You Can Keep Your Rift On

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

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

Rambling Awkwardly

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

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

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

Naked Quake

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

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

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

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

Clothes Points

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

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

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

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

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

Acting the Part

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Sauna

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

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

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

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

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

Mini Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games Industry and Quality of Life platforms

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

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

Elderly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitness Enthusiasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guilty Unfit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side Quest: J-Game

JGame: An exercise in game balance

download2 source
Download Game Source (Unity 4.2)

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Progress Hour-by-Hour:

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

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

hour 1 compare

Hour 2 – Resources and Buildings

Created some resources and buildings to mine / produce those resources

hour 2 compareHour 3 – Improve Buildings and Update Loop

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

hour 3 compareHour 4 – Energy Up!

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

hour 4 compareHour 5 – Low Energy

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

hour 5 compareHour 6 – Facilities and Prequisites

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

hour 6 compareHour 7 – Technology and Shipyards

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

hour 7 compareHour 8 to 10 – Fixing

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

hour 8 and a half compareHour 11 – Snazzy

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

hour 11 compareHour 12 – Pink

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

hour 12 compareDay 2

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

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

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

day 2Day 3

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

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

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

day 3

 

A Year of OUYA

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

In the Beginning…

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

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

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

Eventing

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

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

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

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

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

Distractions

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

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

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

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

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

Lift Off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back on the Road

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

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

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

On TV

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

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

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

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

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

Own Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indies vs Retail

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

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

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

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

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

Home stretch

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

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

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

The other side of the finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nudge the Needle

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

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

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

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

Gold Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still No love

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

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

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

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

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

Next!

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

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

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

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

Most Indie Friendly

Debate around which platform is most “indie friendly” is corrosive. All have pros and cons

As next generation consoles compete head to head with each other, a new battleground has opened up over which platform is the most “indie friendly”. I’ve noticed this ramp up recently as indie devs write heated blogs and angst-filled tweets fly around in all directions. This kind of debate is corrosive and unhealthy in the long term for both platform holders and especially indie game devs for a number of reasons:

- Things may change. You may need to work with different partners in future for whatever reason. Publicly, and very visibly accusing one particular platform holder of being unfriendly to indies (and embarrasing them as such) may come to bite you in the ass a few years down the line.

- It’s unedifying, and can lead to indies appearing entitled and arrogant.

- Is antagonistic, and pits indies against each other by which platform they choose to develop for. That in turn endangers the community spirit of openness and helping each other out.

- Belies that not all platforms are the same. Each has different hardware, services and capabilities, and different demographics for their respective audiences. The decisions that result in that makeup are often compromises, and it may be that something indie devs want to use has only been made possible because of some other perceived “indie unfriendly” policy.

Moreover, no platform is better or worse than any other. Each platform has its pros and cons when it comes to indie game dev.

Devkits for All

Dedicated devkit devices are overkill, and their cost puts off many developers in a world where competing platform holders strive to attract content creators

I previously blogged about how even if you don’t play the games, owning a retail console or device for your target platform can have many benefits.

Now, consider a devkit and retail kit come as a single package, at a price that ordinary consumers can afford. That represent really good value for money for developers looking to see which console they want to target. Add in free software development tools such as Unity3d and it’s even better!


Devkits are usually more than just a retail box, and can include all sorts of extra diagnostic equipment and tools. For most small developers however, indies in particular, they are unlikely to really push the boundaries of the platform in a way that requires them to get close to the metal (code at a low level and use very specific hardware properties to gain maximum performance). Especially so for those who have delegated that task of having the most efficient, high performance engine, to the middleware providers like the teams behind CryEngine or Unity3d.

Having worked in mobile and on the OUYA, I really believe having retail units double up as devkits is the way forward. It is slightly intimidating approaching a big company like Microsoft or Sony to ask for a devkit, and devs aren’t known for being sociable and building business relationships

It also means there is less overload at the platform holder’s end, on those who would otherwise be in charge of handling dev relations. It means they don’t have to waste time answering the same questions over and over again. About process / procedure or getting started, or when is their devkit going to get shipped?

Furthermore, you will get people who start off only tinkering around with dev tools, only to later get really into development. Sometimes amazing games can result where before, the would-be dev was put off by the effort required just to see what this game making thing is all about.

