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7 Tips for Making Your Graduate Show Sing

i attended the University of Toronto student show for their 4th year CompSci video game design program. The event was held in a small room with six teams of students demoing their year-end game projects. i came away with a few tips on how to make your own student show really sing – if you’re currently a computer science student and your own show’s coming up soon, or you’re going to be in this position in a year or two, i hope this advice will help you.

Statler and Waldorf

Pay heed to cranky, sarcastic old men.

Statler: You know, there’s nothing like a good grad show.
Waldorf: Yeah – and that was nothing like it!
Both: MEHHHH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEHHHH!!

1. Take It Seriously

It’s really easy to have a flip attitude towards you’re schooling when everything’s wrapping up and you’re cramming to get your last assignments in on time. But if your fac head is putting together a student show for you and is inviting industry people, you need to take your show very, very seriously – ESPECIALLY if the industry folks are local, and you’re not planning on skipping town to find a job.

You might not know the industry or have a solid sense of how big it is, but you should assume it’s tiny. Assume that these people who are attending your show ARE the industry. Now, operating under that assumption, there are a few things you might do differently.

2. Get Good Graphics

It’s taken me a long time to admit it, but graphics are incredibly important. i know we all like to spout off about how great gameplay is crucial, but in a situation like a student show, where you only have people’s attention for a few brief moments, first impressions are crucial.

Bad graphics

Just move your player … (uh – which one’s my player?)

If you’re a CompSci major, it’s likely – not guaranteed, but likely – that you can’t draw for crap. Your game is going to look like trash unless you proactively take steps to prevent that. There are a few things you can do, and a few things your school should think about doing to overcome this problem:

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn how to draw. This is probably the most time-consuming and far-fetched option, so don’t sweat it – until they come out with those Matrix tapes you can jack into your spinal cord for speedy learning.
  2. Make friends with someone who can draw. A LOT of people want to break into gaming, and they’d love to collaborate with you. You can find artists at IGDA or other video game-related chapter meetings, online at sites like ConceptArt.org and DeviantArt, or at other programs in your school that teach art.
  3. Pay someone to create assets for your game. You can get a very nice piece of art for a song. i recently paid a few hundred bucks for a couple of pieces, which is on par with what you might pay for a textbook. If it means the difference between your game looking great and your game looking like one of 101 games on a pirate Playstation One disc, splurge.

5000 in 1 Famicom Cart

It’s absolutely supper!

What Your School Can Do:

Your school should consider forging an alliance with its own fine or digital arts program. If there isn’t one, they might consider hooking you up with students in a digital arts program at a related college.

Remember: no one looks at a game and says “wow – what great programming!”

3. Kill Your Baby

Scale your idea down – waaay down. i played three games tonight that wanted to be Zelda. They were all 3D third-person games set in a large forest environment. If you have a 10 week deadline, you can’t make Zelda. You probably can’t even manage the “Z” in Zelda. Hell – you may even be hard-pressed to build the first four screens of the original NES The Legend of Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda

B-but … i only have four months and a team of six people!

The more you scale down your game, the fewer assets you’ll need. That means you’ll save money if you can’t make friends and need to pay an artist to create your game art. Cut that wide-open forest environment down to a room. Instead of doing multiple monster fights badly, have ONE enemy to fight and make it a great experience. No one’s going to be arsed to play past that first monster anyway – they’ve got five other games to look at.

4. Go Overboard

It seems like each team was required to create copies of a game manual as a take-away for visiting industry types. i think every single one of these was printed on a consumer-grade inkjet on standard 8.5×11 paper, then folded and stapled in the middle. Sticking with the theme of taking it seriously, there’s no reason not to go ape on this little detail. Once again, find a friend in graphic design and get her to lay out a proper booklet for you. If you have to pay a graphic designer, don’t sweat it – most of them work for a bag of Fritos and a backrub. Take it to a professional printer, and ask for full-color bleed on glossy stock, professionally folded and stapled. You will be the only team in the room who has done this, and the other guys will look like they built their games during a 3-week summer program for “very special” campers.

