Reacting to Realities

In terms of accessibility of information, we live in the most amazing time that has ever been. And it doesn’t stop with looking up facts about history and reality. It is easier than ever before to try new things. So much of our lives are built upon technologies that allow us to experiment and try things that have never been before. We can quickly gather information about hypothetical futures by quickly making them realities and seeing how they play out. This sounds like it’s a post about AB testing and an amazing middleware that I’m about to pitch to you, but it’s not.

This is a blog post about opinions.

The first games console that I ever worked on was the PS2. It was a console where for the most part, you had one shot at getting the game right. And because of that, there was a very specific way we made decisions on PS2 games. We would argue and argue and argue until we were blue in the face and then we would do something random. It’s not truly random. It might be the idea from the person with the loudest voice. It might be the opinion of whoever has the most years in the industry. But from the perspective of making the right decision, it wasn’t far from random.

Most of us don’t live in that world any more and don’t make video games that way any more. With the speed of modern day tools, we can quickly mock up a prototype, see how it plays, and make decisions based on reality. We don’t spend all our time bickering and designing by rhetoric about imaginary worlds. We try things and we make decisions based on reality. Some times we even do release things to the world or AB test them. The important thing is that we can make decisions based on some sampling of reality.

But as game designers and game players, our culture has not caught up. When we catch wind of something, we don’t have the faith to let it become a reality and see how it will pan out. We don’t let our world have a chance to happen and iterate. More and more, I’m seeing decisions made by rhetoric and theoretical universes where we have trivial access to the data we need.

Today’s discussion is about open development. It’s a fine piece and it could be right. But it is written from a theoretical perspective when we are living in a world where we are surrounded by data about this precise issue. It’s not that I think the author is wrong or that his opinion is invalid. I just feel that with so many developers presently undergoing open development, we can easily gather the data and it’ll be much more accurate than any theoretical view regardless of the intelligence behind it.

I think about when twitter rolled out it’s new block policy and everyone got so up in arms that they had to roll it back and only yesterday I noticed someone who would have benefitted from the new block and not had his day ruined. It’s not that the new block policy was better. It’s that we didn’t wait until someone was suffering from it. I couldn’t find a single tweet of an actual victim of the new policy. Everyone was just standing up for the theoretical victim they imagined. In fact, it took me three or four hours that night to find out what the change even was and another few hours to find what twitter intended to do with it.

When Mighty No. 9 appointed a new community manager, people (and I know we’re all saying “not me”), got upset at the theoretical situation that a female would be running the community and ruining the game. And when Depression Quest hit Greenlight, people erupted at this theoretical world where Depression Quest existing on Steam was going to ruin their lives.

Firstly, I’m not saying the open development reaction, the twitter reaction, the Mighty No. 9 reaction, and the Depression Quest reaction are all the same.

What I’m saying is that they all have one thing in common. We had the opportunity to react to a reality that we experienced but instead we reacted to a theoretical future that we imagined and we took the latter option.

The reason this pains me so much is that with the reality we live in and all the data we have, it’s still very complex and difficult to sort out. But if we spend all of our time focusing on the theoretical futures and never letting the reality play out, we’re really going to struggle finding the future that we want.

Imaginary Users

So I’m going to attempt to do at least one of my own projects in the near future. Last time I tried this, it ended in failure, but I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then–or at least I hope I have. I thought it’d be a good exercise for me to write out some of the specific lessons that I have learned so that I don’t repeat them, so that others might learn from them, and just to think them through a little bit more.

The first lesson is about imaginary users. Originally, I thought the lesson was about chasing “the next big thing,” but after further inspection, it wasn’t the deepest root of the problem. So, when I left my awesome job at Media Molecule, I didn’t have a project in mind. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something. I tried a non-games thing very briefly, which just reminded me how much I’ve learned about making games and how little I know about anything else. So I decided that I’d make a game. It was 2009 at the time and social games were just starting to take off. I decided that I wanted to make a Facebook game. This was a mistake, but it wasn’t a mistake because Facebook games couldn’t work, it was because I knew nothing about Facebook games and most importantly, I knew nothing about the Facebook game audience.