Even having a (disabled?) set of developer options on the system menu, as is the case with the recently launched Xbox One, will make people curious and give them a feeling that development is for everyone, not just the elite with connections.

And there is also a marketing benefit. Developers can bring their incomplete or beta builds to trade shows or conventions to demo. Equally, developers can produce their own marketing material without having to worry about breaking NDA’s or revealing secrets. In an age where many indie developers make sharing the game development process a key component of their marketing, having to dance around what can and can’t be revealed adds time overhead and risk for both developers and platform holders

Mobile platforms (and microconsoles to a lesser extent) have a distinct advantage in that developers can pull their game out of their pocket at any time and do an impromptu pitch or get feedback, no matter where they are. While it’s difficult to lug an Xbox or Playstation around with you, at least being send your build to private beta testers over the internet and have them install the game on their own machine can be a massive boon.

The flip side is that the online stores for the platforms in question get overloaded with everyone’s “my first game”. Which leads onto the whole thing about discoverability, but that’s an entirely different debate altogether. It’d be a false economy to solve that by making development less easy.

Sony Developer Open Day

Previous to my attending the Indie Collective day a few weeks back, I applied for the Microsoft and Nintendo developer programs. However, I didn’t apply to the Sony Developer program, because I was given the distinct impression that it was essentially pointless to apply cold, and that it was better to get yourself known first, put your face out there in the community of developers and build up “credibility”

So to further that, I headed down on Monday to the Sony Developer Open Day at Sony’s London HQ. I spent most of the time furiously taking notes, and in the spirit of indie openness, here is my take on the day:

Self-Publishing the PlayStation Way

First up, myself and the assembled other indies were treated to a broad overview of Sony’s self-publishing philosophy. There was a brief history emphasising how Sony had, in some form or other, run various schemes or programs to allow homebrew or self-publishing. From things like Net Yaroze, something that I wasn’t aware ever existed, to more recently, PS mini’s and the move into the digital (distribution) era.

An interesting aside, they quoted 500 digital games from 160 studios had now been published digitally on Sony. Which works out at ~3 games per studio. In that context, it sounds a little less open and more like a small number of studios producing lots of mini-games.

But still pointing out that some of their favourite games, like “Retro-city Rampage”, were produced by one-man studios, and that they recognised that size doesn’t necessarily matter in that regard. Though from where I was sitting, I think most people there, just judging by their mere presence, probably didn’t need persuading of Sony’s Indie credentials

The real meat of the talk though, was Sony’s “Four Pillars of Self-Publishing”, which by my reckoning and note taking, somewhat mysteriously, translated into five key points:

  • Working Together – Developers giving feedback to Sony on processes and informing them of where they need to improve things. Sony are happy to look to outside influences as part of that, but they don’t want to just ape someone else’s system. They want to create “the playstation way” when it comes to self-publishing
  • Every developer is a publisher – When self-publishing, you’re treated as a publisher, just as a big publisher would be
  • Personal Relationship – Always someone you can come and meet face to face to talk about whatever needs to get done between you and Sony (within reason. It helps living in London in this case as you’ll need to go to them). In fact, this is something that came up a number of times across the day. It was mentioned right at the start of the talk as well; The idea that each self-pub gets their own account manager. They kinda made it sound like a bank manager
  • Equality of Opportunity – Basically, in terms of help and support afforded to you, the opportunities are the same afforded to big publishers and AAA studios. Key being quality, and providing this help with a view to the dev/self-pub achieving that.
  • “No Hurdles, Just Games” – Which was the logo on the free t-shirts we all got!

The point about quality was again something mentioned throughout the day. Essentially that there is a reasonable limit to how much support they can provide, and I suspect anyone who wastes their time or is frivolous with them, they’ll give you short shrift.

Another sound bite, “Not just a policy”, was expanded as taking a proactive approach across the company to the work people do, and that extended to their interactions with indies. A few examples of that from other areas of the company were cited. Things such as Sony’s taking a chance with Eve-Online’s Dust 12345 [sic], and introducing free-2-play payment options.