Corky

Corky wants a job making games.

One of the games i saw tonight was about bubbles. It is ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE at your grad show to buy a few clear plastic beachballs and a bubble-blowing machine to create a fun real-world environment around your presentation. When professional teams exhibit their games at E3, they construct gigantic walking robots, and hire people to dress in mascot costume. Their booths cost tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct. If your game is tropical, buy a few plastic palm trees. If it takes place in a dungeon, borrow your friend’s pet rats and put their little cages on either side of the presentation monitor. Little touches like these will go a long way to making your team memorable, and to proving your professionality, ingenuity, and creative drive. Another hot tip: don’t tell your fac head about ANY of this. Shut the bubbles off only when you’re asked to, and take your sweet time dismantling the gigantic walking robot.

5. Offer Multiple Stations

Every person who wants to play your game should have that chance. If you only have one presentation screen running, you’ll bottleneck. If you can get away with it, consider begging/borrowing/stealing multiple setups to run more people through your game. A nice side effect of this is that on a team of three with three displays, each person gets a chance to man a station all night. Everyone gets practice talking to players, being personable, and promoting the team. If you only have one display, one of you usually talks, while the other two devs stand around taking up space and looking awkward.

6. Shut Up

If i’ve learned anything at TOJam, the Toronto independent game jam, it’s that your game should stand on its own. It should be easy to play. Players should understand it right away. And they should be able to get it in the first five seconds.

If you have to stand their gabbing at someone, explaining what that red thing does, and what those little symbols mean, you’ve failed. Your game is not doing enough of the work. Consider throwing in some in-game pop-ups to explain gameplay. Don’t overwhelm the player with all of your mechanics at once: the second your player realizes he doesn’t understand, he’s gone. This requires you to get your game in front of players early and often, long before the big night.

After two TOJams, i put this knowledge to work on Bloat. i realized there was way too much going on in the game, so i broke all of the controls and features down into individual steps and parceled them out one by one. Voila – suddenly, my game had multiple “levels” that eased the player along and allowed him to master one concept before i added another.

Your role at your grad show should not be as demo jockey for your game. If you’re talking about how to play the game, and what each little fiddly bit does, and making excuses for bugs and missing animations, you’ve wasted your student show. Your game should have been scoped simply enough so that it stands on its own merits. It must be easy for that new industry person to pick up and play, and while he’s thumbing through your game with a big grin on his face, you should be selling your TEAM, not the game.

7. Sell Your Body, Not Your Game

Instead of “we meant to have a more detailed sky texture there”, you SHOULD be saying “Billy added some clever AI. He studied all sorts of different methods, including x, y, and z, but after significant playtesting, Billy settled on this. If you need someone to work on AI in your ship, Billy’s your man.”

This is because no industry person is there to buy your game. Your game is an excuse to show off what you can do. You’re selling yourself, you big man-whore, you. Talk about the talent behind the game and how smart you all are, and where you might belong in a team game studio setting. That’s what your guests are shopping for. If you can arrange it with your fac head, research the companies that will be represented at the show. If possible, find mugshots of everyone and memorize their faces. When they come up to you, say “Hi, Bill – i’m Teresa.” (If your name is not Teresa, don’t say this.) If people think you’ve heard of them or if you know their company and what they’ve done, it’s a very powerful ego stroke. Human nature dictates that that person is now interested in and indebted to you, and feels compelled now to reciprocate by learning your name and finding out about what you do.

Fatal Attraction

Hi, Bill. i went through your garbage last night, and …

Good Dog

If you’re an industry person in Ontario reading this, you might try swinging by the Max the Mutt student show on May 19th 2010 at 6PM. Truth be told, i was actually pretty let down by the students’ animation reels last year, and the static assignments were a mixed bag, but MTM did the show very, very well. Every student was obviously coached within an inch of his life. When i walked in the room, they were all standing next to their portfolio boards. Their takeaways, some professionally printed, were neatly stacked and spiral-bound, and in abundant supply. It was very easy to see which student was responsible for which pieces. Each student was attentive, and conversed well. It’s in the fac’s best interests to provide this kind of strict, serious coaching – the opinions industry people form of an entire school from one bad show can be long-lasting and difficult to change.

