So Many Amiibos!

Going a bit off topic with this post to talk about Amiibos. For those that don’t know, they are plastic figurines of various characters from Nintendo games. Each has an NFC tag in its base, which can be read by the player tapping it on their Wii U gamepad.

On tapping one, whatever game the player has open will do something depending on which amiibo is tapped. This kind of technology really excites me, and there are a world of possibilities for games to use the interaction with a physical object to make the game more exciting.

Sadly, it seems amiibos don’t actually do much, at least as far as I can tell. Admittedly, I only own one amiibo, a Splatoon squid figure,which unlocks some bonus missions. Those missions in turn give some nice extra items, but having already played a lot of online battles, I’ve pretty much got my gear set up the way I want. Furthermore, the missions consist of doing the same single player levels I’ve already done, only against the clock this time.

It’s still cool as an extra thing, and in my case, the amiibo came bundled with the game at launch for a very reasonable price, so I’m happy with what I got. The problem is not every game comes with an amiibo, so any content seen as core or critical to the game can’t be tied to owning one. Otherwise people would complain that they were being sold short – there’s nothing more disappointing than getting half way through a game only to find you need to pay to play the rest of it when you thought you’d bought the whole thing.

What makes amiibo different from other similar games is that they work across a range of Nintendo games, rather than just the title they were bought for. At least in theory. In practice, not every amiibo works with every Nintendo game, and at this point, not with any 3rd party games on the Wii U (those made by companies other than Nintendo).

In fact, of the games I own on Wii U by Nintendo, two don’t support amiibo at all (Bayonetta 1 and Wonderful 101), and Mario Kart 8, which does support amiibo, my squid amiibo isn’t amongst the 19 amiibos it caters for.

Herein lies the second part of my issue with amiibos. There are too damn many! Maybe 30 or 40? I’ve totally lost count at this point, and they’ve been out not even for one year. Some such as Mario sport several different varieties and special editions.

That’s great for people who love collecting stuff, and also for lifelong Nintendo fans who have always wanted a figurine of their favourite character. I’m not one of those people. Wii U is my first Nintendo console and I consequently have no idea who the heck Marth or Lucas or Little Mac are. They certainly aren’t characters from games that I can buy for the Wii U and they’re not especially cheap either.

One of my big gripes with Nintendo fandom is how it’s stuck in the past. Splatoon was like a breath of fresh air, but now Nintendo and their fans seem to have reverted to type and there’s nothing on the horizon that isn’t a sequel or decade plus old franchise that I can really get into and feel that I have a stake in. Amiibos very much play into that feeling and it’s a real turn-off.

Amiibos had the potential to be precisely the opposite. Bind me into the Nintendo ecosystem and make me  invested in the games and figurines: Suppose that each figurine worked with every Nintendo game, and offered something unique in those games. Mario Kart 8 offers only alternative outfits for my racer, themed to match the amiibos it supports. Suppose that my squid amiibo let me change the colour of the ink-splat powerup in that game. Or let me unlock a new power-up that was squid or Splatoon related in some way. Or let me add squid decals to the side of my kart.

Then I’d be inclined to see what cool stuff other amiibos unlocked in the game. And once I have 2 or 3 amiibos, then buying a new Nintendo game means I’ll anticipate being able to unlock extra stuff in that. I’d be getting even more value for money as I’d have already sunk the cost of the amiibos. And so it becomes a virtuous cycle.

Instead, there are now so many amiibos that Nintendo will never be able to create content for all of them. New Nintendo games coming out won’t guarantee support for the particular amiibos I already have, meaning I either miss out, or have to buy an amiibo just for a specific game.

I’ve been told Super-Smash Brothers is the game that makes amiibos really worthwhile, as it supports the majority of them and in more than just a superficial manner. Maybe when I buy it, my amiibo experience will pick up. Till then, or till Nintendo add more amiibo functionality to my existing games, amiibos will remain something that just isn’t made for me.

Me on the Wii U

After watching Nintendo’s Digital Event online at this year’s E3, it feels like they are wrapping up their existing Wii U projects and focusing efforts on mobile and their upcoming “NX” console.

