, but it will help doctors and carers remotely assess patients needs.

Moreover, the scale of demand for these devices means it now makes sense to bring them out of the rarified world of medical equipment and into the realms of mainstream consumer device. Nintendo could offer, using it’s knowledge in mass-produced consoles, something people can buy from a regular department store, for hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars, easily and quickly install in their elderly parent’s home, and teach their relatives to use.

Fitness Enthusiasts

There is a group of people for whom health and fitness is a way of life. They are athletes, personal trainers or people for whom fitness is their primary passtime. Not only do they have the full gym membership, but in many cases, have all the associated gear at their own home.

Gamification has long been a part of the fitness scene, with devices sporting indicators of how many calories have been burned, or miles run/cycled, for decades. Today we live in a data rich world, with a profusion of sensors and devices recording a plethora of stats on our physical state and activities. A console-like device would make an excellent central hub for all this information; the “brains” behind a gym of interconnected devices.

The success of games like Wii-Fit and Zumba show that there is a huge demand for “interactive-lite” workout videos / games, and it’s easy to imagine giving them their own dedicated console device. Reskinning it to be purely health and fitness might further encourage purchases from consumers who don’t want all the baggage and associations that come with buying a device advertised as primarily for games.

I do however think that Nintendo will be making a massive mistake if they fail to embrace connected smartphones and wearable tech. Whilst right now, the smartphone is the weapon of choice for the joggers and sports-people when out and about, that could easily change with the arrival of Google Glasses. Consumers will fully expect seamless integration of their outside activity data with that generated in-home and at the gym. Any device that fails to do that job of pulling together all their disparate activities will fail in its primary mission of being the centre of someone’s fitness world.

For sports, it also makes just so much more sense to have a console-like base unit, onto which you can attach the specialist peripheral-sensors needed for the specific sport, and on which can be run whatever specific software / app that sport needs.

Nintendo have already been doing this with their wide range of Wii and Wii-U Fit extras, and there is definitely scope to take this approach up-market and sell direct to sports clubs, and professional and amateur sports-people and athletes. (In fact, Microsoft would have an advantage here were they to also enter the market with a reskinned/branded Xbox One plus Kinect, pitched as a Golf/Tennis swing analyser, for example).

The Guilty Unfit

Many people are aware their sedentry lifestyle of driving to work, sitting at an office desk all day, then going home to watch the TV or play video games isn’t healthy. But damnit, it’s cold and raining outside, and their favourite film is about to start on TV, and it’s already 8pm and dark outside.

The game Zombies, Run! is a fantastic example of motivating people in a fun way to get off the couch and go burn some calories, where the usual guilty feelings for not having done enough exercise, or overzealous fitness fanatics telling them to get fit for the sheer masochistic joy of physical exertion, just aren’t getting them to slip on their trainers.

This quote from an interview with the makers of Zombies, Run! really exemplifies the point:

“It’s just really surprising because we tell people about this at conferences that storytelling can be really valuable,” he said. “And it’s just…they cannot comprehend it. They get badges and they get points and all this other gamification stuff. But they don’t get stories, and that’s partly because if you are naturally quite fit, or you are quite fit, you don’t need a story–you just go and run. But for everyone else, it’s a bit different.”

Here, Nintendo has a real strength to bring to the table, in the form of it’s story-writing, world and character creation abilities. Key will be striking a balance. On the one hand, making fun and entertaining games first and foremost, that in turn encourage physical activity through their mechanics. As well, avoiding trying to gamify fitness by crudely replacing Wii-fit lady with Mario. But importantly, not trying to hide and deceive the players. Being upfront that this is a fitness game, but one that revels in it’s sense of fun.
Why care?

Each of the above probably needs a different product, (even if it’s the same physical hardware/OS underneath, but with different branding/marketing and selection of software). Right now, there is a big question mark as to which of those Nintendo are aiming for, or whether they are approaching a “Quality of Life” product from a completely different angle.