We decided to make a game about pet monsters who players could grow and make happy by allowing them to destroy things. How in the world did we decide on such a random game? The first step was to incorporate all the information we had about the Facebook audience. We were told that most players were housewives. So immediately we’re on all kinds of horrible ground. Firstly, this statement isn’t anywhere near true. Facebook games appealed to a huge demographic that included pretty much everyone with a slightly weaker contribution from the male 18-25 year old demographic generally strong with hardcore games. Secondly, even if Facebook games were 100% played by housewives, they do not make up a homogeneous pattern of human behavior. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, we didn’t know any of the common psychologies or motivations that might be prevalent amongst such a demographic. So basically, we were making a game for a parody of a stereotype.

I think the parody of the stereotype could be subconsciously reasoned along the lines that many housewives have children and enjoy nurturing things. Therefore, we should make a game where you nurture things. However, if you look at the description of our game, that doesn’t explain the whole thing. There are two big things unaccounted for. The first is monsters. The second is destroying things. So where did these come from? They were things we thought were cool. Monsters would allow us to create much more interesting and non-obvious art assets than common pets would. It would be cool for us to make, obviously ignoring what might be cool for our misunderstanding of an imaginary target audience. And destruction, I think it was just a matter of momentum. You’ve got monsters and what do monsters do? They destroy stuff.

At this point, I’d like to highlight the second major crime committed. In addition to actually knowing nothing about our target audience (which wasn’t really a target audience), we created features that were half motivated by our misunderstandings about this not-a-target-audience and half the features based on what we (who are not members of this not-a-target-audience) thought were cool.

A few years later, the creative director of a company I worked at constantly brought up this issue. If you have a particular theme that appeals to target demographic A and a particular type of gameplay that appeals to target demographic B, if you combine them, will you get the union of A and B or will you get the intersection. I think in general, you’re much more likely to get the intersection than you are the union. The way I think about it is that the theme is what gets people through the door and the gameplay is what keeps them there. If someone is only in group A, they’ll try out the game, but hate it. If someone is only in group B, they won’t even try the game out. If someone is in both, they’ll be happy.

So looking back at Monstroscity, which actually didn’t perform as badly as it should have considering our approach, I think one of the biggest problems was having absolutely no understanding of who the game was for. We actually got lucky having a great art style and some decent distribution help through Facebook and Applifier, but the product was fundamentally flawed.

The top level takeaway from this is that you need to understand who a product is for and really understand who it’s for. There are two ways that you need to understand your target audience. Firstly, you need to define what it is that actually ties that group together. It could be demographic or behavioral or something else. Secondly, you need to actually understand them and their motivations. You cannot work on some imaginary model you have in your mind of these types of people might do.

In terms of a solution for this problem, there are many parts (and probably many I’ve yet to learn). Firstly, I’ve learned a lot about how to think about players and design products and features from a player’s perspective. I no longer focus on what would the the cleanest to code or what would be most elegant in some abstract philosophical way. I focus purely on what a player is currently thinking and how to make it most understandable and enjoyable for them. It doesn’t mean making everything easy, but making sure the rules are as clear as I want them to be. Secondly, nothing is really a replacement for watching people play your game and making sure you have all kinds of different parts of your target audience to experience it. And lastly, but most importantly, I’m going to be making my next game for me or at least some aspect of me. It’s too dangerous and time intensive for me to make something where my gut reaction might lead me completely astray.

So I’m going to start building something I’ll love and once I get to that point, I’m sure I’ll be employing many of those I know to sculpt it onto something that isn’t JUST for me.

Ice Cream Time: How Great Games Are Made

I’ve been really reminiscent about Ice Cream Time lately. I think one reason is that ice cream is delicious and even more delicious when I don’t have to pay for it, but the other reason is that I’m going to be embarking on a new adventure soon and I’m really excited about making something great.

I should probably take a step back and explain what Ice Cream Time was. The first year of my video game career was working on Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal or RC3 as it was known internally. If I remember correctly, there was a team of about 75 people working on the project. Like pretty much every game that’s ever been in production, RC3 was at the very least, a little ambitious for the time frame and team that we had. As a result, it was a project that required quite a bit of overtime.

One of the institutions that arose towards the end of the project was Ice Cream Time. At the stroke of midnight, every day, Slim and I would scooter around the office attempting to collect everyone that was still there to come to the kitchen to take a short ice cream break. Insomniac’s kitchen was legendary and the ice cream selection was no exception. I was quite partial to the Vanilla Caramel Drumstick.

At the beginning, it was just nice to take a break. We’d all been working so hard that it was nice to have 15 minutes where all the testers were eating ice cream instead of finding more crash bugs.

