Tag Archives: Bidness

Forget Movies – Games Now Have Far More in Common with Books

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)

Getting Lit

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.

Glut-hurt

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?

Don’t ask me. i’m only a game developer.

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.

5 Steps to Organically Growing Your Games Portal

This guest post is by Ola Rogula of Doll Divine Dress Up Games, who i met a few years back at the Casual Connect games conference. A lot has been written about the so-called “big” successes in the games industry; certain titles and developers get the lion’s share of the press, the fame, and the love. But meeting Ola and others like her has taught me an extremely valuable lesson: that even while flying under the radar with a product that many people have never heard of (or would even care about), you can still lock into a niche audience and provide a high quality, valuable product or service to them … and make bank.

Sit back, and let Ola showya how it’s done. (Text by Ola, pictures by Ryan)

There are, of course, multiple ways to grow a successful Flash games portal. However, I’m pretty proud to say that I grew mine with a $0 advertising budget and no link building. The site grew entirely from organic referrals. Links and ad campaigns are great too, but if you want to know how to give your portal the ability to grow itself organically, here are the things that worked for me:

1. Mind-Blowingly Good Content

I hate to say this, but if you can’t make games yourself and you don’t have thousands to play with, you face quite an uphill battle. Great games are hard to come by and they are going to be both the biggest source of free advertising for you, and the biggest reason for people to come back to your site.

If you have a lot of money, you can make aggressive bids on games. This is the most straight forward way to fill your site with quality content. Of course, you’re paying the developer to place your link and logo into the game, so that word of your site spreads with the game. Flash Game License is the logical place to start, although I personally have had more luck with seeking out amateur developers through deviantArt. The biggest downfall of this strategy is that you’re always at the mercy of other people. I could never operate my site fully this way because I haven’t been able to find enough good developers to hire for my needs.

Thank you for joining us today for the Consortium of Developers who are Worth a Damn. Please fill in all the rows.

Alternately, you can be dirt poor as long as you know how to draw and program. Being able to create your own quality content is, in my opinion, the best way to make a splash. Of course, it’s also implied that you don’t just do these things; you’re good at them.

There is also an elegant middle road solution. If you have some money to work with, and are a good programmer, it is very cost effective to hire out for artwork. There is literally a world of amazing artists out there who would love to get paid for their drawings. If you are an artist who needs a programmer, the situation is a bit trickier, and usually more expensive. I recommend biting the bullet and learning to code in Flash yourself.

Do not heed words spoken with plastic lips. – Confucius

I must stress that this is the most important point by a long shot. I grew my site almost entirely on my in-game links and word-of-mouth; both products of quality content creation.

2. Dabble

I have come to accept that it is impossible to predict what will be a “hit”. The only thing you can do is try, take notes, and try again. I can very much attest to what my friend, Andy Moore, calls the “1 in 10 rule”, asserting that about one in ten games is a hit. A lot of the rules he mentions for getting a game sponsored apply just as well for creating games for your own portal. Some will spread like wildfire across other sites, while others are left to rot.

Andy Moore: always a hit.

For example, I was very disappointed when my Vampire Maker was a total flop, despite having been successfully timed with Twilight! The Kitten Maker, however, took girl gaming sites by storm. Before these, I had attempted two adventure games which got an even worse reception. In these cases, the amount of time spent on development had no correlation to success. You have to be prepared to put out multiple projects, and you have to be prepared for most to flop. However, this is a beautiful time of self-discovery… It’s the time when you and the world flirt to figure out exactly how you best fit together and what type of projects you should be putting out.

(Vampire Maker may be missing the ability to chew the living foetus out of a labouring mother’s stomach with your fangs? You know – for Twilight fans. Just sayin’. – ed.)

3. Create a Brand

Once you complete #1 and #2 and create a game that has spread to other sites, people will click on your logo to get more of the same. What is “the same” in your case? What do you offer? Based on which of your games resonated best, you need to decide on an adjective and a noun. Are your games funny? Very polished? Imaginative? Accessible to the visually impaired? You have to pick an angle and promise to continually deliver it to users. What are you making? Political satires? Intriguing puzzles? Tower Defense games? Match your adjective with your skills and your noun with your interests. In my case it is: intricate, fantasy doll makers because I love fantasy and pay intense attention to detail. If your interests lie in an already expansive genre, you’d better have a good adjective to go along with it. Of course, you can span multiple genres and wield multiple adjectives, as long there’s a united theme.

