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.

$100: The New Alternative to Free

I was listening to the Combat Jack podcast over the holidays where his guest was Nipsey Hussle: A Compton rapper famous for successfully releasing a $100 mixtape. Considering mixtapes are used as a free giveaway to promote an artist, selling 1,000 copies at $100 a pop is kind of incredible. Nipsey didn’t just set the price, he turned paying for it into a movement.

Oh, and the mixtape is good, but I prefer the “Chop not Slop” remix version.

Nipsey_Hussle_Crenshaw-front-large

During the interview, Nispey said he got the idea of the $100 mixtape from the book, Contagious. The first chapter is about a restaurant that created a $100 Philly Cheesesteak in an attempt to start some buzz. The rest of the book is a typical hand-wavey marketing tome using non-scientific anecdotal evidence to prove the author’s premise about why ideas catch on. Nispey is now working on a book with the author based on his experience selling Crenshaw. Maybe I’ll dig that one.

Still, this got me thinking about a similar trend in games. As we’ve discussed before, in this era of free everything, early access and alpha funding are new ways games are financing development long before completion. In some cases, you pay more for early access than the released game. Take Planetary Annihilation as an example. Early access runs you $90–nearly the price of Nipsey’s mixtape.

In other interviews, Nipsey stated that he wants to be less of a record label and more of the “urban Sanrio.” Essentially selling physical product and using music to promote it. This is a similar model that streetwear brands have used and somewhat reflective of a growing trend in gaming where physical products are starting to become a significant engine of monetization.

In the era of free, the relationship between your players and their wallets is evolving in surprising ways. It turns out, those who want to pay REALLY want to pay. The one-size-fits-all model of $60 games may be dead, but simply making everything a f2p hamster wheel isn’t a blanket solution either.

How to survive the mobile gaming apocalypse

I was listening to the latest Walled Garden podcast and towards the end they stopped just short of stating what many developers I talk to have been saying–mobile gaming is dead.

Ok, not actually dead. After all, mobile gaming revenue is higher than it’s ever been, and mobile consumption of everything is eating the planet. However, mobile gaming is completely dead as a business model for independent developers and undercapitalized startups.

IAP has become so dominant that there’s really only one somewhat reproducible way to make money in the AppStore: make a hamster wheel f2p game in a handful of established genres and spend tens of thousands of dollars a day on user acquisition to drive traffic to it. Despite many bold experiments, the charts increasingly bear this out.

Republique

This means that some companies with top charting mobile games aren’t actually making a profit as UA costs can eat up most of the revenue. Surely this will produce a shakeout and consolidation in 2014. This is similar to what happened to Facebook games circa 2010 causing a mass exodus to mobile.

Now that mobile is dead, where should you escape to? There are several options.

PC

The PC, and more specifically Steam, remains the platform of choice for those who actually want to charge money for content. There’s a large market for premium games and Steam has loosened their gate with the advent of Greenlight. Some prominent developers have been abandoning mobile for PC with their new projects. Despite PC sales declining in the face of tablets, it makes sense. This is where the paying customers are.

Consoles

A lot has been written here about the impending demise of consoles, but Sony and Microsoft managed to change up their business model and product strategy enough to have early success with both the PS4 and XBOX One. One of the big changes has been the thawing of the gated ecosystem and allowing independent developers to self-publish. Oh yeah, and on the Wii U also.

Next generation console owners are starved for content. There will be many independent successes over the next few years before the channel becomes completely saturated.

VR

On one hand VR is merely a peripheral for existing games, on the other it’s part of an entirely new category of wearable computing and an emerging platform. Oculus Rift is the clear leader with a huge round of investment and development kits widespread. However a glut of VR headsets is on the horizon.

Oculus is building an ecosystem out of their device, but VR content can be distributed through any PC gaming channel. Although, supporting every single headset may be a nightmare for developers–isn’t it time for some kind of standard VR API?

Board games

Board games are a cottage industry yet a hot category on Kickstarter. As an example, Sandy Peteresen’s Cuthulu World Combat iOS game Kickstarter failed miserably, but when re-pitched as a board game, it blew past its funding goal. Going from digital to physical presents a lot of new challenges for developers, but does have a dedicated fan base of paying customers. Plus, you can’t pirate a board game!

