Japanese podcast about games: “Game chomp chomp”(ゲームモゴモゴ)

Recently I discovered an awesome podcast that discusses a variety of games, and one of the hosts actually works the business of developing them.

While you’ll need to know at least some Japanese to appreciate this, if you do it’s a great way to study up on Japanese as well as the art of game making.

You can more details about this podcast in my post here (on my blog about Japanese study).

Mobile Game Review: Lost Echo [iPhone/iPad]

I discovered this game from the promotional category “15 Greatest Storylines” in the iTunes store for iPad/iPhone. Most of the mobile games I download are free, but an impressive trailer plus the fact that the game was on sale ($0.99 from a usual price of $2.99) was enough to make me buy this game. Lost Echo has been out for some time, released on Sep 2013 for the first version.

This game is an authentic adventure game where you control the main character, following a storyline that gets pretty mysterious after the first few minutes of play. The game’s graphics are all 3D rendered in real time, and depending on where you move the camera angle changes, sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly.

When I first saw this game’s trailer on my iPhone, I was blown away by the graphics, but after playing it for about an hour or so on my iPad my impression dropped a notch. This is not only because the larger screen size shows off the flaws more easily, but because the design quality of the environments varies significantly, with some contain areas of very simple geometry that stand out. Also, the app preview shows some of the more interesting and better-designed areas, which is only natural from a marketing point of view. Overall they have done a great job with texturing the environment to create realism without using too many complex models.

I’ve been playing for around 90 minutes total time, and the story and dialogue is pretty well-written so far. I am not sure if they are purposeful, but I feel there are similarities to some of the Final Fantasy Games (story and dialoge-wise), plus Half Life series (mostly visual). I haven’t played many true adventure games on iPhone/iPad, but it’s great to know there are some serious adventure games like this on mobile devices. The only drawback story-wise is that sometimes I feel this game devolves to a click fest where I have to just click on everything in sight until I hit upon the right object.

The controls on the game take some getting used to be able to efficiently navigate the world, but even given this learning curve I think there are some things that could be improved. For example, clicking on a location to move there does not normally show any UI confirmation, unless you have happened to click on a hotspot representing a object or other important place. This makes for a frustrating experience, especially because sometimes it isn’t clear whether the place you clicked on is a legal location to walk to. Usually I end up clicking many times quickly to make sure the character starts moving.

There was one scene I just played involving a card game where clicking on a button on an overlaid menu to look at my hand of cards didn’t work properly – instead it acted as if I was trying to touch something on the backdrop, giving me the message “This is a wine crate”. Eventually I figured out I had to click my cards on the table first but I was almost ready to give up. There is one more short scene involving fixing a rattle that was surprisingly hard to control, and I feel that part should be cut completely from the game since it didn’t add anything tangible to the experience.

I also had to struggle with the camera angle, since it would change unpredictably and sometimes I didn’t know where I had to send my character to force the necessary angle change. I think some of this is unavoidable in adventure games with dynamic camera angles, but I think they could refine things a bit. Once you get to the camera setup on each area it’s not that bad though.

For some reason, part of the time when I was playing this game there was no music, even though I had my volume turned up all the way. When I went back and played the next day music was suddenly working, and from what I’ve heard it’s pretty good. This issue might be related to my device, however. Another thing that I experienced once is my iPad getting extremely hot after playing for a few minutes, though this too could be a device-specific problem (it’s an older model).

Almost immediately after starting this game I could tell it was a low-budget effort – not in a negative sense but rather that the team tried to do the best with limited resources. For example, the fact that areas are reused several times in the story, and also the fact there is a lot of dialogue. Both of these things could be attributed to their storytelling style, but with a big budget I’m pretty sure would exposed more areas to be explored.

Looking at the developer’s site (KickBack studios), the team is in fact very small with only two people, who must have worked very hard on this game (their first) in the last two years or so. I’d be very happy if I could ever make a game this cool that could get such visibility from Apple, and I’m looking forward to this studio’s future releases.

Despite the few flaws and annoyances, for $0.99 this game is totally worth it, so I recommend you check it out on iPad or iPhone.

lostecho

Mobile Game Review: Quantum Cheeks [iOS/Android]

I came across Quantum Cheeks on a fellow developer’s blog on WordPress, and decided to review it. It’s the first game from a small team of developers who are learning Unity, and the tone of my review takes that into account. The game is out for Android, iPad, and iPhone. I only played it on iPhone 6.