Obviously, if any of this takes off, many game developers might find themselves making the apps / games to go on these devices. At a deeper level though, it’s going beyond gamification, or the idea games are something everyone can enjoy. Rather, it starts to break down the usefulness of classing things in terms of “Game” or “Not a Game”, and in a much more tangible, real-world way than the academic-intellectual debate about art-games like Proteus or Dear Esther.

This is all a whole lot of if’s, but just could have radical ramifications for how we view our industry

Side Quest: J-Game

JGame: An exercise in game balance

download2 source
Download Game Source (Unity 4.2)

Frustrated with the slow pace of browser games, I decided to see if I could re-create one such game faster than I could play it

I really like the idea behind browser MMO OGame by GameForge. In it, you create a space empire, collecting resources, building up colonies and launching mighty fleets to raid other players and relieve them of their stuff.

I first came across the game a couple of years ago, but gave up after a few days: Like most such games, it is incredibly slow paced, with ever-increasing wait periods and timers between actions. While this helps regulate players from becoming too powerful, too quickly, its main purpose is to frustrate the player into paying to speed things up.

I really resent that, since I usually only have a very limited time period in which to play games, and I can’t afford to pour money into the experience just so that I can do more than one meaningful action per hour.

Recently, I decided to give the game another shot, and set myself the challenge of building a single spaceship as quickly as possible. In the end, after gathering resources, doing research and building shipyards, it took just over 24 hours. However, in that time, I got thinking that actually, I could probably get that spaceship quicker if I re-made the game myself.

Challenge

Recreate OGame within 24 hours to a point where I can build a spaceship
Success!

Bonus:
- Create a nice looking UI to match the OGame one. Partial Success
- Connect the game to a back-end server so multiple people can play. Fail

Analysis

Firstly, yes it is possible to recreate the core mechanics of a relatively simple game like OGame in a game-jam style situation. To make it look good takes some considerable amount of time and effort longer. To put in the back-end server infrastructure was something I didn’t even get onto, and all this is leaving aside some of the more subtle nuances of the game.

However, by recreating and subsequently testing JGame, as well as playing the original OGame, I feel like learned a lot about game loops and free-to-play mechanics.

OGame is actually quite fun after the point I implemented up to, which is getting your first spaceship. You can then raid other planets / players for their resources, and add them to your own pile. By doing so, your ability to make progress in the game is directly tied to the decisions you make, and loses the deterministic feel of the early game.

That initial game loop of upgrade building, wait to collect more resources, upgrade building is deeply flawed. Although there is a spike of excitement when the player finally gets to hit the “upgrade” button and see some progress, it is tempered by the wait timer. The player suddenly becomes stuck again, for minutes or even hours.

This is even worse after the player has left the game overnight. Upon seeing a great big stockpile harvested over many hours, the possibilities of what the player can do with all that stuff is really exciting. But, after one or two initial build/upgrade decisions are made, the player finds either that the wait timer is once again putting the breaks on their plans. Or alternatively, the game is balanced such that as more buildings are upgraded, technologies researched etc, their costs go up in line with what the player is able to collect. Meaning that big shiny pile of crystals is actually only good for a single high level of Crystal Mine upgrade.

Being a casual game, it’s reasonable to expect players to dip in and out. Spend 5 minutes here or there. But there is a big issue when the game prevents the player from executing complex strategies, or forces them to remember what the heck they were in the middle of doing an 8 hour-work shift later. That frustrates the player not in the positive way that a challenging adversary or difficult puzzle does. Rather, it’s the meta-game; the arranging of your day so that you’re online just as your battlecruiser finishes building, or your Metal Mine completes an upgrade; that forces players to make compromises in their real lives that they then resent.

On a deeper level, the reason they resent that is because games are part escapism, but as well because the game exists in a magic circle. The illusion of both is broken by the intrusion of the meta-game.

Another problem I noticed with many players I spoke to, who had, like me, given up on first trying the game, was that they could see the long term benefit of building an economy in the early game. Reinvest hard-won resources into more mines and factories to generate even more resources. Money makes money.

