No PS4?

Why are we not developing for PS4, even though we’re signed up to Sony’s developer program? Sony require each game to be pitched to them and approved before work can commence on it. This is done via a Global Product Proposal (GPP), which mostly consists of a bunch of technical details about the game , and a big design document explaining what the game is all about.

The game we pitched was Executive Star. The previous summer, we’d released Exec Star on the OUYA, too early, and without enough feedback and testing, and what came back from people who tried the game was that they liked the idea, but it wasn’t quite right. So, in the process of creating the Exec Star design document for the GPP, we went back to the drawing board and redesigned large parts of Exec Star.

Thing is, it seems like it’s actually quite hard to outright fail on the GPP, unless the game is about Mario on crack killing babies or something similar. So Exec Star got approved. But as part of the pitching process, Sony also provide feedback on the game design itself, as a form of advice and help, with suggestions non-binding.

The problem was, when time came for feedback on the design, it became clear that Sony thought there was a prototype/demo. That the way I’d worded things, it came across as though the game already existed. When in fact, the intention was to rebuild Exec Star from the ground up, incorporating the new design changes. The original OUYA version was made in our own home-made Android engine, so needed a remake anyway to ever get on PS4.

Also, I’d never written a game design document in my life, and Exec Star is already a complex game (arguably too complex). It felt like I’d just completely failed to communicate what the game was all about.

Parallel to all this, we were attempting to get onto the Nintendo and Microsoft developer programs. I’d attended a talk back in September last year, where Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft had each pitched their indie friendly credentials, and it really felt like there had never been a better time to get on-board with console makers. So we signed up with all three.

We actually signed up with Sony a little later than the other two. Partly because another developer we were working with at the time had some contacts in Sony and we thought better to try them first. Once that came to nothing, the next delay came from Sony requiring developers to have a fixed/static IP address. I work from home, and since I’m the lead developer, and in charge of business side of things, it made sense for me to get a static IP address. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of upgrading my existing Virgin residential line to a business line. It took a month and a half of waiting for an engineer to come round, and once they did, they charged £150 to “install” the new business line, which consisted of basically swapping one identical router for another. The monthly cost was slightly increased, and the speed halved. I’ve since found out that other ISP’s (such as plusnet) allow static IP’s for residential lines for an extra £5/month, and had I known that at the time, I would have just switched ISP’s and saved myself a whole lot of hassle.

When all that was done, it was getting on for Christmas, so it wasn’t till the new year that all the paperwork was finally signed off with Sony to make us official licensed developers. By this time, we’d already been approved for development by Nintendo, and had a Wii U devkit delivered, without the need for a static IP. Now, console makers need to make lots of compromises between security and ease of development, and all sorts of other things. Static IP is one example of where a trade-off has been made, and taken in isolation, is just a quirk of the particular setup they have for 3rd party developers.

However, there were other things we observed that seemed to fit a pattern. We wanted to remake Exec Star in Unity, so that we could put it on OUYA again, and possibly the other consoles as well. But Unity for PS4 was in closed beta, so unavailable at the time (back when we submitted our GPP in Feb/March 2014). Equally, there were no more PS4 devkits available for loan, and the price to buy one was out of our reach.

At the same time, Sony were still making a big noise about how indie friendly they were, and how all these indie games were heading to PS4 imminently. I particularly remember seeming Hyperlight Drifter blow up on kickstarter/twitter, then later reading an article about how one of the Sony reps had seen this, made some calls, pulled some strings and ensured the developer was signed up to PS4 the next day.

Moreover, talking to other developers on the program, some who had devkits and others who didn’t, it became clear that those who did, had already made their game, or at least an advanced prototype, and only after that, had shown it to Sony. Who then liked it enough to provide them with the devkit, Unity or whatever other tools, and generally expedite the process.

The upshot is, Sony want you to make a really cool indie game (on PC) first. Then show it to them. That way they know you can deliver, know what they’re getting.