Since Nintendo have said nothing about the NX aside from the fact they’re making it, I’m mostly going on assumptions and gut feeling. However, as a developer making games for the Wii U, I need to consider the consoles likely lifespan and health of the market for games on it.

State of the Wii U

As it stands, the arguments for sticking with the Wii U are still strong. In an industry where digital distribution and free tools like Unity have meant anyone can make a game, the competition is fierce. Visibility is king, and in the relatively sparsely populated world of Wii U eShop games, pretty much every game will get reviewed by various Nintendo websites, guaranteeing at minimum, a decent level of exposure.

How that translates into sales is a different matter. At present, I’ve yet to release a game on Wii U. In addition to those few cases where figures are publicly available, I have spoken privately to a number of those with games on the store. Totem Topple will also help by giving some solid numbers of my own (when it finally launches).

Meantime, estimates suggest something in the order of between 1k to 10k unit sales. The wide range is because there are so many factors that can affect a game’s sales (quite aside from the subjective “is it fun?”). Level of marketing spend, how well it’s received by reviewers and the community in general, how good a fit it is for the Wii U audience. The 10k is not necessarily an upper limit either. A game that hits all the right notes, such as Shovel Knight, can definitely become a breakout hit, selling many times that.

For the purposes of planning, I need to assume a slightly more pessimistic outlook. Unit sales of 10k multiplied by a decent price like $10 ($7 after Nintendo take their 30% cut) can make a very healthy return for a one or two person operation working on such a game for 6 months or a year.

But equally, my games could come out at the bottom end of that range, and that’s what I need to prepare for. Totem Topple has taken 6 months, but it was originally made as a team, even though I took it on and ran with it afterwards. The others in the team will be taking their cut of the revenue it makes, so that will eat into any money I might see from it.

Conversely, Totem Topple will be launching on more than just Wii U. It will be interesting to see how that aforementioned added visibility just being on the Wii U translates into sales on other platforms. Quantifying that though – where a customer hears about a game (or decides to purchase it) – will be difficult. Whilst sophisticated analytics packages help link specific ad/marketing campaigns with specific installs on mobile, there are too many missing links in the data trail when it comes to Wii U or some of the other platforms like PSVita to work that out.

That’s definitely a negative when dealing with Wii U. There was a long delay with Totem Topple trying to find out exactly how to go about implementing and then subsequently getting approval for our analytics package (GameAnalytics) on the Wii U. Whereas other platforms didn’t bat an eyelid at its inclusion.

The advantage is that having gone through that process once with Totem Topple, I now have the knowledge of how to make things like Miiverse, Leaderboards, Analytics Packages and so forth happen on the Wii U.

That should translate into making life much smoother for Flight of Light. It is a game I feel much more confident about for the Wii U, because it’s a more substantial game than Totem Topple, with a bigger scope. My impressions from following Nintendo fandom are that for the Wii U at least, people want to sit down and play longer sessions, whereas the 3DS format is much more suited to shorter on-the-go sessions (or equally marathon JRPG sessions, but that’s a different kettle of fish altogether).

Nintendo have announced Unity for (New Nintendo) 3DS, so Totem Topple may get there one day. It is a platform for which there are far fewer concerns around sales potential. Though it would mean having to learn the whole submissions process for 3DS as well, which will take time.

Ticking Away

Time is the other factor in all this. The Wii U may be viable right now, but at some point, Nintendo will announce the NX. At that point, the market for the Wii U might bottom out, or get a surprise upswing or it could be the NX isn’t due till the end of 2017 and things settle down for Wii U until closer to the time. However, the further we get into 2016 before the details of NX come, the more uncertainty there will be.

That leaves a window of at least 6 months where Wii U is business as usual. The question for me is how to take advantage of the position I’m in during that. I have the equipment (devkit already paid for), over a year’s worth of experience making Unity games on the Wii U, Totem Topple effectively finished and just awaiting final approval, and Flight of Light now making really good progress towards completion, perhaps by the end of the summer.

