Category Archives: Blog

First-Time Game Dev Team YoyoBolo Pulls it Off

i want to tell you the story of a neat-o partnership we began in the fall!

tl;dr – go play New School Blues!

A Strange Turn for an Intern

Last September, Untold Entertainment took on an intern named Mike Doucet. Mike was a recent graduate from a private Ontario college who needed to escape the work/experience purgatory in which so many graduates find themselves. After coming under fire for our nefarious practice of helping graduates, i put some new parameters around Mike’s involvement with Untold.

My friend Jason accused me of bringing Mike (left) on-board because he looks like a young Ron Gilbert. Guilty as charged. (Mike doesn’t see the resemblance.)

Within a short time at the studio, Mike had formed a small, separate game dev team called YoyoBolo Games. Mike took a producer role, while Jonathan Phillips would create art assets and Ryan Roth would take on music and voiceover duties (including casting, recording and editing). Programmer Amir Ashtiani would handle scripting in UGAGS (the Untold Entertainment Adventure Game System), which the team would license from Untold.

UGAGS powers a number of great games, including Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure and Spellirium

All I Want for Christmas

i tasked the team with building a short point n’ click graphic adventure game and releasing it by Christmas; in exchange for the use of the Untold offices, mentorship from me, and a discount on a UGAGS license, YoyoBolo would give Untold Entertainment first right of refusal to publish their game. YoyoBolo would keep their copyright and IP.

The team decided to release their game for free, to avoid the complications that money might bring. (i counselled them that as a first-time team releasing a mobile adventure game, money wouldn’t enter into it anyway :) The end goal was for YoyoBolo to have the experience of creating, releasing and marketing a complete game from start to finish, so that the team members would have a polished portfolio piece they could show off to prospective employers.

The experiment worked, and the team completed the game by the second week of December!

The resulting title, New School Blues, was partially based on Mike’s experiences as an elementary school teacher, and his desire to create a game to which grade school kids could relate. (Mike wondered why there aren’t more kids’ games that are set in schools? i think he has a very good point.) i made sure that YoyoBolo didn’t stop at simply building the game, but that they went the extra mile to prepare a press kit, a press contact list, and a press release to help market the game. Mike has been maintaining a near-daily developer diary with contributions from the team, which is a great read if you’d like to make video games, and wonder what the experience of a group of first-timers is really like.

(PROTIP: It’s like being lost in the woods at night and hunted by a demonic witch.)

i really want to highlight the team’s artist, Jonathan, who went above and beyond the call of duty by taking over UGAGS scripting on the project to ensure that New School Blues looks and plays as well as it does.

Mission Accomplished

So how did they do? i found the game quite charming, and i thought the team did an excellent job for a first-time collaboration. i happily exercised Untold Entertainment’s option to publish New School Blues. Here’s a gameplay trailer of the first few minutes:

What’s in it for Untold Entertainment? Two wonderful “firsts”: this is the first time we’ve published a game that was developed by another team, and it’s the first time that we’ve licensed our UGAGS engine. So call it a win/win/win all around – the third “win” being you, because you get to play the final game!

New School Blues is available for free here at Untold Entertainment, over at Kongregate, and on Android tablets and the iPad.

You can get in touch with the members of YoyoBolo Games here:

  • Mike Doucet – Producer
    • email: mike [at symbol]
    • twitter: mikeDocDoucet
  • Jonathan Phillips – Artist/Animator and Scripting
    • email: jonathan.f.phillips [at symbol]
  • Amir Ashtiani – Programmer and Scripter
    • email: ashtiani.amir01 [the at symbol]
    • twitter: pillowmermaid
  • Ryan Roth – Music, Sound Effects and Voice Over
    • email: ryan [the at symbol]
    • twitter: dualRyan
    • professional services website:

Spellirium’s Neighbouring Letters Rule

We were very fortunate to have, as one of our early Spellirium testers, a fellow named Shan. Shan is a word wizard who is a member of – or in some cases the founder of – a number of Scrabble® clubs around the Greater Toronto Area. Shan made a really interesting suggestion to help us solve a problem in the game.

At certain times in Spellirium, you’ll need a certain letter to make a specific word, a word required to solve a puzzle. Because tiles cascade into the grid randomly to replace the letters that you remove, you’re not guaranteed to get that “L” you so desperately need. The game includes a couple of different features to remedy this problem:

  1. You can just keep building words so that new tiles cascade into the grid, and hopefully that “L” will make an appearance eventually.
  2. You can craft a powerup that lets you “inject” a letter of your choice into the grid.

