Friday, 26 June 2015

Seeing what's really there

I remember as a choreographer at dance school showing my choreography teacher my first dance piece. I'd spent a term making this dance, working with three dancers who were studying with me. This was extra-curricular activity but I wanted to make this dance and I felt good about it. So in search of praise I asked my choreography teacher, Ingegerd Lonnroth, to look at it.

We gathered in a dance studio. I started the music and the dancers danced. I watched the dance and I watched my choreography teacher, my gaze flicking between the two. Then, unexpectedly, my chest tightened and my stomach flipped. This dance was not good. Specifically, the section I was watching was not good. And I was acutely embarrassed. How had I not seen this before? I looked across at Ingegerd but she was impassive. Had she noticed?

When the dancers finished Ingegerd said something supportive and encouraging, to them and to me. Then she said "Show me again the section about a third of the way through, starting from the upstage right corner." Yes, she'd noticed.

I learnt two things that day.
1. That Ingegerd is a very perceptive critic, a skill I made full use of during my time at dance school.
2. That it is very difficult to see what you have made the way the audience will see it.

When I look at a dance I've choreographed or a game I've designed the tendency is to see what I want to see, to see the work as I intend it to be not as it is. Faults are ignored as my imagination smooths them over and delivers to me the experience that I expect, because I expect it.

My tool for overcoming this hazard is in that early experience with Ingegerd. Show it to someone whose opinion matters to you. Watch it with them. Imagine what it looks like for them. Imagine what they are thinking. Don't wait for them to tell you, don't rely on their feedback. Empathise and feel it for yourself.

In theory you can do this without the other person there but it is hard. I find that their presence, watching the dance or playing the game, and my anxiety over their reaction helps me to empathise, to see the work as it really is.

With my current game I have shown it to numerous people. Family, friends, other developers. In many cases I watch the screen over their shoulder, imagining what they are thinking and feeling, and I smile as my chest tightens, my stomach flips, and I add another issue to my to-do list. It's not traditional user testing and for you it may not work, but it helps me a lot.

Richard Lord's session 'Lessons I learnt as a Choreographer and Apply as a Game Designer' takes place on Thursday 16 July at 4pm. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Simple Complexity - how foreign games can help us better serve our players

The number of people playing games has never been higher.  Three main things have happened to facilitate this:
  • Mobile has put a high-end gaming device into the hands of over a billion users, many in countries such as China that haven’t had access to gaming before
  • Free-to-play has encouraged those who wouldn't normally pay to download a game to give them a go
  • Digital distribution has allowed developers to access consumers all around the world, rather than relying on those retail channels they may have been connected to before 

While, twenty years ago, we would be delighted to make a game that reached half a million players, and ecstatic to hit a million, nowadays we can realistically reach ten or even one hundred times as many – and often need to, if we’re to make a profit. So what do we need to do differently to appeal to this broader, wider market?

It’s easy for us to make assumptions about what our players will understand and enjoy – after all, if we love it, so should they, right?

What I've found from working with Japanese and Asian developers and publishers over the years is that, although we may be converging into a global market, players may have taken a completely different gaming journey from us.  Take China – now a huge mobile games market, but a country that had no gaming systems for decades. All the expectations and knowledge we, and many of our players, have built up over those years are not there. I recently heard from someone who’d watched Chinese players on a well-known mobile platform game.  He was amazed to see them studiously avoid the gold coins in the environment, in the belief they’d be killed if they touched them. It’s easy for us to assume that players will understand what they’re supposed to do, but that’s a dangerous assumption.

This isn't a one-way street. A lot of my time is spent playing Japanese games – it’s fascinated me why the Japanese mobile market is so lucrative, but why the biggest titles there often fail to make an impact in the west. Beyond the obvious issues of western and Japanese graphic styles being different, there are many things that Japanese games assume their audience will understand that western gamers generally don’t.  Whether it’s turn-based combat, buddy systems, live events or gacha mechanics, Japanese games throw players into these systems with no explanation – they don’t need one, everyone already knows how to play.  When those games are localised and launched in the west, many players are lost forever in the first few minutes of play, dropping out due to sheer confusion and frustration.  Those that persevere often go on to love the games, matching the high retention and spending levels of their Japanese counterparts, but so much opportunity is lost because players are not introduced gently into the mechanics.