Is “shitty” a viable descriptor?

Create your site around this theme. Choose the name and colours accordingly. Contrary to popular belief, the site doesn’t have to be fancy or complex. A lot of people lose money on site design early on which is silly. All you need is a banner, thumbnails, and pages for the games. Anyone can make this happen, especially with the amount of templates online. Orisinal.com is a great example of a simple yet effective layout. The #1 need of users is to find what they’re looking for quickly. Cater to that first.

Quite appalling, in my opinion, are the free scripts that abound which auto-fill your site with games from external sources. How exactly is using a script found all over the internet that fills your site with games that everyone else is posting supposed to give you an edge over the competition? After reading this article, are you itching to get back to playing games on that awesome auto-filled site you love? No? Think about that.

We’re using a purchased WordPress theme the includes one of those scripts, because website design and coding are not Untold’s strong suits. We’re not using that script to automatically siphon games, but have instead been selecting and inputting each game by hand. The problem is that the the theme we purchased was poorly built, and it opens multiple unnecessary connections to our database. The end result is that when a small handful of people visit our portals, our server traffic and memory usage go bananas. This fact alone (and my inability to fix it myself) is the reason why i haven’t worked more diligently to grow traffic on Untold’s games portals. Caveat emptor. -ed.

4. Be Nice to Your Search Engine

(At the time of writing, “search engine” is synonymous with “Google”) The main advice usually given for optimizing Flash websites is: stop using Flash. This, of course, is useless advice for running a Flash games portal, although you should certainly avoid using a Flash-based navigation system. Google can’t see or play your game so it is your job to translate its greatness to the bots. Yes, Google can now crawl the text inside files, but how are the words “Next”, “Play” and “Jump!” supposed to emulate your top-notch graphics?

As for any site, first complete all your basic SEO. Use descriptive text, not just images, when linking within the site. Use a descriptive, yet to-the-point, meta title that includes two good key phrases. Write a robust meta description. Name your pages with descriptive file names so the URL is people-friendly. And finally, find a way to include a large chunk of appropriate text on the page. Describe your game.. the creation process.. the inspiration. Include a set of instructions. You have to put into text what Google cannot see.

Allowing fans to leave comments is a double-edged sword. Users can be an SEO godsend, filling the site with golden keywords and extensive commentary. They can also be a source of unprofessionalism and negativity. You must analyze your demographic and decide if they’d hate or relish the babble of other users. I took the unique approach of only allowing paid members to leave comments. This hasn’t removed unprofessionalism nor negativity, but it has completely removed all external advertising. It seems even as little as $1 per month is enough to detract spammers. It has also kept the community much smaller and respectful of each other.

This moment of clarity courtesy of xkcd

5. Monetize That S***

Or rather, don’t over-monetize that s***. I know it can be tempting. Flash portals make very little money per user. Mine pulls in about one cent per user per month. When attempts to expand aren’t working, it’s tempting to shift to maximizing profits from the existing users. Over-monetizing the site can drive users away, further lowering revenues. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why increasing income through something that decreases traffic is the beginning of the end.

Flash portals make their money mainly through advertisements around the site and in-game ads. Flash developers can make a lot of short-term cash by putting their games up for bid, but you’d better kiss that avenue goodbye if you want to grow your own portal.

Website ads must be placed with taste. I recommend no more than one ad unit above the fold on the main page. The Google algorithm agrees. You care about the games first and the money is just a nice bonus, right? Hopefully this is true, but even if it’s not, it’s how you want your site to look. Placing an ad unit above or beside your logo exposes where your priorities lie. You want to make sure that all the things on your site that the user might find interesting are clearly visible, and the ad is just a last case scenario for their clicking pleasure.

But Ola – how am i going to earn a steady seventy-three cents a month without placing ads absolutely everywhere? -ed.

