Tag Archives: Game Ideas

The Psychological Science of Bilking Money

DID YOU TOTALLY KNOW that in addition to creating Spellirium, a word puzzle/adventure game hybrid, we’re also working on a top secret project behind closed doors and blacked-out windows? While wearing masks and sunglasses?


This is pretty much the only way to keep your game a secret.

i have cooked up two monetization plans for this magical mystery game – two separate versions of the product that i am considering releasing simultaneously, in an effort to maximize moneyification, which is absolutely not a real word.

Here they are:

Monetization Models

The game has 50 levels. In both options, the player gets to play the first five levels for free. That’s where the two plans diverge.

Option 1

You pay 99 cents to access the remaining forty-five levels. The game includes a shop where you buy items that essentially serve as cheats. Buying these items is optional, and you will only need them if you kind of stink at the game. These items will be sold via microtransactions. More powerful items will cost more money. They are single-use consumable, which means they disappear after one use. Prices range perhaps between 10-50 cents.

Option 2

You pay five whole dollars to buy the remaining forty-five levels outright. All purchases from the shop are made with the currency you earn in-game, so they are “free”.

Yes, there are lots of other ways we could do this. Conspicuously missing is Option Greedy, where we charge five bucks AND charge for items. There’s also Option Risky, where we don’t charge for the game at all, and hope to make it up on virtual item sales alone. Finally, there’s Option Stupid, where we don’t charge for anything and keep our fingers crossed that Mochi Ads will really start paying off in a few decades.

So i’ll put it to you! If i release these two versions of the game simultaneously, which do you think will perform better? Of course, if you think this is a terrible plan, please speak up in the Comments section.

[poll id=”6″]

Thoughts on Practical Tips for Independent Game Development

For at least a decade, all my game development endeavors had one thing in common: none of them were ever finished.

With these words, indie game developer Jacob A. Stevens established himself as my soulmate, and endeared himself to my heart forever. From this point forward, i will be there to peer into his kitchen through the shrubbery outside his house, as if locked in a trance.

That is to say, i can’t recommend Jacob’s Gamedev.net article Practical Tips for Independent Game Development highly enough. Our experiences and opinions are so common, i have to wonder if he actually dug through my trash and assumed my identity to write the piece.

Hang on a tick …

Alright, i’ve just looked out my kitchen window and have discovered that Jacob is actually peering through my shrubbery at me. i’ve waved to indicate that he can come inside, but i think he just wants to watch. Oo-er, missus. Soul mates indeed.

Peeping Tom Kitteh

Jacob drops so many truth bombs throughout the article that i believe he should be arrested and tried for truth crimes. Here are a few salient points that stood out while i read:

Build the Game, Not the Infrastructure

It’s easy to get distracted by tasks that don’t directly contribute to the final product, like building tools and editors. Hardcode the levels.

i’ve spoken to many a fledgling game developer who’s said “our engine is 75% complete!” Good for you. How’s your game doing? We technically-minded perfectionists (myself included) are often so caught up in making pretty, slick tools that by the time we burn out on a project, we haven’t actually produced something a person can play. It’s far better to have something tiny, playable and rough around the edges than a slick level editor that you abandoned at 75%.

Are You Sure You’re Cut Out For This?

Lots of people think they want to make games.

To quote Jack Black, “i’ve got sour news for you, Jack. It’s not that easy. Are you willing to make the commitment to rock-hard tasty abs WASHER-BOARD STYLE, glistening in the sun??” The classic fable of the little red hen comes to mind – everyone wants to play games, and everyone wants to have made games, but very few people are actually equipped to deal with the mental and physical anguish involved in making games. At the end of the day, most of us are ducks, cats and pigs, rather than little red hens.

“Who will help me code the user interface?”
“Not i,” said the practically everybody.

Just because you enjoy eating ice cream, doesn’t mean you’d enjoy working for minimum wage in an ice cream factory! Try on game development in small doses, and decide – really decide – whether you want to play games, or make them.


In trying to find the right people to partner up with, even if those people have never made a game before, Jacob says:

The key is to look for demonstrated self-motivation.