So far, our testers haven’t found either of these solutions satisfactory. Continually rolling the dice in the hopes that your letter will show up is no fun. And the road to crafting a powerup is a long one: first, you have to complete an achievement to earn a spell. Then you have to collect the spell’s ingredients. Then you have to craft the powerup. Then you have to fill out a foolscap form in triplicate and mail it to your regional government.

Can i have my “L” now please?

Howdy, Neighbour!

Here’s what Shan suggested: let the player sort of control the letters that cascade into the grid. How? When you build a word and those tiles are removed, the replacement tiles are alphabetically adjacent.

So if you need an “L”, spell a word with a “K” or an “M” in it. After removing a “K”, Spellirium will send one of its neighbours – either a “J” or an “L” – into the grid. This rule applies only to consonants; it skips over vowels. That’s because vowels are outnumbered 21:5, and we don’t want players to end up with grid full of consonants! For every vowel you remove, the grid gives you another random vowel. Vowel distribution is stacked in favour of A’s and E’s.

The alphabet wraps. So if you spell a word with a “Z”, you’ll get either a “Y” or a “B” next (we skip “A” because it’s a vowel).

It’s a neat solution, and while it could solve our problem, it creates another one: the rule is simple in practice, but a smidge complicated in theory. It’s not easy to explain eloquently.

But did i explain it well in this post? Does this game rule make sense? Is it simple enough? Is there something even better that we could try instead? Let me know in the comments section!


Truth in Advertising: Matching Your Game to Your Paying Players

Have you ever run across a video game or movie that was wildly mis-marketed? Many players expressed their frustration after playing recent indie game releases Dear Esther and Proteus because they weren’t gamey enough, and countless moviegoers have been lured into theatres to see Kevin James or Adam Sandler movies that the trailers would have them believe are actually funny.

Don’t buy into false advertising: Every Adam Sandler “comedy” is actually a tragedy.

While testing Spellirium, our upcoming point n’ click graphic adventure / word puzzle mash-up, i started to make many of the same mistakes i made with past games: relying too much on the advice of my game dev friends who weren’t interested in the genre to begin with, and telling myself that the game just needs to find its audience to be appreciated. i’m determined to correct those mistakes with Spellirium. This is the story of how i plan to do it.

List Your Turn-Ons

i faced many challenges testing Interrupting Cow Trivia a few years back, and while i learned a few important lessons, a number of things remain a mystery to me.

The most important thing that ICT testing taught me was to weigh testers’ feedback according to how “into” the game they are. If you asked a casual puzzle game fan like me to playtest Gears of War, you wouldn’t necessarily get the kind of feedback to make a better Gears of War game … you’d only end up making an unsuitable game slightly more palatable to a casual puzzle audience.

NOW we’re talking!

i revised my feedback survey for ICT testers to begin with the question “Do you like trivia games?” If the tester answered “no”, the rest of his feedback would get shuffled to the bottom of the stack.

A 5-Letter Word for DERP

i’ve been testing Spellirium with people who aren’t word game fans. How do i know? There are a number of “tells”. The most obvious is when it takes a player forever to build a word. Spellirium gives you a 49-letter grid, and you can make words from 3-8 letters in length using any of those 49 letters, in any order. When a player struggles to make a 3-letter word, i know something’s up.

(i can make a couple of 3-letter words from that first row alone)

If the player has no trouble making words, there’s another “tell” that outs the player as somewhat of a non-wordgamer: the player makes a long 6- or 7-letter word using “common” letters, and is disappointed he’s not supremely rewarded with Peggle-style fireworks. i’ve had a few testers complain (or express surprise) that a word like “TESTERS” scores lower than a word like “POX”. Of course, any Scrabble player will tell you that it’s more rare/unique/difficult to use high-value letters like P and X in a word, than with common final-round Wheel of Fortune letters like RSTLNE.

The issue of players’ reactions to high-value letters was apparent with two iOS word games that were released around the same time last year: Puzzlejuice and Spelltower. Puzzlejuice creator Asher Vollmer told me he actually bowed to player pressure and changed the game’s scoring mechanism to reward longer words instead of words containing high-value letters. Spelltower, meanwhile, becomes more difficult as the grid fills up with X’s, Z’s, Q’s and K’s, implicitly reinforcing the idea that these letters are tougher to squeeze into a word.

Puzzlejuice and Spelltower: two different approaches to the letter value problem.

So through Spellirium playtesting, i kept telling myself that i just needed to get the game in front of the “right” type of player – that those who would like it, would like it a lot. Unfortunately, that’s not at all how the market works.