We tried to do it the other way around. Sign up, then make the game. The static IP address, the GPP and paperwork, the devkit cost, the Unity license, are all there to weed out those that aren’t serious. Big developers will deal with that stuff, but only the super-committed of the indies, or those Sony pick and choose to help out, will get through.

Other experiences have reinforced this idea. With Nintendo, they were very upfront about providing all sorts of support and cool stuff like a free Unity Pro license. But ultimately wanting developers to show that serious commitment reciprocated, by stumping up the cash for an expensive devkit.

Microsoft, we didn’t get onto their ID@Xbox program, even after having attended their developer event in London and been active in the nascent Xbox One indie community online. They picked developers with existing track records of shipping quality (often console) games, and were selective even within that.

From my own observations, it’s clear there is a burgeoning indie game development scene, both locally in London and Nottingham where I live, and also internationally / on the internet. The number of games I see that are of excellent quality and production values from small teams is incredible.

I’ve attended a number of events recently around getting finance / investment in games studios, and reading between the lines, it’s clear investors are seeing likewise. They are spoiled for choice in terms of product, will only invest in a marketing plan, and definitely not in the production side (art, coding etc), since they really don’t need to. So many indie devs and small teams are making games off their own backs, with savings or in their spare time.

As a kind of investor, platform holders can really cherry pick the best of those games. Ideas have always been two-a-penny in the games industry, but now platform holders have even less reason to take a chance on a mere good idea and unproven team.

Sony also have the PSVita, and that is genuinely a lot more open and indie friendly development wise (free tools, no devkits with PSMobile at least). Sony have been using indies to bolster the PSVita’s initial poor sales, and the message coming from Sony is that Vita is the place to get on board with Sony, build up trust and relationships.

It makes sense from Sony’s perspective as well. They don’t have bandwidth/staff to deal with literally thousands of developers all pleading for attention, 90% of whom will never deliver. Equally, they have to ensure that the quality of the offerings on PS4 is kept as high as possible. Both in contrast to the quagmire that is the Apple App Store, and also because the PS4 is targeted at hardcore gamers, brought up on a diet of shiny, high production values AAA games.

After we submitted the Exec Star GPP, we realised that the game wasn’t going to be one of Sony’s chosen ones. Regardless of the poor pitching, it isn’t the kind of game that really fits with what Sony are trying to do with PS4 anyway.

For us, it’s been a case of spending the last few months trying something different with the Wii U, which more by accident than design, we ended up all set up for development on. I personally am determined to revisit Exec Star, not least because it now represents unfinished business. But right now, it makes more sense to get a solid console release under our belts on Wii U, then reassess things.

A Month with Wii-U

The trials and tribulations of testing and evolving Colour Park on Wii-U

Following on from my week of intensive Wii-U development, I took the concept on the road. I showed it to as many people as possible, taking feedback and evolving the design as I went.

In fact, I hardly did any development with the Wii-U itself during this time. Nintendo have realised that independent developers like me don’t necessarily have commercial office space. Most work instead from home or home offices. So they’ve dropped many of their previous strict requirements about where devkits can be based. (Or perhaps I just did a really good job of bullshitting them that my suburban house was in fact a proper office).

Unfortunately, the devkit still retains all sorts of restrictions on its use. I can’t take photos of it or allow people who haven’t signed a legal agreement with Nintendo to use it.

HammantMorganMoreModernDuetteTrainController(Looks wise, it reminds me of the control boxes I had for my model railway when I was a kid. Sadly though without those epic chunky knobs. Need to find some to glue onto it)

Moreover, I can’t take it out of my home office. This makes it especially difficult to get feedback on the game. Unlike something that runs on a mobile or laptop, I can’t just whip it out of my backpack at a moment’s notice. But even taking it to a friend’s house or the local indie co-working space, I need special permission that Nintendo is unlikely to grant.

