Towerfall: The Re-Return of Social Gaming

Social gaming was hot.  Then it ‘died’.  And now it’s hot?  The fact is, video games have always been social.  In the earliest era of computer games there weren’t enough CPU cycles (or CPUs at all!) for AI.  Players had to move everything themselves–Steve Russell’s Spacewar being the earliest example.  But just look classic coin-ops like Pong, Warlords, Sprint, etc.  Same-screen multiplayer was just how things were done.  Arcades in the ‘80s weren’t solely the domain of nerds–a broad spectrum of people showed up and played games together.  Imagine that!

Towerfall

Local multiplayer ruled well into the ‘90s.  Games like GoldenEye, Mario Party, and Bomberman ensured there was always something to do when you had people over your place.  Yet, once Internet multiplayer hit in the early ‘00s, console games became strangely anti-social.  Today when someone comes over my house and wants to play a game with me–well, it’s complicated.  There really aren’t many games people can play together on the market.

That’s why Towerfall Ascension is so interesting to me.  At first I thought it was yet another pixel-art indie game over promoted by Ouya due to a lack of content.  After playing it with others its significance dawned on me.  Finally there’s something to play with other people!  It had been so long since I’d had a local multiplayer experience that it took actually playing it for me to recognize this one fact:  the local multiplayer brawler may very well be where the MOBA was when DOTA was merely a Warcraft III mod.

At GDC I noticed the beginning of this trend.  There were a few Towerfall clones already in progress or on the market.  In fact, some similar games even shortly preceded Towerfall.  Not to mention Towerfall’s release on the PS4 and Steam has been highly successful.  I really think a new (old) genre is born.

 

From Bits to Atoms: Creating A Game In The Physical World

Some of you may recall last year’s post about 3D printing and my general disappointment with consumer-grade additive manufacturing technology. This was the start of my year-long quest to turn bits into atoms. Since that time there has been much progress in the technology and I’ve learned a lot about manufacturing. But first, a little about why I’m doing this, and my new project titled: Ether Drift.

Ether Drift AR App

A little over a year ago, I met a small team of developers who had a jaw-dropping trailer for a property they tried to get funded as a AAA console game. After failing to get the game off the ground it was mothballed until I accidentally saw their video one fateful afternoon.

With the incredible success of wargaming miniatures and miniature-based board game campaigns on Kickstarter, I thought one way to launch this awesome concept would be to turn the existing game assets into figurines. These toys would work with an augmented reality app that introduces the world and the characters as well as light gameplay elements. This would be a way to gauge interest in the property before going ahead with a full game production.

A lot of this was based on my erroneous assumption that I could just 3D print game models and ship them as toys. I really knew nothing about manufacturing. Vague memories of Ed Fries’ 3D printing service that made figurines out of World of Warcraft avatars guided my first steps.

3D printers are great prototyping tools. Still, printing the existing game model took over 20 hours and cost hundreds of dollars in materials and machine time. Plus, 3D prints are fragile and require a lot of hand-finishing to smooth out. When manufacturing in quantity, you need to go back to old-school molding.

You can 3D print just about any shape, but molding and casting has strict limitations. You have to minimize undercut by breaking the model up into smaller pieces that can be molded and assembled. The game model I printed out was way too complicated to be broken down into a manageable set of parts.

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later--An expensive process!

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later–An expensive process!

So I scrapped the idea of using an existing game property. Instead, I developed an entirely new production process. I now create new characters from scratch that are designed to be molded. This starts as a high detail 3D model that is printed out in parts that molds are made from. Then, I have that 3D model turned into something that can be textured and rigged for Unity3D. There are some sacrifices made in character design since the more pieces there are, the more expensive it is to manufacture. Same goes for the painting process–the more detailed the game texture is, the more costly it becomes to duplicate in paint on a plastic toy.

We're working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

We’re working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

So, what is Ether Drift? In short: it’s Skylanders for nerds. I love the concept of Skylanders–but, grown adult geeks like toys too. The first version of this project features a limited set of figures and an augmented reality companion app.

The app uses augmented reality trading cards packed with each figure to display your toy in real-time 3D as well as allowing you to use your characters with a simple card battle game. I’m using Qualcomm’s Vuforia for this feature–the gold standard in AR.

