i was delighted to be invited to take part in the WordPlay festival this past weekend, which celebrated the intersection of video games and literature.
The afternoon-long festival was held at the Toronto Reference Library, and was organized by Jim Munroe of the Hand Eye Society. Of course, i was there repping Spellirium, Untold’s “comedy trashpunk adventure game” in full game-promoting regalia.
Photo by Stephen Reese. Conjuctivitis by Poofingers McEyeballpoker.
My Spellirium shill get-up is meant to be vaguely reminiscent of the game’s Vendor character, who you don’t actually meet until you’re a solid hour and a half into it, so connection is lost on most people.
Also lost on most people (thankfully) was the fact that i had been sick as balls all week, and barely managed to drag myself with one arm up the street to the library. i slumped home after the festival to continue hallucinating and writhing around on my bed in a cold sweat with an increasingly alarming case of pinkeye.
Yours truly, a mere four hours later. Ask me about Spellirium.
Word Nerds: Assemble
i’ve been telling myself for many years that while Spellirium may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who like it will drain the cup to its dregs. My theory bore out at PAX Prime this past summer, and again at the Wordplay festival as eager players sat down and were immediately engrossed by the game’s storytelling, humour, and leisurely-paced gameplay. i wasn’t exactly riding a stopwatch, but i would estimate that the average play time throughout the afternoon was a very impressive 30 minutes (!)
Spellirium favours no age. This kid rocked the game harder than most adult players.
It was delightful to be in a room where games like the interactive fiction title Lost Pig were being showcased, and where story-based games like Kentucky Route Zero were inexplicably being played on the Oculus Rift (we gave it a shot with Spellirium, but it didn’t pan out). i actually got into conversations with people about Twine, Inform7, Andrew Plotkin, and my recent purchase of a bluetooth keyboard for my iPad so that i could play IF games.
Birds of a feather flock together, and it was wonderful to have a place for us to flock. i hope we see more events like WordPlay in the future.
It was a tremendous(ly tiring) pleasure to exhibit Spellirium for one day only (Friday! FRIDAY! Friday) in the PAX Prime Indie MEGABOOTH this past weekend. i wasn’t sure whether i could handle a Big Boy Booth, so i was happy to be included in the Minibooth, which i described to passers-by as the turducken of PAX booths. The games in the Minibooth were on display for two days at a time, most commonly – and then, like precious and beautiful rainbow toots, they were gone. (Many thanks to MEGABOOTH matron Kelly Wallick and all the Minibooth sponsors – Sony, Microsoft, Google, Intel, Mad Catz and Sound Blaster!)
Photo by Rick Dorey
If At First You Don’t Succeed (Because You Totally Suck…)
This was the seventh time Spellirium has been exhibited to the public:
Digifest First Person Show 2011
GDC Play 2012
GDC Play 2013
Bit Bazaar 2013
PAX Prime 2013
Along the way, i made a number of mistakes that i corrected, and i honed my presentation with each show. By the time i reached PAX, i was firing on all cylinders. Here are the errors i made from points A to B:
The Problem: Boring-Looking Gameplay
Spellirium is a lot of fun for word nerds, but certain types of games just don’t show well at conventions, where a million screens and flashing lights are competing for attention. Since the game is pretty static and requires concentration and thought (heaven forbid!), putting Spellirium on a big screen places the game at a disadvantage.
The answer was to create an eye-catching and fast-moving trailer for Spellirium, and to loop it on the big screen, while players try out the game on a smaller laptop while sitting plaintively at the table.
The Problem: The iPad Can’t Loop
i’m not a huge Apple fan, largely due to the shackles the company puts on its devices and software. As of this writing, the iPad can’t loop video. i spent at least two shows pressing the PLAY button every minute and ten seconds like a chump.
Luckily – and predictably – there’s an app for that. i use LOOPYLOOPY from Osamu Design to save myself from having to check in with the device as if i’m stuck in the LOST hatch.
Oh, fek. The convention centre is going to explode again, isn’t it?
The Problem: Shushes
When every other booth is blasting fresh jams, even an eye-catching trailer won’t cut it.
Much to the chagrin of my neighbouring exhibitors, i have to crank the volume on the teevee to blast Blackbird Raum’s Honey in the Hair, the backing track to Spellirium’s trailer, in order to complete my attract mode. i love the song to bits and pieces, but by now, i’ve probably heard it more often than the band themselves … 1:10 on repeat for days on end. Anything for my art.
i love you guys, but … DAMN.
The Problem: Shy Salesmanship
The easiest way to make money is to ask for it. If people aren’t aware there’s something to buy, they’re quite unlikely to buy it.
Make an attractive sign with a price on it and feature it prominently. At PAX, the $15 price tag for the Spellirium alpha was front-and-center on the inside lid of my cigar box.