Children of the Damned

Would you like to see our year-two layout assignments?

When you’re talking to people at the grad show, know this: everyone is important. Not a single student at the MTM show read my nametag and decided, since he’d never heard of my company, that i wasn’t important enough to be bothered with (unlike at tonight’s U of T show). You never know when you may be speaking to some high-falutin’ industry type who’s attending the show incognito. You never know when smaller guys like myself are in a position to hire you next week. You never know when you’ll be remembered a year later by someone, because it really is a small industry. Everyone deserves your attention, and the whole show deserves every ounce of social grace, professional polish and serious devotion that you can muster up.

This is it. Four years, and this is your shot. If you want another chance to be in a room with a captive industry audience hanging on your every word with all eyeballs glued to your work, you need to pony up the time and money for another four years. And please don’t let THAT happen.

Content is Peasant

i’m a simple man. i have only two beefs in this world: 1) subtitles that cover up the nudity in foreign films, and 2) the onerous phrase “content is king”.

Penelope Cruz in Abres los Ojos

An American tragedy.

i mentioned last week that we launched a free games portal called WordGameWorld.com. Here’s how that whole process works. i spend a few bucks buying a domain name, a hosting account, and a WordPress theme. Then i go to MochiMedia.com and started cherry-picking games from their list of thousands, at no cost. If i see a game that i like, i can just take it and put it on the site. Then i put ads on the site. Step 4: profit.

i didn’t have to pay for the content. The content is, theoretically, paid for by advertisers whose ads are injected into the games via the MochiMedia service. But as we’ve seen before, in a hit-driven business like Flash games, a non-hit is also a non-earner.

If you’re producing content essentially for free, with the hope of possibly earning fractions of pennies on advertising rev share, and perhaps a sponsorship or two for a few thousands bucks (when perhaps you sunk more than a few thousand bucks in labour into the content), i have a startling revelation for you: content is NOT king. Content is peasant. Content is plebian. Content is serf. The exploiters of content are closer to the crown than you’ll ever be.

Look Who’s Talking

There’s a lyric from a John Lennon song that frequently comes to mind whenever i hear someone chant the “content is king” mantra:

Keep ‘em doped with religion and sex and teevee
And they think they’re so clever and classless and free
But they’re still f*cking peasants as far’s I can see

i’ve been paying more and more attention to who is saying “content is king” and how they are saying it. The people pulling the strings, who are actually in a position to monetize content, say it more often and in a much different tone of voice than the content producers:

Content monetizers: (knowing that their livelihood depends on people constantly producing content that they can exploit) Content is king!

Content producers: (wondering why the hell they’re not gaining any ground, despite being told on a daily basis by the content monetizers that content is king) … Content is king?

The Content Food Chain

i’ve developed a hierarchical chart to illustrate who’s actually in control here, and how the money flows.

Chart

Content Consumers

i hope we can all agree that consumers are at the bottom of the chart. Yes, technically they should be at the top, because they make the decisions and vote with their money and rah rah consumers blah blah blah, but who are you kidding? When i got into the ad-supported web world, working in the interactive department of a teevee broadcaster, we talked a lot about eyeballs – how many unique sets of ocular orbs were looking at our web pages. Not people, not consumers, but their actual eyeballs. We had reduced consumers as a commodity to their component parts! It wasn’t “how many human beings visited our pages”, but “how many eyeballs did we get”? “How do we get more eyeballs on this?” It’s a tiny bit ghastly. Consumers, you’re at the bottom of my chart.



Content Creators

Next up are the content creators. We content creators subjugate consumers. If we’re business-minded, we want to build games that get a lot of those eyeballs, so that we can command higher sponsorship deals and earn more fractions of pennies on advertising revenue share. Some of us want millions of eyeballs on our content just so that we can feel good about ourselves. As i’ve mentioned before, that drive tends to go away when you become a more advanced life-form with a mortgage and kids to feed.

