Saturday, 11 February 2012

Solv Needs Help Building a Coffee Machine

Not true. It just came up when I clicked in the title bar.
Reckon it's from Zynga's now retired Baking Life, but don't know why it's joining us here on the farm.
However, turning 'coincidence'* into relevance, (another invaluable talent in the writer's talent tree) we should have a quick shuftie at the current gaming headlines.

*My son and I play the 'coincidence' game. You each think of a word, or theme, and sit back and wait. A few weeks ago, we were walking back home with the shopping, discussing the nature of 'coincidence' (and I shall now stop with the apostrophes) and, to demonstrate my point, I chose the word artichoke and my son looked at his watch and chose 1:14.
The word artichoke indeed presented itself on several occasions during the course of the weekend. (As did the time 1:14.) The following week, watching Masterchef, the word artichoke once again did its jaunty jig and there in the background a wall clock duly displayed the time... 12:14! Pretty close. (And, naturally, I mentally adjusted it to the precise hour difference, whereas I suspect it was much closer to 12:12. Two twelves! A coincidence? [Probably should bring the apostrophes back.])

If it wasn't for the assistance of the auto-coffee machine, I would've forged a title from the ideas of money and balance and getting rich quick and so forth.
It's been an eye-opening few weeks (for me, at least), with Spry Fox sticking up for the indies, and Zynga employees, both current and ex, confessing that Zynga pounce upon successful games, attempting to buy out the developer and, if that fails, reskinning that dev's game and bolting on their crew mechanic, and claiming the end result as their own 'original' concept.
There's no way I'm going back to the topic of originality. I'm still with Maltzman. You can find my thoughts easily enough by typing those keywords into the search bar. Suffice to say that neither reskinning nor bolting are required to acknowledge the balance of mechanics within any given game and are, IMO, reprehensible.

And, more recently, we have the revelation that (a staggering amount of) certain devs have been hiring botfarmers for the relatively inexpensive sum of $10-$15k. At the press of a few buttons, the botfarmer unleashes his bots. Over the course of three days, those bots repeatedly download the targetted game, lifting it up through the rankings until it hits the top 25. (Often easy to spot because that game will appear in the top 25 with no reviews, although I've heard of 'automated' reviews in broken Portuguese too!?) Apple are threatening to revoke licenses.

You can do something similar with human peoples. Make $$$s from the comfort of your own home! You just need a computer with internet access, and the most rudimentary understanding of computery stuff.
I've left you a few examples to look at. You don't need to scroll down very far to find comments directing you to services. I've deleted some, but I'm cool with the polite ones. (Just remember kids that I haven't followed any of the links and don't endorse any of the sites!)

My bosses have just returned from the Casual Connect conference in Germany. There, they learned the truth behind the ERS games - and it's hardly a revelation: Hundreds of coders and artists working tirelessly on multiple iHOG projects for minimal salaries.
Just as we've seen in the world of console devs, the drones are disposable: they come and go with the regularity of a ticking pocketwatch; they set up their own rival companies or services; and more drones are plugged into the empty chairs. These services are interesting: For a modest fee, you can outsource your art and code to ex ERS employees. Good pedigree, good price!

(As an aside, my bosses also learned from the horse's mouth that Big Fish went too far with the MCF8 title and received lots and lots of complaints about the game's poor taste. However, Big Fish are in the position where they don't have to worry about these complaints.)

So, quite a whirlwind of activity of late! And it all leaves me with this question:
How can a tiny dev team with typical British salaries make a game of CE standards and turn a healthy profit?
M3 made a similar profit to M2. That's to say that the game pulled in enough extra dosh to cover the combined salaries of the extra five staff members.
Given the revenue ceiling that exists for iHOGs (at least through the BF portal), it's unlikely that M4, however well it is received, is going to make a significant profit.

I had a meeting with my bosses and they presented their ideas for generating more profit. They were:
Cut dev time down to nine months; lower the quality of the artwork; don't invent any new systems - just use more inventory items; make the trial hour great, and pare everything back thereafter.
All understandable and predictable responses*, and all pointless unless you can answer the How? (See my question!) And it's because the How? is so difficult to answer, especially with British salaries what they are, that we hear barely a British whisper in the iHOG charts.
*In their defence, they haven't declared 'Story isn't important!' for several months now, so I think they're making an effort.

Naturally, I was ahead of them: I had already taken it upon myself to react to the three months we had lost during the staff drought. I used the M4 CE act to experiment. My internal brief was:
How can I create an hour of gameplay and wonderful experience in under two months with the team we have?
I think I've achieved that. I might be proven wrong, but I'm pretty pleased with myself and the systems I've invented which deal with our own particular obstacles.

In theory - and we can test the theory with minimum risk - I've found a way of making four acts and a CE act of high quality at a shade under two months per act. That comes in at around nine months, and does not allow for sickness or holiday, or for creating guis and menus (although it does accommodate cut-scenes and cinematics). Nor does it allow for the iterative nature of game design, and that alone can constitute a sizeable nugget of time.
But nine months? The whole shebang in nine months?
Where were we? Oh yes:
How can a tiny dev team with typical British salaries make a game of CE standards and turn a healthy profit? In nine months?