In addition, I’ve taken on a contract to help port a Unity game to Wii U for a fellow indie developer here in London. I’m convinced there is a demand that I can satisfy to do more such ports in the future. They have a much faster turn around time and the risk is far lower than making my own games, since I can tell if the finished games I’m porting are any good and/or doing well in other places. There are risks elsewhere, and going by the pessimistic sales estimates, I won’t be reeling in big wads of money. But it is a realistic, repeatable business model.

What’s holding me back at the moment is time. It’s difficult to work on two games at once in the best of circumstances, but being effectively a one-man operation, it’s even harder to juggle – release deadlines inevitably get pushed back far beyond what I’d like, and suddenly that idea of Flight of Light perhaps by the end of the summer evaporates.

Equally, I could get investment and hire people to help, but that takes time in itself. Moreover, if it transpires that the Wii U only has another year or so of useful life left in it, the business model has a limited shelf life as well. Come NX announcement day, which could easily be E3 2016, it’s potentially all over.

Next?

The ideal scenario would be to build a relationship with Nintendo on Wii U in that time and then get in relatively early on the NX. Unfortunately, neither myself nor Nintendo make life easy in this regard. Nintendo is a sprawling company. Outside of the indie program, there is no go-to person, and it’s difficult to build relationships when I’m emailing someone once every 6 months because I happen to have a specific issue that’s dealt with by their department. By a quirk of fate, I ended up in the non-indie program (aka warioworld), and whilst that technically allows me to publish other developers, it also means I’m in the group Nintendo expects to just go and get on with things, no hand-holding needed.

Furthermore – and I’ve observed this with Sony and Microsoft’s indie programs – I’m indie number 2817 that on any one day, the limited handful of indie reps they employ, have clamoring for their attention. When I’ve yet to even officially release a game on the store, nevermind one that actually sells well, I’m essentially anonymous. Or worse, causing a fuss talking on websites and twitter or in blog posts like this one about stuff that skirts pretty close to breaking NDA’s. Or at least raises awkward issues that definitely don’t sit well, maybe even run counter, to the work they’re doing: Trying to attract quality indie titles to the platform or increase sales of games on the eShop for example.

It could well be that Nintendo decide to make NX far more open than it is at the moment for developers. Or more closed and selective. Or go in a completely different direction from the “wars of perception” and battles for hearts and minds of the “hardcore gamer” crowd that E3 is all about.

Regardless, I’ll keep plugging away at Wii U for the time being. I’ve not had a great deal of success in my four years of making games as an indie. Between my inability to actually finish my games, I’ve made a series of bets that have all simply failed to pay off. The OUYA in particular I really felt was something I could get behind and make a difference with yet for a variety of reasons, it just didn’t work out. My fear is that my Wii U adventure will likewise slip away from me.

Hopefully though, my jadedness will pass and I’ll be able to give my games their best shot at success. I’ll have a major hand in bringing at least 3 titles to the Wii U by the year’s end, all of which I believe to be quality offerings and have genuine claim to be at least somewhat “innovative” or different from other games out there. With any luck, others will agree!

 

Four Years

Four years ago today I started out as a one-man-band indie game developer. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in that time which I don’t see discussed much or I think are worth highlighting:

Production

I’ve yet to find my ideal process for making games, despite having tried a bunch of different production methods. Some things I would recommend considering though:

- Pay for art. Best results have usually come when I’ve hunted down a professional artist with the style and quality I want and straight up paid them.

- If it takes longer than a week to implement a feature, drop it. It’s probably too complex, fragile or conceptually flawed.

- Don’t chase opportunities (e.g. new platform or device). You are highly unlikely to see one far enough in advance or have the resources to effectively hit it.

- It’s never too late to drop a project (so long as it’s for the right reasons). My first game I worked on for 18 months before realising it had such a ridiculously huge scope, it would probably take me another 18 months to finish if I continued.

Feedback

Just repeating the mantra of test early and often doesn’t really help with the details:

- Always have a build on your phone to show people, and any time you have the chance, get people to play, no matter who they are. Or failing that, have a video of your game saved on your phone (not just on youtube, in case there is no internet).

- Consider context. Who is the person playing / giving feedback? Other Game devs for example are good for working out why something doesn’t work and suggesting solutions, but can sometimes give poor feedback because they are thinking through the lens of their own game. Non-gamers won’t be so good at articulating what is wrong with a game, but you can tell by their body language if they’re finding the game’s controls unintuitive say.