But it was more than just a break. The was a nice side effect due to the midnight timing of Ice Cream Time. By midnight, there weren’t many people left in the office. However, it was always the usual suspects. There were two amazing things about the group, though. The first was that it included people from every department. The second was that it was the people from each department that cared most about the game they were making.

There was a lot of work for everyone and everyone was working very hard. But if the project was at a point where everyone was required to stay until midnight, we would have just started cutting features. So everyone on the team was probably assigned enough work to keep them busy until 8 or 9, but not midnight.

The thing about the Ice Cream Time crew were that we didn’t just do the work that we were assigned to do. We didn’t just fix the bugs that were assigned to us. We obsessively played the game, looked for small tweaks that would add up to take the game from a competently made game to something really special.

In the end, that was the magic of Ice Cream Time. There was the team hierarchy of how things were designed and specified and handed down as work. There were the official communication channels for review and feedback. But Ice Cream Time was something entirely outside of that system. It was getting together with the handful of people who most cared about the game and working together to make something magical. They were all people who couldn’t go home knowing how much better they could make things.

During the day, there were a tons of requests that went up the chain in one department and back down the chain of another that just vanished into the ether. Someone might have said no. Someone might have forgotten. Maybe a bug was created and never got assigned. Who knows. But at Ice Cream Time, it was a world where anyone could talk to anyone and make a case for how something would make the game better. And if you could convince the one person who needed to do the work, it got done.

I will always look fondly back on Ice Cream Time, but will always be saddened by the context in which it lived. My theory today, almost a decade later, is that if you can find the people who would have come to Ice Cream Time, you can make great things all the time, not only after a midnight ice cream-based rallying cry.

Will you come to Ice Cream Time?

Rage of Bahamut: A New Paradigm in Game “Rewards”

I’ve been playing Rage of Bahamut for about a week now and the more I play it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the perfect game for the modern day. Well, more specifically, it is the tip of the iceberg on a trend that I see being the future of games for the majority of people.

The best way for me to explain my reasoning for this is through a single word: reward. Just for sanity sake, I decided to look up the word reward to make sure I wasn’t just crazy. I got the following:

1. a sum of money offered for the detection or capture of a criminal, the recovery of lost or stolen property, etc.
2. something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.

While I know languages are living things and dictionaries are often out of date, these definitions, especially the second one, resonate with how I think of the word reward.

I’ve played many games in my life and I think reward has always been a very important part of the experience. Even when the rewards are trivial, they were core to the experience. It could be as simple as a higher score or access to another level, but it was always there. It could even just be the knowledge that I won.

The key to it being a reward, though, was as definition 2 states “return or recompense for service, merit, hardships, etc.” The way I think about it personally, I got a reward for some work or skill that I performed. So when I’m playing Final Fantasy, I won a battle and therefore got a reward of XP and items. Or when I played Super Metroid, I overcame some kind of traversal challenge to get my extra missile pack.

The clever thing about the more sophisticated games I played was that there was a loop. Some would call it a gameplay loop or a reward loop. Essentially, I would perform some act, which would get me a reward, which would enable me to perform a harder act and so on and so forth.

As the years went by, though, the balance between the work and the reward has continued to shift. It started with increasing rewards. Take Pong for an example. You played the game and the reward at the end was the knowledge that you had won. Fast forward to Zelda where there the reward was a new gameplay item, an animation, and a sound effect. Then onto Metal Gear Solid where you get new weapons and an epic cutscene and storyline.

Then there was the era of lessening the work. Start with Final Fantasy where a battle is not much more than mashing a button. Take it further to Farmville where all you have to do is go away and then click.

So let’s come back to Rage of Bahamut. If Rage of Bahamut was a conventional game, it’d be a pretty obvious structure. You would fight battles with your cards, and when you won, you would earn more cards that you could use to fight more battles. You could still evolve and enhance your cards and all that jazz, but the key is that you’d be forced into a work-reward loop.

Take very close notice to each piece. The work part of the game is battle and battle setup. There are decisions and choices to be made by the player. The reward part is getting a treasure chest and finding out what new card you got. Then you’d be back into work part of the loop.

This is where Rage of Bahamut changes the game. They remove work as a precursor to reward. It’s not even reward anymore, but it still feels like it. The card accumulation part of Rage of Bahamut 100% reward. It requires absolutely no work at all. There is not a single decision required of the player to earn cards. You could argue that tapping the screen is work, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s purely interface.