Getting feedback is vital to the success of the game. My last game, Executive Star, suffered because what I thought was great whilst sat in my room in isolation from the rest of the world, upon release, turned out not to be so hot after all. Worse, flaws and imperfections I’d learned to live with and/or blanked out over the course of development were glaringly obvious to first time users. And those first impressions count for so much in games.

To get round this, I started off just showing recorded video of me playing Colour Park on the TV (with the dev hardware out of shot). However, that just didn’t cut it, especially with a game that relies on its own peculiar control system. Eventually I managed to get a wiimote to connect to my laptop, then send it’s input to Unity3d via an intermediate program. After that, I spent the majority of my time tweaking the Unity build on my PC/laptop. Once again the Wii-U devkit cut a lonely figure on my desk.

My hope is that Nintendo will one day let us develop on regular consumer Wii-U’s bought from the shops. Rather than needing specialist hardware. It would definitely make life that much easier for folks like me. Meantime, the laptop setup proved good enough to demo at several indie games meetups. Although I never could reliably get more than one wiimote to connect at a time, I still got that crucial feedback. I reckon I put the game in front of a good two dozen people in total.

Too Simple

As for what those people thought, whilst most liked the concept of the colour control mechanic, it soon became clear any game using it needed to be more substantial. Somewhat unoriginal, I decided to add in a roller-coaster-like track along which players would careen. They could then score points by matching the colour of different objects placed in their path.

Fortunately, I didn’t waste too long implementing all that. I quickly found a plugin for Unity3d that created Formula 1 style racetracks. After tweaking the code for it, I was able make it auto-generate something resembling a futuristic theme park ride:

Before:

trackBuildR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After:

 

Wildly Inappropriate

That track was soon itself victim of player feedback. Any coloured object at the top or just beyond the peaks of the track was hidden from the player until just a fraction of a second before they collided with it. Quick reactions is one thing, but failing the player for something practically impossible just came off as unfair. The track was rapidly adjusted as such to be much tamer.

Another major change to come from user testing was the colour-spectrum bar itself. I noticed some players were holding the wiimote differently to how I had expected: Gripping it with two hands like a steering wheel, rather than waving it up and down as I had originally intended.changePeople also complained that it took too long to glance from the coloured objects on the track, across to the colour bar and which colour they had selected. So the vertical bar to the side of the screen became an arc at the bottom, (or as I like to think of it, as a “Rainbow Smile!”)

By this point, the game had subtly transformed from my original vision of a two-player, side-by-side, DDR-style game. To instead something more akin to a racing game. Key was adding in variable speed. Players immediately started thinking in spacial terms of “ahead” or “behind” each other on the track. Whereas before, people were so concentrating on their own game, they tended not to look across to see what the other player’s score was or how they were doing.

Combined with the ability to collect and fire off power-ups that would disrupt the other player, it helped make the game feel a lot more competitive.

rainbow smileThere are a few more things I need to clean up, especially the way the currently selected colour is indicated. After that, I’ll be moving into the next phase – adding the “bling”. All the shiny effects, glitter and subtle movements that make the game feel so much more alive. I’m also working on getting an artist to create some characters for the game. Give it a more human face, and reduce the number of anonymous blocks and bars.

 

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:

A week with Wii-U

Experience and thoughts from last week’s experimenting with the Wii-U

I’ve had a Wii-U devkit sat on my desk since the end of last year, but it had been largely gathering dust whilst I was busy working on other projects. However, I have been noting down ideas and concepts I wanted to try with it, and last week, I finally found time to dedicate to prototyping some of them.

Hard and Fast

First idea out of the hat was a game loosely based on the classic party-board game twister. In this variant, different directions (up left, down right etc) are used to represent the colours. Players hold a wiimote in each hand and have to point the wiimote in different directions to select different colours with the correct hand, as called out by the game. An extension would involve one player using the Wii-U gamepad (touch screen) to do the colour/hand selection manually.

