Update: Failed prototype and competing hobbies

I haven’t posed to this blog in a while so I thought I would give a quick update.

The prototype I was working on for several weeks (traffic-related mobile game) didn’t turn out to be as fun as I’d expected. I still have this idea in my head about how cool and interesting it would be, but having trouble translating that into actual gameplay. If the game isn’t fun to me, then it likely won’t be fun to anyone else, so I’ve shelved that project for now. At some point I should probably think about what elements were good about it and what weren’t, and make a write up about it.

The other reason I had taken a break from the prototype-work was that I had went on a trip to Japan, and since I came back I’d spent much time writing up all my experiences and thoughts about that trip. You can see them here in case you are interested.

I actually have a new project that is bouncing around in my head, similar to a previous one in that it involves a card game. But I’ll save that for another post.

Game development: reducing scope (traffic simulation)

One of the tricks of game development, especially that done by small teams, is reducing scope of each feature or element to a minimum necessary level. It is critical to make efficient use of developers’ time since there is only so many cycles available, and the longer a project goes on the more likely it is to get cancelled or postponed. The more games you get under your belt the more you start to care more about this kind of stuff.

To give an example of this – one of the core elements of my latest game in development is a series of connected roads with cars running through them, a little like what you would see in a modern version of a SimCity-type game. Starting several weeks ago, I experimented with several different ways to implement this “traffic simulation” element in my game.

Initially, I started with the idea that I would use Unity 3D, since that would allow me to show a very realistic simulation of cars moving through a network of roads. I was inspired by the mobile game Does Not Commute, which uses a 3D engine to good effect.

However, after learning a little more about the Unity 3D workflow, I realized I would be spending a big chunk of my time on the graphics and other 3D elements, which would make the core gameplay elements (behavior, logic, rules) take that much longer to do. Though the end result might look quite attractive, I had doubts that I could finish the game on my own if I took this route.

So for the time being I decided to make the game 2D. My next decision was whether I should use a physics engine or not. I’ve been interested in physics engines myself for some time, having made very simple ones years ago, so I decided to download and experiment with a few different frameworks, including Box 2D. In only a few hours, I was able to get some test programs running and there was a surprisingly rich set of functionality for the free frameworks I tested.

But again, I posed the question to myself – do I really need detailed physics simulation? Is having cars collide, spin out of control, and follow a physically accurate path really critical to my game’s core gameplay? While this would be a cool feature, I eventually decided this was overkill, and again reduced the scope of my traffic simulation efforts.

At this point I entered into prototype development, spending my evening hours making a bear-bones traffic simulation where each car was resented with only a handful of properties such as color, location, and speed. I got this working and am now experimenting with different game objectives, and creating stages to see what is actually fun (and challenging) – the most important aspect of any game.

If things go well and I feel I’ve made an entertaining prototype, I can continue to polish the visuals, or even consider going back to 3D. With a proven game idea, the risk for failure would be greatly reduced.

If I had determined that simulating cars as individual entities was not a critical element of my game, I could reduce scope yet again and simulate at a coarser granularity. For example, in the original SimCity game (which happened to be the first game I purchased with my own money), traffic was handled by road-piece granularity, where a stock animation was selected based on the traffic density of that area at the given time. You couldn’t follow a single car around since they would appear and disappear if you looked closely. While a system of roads was important in building an efficient city, tracking an individual car from point A to B wasn’t necessary, and players had more to concern themselves with. Also, I believe the original SimCity was only made by two or three developers. In more recent versions of that series it seems that cars are modeled as individual entities.

I’ll post some more about this project as things progress.

Dokusen: The Art of Domination (iOS puzzle game) — A month later

It’s been a month since I released my latest iOS game Dokusen on iTunes. At first I considered polishing some aspects of the game and releasing an update, but to be honest the idea of developing a new game from scratch is more attractive, so I’ve stared down that path instead. So in a sense you can consider this post a “post mortem” of this game.