We have a saying in our family: the drive is the talent. None of us are particularly good artists, musicians, programmers, businessmen, jugglers or bow-hunters, but we do possess a heaping helping of drive, or ambition. That drive is what possesses us to go ahead and learn bow-hunting when it’s called for. And though we may not emerge the world’s best bow-hunters on the other side, at the end of the day we got it done. We’re like those characters in Heroes who can absorb other superheroes’ abilities. Or we’re like the writers of Heroes who re-trained to become accountants just to escape their jobs on that show, because it friggin’ stinks.

Heroes Sucks

Fo realz, Heroes writers. Please go do something constructive with your lives.

When i got my first job in the games industry, i was hired for my drive. It certainly wasn’t for my artistic or programming talent – i had neither. And i had never made a game before in my life. But there’s a lot to be said for motivation. i don’t know if this is an ingrained quality in a person, or whether it can be practiced and improved upon. Either way, i’d be more likely to partner with, say, a decent and motivated artist than a fantastic artist who was somewhat of a slouch.

U Ay-yi-yi

A common misconception is that a great game starts with a great idea. StarCraft, Zelda, and Resident Evil are genius games because their creators painstakingly refined the details of the games until they were virtually flawless.

My opinion here may be due to the current struggles we’re facing with our games, but in my up-to-the-minute opinion, the very best strategy is this: start with a game concept so small, you figure there’s no possible way it could possibly stand on its own as a complete game. Then build it – that’s the easy part. Then go build the UI – the buttons, the title screen, the win and lose conditions, the log in, the sign-up, the high scores, the level selection screen, the error messages, the credits and the modal dialogues. If you fail anywhere, that’s where it’s gonna happen. You can always go back later and expand the game idea, but bear this in mind: 10% of the work is building the game, while 90% of the work is building everything surrounding the game.

World of Warcraft UI Design Nightmare

There’s a reason “Game UI Designer” is an entirely distinct profession.

i can tell whether i’m going to enjoy a free online game within the first three seconds. If care and attention have been paid to the intro logos, the title screen and the Play button, i know i’m in good hands. But if i see an unincluded font outline on that Play button, or an amateurish load bar, i don’t stick around long.

If you put together a complete game, with all the fixings that i mentioned above (registration and high scores are optional, of course), then you can go back and start building out your game’s features. In fact, if i were to teach game development to students, i’d be tempted to have them start with the front-of-house donut, and work in the actual gameplay once all that jazz was in place. Your appetite for feature creep will be a LOT lower once you consider all the UI you’ll need to support it.

Why Haven’t You Launched Any Games?

Case in point: both of our original games in our development queue, Kahoots™ and Interrupting Cow Trivia have been finished for months. We haven’t worked on the Kahoots™ gameplay since about February. This whole time, we’ve been programming the dozens of dialogue pop-ups and screens that facilitate the gameplay. And we just released a first look at ICT‘s graphics and theme yesterday – now we’re faced with the grim task of doodling up the scads of checkboxes, input fields, windows, prompts, scrollbars and messages that comprise the game’s visuals.

So you want to be a solo indie game dev? Start out by testing your passion for being an indie UI designer, and see where that takes you!

Introducing Spellirium

i’m very excited to announce Spellirium, an epic word puzzle adventure game.

Spellirium Logo

Spellirium will do for word games what Puzzle Quest did for Bejewelled. You will play in a fantastic dark fantasy world armed with a small wooden grid of letter tiles – the SpellCaster – which can change reality with the words you spell.

Spellirium has been in our development queue since we founded Untold Entertainment. We were so booked up with contracts that we couldn’t get cracking on it.

Budge It

In fall 2008, we applied for a provincial government grant called the Screen-Based Content Initiative.

Me: i can haz munny?
Government: Noz.

You suck!

The jury rejected Spellirium for a few reasons:

  1. the $150k (!) budget was too large for a casual game prototype
  2. we failed to adequately assess market risk
  3. we did not include project oversight in the budget (ie we didn’t include a role for a producer or a project manager)
  4. we weren’t clear enough about what we were building

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again

Later the next year in Spring 2009, we came back with a 70+ page document for Spellirium and applied for the Interactive Digital Media Fund, also offered by the Ontario government. This time, our project description was meaty and picture-laden at 25 pages. We included time and money for a producer. We wrote a solid market analysis. And we reduced our budget to around $80k, half of which the government would front if we were approved.