The app lets you add characters to your collection via a unique code on the card. These characters will be available in the eventual Ether Drift game, as well as others. I’ve secured a deal to have these characters available in at least one other game.

If you are building a new IP today, it’s extremely important to think about your physical goods strategy. Smart indies have already figured this out. The workflow I created for physical to digital can be applied to any IP, but planning it in advance can make the process much simpler.

In essence, I’m financing the development of a new IP by selling individual assets as toys while it is being built. For me, it’s also a throwback to the days before everything was licensed from movies or comic books and toy store shelves were stocked with all kinds of crazy stuff. Will it work? We’ll see next month! I am planning a Kickstarter for the first series in mid-March. Stay Tuned to the Ether Drift site, Facebook page, or Twitter account. Selling atoms instead of bits is totally new ground for me. I’m open to all feedback on the project, as well as people who want to collaborate.

Alpha Funding vs. Crowdfunding

This Saturday, my fellow developers’ game, The Long Dark, managed to stride past its Kickstarter goal of $200,000 CDN after a month-long saga of nail-biting suspense. The campaign was executed with a mix of increasingly large announcements and trailer videos. The Hinterland crew managed to get major press in outlets like The Verge and BoingBoing, covering the daily announcements related to the campaign.

The Long Dark

Successful Kickstarters are a lot of work. In addition to having something people actually want to support, your media strategy has to be planned out. Merely Tweeting, “please donate!” looks like spam. If your posts display new features, concept art, trailer videos, and other content then it comes across as newsworthy. You have to prepare enough content to make announcements every other day or so throughout the entire campaign.

Crowdfunding is a major source of game financing due to the collapse of the publishing model. Not only are traditional publishers largely irrelevant due to the business model shift to f2p and games-as-a-service, but raising money from the public is preferable to contract terms that encumber most publisher dollars.

Another funding strategy has emerged as an alternative to crowdfunding: Alpha Funding.

Alpha Funding is when you charge users to access early versions of your game, usually starting at the playable alpha phase (hence the name!). Obviously, Minecraft is the foundation of this business model. A recent example is Klei’s Don’t Starve, a stylized survival game which began life as a paid alpha well before it arrived on Steam as a finished product.

Alpha Funding has a lot of advantages. You don’t have to bribe backers with cumbersome physical goods. Sure, T-shirts and plastic tchotchkes are a new avenue for game monetization. Yet, for a small team this can be a distraction. Alpha Funding allows you to focus on what’s important.

An early paying audience has an investment in your game. It’s a community of enthusiastic fans. Alpha users provide meaningful feedback and become evangelists instead of cranky forum trolls. When you finally launch, they become an important source of positive reviews and press.

Most importantly, getting paying users early is great customer validation. Not to mention an inspiring early source of revenue for your company. This allows you to experiment with pricing tiers for when you release the game in the wild.

There’s also the hybrid approach. The most famous example is Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen. It began as a crowdfunded project but has continued as an alpha funding smash–grossing $21 million and counting. They recently released a preview app which allows players to walk through ships they have already paid for in advance of the game’s release. Perhaps not early access to the game in the strictest sense, but a taste of the final product.

Publishers will continue to take a backseat to the indie revolution as crowdfunding evolves. Alpha funding has become so popular that Steam even has its own category for Early Access. It’s a critical game finance tool regardless of project size.

Game Developers: Don’t Compete, Disrupt.

In the old boxed retail model of games, publishers often waited for an “off year” to capture a hit title’s audience. For instance, a publisher would release a competing open world game the year after a Grand Theft Auto installment to monetize GTA fans who are looking for a similar experience. This successful strategy spawned many hit original properties despite its “fast follow” basis.

Today’s hit games such as League of Legends are constantly updated services and thus never have an “off year.” As discussed in a previous post, we’re in a winner-take-all game economy. Top games consume all of the time and money of their players.

It’s exceedingly expensive to go toe-to-toe with a leading game-as-a-service. Not only do you have to compete with the top game’s deluge of content and social network, but you must overcome the switching cost users bear to move to a new game. A player could have thousands of dollars invested in his League of Legends character. Now you want him to start all over on your new, unproven MOBA?

Competition is possible, but only with deep pockets. The only company posing a distant threat to League of Legends is Valve with DOTA2. Not only have they made an excellent game, but are lavishing massive development and marketing budgets to compete with the frontrunner.