At heart, this game was an experiment to see if a bigger focus on visuals would reflect in more popularity in the store. I also spent a much larger chunk of time advertising on net forums, on roughly 20-30 different sites.

From a downloads perspective, my personal goal was to get at least twice the downloads of my previous game. Initially things went great, with the number of downloads from Dokusen in the first two days surpassing those from the first week of my previous game. Unfortunately downloads suddenly decreased after that on the 3rd and 4th days, such that I only reached 75% of my target downloads (to date, Dokusen got 1.5x of my previous game’s count). Though this is a bit of a disappointment, I should look on the bright side because at least things are going in the right direction. The large spike on the first two days is still a bit of mystery to me, since with previous projects downloads leveled off at a much slower rate. Oddly, I got a large majority of downloads those first two days from France.

These numbers are a further confirmation that advertising on net forums is not a great way to pull in downloads. I did, however, get some good feedback on the game’s rules from on a board game forum I posted on, since it shares some elements with Go and Reversi.

A week or two ago I talked to one of the people who informally tested for me, and he remarked that my previous game was much more fun and easier to understand. This was good feedback, though altogether not that surprising since I feel the same way. Ironically, with Dokusen I had tried to build a game that would be popular with others, but not necessarily myself.

For my next game (codename “T.E.” for the time being), I am planning on making something which I enjoy more myself, in terms of both coding and gameplay. I also plan to make a proper tutorial, as well as get more playtesters (please leave a comment if you are interested in helping). This next game is rooted in a longtime passion of mine, and the work I’ve done on it already is more challenging and interesting than Dokusen. I’m aiming for a release in 3-6 months if things go well.

Though I implied this project was mostly done, I am always open to feedback on Dokusen or any of my other apps. If you looking for someone to review your game I am OK with exchanging reviews of your game for mine.

Mobile Game Development: learn your weaknesses and strive for consistent quality in all areas

Having taking a few iOS projects from conception to release on the Apple Apple Store, I’m starting to discover patterns in how I go through the development process. I plan to use this information to tune how I handle future projects, resulting in efficiency improvements as well as a higher quality result, hopefully leading to a larger user count.

I recently became more aware of the stages I go through in a typical project. I start development in what I would call a “creative” stage, where I am thinking of new ideas and enjoying the implementation process, as well as the iterative design that goes along with that. At some point when the project far along enough, I start to feel the need to just release something – what I’ll call the “get it done” stage.  I think this stems from my fear that other things will come up in my life and not have time to finish the project, or that I’ll just get bored of it and quit partway through, similar to why I would be hesitant to start reading a long novel.

The “get it done” stage is dangerous because the remaining tasks are done quickly, with lower quality than things done in the “creative” stage. For example, I usually create my app’s icons near the end of the project, and rush to just get something that looks reasonable enough. This is a bad idea since an icon is an extremely important part of the overall marketing presence of an app, and some people have even claimed changing only a game’s icon resulted in a major change in the download rate. Another example of this is creating a tutorial, as well as general visual polish.

For my next project, I’m going to try to get myself to think more long-term, and not jump into the “get it done” stage until the product is nearly ready to be released with high all-around high quality. It may be appropriate to rush to the finish line if there is a hard release date you are aiming for, for example to coincide with the release with a new OS version. But in cases where no such deadline exists, there isn’t much value in pushing things.

I am not sure if it is an appropriate comparison, but this reminds me of when I used to train in running to shave time off my mile. I measured how long it took for each 1/10th of a mile, and I found I got the best result when I had a good balance between these times. As opposed to having one or two areas where I sprinted and exhausted all my energy, a consistent good speed gave the best result. I feel that app development is similar, in that a consistent push through all areas is the best way to get a well-rounded product.

If I feel like I am too busy to make proper progress on a hobby project, rather than rushing it to release I’m going to try to just take a break. Odds are that I can just continue where I left off, whether it is a week or a month later.

The exception to this discussion is if you are working on your first mobile app or game. In that case I think it’s OK to just get something on the store, since you’ll gain valuable knowledge going through the entire process for the first time. For your second project, you can slow down and properly plan things out using your newfound knowledge. If you are worried about a low-quality app giving you a bad reputation, you can always pull it off the store at any time.