To Market, To Market, to Buy a Fat Game

The way the market actually works is that you catch wind of a game through a friend or a website, and you eventually stumble upon its page on a digital distribution site like Steam or Good Old Games. You watch the trailer, look at the screenshots, maybe double-check its purported quality by reading Metacritic reviews (or just glancing at the game’s damnable Metacritic score) … and you imagine what the game might be like to play, and whether you’ll enjoy it. You create a mental picture of that enjoyment you’ll get from the game, and then you compare that to the asking price. If the asking price is aligned with the enjoyment you predict you’ll get from the game (and everyone’s equation for this is different), AND you have that money to fart away on entertainment, THEN you may just complete the purchase.

Spellirium: fartworthy.

So if that’s how game sales actually work, it makes more sense to me to simulate that environment, gauge potential customers’ value equations, and then determine from their testing feedback whether the game delivered on their expectations. So the approach i’m taking now is to mock up the sales page for Spellirium as if it were currently for sale on Steam (to be absolutely clear: it isn’t. Yet.).

i’m going to show potential testers this page, and then ask them a few questions:

  • What’s your level of interest in this game?
  • Which aspect(s) or features of the game interest you the most? The least?
  • How much do you think this game costs / what would you pay for this game?
  • List another game that is like this game. Tick this box if you’ve played it. Tick this box if you’ve enjoyed it.

i may A|B test this with an image that shows a price for the game, and one does not. For the potential testers who see the price, i’ll ask:

  • Would you buy the game at this price when it was released, or would you wait a few months for a sale?
  • How many hours of gameplay would you expect to get from this game at that price?
  • How do you feel about the price of the game compared to its description, trailer and screenshots? Too low/too high/just right?
  • (if respondent answers anything but “just right”) How would you price the game?

If i were to approach this exercise completely cynically, i would continue to tweak and refine the page until i got the best potential conversion from my respondents, and then release Spellirium without making any changes to it. Because, speaking absolutely cynically, it doesn’t actually matter if the game is good or bad – it only matters that people buy it. But that’s not how Untold Entertainment rolls!

i try not to be that guy.

Of course, i desperately do want to make a good game. So i’ll use the Steam page mock-up and survey as a funnel to decide on my testers. Those respondents who report the highest interest in playing the game, and the highest likelihood of buying it, will test the game. At that point, it doesn’t matter who is a “proper” word gamer and who isn’t: what matters is that i have an obligation to the people who are excited about my game and who want to buy it. If those players struggle to make 3-letters words, and if those players expect long words to be rewarded over tricky words, then i will adjust the game for the sake of those players. Because those players are my paying audience – not some mythical “perfect” players that i’ve hand-picked to enjoy Spellirium the specific way i’ve configured it. The players choose my game – not the other way around.

It’s the sale page and my surrounding marketing efforts that attract the player. i need to make sure that the player i attract is happy with the object of that attraction.

Searching for Truth at the Flash Gaming Summit

i’ve been thrilled to be involved with the Flash Gaming Summit for the past number of years, as a delegate, a moderator, and a speaker. The conference, which conveniently takes place in San Francisco the day before the GDC summits, is filled with people i consider sister sufferers in a very particular (and increasingly beleaguered) pocket of game development.

Flash! / Aaah-aaahh / Saviour of the universe (?)

Many of the FGS delegates are folks who started their careers building web games with (then) Macromedia Flash, and who have come through the fire of learning how to earn a living with the software with help from distributors like MochiMedia, Flash Game License, NewGrounds and and Kongregate, and portal-owning publishers who are willing to pay license fees for the games, hoping that they’ll make it back in ad revenue on their sites. Some of the people you meet at Flash Gaming Summit are the people who have become successful enough to afford a plane ticket to San Francisco which, considering their often humble beginnings, is really saying something. And a good number of the delegates are from studios who evaluated Flash and decided that it was a good technological fit for their platform or business strategy.

It’s not unusual to find industry visionaries like Dan Cook of SpryFox (Triple Town, Leap Day) milling around during the Summit.

This is a time of uncertainty for devs like Untold Entertainment who largely earn their living making games with Adobe Flash. For many of us, the uncertainty is over why there’s so much hype for vastly inferior technologies like HTML5, and why we’re being pressured by the market to adopt far more expensive tools like Unity to do the same work we’re already comfortable and proficient at doing with Flash?