Once you’ve played the reward part of the game sufficiently, you are given the option to perform some work. You can decide which cards you want to evolve or enhance. You can decide which quests you want to go back and replay. You can choose where to allocate your stat points. However, the most important thing is that you don’t have to. Working is optional. Reward is mandatory.

I’ll lead with this video on why this makes me believe this is the perfect game for the modern day.

While I’m not nearly as cynical as Branford, I do believe that a growing sense of entitlement is a real trend in modern society and I definitely don’t think games are immune to it. If you don’t make the game that requires no work to get rewards, someone else will and they will get their money.

And while it may sound all doom and gloom, it isn’t at all. In the exact same way that freemium has come along, it’s just another thing to think about. In fact, it’s almost completely parallel. I used to come from a world where you put payment before play. Everyone wants to play, but not everyone wants to pay. So someone turned it around. Now, you can play and payment is optional. We as game designers need to start thinking this way. Paying is optional, how do we invite them to do so. In the same way, I think in the future of games, work will be optional, but we should invite players to do so.

I don’t think Rage of Bahamut is a fluke or a genre that will live in isolation. I think it is the beginning of an absolutely massive trend that will spread throughout our industry. And just as I don’t think payment-optional games will completely replace payment-required games, I don’t think work-optional games will completely replace work-required games. But they are going to be taking much more of the money than they are now.

Ring Fling Version 1.1 and Weekend Sale

Ring Fling

Today, I’ve released version 1.1 of Ring Fling and put it on sale for $.99 for the weekend.

So what’s in version 1.1? There are 2 new features, a crash fix, and some gameplay tweaks.

The first feature, and the one I’m most excited about, is the ability to set the number of rings each player starts with. I’ve documented my previous attempts at encouraging strategy in Ring Fling, but I think this feature will have the biggest impact to date. The idea is simple, if you want a more strategic game, drop the number of rings. This makes it so players need to think before firing and focus on timing and accuracy rather than spamming to win the game. I’ve also added a visual pulse to when you’re out of ammo so people start figuring out the mechanic a bit faster. On the other side of the coin, if you love the frantic pace of Ring Fling and want it to be even crazier, you can increase the number of rings and never need to think about conserving again.

The second feature was widely requested from both players and reviewers. In Ring Fling 1.1, you can set how many points you play to. So if you’d like to play a super quick duel against a friend, you can set it to be a 5 point game. If you want to have a grand slam, you can push up the winning score.

There was also a really bad crash fix that would happen if you played for a really long session, not THAT long on iPad3 actually. I can’t imagine anything more annoying than being in the middle of a game and having it crash on you. I’m sorry that I didn’t catch it earlier. I’d heard about this crash and had been trying to reproduce it for months and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I figured it out and was able to fix it.

If you’re extra curious, there are some other smaller changes. I reduced the number of points you needed to unlock later modifiers. The feedback was that it was just too slow. I added the ability to flip the screen over if you were so inclined. I made some changes to how releasing rings feels. Every now and then, if you didn’t follow through your swipe, the ring would go a lot slower. I didn’t want that to happen anymore. I tweaked the weights of the targets so rounds with 1 star didn’t take so much longer than rounds with 3 stars. I changed all the text to talk about stars and goals instead of jaggies and zones. After hearing so many people struggle with my bad terminology, I thought I’d stick with what everyone ended up calling them anyway.

If you’ve got any feedback or suggestions for new features, drop me a line on twitter @mugathur or via email (blog@mugathur.com). Thanks for playing!

Also, as every update clears my reviews, I’d really appreciate it if you’d take the time to review Ring Fling and let me know what you think. =)

Ring Fling – Developer Diary 8 – Launch Day

Ring Fling

I’ve been postponing and postponing this post because I wanted to be out of the bubble when I wrote it, but it just seems impossible. I’ll cut to the chase. Launch day was absolutely amazing. Short of getting engaged to my girlfriend earlier this year, it was probably the most exciting day of my life.

I woke up in the morning mentally counting the hours until 1PM, when New Zealand would launch. Since I have a day job, I had pre-written all the forum posts and emails and such that I had to send and had them all locked and loaded in my gmail drafts folder. The clock struck one and 24 hours of insanity began.