Pickaxe Salesmen

In an offshoot segment of the chart are the pickaxe salesmen. In any Yukon gold rush, there are the people doing all the work and panning for the gold (game developers), and there are the shop owners selling ropes and pickaxes and whiskey. They are the tool providers. FDT, SmartFox Server, ElectroServer, and to an extent ActiveDen (who are, themselves, content aggregators) all make their money selling content producers the promise of becoming rich and famous through their gold-panning content creation efforts.

Prospector

Does this guy look like a king to you?

Content Aggregators

One step above content creators are the content aggregators. In the Flash games industry, these are the portals that pull all the games together in one place – Kongregate, NewGrounds, Big Fish, AddictingGames, King, Gimme5, WordGameWorld, etc etc. In publishing, they are the magazines that assemble and bind the individual articles. In the teevee world, they are the broadcasters who fill their programming hours with shows. Content aggregators treat content as a commodity to be shoveled into their wrappers, especially in the Flash games world, where you can set up an RSS interavenous drip to have free Flash games automatically pumped into your site with zero effort or cost. These people have a vested interest in repeating the “content is king” mantra – their livelihood depends on content producers believing it. Their goal is to get the best content possible for the lowest price imaginable, always.

Advertisers

Advertisers hold us all in thrall. They foot the bill for all of this stuff. Magazines and teevee shows are merely vehicles to sell advertising. That’s what games portals are as well: extended banner and video ads punctuated by the occasional match-3 game. Without advertising money, this whole ecosystem dies … which is why new monetization methods like microtransactions are given so much gravity. Like the United States weaning themselves off oil dependency, it’s in the best interests of content producers and aggregators to develop new sources of energy (money).

Diaper Cream

This whole operation depends entirely on the 10-second spot for Nature’s Baby Organics Diaper Cream. i for one welcome our tiny assrash-reducing overlords.

Aggregator Aggregators

Above the advertisers are the aggregator aggregators: those who aggregate the aggregators. i can’t think of any examples in the Flash games world, but i’m talking about cable providers in the teevee world. These are the people who pull together the aggregators – the teevee channels – into one big package of aggregators, and charge a fee for access. i don’t *think* one of these has emerged in our industry quite yet, but correct me if i’m wrong.

Lord Jesus

Floating high above all of these and seated at the right hand of God is Jesus, who is awesome.

Jesus

Aww yeah – it’s good to be king.

Do You Feel Like a King?

And there it is. With so many strata of folks making money from the lowly piece of content you produce, it’s clear that just as players are a commodity to you as a game developer, your content is a commodity traded in bulk to a higher power skimming off the top. Those higher powers, in turn, are a commodity to someone higher up the food chain.

Clearly, “king” is not an appropriate word to describe the games you’re producing. i’ve never known anyone to trade in large sacks of kings. Perhaps “content is lynchpin” is more fitting: yank the content out from this structure, and the whole thing comes crashing down. But the same thing happens when you pull advertising: you’re removing the wealthy benefactor, the rich uncle, who fuels the whole operation.

i’ll stick to my original claim: content is peasant. Kings can’t be kings without someone farming their crops, cooking their meals, and buffing their toenails. Whose toenails are you buffing? Because if you’re creating Flash games, selling them for a song, and scraping fractions of pennies on advertising revenue share, news flash: you ain’t the king. You’re somebody else’s bucket of eyeballs. You’re responsible for producing a pinch of salt in a barrelful, and it’s the people shipping the salt who are really in bidness.

i’m not saying any of this to upset the applecart, or to suggest that Flash game developers storm the castle and steal the crown. i just want to put it out there, so that the next time someone who makes money off your back tells you “content is king”, you can sock him in the snoot.

To recap:

  1. Jesus is king.
  2. Rogers cable answers only to Jesus.
  3. You’re getting screwed.

How to Steal Like a Pro

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us “there is nothing new under the sun.” If you’re a creator of things, you’ve probably felt the sting of this statement.