Even if you’re not targeting those markets yourselves, I’d advise readers to play the English versions of the biggest Japanese and Asian titles. To do so will you give some insight as to how confused you might be making some of your own players, not just those abroad, but also those newer gamers closer to.  It will also expose you to game systems that maybe don’t make sense to us at first glance – ‘auto battle’ being a great example.  To many western gamers and developers, the idea of a game that plays itself seems ludicrous. Auto battle only makes sense when you play a game for a long time. What drew you into a game in the first place – probably a fun, tactile, interactive experience, is really only the window dressing on the game that really engages people. What sits underneath that seemingly simple action title or puzzler is likely a deep and engaging game about collection, team building, social interaction and strategic planning. In that context, where the real fun is to be had once you've mastered the game underneath, auto-play makes more sense – removing the need to grind and allowing you to focus on what really matters.

The most successful mobile games tend to be those that are easy for people to understand, enjoyable in the first minute of play but which offer an ever-deeper and more compelling experience for those players who keep going. The challenge for developers is marrying the accessibility needed to attract global or inexperienced players with the depth needed to keep everyone engaged long term. It’s not easy but, as the top grossing charts prove, when you get it right, you can get it very, very right.

Harry Holmwood  - European CEO of Marvelous, a Japanese mobile and console publisher, and also a Director of The Secret Police, a London-based mobile gaming startup.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Value of Attending Games Conferences

In the next few months I will be attending my sixth Develop Conference, sixth! It feels like only yesterday when I went to my first one back in 2010 just after having finished University, with a prototype of Q.U.B.E. to show around. I left the event hugely inspired and ready to embark on a journey as an indie developer, not knowing what the future would hold but immensely confident that I would turn the prototype into a full game, whatever the cost. And for the record, I did just that. 

There are many positive takeaways to get from conferences and yes, you may leave feeling a bit worse for wear and would have taken time out of game development but it’s so worth it. For one, you get to mingle with other like-minded developers and compare notes on game dev, funding, PR, time management and many other things. That in itself is valuable as there’s no default way to make games so it’s nice to find out how others work and apply new techniques to your own workflow.

The lectures are a great way to learn about broader topics and gain insights into how other developers handle things, what worked for them and what didn't. Talks can be majorly inspiring and motivational. You can learn about all sorts of things from level design, game art, development best practices and how to fund and market your game.

If you’re looking to secure new business or even land a job, conferences are great for making new connections. I've done several deals in the past from purely being at a conference and meeting people. If you’re a skilled graduate looking for your first job, an employer is more likely to choose a familiar face that they bonded with over a drink at a conference than CV 524 that came in via email.

Another thing a lot of conferences offer is the opportunity to showcase your latest game and enter it into an awards ceremony. Not only is this great exposure for your game and studio, it’s also a good way to get constructive feedback on the title from established game developers.

One of the best parts of going to conferences is that you get to travel a great deal and a lot of the time, travel abroad to some of the most prestigious industry events such as GDC: San Francisco.

It’s not all pure business either. Many fun activities happen outside of conference hours such as poker tournaments, football matches, networking (aka not-working) and hanging out on the beach.

And once you've become comfortable with the above and gained sufficient experience, you can start giving your own talks at these conferences as a way to give back to the developer community and generally get your name out there.

If you’re heading to Develop Conference this year, come along to my talk where I look back on five years of being an indie developer and observe how much has changed since I started out. And if you’re not going, why not!? I look forward to meeting some of you there.

Dan Da Rocha
Director at Fiddlesticks/Toxic Games

Friday, 15 May 2015

Telling Tales of F2P Games

Those core gamers, eh? They don’t like mobile games much, do they. And don’t even get them started on free-to-play. 

And who can blame them? The successful early F2P games were simple – their interactions mundane, their gating mechanics brazen. They were skeletal monetization mechanics, with a paper-thin layer of skin to make them look at least presentable. Meanwhile, in triple-A land, games were going the other way – doubling down on the experience, the spectacle and the set-piece. You might say that they became all meat – or fat, depending on your stance – weighing down a crumbling skeleton.

But I think core gamers are a valid market to target if you’re making a F2P game. To use the cynical terms of the marketeer, these oceans are teeming with whales – millions of people who pay monthly MMO subs, buy collectors’ editions and season passes. Playing to the lowest-common denominator and chasing a broad audience is valid, sure, but it’s ignoring a vast market.