After a couple of days, I had the Unity for Wii-U samples up and working, figured out how to connect wiimotes, and get useful data from them. Pretty quickly, I came up hard against the limitations of the system. Specifically, the original wiimotes (as far as I can tell), only measure rotation in two axes. There’s no way to determine the yaw. It literally cannot tell left from right, which for the purposes of the twister-like game was not very useful at all.

The newer MotionPlus wiimotes that ship with the Wii-U are capable of determining yaw, but for a game that is likely to need as many wiimotes as possible, trying to explain to users (especially kids) that they can only use one type of wiimote, but not a near-identical other type probably won’t wash. Plus on a practical level, I only had one of the Motion Plus variants myself to play with.

I also discovered, much to my disappointment, what appeared to be a hard limit of four on the number of wiimote connections. So out of the window went the second extension idea I had for the game, whereby players would shove additional wiimotes down each sock and sitting down, dangle their arms and legs in every which way.

Colour Clash

Next up was less a game and more a mechanic around which various games could be constructed. In principle, the input from a wiimote, or touch screen, or analogue stick is just two or three variables between -1 and 1. It makes sense that since you physically move something in the real world, something moves by a corresponding amount on screen. But there is nothing saying the data necessarily has to be used that way.

One way you could use the data instead is to create sounds and music of different pitch, tone, volume etc. However, it’s an area I have no knowledge of, so I decided to go with colour instead.

My initial thinking was that each of the x, y and z values produced by the wiimotes could be fed into a colour cube to output different colours. However, I figured it was probably overly complicated and difficult to visualise on screen (in a way people could work out what colour they were pointing to).

So the cube became a square, with left/right being hue, and up/down lightness. Which, after the twister-game non-starter, became a single axis of up/down to change the hue. To top it off, I created a colour strip / slider with an indicator to help show players what colour they currently had selected.

colourbar_1

So in a way, back to the link between physically moving a controller, and movement on screen. Though technically I could have simply displayed the colour selected at any one time, from the perspective of helping the player learn the mechanic, they are unlikely to get what colours correspond with which movements without it.

Testing testing … 1 2 3

Was it fun though? Before I could test that, I had to construct a mini-game around the mechanic. Players would be given a target colour that they had to match with the colour they controlled. Each successful match would give the player a point, with the first to twenty wining the game. A timer would count down how long they had left to make the next successful match, and if they ran out of time, they would lose. To add extra tension, the more successful matches / closer to victory, the shorter the timer.

For balance, the corresponding time they had to hover over a certain colour before it was accepted as correct also came down in proportion with the timer. I also made the colour bands / range of colours accepted quite wide to make the game a bit easier.

Success! My testers all liked the game, though commented that even after just a couple of rounds, it felt a bit short and simple. However, a long discussion ensued about all the different things the game could add to make it more substantial, leaning mostly in the direction of a DDR or Guitar Hero style rhythm game.

I also found that having one player with two controllers (one in each hand), competing with themselves, definitely caused more of the annoyed/frustrated type of confusion, than the crazy hectic fun variety. Any sort of games that require more than one wiimote per player definitely can’t have them using more than one at a time.

Where Next?

The obvious thing to do moving forward will be take the points from the initial testing into the next iteration of development. See if I can get players to engage more deeply with the game, and retain their interest for longer

However, I also want to prototype some completely different games using the colour selection mechanic, and in particular, ones where I can start to bring in the Wii-U’s gamepad/touch screen.

 

 

 

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

Retail Revival

Retail may yet be OUYA’s best hope for breaking into the mass market

OUYA’s marketing strategies to date have revolved around trying to get the word out about the console via social media and the gaming press.This makes sense on the surface for a small company with limited resources, trying to reach a large audience using new technologies in a way only nimble startups can.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of gaming press and hardcore gamers / gaming enthusiasts who hang around on youtube, twitter or facebook are unimpressed with OUYA to say the least (for various complex reasons).