People have grown accustomed to one preloader ad and will generally sit through it. However, if you’re just starting out, you need every edge over the competition and sparing the users the annoyance of video ads is a commendable one. The big advantage of in-game ads is that they spread along with your game as/if it goes viral. But again, even on other sites, I recommend giving your games the ad-less advantage. A static, silent, in-game ad that is visible during the true duration of the loading is acceptable (many ads simulate a loading bar which makes the user wait even after the game has loaded). And don’t even think about layering multiple loader ads over each other. It’s a lovingly hand-crafted creation, not an onion.

Sissy’s Magical IndieCade Adventure

Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, the game i co-authored with my 5-year-old daughter Cassandra, was a finalist this year at IndieCade 2011. You’ve seen plenty of pictures from E3, GDC, Tokyo Game Show and other more well-known video game industry events, but what’s IndieCade like? Come with me – it’s my magical IndieCade adventure!

Ryan Henson Creighton of Untold Entertainment Inc. at IndieCade 2011

Our Arrival in LA-LA Land

IndieCade takes place in Culver City, a close suburb of Los Angeles California, the Most Horrible Place on Earth. i don’t care for it. Ever since getting dumped out of a cab at two in the morning somewhere in LA, and asking some nearby police officers to help point me towards my hotel, and being denied, i don’t much enjoy traveling there. Culver feels a little bit smaller and a little bit homier than LA proper, but it’s still carved up by vicious six-lane mini-highways threatening to Frogger you at every crossing.

i traveled to IndieCade with fellow indie game developer Michael Todd (@thegamedesigner), whose antics i hope you’ve been reading about on my Twitter account (@untoldent). In case you missed it, here’s a taste:

Michael Todd Goes to IndieCade

Michael Todd Goes to IndieCade

Michael Todd Goes to IndieCade

Good times.

Despite the chaos, Michael Todd managed to spot someone on the plane who was going to IndieCade as well, zeroing in on a guy who was playing SpaceChem on an iPad. That’s how we made friends with Matt from NVIDIA, who agreed to split a cab to Culver with us.

Michael Todd and Matt from NVIDIA

Michael Todd, looking like he’s going to set Matt from NVIDIA on fire.

Michael Todd and Matt from NVIDIA

Michael Todd, after setting Matt from NVIDIA on fire.

We stayed at the historic Culver Hotel, an early 20th century joint situated just up the street from the former MGM (now Sony) studios. Apparently Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley used to whoop it up there while filming Showgirls.

Culver Hotel by Day

The Culver Hotel by day …

Culver Hotel by Night

… and by night.

Travel-weary and hungry, our first order of bidness was to beeline for the nearby In-N-Out Burger, which certain folks on Twitter can’t stop raving about. My hopes were high for what many were calling the best fast food burger in existence. My concierge told me to order a “double double, animal-style” from the secret menu. This being LA, i made absolutely sure that we were both referring to a burger.

In-N-Out Burger

My meal. Thankfully, my chASStity remained intact.

Of course, no Earthly burger could live up to that amount of hype. You couldn’t find a more pedestrian burger. And American cheese sucks. i took special note of the burger wrapper:

In-N-Out Burger

If the very best thing you can say about a burger is that it’s been wrapped in paper since 1948, you’ve got yourself a shitty burger. Here’s a list of other bullet points the restaurant could have printed on the wrapper:

Since 1948, In-N-Out Burgers have been

  • round
  • legal in 48 states
  • made from 100% stuff
  • found only at In-N-Out
  • edible

Aim high, burger joint. Aim high.

Spectacles, Testicles …

The night we arrived, IndieCade held its big awards show. It was much bigger than i expected it would be. The invite suggested we come dressed in “cocktail” attire. This was the best i could muster:

Ryan Henson Creighton suited up

i’m ready for my cocktail, Mr. DeMille.

Many of the other indies, being primal savages, managed to squeeze themselves into pants for the event (which is more than i think most of us hoped for). At the awards show, we were met with a bona fide red carpet entrance.

IndieCade Red Carpet

Jim and emmie McGinley

Jim and emmie McGinley from BigPants games were agog … but not as agog as they’d become when they won the Audience Choice Award for The Depths to Which I Sink a few days later.