Once more, our application for Spellirium was rejected. Here are a few of the reasons:

  1. the budget was too small
  2. the jurors were not confident that we could produce a game of sufficient quality at the $20 price point we proposed
  3. one juror played the very early proof of concept version of the game, and didn’t like it

Needless to say, it takes a considerable amount of time and effort for a little two-man shop to keep itself going and to write up enormously demanding applications like these. The government invited us to re-submit Spellirium for another review some time in November. The prospect of going through this process a third time is harrowing, and we could use your help!

Introducing the Rubber Room

The Rubber Room

It looks so cozy!

We want to address that one juror’s concern about the Spellirium prototype, so we’ve made it available to you to play in the Rubber Room, the new section on the site where we’re putting all of our gameplay experiments and half-baked ideas. We would LOVE for you to try out the prototype, and then give us feedback. Let us know if you like it or if you don’t like it, and give us details either way. If you are a lurker, now’s the perfect time to stop lurking and post a comment, because we could really use your help!

Your feedback will help us decide whether or not to carry on with Spellirium. And if we DO decide to keep at it, your comments will help shape our next application to the IDM Fund.

Thanks so much, everyone!

Try our new game Spellirium and tell us what you think!


Sign up for the Spellirium Newsletter to go even deeper into the creative process behind the game. The newsletter contains a first look at exclusive artwork and juicy details about Spellirium that you won’t find anywhere else!

Cash Cow Part 2

In the thrill-a-minute first installment of this article, we revealed the strategy for the FREE half of our upcoming Flash game Interrupting Cow Trivia. Short attention span? Here it is in a nutshell: we’ve built our own membership system and some hooky features to pull players from free-to-play portals back to our site, where we can cultivate them as customers.

Bert and Ernie Here Fishy Fishy Fishy


But man cannot live by site traffic alone. With the advent of numerous microtransaction systems for Flash games, including MochiCoins, GamerSafe, HeyZap, and Nonoba, there now exists a simple framework that will allow us to take money from our players.

There are three levels of players in Interrupting Cow Trivia: Hobos, Members, and Owners. Let’s take a look at each in turn:


These are the players who hop off the nearest freight train, bindle in tow, looking for a free entertainment hand-out. They’ve chalk-marked various areas of the Internatz where people are most likely to help them out with a hot entertainment meal and a warm barn to sleep in for an hour – namely free-to-play portals like Addicting Games, Newgrounds, and Kongregate. Hobos are not loyal to us. They’ll take their entertainment any way they can get it. Our primary concern is to convert these shiftless Hobos to productive Members of our game’s society.


Beggin’ yer pardon ma’am. Where are the free games at?

There are two important points that i want to make here on the care and handling of Hobos. The first is that you should always relentlessly tease a Hobo. You should constantly remind a Hobo of all the fun he could be having if he became a Member. The benefits of Membership should be obvious, and compelling. The process of becoming a Member must be simple.

The second is that you should never make Members’ options invisible to Hobos. Members and Hobos should always see the same buttons, the same interface. If ever a Hobo clicks on a button to access a Members-only feature, that’s where you hit him with the “Sorry! This feature is for Members only!” This pop-up is a great opportunity to list a few other benefits of Membership, and to provide a fast link to the Membership sign-up page.


The boys in the stats lab spent weeks on this

Hobos are our frontline – the bottom of the pyramid. There will always be far more Hobos hitting Interrupting Cow Trivia than Members. One big difference between a Hobo and a Member is usage: while Hobos represent a high number of unique visits, Members will account for a larger percentage of repeat visits. Members come back for seconds. Another difference is that Hobos are anonymous, but Members give us their email addresses. That crucial differences opens up a dialogue between us and our players – we can send newsletters and surveys, send special offers, and personally connect with our customers.

We mentioned in the last article how we turn a Hobo into a Member, but here’s a quick refresher.


Both Hobos and Members can play the game for free, but only Members can:

  1. Display their board avatar next to their names during the game
  2. Be tracked on the leaderboards
  3. Build a cumulative score across repeat visits
  4. Quickly Challenge a Friend from their Friends/Foes list

There are two other features in the queue that leverage membership in a powerful way, but these are enough for now. Since Membership is free and compelling, it’s quite easy to convert a Hobo to a Member. But converting Members to Owners (paying players) is the real challenge.



