Are you in Hamilton Ontario this weekend? i’m sorry. i’m really, truly sorry about that. But look on the bright side! this weekend, you can nerd out at ConBravo, a geek expo featuring board games, comic books, and Untold Entertainment.
This will be our first year at ConBravo as part of their Silicon Alley, the video game developers’ answer to the Arist Alley standby at nerdfests around the world. We’ll be exhibiting Spellirium, our comedy adventure game where you spell words to solve puzzles.
As a ConBravo special event, if you’d like to win a free copy of the Spellirium alpha, i will fight you at Bananagrams.
Bananagrams: the Goatse of word games.
i will fight you at Bananagrams, and you will lose. i feel bad about that. It’s kind of like those crane games, where the stuffed animal is tantalizingly out of reach, and you’re POSITIVE you can hook it just so and pull it out to the safety of the prize door.
Stick a cork in it, Grimace.
But you will not. You will never beat me at Bananagrams. This i vow. Just try me.
This time out, instead of relying on pure salesmanship to move copies of the Spellirium alpha, we have these amazing little glass vials with adorable corks in them.
We stuck a cork in it, Grimace.
What’s inside? Why, Spellirium alpha codes, of course! A red string means PC, and a white string means Mac. i have done a lot of research on this subject, and i can absolutely guarantee that this is what you should spend your money on this weekend. Not only do you get a cool little vial to store mysterious bits of stuff, but you also get a great game that, like cheese and wine and grandparents, will only get better with age.
Six years ago today, a tiny, mewling company called Untold Entertainment came wriggling out of its mother’s womb.
It’s a boy.
As with my earlier anniversary posts, i like to start by taking a look back at the predictions i made about how this year would go:
In the short term, we’re building a suite of three games for a Canadian broadcaster that i can’t wait to show you. We’re committed to finishing Spellirium before the end of 2012 (fingers crossed for the Mayan apocalypse). i hope to make gamesByKids.com a reality next year.
As for the remains of 2013, the future is less clear. The vision i have in my mind is, and has always been, of a company of about five employees – two artists, a programmer, and a producer/project manager/administrator – all working together harmoniously to produce top-notch humorous video games that players adore, with a white picket fence and a bird bath on the lawn. i can’t clearly see the path from here to there at all, but i’m reasonably assured it has something to do with robbing a bank.
There’s a quote that escapes me … something along the lines of “if you don’t have a plan, that’s exactly what you’ll accomplish.” gamesByKids.com is still under construction. Spellirium remains in development. i’m farther from my dream of working with a small, dedicated team than i’ll ever be, but that might not be a bad thing. Read on!
Last summer, we rebooted an educational game called Math Maze for TVOntario. TVO gave us full reign to improve on the original game. The result was Math Castle, a medieval take on the original game’s snakes n’ ladders structure, which launched on Android and iOS.
Before Untold Entertainment.
After Untold Entertainment.
Ponycorns at TEDx
The ultimate capper to the fantastic response we received for Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was being invited to speak at TEDx Toronto, a regional incarnation of the popular Technology/Education/Demolition conference (or whatever that stands for). As long as i live (or until i develop Alzheimer’s), i will never forget the moment that i held my little six-year-old daughter’s hand, working out the tummy butterflies together before we walked onstage in front of 1200 people to tell the story of our game.
The TEDx talk was also a great opportunity for me to appeal for better tech education in public schools here in Ontario, and throughout Canada. i spent the rest of the fall continuing to volunteer teaching Scratch and computer programming to grade three students at different elementary schools, and at the Toronto International Film Festival Summer Camp. GamesByKids.com, the culmination of these efforts, remains very much a dream project for Untold.
Gisèle and the Letter Tree
Continuing our work with TVOntario, we developed a children’s eBook for mobile devices based on TVO’s script and designs. Gisèle and the Letter Tree tells the story of the letter R that goes missing from the alphabet. The reader helps Gisèle, the host of TVO’s on-air preschool block, track down the AWOL letter.
Spoiler alert: Polkaroo.