However, the game didn’t make it clear when to step off that treadmill. At what point to start building peripheral / support buildings that have clear longer term benefits, but give no immediate, tangible gains? When to start researching technologies, building ships and defences? If that appeared to be days away, the prospects were so distant that players would conclude it wasn’t work the risk/effort waiting to find out. As a result, they would quit before they got to the more engaging parts of the game.

As for JGame, I’ve included the ability for the player to adjust the various time and cost multipliers (though at the moment those values can’t be saved). From my own testing, it is too easy to simply flatten the requirements tree and unlock everything from the start, turn all the timers down to 1 second, and a few clicks later, achieve “victory” by popping out a few spaceships. However, when I leave everything on default settings, I find I’ve simply not got the patience to sit through even 30 seconds of time ticking down that I’ll never get back.

My hope is that people will use JGame to experiment with finding that middle ground, that “fun” zone between what constitutes too long/boring and what is blatantly too quick/easy a game.

My Progress Hour-by-Hour:

For the record, here is my progress blog, which was updated live throughout the challenge

Hour 1 – Create the universe
I created a universe with a single solar system and 15 different planets. I created a player and assigned one planet to be the player’s home world:

hour 1 compare

Hour 2 – Resources and Buildings

Created some resources and buildings to mine / produce those resources

hour 2 compareHour 3 – Improve Buildings and Update Loop

Created a mechanic to allow buildings to be improved to the next level. Also created an update loop where mines will collect resources depending on their level

hour 3 compareHour 4 – Energy Up!

Added in power plants and accounted for energy needs of the mines

hour 4 compareHour 5 – Low Energy

Implemented the Energy Management readout, bar the level adjustment buttons. Will revisit that later.

hour 5 compareHour 6 – Facilities and Prequisites

I must admit, I thought I’d be further ahead at this stage than I actually am. As things stand, the game has (nearly) all the resource management implemented, plus in the last hour, I’ve laid down the structure for the tech tree, and for different buildings requiring different other prerequisite buildings and technologies. Next step will be to allow the player to research those technologies

hour 6 compareHour 7 – Technology and Shipyards

I finished off the job of creating technologies and added in a research tab. The shipyard was made entirely of code I’d already made, so was a simple copy and paste job.

hour 7 compareHour 8 to 10 – Fixing

I made a numbers input system for the player to specify how many fighters they wanted to build in one go. I also went back to Energy Management in the resources section and made a button to let the player select what energy % they wanted their mines to run at.

hour 8 and a half compareHour 11 – Snazzy

Started working on making the user interface look less vanilla Unity, and more space-style. This is a never ending process, and I stole some art assets from Executive Star, but made good progress in just a short space

hour 11 compareHour 12 – Pink

You know when to call it a day when the most your brain can think about is what shade of off-pink to make the text in your game. Hour 12 rolled around with some parts of the UI looking passable, if a little sparse, and others thoroughly unloved

hour 12 compareDay 2

I spent the day tidying up the code, commenting it and sorting out all the hacky work arounds that I’d scrambled together in my game-jamming state.

I also finished off the UI for the remaining sections, as well as making some subtle but important improvements to the overall UI

Finally, I added those accursed timers that force you to hang around waiting instead of actually playing / making progress in the game.

day 2Day 3

I added some more artwork and a system to allow many of the variables and stats to be changed at run time. The player can choose how to balance the game, making buildings, technologies and ships more or less expensive, build faster or slower, and allowing the addition and removal of prerequisites.

Finally, I uploaded the game and source code under a non-commercial license. As much as I might complain about wait timers and free-2-play monetisation techniques, it is just not cool to wholesale copy someone else’s game, doubly so to then start selling it.

JGame uses OGame as its base, but has ended up sufficiently deviating over the course of development, that I’m satisfied it’s not so much a copy any more, but a tool for exploring gameplay balancing.

day 3

 

A Year of OUYA

Exactly one year ago, I got my hands on a shiny clear plastic OUYA devkit. Through making a game for the new console, I learned a lot about game development and the wider games industry.