Both Hobos and Members can play Interrupting Cow Trivia for free. When you click to join a multiplayer game, you’ll to see a 15-second ad served up by MochiMedia. Then you get to play through x questions. i haven’t decided on this number. There are ten questions in a round. If you have any ideas here, please let me know!

After they play those x questions, Hobo and Member alike are unceremoniously BOOTED from the game back out to the lobby. If x questions were enough to show Hobos and Members a good time, they will click to re-join a game, at which point we show them another 15-second ad. And so on.

So in-game advertising is the first revenue stream for Interrupting Cow Trivia and, based on our past experience, the weakest. We’re including it in the game to make money in a very indirect way.

Fact: ads are annoying. i don’t like watching them, and most likely neither do you. But ads pay the bills. What do you do if you want to consume media without watching ads? You either steal it, or you pay for it. With its multiplayer integration, Interrupting Cow Trivia will likely be a hard game to steal, so that leaves paying for it.

How much would you pay to not have to watch this ad?

Charge Once or Charge Often?

So an Owner is a Member who pays for the game. There were a few different ways we could go on this. Do we charge a one-time fee, or do we charge a monthly subscription? Well, the idea of a one-time fee doesn’t excite me because i know i’ll have to keep writing trivia packs to keep the game fresh. i’ll be sinking hours and hours of work into the game past the point of conversion, yet i’ll only ever have the x dollars that Player A paid me. What if the game really takes off and it’s popular for ten years? i can’t constantly sink hours of development into a game that doesn’t constantly sink money back into my bank account to fund that development.

The other problem with a one-time fee is that i don’t think people will pay it. What if i charge $10 for Interrupting Cow Trivia? That’s a total rip-off, because it’s a Flash game. And we all know that Flash games are free. Plenty of other games to play that don’t gouge me for my hard-earned money. Screw you, Untold Entertainment. How DARE you?


Why i oughta …

But let’s look at a subscription model. Let’s say we low-ball it and charge people a buck a month to become owners. A buck a month – that’s RIDICULOUSLY inexpensive. And we can even give them a month for free if they opt for a year’s subscription. So a year’s worth of Ownership on Interrupting Cow Trivia runs them $11. And i think that since we changed the player’s perception, and have hit that magical 99 cent mark for game content (even though we’re charging it multiple times), we’ve gone from an unattractive flat fee of $10 to a dynamic, monthly fee of $1, which comes out to $11 with the free bonus month, which is one dollar more than the flat fee would have been.

And with the short attention span of gamers these days, i sincerely doubt that anyone is going to stick with the game for over a year. But for those few adoring players who do, we’ll see a fresh, crisp $11 bill in our account when the year is up.

Let me stop myself, because i really want to hear your opinions: good idea, or bad idea? Is $1 a month too low, or are we hitting the nail on the head here? If it were your game, what would you do?

Suggestion Box

Let us know!

MochiCoins Subscriptions?

So we’ve begged the question: how do you handle subscriptions with one-off currency systems like MochiCoins and GamerSafe? i’m going to come right out and admit here that from this point on, i’ll be borrowing a lot of strategy from OOO (Three Rings) and their ground-breaking game Puzzle Pirates.

Picture a game where the player can buy a sword. The sword is time limited – it degrades every time the player uses it, and eventually it breaks and becomes unusable. The player is effectively renting that item with real money. In Puzzle Pirates, you buy a gamer badge that allows you to play certain mini-games for a month. Once the month is done, you have to buy the badge again if you want to enjoy unfettered acess to those games again. It’s the same concept as the sword, so as long as you’re set up to offer rentable/degradable items, you’re set up to handle subscriptions.

In this way, we can sell an item (badge, hat, medal, crown – whatever) that makes the player an Owner for a certain period of time. Interrupting Cow Trivia will likely sell 1-month, 6-month and 1-year items (remember: one month free when you commit to a year).

But why stop there? Three Rings shares their financial info, and it’s no secret that Puzzle Pirates has pulled in a lot of well-deserved booty for the team. So let’s borrow one more idea from them: a content schedule.

Puzzle Pirates

Yarr! Thar be plunder!