From November to January, i worked the worst crunch of my life. i was just as eager to satisfy our government funders’ requirements for Spellirium as they were to get Untold Entertainment off their books. What it took was a solid three months of unbelievable pressure. A typical day went like this:
Wake up at 10-11. Grab the laptop computer next to my bed and begin working (from bed).
Continue working through lunch, as my long-suffering wife feeds me through a tube.
Work work work. Tube dinner.
Work work work work work. Sometimes i would change up the scenery by moving from my bed to the dining room table.
Back in bed between 2-3am.
Wake up. Repeat.
Continue at this pace for three months.
And after all that, i don’t even know kung fu.
My record was ten days in January without ever leaving the house … not exactly something to brag about. But i was determined to throw whatever cash, time, and effort that was required to get the game in a playable state. i hired seven freelancers – most of them special effects animators – to tool up different shots for the game that would give it more polish and visual pizazz, which enabled me to cut a great trailer for the game.
The end result was that at the end of January, the OMDC determined that Spellirium had met the requirements of the IDM fund, and they closed out our account.
But at what cost? At what terrible cost??
With a Little Help From My Friends
i emerged from the horrible Crunch Cave looking like a shipwreck survivor, with a long beard and scraggly hair that had a bird living in it. Untold Entertainment is almost entirely bootstrapped, and was built to survive and thrive on a service work model, but we were still in the midst of a deep recession.
… Did we win?
There was potential revenue tied up in Spellirium, if i could only finish it. So to save my skin, i decided to crowdsource funding to complete the game.
It took about a month to prepare everything for the independent crowdfunding campaign that launched in April, with help from folks like local composer Robby Duguay, who stepped in to help shoot and cut the campaign video. Untold volunteer Mike Doucet cheered us on as we worked through the crunch, and provided a much-needed second pair of eyes on the script. Robby continued to lend the assist by capturing footage for the YouTube promotional campaign called Spellirium Minute; with his help, the help of videographer Paul Stachniak, and a loaner Oculus Rift from Mike Sandercock at Get Set Games, we produced 22 Spellirium making-of videos for fans of the project.
Thanks so much, fellas! Your help has been invaluable.
Clockwise from front: Mike Doucet, Paul Stachniak, Robby “The Doogs” Duguay, and the guy who did the voice of the cop in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
i dedicated myself to spending all of April promoting the campaign – 30 straight days of doing pure marketing. i have learned many, many things through this process, which i hope to share with you next year – perhaps at GDC.
Passing the Hat
The net result so far is that Spellirium has raised $10k. It’s become a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire: when the government was the stakeholder in the project, i owed the game to someone and did not have the resources to finish it. Our ideal fundraising target for Spellirium was between $30-50k. The $10k only served to bang out the dent left by the Terrible Terrible Crunch, and i find myself once again owing the game to someone, without the requisite resources to finish it!
‘Speck i’ll go back to ridin’ dem rails?
With adequate funding, we could have gone full-bore on Spellirium and finished it for a Q3-Q4 2013 release. As it stands, we’re back in that familiar boat of having to cook up creative ways to creep steadily forward with the game at a customary snail’s pace. But that’s fitting: Untold Entertainment is a creative company! If anyone can see a project like this through to completion, it’s us.
i want to sincerely thank our fans, colleagues and well-wishers for your support of Spellirium so far – particularly superfan Christine Laskowski (AKA AnimeCanuck), whose support has bowled me over. We’ve had help from volunteer community managers Eric Weiss (@Harry_Houdini) and Justin Arthur. Big thanks to Jaimie V for tracking down so many bugs, and to Tom MacDevitt for taking a lead on the testing efforts. Keep the faith! We’re as excited about Spellirium as ever. We can’t wait to exhibit the game at ConBravo, GamerCamp, Word on the Street, PAX Prime and beyond!
TELETOON launched Adult Swim Canada last year, and commissioned Untold to create a number of games for the new website. The first of these was Mooser, a new take on an old classic. Your goal in Mooser is to crash into the cars and push the burning wreckage into the river, to create a floating bridge across to the lovely Ms. Mooser.
Art and music by TELETOON, game design and programming by Untold Entertainment.