I genuinely couldn’t believe how supportive the iOS community was. In particular, I launched alongside Duckers by Retro Dreamer and Little Things Forever by KlickTock. Both of them were ridiculously helpful both in promoting Ring Fling, but also setting a great example of how to handle a game on launch day. But it wasn’t just them or just my friends. It was all kinds of people. It was press. It was players. It was all over the place.

When the day started, I had very low expectations. The only coverage that I thought I had any chance of getting was to be listed in Touch Arcade’s Coming Tonight feature. I knew that posting in the forums got you into the running and it seemed like they posted most, if not all, of the new games from the forums. However, that first day, I think I got something like 8 or 9 mentions including some pretty huge outlets.

And this is where the actual blog post starts because in that 24 hours, I learned what it was to be indie. At least to me. I think back to the times that I had in console games. I’m extremely proud of LittleBigPlanet and Ratchet & Clank. But there’s something missing. I’m proud of them as titles. I’m proud of the hard work I put into them. But the thing that’s missing is that I’m not proud that my contribution made them the great games that they were. It’s strange. I can think along the lines of “I wrote the switches code in LBP and without switches, the creator community couldn’t have done all the amazing things it did.” However, that’s true of joins and CSG shapes and loads of artwork and the pop-it and a huge list of other stuff. And I didn’t design or make the art for switches. Would people have even understood them if I designed them? If I wasn’t there, would LBP still have had switches? Would they be different in any way at all? We don’t have a time machine to AB test all this stuff. I’ll never know. After I left Media Molecule, they hired another gameplay programmer to replace me and he seemed to do at least as good a job as I did on everything. I’ll always be proud that I was lucky enough to be part of that team, but I’ll never know if I made a difference. I think that’s one of the reasons going gold and launch are exciting in console games, but there’s something awkward about them even beyond the sleep deprivation induced zombism.

I don’t know if this is true with everyone, but to me, doubt is a horrifyingly powerful force, especially with credit. In the years since I’ve met my fiance, Carly, I’ve become a lot more human. In fact, she always comments on the way I use the word human as though it’s a concept completely removed from me. But before that, I was explicitly working very hard to live a life without emotion and of the purest theoretical ethics. If you were to ask me to describe my fundamental philosophy in life in one word, that word would have been desert. By desert, I don’t mean the place with lots of sand. It’s also not a misspelling of the category of fatty foods, although they were also a big part of my life. By desert, I refer to the state of being deserving of something. It’s such a critical concept to me. It’s the difference between confidence and arrogance. It’s the difference between a reward and greed. It’s the difference between achievement and theft. It is the concept that goes deepest into the core of my being. When I interview people, my most important attribute I’m looking for isn’t their ability to code. It’s the relationship between how good they are and how good they think they are. People who think they’re better than they are aren’t ready to listen or learn or grow. In a few years, they will be left behind. People who think dramatically less of themselves than they should are not prepared to spread their knowledge and teach and nurture others. People who have a pretty good sense of where they stand, though, are incredible. They know there are people better than them in certain things and will always try to develop in those areas. They know what they possess and they’ll be happy to share it onward with others.

So to me, taking credit for something I didn’t do is a horrific crime. Even through this whole Ring Fling experience, I have some direct contributors to Ring Fling, but they’ve requested that I not be too loud about their contributions. Not sufficiently crediting them makes me feel like a fraud at times. So on a big project like LBP, for me to claim I was instrumental or irreplaceable in any way is riddled with doubt, and rightly so. With that many people in the mix, you’ll never know what it would have been like without a particular individual. And even on LBP, if I look back and try to make the objective list of people that the game fundamentally couldn’t have been as great without, I don’t put myself on that list. I got stuff done. I had a great time doing it. I’m happy that I did. I’m proud I helped out, but I’m pretty sure if I didn’t take the job, LBP would have been just as good.

So that’s why Ring Fling was so different. I basically did everything except for sound effects, app icon, and in game text. The game design was mine. The “art” was mine. And I definitely did all of the programming (except of course for Box2D, FreeType, and iOS). While that’s not 100%, it was enough to alleviate the doubt. When people said all the lovely things that were said about Ring Fling, I could take it to heart. It’s kind of funny that they handed out shirts at the end of LBP the said “I MADE THAT!” on the back. On launch day, that was the feeling that I was overwhelmed with. I made that. But this time, I actually did make that. And obviously, with the good, I have to take the bad as well. So when criticisms come in, they’re on me as well.