In the Beginning…

In fact, my OUYA journey started in November of 2012. I’d gone indie straight off the back of a computer science degree a couple of years before, but the game I’d been working on in that time was a master class in how not to design a game. (Hopelessly large scope and flawed core mechanic).

I’d backed OUYA on kickstarter at the developer tier, quite late in the campaign, and in doing so, set myself a target of the end of October to finish the current game or otherwise move on. OUYA was a fresh start, a mandate to give myself a new project/game with a narrow, well defined scope. And a fixed deadline (OUYA’s release date), that unlike previous self-imposed deadlines, I couldn’t simply move when it became clear I wouldn’t hit it.

I also decided to thoroughly involve myself in the community. Test whether all those hours spent on social media, reddit and forums were a viable, cost-effective alternative to other forms of marketing.

Eventing

By late 2012, that community had gone a bit flat. The initial excitement from the kickstarter campaign had dissipated, and there was very little new information coming out from OUYA themselves.

Realising that come the new year, I would be one of just a small number of developers with the console in hand, I set about using that to my advantage. In particular, I organised a meetup bringing together other developers and OUYA enthusiasts. The idea being that developers could show off the games they were making for OUYA, and fans of the console could get to try one out early, before they got their own later in the year.

OUYA claimed to be open and transparent: No NDAs or problems with showing off the new bits of hardware. So in setting this up, I was very much taking their word and putting it to the test. To my delight, they got behind the idea, even sending their sole UK-based developer to give a talk and answer questions.

There was so much demand that I even ran a follow-up event a month later. In hindsight though, there were a number of things that came up which foreshadowed later problems with the console.

In particular, a number of people commented on why the games and system weren’t as polished and finished as they expected, considering release date was just two months time at this point.

Distractions

The other problem I had was that all this extra stuff was distracting from my actual game development. I ran a competition on one of the big OUYA forums to give away a spare devkit OUYA had kindly donated. The problem was the way I’d structured the competition. People could submit their game designs within a two week period, then members of the forum would vote for their favourite.

Of course, people went and got all their friends and family and any random passer by in their apartment block to sign up for the forums one time and vote for them (rather than the best game design / proposal winning). We disqualified one team for doing exactly this, who in turn kicked up a huge stink about the whole thing.

At the same time, OUYA were running a game jam of their own, which actually worked out to be one of their most successful enterprises for drumming up developer and fans support for the now soon to be released little box. I entered the jam with a couple of others I’d met through forums and twitter, thinking I could do it just in my spare time / on the side. Instead of being an added extra, it sucked up an inordinate amount of time and energy, and in the end came to nought anyway, as our team were unable to complete our game in time.

In fact, at the developers vs fans meetups, I had needed to get games from somewhere, and since there was no store or central repository for games being targeted for OUYA at the time, I opted to gather together as many of the game jam games as possible. This probably added to the perception that the OUYA was more unfinished than in reality.

As for my own game, it was probably never likely to be finished in time for OUYA’s big March release anyway. The old rule of take how much time you think you need, and double it, proved scarily accurate in the end. As it transpired, when OUYA started shipping to kickstarter backers, it didn’t matter that my game hadn’t made it onto the store in time.

Lift Off!

A couple of things scuppered the OUYA’s kickstarter launch, but you need to take a step back from the details about shipping and teething problems with the hardware to see the real reasons why it proved so disastrous.

The root of the problem can be traced back to another event, in New York on February 20th. Sony is generally accepted to have smashed it out of the park with their PS4 reveal event. The stale, old, console generation was coming to an end, and imminently. Despite their protestations on Neogaf and in the comment sections of gaming websites about how the endless cycles of big AAA games like Call of Duty and Halo, were getting same y and uninspiring, a few super-shiny promo videos for PS4 later, and that sentiment evaporated.

Sony also made a canny move to stake out the indie ground, and court indie developers in the following days and weeks after the PS4 was announced. I’d argue OUYA’s appearance on the scene the previous year helped Sony make that decision, but that’s a debate for another day.

