Category Archives: Blog

Backed Over by the Money Truck

Money Truck

Yesterday was a deadline day here in Ontario for the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Interactive Digital Media Fund. That’s a lot of words, so let’s just shorten it to “OMDC IDM”. Of course, that’s a lot of acronyms, so let’s just shorten it to “OD” … as in, “i just OD-ed on application writing, and now i need some detox.” The IDM Fund adds a “D” to the end of the word “FUN”, rendering it completely UNFUN in the process. Every time i finish one of these applications (this was our third), i feel like i’ve been sapped of my vital life force like the podlings from The Dark Crystal:



i’ve said it before, and i’ll say it again: there are problems with this Fund. To put it succinctly:

  1. It requires you to request too much money.
  2. It does not move nearly quickly enough.
  3. It requires too much needless documentation.

To put it far less succinctly, let me expand on those points individually. Please keep in mind that i’m approaching this from the perspective of a small causal games studio. If your company name starts with a “U” and rhymes with “Boobysoft”, you may not agree with everything i posit.

1. The ask is too large.

When we submitted Spellirium in the Spring OMDC IDM round, we were told that the $19.99 price point was too high. At least one juror suggested that we were incapable of producing a game of sufficient quality for that price point, which galled me. Nonetheless, this time we reduced the price point to $9.99.

On the other hand, the OMDC suggested that we were one of the smaller applicants, and that our $40k ask was pretty insignificant. It put us in competition with a number of other small companies, and our app simply wasn’t the best of those competitors. The notion here is that a three dollar hamburger will receive harsher criticism than a nine dollar hamburger … if you pay nine dollars for a hamburger, you already know it’s good. The price tends to say a lot about the quality, even if it doesn’t play out in reality. So we needed to lower the price point on the game, while increasing the budget, so that we could ask the OMDC for more money to look better on paper.

Big Kahuna Burger - Pulp Fiction

Now THAT is a tasty burger.

We also took a hit because we were only creating roles for four people. The first time we submitted Spellirium, they asked why we didn’t support the iPhone. The second time we submitted Spellirium, we added iPhone support, and the OMDC asked why we didn’t support Facebook. So this time out, we said FEKKIT. We moved Spellirium from Flash to Unity 3D, which gives us PC and Mac downloadable, web, and WiiWare/iPhone/Xbox 360 with the purchase of engine add-ons. Take THAT. Since a 3D game is often more costly than a 2D game, our production schedule was packed with more people: 3D modelers and animators, texture artists, UI designers, and a gaggle of others. This is what the OMDC wants to see for its investment. Our project will create jobs in Ontario.

Microsoft Surface

Hey – i just read in the Globe and Mail about Microsoft Surface. Why don’t you develop the game for Microsoft Surface? It’s clearly an oversight. i’m gonna have to reject your app.

But what do we end up with? A bigger budget at a lower price point. That means we’re even LESS likely to break even, so we have to re-visit our sales targets. The only way to make it work is to crank up our projected unit sales. We discovered that we’d need to sell ten thousand units to make a go of it, which is a challenging number, especially for our first outing. But i feel this situation was kind of forced on us by the suggestion to lower the price point and increase the budget. We need to ask for enough money so that the OMDC won’t just dismiss us out of hand, but it has to be an amount of money that we can realistically recuperate through sales. Rock, meet hard place.

i would much rather work with a modest budget and a realistic sales target. But as James Weyman from the OMDC said during an info session (and i paraphrase), “Why would we spend $40k reviewing an application when the ask is only $30k?”

i agree, James, and i counter with this: Why are you spending $40k reviewing my application?? Give me a fund where i can ask for a small amount of money to take baby steps on my way to becoming one of the Big Guys, instead of requiring me to put on one of daddy’s suits and pretend that i’m one of the Big Guys already.

Godzilla

As much as i like to imagine myself as Godzeera, in reality i’m just a doughy guy in a rubber suit.

2. The Fund does not move quickly enough.

The IDM Fund has two deadlines each year. It takes many weeks after the submission date to find out whether or not you’ve been funded. It’s a number of weeks after THAT before you start the project. This latest deadline was yesterday, November 16th 2009. The project has to begin within a number of weeks of funding approval, which puts us at March 2010. That’s three and a half months from submission to project. Any small, lean developer like us could complete one or more high-quality games in that time.

And i don’t quite understand how scheduling is supposed to work. Are we supposed to book that project time off? If a client comes to me and offers me a contract that starts in March, am i supposed to say “no thanks … i think we might get OMDC funding in March”? A much larger company might be able to work like that, but little guys may only be able to run one or two concurrent projects, max.