Look for more Untold-developed games to launch on Adult Swim Canada in the coming months.
The Remains of the Year
We recently completed development on a Unity game for a convergent company, based on an upcoming comedic kids’ animated series. We also consulted on ten “gamisodes” for The Amazing Race Canada, which will debut on the show website as each episode airs. We spent the summer plugging away at Spellirium, addressing the bugs that our faithful fans ferreted out, and revising the gameplay systems that i developed in a dank, dark cave for too long without benefit of playtesting.
In July, YouTube celebrity PewDiePie posted a Let’s Play video of Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. The video has been viewed 1.8 million times, and has introduced the game to a new group of fans, reigniting sales of the iPad version and adorable Ponycorns merchandise, and inspiring more fan art. Thanks, PewDiePie!
The Wild Blue Yonder
And now, the scariest part of these posts, in which i make predictions about the next year for Untold Entertainment that Future Me will laugh about in our seventh anniversary post.
Untold Entertainment is getting leaner. i’ve spent the last few years filling our office space with interns and co-op students, working towards that dream of hiring a steady internal team. But i’m now learning to embrace the agility that solo development affords me; at any time, i can ramp up a team as a project requires. Sometimes, as with Mooser, we needed a team of two. Math Castle took a team of four. And last year’s Project Overboard scaled up very quickly to a team of forty for a single weekend of development. Spellirium’s credits list keeps growing, filled with the names of numerous talented people leaving their mark on the project.
Pictured: everyone who’s ever worked on Spellirium to date.
Before this time next year, i want to see Spellirium through a successful Kickstarter campaign, now that the service will soon be available in Canada. i want to see the launch of Putty Crime, our clay-animated mobile puzzle game, which has languished too long due to trademark issues. The renewed interest in Ponycorns reminds me to develop a version for the iPhone, to appease the growing list of fans who have signed our mailing list. And above all, i would like to see a rebranded and repositioned Untold Entertainment, playing to the strengths of our creative consultation – a differentiating skill that has languished through so many projects where we’ve simply been hired to technically execute others’ creative visions.
i’d like to change the perception that Untold Entertainment merely a vendor of technical solutions – a shop of code monkeys. Untold Entertainment is a house of creative genius.
Listen: making video games is hard. That’s why it’s kind of a douche move to nitpick at something a team of hundreds spend many years and many millions of dollars to make. But if we couldn’t gripe about tiny annoyances in the games we enjoy, a great many of us wouldn’t be in the industry to begin with.
This is fun, but it needs horses.
Ahh – that’s better.
Whenever i claim that the writing in video games is bad, someone pipes up and tries to prove me wrong – unsuccessfully. Always, always, always unsuccessfully. i’ve been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown this week, and while i’ve never heard anyone extol it for its excellent writing, there’s a particularly Bad Thing™ going on in nearly every piece of dialogue and text in the game that i felt i just had to call out.
Forced Elliptical Subtext
It’s difficult to even give a name to this Badness, so i’ve decided to call it “Forced Elliptical Subtext” or, if you wanna be low-brow about it, “Dot Dot Dot Dick Quotes”.
Here’s what it looks like: A character who is trying to be diplomatic spends a few moments in ellipses searching for a politically correct word, and then pronounces that word archly. The ellipses and bon mot often follow a word like “rather” or “somewhat” or “particlarly”. Examples:
General: Our men can be especially … persuasive in the interrogation chamber.
Major: Did you mean to express that so … haltingly? (raises eyebrow)
General: You look a little … nonplussed.
Major: Indeed, I am indeed … annoyed to almighty sharting Hell at this terrible dialogue.
Here are some examples from XCOM that i hastily snapped with my iPad at the PS3 version. The images are a little blurry because by the time i decided to write this, i was shaking with nerdrage.
Wa-HEY, that’s some bad writing!
Real people don’t … talk like this. They don’t halt in the middle of a sentence and then … articulate a particular word to be bitchily diplomatic or to tactfully express distaste. In many cases, the ellipsis and emphasis replace air/scare quotes, or “dick quotes”, so-called by comic Jon Stewart and others because wrapping them around a word makes you look like a giant tool. Say what you mean.