What can you do if you’re not among the most financially successful developers in the world? Don’t compete, disrupt.

READ THIS BOOK.

As described in my bible, Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, disruptive innovation typically arrives in a form that’s lower quality than the established player, but cheaper or more convenient to use for a low-end customer.

This low end customer is not as profitable, and thus not very interesting to big companies. The disruptive product’s quality improves steadily. By the time the threat is noticed by the incumbent, it’s too late. The disruptive competitor is attracting the old guard’s high-end customers.

A modern example might be what the tablet did to the netbook and is now apparently doing to notebooks.

How does one develop a game disruptive to the established players? Is it even possible to do so? After all, there are flaws when you apply the low-end disruption theory to consumer products. Let’s look at few vectors of disruption and how they may work in games.

Cost

World of Warcraft’s plunging subscriber numbers may be showing that Blizzard has fallen victim to Innovator’s Dilemma in the form of free2play competition.

F2p originally meant lower quality, lower commitment, and (supposedly) cheaper-to-play MMOs. Now, all major releases from Western companies inevitably become f2p. The quality bar has risen to where it’s possible to match or surpass the incumbent combined with a dramatically different business model.

Convenience

How about making a game more convenient to access? One way developers are trying is by bringing established PC f2p genres to mobile. The idea is that by making a MOBA simple to play on a tablet, it’s possible to capture a segment of the desktop customer. This ignores the fact that tablet-owning hardcore LoL players are still looking for an experience uniquely crafted for mobile–Not simply a long-session MOBA plopped into an iPad.

The problem when applying business model advice to the games industry is that most are based around solving a problem. The only problem games (and entertainment in general) may solve is boredom. When you aren’t solving a problem or “pain point”, you are selling based on other emotional qualities such a branding or user experience.

Lessons can be applied–but perhaps not literally. Which is fine. Slavishly following any business model or development methodology ends up in the creation of a process cult.

Ludum Dare: Ten Seconds of Thrust

This past weekend I participated in Ludum Dare 48, a contest where you make a game by yourself in 48 hours. The theme is revealed at the start of the contest–Iron Chef style. All code, graphics, and sounds have to be made from scratch. Voting began on Sunday night and will extend for a few weeks. I’m not even sure what you win, but that’s not the point. It’s an awesome experience in GETTING IT DONE.

Ten Seconds of Thrust!

My entry is the Lunar Lander-esque Ten Seconds of Thrust. (Please rate it!) Attempt to land at the bottom of increasingly difficult randomly generated space caverns with only ten seconds of thruster time. It’s crude, ugly, and buggy–especially on Windows where it doesn’t seem to detect landing. I didn’t have time to fix this bug as I only discovered it in the last half hour, but it does seem like a strange Unity Web Player bug since it works fine on OSX browsers. (PROTIP: Make sure you have a few friends around during the weekend to test your game!)

One of the best things about the contest is watching games evolve quickly through Twitter, Vine, Facebook, and Instagram posts. I put up a few videos in progress over the weekend.

I used a lot of the tools mentioned in my rapid prototyping posts, including a new tool I found called Sprite Gen which creates randomly generated animated character and tile sprites in tiny 12×12 blocks. Naturally, the game was developed in Unity along with 2DToolkit and HOTween for plug-ins.

I’d like to fix the landing bug as it makes the game useless on Windows, but the rules are somewhat unclear on bug-fixes that don’t add any content. This game was actually based on an idea for a Lunar Lander roguelike I was developing earlier this year. The LD48 version is highly simplified and way more fun. I abandoned my prototype in disgust back in February. This quick and dirty version is much better–I might run with it and make a full game.

Paymium: Walking Away From Free2Play

Many small mobile game developers I talk with are considering abandoning pure Free2Play in favor of paid apps with in-app-purchases–AKA “paymium”. A great example of this is on the latest Walled Garden podcast featuring Plague Inc. creator, James Vaughan.

At first, Plague Inc. was a simple premium app. After quickly building a rabid following, he added purchasable items that can otherwise be earned in-game. This has been an extremely successful business model for Plague, Inc. and many other top games from the likes of Rovio and Halfbrick.

James’ sound reasoning for his use of Paymium is that he dislikes games purely designed around IAP and thus made a game he wanted to play. Making small games is a very personal process. If you don’t like what you’re making it’s not going to be good.