You never really get to see a red carpet photo from the perspective of its intimidated subjects, so here you go:

IndieCade Photographers

Rob Manuel

G4TV’s Rob Manuel does his best impression of an Oreo.

Inside, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. A … Chinese-lanterned Chinese Christmas tree from China.

IndieCade 2011 Awards

IndieCade assembled a list of Hollywood actors from geek-related movies and shows to present the awards, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Freaks and Geeks actor Samm Levine (famous also for his leading role in Showgirls) brought his A-material, including “programmers never shower” and “gamers live in their moms’ basements and masturbate a lot”. i mean, granted, but i’m sure there were one or two folks in the audience who resented being lumped in with the rest of us.

Samm Levine

i swear this guy’s been cryogenically frozen since his show got cancelled.

At one point, two young starlets joked that they should start making out at the podium. i could feel the room bristle uncomfortably. Know your audience, kids.

Ponycorns got a few unexpected shout-outs from the mic, and was nominated for the Community Impact award, but ultimately lost to Johann Sebastian Joust. But it’s an honour just to lose bitterly.

As the party drew on tipsily into the wee hours, more than a few people asked me where my daughter – my five-year-old daughter – was. i had no response. My Twitter pal Ian Bogost cooked up an appropriate comeback:

“Fuck if I know. She got trashed and went home with some 8 year old.”

The Lay of the Land

Aside from the Santa Monica-staged awards ceremony, IndieCade took place within a 3-block radius of our hotel. In the parking lot across the street, they’d erected some neat puzzle buildings designed by a local artist, whose nearby gallery hosted some of the finalists.

IndieCade Puzzle Building

IndieCade Puzzle Building

IndieCade Puzzle Building

They’re cool and all, but i’d hate to see the IKEA instructions.

One of the venues was the Ivy Substation, a local theatre:

IndieCade Ivy Substation

The park on the way to the Ivy had a really kickass climbing tree, if you’re into that sort of thing. i mention it in the off chance that you are:

Kickass tree

Most of the finalists’ games were on display at a nearby firehall which, to my surprise, continued to operate throughout the weekend.

IndieCade Fire Station

IndieCade Fire Station

In front of the fire hall, you can see people playing the cardboard box-based “real” game Ordnungswissenschaft.

IndieCade Fire Station

Alienware donated the equipment for the showcase. Somewhat unfairly, certain developers were assigned desktop machines with proper monitors, while others of us were assigned little 14 inch laptops. Ponycorns was squished on to one of these diminutive little screens, and shared a cramped table with an interactive geology textbook. “HELL naw,” said i, and grabbed an extra table. Then i proceeded to pimp my table out, Untold Entertainment style:

IndieCade Ponycorns Table

Thaaaaat’s RIGHT.

After the first day, the IndieCade organizers shut down my merch sales, claiming that i couldn’t sell anything because the firehall was a public place and i didn’t have a vendor’s permit. At first, i was asked to remove the two price tags from the shirts and plushies, and was later asked to remove the T-shirt rack entirely. It was kind of a bummer, but one day of T-shirt sales was enough to pay for my cab rides and meals at the event. i can’t help but think that if i had produced a valid vendor’s license for the organizers, they still would have asked me to shut down my merch sales … but that’s just conjecture on my part.

Patty Wagon

i was asked to speak on a Family Friendly Games panel on Sunday, which was a real thrill. Soon after, some of us piled into a car with my friend Joel from Riot Games (@lowpolycount) to hit up the rarified East coast burger joint Five Guys.

Five Guys

i washed the In-N-Out taste out of my mouth with a proper burger from this place.

Everywhere you go in California, there are these vague “shit be causin’ cancer” signs:

Cancer Warning

(They must be talking about Cinnabon?)

Conferences are exhausting, and IndieCade was no exception. After being on my feet for twelve hours on the concrete firehall floor, i was wiped. Thank goodness – three tall, frosty glasses of Cherry Coke came to my rescue.

Kids Play the Darndest Things

On Saturday and Sunday, the firehall was open to the public to just wander in, try out the games, and meet their creators. This was, by far, my favourite aspect of the festival. i just loved talking to Joe and Jane Community Member, and it was especially exciting whenever a little kid played the game:

Kids Play Ponycorns

Kids Play Ponycorns

Kids Play Ponycorns

Kids Play Ponycorns

i caught this girl petting each of the ponycorns in turn, giving their manes a test drive. Protip: Fluffybuns has the nicest hair.