The concept of the game is simple – guide a hamster through a series of radioactive barrels. The controls are very simple: click anywhere on the screen to make the little thing jump out of his (her?) current barrel and hopefully into another one. Many of the barrels are in constant movement, rotation or translation along some path, and the core gameplay element of this title involves getting the timing right with respect to the barrels on screen. Each stage ends when you reach the ladder at the end of it. There are also some seeds you can collect along the way to get extra lives, similar to coins in Mario Brother.

The graphics are fairly simple but sufficient to support the gameplay. There are some little visual touches that caught my eye, like the fireflies on the first world. There was clearly a bit of effort put into this effect since their paths seem dynamic and there are different sizes of fireflies, plus a fading effect in and out. There is also a nice parallax effect with multiple layers of background, but I had to really pay attention to notice it. One minor nitpick is that the resolution of the barrels on the first world is too low and could use some refinement. The barrels on the second look pretty nice, though those on the third stage have a weird design, maybe a space ship?

Because of some issue I wasn’t able to hear sounds or music, although I think it is supposed to be there. Will update this post if I get that figured out.

My favorite thing about this game is element of shooting a hamster back and forth between barrels. It’s challenging, a little addicting, and adding the “hamster” idea gives life to what would otherwise be a dry physics simulation. I am not sure if the team plans to keep working on this game, but I think it would be interesting to expand on the concept, with more barrel types (maybe ones that explode after a single use) and more interaction with the world, for example bouncing off walls and such. Since they already have a physics engine I think some of these additions wouldn’t take that much additional development time.  I also like how you can just randomly shoot in one direction and have a chance at hitting a barrel in the distance, and I think if they can foster this sort of experimental play the game could be even better.

My biggest issue with this game is the bugs or inconsistencies I saw, which I notice even more being a software developer. I’ll give a detailed list here because I think they can probably fix these in a follow up release if they like.

1) Sometimes clicking on a barrel doesn’t seem to do anything. I noticed this mostly on barrels that are rotating back and forth 180 degrees, since it requires nearly perfect timing to eject the hamster at either endpoint. I would allow ejection at any point, and if the designers really want to limit this, queue up a click and eject when a valid point is reached.

2) Sometimes a rotating barrel will start ‘twitching’ back and forth for several seconds, after which it eventually stabilizes again. Seems like something has gone awry with the physics engine here. 

3) Once or twice it seems like a barrel ejected me before I touched the screen, though this is hard to reproduce.

4) There was at least one barrel (pointed up and to the right 45 degrees) which seemed to have less power than the others, so the distance the hamster was projected was unexpected.

5) At least once, I saw the game end before my character was completely off screen (on the right side). It would have gone off screen eventually, but the timing caught me off guard. This one is very minor, though.

6) I usually played the game in landscape mode, but there seems to be several issues with portrait mode which automatically triggers upon device rotation. Rather than go into all of them here, I recommend just disabling portrait altogether since it’s probably not worth the effort of supporting it.

In spite of these issues, the game is still fun to play, and I recommend you check it out. If you do, please consider giving their team feedback, since as a developer I can tell you this is one of the most important things for them (:

Link to the game’s release blog post with download links: https://rhyskucharski.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/quantum-cheeks-has-launched/comment-page-1/#comment-7

Mobile Game Review: Does Not Commute

Does not commute, by Mediocre AB, is a game for the iPhone/iPad which was originally released on April 15, 2015. It recently won an Apple Design award and was listed in a special category in the app store, which is where I discovered it. I only played the iPhone version so this review is limited to that.

The game has a pretty unique concept: your objective is to drive a series of vehicles through a city, each from a starting point to a destination point. The interesting part is that as you begin controlling the second vehicle, the first vehicle starts taking the path you choose at the same time, and each successive car’s path gets layered onto the map until it becomes difficult to navigate and reach your destination in time.

If you are able to help all vehicles reach their destinations before time runs out, you get to go to a new area of the city which is effectively a new stage. On the way you can grab items to increase your remaining time, and use the rewind mechanic to retry the path of a car, though you loose some time in the process. Each vehicle has a little different steering, and there are upgrades to can get to improve things like traction. Hitting other objects damages your vehicle, which makes it start smoking and slow down.

The strongest point of this game by far is the graphics, which are done with an extremely visually pleasing top-view rendered with 3D and heavy use of lighting effects, such as headlights for each vehicle. The models are pretty simple but generally good enough, except for some of the lakes which look badly designed. The visual effect during the rewind function is pretty cool looking, and the intro pages are also very nicely designed. Above all, the entire game has a very distinctive visual atmosphere.