Upshot was that OUYA’s reason d’etre had disappeared overnight, and with it, the fan base of gamers and developers for whom it originally existed.

Far more subtle, yet important, was the succession of slickly produced showreels with which the PS4 was announced; eye candy polished to the nth degree. This was a highly refined and finished consumer product.

That sat in marked contrast to OUYA’s minimum viable product. A bare bones, unvarnished offering. Born of the crowd, and, so the theory went, would evolve and improve over time in tune to the needs and demands of that crowd.

People just were not prepared for that idea. OUYA failed to anywhere near adequately communicate that this was very much just the start, the beta from which things would grow over the course of a number of years. The internet has a tendency to make snap judgements, and taken on face value, OUYA just couldn’t compete with the promise of next-gen.

OUYA also failed to communicate the logistics of making a console. Sixty thousand people simultaneously expected an OUYA to pop through their letter box on March 31st. Unrealistic as that may have been, OUYA didn’t pick up on that gap in expectations, and so were on the back foot when people began to complain.

It was made worse because OUYA were stuck in this horrible half-way position between being totally open and transparent, and closed and secretive. OUYA eventually began giving a lot more frequent and detailed updates about their manufacturing, and shipping process, and all the hiccups encountered along the way.

It’s easy from the outside to say they should have just stuck to their principles of being totally open about everything from the start. However, in the run up to launch, OUYA had been, hyped up far beyond what was reasonable by the gaming and tech press (and in fairness, OUYA were probably tacitly complicit in this). Subsequently, post-launch to be mercilessly ripped apart by those same media outlets for the sake of a few page views.

The environment OUYA found themselves in during that spring launch period was hostile on all fronts: Not conducive to being open and upfront about every little detail. That in turn really soured relations with developers, who were already frustrated by their regular $99 OUYAs arriving much later than expected and so throwing off their development plans / schedules.

Back on the Road

Meanwhile, I was already committed to developing for OUYA. I organised follow-up OUYA meetup in Leeds, a smallish city in the north of the UK. While not a complete disaster, only a fraction of the people who came to the London events turned up. In fact, the numbers were almost a direct proportion to the city size. Even when trying to tap into existing communities of developers in the area (and practically killing myself driving home down the motorway at 2am from the local gamedev meetup), I can’t honestly recommend anyone attempt to run a (UK) event outside of London. Especially for anything that could be considered a minority interest.

By this point, I’d decided to use my OUYA, of which there were still desperately few in the wild, on a different tack. I had been researching gaming conventions and shows, and decided they were all ruinously expensive for an indie sized budget. Instead, I took my OUYA to an anime convention. The theory was sound in that it really was the precise demographic who were interested in gaming. I snagged a basic table stand right opposite Nintendo and Crytek in the gaming area, and with a few black tablecloths, my two desktop screens and a TV borrowed from my parents, I was able to cheaply create a very presentable setup.

Despite only having what amounted to a barely playable demo, I had a great time and everyone who I spoke to responded really positively. However, it also became clear that the maths simply didn’t stack up. Even if the theoretical maximum number of people who might pass by my stand in a day, all bought the game, and told all their friends to buy it, I still would not have broken even on the whole venture. And in this case, it wasn’t a finished game and they couldn’t buy it anyway. I’ve concluded the only reason to demo at conventions is the chance to get press interest in your game, and there were no games journalists at the anime convention.

On TV

Having said all that, I ended up doing another convention not long after. This one, I was determined to cut the cost by teaming up with another company called Game Wagon. They have a couple of vans kitted out with TVs and games consoles that they then hire out to kids’ birthday parties.

They were interested in the OUYA because it was small and easy to fit in as another console in their van. Plus they were looking for opportunities to use the vans at conventions in conjunction with indie developers. They would have everything set up and indies could just turn up and plug their laptops or OUYAs or whatever else into the screens on the van and demo their games.

Specifically, they were at The Gadget Show, which is both a large consumer electronics show. But also a popular weekly TV show about gadgets and technology, produced under the same branding.