Next to our booth was Johann Sebastian Joust, the game that edged us out in our award category. It drew large crowds with lots of clapping and laughter.

Joust

Okay, sure – if all you’re looking for in a game is for it to be fun and exciting for large numbers of people.

Each player gets a Playstation Move controller. The players must move around the arena in time to the Bach soundtrack – if you move too quickly, you’re out. So the game is all about swatting someone else’s remote to make it move too quickly and knock that player out of the game. It’s a neat idea, and people loved it.

i met a fellow wearing a paper tie whose father was the subject of Deepak Fights Robots, a Pac Man/Bubble Bobble mash-up that took home the award for best game design.

Deepak Fights Robots

They really managed to *curry* favour with the … no, never mind.

That’s a Rap

The festival concluded with the Audience and Developer’s Choice Awards. A stunned Jim and emilie McGinley accepted their Audience Choice award, but not before the crowd tried a few rounds of Local No. 12′s the MetaGame.

In the MetaGame, each player gets a deck of cards. Most cards depict video games, while some cards pose a comparison question, like “Which game is a better waste of ten minutes?” or “Which game deserves to be locked in a vault for 1000 years?” The challenger chooses a discussion card, and both players throw down a game card. Then they debate. It’s all very Socratic.

Myles Nye in the Meta-Game

Never debate a man in a moustachioed shirt.

i squared off against Myles Nye here on the left, who wound up trouncing all comers. He later brought down the house while defending Parappa the Rapper by freestyle rapping his rebuttal.


Indiecade 2011 – Dragon’s Lair vs Parappa the Rapper from Sokay Man on Vimeo.

IndieCade 2011 was capped with a backyard barbecue at Robin Hunicke’s house. Robin is a producer at That Game Company (Flow, Flower, and the upcoming Flowest: Flow Harder).

Robin Hunicke's backyard barbecue

Set phasers to “mingle”.

Robin's bbq

Ed from Twisted Tree Games (Proteus) toasts a marshmallow, while other bearded men and women make s’mores nearby. The non-bearded gentleman in the background was quickly expelled from the party.

Phil Fish and Richard Lemarchand DJ'ing

Phil Fish, developer of the Best in Show winner Fez, spun tunes with Richard Lemarchand, of Uncharted fame

i sat down next to Richard to reclaim my key drive, which Phil had borrowed to transfer some music. He introduced himself, and then said “i loved Ponycorns.” i had to admit that i got stuck somewhat early in his game when i was shot repeatedly in the face. He assured me i could play Uncharted 2 without missing important plot details.

Richard is a very nice guy. Very British. This is confusing, because his last name is “Lemarchand”. He makes frequent, almost self-conscious references to Dr. Who. i have a sneaking suspicion he’s an imposter – a Frenchman posing as an Englishman for some bizarre reason. You can’t fool me, Lemarchand. Blood will out.

The Voyage Home

It was an exhausting five days. By the end of it, Michael Todd had learned that hotels not only charge exorbitant amounts for in-room phone calls, but also for in-room death threats.

Michael Todd Goes to IndieCade

Michael Todd Goes to IndieCade

Untold Entertainment Goes Forth


Untold Entertainment Goes Forth

When Untold Entertainment Inc. turned three last year, we were reeling from the fallout of the global economic collapse. It’s been a slow, difficult recovery, and we still have a lot of work left to do, but i’m happy to say we’ve nosed out of the tailspin. This was a landmark year for Untold; we are poised to have an absolutely incredible fifth year going forward. If last year was our Empire, this year is our Jedi. Bring on the Ewoks, baby.

Ewok

Yub nub, motherf*cker.

Here’s a look at the Year That Was.

2010

August

Last fiscal ended on a dark note. We were struggling through Spellirium, our post-apocalyptic puzzle adventure game, as various production problems saw the budget sapped with very little to show for our efforts. The year ahead had us planning to complete service projects in the hope that we’d bank enough margin to continue working on the game.