I enjoyed this game for around an hour but eventually started to get bored with it. One of the reasons is that the control of vehicles is pretty limited, such that you can only turn left or right, with no braking or acceleration. Also, I found the top-view much more disorienting to drive than a typical first-person view, though I understand why they chose the former to fit with the concept of each car commuting simultaneously.

Does not commute tries to give a personality to each character by giving a short textual description of what is going on in their life and why they are in a hurry, but I found that underdone and insufficient to make me care about any of their lives.

Having said that, with stunning visuals and a very creative concept, this is one of the better games I’ve played on mobile in the last few months, especially considering it’s a free game (with some In-App purchases).

Beta Family: an interesting way to find QA Testers for your games

A few weeks ago when I was searching for QA testers for my latest iPhone game (to be released soon), I stumbled across the site Beta Family. This site is pretty unique in that you can use it to find testers for both iOS (iPhone/iPad) and Android games, with both free and paid options.

If you choose to not reward testers (free option), then you only get access to unrated testers who have not yet performed reviews on this site. To invite experienced testers to test your game, you need to offer then some monetary reward, which is at your discretion. Beta Family takes an additional 10% as a service charge on top of the total amount you pay out to testers. See more details about pricing here.

I was ready to try out this site with the free option, but saw the text “Notice: We do not support paid apps on App Store”, and originally thought that any apps I tested using this site I could not sell on the app store, and had to give away for free. I wasn’t planning to make my app paid, but I didn’t like the idea of being limited in case I wanted to change it in the future.

So I sent an email to customer service to confirm my understanding, and after a day or two of going back and forth several times I was told that this only meant I can’t expect testers to pay for an app on the app store just to test it.

However, by the time I got this issue resolved I already found two beta testers via this blog, and decided I didn’t need this site this time. One of the other reasons for that decision was that for the free option there was the possibility of waiting up to 24 hours for the tester to be “approved” for the game, which just another way to nudge developers to spend some money on testing.

Since I am still at the point where I am just experimenting with mobile game development, and don’t plan on quitting my day job anytime soon, I’m planning on releasing my game for free. Accordingly, I don’t want to fall down the slippery slope of starting to spend to advertise or test my game, since it could become an expensive hobby fast. The feeling I got from Beta Family is that the free testers wouldn’t necessarily give too great of a review.

Having said that, I still think it’s worth giving a try. For iOS there are four distribution options: app store, ad hoc/enterprise, iTunes Connect internal, and iTunes Connect external. The site also boasts over 20,000 testers around the world, though I am not sure if that number actually means much to me. Just getting 5-10 good testers for an inexpensive (or free) price would be enough.

If you do try this site out please leave your experiences in a comment.

Mobile App Review: Move The Walls [iOS] (Why is this game popular?)

When working on a mobile game, I typically try to stay away from playing other games. This is partially to maximize my available development time, but also to minimize introduction of elements from other games. (Though in all honesty, there is nothing really wrong with this.) However, I do try to view the apps on the Apple App Store for iPhone/iPad at least once a week to see what types of apps are popular and try to think about what made them popular.

One app I keep running across is Move The Walls (which is in this week’s “Best New Apps” in the App Store), so I thought I would write up some thoughts on it.

This app is a casual game whose gameplay is extremely simple. It’s a vertical scroller where your character moves through a narrow lane that contains walls blocking it’s path. Your goal is to swipe (or ‘flick’) left or right to remove these barriers and allow your character to proceed forward. The visuals are quite simple as well, with each level’s character, background, and walls changing according to the theme of the level. There is a driving theme with a car driving on a road, an outerspace theme with a UFO going through a mysterious place, and a boat trying to avoid what looks like sticks of frozen ice.

The app is free, but contains in-app purchases for certain levels. Even though it just came out, there is already over 600 reviews, with an average of 4.5 stars.

Herein lies the reason for my curiosity. How did a game this simple get to Apple’s “Best New App” list, and manage to get so many reviews (and surely a huge number of downloads)?

I tried playing the game myself but got bored quickly, so I decided to read some of the reviews. Interestingly, many of the 4 or 5 star reviews complain about the lack of variation in the music, insufficient difficulty, and the fact they beat the game’s free levels in an hour or two. If so, why did they give so many stars?