Facebook / Web

Facebook games ‘died’ in 2010, but are ironically becoming an increasingly common alternative platform for mobile developers. Especially if you have a working web client already, why not put it on Facebook? The problem is the audience is decidedly non-hardcore. Facebook games can still make some money, but for a very specific audience. However, for hardcore games, the open web still remains a viable place to find an audience of paying gamers. Kongregate proves this.

What needs to change in mobile?

The supremacy of f2p and the very few options for user acquisition make the momentum towards free and the companies with enough money to compete in the mobile UA wars insurmountable. Apple could make some changes to the App Store to help support premium games and other alternative business models, however there really isn’t any incentive to do so–Either way, Apple sells phones. It’s difficult to foresee anything but the continuing dominance of f2p and mega-publishers on mobile in 2014. If you have a ton of cash and resources, solving this problem is hard, and thus very lucrative. For the rest of us, plan your strategy accordingly.

How to go to a Conference

With my GDC Taipei Summit talk, I wrapped up a year of touring the world public speaking. It started with my GDC Online talk on iOS and Android development with Unity3D and concluded with a few trips to Asian GDCs with an expanded version of that talk. In between I did a few other presentations, including co-hosting the awards at Casual Connect SF.

Live from GDC Taipei Summit!

I figured I’d share my tips on how to effectively go to a conference as an entrepreneur.

Conferences are about networking, not information

You rarely learn anything at a conference. This is because the vast majority of speakers are shamelessly promoting themselves or their companies. Most lectures are thinly veiled advertisements. Also, absolutely never go to a panel. You’ll hear better conversations in the hotel bar afterwards. Never listen to sober panelists.

Conferences are about who you meet and the connections you can make. The best way to do this is to make yourself highly visible. Which leads to my second point.

Only attend conferences you are speaking at

If you have fears about public speaking, you’re just going to have to get over it. If other people are merely promoting themselves or their companies, why shouldn’t you? Naturally, an effective speaker shouldn’t shill–and if you are obviously self-pimping, you’ll never get invited back to speak. It’s a delicate balance.

Speaking is a great networking opportunity because you also get access to exclusive events such as speaker dinners that allow you to network with others who may be able to unlock some opportunities for you.

Target your audience

Speaking is all about attracting the right audience with the types of people you want to network with. You need to cater your talk to these people. For instance, this year my talk was highly technical. Technical talks are useless for business development purposes as the only people who attend are engineers–the so-called ‘losers’ of the proverbial Gervais pyramid.

If you’re trying to generate revenue for your business, speaking about the “why” and not the “how” of your subject is a better idea. Discussing why something should be done may attract more decision makers and less actual productive people.

On the other hand, technical talks are great for recruiting talent. I know many technical founders that give in-depth engineering presentations so they can recruit candidates from the audience afterwards. But please–don’t end with a “we’re hiring” slide.

Don’t have meetings

Don’t have meetings at a conference. Most gatekeepers and decision makers are merely going to conferences as a paid vacation. (See one of my earliest posts) They’re hovering within a gradient of two states: drunk or hungover–and if not, are intensely focused on getting laid before the end of the show and thus won’t remember anything you discussed. Try to get the commitment to meet them at their workplace after the conference–when they are presumably sober and have no choice but to listen to you.

Those are just some quick tips from years of attending conferences. Have an objective when you go. When someone asks you what you are doing, have a story to tell. If you just aimlessly wander trying to make serendipity happen, it never will. Self promote, and have a mission.

My Week with the XBOX One

A mere week after the outstanding launch of the PlayStation 4 comes Microsoft’s XBOX One with a similar success story. Hey–time for some bulletized observations:

Quick!  Where's the games??

Quick! Where’s the games??

The interface is hideous. I’m not a huge fan of Windows 8, but I do think Windows Mobile is pretty snazzy. Yet, Microsoft’s implementation of the “Metro” tile interface on XBOX One is bewildering. You’re constantly getting lost in a sea of scrolling tiles with no context. Especially considering the sheer number of panels on the screen at once, navigating with the controller is a pain. The XBOX One main shell seems designed to be used with a mouse or touch instead of a control pad.

Voice control is a neat trick, but not quite ready. I have to speak in hushed tones around my console because if I dare mention its name, I’m not sure what will happen. In my house, “XBOX” is a killing word.