Spellirium

September

My book was published! Unity 3D Game Development by Example: A Beginner’s Guide is a great introduction to game development, computer programming, and Unity 3D itself, which is a super-powerful game engine for creating on a wide variety of platforms. Thanks to you all for buying a copy, or for recommending the book to your friends.

Unity 3D Game Development By Example

Fall

We launched Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two on YTV.com. Jinx 3 was the first game to use UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System. It supported multiple playable characters, an inventory system, a subtitle system, game variable control, and a “puppet” guidance system, which enables the developer to write commands to build in-game cutscenes. Jinx 3 was the first UGAGS game we developed, but the second one to launch, after Heads.

Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two

i spoke about UGAGS at Gamercamp Level 2.0, a Toronto convention celebrating the joy of video games.

October saw the publication of a now-infamous article about the Vortex Game Development Competition, where the previous year’s winners were revealed to have never worked on the winning game.

i experimented with a feature called Linkbait Tuesdays, where i used the Linkbait Generator to spit out randomized titles for blog posts. It wasn’t much appreciated by my readership, and didn’t appreciably increase blog traffic, so i killed the feature.

On Hallowe’en, we launched our second free games portal called ZombieGameWorld.com. If you know the song about the old woman who swallowed the fly, you’ll understand our challenge with these portals. We built WordGameWorld.com in order to attract a word game-playing audience, so that we could control the site’s ad inventory and find an audience for Spellirium. When the site suffered from flagging traffic, i decided to build a network of game portals; ZombieGameWorld.com was ostensibly created to help drive traffic to WordGameWorld.com, which should drive traffic to Spellirium.

Old lady who swallowed a fly

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. i don’t know why she swallowed the fly. i guess she’ll die?

To round out the fall, i grew a beard to win hockey tickets, despite not enjoying hockey. i spoke at an interactiveontario luncheon. And i wrote an article for Mochiland.com on the disgraceful refusal by contracting companies to credit their Flash game developers.

Ryan Henson Creighton's epic moustache

Why wouldn’t you want your game to be associated with this guy?

Winter

As the cold weather set in, i took a position at a private college teaching Unity 3D game development. i had hoped for a better experience than i had at Hervé Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, but no such luck: halfway through the course, which was dubbed Programming II (the students had supposedly been taught Flash/Actionscript for four months prior to my arrival), i had to dial everything back and re-teach programming basics to them. And by basics, i mean stuff like “What does the ‘=’ symbol do?” and “What is a variable?”

name

What … is your NAME?

The class was only eight students, but i had no fewer than two of those students’ parents call or email me to ask why little Billy was getting low grades on tests. YaRly.

In this, i further proved the thesis in my contentious What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges articles (Part 1 and Part 2). Helicopter parenting and failure aversion have created a generation of non-functional kids, which i later dubbed The Most Useless Generation. My diagnosis is that many college undergrads have escaped high school without ever understanding How to Be a Student (an article i wrote while teaching last winter, which i’ve only just posted now that i’ve put some distance between myself and the situation).

In the interest of helping young people be more successful, i offered My Prescription for (More) Successful Students, which my students all ignored, and i wrote a serious of articles called Understanding Programming to explain programming basics, which my students also ignored. Oh well. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but sometimes you just have a retarded horse.

retarded horse

2011

Spring

In 2011, we launched an exciting blog series called Pimp My Portal, detailing our struggles to drive traffic to ZombieGameWorld.com and WordGameWorld.com. The hook here was The World’s Most Meager Marketing Budget, a pot of just $100 that i spent on Fiverr.com to buy testimonial videos to promote the site, the rationale being that search loves video. The Old Lady who Swallowed the Fly reared her ugly head again, as i found that i had no audience to watch the videos to go to the portal to go to the OTHER portal to find out about Spellirium. The Pimp My Portal series is ongoing.

Around this time, we were commissioned by The Centre for Skills Development and Training to produce a series of games to help teach workplace skills to 15-30-year-olds. The resulting game, Summer in Smallywood, enabled us to make a number of improvements to UGAGS, including auto-save, debug tools, navigation meshes, saved game profiles, and threaded conversations. We’re looking forward to working further with The Centre in the coming year to expand our educational gaming experience.