As it happened, Game Wagon had previously been on the TV show. One of the researchers from the show passed by the van, and took an interest in the OUYA. Turns out the show were looking to do a short section on the OUYA, but had been struggling to get hold of one, so asked if I could bring mine into their studios for a day. While I didn’t get to be on the show in-person, my OUYA did, and more importantly, I was able to get an insight into how, at least this one particular production company went about researching, presenting and then recording their take on various bits of tech.

This was all done without any input from OUYA, who although I told them what I was up to, I think were at the time madly rushing around putting out fires and trying to make sure everything was set for the next big milestone, which was launching in retail/shops in June.

Own Goals

By this point, OUYA had raised a round of venture capital to the tune of $15mil and sensibly pushed back their initially over-ambitious retail release date. Usually, businesses need to up-front capital firstly to research and develop their product, then to pay for stock to be manufactured and kept in warehouses and finally try to claw all that back at the end by selling it all.

OUYA conversely, took receipt of sixty thousand pre-orders six months before they had to start handing over any cash to manufacturers. From a cash-flow standpoint, they were in the perfect position, getting the money first, and only having to spend it much later.

Clearly though, once all the kickstarter and pre-ordered consoles were delivered, they’d be back in the usual position of needing a large chunk of working capital for all the consoles at various stages from the factory floor to the moment they are exchanged for cash with either retailers or directly with the consumer. And that money had to come from VC.

Having the CEO talk on Bloomberg TV or ring the NASDAQ opening bell are obvious ways to promote your business to those potential investors. However, those messages ended up also hitting the wrong target audience, being picked up by fans and developers. The world of finance really jars with the concept of “indie”, and while not a deal breaker, it acted to make the company seem more corporate and distant. In sharp contrast to the supposed strength of small, nimble startups like OUYA, in being to talk directly to customers and seem more personal and intimate.

Other specifics of OUYA’s situation further fed into this narrative. OUYA went from having a few hundred indie developers to worry about (who are generally more forgiving of technical and logistical hitches). To overnight, having sixty thousand consumers, with all the expectations of the ultra-refined console image Sony and Microsoft had whipped up.

OUYA’s customer support system soon fell behind, and a snowball effect ensued: Whereby when a customer’s support ticket (typically “where’s my OUYA / why hasn’t it turned up on March 31st?”) went unanswered, it would be followed up by another ticket asking why the first hadn’t been answered. Followed by more when the user went online to discover a multitude of similarly unsatisfied customers. The whole system melted under the pressure, and for months, social media, reddit, forums and other channels that should have been getting excited and hyping up the console in the lead up to its retail launch, were instead flooded with irate customers feeding off each other’s complaints and getting angrier and angrier as a result.

Whether you can extrapolate the lessons to other large, crowdfunded projects is questionable, but for OUYA, the business definitely did not follow a normal smooth scaling. It jumped in big steps, and that causes problems in of itself.

At the same time as all this was happening, I managed to inflict a problem of my own making on OUYA. Again, seeking to leverage my developer kit, I came across Futuremark, a company that benchmarks hardware devices. No one had yet run their benchmarking software on an OUYA, so with a bit of help from their engineers, I was able to output some results from the Android version of their software.

Those results fitted with what could be expected. Marginally higher performance than otherwise identical chipsets on equivalent mobile devices. By this point though, it simply added fuel to the existing anti-OUYA narrative being put out by most gaming publications. The OUYA was already out-of-date, slow and old before it had even been released (no mention of that being in comparison to devices 5 or 10 times the price).

Chalk that one up to my own naivety. Once the message got out that people wanted to hear, my own voice was drowned out and lost somewhere deep in the comments section on whatever website.

Indies vs Retail

Unfortunately, this came right around the same time I had got in contact with OUYA about another exciting experiment that I’d been lining up with their console. It had been announced that GAME would be the sole retailer stocking OUYAs in the UK. However, while they were taking pre-orders for the OUYA, they didn’t actually have any of the units themselves to demo to the public.