TV Integration is probably awesome–if I watched TV. I don’t watch much TV, and I certainly don’t watch live TV. So, all of these DVR features on the XBOX One are lost on me. Still, the ability to hook in your TV’s HDMI feed and use the XBOX One as a DVR and cable box is pretty cool–especially when using voice control to search for content. It’s the dream of Google TV realized. I guess. This really isn’t a feature I care much about. I do love the universal IR blaster feature–shouting “XBOX On” to turn on all my equipment is a neat trick!

The actual box is ugly. It’s nowhere near as bad as the original XBOX, but can’t touch the beauty of the gleaming white original XBOX 360. That’s still among my favorite consumer electronics industrial designs. The XBOX One is huge and seems to resemble a 1980’s VCR.

The launch title lineup is strong. By far, Dead Rising 3 is my favorite next generation exclusive. Granted, I’m a huge fan of the series. I’m not a big racing game player, but friends of mine who are love the new Forza–especially with individual button feedback. Even the free2play Killer Instinct has defied expectations. Unlike the PlayStation 4, there aren’t many smaller indie digital exclusives–likely due to Microsoft’s recent reversal of their self-publishing policy. Regardless, the XBOX One currently has better games–the most important point!

Overall I’m quite pleased with the XBOX One. The hardware specs are a bit lower than the PS4 and it’s a little more expensive, but so far the games are strong and the platform shows a lot of promise for growth. Microsoft has also swerved a bit to avoid total disruption, but the verdict is still out. You can’t go wrong making either choice, but if you were to evaluate both the PS4 and XBOX One purely on games alone–I’d have to give the edge to XBOX.

My Week with the PlayStation 4

The next generation has arrived with Sony’s triumphant release of the PlayStation 4. The reviews have all been written–there’s no need to post a huge essay about it. However, it is time for my obligatory quick hardware review.

It’s a nice looking box. The PS4 continues Sony’s legacy of sleek industrial design with a surprisingly tiny and strangely slanted device. It’s small, light, and silent (well, mostly).

The DualShock 4 is the GREATEST CONTROLLER OF ALL TIME! I thought the DualShock 3 was perfect, but Sony has done the impossible and topped it with the DS4–it’s light and fits my hands perfectly. Also, the PS4 can charge the controller while switched off–something the PS3 never managed to do. Now if they can only find a way to turn off the annoying huge LED light while watching Netflix.

The redesigned PS4 dashboard is simple and concise. You’ll learn to appreciate this when you try the XBOX One (review incoming!) It’s easy to navigate–and most importantly, it’s very simple to find, purchase, and play GAMES!

Share Button!

The Share button is genius. With the rise of eSports and Twitch.tv, The PS4 has its finger on the pulse of hardcore gaming with the ability to instantly stream live game video or post screenshots to social networks. I kind of can’t stand watching other people play video games–but I’m sure this will be popular with the vast majority of hardcore gamers that aren’t me. Although–uh, other, uses of the PS4 camera on Twitch may become even more popular.

What about the games? Killzone is gorgeous and has the best campaign of the series–which isn’t saying much. I mention Killzone because there aren’t many interesting PS4 exclusives at the moment. There’s heavy focus on “indie” and downloadable games which are an increasingly important part of the console ecosystem. The harsh development climate over the past few years has left few studios standing that can successfully ship a $75+ million game on a disc.

It’s nice, but rather mundane technology. The PS4 has the hardware edge over the XBOX One–but if you parse the stats, it seems not much more powerful than a mid-range PC. The previous generation shipped with GPUs a little ahead of cutting edge desktop computers, but were also much more expensive. Sony and Microsoft can’t afford to take a big loss on hardware this generation.

I really dig the PS4. Sony’s focus on “indie” and self-published games as well controlling costs is the best move they could have made given the circumstances. With two prominent free2play FPSes launching with the system, it’s clear Sony has adapted to the current market. They made sweeping changes to their business model and hardware strategy that may have successfully fended off disruption from mobile and tablets. The true effects of disruption may be felt later in the cycle when casual consumers fail to show up in the same numbers as before. Regardless, I’m relieved to have another platform to publish games on–as mobile is getting truly apocalyptic.

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.