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.

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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 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 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.

Dokusen: The Art of Domination Released [“go”-influenced puzzle game for iPhone]

Dokusen is a casual puzzle game which was just released on the Apple App Store for iPhone. It was heavily influenced by a favorite board game of mine called Go, and the game’s title “Dokusen” means “monopoly” or “domination” in Japanese (独占) in Japanese. It also shares some similarities with the classic game Othello.

Players take turns coloring one square at a time, and the game ends when all squares are colored, with the winner determined by the one with the most squares of their color. This may sound simple, but things get complicated fast since after both players take their turns, colored squares will “grow” outward to neighboring squares. The concept is a little bit like Conway’s Game of life.

As you progress through the levels, you are challenged with more and stronger opponents, and also have to rebuild when hit by falling meteors. The game is free on the app store, with no advertisements or in-app purchases.

You can see the game’s iTunes page here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dokusen/id1000275892?mt=8

Note: I was having problems the iTunes at one point. You can try searching for “Dokusen” in the app store if it doesn’t work.

This is the game’s app preview video:

I plan on writing followup posts with more details on the game, and maybe a brief tutorial. I’ll also be talking more about how I developed the game, so stay tuned!

Game Credits

App Preview Music: Throcke

Game Music: Eric Skiff

Game Sound Effects: http://www.freesfx.co.uk

Beta Testers: J.W. and K.G.F.

Mobile Game Development Hint: Use associations to help market your game

Although we all would like our games to be played by as many people as possible,    trying to please everyone just isn’t going to cut it. This is something I discussed a little bit in a previous post, and this time I’d like to talk about one technique you can use to market your game – associating it with existing categories, genres, or pre-existing games.

The most effective marketing starts early in the design process, if not before many of the details of the game are decided. A key step of this is determining what your target audience is, and an important characteristic is what types of games they enjoy.

Say you are going to make a game based on or influenced by Tetris (“Dream of Pixels” is a great example). You want to know what people liked about the original Tetris and try to incorporate at least some of those elements in your game. This may effect gameplay design, visual design, sound design, UI, and many other aspects of your game.

From a marketing perspective, it will also effect how you advertise and position your game, things like the title, icon, what keywords you use, and what forums or other sites you advertise on. The key point here is that the more you can associate you game with well-known categories or existing games, the easier it will be to find potential users, and the easier it will be them to find you. For the example of a Tetris-type game, people searching for “Tetris” on an app store have a chance of seeing your game, and you can safely advertise on forums related to Tetris since the user’s there may genuinely enjoy your game. Rather than just forcing information down the throats of everyone, you are hand selecting a group of people who likely have an affinity for your product. Try and compare this with a game that can only be described as “an action game”. Though there is potentially a much higher user base, reaching out to them without spamming is very difficult.

If you decide to associate with an existing game, like Tetris, then I recommend avoiding using the game’s name in yours (“Awesome Tetris”) or making it too similar. This is because there is always a chance you could be sued by a company that thinks you are infringing their trademark or product. Nevertheless, many game companies to do this, if not by ripping off a name of an existing game, but at least a similar icon, visual style, and gameplay.

Another option is to associate your game with a classic board game or other non-copywritten game such as Chess or Checkers. There shouldn’t be much chance of legal action being taken against you, assuming you don’t copy an existing game  modeled after one of these, such as Battle Chess. The nice thing about this is you don’t have to make it exactly the same as one of these games, it can just share one or more elements, with a mix of creative differences mixed in. Like with the Tetris example, you can advertise on forums where people are into Chess or Checkers.

To give another example of association, my first app on the Apple App Store was a Simulator for the game Hearthstone, which is a digital card game made by game giant Blizzard. My app is a tool rather than a game, but in writing it I had to create my own engine to process the rules of the game, which was a fun yet challenging exercise. Since Hearthstone has gotten very popular, I was able to springboard off this popularity and get over 500 downloads – much more than my other iOS apps. For various reasons I’ve stopped development on it for the time being, but you can check out more information on the simulator’s blog here if you are interested. One of the reasons I didn’t continue improving it is that there was always a chance Blizzard could demand I remove it from the app store, since it uses their trademarked name in the title, and also it had the potential to get good enough to help out people at tournaments.

Whether it’s taking influence from one or more categories or existing games, this narrowing of marketing focus is an important step to help your game succeed.

Of course, for those games that seem to come from nowhere and create an entirely new genre (Minecraft, etc.), they don’t really need to associate with anything else. Going for a completely new style of game is a valid way to go, but it requires some different marketing tactics and there is only a handful that really succeed. Endeavors like this are the riskiest, but I feel they have the most potential to be rewarding for the developer, both emotionally and monetarily.

https://playthefieldgame.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/mobile-gaming-and-the-importance-of-marketing/