Another reason developers are considering this approach is that the top free download charts on iOS are completely bought and sold. If you look at any game in the top 10 free downloads, it’s safe to assume that spot is paid for with heavy advertising spends along with other somewhat underhanded tactics. The latter may get you bounced from the App Store, but it doesn’t stop most publishers from finding a way.

The paid charts are theoretically more honest. Because you have to tack on the price of the app along with whatever you pay for guaranteed downloads, paid chart manipulation is more expensive. Yet, this may still be common considering how large advertising budgets are for the top mobile games.

A great new paymium example is Contra: Evolution, a clever mobile remake of Konami’s NES classic from PunchBox. The game costs 99 cents on iPhone and $2.99 on iPad. Both versions feature a plethora of in-app-purchases.

Contra has been floating around the top of the paid charts for a while–although still scraping the bottom of the top grossing. This illustrates the depressing reality of premium apps. Even a top 5 paid download barely registers on the grossing charts. Yet, any indie developer would kill for the type of revenue Contra is making.

What did Contra do right? The following is a bunch of hand-wavey, rear-view-mirror driving. It could all be true. Or the game’s success could purely be fictional and entirely paid for by outrageous ad spends and thus this entire article is nonsense. Anyway…

First, there’s the brand. Brands generally aren’t worth much in mobile. If you look at the top apps, the overwhelming majority are original IPs. Yet, Contra has strong awareness among retro gaming enthusiasts. Some brands matter in mobile.

Secondly, the game is good. Over a decade since the last reboot, PunchBox went to the origins of the series with a remake of a classic that is competitive with current mobile games. As we’ve seen in Predictably Irrational, it’s extremely difficult for a paid product to compete against free at any quality level. PunchBox pulled it off

Finally, people who have paid for your app are already invested. Theoretically, they are more likely to spend again. Contra’s unimpressive top grossing rank may not actually prove this out. However, mega-hits like Angry Birds and Jetpack Joyride have used paymium to great success. Contra’s low grossing rank may be due to poor monetization design instead of a flawed model.

A few years ago I would have laughed if you suggested launching a premium app. Now I’m not so sure. The new rule is, there is no rule about monetization. F2P isn’t one size fits all–but, how do you actually find what does fit?

Feeling Ripped Off in Ravensword

If you’ve read my previous review of the Ouya, you may be familiar with my strange obsession with Ravensword: Shadowlands. It’s a hilariously inept Skyrim clone for phones, tablets, and the Ouya. The game seems like they went down the list of Skyrim features and implemented a bare bones version of each one. From horseback riding to guild systems, they all exist–but are laughably basic. Still, I must have dumped over 15 hours into this saga, exploring its ambitious yet flawed world.

One interesting element of Ravensword is the business model. It’s essentially premium, with an up-front cost to buy the game once the demo period is over. However, at any time you can buy gold, experience, gems, health restores, and talent points with real money. It’s probably the first single player RPG I’ve seen with such a business model.

Early in the game I hit a difficulty brick wall. Monsters were way too strong and there seemed to be no way to grind for gold or XP. I decided to make a one-time purchase of 5,000 gold pieces for $5. I then bought the finest equipment the shops in South Aven had to offer and ventured out into the wilderness, tearing through monsters that were previously kicking my ass.

Maybe 10 minutes after making this purchase, I found a chest containing a sword better than the one I spent the equivalent of 2 real-world dollars on. I felt ripped off. It’s the in-game equivalent of buying the latest iPhone a few days before they announce a new model.

This made me constantly suspicious of the game. Every time I hit a tough point, I thought about if it was some kind of game design sales funnel to get me to spend money. If there was any kind of competent story to be immersed in, it probably would have taken me out of the game, too.

As I stated in my Kotaku piece earlier this year, f2p game designs are still too primitive to carry a single player campaign. Ravensword is a prime example. I salute the developer for making a stab at merging a single player narrative with f2p economies. Yet, scattering purchases throughout a quest makes you second guess every design choice to the point of completely breaking any sense of immersion. Issues like this make me think it’s impossible to reconcile the design principles of f2p monetization and an epic single player experience. Yet, Ravensword is only the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully we’ll see some stronger attempts at this problem soon.