But it’s not always the case that this bad writing habit acts as a stand-in for dick quotes. What i think it’s really doing is broadcasting subtext, loudly and obviously, to the reader/viewer, either because the author thinks the reader/viewer is too stupid to clue into subtext through more subtle writing, or more likely because the author is incapable of such subtlety.
The very first time i remember being annoyed by this dot-dot-dot-italics-eyebrow raise was in the trailer for The Phantom Menace, when Snakes on a Plane expresses his not-so-subtle incredulity over Anakin’s age:
These are not the droids you’re looking for … now go the f*ck to sleep
The first thing that came to mind when i watched that Phantom Menace trailer, after “what’s that crazy rabbit lizard thing?” and “nice green screen, Pulp Fiction”, was “wow … that has to be the worst acting money can buy.” (Or, i should say, “the worst … acting … money can buy”)
Bad writing and bad acting: together at last. It’s like the Reese peanut butter cup of filmic trash.
YOU got YOUR chocolate in MY peanut butter.
Anyway, i’ve characteristically belaboured the point. Forced Elliptical Subtext, or Dot Dot Dot Dick Quotes, or whatever you want to call it, is bad. It’s bad in writing, it’s bad in acting, and it rears its head in bad video game voiceover all the time. Please, let’s do our best to … avoid it.
i’ve made no secret of the fact that my favourite video game of all time is The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, and that i’m a big fan of Ron Gilbert, who i once touched. Ron has released a new pirate-themed mobile game called Scurvy Scallywags which, along with the Puzzle Quest series and the more recent 10000000, belongs to what i call the “Match-3 With Benefits” genre. That’s where the designer takes the simple Match-3 mechanic (think Bejeweled), and layers mounds of more core-centric gameplay on top of it.
Do you like piña coladas / and dealing skeletons pain?
In Scurvy Scallywags, there’s an RPG-like xp system that enables you to level up your pirate and spend points on game-altering stats. There’s combat on the puzzle grid, and a large overworld map to explore, which breaks out into smaller sub-maps as you journey across different islands. You can collect sea shanties, build new ships, and completely reskin your character.
It’s absolutely overdesigned, and that’s not a pejorative. This is the kind of game for players like me who adore simple puzzle mechanics, but wish there was a grander purpose to all that swiping and chaining beyond just earning a meaningless score. (i’d much rather earn meaningless fictional pirate renown!) It’s the very same impulse behind my own overdesigning of Spellirium, a game that adds combos, chains, crafting, economy, collecting, conversations, combat and cutscenes to a simple word puzzle mechanic.
(click the image to see a larger version)
Ryan Full of Rum
Being a LucasArts disciple, i was beyond honoured to earn a mention in the credits of Scurvy Scallywags. My contribution to the game came in the form of a little grog-running i did for Ron. (If you’ve seen that movie Maria Full of Grace, you get the idea – except replace “condoms full of heroin” with “wooden casks full of pirate swill”.) It was unpleasant, to say the least. i’m still farting splinters all these weeks later. But it was worth it for THIS:
i am reminded of a quote from a certain Oscar-winning, seminal film about ennui and disengagement among twenty-something youth in pre-9-11 middle America:
i’m tempted to give Ron a “special thanks” credit in Spellirium, specially thanking him for the special thanks in Scurvy Scallywags … but that way lies madness. From there, it’s credits all the way down.
Video games industry analysts are fond of comparing the games industry with film: both are splashy, highly visual and visceral, both cost a lot to create/market/distribute, and both compete for people’s entertainment dollars and time. When news hit a few years ago that the video game industry had overtaken the film industry in revenues, we gleefully paraded that news through the streets like we had an ousted dictator’s head on a stick. But with digital distribution and a temporary disruption in the games publishing ecosystem, business has changed dramatically. Those looking to get ahead would be far better served to study publishing, rather than film, to inform a sound strategy.
Let’s look … in a bookOH GOD WHY IS HE READING THAT?