The biggest challenge mobile F2P games have in winning over the core gamer audience is a battle to prove legitimacy; a fight to prove that the game isn’t just a cynical Skinner skin but a full game experience that deserves to be judged amongst “premium” games.

How do you do this? You can do it with graphics - games like Vainglory, Dawn of Titans and Square Enix’s upcoming Mobius Final Fantasy are pushing that particular envelope, partly I believe in an attempt to establish their credibility. But can narrative help with this?
Spoiler: I think so. But I’m a writer so I would, wouldn’t I.

Hear me out though. Narrative is grounding; narrative is glue. To extend the slightly wonky analogy earlier, in addition to being some of the tasty tasty meat, narrative is the layer that binds that meat to the mechanical skeleton. It gives reason and underlying logic for everything. It isn’t just dialogue; it threads through everything – it’s in location design, character design, even interface design. And, importantly in this context, it shows effort: it shows that you’ve thought things through. Creating a cohesive world and distinctive characters is hard and takes a lot of effort, but there are enough high-grossing franchises to prove that’s exactly what gamers want.

If gamers can get a sense that your world isn’t just a Tolkein rip-off but something with its own identity and history; if they can encounter a character who’s been thought about in terms beyond just “carries big sword” or “has tits, will show”; if they can get an inkling of twists and turns that await them – how can this not engender interest? In a market drowning in copycats and reskins, how is this not going to encourage people to launch the app for a second time?

If you’re a numbers person and all this sounds a bit airy-fairy to you, let me put it in your vernacular: yes, I really do think narrative can help your ‘day one retention’. *comedy spitoon noise*

What about beyond that? Can an on-going narrative in mobile F2P games actually continue driving retention? We consume more story now than we probably ever have done – albeit in different media – and an increasing proportion is serialized, long-form content. I’m not going to pretend that a developing story alone will drive people to repeatedly engage with your game - that’s for the gameplay to bear, of course - but is there any reason why it can’t be part of that equation?

So, if you’re not completely repulsed or amused by the idea, come to my talk ‘Narrative as a Service’ at the Develop Conference in Brighton. In addition to looking at this argument in a slightly less slapdash way, we’ll take a look at mobile games that already do this in the Japanese market, and I’ll also give some concrete examples from my experiences attempting to do this and the new challenges it raises.

By Ed Fear, Creative Producer, Mediatonic

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

How to get the most out of Twitch

Livestreaming is on the rise, and we're yet to see the full force of what Twitch streaming can do for game developers looking to get the word out about the latest and greatest new game experiences.

At tinyBuild, we've been working with Twitch and livestreamers for a while now -- in fact our best ever sales day was thanks to a livestreaming session we put together with PewDiePie last year. If you can get the livestreaming community to care about your game it can yield incredible results for building a fanbase, and of course, scoring sales.

For those of you who have no idea about the ins and outs of Twitch, it's best to get to know how these services really work first. Once you begin to watch lots of content that is in a similar vein to how you'd want to be covered, you'll get a good idea of how to proceed with your Twitch strategies.

Twitch streamers love to focus on interacting with their audiences, so you'll want to give them reasons to use your games to build their communities, rather than just spamming them with links and codes for your game.

When you're contacting Twitch streamers about your game, the best way to make them care is to give them exactly what they need, as quickly as possible. Streamers want a quick description of your game, a code or link to download the game for free, and a video or two of the game in action, so they can assess whether it's worth covering.

As mentioned previously, they also want ways to use your game to interact with their audience, be it extra codes to give away to viewers, or an assurance that you'll tell your own fanbase when a livestreamer starts broadcasting your game.

But before you even get in contact with them, make sure your game actually streams properly! Go download all the most popular streaming software, like Open Broadcaster Software and XSplit, then make sure your game plays nicely with each. If a streamer is put off playing your game because of technical issues, that's just the worst.

There are opportunities to work with Twitch directly too. The company is still pretty fresh and the team is exploring how it can help game developers out. At tinyBuild we've been working with the Twitch team to market some of our upcoming games, including featuring on the front page of Twitch, and it's working rather well for us.

Before I sign off, you might find the following link useful. It's a list of contact information for hundreds of livestreamers, as collected together by myself. Enjoy!

By Mike Rose. Formerly a video game journalist of eight years, Mike Rose is now the talent scout and general firestarter at indie developer and publisher. tinyBuild Games.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Game developers need to accept reality: Virtual reality.