You need to cook up at least 50% of a project’s funding on your own. The bare minimums are 20% deferral (working for free), 20% in-kind contributions, and 10% cash. We have to scare up as much cash as possible, because 1) ain’t nobody gonna do nothin’ for us for free (except my wife and me), and 2) we have no partners. So if the IDM application happens to fall on a dry spell when we can’t show a lot of green in the account, we essentially can’t apply. It’s another six months until the next application. Who knows where we’ll be by then? Selling our toenail clippings for enough money to buy the leftover cookies from the blood clinic, perhaps.

i would like to see a fund where, instead of two hard deadlines a year, there is a perpetual submission window. We could submit whenever we had the cash, time, and project to submit. If any OMDC folks are reading this, they’re probably angrily tallying up a massive list of why this can’t work. So let’s play the “Ryan is the New Ontario Minister of Culture” game, everyone: i come to the OMDC because i won the position of Minister of Culture by defeating the former Minister in a bare-chested steel cage match or whatever, and i say “Here’s how it’s going to work: structure a Fund with a perpetual submission process, or i disband the OMDC and sink all the money into a new prime-time variety special starring the cast of the 1972 smash hit The Beachcombers.”

Now, throw out all your reasons why something like that can’t work, and let’s brainstorm how we can build a fund to solve this problem.

Beachcombers

For the love of all that is holy, keep these hideous bastards off my teevee.

3. The app takes too long to prepare.

The kind of company that can reasonably apply to a fund like this on a regular basis is large enough to employ a dedicated app writer. The application requires sixteen different sections. Some of these are copy/paste – throw your Articles of Incorporation in there, your shareholder info – no problem. But the majority of the required material poses an onerous task to a small studio like ours. Required elements include a business and marketing plan, a development schedule, and a detailed budget. Those are all nice to have, but the OMDC grossly underestimates the difficulty a small company faces in producing those documents.

And funder, please. Don’t get me started on the budget. The Excel files provided by the Corporation are ripped from other funds (Bell and Telefilm). They are extremely teevee- and film-focussed, including line items for things like location scouting and talent. They have very few formulae built into them, so you end up having to hand-calculate many of the cells. There is a labelling error on the Minimum Schdule of Ontario Expenditures that the corporation knows about, but they haven’t bothered to fix it yet (it’s only been six months since the last application round, after all …) i have no idea why the OMDC would spend $40k reviewing one of these apps without spending two hundred bucks paying a CA student to add formulae to their spreadsheets and fix the errors. No – instead, we all have to waste our time struggling with these files.

The cost of physically producing the app is higher than it needs to be. The app must be printed as four separate copies. This year, we purchased four red binders and four sets of binder tabs to bind the app. That put us out seventy bucks. We don’t get the binders or the tabs back (i think the OMDC and the jurors secretly eat them … monstrous bureaucrats who are fueled by delicious life-giving stationary supplies). We spent another thirty bucks on printer ink, and maybe another ten on paper. i can’t imagine what the cost would have been to have the thing professionally printed and bound. i believe some applicants do this, but again, those are the applicants who can afford to have an app writer working on this thing.

Those companies are also large enough to pay for pre-production artwork to make the app look really good. i do what i can to add screens from movies and games that convey the feeling i want to invoke in the final game, but i have no artists on staff. i can’t afford to hire a contractor to create spec art for an app. We’re just too small to do that.

The apps i write come in somewhere between 60-80 pages. The OMDC has suggested that other successful applicants have had much smaller apps (30 pages?) but i don’t see how that’s possible with sixteen required sections. The time it takes for me to write an 80 page document could be much better spent scavenging for food from the floors of fast food restaurants to feed my family.

Beg

You may actually think i’m joking.

If i could make any suggestion about how to solve this problem, it would be that the expectation should be proportionate to the ask. Small game, small budget, small application. Lowered expectations. An app submitted by a company with two employees should not be compared with an app submitted by a much larger company. But since the ask is necessarily high (see above), the app needs to be thick. Jurors will say “why aren’t there any images of gameplay?” and “why doesn’t the budget list a production assistant for four days in July to help oversee this aspect of the design?” Simple: because you’re looking at a PROPOSAL, not a post-mortem of a finished game. The game isn’t built yet. i need money to build it. And here i am asking you for money. If i HAD the money to pay an artist to create images, i wouldn’t be grovelling at the feet of the Ontario government for funding. If i KNEW that i needed a production assistant for four days in July, i’d be visiting you FROM THE FUTURE.