Have you ever created something – poured your heart and soul into it – only to have someone say “Oh yeah! i saw that same thing done in The Maltese Falcon!” or “that’s exactly like this Vonnegut book i read once!” or “Simpsons did it!”? Sometimes you rip stuff off without ever knowing it. Other times, to your horror, you realize you’ve ripped something off and you’ve seen/read/heard/played the source material. You were subconsciously ripping it off. And other times, you just plain rip stuff off because it’s awesome, and you want your thing to be as awesome as that other awesome thing, with all its awesomeness.

Poochie

Good! Now Rastafarianize him 10%.

This is a very honestly true story, for realz: when i was in college, a few whole years before Futurama came out, i was planning a graphic adventure buddy comedy game that took place in outer space called Orbit. One of the two main characters was named Bender. i composed the main title theme myself, and i played it with bells – the very same instrument used to play the Futurama theme. No joke. i’ve got a million stories like this one. i’m a very firm believer in the collective unconscious.

Bender

That, or Matt Groening and Danny Elfman broke into my apartment in college to steal secrets.

i’m very easily influenced by the media i consume, and i consume a LOT of it. i even know a lot about movies, teevee shows, comic books and video games i’ve never even consumed. i can answer entire trivia rounds about stuff i’ve never personally experienced. And now, i’m writing a video game called Spellirium. The game will show my cultural roots – i can’t help that. And instead of waiting until it’s released for everyone to say “Seen that somewhere before!” or “Simpsons did it!”, i’m writing this article to pre-empt you.

This is a list of all the great stuff i’m planning to liberally borrow from, pay homage to, or downright rip off as i build Spellirium.

LOOM

Brian Moriarty’s awesomazing graphic adventure game did something super-cool: it looked like it took place in the Dark Ages, but it was actually set in the distant future in the year 8021. i wanted Spellirium to be high-fantasy and quasi-medieval (in the same way A Knight’s Tale was quasi-historical), but it’s a word game, so you’re going to be spelling things like “radio” and “rocket”. It would be kinda dumb to spell words that described things that didn’t exist in the game world.

loom

Prithee, what dost thou mean by “vaccine”?

So i’ve decided to pull a LOOM. Spellirium will be post-apocalyptic, set a few hundred years after a mysterious cataclysmic event that busted humankind back down to medieval city states. The key difference here, though, is that the people have access to plastics and technology by scavenging through the landfills. Everything they have, from their clothes to their houses, is made from found objects. Call it “trashpunk”.

The Chronicles of Prydain

You may know that Disney released a total Tim Burton-directed bomb in the 80′s called The Black Cauldron. You may NOT know that the movie was based on a series of children’s books by Lloyd Alexander that completely kick ass. Alexander himself ripped a lot of his stuff off from Welsh mythology, and a number of familiar archetypes pop up: three prophetic witches, evil zombies, a foundling, winged minions, etc etc. There’s a lot of Tolkien in Alexander, and there’s a lot of other stuff in Tolkien.

The Prydain Chronicles

Behold, the fixations of my youth.

Alexander begins the Prydain chronicles with a young man stuck doing menial tasks in a tranquil cottage estate called Caer Dallben. He’s overseen and instructed by Dallben, a kindly old man with mystical powers. Re-read this paragraph again, because you’re going to see all of those archetypes repeated in Spellirium.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

When i go to describe Spellirium to people, i have to bring up Puzzle Quest. i loved the idea for that game: take a fun, replayable casual mechanic, and wrap it in RPG/story elements. In Puzzle Quest’s case, it was a Bejewelled/match-3 mechanic; in Spellirium, it’s a word puzzle game.

Puzzle Quest

My one-word review for Puzzle Quest: glacial.

i didn’t particularly enjoy the execution of Puzzle Quest, though. i made it halfway through the game before quitting out of sheer boredom. i decided that if Spellirium was going to keep people playing, it had to mix up the formula a bit. And believe me, it mixes up the formula a LOT. More on that point of difference in another post!