Unlike many of his investors and the analysts who follow his company, I wasn't sent scrambling to consult Star Trek or the Marvel comics to discover why Mark Zuckerberg had swooped for the mysterious sounding Oculus Rift last year – let alone why he thought Facebook should spend $2 billion on it.

The games industry had kept me ahead of the wider technology space. Virtual Reality had been back on our radar for at least 18 months before the Facebook CEO got out his wallet.

Zuckerberg surely suspects that Facebook's flat desktop experience – or even its increasingly dominant mobile fly-by interface – will one day be about as relevant as using smoke signals to ask your hunter-gatherer neighbour to bring over a couple of extra wooly mammoth steaks for the cave bake.

He certainly wasn't about to let some VR incubated social network get a head start. However we choose to swap cat photos and pictures of our lunch in years to come, Zuckerberg is willing to spend billions to be part of it.

Pie in the pixelated sky?

The same should be true of game developers. As I say, we had a jump start on Virtual Reality 2.0.

Yet most I meet are highly sceptical that VR will EVER be how we play games, let along that we'll do it anytime soon.

For instance, Sony was demoing its Project Morpheus headset at the last Develop conference, and plenty of attendees took it out for a spin.

The verdict? Cooler than they expected, but nothing to rival franchises like Far Cry, FIFA, Dragon Age or Grand Theft Auto.

Now, I think they'd be right if they were talking about the next couple of years, though perhaps wrong if they're thinking the next ten.

But many game developers seem to mean… forever!

Let’s get real

This is madness. The future of interactive entertainment is VR. The question is when not if.

All you need to know to make this prediction is Moore's Law.

To jump to the end of the story, ever-increasing processing power means we'll eventually have VR that is practically indistinguishable from our current reality (assuming we escape global warming or nuclear Armageddon on the way, of course.)

Will it take 20 years, 50 years, or 200 years?

Search me, but if I look at the difference between Spacewar from the 1960s or Pong from the 1970s and the sort of games we see on next-gen consoles today, then I'm inclined to bet on brilliant engineering and programming delivering it sooner rather than later.

But anyway the fact is we don't need true reality in a headset (or whatever device VR eventually settles into) for VR games to be sufficiently compelling.

Something very close to reality will be achieved many decades before we get to perfection.

That near-reality experience will be so immersive, empowering, exciting and even frightening that the idea that anyone is going to instead sit in front of a TV fiddling with a joypad is laughable.

Virtual Rome wasn't built in a day

Just because I believe VR will eventually be achieved and universal, that doesn't mean I think it will be easy getting there.

We don't yet have the scaffolding to create a convincing VR sock drawer, let alone a fully immersive world.

But VR games today have as much in common with where VR games will end up as a Punch and Judy puppet show has with Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

There is so much to be invented, tested, and learned.

And that's why I believe VR will be the most exciting area to work in games over the next few years.

For all the advances in what we used to call multimedia, we're still near the bottom of a Mount Everest that has to be scaled.

Or to mix metaphors, while films can now conjure up utterly lifelike scenes – given sufficient talent and months of rendering time – when it comes to live, interactive VR entertainment, we're gazing across the Uncanny Valley.

We're wondering when to take our first hesitant steps downhill. It'll be years before we can even think about climbing out the other side.

Tomorrow's world

Old hands have seen this sort of thing before. It reminds me of the consensus that said 3D would never be mainstream in video games, because how would you do side-scrolling platform games in 3D?

Soon enough, Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider showed you couldn't quite achieve the same thing – but you could do something better.

Or think about mobile games.

I co-founded Pocket Gamer in 2005 when most people's idea of fun on a phone was Snake on a Nokia. Game developers were at the forefront when it came to scoffing.

But the technology moved incredibly fast, and now mobile is arguably the most popular platform for games.

Similarly, over the next few years, experimentation and innovation by pioneering game developers will radically improve VR entertainment, and along the way lay down the laws of virtual reality for generations to come.

How fast should a VR player turn and move? Can a static player be made to believe they can jump and fly?

And what to do when a player leans into a supposedly solid wall? Go black or fade out or send an electric shock through the headset? (Well, perhaps not that last…)

Forget Facebook or even the first true Virtual Reality Super Mario.

I have a hunch that VR game developers will work out the first 'rules' of a ubiquitous digital reality – one that someday we'll all live in.

Blog by Owain Bennallack, freelance journalist and member of Develop: Brighton advisory board.