Mobile Game Advertising: don’t be afraid to get creative

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites out there that can be used to advertise your mobile game, in the form of directory listings, reviews, or forum posts. If you have enough time on your hands, you can try to submit your game to as many as you can find, but in many cases you’ll be required to pay some sort of fee to be listed or to accelerate the process, which can take weeks or longer.

If you are getting into mobile game development gradually, you will likely start out by releasing your game as free. But this means that if you start reaching into your pocketbook you’ll quickly be in the red, which isn’t a great way to get motivated to continue game development as a hobby.

Besides sticking with just the free sites, you can try to get creative to avoid paying some of these fees.

To give an example, I recently received an email from one of the sites I did a free submission for my latest game, which had a long advertisement about the paid service, talking about the benefits of a premium listing plus the fact it was on sale.

The text, however, had several English grammatical mistakes or awkward parts, and while reading it I had a mini Eureka moment.

I replied back to the email, saying that I would like to help clean up the marketing text which would surely bring in more paid users. In exchange, if I could get a premium listing as compensation, that would be great.

In less than a day the admin replied back and said we have a deal. I rewrote much of the advertising text, and though I am not a specialist in this area, the end result was much better than the original one. The admin said I will get a premium listing in the next week or so. (If this doesn’t pan out I’ll be sure to let you know in a later post)

These sort of opportunities come by only once in a while, but if you keep an eye open and think creatively, you might be able to find some unique ways to further your game’s marketing efforts.

In my case, I only saved around $15, but the satisfaction from a well-handled negotiation was worth many times this. Creating a win-win situation for both parties is one of the key parts of business-minded thinking.

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).

Game Review Web Sites: it’s a dog-eat-dog world

For my latest mobile game I’ve been advertising on many different web sites whose primary purpose is to review and showcase games or apps. It has only been a few days since I did this so I don’t have much data yet, but I hope to eventually post about whether it was worth it to spend my time like this on advertising.

While I was searching for sites to post to, I discovered a few interesting things about this area of the net. Among these was the level of competitiveness between the various sites, and how these harsh conditions make for a pretty high closure rate of such websites. I realized this because roughly one-fourth to one-third of the sites I tried on a list from a few years ago (see this post) were completely gone. Others had changed their name, or began charging for even a basic listing.

I find it intriguing how an over-crowded and hyper-competitive mobile app market ends up creating a hyper-competitive market for websites advertising these same apps. Ironically, these sites have to market themselves using many of the same techniques, via things like SEO and using forums to advertise. Ultimately, all of these web sites must earn enough money to support their hosting and development costs via some form of paid advertising, such as charging for reviews or expedited listing.

The smaller a review site is, the easier it will be to get your app on there, but the less useful it will be because of the smaller amount of traffic to that site. Everyone wants to submit their apps to the sites with all the hits, and submitting them to the minor sites is less important. You can see some of this in my brief look at some page view hits when I advertised my previous game, where there was over a 10x difference between the site with most hits and least hits.

The funny thing about all these sites is that I think the average user doesn’t even know about them. I’ve been getting apps for iOS for years now, and until recently I’d say 90% of the apps I got were found directly on the Apple App Store, or because I heard about it from a magazine, news site, or word of mouth. Of these, discovery from the App Store leads to a very biased selection (with many games that make me want to scream “why is this popular?!?!”), but as a user it’s just so easy to do, instead of fishing through hundreds of review sites.

I think the fact that iOS apps can only be sold directly through the App Store is one reason that people are less apt to try out other stores, since you’re not going to find any good deals there. Compare this with how you can find various PC or console games in online retailers at varying prices, including used copies.

I’m starting to get the feeling that these app review sites may not really be worth my time (except possibly the most popular ones), though I don’t have enough data to make that judgement yet. But I’m quite confident that a really great app or game doesn’t need to be advertised on 1,000 different sites to become popular.