Instead, OUYA should really be being marketed at casual players and mum & kids type audiences, and these consumers don’t follow the latest gaming trends on twitter, and certainly don’t read gaming websites.

The problem is reaching them through traditional media, such as TV commercials and advertisements is very hit and miss, and very expensive. It simply doesn’t make sense for OUYA.

Earlier in the year, I went into a number of branches of the retailer GAME here in the UK, and spent the day demoing the OUYA to customers in stores. I concluded that having permanent OUYA stands at retailers, would undoubtedly result in both higher sales, and greater visibility in the market for OUYA.

OUYA has a good crop of fun, cartoony games that people can jump and start playing in seconds, which is perfect for an in-store games stand type situation. Plus, at $99, the console is well within impulse purchase territory.

The initial investment required would be expensive. Clearly, there is a big initial cost to set up the physical stands themselves and arrange to get them into stores. Moreover, many retailers rely in large part on being able to offer on the spot deals to entice consumers to spend more. Typically, this is in the form of taking old games as trade-ins, in exchange for reward points or money off the latest releases. OUYA doesn’t fit into this, and there is no incentive to promote it, either by the retailer at a corporate level, nor for the individual shop assistants, who receive commission on trade-in sales.

As a result, I’ve often seen OUYA tucked away in a corner, or locked in a glass cabinet at the back of the shop (owing to the OUYA console itself being contained in the retail box shops use to display it with). That does nothing for sales, as neither customers nor staff at stores are really aware of exactly what it is all about.

Without being an expert in video games retail, I’d guess OUYA would likely have to pay for additional in-store space that would otherwise be taken up by more profitable trade-in games from other consoles.

That may just be the price of getting a foot in the door of the mainstream market, something OUYA need to do (combined with the launch of OUYA 2.0), if they want to be more than just a tiny niche/fringe player in the video games 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

Arcane Technology

Monitors cast a hazy fluorescent glow across the impenetrable tangle of wires and sockets, leads and electronic devices of all shapes and sizes.

The whirring of fans like distant waterfalls, filling the air with the vapours of digital dreams. Blinking LEDs and the clicks and bleeps of the machines like the calls of birds in the forest.

The super-geek in me felt a dash of pride, like I was in some sort of hacker/sci-fi movie for the last few evenings. I’ve been setting up my Wii-U devkit, and it’s been a markedly different experience from when I set up my OUYA devkit for the first time.

The OUYA was a device I fully expected to be full of complex and unfamiliar settings, owing to it being merely 7 months since inception, and a few months more away from being in consumers hands at the time. But which transpired to be a quick and simple job, plugging seamlessly into my existing development setup.

Versus the Wii-U, which though it has been on shop shelves and in Amazon warehouses for the past year, feels like the devkit has not changed since it was first hacked together from component parts in a Japanese electronics lab.

Fortunately, despite its intimidating appearance to anyone not entirely comfortable with a soldering iron and resistors, and barring one or two “What….” moments, Nintendo have produced an excellent guide for getting started. Which, if followed in blind faith and to the letter, for me at least, landed me safe and dry with a fully functional setup for making shiny new Wii-U games.

Wii-u getting startedAnd to be fair, the first time I set up Android development on my PC, it was just as tortuous a journey of endless downloading of patches and editing obscure settings in Windows.

I’ve said before that I think the future is in retail consoles/devices doubling up as devkits, but at least once the process is finished for setting up the Wii-U devkit, the result is highly satisfying. I was able to fire up Unity3d for Wii-U, and within an hour or two, make a rudimentary demo game working on device, getting input from touch screen and analogue sticks / buttons, and displaying different output on TV and gamepad.

While Soul Machine remains my current priority, it’ll be fun to finally get started on the Executive Star remake for Wii-U. Plus, when I have the chance, I plan to fully make use of the Wii-U’s second screen and wiimotes for experimenting with new mechanics and gameplay types.