Cry Me a River

i know this griping has probably moved many of you to tears. Thank you for your empathy. For my more jaded readers, i suggest only that this IDM fund money is my money. It’s your money. It was taken from our pockets specifically to be paid back in this initiative. The OMDC is not being kind or benevolent by handing it out. They exist due to a mandate from the Ontario government, by our elected officials. If we elect officials who decide that this funding is not important, the OMDC ceases to exist. i can kiss ass with the best of them, but i draw the line here. Neither do i beg Canada Post to deliver my mail. It’s a service paid for by tax dollars – my mailman is not doing me any favours by giving me mail. The OMDC does not deserve a philanthropy award by making a calculated decision to fund my project.

One piece of good news is that we WERE approved for one OMDC initiative, the Export Fund. They’ll throw a few bucks our way to lower the cost of attending GDC and Casual Connect. ROI is measured by the number of sales leads we generate, among other things. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great to have that assistance. But it would be more useful to us if we actually had a project to show at those conferences. i don’t see how i’ll ever be able to get project funding money if i’m competing against console companies with armies of partners and multi-million dollar budgets.

It’s a big-company, small-company dichotomy in this province, increasingly so. Big companies present no-brainer, lower-risk proposals than small companies often do. They can simply hire more people and spend more money. When it was recently announced that the OIDMTC (an interactive tax credit) would be claimable every year, rather than only on the year that a project was completed, it was GREAT news. Then came the stipulation that only companies who paid out one million dollars in payroll were elligible for this increased claim frequency – in other words, only UbiSoft.

The Ministry of Culture and the OMDC need to realize that UbiSoft and other big successful companies were not birthed from their mamas’ wombs as big successful companies. We begin life as whiny, squealing infants, both in our personal lives and our corporate lives. We all start somewhere. Untold Entertainment remains in the whining and squealing stage: this is me, whining and squealing, asking the government to supply child welfare, in addition to what they regularly pay out to old and fat companies.

That’s right, other companies: i’m calling you fat. Whatcha gonna do about it? Chase after me? i got those nimble little baby legs. Hiiii-YAH!

Baby

Catch me if you can, bitches! ZOOM!

I Can Haz Beer?

i don’t drink, but i have it on good authority that some among you do. Everybody i knew put in an application for this last IDM round, including my mom, who doesn’t even make games. It’s always an enormous burden off my already-burdened shoulders when i hand the thing in, and i know i’m not alone in that. i hereby decree that the next time there’s an IDM submission deadline (20 months from now, or something like that), we should all meet somewhere and have a post-app evening to unwind. OMDC, you’re invited.

Word.

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Made in Canada AND with Unity: Apollo 11: The Game

Today, we’re combining our Made in Canada and Made with Unity features into one: Made Through Canudity (working title). Decode Entertainment is a Canadian convergent media company that creates kids’ teevee shows and interactive properties. If you own any toddlers like i do (i’m collecting), you’ll recognize a few of their shows: Bo on the GO!, Animal Mechanicals, Franny’s Feet and Super Why!. i’m sure that someone from Decode will pop on here later and correct me, explaining that one of those shows was actually a Canada/France co-production with funding from a Swiss snowmobile manufacturer, and it technically flies under the banner of the parent company DHX Media Ltd., but you know what? Stow it. These nice people have better things to do than to wade through the labyrinth of Canadian content credits.

NASA As They Wanna Be

Decode Interactive, the “digital” arm of the company (don’t get me started) collaborated with NASA to produce Apollo 11: The Game for the iPhone. i have it on good authority that the Decode Interactive team visited the actual sound stage where NASA faked the original moon landing. Think of the game as an advanced Lunar Lander, the one where you have to gently land your rocketship without blowing it up. Except here, you have more true-to-life NASA-esque controls, and “blowing up” is more analgous to “wasting millions of dollars of American taxpayers’ money.”

Apollo 11: The Game

Even if you missed Apollos 1 through 10, it’s not hard to pick up the plot.

The team obviously strove for authenticity to hit a niche audience of NASA-enthusiasts – otherwise, the surface of the moon would have been a little more colourful, and the lander would have been able to fire spiky blue turtle shells to knock out competing lunar landers from other countries. You can’t please everybody, so in trying to please space nuts, the game may alienate players looking for something more candy-coated and fun. But if you are a HAM radio operator, and you used to play with an erector set, and you own Red Dwarf on DVD, this game might be just your speed.