The Flash platform was dealt a major blow when Steve Jobs – for somewhat vindictive business reasons, thinly veiled as technological snobbery – declared that Flash content would not be supported in any iPhone browser, and then dropped the mic and left the stage (in more ways than one). To this day, the myth persists that you can’t develop any content for iOS using Flash. The opposite is in fact true: many devs like Untold are happily wrapping their Flash creations with Adobe AIR and creating successful native apps for Apple’s devices.

Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, which is on sale on the iPad this week, was developed in Flash.

Real Talk with Ryan Creighton

In an effort to get down to the bottom of things, i’ll be moderating a panel at FGS this year asking the hard questions: is Adobe Flash worth sticking with, or is it time to jump ship? Cutting through the hype, what are the advantages and disadvantages of competing technologies, and what would it take to transition a shop to start using them? And is it even worth it? What do Adobe’s recent announcements about Actionscript Next and abolishing the “speed tax” reveal about the company’s plans for the platform? All these questions and more will be discussed, in amongst a line-up of talks and panels by some of the biggest players in this corner of game development.

Enter the special promo code blog_UntoldEnt for a 15% discount when you register for your Flash Gaming Summit pass. See you all in March!

Sissy’s Magical Birthday Celebration

To celebrate Cassie’s 7th birthday this weekend on February 17th, we’re having a sale! This weekend only, the Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure iPad app will be on sale for 99 cents, and all Ponycorns merch in the Untold store – T-shirts, buttons and limited-edition plushies – will be 17% off! The sale starts THIS FRIDAY. Enter the promo code “BIRTHDAY” to save!


Cassandra Update

Thank you to everyone who has donated to Cassie’s education fund. The donations were placed in a registered education savings plan for her, and we’ll continue to make lump sum contributions as donations come in.

Now in grade one, Cassie is reading and spelling quite well. This new literacy has opened up a world of interests for her. She dove into Pokémon manga books that she found at the school library, and then launched into a campaign in Pokémon Ruby after discovering and dusting off my old GameBoy Advance SP in the closet. She has no idea they made a Pokémon teevee show, so she’ll totally flip when i show her the Pokémon TV App i downloaded for her today!

Uh … how ’bout putting these headphones on, sweetie?

Ain’t No Party Like a Robot Party

Last year when Cassie turned six, she asked us to throw her a robot party. The room was strewn with cardboard boxes which her guests could decorate with all kinds of craft supplies – markers, stickers, pipe cleaners and streamers. The party culminated in a robot parade as all the kids showed off their robot costumes. (FUN FACT: Cassie’s robot birthday party was the inspiration for her robot transformation in her TEDx talk last fall.)

i hope this dial turns down the adorable.

This year, i’m really excited to give Cassie an Arduino Uno starter kit so that we can make actual robots together. An Arduino is a microcontroller – the brain of a robot. You can hook it up to your computer and use free software to tell it to do things. Then you plug all kinds of gizmos into the brain, called “shields”, which enable the robot brain to receive input (from microphones, light sensors, barometers, etc) and then output electricity to other attachments (lights, LCD screens, motors, speakers). i can’t wait to spend more daddy/daughter time with Cassie as we work through the guidebook and figure it all out together.

It’s like fishing tackle, but for NYERDS!

i’ve read a lot of material about getting more women involved in the game industry and science & tech in general. Women should absolutely be involved, and of course, they should earn the same amount of money as their male counterparts. i’m always showing my daughters things like the Forbes Top Jobs for 2013 list, on which math and computer science skills feature heavily. But i don’t think that we can all just wish it into being, or snap our fingers (or stamp our feet!) to make it happen right away.

As a career-aged woman today, you can’t exactly read that Forbes list and think “instead of being an office manager/bank teller/teacher, i’m going to make a lateral move to become an information security analyst! Let me just update my resumé … ?” By the time you’ve graduated from University with a major in Cultural Studies and a minor in Linguistics (and this goes for men and women alike), you’re in a difficult place. Not impossible, but very very difficult.

My firm belief is that women in tech is an attainable future goal, not a present one. It’s a change that will take a generation to really happen – not a quick fix we can force by retraining adults for a couple of years. Let’s face it: learning everything you need to know about math is a long, slow burn. Today’s parents need to actively sow those seeds with their young daughters if that’s the kind of change they want to see. We need to make a conscious effort to explore math and scientific reasoning with our little girls! We need to stoke their natural curiosity and wonder before the world Barbies it out of them.

“Form a hypothesis about whether you smell pretty enough, little girls! *giggle*”

So! Cardboard robot party last year, actual robot present this year, and Ponycorns for all!