The Problem: It’s Hard to Sell Air
In City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character has an existential crisis when he realizes that as an ad salesman for a radio station, he sells nothing. At a conference, it’s much easier to sell people a tangible thing that they can hold and cuddle, instead of a cold unfeeling game code on a card or sticker.
Spellirium codes are contained within this baby cow. Please take one.
i rolled my game codes up and stuck them into cool little glass bottles with corks, and then attached Spellirium labels to them with ribbon. The red ribbon denotes a PC code, while white denotes Mac. The paper inside contains fulfilment instructions, and a support address in case anything goes sideways. At PAX, i vended these codes from the little cigar box on my chest. They drew a lot of interest, and we nearly sold out of them.
The Problem: Homeless People are Scary
At ConBravo, i decided to dress up like one of the characters in Spellirium. The game has a “trashpunk” aesthetic, and villagers dress up in garbage, so i decided to follow suit. i had a bubble wrap vest with an extension cord for a belt, two bike tires criss-crossed on my chest and a soda bottle hat. Not knowing anything about the game, no one knew what i was trying to accomplish, and i didn’t look like anyone you’d want to have a conversation with.
Also, plastic costume components on a sweaty fat guy are never a good plan.
The mom n’ pop apron/cigar box/boater hat combination that i wore to PAX was friendly and relatable. It was clear that i was trying to sell something, so people who approached me were prepared to hear my pitch. And what i was selling was probably something fun, like ice cream, candy or bread. This all worked in my favour.
i really want to build that popcorn cart at some point.
The costume was meant to be reminiscent of the Vendor character from Spellirium. In the future, it might be nice to add a few metallic trashpunk elements to the get-up, but the outfit worked so well at PAX that i don’t even think it needs tweaking.
The Problem: Spellirium Still Isn’t Finished
Uh … yeah. i’m going to stop blogging and get right on that.
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.
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.
November through January, in both 2012 and 2013, were rough times for me. Those same three months, a year apart, had me crunching harder than the breakfast cereal Cap’n.
A typical day went like this:
Wake up (barely) at 10 or 11am. Open the laptop next to the bed.
Work from bed. No shower, no breakfast … just work.
Loving wife feeds me and the family lunch.
Work. Possibly relocate to the living room.
Loving wife feeds me and the family dinner.
Work. Possibly relocate back to bed.
Asleep by 4am.
Repeat for three months.
i wouldn’t leave the house for days on end. i think my record was ten days inside the house. i put on a lot of weight. i pictured it all ending like that Geraldo episode where they remove the side of the house to transport Hambone to the hospital via crane and flatbed truck. This was all in service of a government deadline for my game Spellirium, a project which had gone terribly terribly wrong by its fourth month of production, and had stayed wrong for the ensuing three years.
No Man is (the Size of) an Island
Needless to say, developing in isolation like that is not a Good Thing™. One of the biggest benefits of agile development is getting your creation out in front of playtesters early and often. But when you’re stuck at home Hamboning yourself with an impossibly-scoped game and no team or budget to speak of, important things like Finding the Fun fall by the wayside.
i warsh mahself with a rag on a stick.
That’s why the spellcasting system in Spellirium ended up like it did: bloated, ineffective, and tough to love … much like its developer. This week’s Spellirium Minute developer diary outlines the problems in the system that became obvious once it saw the light of day (which was approximately the same time i – quite literally – saw the light of day).
The good news in all of this is that, thanks to the kickender, the problems with Spellirium have been exposed. When i launched the campaign with the alpha version, i joked that it was like letting a bunch of people into your bedroom without first being able to tidy it up or hide the embarrassing bits. But i’ve had a really positive, helpful response from the community. Every Spellirium backer is automatically signed up for an account on our bug-tracking system, and i’m happy to give people an extra “Playtester” credit if they log a bug or two. The players’ feedback has been extremely valuable to me, and i’ve spent the last few weeks fixing design issues, addressing their bug reports, and preparing Spellirium for a solid 0.37 release.
Lately, i’ve taken up running. i’ve also given up drinking soda pop, which once sounded a death knell for an already-overweight guy like me with such a sedentary lifestyle. My “You Get Fat” campaign sees me donating any and all sugary beverages to friends, family and office mates, passing the calories on to them so that i don’t ingest them. In this way, i’m slowly relying on other people, making changes little by little, and am now on the right track to professional and personal improvement. In this way, i hold out great hope that both my game and my life will get better and better.
Become a Spellirium Backer
Spellirium recently achieved its first crowdfunding goal – Pretty Decent Voiceover. You can contribute to goal #2, Act III Adequately Animated, at the Spellirium kickender site.