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.
Yub nub, motherf*cker.
Here’s a look at the Year That Was.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why wouldn’t you want your game to be associated with this guy?
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?”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!).
[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.
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.
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.