It’s funny to think about because the idea of combining Crossfire with Hungry Hungry Hippos is such a trivial one. The prototype that I had after my first two days was pretty much what anyone else would have done. At that point, I felt like I needed to release it as fast as possible because if I could make it in two days, anyone could make it in two days. As development continued, though, it was clear that Ring Fling was something that only I would make the way it was. There’s so much of how I think about things built into how the game is written. In the process of planning our wedding, I’ve realized what my approach to creating is. I’m not focused on trying to cram in as many super awesome things as I can into a piece of work. I’m focused on two things: removing anything that’s bad and keeping it coherent. I realized that an attitude like that would never make a Ratchet and Clank where it’s all about requiring a certain number of levels and just knowing some aren’t nearly as good as the others, but the overall experience is good. For me, it’s all an exercise in developing my taste and getting more accurate about what does and doesn’t work.

To me, launch day was many things, but more than anything else, launch day was the first time in my entire career that I felt like I deserved to take credit for something.

Ring Fling – Developer Diary 7 – Road To Launch

Ring Fling

The day I announced Ring Fling was incredible. The weekend before, I had just gotten engaged and I received a ton of awesome messages, emails, and mentions on twitter. I’d never experienced such an onslaught of positivity before. When I announced Ring Fling, there was really only one motivation. I wanted to put something on the internet to link to from emails to press. I didn’t expect anything to come of it. I just wanted to put something out there. The reception, though, was unbelievable. It was like the previous weekend all over again. Retweet after retweet. Congrats after congrats.

I’ve always been a bit self-conscious about Ring Fling and about solo development in general. I feel like I’ve worked on some incredible projects with incredible people. Whenever I’ve taken on a solo project, it’s become unbelievably clear what a small role I played on those massive projects and how limited my personal skill set was. It always made me feel a bit like a fraud. So on one hand, I was extremely happy with Ring Fling and how it had turned out, but on the other, it was a definite step down from LittleBigPlanet or even MonstrosCity. So the outpouring of support when it was announced was absolutely amazing.

Since the whole point of putting the announcement out there was to start contacting press, I started doing so. I had been given a short list of email addresses to contact from a friend and started sending emails. Something didn’t feel right, though. I was such a small fry. Who was going to care that I was announcing my game? I started a theme that stands at the core of the entire development and promotion of Ring Fling. I asked twitter. The resounding response was that I shouldn’t contact press until the app has been approved and promo codes are available.

I stopped writing emails and started compiling a list. Once again, I went to twitter for help. A super nice guy, Carson Whitsett, pointed me in the right direction. He sent me to a list of review sites, sent me the email he had sent to press, and included a bunch of other advice about the process he was currently going through. I’d never met him before or interacted with him on twitter. He just volunteered all of this help to me. To be honest, I was kind of blown away by it, but I’ve come to learn that it’s just the way the indie iOS scene works.

The next order of business was submitting a build to Apple. I thought I was basically there. I just wanted to spend a few more days testing before I submitted. I ended up submitting 4 days later on May 11th. It was the same day that I was submitting an app for work, which was kind of crazy. I went from having never submitted an app before to submitting 2 within 24 hours.

After that, it was a really awkward quiet period. I wasn’t going to contact press because I didn’t have promo codes and I wanted to get user feedback before I did any major iterations on the game so I had no code to write. The quiet didn’t last long, though, as Apple only took a week to approve the app. I had read that you should give sites at least 2 weeks to do reviews so that you can get a launch day review for your app and set the release date for May 31st. Now the real work was about to start.

Someone gave some advice that I thought made a lot of sense. I can’t remember who it was, but they said to send emails with promo codes to the top 10 sites and then send emails to the rest saying that promo codes were available if they were interested. Some of them were just email addresses and some of them were forms. I also included promo codes for all the forms that requested them. I ended up sending a total of 60 emails and 30 promo codes.

This was a very difficult process for me for many reasons. Firstly, I’m just a very awkward person. I’ve always been a very awkward person and it’s taken me loads of time and effort to become a socially functional person. The technique I’ve developed for interacting with people, though, is very adaptive. I spend a lot of time reading the other person and making tons of minor adjustments along the way. Me being social is a very manual process. Nothing comes naturally to me. Because of this, I’m terrible at conversations in groups because I can’t track everyone’s reactions at once and even if I could, I wouldn’t know how to respond appropriately to all those different reactions. So writing an email to somebody I know nothing about is a bit of a nightmare for me. Firstly, I have absolutely no information and don’t know how even to get started. Secondly, I’m not getting any feedback at any point so who knows what I’m going to drift into.