After talking to one branch of GAME on twitter who were excited by the OUYA’s imminent launch (each store has its own twitter account, run by the store manager and staff), I arranged to go down to the shop and show them mine.

I then pitched to them the idea of me coming back in and demoing the OUYA for a day to people in store. GAME had gone into administration the previous year, and it seemed the management there were willing to try anything that could help revive the fortunes of the company. They do events to coincide with the launch of big AAA games, and turned out, they were also amenable to the idea of experimenting with indie developers also demoing their games in store. (Full write up here)

I did three different shops on three different occasions, and even organised for some other indie developers to demo their games, on the OUYA, at their local branches of GAME.

I still believe the broader concept has credence, but in this specific case, it didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped (at least going by the number of people who actually pre-ordered the console after having a go on it). It was obvious that the average man (or mum and kids) on the street had no idea what the OUYA was. Clearly, the marketing messages just weren’t getting through. Many people would engage and come away really positive about the console. Even if they weren’t ready to put an order down on the spot, having it there for people to play and discover in the store would undoubtedly over time, have resulted in significant sales. I could also tell that after I packed up and went home for the day, the OUYA stand would be put in the store room, and only a few boxes would remain hidden on shelves in some corner of the store.

Home stretch

Another thing I had already surmised from my convention expeditions, but which was confirmed on the shop floor of GAME, was that my own game was not a good candidate for live demos. As a slow paced, turn-based local multiplayer game, somewhat akin to a board game, it really isn’t the sort of game you can pick up for 30 seconds and get really into.

Fortunately, it was coming along nicely, and when I did show people, the reaction to the graphics and the high production values was heartening. With a final crunch, I was able to land my first commercial game on the OUYA store two days ahead of the console’s retail debut.

It was a wonderful feeling to think I had achieved my target, and even though that target was moved back twice, this time it wasn’t due to my own ineptitude. The game was finished on-time and only fractionally over budget.

The other side of the finish line

Sadly, we’re only up to June in the story, and the rest of the year isn’t quite happily ever after.

I hadn’t done nearly enough play testing of the game in the race to finish it. The feedback coming in from those social media channels I had been nurturing all told me something was amiss with the game design (though frustratingly, no one was able to put their finger on it).

I had early on recognised there was a gap in the market for local multiplayer gaming, and OUYA was the perfect place to test that theory. I feel vindicated in that assessment by the subsequent success of local multiplayer games like Towerfall, Bombsquad and Hidden in Plain Sight.

I myself was looking to board game design for inspiration, but without friends willing to sit down and engage with the game repeatedly over an extended period of time, the game was launched with some serious flaws. (Specifically, it took 3 hours to finish rather than the expected <1. A post-launch update pumped up the resource amounts collected per turn in a bid to speed things up, but instead ruined the balance of the game.)

Prior to launch, I felt dissatisfied with the game lacking certain features I had previously cut to make the release deadline. So I made the game free, but with an option to pre-order the future expansion pack with those missing features included.

The combination of niche game in an already small market, plus the flawed design and my pricing, it’s surprising how well the game sold for the three weeks before numbers fell off a cliff.

Nudge the Needle

About a month after release, I made a concerted effort on forums and the OUYA sub-reddit to promote the game. I submitted it to a “feedback Friday”, and over the course of the next week managed to significantly shift the needle download numbers wise.

It was heartening to find I had some control over my game’s destiny, and wasn’t merely locked onto the usual rollercoaster sales graph of large initial spike, followed by long low tail.

The feedback I got in the process though, was decidedly discouraging. People liked the idea of the game, and what it was trying to do, but invariably it failed to deliver. Worse, there was no consensus on exactly what was the problem. After much soul searching and analysis, and talking to other game developers, I concluded the real problem was the UI and way data is displayed to the player. It was making an already complex game decidedly cumbersome.

In the race to finish the game earlier in the summer, the UI code had become bloated and spaghetti like. Fixing it would mean tearing it down and re-writing it from scratch, and after 9 months of intensive game dev’ing, I was thoroughly burned out.