Puzzle Pirates has a few mini-games that are available to Hobos right off the front page of the site – no need to download the game client. Inside the client, there are a number of mini-games that are available to (non-paying) Members on a rotating schedule. For example, the Drinking mini-game is playable on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Poker mini-game is playable on Mondays and Saturdays, and so on. What the Puzzle Pirates gamer badge actually does is it allows Members to play any mini-game on any day, breaking players free from the content schedule. Of course, there are leaderboard hooks and in-game money-earning incentives that make this an even more attractive item to buy.

We will build the same type of content schedule for Interrupting Cow Trivia by splitting the content packs across different days: Music Trivia will be playable on Tuesdays and Fridays, Movie Trivia will be playable on Mondays and Saturdays, and so on. The secret to keeping traffic up is to offer your most popular content on both your highest- and lowest-traffic days. If Movie Trivia is the most popular, we need it available on the site so that the biggest number of Hobos can enjoy it. We also want it on our lowest-traffic day, so that it will boost traffic on that day.

So now there are three compelling benefits to converting from Membership to Ownership:

  1. No annoying ads
  2. Play for as long as you like without being interrupted
  3. Get access to all trivia packs on all days

And it’s a realtive cinch to add one more benefit: when we release a new trivia pack, Owners get to play it first for, let’s say, two weeks. (Maybe a month? i dunno. You tell me.)

So the benefits of converting from a Hobo to a Member are clear and compelling, and conversion is easy. The benefits or converting from a Member to an Owner are clear and compelling … but there’s obviously that enter-your-credit-card-and-part-with-your-hard-earned-monays barrier that we have to overcome. But all of us Flash devs eyeing microtransactions are facing that same problem.

Mochi Media Mascot

Would you trust this guy with your credit card number?

Brother, Can You Spare a Die?

If you’ve had any experience with Hobos, you’ll know that most never pay. And especially in the free-to-play Flash free-for-all, i think there are many Hobos who have a tremendous fear of commitment. Can i really expect them to plunk down a whole shiny dollar for an entire month’s worth of play? Hobos are moths that will flit from shiny game to shiny game. If i really want to make a go of this thing, i need to come up with a way to take money from shiftless Hobos.


You hold him down – i’ll take his wallet. (Wait … where’s his wallet?)

My limited research into micropayments has turned up evidence that offering multiple types of payments will net you more cash than one rigid payment system, like our subscription scheme. So alright – this is a little nuts, but try it on for size:

Hobos and Members click to join a multiplayer Interrupting Cow Trivia game. They’re served a 15-second ad. They get to play through x questions before they get booted back out to the lobby.

BUT … there is a die. The player rolls this die to earn bonus questions.


No, Mr. Bond. i expect you to DIE!

Let’s say that watching the 15-second ad buys you 15 questions. You play 15 questions, you get booted out to the lobby. But after the ad and before you jump into the game, you click to roll the bonus die. The number you roll adds to your question count. So if you roll a six, you get to answer 15 + 6 = 21 questions before getting booted out to the lobby.

Suddenly, Hobos feel that they’re getting away with something. If they roll a high number, they can buck the system. They’re really only allowed to answer 15 questions, but one sweet roll will keep them in the game longer than they’re supposed to be in there. This ability to stick it to the man will really resonate with Hobos.

So what are we going to sell to Hobos and Members? More dice.

Hobos and Members can, for a nominal fee, purchase another die. Suddenly, players have the potential to roll a 12 – max 6 pips on the standard die, and max 6 on the purchased die. 15 + 12 = 27 questions before getting the bum’s rush. A die will cost maybe fifty cents. That’s HALF the cost of the extortionist monthly subscription fee. Players can buy multiple dice – we may even sell three dice for a discount in a bundle – to stay in the same play session longer.

Dice, of course, are degradable.

Metal Dice

Don’t ask ME. Maybe they rust?

I Second That Emotion

The folks who are really raking in the dough with micropayments are the ones who build up the player’s passion and sting him for cash at the most fervent, crucial moment: Alright, i’ve spent two hours playing this game. i have ZERO continues left, and i NEED to buy the Implausibly Large Gun for $1.50 to get to the next level where there’s a Save Point.

Emotional impact. Impulse buys.

Airbrushed Wolf Shirt

OMG – i HAVE to have it!!