- Don’t take feedback at face value. Often people think they are being helpful by trying to diagnose a problem for you, when actually there might be a different underlying problem.

- Look for patterns. As in, if more than one person says roughly the same thing, seriously consider the issue.

Finance

I’m incredibly lucky in that when I was younger, my parents bought me a house in Nottingham where I went to Uni, which I rent out to cover my own rent in London where I now live, as well as pay for food and bills. That allows me to do game development full time.

Very few indies make enough money to live on purely from sales their own games. Most have another source of income. A day job, work-for-hire / making other people’s games, or support from a partner or family seem to be the most common.

However, I have seen other indies successfully get investment for making games. Insofar as I know from talking to those indies and going to investor-focused events, this is what I’ve learned:

- Investors look at people as much as product. A team with the right mix of skills, experience and complimentary personalities. And also just do they get on with you personally, since you’re going to be working together.

- Venture Capitalists (VC’s) in particular aren’t interested in “lifestyle businesses”. Don’t waste yours and their time chasing this type of investment if all you want to do is generate enough money to make your next game / work full time making games independently.

Marketing

Most indies understand that they need to “do marketing” and that their games won’t just sell themselves. However, the industry is constantly changing, and there are no business models or plans that indies can just pull off the shelf and easily use. From my own (largely unsuccessful) attempts at marketing, and from observing the efforts of others, I do have a few observations:

- The channels available to indies, such as twitter, youtube, or a feature on Rock-Paper-Shotgun are unlikely to let developers reach beyond the traditional “gamer” audience.

- Particular game types/genres tend to work much better than others on those channels. For example, Minecraft works great on youtube because each playthrough is personal and unique, versus say a playthrough of a linear narrative FPS.

- Content marketing and/or community building is incredibly time consuming. Writing blogs and doing dev diaries every day is essentially a full time job, and in my opinion, not cost effective for most games. It can also lead to burn-out.

I’ve learned a huge amount in the last four years. My hope is that 2015 is the year I can apply those lessons to actually finish my games and hopefully have a modicum of business success with them.

Flight of Light vs Totem Topple

Flight of Light

Last year we ran a competition to rename our Wii U game codenamed “Colour Park”. We received loads of fantastic entries, but in the end opted for “Flight of Light”. We also picked a number of runners up, who along with the winner will get a free copy of the game when it’s released!

We’re still aiming for a summer release of the game, but we’ve decided to de-scope the project. In other words, we will release a smaller version of the game than we initially planned, focusing mostly on the local-multiplayer racing part of the game. Depending on how that goes, we’ll release more single player levels and modes towards the end of the year.

Last weekend, we also took part in KinectHackLondon at Microsoft’s London Victoria offices, adapting Flight of Light to use Kinect version 2 for Windows (above). We’re now waiting to hear back from Microsoft on whether we can bring the Kinect version to Xbox One, in addition to the Wii U and Leap Motion versions we’re currently working on.

Totem Topple

We’ve also been working on a side project for the last few months called Totem Topple, which we’re planning to release on a whole range of platforms in April. It’s a vertical tower defence game with a native-American inspired theme that our lead developer, James Coote, made with a team of others as part of King game jam back in January. You can find out more about the game here: http://www.crystallinegreen.com/totemtopple

screenshot_31-01-2015_console_wip__3

New Year Update

December was a slow month for us due to team members having various family/personal obligations, but with the new year, we’re now raring to get back to work. Chiefly on our Wii U game, which still does not have a name! We’ve decided to extend the Name Our Game competition through January to give extra time for people to submit suggestions.

We’re now working on creating many more levels for the game. As well, there is lots of work to do to improve the game’s graphics and feedback mechanisms. Sound design and creating the UI (menus and options) will also represent a large portion of the work for the new year. We’re talking to Nintendo about possibly using Mii’s in the game, in addition to other Miiverse features.

If all goes to plan, we should be ready to release the game this summer. In the meantime, as usual, you can keep up with day-to-day progress on twitter and facebook

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:

—–

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.