The reason for this amazing success starts to become more clear when I found out it was made by BeaverTap Games, who produced the 4-game series Mikey Shorts as well as another game (Radical) which had critical acclaim. Briefly looking at the screenshots of Mikey Shorts (currently $1.99), it looks like a simple Mario clone, though has the potential to be a lot of fun. This game is quoted as being listed under “App Store Best of 2012”, and also has a total of close to 1500 reviews.

Putting this all together, it seems clear that Move The Walls had alot of help from BeaverTap Games’s large fan base it built up over several years. I don’t know what level of advertising they have done, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they spent a good chunk of money on it, knowing (from experience) that it will pay off in the long run.

I have a hard time believing even if I were to write a game exactly like this, or even if I added major new features, that it would be as popular. Some might feel that being listed once on “Best New Games” doesn’t necessarily mean they are raking in the cash with in-app purchases, and we don’t actually know how many downloads they are getting, but to an indie developer, getting listed on such a high visibility place is a dream. Even if the game falls from popularity after a few weeks, being in this position gives it a great chance to be profitable at the present point in time.

I found this review of the game, which gives it 3.5 stars as a “decently fun distraction”. More interesting than the review text, however, was an embedded video of the game’s official trailer. Over half of the 30 second trailer contains live-action footage, which while clearly low budget definitely took time and money to film, edit together. It’s interesting to speculate how much this trailer contributed to the game’s success.

Game developers: iMovie is your friend!

When I made my first iOS game, I decided I would make a proper app preview for it, since I feel it is one of the most important factors that determine whether someone decides to download it from the app store. After doing a little research about editing programs, I ended up choosing Apple’s iMovie program. The movie I ended up with was pretty simple, but good enough to show off the game’s basics.

A few weeks ago, I had a need to do some video editing for another project, and was going to try a more “proper” editor like Final Cut Pro (there is a 30 day free trial), but due to my familiarity with iMovie I ended up using it again. With my experience from the app preview, I was able to ramp up pretty quickly and do some advanced editing to splice together my film.

I had the impression that iMovie was only for basic editing, but after this project I realized it was extremely powerful. The learning curve is a bit rough initially, but you can get over it pretty fast and be editing in practically no time.

iMovie, especially for a free program, sports a surprising number of features, including transitions, titles, sound effects, independent editing of audio and video, and export to a variety of formats including Vimeo and Youtube. It also has a special mode for iOS app previews that helps you get the right filetype to Apple at submission time.

For my next iOS project (to be released shortly), I decided on using iMovie again, and in only a few hours was able to edit together something even better than my first game’s preview.

Even if you don’t have a need to create app previews for iOS games, having editing skills come in handy whenever you want to show off your game to someone else quickly, without having to actually install it on their machine. This can be great for finding investors, additional developers, or other staff to add to your project.

I’ll close with a few tips I learned using iMovie:

1) Part of the reason for the initial learning curve in iMovie is because of the way clips and movies are organized. When you first start the program, you can import clips into your library, organized by “Event”, but you have to start a new movie via File->New->Movie/Trailer/App Preview before you can actually start editing. The confusing part about the iMovie Library window is that it contains both the list of movies, plus all the clips for a certain event. If you click on a movie it will change to it, but the list of clips is global so doesn’t change.

2) iMovie doesn’t have a “Save” option which makes me uncomfortable, but if you are paranoid you can make a backup of your movie in the aforementioned library window by right clicking and clicking “Duplicate Movie”. I appreciate that the program is supposedly saving after every action, but the “Save” option would make me feel much better. It’s nice to know the undo option goes back pretty far, however.

3) In both the iMovie Library (top center) and main (bottom right) panes, you can change the clip size via the little film icon. You can also change the zoom level via a horizontal slider in the latter pane. When I use iMovie I frequently adjust these depending on what task I am working on. For example, for fine-grained editing (to sync up two scenes perfectly) I would zoom in pretty deeply.

4) A bunch of special effects can be accessed via the little icons at the top of the upper right pane (which shows the current frame). When I first used the program I had trouble finding these.

5) iOS app previews are different sizes for each device, and creating one for each device type is time consuming. You can re-scale from one size to another by creating a black image in a program like Gimp or Photoshop, and then importing it in the first frame, and making it last only 0.1 seconds. I was able to do this to scale a preview made from video recorded on a iPhone 6 to iPhone 6 Plus size, though I had to create a new project, import the black image, then cut the scenes from the iPhone 6 project to get this to work. If you actually have a physical device I would still consider recording each one separately, especially if your app/game’s UI changes significantly depending on the screen size.