Summer in Smallywood by Untold Entertainment

In March, i admit i was feeling a little bit desperate and squirrely. Work was trickling into the shop in fits and starts, and i was really wondering whether renewing our lease would be wise. Wild-eyed and hungry at GDC, i was overcome with the need to let the world know i am here, like the tiny Whos living on a speck on a clover stalk, who ultimately issue a resounding YOPP! to show the jungle animals that they exist (and to keep from getting boiled in beezlenut oil).

Horton

A game dev’s a game dev, no matter how small.

To that end, i pulled some shenanigans at the conference, which came to be known as the famous GDC Coin Stunt. The resulting press on most major online games sites greased the wheels for what was to be our greatest victory yet.

i have all the coins shirt

Over the years, we’ve found it so difficult to drive enough steady Flash game development work that we haven’t been able to bank enough time or enough money to do our own thing. To date, the only chance we seem to get is TOJam, an annual weekend-long Toronto game jam, during which we always produce a complete and original game. Indeed, nearly every title in the Original Games section of our portfolio is a TOJam game, completed in one weekend by me alone.

This year, we used UGAGS to create Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. i worked on the game with my 5-year-old daughter Cassandra. It was no accident that i was wearing my “I have all the coins” T-Shirt in the TOJam group photo this year. After the game went live, it went viral, initially being featured on many of the same sites that covered the coin stunt. In the few months since its launch, the ponycorns game has gone on to become an international sensation (i just granted an interview to a Japanese newspaper this week!).

Cassie and Daddy

[photo by Brendan Lynch]

With the ponycorns game, we took a very important step to improving our viability as a dev studio by launching the game on the Apple iPad and the BlackBerry Playbook. On the third day of its launch week, Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was featured by Apple in its New & Noteworthy section.

Ponycorns also drove us to develop our first alternate revenue stream based on our original IP. We launched the Untold Booty merchandise store with a number of different ponycorns-based SKUs, and have been very happy with the results.

Throughout the year, i remained active with the IGDA Toronto Chapter, organizing some well-received events including the speed dating-style Game.Set.Match, the Open Mic Night rant session, Straight Outta TOJam: Pint-sized Postmortems, and the Fund in the Sun workshop.

IGDA Toronto Chapter posters

Through the spring, we developed a great puzzle/platformer game called Spladder, which currently runs on a number of kids’ broadcaster sites – YTV.com. TVO.org and CBBC.co.uk among them.

We launched a new games portal called TowerDefenseGameWorld.com and filled it with free tower defense games, because it’s difficult to prove a theory about a network of games portals lending each other traffic if you only have two portals. We also gave a major upgrade to ZombieGameWorld.com by expanding it to feature zombie games and goodies on other platforms.

i know an old lady who swallowed a horse. She’s dead, of course.

Summer. Future.

We’ve come full circle. Spellirium remains unfinished, but we’re finally spending time on it again. We poked Kahoots with a stick to see if it was still twitching. Thankfully, it is! We’ve made some creative changes to it to spare a fellow indie game dev company some unpleasant legal strife; look forward to a Kahoots-related announcement in the coming months.

i’m writing the 3.x update to my Unity 3D book, which will be ready shortly (send me an email and i’ll add you to our notification list when the update is released).

Going forward, our plan is to leverage the success of the ponycorns game to make major in-roads into game development and education for kids (see our article on CBC.ca). i’m preparing a pilot project with Cassie’s elementary school this fall. We’re preparing the unstoppable UGAGS engine for a business-to-business, and then consumer, release – expect it to have a kid-friendly interface. We’re polling people for their interest in an iPhone/iPod version of the game (send us an email!). i’ll be delivering my conference session Ponycorns: Lightning in a Jar at the Screens festival this fall, and at other conventions throughout the year. Ponycorns is being translated into Japanese in anticipation of the Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Games Show.

Untold Entertainment’s fifth year will be filled with low-life panda bears, daily word puzzles, gamesByKids, and more great articles about game development and education, peppered with rude jokes and stolen LOLcat pictures. Thanks so much for your support, everyone! i’m really looking forward to writing an amazing recap next year.