And Now, de Codes from Decode

The title was authored in Unity 3D with the Unity for iPhone add-on. Unity is the little-game-engine-that-could that recently took the piss out of Unreal Engine’s consumer-grade product launch by offering their engine for $FREE. The Decode Interactive team has a number of other Unity-based projects in the works, and they sponsored the first Toronto Unity Users Group meeting earlier this week. If you come out to one of our upcoming UUG Toronto events, be sure to shake hands with these guys – they’re a great resource, and they’re keen to help developers wrap their brains around the Unity 3D technology.

Jean-Guy Niquet, a regular contributor to our conversations here and an erector set fan in his own right (oo-er!), heads up the merry band of Decode Interactive programmers. He’s been kind enough to offer us a batch of FREE CODES for the game – first come, first served. As usual, here’s the drill: the codes are good for YANKEES ONLY. If you DON’T live in God’s America, they’re not going to work for you. (Thanks, Apple!) And if you successfully redeem one of these codes, please let us know – we’ll strike it from the list.

Here are the codes for a FREE copy of Apollo 11: The Game:

  1. RYMAEX3X7N9M – Redeemed by segra!
  2. 4RLEWLX67XEP – Redeemed by Brennon!
  3. 9PPN3FTE6W4T
  4. 9YJL4R4766NE – Redeemed by Abdullah!
  5. XRKJXH4TYPKL – Redeemed by Gabriel!

And if you do give the game a shot, please let us know how you liked it!

Eagle out.

Can’t We All Just Game Along?

our Video Game Events Master Calendar is really filling up!

UUG

This is last call to buy tickets for the Toronto Unity Users Group, which runs tonight at the Gladstone Hotel. Here are some fast facts about Unity 3D to refresh your memory:

  1. The game engine has been around for a number of years, but the recent port to the PC and the price reduction to FREE has garnered a boatload of attention.
  2. It’s kinda like Flash, except it uses 3D graphics, and it’s actually tuned to make games. So instead of bending it to your steely will as Flash requires by adding 3rd-party physics, for example, Unity comes with many crucial game features right out of the box.
  3. There is a world of opportunity in marketing for folks that can use Unity. Unity 3D games can be played directly in the browser. Advertisers looking for something shiny and new (“new”) will be plenty impressed by the technology.
  4. Can’t do 3D? If you live in Ontario, there’s plenty of under-utilized, inexpensive talent coming out of the colleges and universities. It seems every school has at least one 3D art program, but the demand for these graduates is rock-bottom in the province.

Here’s an example of what Unity 3D can do in skilled hands:



MUG

On Wednesday, there’s a double-shot of Unity goodness. There’s a half-day workshop at George Brown College. After that, i expect most of the participants will pub crawl a few blocks over to Kensington Market, where the Rich Media Institute is holding the monthly Mobile Users Group for Games and Apps. They’ll be talking about (among other things) the u3dobject framework, which enables you to communicate between Flash and Unity.

When i read the MUG description, i was worried that it stepped on the UUG workshop. Then when i read about the content of the meeting, i was really concerned – not only was it stepping on the other event, but it was about Unity 3D! As it turns out, one event begins as the other ends. i know that the UUG organizers, DimeRocker, had met with Shawn Pucknell at the Rich Media Institute, so i’m glad that everyone is playing nicely together.

Streaming Colour Studios’ Owen Goss is a regular at the event. Here’s his latest vblog developer episode:



No Elbow Room

It wasn’t the case last week, when the Vortex Game Competition ran concurrently on top of the DIG London conference, which split a few loyalties. But as anyone who’s tried to organize a Christmas party in December can tell you, sometimes there are just no openings. Other times, the event has to happen because it’s reliant on a funding schedule – that was the case two years ago when interactive ontario’s GameON: Finance conference ran the week before GDC in San Francisco.

i am THRILLED that gaming is so red-hot in Ontario that the calendar is so packed with events. i sincerely hope that we all stay well-connected enough so that there’s enough breathing room in the schedule to give everyone a break. If you’re running a game-related event in Ontario, please check the calendar first to ensure that you’re not encroaching on another initiative. And if you know of any game-related events – in Ontario or abroad – that should be on the calendar, please feel free to add it to our events page and we’ll update the calendar PDQ.

Don’t Call Me Digital

i was sitting in the industry consultation session held by Telefilm Canada, a federal corporation tasked with, among other things, dispensing cash to the country’s audiovisual industry, including teevee, film, and interactive content producers. Telefilm is restructuring its fund and calling it the Canadian Media Fund (CMF). One side of the fund gives money to teevee producers who put their content on at least one other platform (the Internatz, mobile devices, VR goggles – whatever). Telefilm has cooked up the detestable term “Experimental” to describe the side of the fund that is not teevee-dependent, which may include video games. Thankfully, enough industry folks urged them that “Experimental” was a terrible term and it’s being changed.