Super Mario Galaxy

A great many Mario games have done a great many things very well, but Super Mario Galaxy was pitch-perfect when it came to flaking gameplay off into tight little digestible chunks, while throwing enough variety at the player to keep him from feeling like he’s stuck doing specific challenges in a certain order.

Super Mario Galaxy

Note: you can’t actually beat the game in one fell swoop like this.

One way they did this was with the comet. The comet travels randomly to different galaxies (collections of challenges). The comet itself has a few different modes to it: beat the challenge with one hit-point, race a ghost of yourself to the finish line, or complete the challenge with all of the enemies moving at twice the speed. When you thought you were long-finished with a given galaxy, the comet would show up and bring you back in to face a remixed challenge.

LOST

As i bite my nails through the final season, i’m starting to pay very close attention to the way the writers of LOST parcel out the show’s secrets. There are many secrets and revelations in Spellirium which, when handled improperly, will fall flat and fail to excite the player. But i think what they’ve done with LOST is they’ve cooked up a big batch of secrets and surprising moments, and have picked the perfect moments to do their big reveals to drive the story forward.

LOST statue

The Black Rock smashed the statue before we could get a good look at it?? You sons of bitches!!

If i do this incorrectly, i’ll have a long-ass boring block of text trying to establish the story and the world of Spellirium off the title screen. If i take a page from the LOST scripts, i’ll keep the player plowing through those levels and challenges, dying to see what happens next.

Home Movies

If i have my wish, the dialogue in Spellirium will be reminiscent of Home Movies. The voice actors sound like they’re improvising (indeed, in the first season, they were!). They step on each other’s lines. A lot of what they say is understated, thrown away, or muttered under their breath. It makes for some very funny stuff, and it’s an unadorned, wry style i don’t think i’ve ever seen in a video game.



Terry Gilliam

i think i’m specifically referring to Twelve Monkeys and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen here. And while they’re not Gilliam movies, i’ll throw The Princess Bride, The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen into the mix. These movies all start with well-realized worlds with some very somber events happening in them, and they just spackle humor and imagination on top of that. And if there’s one game that did this very, very well, it’s my favourite game of all time: The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.

Monkey Island 2

Looks like a laugh-a-minute, doesn’t it?

The first two Monkey Island games, like the movies i listed, are very very dark. MI2 is extremely dark in theme as well as in setting. The game has you robbing graves, building voodoo dolls, and coming face to face with the earthly remains of your own parents. Dark dark dark! But then, on top of that, Monkey Island 2 is completely ridiculous. There’s not a serious bone in its body. It’s still one of the only games that has made me laugh hysterically out loud. You wouldn’t think that a game about extortion, torture, shipping embargoes and subjugation of island nations could do that.

Spellirium will present its world just as seriously. There are very dark things afoot in the game world, and you’ll have to make some tough choices as you progress through the game. And then? Fart jokes.

You’re Insane

Maybe you’re thinking “this is the craziest word game i’ve ever heard of.” You’d be right. i LOVE word puzzle video games, but none of them have ever held my interest long enough (no, not even that wretched Bookworm Adventures mess) because none of them have ever told a story, or challenged me to do more than one thing with my monstrous vocabulary. i’ve heard from many game portal owners that word games aren’t top-sellers. Play through some of the word games on our own portal, WordGameWorld.com and you’ll see why: some of them have great little game mechanics, but there’s nothing to hold the interest of a traditional gamer.

Word Game World

You might say that word games are a niche genre, and that they’ll only hit with a small segment of the gaming population. You might have said that about sci-fi in 1976 … and the next year, Star Wars came out. Now let me be clear: Spellirium may not do for word games what Star Wars did for sci-fi movies. But now that i think about Star Wars, there are a few things in there that i might want to “pay homage” to …

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Word.

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Untold Entertainment Joins the Dark Side

If you’ve read a few of my articles, you’ll know that i’m on this lifelong pilgrimage toward that hallowed house of making money for my art. It’s a very long journey, full of winding roads and twisting paths, around the corners of which i repeatedly get socked in the junk.