Gold Standard

I went to the “Indie Collective” event in London in September, where Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo laid out their respective stalls and be seen as the most “indie friendly”. Since then, I’ve been working on a new game while pursuing development on the newly (supposedly) open, next-gen consoles.

So the controversy about OUYA’s well-intentioned but miss-stepping Free The Games Fund largely went over my head. (If OUYA wants to throw good money after bad, that’s their prerogative). I was irritated by the reaction of many indie game developers piling in to hate on the console that, to my mind, still represents the gold standard for ease of development.

When OUYA launched on kickstarter, they threw out a lot of things to see what would stick: Touchpad on the controller, some sort of hackable raspberry pi like device, both of which have largely fallen by the wayside. Another thing they promised was to bring the mobile revolution to the console space. From the development side, they certainly delivered.

That word, “Android” may have done a lot of damage to OUYA in terms of confusing consumers and bringing with it misconceptions about the sort of content people could expect on what at the end of the day is a console first and foremost. However, the sheer variety of routes for getting a game onto the OUYA has been a huge boon. From cross-platform tools like Unity and Monogame, right through to Gamemaker, and beyond that, more exotic things like Adobe Air.

There are no NDA’s to sign, no fees to pay, the “devkit” is the retail unit you buy off the shelf at your local game store. At $99, it’s a bargain compared even to the mac+iPhone bare minimum needed for iOS development.

OUYA’s marketplace is just as wide open as the mobile stores from the submission side, while at the user end, OUYA have made a point to take discovery problems seriously. In a world where getting lost in a sea of apps has raced to the top of many developer’s list of concerns, OUYA have taken a lot of steps to pro-actively address the issue head on.

Still No love

Despite all that, and continuing to evolve and improve the system since launch, OUYA continues to be shunned by the majority of developers. It would be easy to pin the blame for that on clumsy marketing, or more cynically, that developers are ultimately making platform decisions based on cold, hard, economic facts.

Instead I’d posit that cross-platform tools, (particularly Unity3d), have allowed developers to create games for their existing favourite platform, and then if needs be, port in pursuit of the money.

From a consumer perspective, indie games fans are really just a subset of hardcore/enthusiast/gamer, or whatever label you choose to attach to those who consider playing games their hobby of choice. They really do like shiny things and are willing to wait and buy a $500 Xbox One/PS4, or have an expensive PC gaming rig. OUYA doesn’t fit into that.

There are probably more subtle things going on as well. In many ways, indie games is as much about the personalities as it is the games. Yes, a few big names made OUYA ports of their already-hit games, but none really got behind OUYA and made a big thing of attaching their name to it.

For me, I didn’t have an existing fan base or successful title under my belt to fall back on. OUYA was a chance to be more than just a drop in the mobile app store ocean. An opportunity to be a launch title on a console; something that doesn’t come around very often. A calculated risk that if the OUYA really took off, it’d have been worth it to get in on the ground floor.

Next!

It didn’t take off, but while I’d probably have taken the money given the option, I’ve gained a great deal of experience and had a lot of fun from my year of OUYA. Me and my little clear plastic box have been to conventions, on shop floors and even on TV! I’ve learned about social media, how to build a presence on the web, what makes an effective blogging campaign, and the limits of what you can do with a zero dollar marketing budget from your home office. I’ve finished a game, and released it!

I will undoubtedly put more games on the OUYA, but it just makes zero sense right now to not go cross-platform. (Exclusivity and the rise of cross-platform tools is something I think hasn’t fully played out yet and will yet come to bite the big three in years to come).

Last week, I took my OUYA to my cousins’ for Christmas. Despite blazing through the majority of its games library in a way only kids can (Too slow, next! Too fast, next! Too boring, next!) they were always bugging me to go back and play some more OUYA.

OUYA could have a future as a casual console, befitting it’s cheap price and existing library of games. Something between match three world of mobile and high end gaming machines. Hopefully 2014 will be the year OUYA captures that future