Moira Fenkleheimer

What’s in a name? Ask Moira Fenkleheimer.

So while i sat in the session, which was quite full of mostly teevee industry folks (and a small but extremely vocal and TERRIBLY worried-looking group of documentary filmmakers), i heard the word “digital” thrown around to describe what we do here at Untold Entertainment. The suggestion came up more than once that the “Experimental” stream, the one that was not concerned with teevee, be renamed the “Digital” stream. “Balls to that”, i say. Here’s why:

You Crazy Kids With Your “Rock n’ Roll” and Your “Hyperlinks”

The consultation really got me thinking about nomenclature. i see the term “digital” being thrown around all the time to describe what we do. The people using this term are mostly my parents’ age – baby boomers who have evolved from calling the computer mouse a “whatsit”, and are in positions of power at various places. These folks comprise the Old Guard of the entertainment industry. They’ve wrapped their minds around all this “new media” stuff to the point where they’ve siezed upon a catch-all term for any kind of content that wasn’t around when they were watching Howdy Doody on their 6-inch teevee screens in their costume chaps: digital. They must be so pleased with themselves.

Howdy Doody

Crimony. And they say the FUTURE is scary …

The Messenger is Not the Medium

The trouble with the catch-all term “digital” is that it doesn’t do a damned thing to differentiate between linear, one-way communication like radio and teevee (phone-in shows excepted), and true interactive content that you find in video games and on websites. “Digital” describes a method for delivering content – breaking the material down into discernable ones and zeroes (“digits”) and pushing those numbers through a pipe (cable, phone line, airwave) to the end user, where the numbers are translated back into pictures and sound. “Digital” is the evolution of “analog”. “Psycom” may be the evolution of “digital” for all we know – content transmitted directly to your brain. It STILL doesn’t help us describe the type of content that is reaching the end user.

It’s as if you were trying to differentiate between horses and cars, so you choose the term “commuting”. But then in many parts of the world, people start riding horses to work. Suddenly your term does nothing to differentiate the two concepts, because it described a method of consuming the thing, instead of describing the thing itself.

Nicotine Gum

“Nicotine delivery system” does not differentiate between harmful cigarettes and helpful gum.

Oh No He Di’in’t

So don’t call me digital. Teevee is digital, and i deplore the comparison. Teevee is also unidirectional, dumb, and on death’s door. And that’s fair – i’m sure teevee people resented being lumped in with radio, while radio didn’t appreciate being mentioned in the same breath as … i dunno. The Pony Express? At any rate, it’s all fruit, but when we lump teevee in with interactive, we’re comparing apples to pictures of apples.

Call me “interactive”. i feel it’s the best term that differentiates linear content from the amazing things we’re doing to involve and engage our audiences. If you’re part of the old guard and you’re clinging to your burning, sinking teevee ship with a tear in your eye, and you’d like to keep calling anything that follows teevee “digital”, be my guest. i promise we won’t put any Playboxes or X-Stations in your retirement home.

Unboxing Unity Game Development Essentials

If you’d like to learn Unity 3D, the hottest 3D game engine going, you have three options:

  1. Forage for tutorials online
  2. Read a book
  3. Jack one of those Matrix tapes into the back of your head and wait fifteen minutes. (Whoa. I know kung fu … and Unity!)

If you’re a bookworm, your choices are currently limited to one book: Unity Game Development Essentials by Will Goldstone (whose name makes me want to earn him as a reward for levelling up my druid paladin character). That’s it: one book.

Since i AM a bookworm, and i tend to learn very well from consolodated sources, and since the Internatz is currently a Wild West of Unity 3D tutorial smatterings, Will’s book looked like a good bet. It arrived at our offices last week. i opened the box. The book has an orange and black cover, with a spine. And some pages.

Unity Game Development Essentials

That’s really all i can say, as i haven’t cracked into it yet. i’m led to believe that the book is essential. But please keep an eye on our Unity Nuub feature for a full review in the very near future, along with a listing of useful online resources that we tapped to create our VERY FIRST FUNCTIONAL UNITY GAME a few short weeks ago.

Here’s a sample chapter of the book to help you decide whether it’s worth the price tag.

And check out this video of an RPG prototype that was made with the Unity 3D engine for more ideas about what you can do with this (now) FREE tool:



(thanks @pperon!)