To their credit, Big Fish have eased the pressure by introducing a mid-range accolade which they call the Deluxe. It's priced mid-way between CE and SE and eases the financial suffering of those devs that fall a fraction short of the CE score. But it's a cushion, and not something to aim for. (And I can only imagine that it could be achieved by a team attempting to hit the CE score in the first place.)

We're now at that place where things break. If I can't answer this question whilst retaining my integrity, then I have to either shed my integrity, convince my bosses to lower their profit expectations, or walk away with my integrity intact.
It's a place defined by both terrible shadow and challenging sunlight.
And it's a painful truth that (arguably) the #1 requirement for a writer/designer is that she has finely-honed powers of empathy; ergo, the better the writer/designer is at her job, the less likely she is to disrespect her audience.

Speaking of #1s...
Currently occupying the BF #1 spot is Surface: Mystery of Another World. I played the trial. Next morning, I drenched poor Ben with spittle as I related my experience of that trial - and it truly was a trial - to him. Poor Ben. And poor me: two nights with barely a wink of sleep! But mainly poor Ben.
First thing: if forum posts are to be believed, it's evident that S:MOAW spent a considerable time in the hands of the beta testers. Full credit to them for their persistence.
Now, to me it doesn't look great, and the story is ok but delivered without any technical prowess and, hence, gave me no emotive thrill. It lacks originality and sophistication. The live action cut-scenes are well hokey. I can't abide the relentless string of inventory item quests - put x in b and f in y and arse in biscuits and on and on - and the logic is laughable, unless you're able to believe that the only thing that will smash a window is a stone, despite having multiple heavy metal tools at your disposal...

But, studying the trial, I can reasonably confidently describe how it managed to achieve the CE score. Pretty much all you need to know is here in the last five years of blog posts. Forgive my heavy-handed paraphrasing, but it goes a bit like this: Hook, resonance, clear gui, atmosphere, regular developments (good pace+enough variety), strings of inventory item quests punctuated by puzzles/mini-games (which were, on the whole, pretty good), simple map with teleport, abundant hints and quick meter refills, enough fluidity to sustain the immersion cocoon through the bad things. The bad things were those things that are allowed to be bad. If your bad things are those things that have to be good, you get Bedtime Stories: The Lost Dreams (which, sadly, had lots of good things, but those were good things that could've been bad).
Furthermore, I'm well aware that I am not the market. My expectations of art and mood and story are much higher. No use me reading the glowing reviews and shaking my head in disbelief. Neither is there any use in my contemplating how to be more bad or, worse still, forcing Ben and Sally to be more bad. They're far too talented for me to even consider that!

Well what do you know: Providence has indeed presented me with an apt title for this post! Now I need your assistance with a cigarette machine...


P.S. Lovely comment on Wild Tangent (re. M3), and one heck of a pat on Ben's back. Let's play the coincidence game! I choose the words 'unique and 'original'!

JR: One of the best, most beautiful and most unique hidden object games.

Wild Tangent Games: What did you like most about this HOG?

JR: WildTangent Games The graphics were the best I've seen in HOG's. They were like walking into a Thomas KinKade painting. I loved the tarot card bits, where you had to line them up to produce different shapes. Very original. I also liked playing the sheet music on the piano. Things liike the horse race (blueberry, cotton candy, etc) were fun also. The story line was also sweet. I liked that the first object picked up (the rose) was the last one used. It tied up the storyline nicely.

Wild Tangent Games: Thanks for your awesome feedback Jeffery! Appreciate it :) We'd love to hear more reviews from you about other games!

P.P.S. Friend of mine has released his first iOS app! It's called Monkey Pole Climb. I've not played it, but it looks great and, more importantly, the guy poured fluffy ewers of love and care into it! Do go take a look!


esruel said...

I think Anonymous has summed it up, solvey - sales!
And, as Ash said in the first Alien movie: You have my sympathies...
Art v. business will always do battle over the C word (cost, if you need to know which C). The company will always have control over the parameters in which you work (for them). Just prove you can do what they want, in the way that you want. You'll meet somewhere in the middle without anyone proving each other wrong and still come out on top...

solv said...

Aw, I think we scared Anonymous away.
Yep, see my latest post on quality quantity, and consider the differences between their Margrave 2, an enormously long and repetitive game, and my Margrave 3, a considerably shorter game constructed from as much variety as I could muster.
It's not simply a case of taking every short-cut and cramming as much stuff in as you can.
As I tell them time and again, sometimes three zooms are better than six.
Speaking of Alien, you getting excited yet? Prometheus is a' comin...

esruel said...

Well, anything involving Ridley Scott certainly gets my attention! Should be interesting at least, and if it's any good then it may spawn sequels! Gotta be better than the previous load of rot following the Alien III movie...

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