Finally, there was a quick breakdown of the process of getting a game onto Sony’s platforms:

  • Sign up to the Sony developer program, get assigned an account manager and discuss with them (one to one) what you’re about and planning on doing. (In fact, that doesn’t really tally with what was said later, so I may need to double check that). Another thing I have thrown into my notes is that “No console background is OK”, and actually Sony did do a show of hands as to who was using middleware, who had developed for console before and so on. The latter question got about 3 hands up out of ~50 attendees.
  • Submit a Global Product Proposal (GPP). This is super-important, and Sony had a whole talk on this later / see later
  • Development – Again, talking about all the things Sony can offer to assist in this department; Giving feedback, Advice on analytics, marketing, R&D / technical help etc
  • QA (which they are trying to streamline)
  • Publishing – Marketing, PR, sales and the business side of things is in fact, half the battle (something that I wholeheartedly agree with). Sony use the wholesale model for their digital store, and there are opportunities to meet with the marketing team and basically pitch your game to them. Discoverability wise, indies get their own store section, emphasis on it being in addition to listings in the main store.
  • Live – The game has a life beyond launch: You should be thinking about what events you might do post launch, what things are going to help retain users and give a long tail

Finally, and another thing that came up repeatedly throughout the day, that right now, Sony are very busy with PS4 launch. So the above is really applicable “under normal circumstances”, and while they aim to still hit that, things are liable to slip right now

Global Product Proposal

If you want to get on Sony’s platforms, this step is mandatory, so pay attention! Indeed the GPP talk started with a call to use it as a way to “Bring your game to [Sony's] attention”, and “Focus attention on your game”. I think it’s actually slightly misleading to imply it’s your one big shot. It is, but not quite in the straight forward way it appears on the surface. Hopefully it’ll become clear what I mean by the end.

There is a single submission process (for each game idea, and implied that you’re only going to be working on one at a time). This is not a 70 page, old-fashioned style game design document, but equally, it’s something more detailed than one or two sides of A4.

A number of people asked basically the same question at the end of the talk about ports or existing games, and as far as I could tell, there was no satisfactory answer about where this fits in to the GPP (where (or whether) you put in screenshots or concept art, or a link to a build).

Later on, it was mentioned by Sony (in their talk about Strategic Content (again, see later)), that they were looking more for original content and were less interested in ports or games that had prior release on other platforms. Or alternatively, the point came up multiple times that they were looking to see what things the PlayStation version would have that made it better than versions on other platforms (read exclusive content or use of unique-to-PS hardware)

Meanwhile, the submission process has “transparent criteria” – in the sense that you don’t get told what they are, but the rest of the talk was basically massive hints. From talking to one of the Sony reps afterwards, it sounds like there are actually a limited number of tick boxes that if not filled, will fail you, but the rest is more about where you end up in the rankings of games/devs.

In fact, they rank all the games by importance, and some then get flagged as “Strategic Content”. Which basically means it’s something special. Something they think will shift boxes or maybe highlight some unique hardware capability

Moreover, if you’re not flagged or top of the priority list, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ignored, nor have no chance of progressing. So it’s not a total bust if you’re not top of the pile.

You can also ask to get feedback on your game design, above and beyond just getting a simple accepted or not. It’s optional, but honestly, just the opportunity to get that sort of quality feedback from experienced developers is as worth applying it in itself in my opinion.

As for what to include and cover, there were a number of points for consideration:

  • Concept – Meaningful to the console, and makes use of what the console does. From developing on OUYA, I have an issue with things like virtual d-pads on touch screen, where the game was clearly designed with a different control scheme in mind, and does not translate when you take it from controller to touch screen, or keyboard+mouse to console. This point also links back to Sony clearly wanting to avoid a bunch of poorly considered ports for the sake of, and as well wanting the PS version having something to distinguish it from other versions on other platforms. Which leads nicely onto the next point
  • Parity – The experience of the player must be at the very least, the same as it is on other platforms. Ideally it is better or offers players something unique without being inferior. (My interpretation is that, for example, even if you had unique PS content, if the Xbox version has better graphics, that’s not acceptable. Those graphics would have to at least be on-par)
  • Objectionable Content Approval – Europe region is the strictest, and is more than just PEGI rating (since Europe actually covers a lot of different culturally disparate territories). But it’s all looked at on a case-by-case basis anyway, accounting for satire and “serious” games
  • Performance – Creative use of interfaces, such as the controller touch pad. Having a look to see what is in the SDK’s. As well, having really snappy, responsive interface. No point in having some funky interface, or even a standard console controller setup if it doesn’t perform well. (In the hardware talk, the reduction in latency they had achieved with the new dual shock 4 controller, an example of which was passed around the audience for people to have a go with, was one of the features/improvements highlighted)
  • Connectivity – Engaging the audience and taking advantage of the connectedness of the PS4 in particular. This was then expanded to include a whole list of things such as, in the social sphere, going beyond a simple facebook share button, to taking realism in AI / physics / story telling to the next level for a next gen console