One way we could do this with Interrupting Cow Trivia is to offer some kind of incentive – say, a Double Points day – on certain trivia packs. Answer questions from the Music Pack and earn double points. Of course, today is Friday, and the Music Pack is only available to Hobos and Members for free on Saturday. But man, i just GOTTA get in there to earn those double points to increase my player rank and overtake Member markergreen in the leaderboards.

i click the Music Pack, and the pop-up tells me that i can pay the subscription fee to access ALL trivia on ANY day of the week. But who am i – Ritchie Rich? i can’t afford a subscription.

But wait – there’s one more option available to me. Apparently, i can pay fifty cents – HALF the cost of a month’s subscription – for a Day Pass. That’ll get me into the Music Pack to earn my double points. Deal of the Century!

Of course, this might have the opposite effect on the discerning consumer. “i can pay fitty cents for a single day, or one dollar for an entire month? A month is, like, thirty-five days or something. That’s a way better deal. And who knows what other double points promotions they’ll have this month? i’m going to pay the buck.”

And then:

“Waaait a second … you mean i get one month free if i buy an annual pass? That’s, like, a 40% savings!”

And finally:

“HOLD ON! There’s a DONATE button?? So i can actually dump two months’ salary into this game to show my gratitude and appreciation to the amazingly talented developer? Well clearly, that’s the best deal of all!”

You should come live inside my brain. It’s a good time.

Armchair Presidents

i’ve lovingly detailed all this strategy to you because i’m lucky enough to have some of the smartest people in the industry visting this blog. i’d really like your feedback on whether this plan is solid, or whether you think we’ll crash and burn. i would, of course, be thrilled if you knew of any brilliant ways to monetize Interrupting Cow Trivia that i haven’t thought of.

And if this article has spurred any thoughts towards how you can monetize YOUR upcoming game, superb! Our game world may be filled with Hobos, but curiously, there’s an awful lot of money stuffed into those bindles.


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De Fine Balance

Every year, the organizers of TOJam (the city’s annual orgiastic game design bacchanal) choose a theme to guide the goings-on. Last year’s theme was CHEESE. Most of the Jam’s participants took the directive literally. There were games about blasting towers of cheese, games about digging through cheesy substrata, and games about entire seas of cheese. Entire seas of em!

i was a little surprised that no one went for the broader definition of cheese, a la “camp” or “corn”.

This year’s theme is SCALE, which offers many more possibilities. i thought i’d run down the different uses of the word to provide this year’s Jammers with some inspiration:

1. To Climb

Make a game about:

  • scaling a building (Rampage, anyone?)
  • scaling a wall (like Achilles in the Trojan War! … or Spider-Man, for you plebs)
  • scaling a rock face of a mountain

2. A Horny Skin Plate

Make a game about:

  • a snake!
  • a lizard!
  • a fish!
  • a pangolin! Because they’re weird.

3. To remove plaque from the teeth.

Make a game about:

  • An amateur dentist (i think Adult Swim already did this, but i can’t find the link)

4. A device for weighing things.

Make a game about:

  • Weighing things! (the best example i can think of is at VectorPark – click the icon with the snowman)
  • the astrological Libra sign is a pair of scales. Some kind of horoscope game/
  • the figure of blind justice holds a pair of scales
  • the Wii Balance Board is a (barely) high-tech bathroom scale

Blind Justice

Couldn’t you see Blind Justice kickin’ ass in a God of War-style game?

5. A representation of proportionate size.

This is the one that comes to mind most naturally, i think. Make a game about:

  • things that are big and things that are little. (yawn)
  • i dunno. This is the most obvious one, so it’s the least appealing to me.

6. A graduated system of wages or rates.

As in “pay scale”. Do a game about:

  • Santa’s elves viciously competing for corporate bonuses
  • a union worker bumping off employees with more seniority so that he can earn a higher wage
  • a tycoon game about managing the wages of sweatshop workers

7. An ordered progression of musical notes.

Make a game about:

  • That scene from the Sound of Music where Julie Andrews teaches the children to sing “do re me”. ACTION-PACKED!!
  • Some crazy avoid-the-obstacle game that takes place on top of a gigantic piano keyboard. Remember Bumble Boogie?

There are other definitions, i’m sure. My point is that before you do some take on Shadow of the Colossus this weekend at the Jam, consider your options! They are many and varied.

TOJam is this weekend, May 1-3 2009 in Toronto. Spots are limited, so sign up now!