A Year on Your Rear
With a staunch amount of dedication and a very comfy couch, you can conceivably watch an entire year’s film output. Wikipedia lists the major film releases of 2012 at about two hundred and sixty flicks. Games are a different story. As of Q4 2012, there were over twelve thousand games in the Apple App Store alone. Divide that by the three years the store had existed, and that’s a rate of about four thousand games released per year (although, to be fair, annual App Store growth is not so evenly distributed). Movies may average two hours, but how long does a game take to play? AAA titles can run anywhere from twenty to one hundred hours, and many mobile titles are designed for endless play. If Joe Average Canadian were to spend his 5.5 daily leisure hours exclusively playing iOS games for the entire year, he could only spend half an hour on each one.
And tell me: who could spend only half an hour on Trucker Parking 3D?
That’s four thousand games accounted for, but the iOS App Store is only one unique marketplace of many; add to that the yearly throughput of Steam, Android, the three home consoles and the wider PC market, and i wouldn’t be surprised if the total number of games in existence after these forty years outnumbered the total number of films released in the past century. While Joe Average Canadian could watch all the movies released in a year, he could never, ever play all the games.
(but not for lack of trying)
Joe Average Canadian would have even more trouble finding the time to read all of the books released in a year. Wikipedia claims that the total number of books released in a single year in the United States alone is 328,259! Books are priced similarly to games, with big-ticket bestselling hardcover tomes coming in at $40-50, down to cheapie legacy or fan fiction one-offs being digitally distributed for a buck. Books require a similar time commitment as games; the the amount of time i spent playing Skyrim is probably on par with the time i spent trying to muscle through George R. R. Martin’s Game of Holy Shit – 924 Pages??. And owing to mobile devices, games have been freed from their specialized locations; just as film escaped theatres to living rooms, so too did games escape arcades to those same living rooms, and now travel with us everywhere in our pockets. We’ve long been able to enjoy a book under a tree in some isolated meadow, and now we can enjoy video games in the same setting.
Uh … yes. An isolated meadow. (shifty eyes)
Lately, i’ve been freaked out about the overwhelming number of games that have been flooding the marketplace. The Internet, which brought digital distribution, has been our printing press. Fairly newbie-friendly development tools like Flash, GameMaker and Unity are our desktop publishing. Open stores like XBLiG, the iOS App Store and the Android Marketplace are our print-on-demand.
Episodic Nancy Drew games are our episodic Nancy Drew novels.
Teeth clenched and hair turning rapidly white from stress, i’ve been repeating the mantra “nobody needs another video game”. And frankly, they don’t. We have enough video games to keep us busy for a good long time. The inevitable response to my Chicken Littling has been to say “well the world doesn’t need another movie, and people keep making and watching movies”. But that’s not the best comparison. For a true understanding of what’s happening with games, we need to look at books. At an output of over a quarter of a million new books a year from the US, people really don’t need another book. But we still buy books.
The reason why you buy one book, and read an Amazon review summary of another, is likely the same reason why you play one game, and watch a YouTube Let’s Play video of another. Figuring out that reason could be one secret to increased success selling games.
Any indie game developer, then, would be well-served to closely study how the book publishing industry functions if he wants to make a go of things. What role do publishers play? Some may give authors advances against royalties (our version of project-level development funding), but i assume that many more book publishers serve as marketing machines, ensuring that book stores and marketplaces stock your title, and that your title gets seen above all others.
How do book stores help customers find what they’re looking for, amidst a fresh dumping of 328,259 new titles a year? Market intelligence on book stores states that the vast number of customers browsing through a physical store don’t know what they’re looking for. A book store’s shelf layouts, end aisles promotions, search kiosks and friendly staff serve to ensure customers leave happy, with interesting products in-hand.
Book store staff went from selling content, to selling e-readers that can read content. Perhaps the role of an Apple Store staffer will transition from selling content readers like iPhones and iPads, to selling content like apps and games.
Games may look like movies, but they act like books. And increasingly, the games industry more closely resembles book publishing than it does the film industry. What lessons can we learn from books, with their dramatically more dire supply and demand problem, that we can apply to our own industry?