From a practical point of view, the advice was to submit early. Some time after pre-production, having completed game design documents and considered what platform-specific features the proposal would include (again, this same point popping up), but before actual development begins (so again, by implication downplaying ports).

(How many indies produce game design documents or have a concept of pre-production anyway?)

Technical & PSN Services

The technical talk was the only one Sony requested we didn’t take pictures of (though apparently, taking notes and talking about it afterwards were both fine). However, I’m going to largely skim over it and just pick out a few key points:

  • The dev kit is a lot more than just a PS4. Built in at a hardware level are profiling and performance analysis tools, and tools that allow you to see what’s going on inside the machine, from what textures are in memory, to browsing the file/directory structure. That in turn suggests it’s unlikely you’ll be able to use your off-the-shelf PS4 as a devkit any time in the near future
  • There is already a long list of middleware that is directly supported, and an obligation (though no cast-iron guarantee) on the part of the middleware provider to make sure that middleware works how it is supposed to with PS4. Furthermore, if you want to see middleware added, it’s a case of pestering Sony at one end to persuade them of the demand for that middleware to be supported. And at the other end, pestering the middleware provider to talk to Sony about it.
  • PS4′s live tiles will allow you a limited amount of control. You can put a little HMTL 5 script into your game’s store tile to customise it a bit
  • If you have your own servers, it is possible to do PSN user authentication for them. Presumably this is for things like MMO’s, where they probably want to have their own server infrastructure, but will want to use PSN user details rather than force players to create new user accounts.
  • All games require trophies – This is a bit of an issue for me personally as my game just isn’t that kind of game.
  • API’s are available for iOS and Android to write your own companion apps. You can use them to connect and then send whatever messages between the PS4 and the second screen device. This is of particular interest to me, and when I asked about compatibility with middleware such as Unity, the answer came back that, yes, in theory it should be possible
  • Unity3D support for PS4, the general beta release is coming as of February 2014

Strategic Content

I mentioned these guys before, because they seem to be what I was missing prior to going to the event. In short, Strategic Content is a small team (literally 3 or 4 guys) that go through the games being developed for Sony platforms by indies and self-publishers, and pick out those of particular importance in terms of the wider context of what Sony are trying to do with the platform. Literally, the games of a larger, strategic importance.

They also look outside just those developers already signed up with Sony, to the wider community of indie developers, seeing what other indies that they trust are recommending, and actively seeking out games that are generally made of win.

These guys are very much the public facing part of Sony’s dev relations team. Those active in the indie and gamedev community, going to events, talking to people, finding out what’s out there. Previously, I had been given the impression that these guys were the gatekeepers of the platform, and that unless you built up your credibility and a relationship with them, then it probably wasn’t worth applying to the Sony developer program.

The biggest take-home message from the day for me was that actually, they are just one arm of the dev relations, or one route onto Sony’s developer program. In fact, applying cold through the Sony website was another, and the third being to sign up as first-party with XDev (see later).

In terms of what they were actually saying, it was nice fuzzy things about why they liked this or that developer (case study was Velocity by FuturLab). Or “growing the medium” (as an art form presumably?). They explicitly stated that their preference is for exclusives or at least new IP, rather than ports.