Idiocracy - Ow! My Balls

Every new decision i make on this pilgrimage is informed by the failures (or swollen junk) from past decisions. We’re starting development soon on a really great adventure/word game hybrid called Spellirium. The game is filled with many different small challenges, not unlike Super Mario Galaxy, and i want to find the fun as fast as possible before spending more time and money polishing the idea. My goal is to mock these things up very quickly, put them in front of playtesters, and keep the stuff that’s the most fun to play with.

Lessons that the Cow Taught Me

i had a real hard time with Interrupting Cow Trivia. i developed that game in a complete vacuum, using only my Spidey sense and a vague notion of what i found fun. When it was finally ready for public consumption, i released it on the world: specifically, to the readers here, who are primarily video game developers themselves (most of whom started reading this blog because of my monetization experiments with Pimp My Game). It didn’t take long to figure out that video game developers aren’t the very best crowd to review your game: they’re picky, they’re particular, and as one helpful friend put it, they’ll give you advice on how to make the game theoretically better, based on game design books or blogs they read, but they won’t give you an honest, personal opinion about what they find fun and not fun.

Interrupting Cow Trivia

How could this game NOT be fun?

Too often, i’d get a developer writing to me with a laundry list of things i needed to change in the trivia game. Some of the changes were vague, like “make it more green”, and others were more expensive, like “create an animated sequence for every question.” Still others were downright insulting (one developer actually told me that changing the game would be like putting a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound). Many people waited until three or four stressful emails went by before actually coming clean and saying “Well, i don’t really like trivia games anyway.” Ay yi yi! i love you developers – don’t get me wrong – but if i’m going to solicit early feedback on Spellirium, i’m either going to have to take a liking to hard liquor, or find a different audience.

i need to put Spellirium in front of an audience of people who like word games. What a revolutionary idea! My theory – and i hope it’s sound – is that if i can grab an audience full of word game fans, and i can get them playing and commenting on early Spellirium tests, then when the game is finally released, those people may actually shell out money for the product. It’s crazy, i know.

So how do i get that audience of word game players? i create a word game portal, that’s how.

Introducing WordGameWorld.com

i’ve talked for a long while about creating my own game portal, and now i’m finally putting my money where my mouth is. We launched WordGameWorld.com this week. It offers specific advantages to players over other free-to-play Flash game portals. The key is that the content is curated.

Word Game World

Curation cuts the crap

Typically, portal owners will just subscribe to the MochiMedia games feed, and each week they’ll get a fresh dump of content on their sites. This content is not usually screened or monitored, and the portal owners take everything as-is. This means they’re taking good games along with bad. They’re taking games that might be buggy or that don’t work properly. And more importantly, they’re taking games that are classified according to how the developers classified them. i can create a zombie shooter game and classify it “puzzle” if i want to.

The result is that on a lot of these smaller portals, players who like puzzle games hit the auto-generated “Puzzle” category, only to find crappy, broken, and not-puzzle games. That’s a lousy customer experience. If i walk into a shoe store that sells broken robot toys and no shoes, i won’t likely be back.

Junk store

Most Flash game portals look like a hidden object game: a cluttered mess of crap.

So it’s a slower process, but i’m hand-picking all of the games that go on WordGameWorld.com. There are a few stand-outs and a few lemons so far, but i won’t upload anything that simply doesn’t work or that looks like utter ass. i also refuse to grab any games that clearly violate copyright, like “Garfield Word Search”, because that kind of thing pisses me off. The other thing i’m doing is sub-classifying the games on the site. “Word Game”, in addition to NOT being one of the standard MochiMedia game categories, is a very broad category unto itself. Within “Word Games”, you have word-building games, crosswords, word searches, word puzzles, hangman clones, etc etc. There’s a whole world of content within that category, the spectrum of which we hope to present on our site.