And as for what they do, I don’t think they were quite willing to come out and say it publicly, but the long and short that they will, on a case-by-case basis, provide help and support that developers may need. That probably means getting extra attention from marketing, but as well, hinted that in the past, it had included financial assistance. The fact they were so cagey on the subject I can understand though, since by the nature of what they’re doing, it has to be discreet and measured

XDev

This is Sony’s “all inclusive” deal. They provide (complete) financing, marketing, veteran producers to help you, can take you to global events such as E3, Gamescom. They will ensure you’re game is put through the full, rigorous QA, localisation, and can provide those things usually reserved for AAA studios such as time in testing suits, motion capture and even merchandising.

Equally, your title will be Sony/PS exclusive, and they will take ownership of the IP. There are some caveats to that, such as having first refusal when it comes to producing a sequel.

In terms of applying, the advice was that if you think it’s the right path for you, all things considered, then to contact XDev in the first instance. Then later on apply for the regular developer program if you were rejected. Though Sony gave no details of the exact application process or criteria they would judge you against, they mentioned they are working on roughly twenty games. That indicates to me it’s probably reasonably competitive and/or potentially for more established or experienced developers than your typical straight-outta-uni solo indie dev.

Conclusion

The process is intimidatingly long enough that non-serious developers will give up and spurious applications easily filtered out. Assuming you’re serious about developing for Sony, seems that it’s almost worth applying to their Developer program just to get in a GPP and corresponding feedback on your game design, marketing strategy etc.

Sony seem keen on building up more personable relationships with their devs, so useful if you can do that by attending events or participating in the indie dev community on twitter, but if you’re not one of the “chosen ones” picked by Strategic Content, there are other routes to getting on their platforms, so still worth going through the process.

However, don’t expect quick results, and with PS4 launch imminent, Unity support not till next year, this is about the long game, not quick ports.

Interlude: Pitch Jam

This weekend I participated in pitch jam, which brought together professional writers with those wanting to break into the world of games press and journalism.

Of course, when I first saw “games writing,” I thought it was all about writing the storyline for games (another area where I’ve dabbled in the past), but as it transpired, pitch jam was actually about helping those going into the world of freelance journalism. The idea being that often, they’ve written a great article or piece about gaming or the games industry, but struggle to pitch the article to website and magazine editors, who will actually publish it and pay them for their work

For the purposes of the jam, some dozen or so writers and editors from a variety of gaming websites and magazines very kindly volunteered their weekends’ to review and critique the pitches. Aspiring games journalists could then get feedback on their attempts to sell themselves and their work.

In the course of promoting Crystalline Green and Executive Star, I’ve done a lot of “content marketing” (i.e. blogs, videos and articles), both directly related to the company and game, and more tangentially, such as when covering the latest OUYA developments, or in areas of gaming that I’ve crossed into during the course of my work.

My two most recent games industry themed blogs, I republished on gamasutra.com, and was rewarded with them being elevated to  “Featured Post” by the editors there. Often though, it’s difficult to discern whether the quality of my writing is what attracts attention or if it is the content that has the real value, perhaps in spite of my writing.

With this in mind, pitch jam seemed like a good opportunity to get some feedback directly on my writing, somewhat detached from the content itself. Furthermore, the ability/skills involved to pitch an article to a website are transferable to pitching other types of content; a business plan to investors or a game to a publisher

First port of call though, was Robert Rath’s blog post dissecting the anatomy of a pitch (found after a little digging through google and the resources provided by the pitch jam organisers). Having never made this kind of pitch before, I unashamedly ripped of the format and structure of the pitch:

1st Paragraph – Give a flavour of the article content and my writing style.

2nd Paragraph – Back it up with the background behind the story: Any sources, plus how my own background and knowledge will add to it

3rd Paragraph – How I’m going to achieve that as a journalist: Convince the editor I have the contacts needed and can get the crucial interviews

After mulling over a couple of different ideas and sleeping on it, this is the pitch I eventually submitted:

Veiled in secrecy, Valve’s Steambox console has thus far been the antithesis of open development. As other platform holders fall over themselves to highlight their open, indie friendly credentials, Valve have seemingly headed in the opposite direction.

Yet developers of all sizes continue to flock to the platform, and for many indies, acceptance onto Steam represents the successful culmination of years of hard graft.

In my own work as an independent developer, I have built up an extensive network of contacts, especially here in London where I am a co-founder of the London Indie Game Developers group. Using these contacts, I will gather thoughts and opinions from both upcoming and established indie developers on what Monday’s Steambox announcement means for them, and the impact it will have in the wider context, as platform holders battle for indie support.