That’s what’s in it for the audience. For us, as i said, i hope to capture an audience of blue-blooded word game fans, even if it’s just a group of 100 people who find the site and who love word games. Since i control the ad inventory on the site, i can show Google ads or whatever while the site builds an audience, and swap them out for Spellirium ads when there’s something new to test. And even if i DON’T lure people to my playtests, at the very least i’ll have played every single word game on MochiMedia.com, so i’ll gain experience there. i’ll also see from the ratings on the portal which games hit with the audience and which don’t … then i’ll use that info to inform my design decisions.

i Need Multiple Showers

Let me just say that putting together a game portal made me feel dirty. i’ve long suspected that “content is king” is a mantra chanted into the ears of game developers by the people who are making money off their backs. As a portal owner, i have a vast library of FREE games that i can just pillage from MochiMedia’s site. i make a tiny cut of the ad revenue, and the dev makes a tiny cut. i can run Google ads over this content (theoretically – see below) and scrape that money as well. It feels criminal.

Beyond my customer acquisition schemes for Spellirium, i hope i can pull in enough money from WordGameWorld.com to cover the costs of running and maintaining it. Here are those costs:

  1. Domain name – $10
  2. Add-on slot for my current web host – $30 (so that WordGameWorld.com points to my current host account)
  3. WordPress installation – free with hosting
  4. WordPress Arcade theme – $30

i’m not really wrapping hosting costs in there yet, because i don’t know how much they’ll be. But i know from this tally that the portal cost me at least $70 to set up. If i can make that back in a year with ads, huzzah. If i can get quality feedback on my game from interested players, and possibly convert those players into paid customers when Spellirium goes live, then … double huzzah.

What’s the Sense in Ads?

Google has denied my AdSense application twice. Here’s the message they sent me:

Hello Ryan Creighton,

Thank you for your interest in Google AdSense. Unfortunately, after
reviewing your application, we’re unable to accept you into Google AdSense
at this time.

We did not approve your application for the reasons listed below.

Issues:
- Difficult site navigation

———————

Further detail:
Difficult site navigation: While reviewing www.wordgameworld.com, we found
that your site was down. Google ads may not be published on a site that is
not fully launched, functioning, or easily navigable. Once your site is
functioning and has enough content for our specialists to review, we will
be happy to reconsider your application. If there is a typo in the URL
submitted, you can resubmit your application with the correct site by
following the directions below.

(note: the site wasn’t down. It had about 5 games the first time i submitted and received this message. It had 25 games the second time i was denied.)

If anyone has any ideas about what i need to do to get my account approved, i’m all ears. Someone at Flash Gaming Summit told me that Google doesn’t want to run ads on game portal sites. Is that the deal? i wish they had a form letter for that. What are the other online advertising options i should consider beyond Adsense, in case it doesn’t work out?

If you think this whole portal idea is insaneypants, please say so. If you think it’s smartypants, and you know some word game freaks and would like to tell them about the site, please forward the url! i’d really appreciate that.

Word.

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My Review of the Google Nexus One Cellular Telephone

As i mentioned six or seven times, Google gave me a brand new Nexus One phone at the 2010 Game Developers Conference.

Google Nexus One

My phone looked just like this one, except with more fingerprints.

In the very short time i had to use it, here are my impressions:

  1. The case is too slippery. It slides right out of your pocket while you’re riding your bike on the way to buy a sim card for the phone, and the Nexus One is so small and light that you don’t even hear it land on the road.
  2. The Care and Handling manual should encourage new Nexus One owners to zip up their coat pockets, due to the manufacturing flaw with the case (see above). That way, owners won’t feel like such complete dumbasses.
  3. Google should spend more time and money making human beings better people, so that when they find new Nexus One cell phones on the road that slipped from other people’s pockets while they were riding their bikes, they will turn on the phone near a wifi hotspot and see the former owner’s gmail and Google Calendar pleas to return the phone, and they will return the phone. i blame the moral degradation of modern society on the Google.
  • Ring ring!
  • Who’s there?
  • Nobody!
  • Sad face. :(