Being heavily involved in the OUYA community, I have seen how developers like Bluebutton Games and more recently, Bram Stolk (of Little Crane fame) have turned to Steam after becoming disillusioned with lackluster sales on the upstart console. While comparisons will inevitably be drawn to Sony and Microsoft’s respective “Next-gen” consoles, I shall argue the case that the existing credibility Valve and Steam hold within the indie community poses a far greater threat to the nascent microconsole market.

Of course, at this point I’m bullshitting somewhat, because I’ve not actually gone out and asked any of my indie friends if they’d be happy to do interviews or give their opinions on the matter. But then, this is a pitch created for the purposes of the jam, and I’m unlikely to follow through and pitch it for real. (I don’t have the time to actually go chasing up people for interviews for one thing).

I was lucky enough to get feedback from two different writers/journalists. First one from the editor of a large gaming site:

“Perfectly solid pitch, one with obvious timely appeal. It’s not the most imaginative or original, but it’s also one of those cases where it doesn’t have to be. The key to this being more interesting for the reader is that the featured developers have created games that the readers have at least heard of, if not actually played. Similarly, the article will rise or fall based on the quotes that these developers provide. There has to be some genuine analysis and insight present, or else the article will end up a blah placeholder. “

 

And secondly from a freelance writer and editor of a small gaming website:

“Dear Pitcher,

Nice, brief pitch that gets straight to the point; I like it. I’d suggest swapping the order of your second and third paragraphs, and then make sure to be explicit about who your “contacts” are. “Contacts” sounds too mysterious, and editors want concrete examples that they can rely on as assets for the article you pitch. Talk to some of your contacts, secure their participation, and cite their names/studios in the pitch you make.

Also, I noticed a few spacing errors. Don’t forget to proofread before you send it out.

Best of luck!”

On the one hand, I feel a touch guilty about entering the jam, having a good pitch, and at the same time knowing there is almost no chance this article will ever get written for real (especially when there will be many people entering the jam who genuinely want to be games journalists, and may be getting back much harsher criticism).

Conversely, it’s a good feeling to know my pitch was received favourably. There was no real ripping into the style, format, wording nor content (all of which I had, somewhat masochistically been hoping for).

What is slightly depressing is how both placed the greatest value on being able to attract big names / developers of famous (indie) titles. Can’t really criticise the media for that, as it reflects a deeper desire for the audience to be able to attach either a face, or a game they have played, with the person being interviewed.

But, coupled with comments such as those made by Sony’s head of indie relations, it does somewhat feed into my existing anxieties about the culture that is forming around indie development. One with increasing emphasis on who you know as much as it is what games you’re making

 

The Revolution is Dead

The revolution is dead

OUYA was born out of the frustrations of gamers at the end of a console cycle that had grown particularly stale. Now the arrival of a new generation of consoles is imminent, and Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are collectively pushing to diversify their game portfolios by courting the quirky and colourful indie gaming scene.

The original reason for OUYA’s existence has largely evaporated. It has no future as a rebel console, indie champion or alternative to PS4/Xbox One.

Instead

But it does have a future as a console for kids and party gaming. Bar the novelty-feature motion controller, the OUYA has all the ingredients that made the Wii successful: Bright, colourful games you can play with your friends and parents at a cheap price.

As luck would have it, other consoles currently lack this: Local multiplayer games to play together with friends. Emulators on which parents can show their kids the games they grew up playing

Getting There

Fortunately, virtually no one knows the OUYA exists. Mums don’t browse reddit, they don’t read The Verge and they sure as hell don’t read Kotaku. Right now, if they google for OUYA, they will get back a whole bunch of negativity from those sites. OUYA needs to undergo a rebranding exercise. That can come in the form of OUYA 2, or even completely dropping the OUYA name (it’s become that toxic).

There is no need to rush it either. Go back to the lab, get the product right, let Sony and MS slog it out over Christmas. Come back in the new year with a fresh image and clear focus on who your customer is, why they should buy this product

OUYA, please stop trying to compete with global megacorporations for the tiny hardcore gaming market. Don’t be afraid to pivot!