The second thing is authenticity. For each of the sites, I tried to read any recommendations they had for developers or tried to read enough of the site to get what their angle was or tried to gain some insight into who I was talking to. It just felt cold and wrong of me to just have a single email that I simply sent to everyone. However, after 8 or 9 emails, each customized version was less coherent than the original one that I had written. It really pained me that in the end, the majority of the emails were simple cut and paste jobs. I wish I knew who was receiving the emails and that I knew them better. I wish I had a decent gauge on if they’d care at all.

It was quickly approaching launch day and I hadn’t hadn’t got much of a response. I got emails from all the pay-to-review sites to see if I wanted to buy a review. I think I got a total of one promo code request from the 30 emails where I didn’t include one. Of all the sites I did include promo codes for, none of them sent back any sort of response. It’s a bit of an awkward situation. I know it’s impossible for these sites to respond to every single inbound email. Also, opening the communication channels can be dangerous sometimes, especially if you have something negative to say. If a site responded to me and said they weren’t going to review my app, I’d understand. However, I can imagine that some developers wouldn’t and would try to start an argument on why they deserve to be reviewed. The difficult thing for developer, though, is that I have no idea if they saw my email and thought it wasn’t good enough or if they just missed it in the flood of emails.

According to iTunes Connect, as of the morning of launch day, 3 of the 30 promo codes had been redeemed. At the time, I was kind of sad about it. I don’t think I was expecting a much bigger response, but part of me was hoping for one. I started thinking about what I did wrong and how I could do better next time. I regretted pushing the game back two weeks for launch day reviews since it was clear there wouldn’t be any. It was a good reality check, though. I was still very excited about having a game out on the app store, but I had accepted it was just going to be a game that I was proud of that nobody had ever heard of. Then launch day happened.

Ring Fling – Developer Diary 6 – WTF

Ring Fling

I hope that Ring Fling straddles a strange line between ridiculously simple and what in the world is going on. The second part is definitely reinforced by the Huffington Post headline of “Ring Fling – The Most Confusing iOS Game Ever?

One of my major goals for Ring Fling was to not have a tutorial. In fact, one of my early goals was not to have any menus at all. When you tapped the Ring Fling icon, I wanted the game to start up into a 4 player game where 4 AI players were already going at it. While this would have been a bit baffling at first, I have enough faith in the human race to believe they could look at it and eventually see the “Tap to Play” text and have a go at it.

I learn by doing. I’ve never been a big fan of reading programming text books. I’d just rather try it and see where things go wrong. It’s really one of my fundamental beliefs. I’m actually in Anaheim at my parents’ house for the week. My mom isn’t too well, so I’ve stopped by to help out on my way to WWDC. My parents and I have never really seen eye to eye. In their upbringing, authority was more important than anything. You listened to your elders because they had experienced more and knew better. While I never disagreed that my parents knew more than me, I feel that always listening to authority leaves a massive gaping hole in one’s consciousness around the question why. Even if the authority fully explains why they think a particular thing should be a certain way, there’s always going to be something theoretical about it. When you’ve done something based on your own reasons and your own emotions and your own gut, when something goes right or wrong, you really feel it. It sticks with you. You grow as a person.

For this reason, modern games with modern tutorials really bother me. I worked in the social game space for 2 years and in the social game space, I feel there are some of the most condescending and useless tutorials in the history of video games. It’s gotten so far beyond teaching a player about how your game works and shifted completely to training them to do what you want. I don’t want to make games for lab rats. I want to make games that even when you evaluate them with your conscious mind, you’re happy about the experiences you had with them. I think it’s also important to appeal to the subconscious, especially in the feel of moment to moment gameplay, but I don’t want to make games that only appeal to the subconscious.

I had to give in to having a menu because I added the 2 zone board. I really kept going back and forth on this. Even a week before submitting to Apple, I was considering taking it out. The one thing that forced my hand in keeping it in was that I actually had a lot of fun playing with the 2 zone board on iPhone. I wonder if Ring Fling would have been a better game if I kept with the constraint of no menus. I guess we’ll never know.

Anyway, the thing I did succeed in was having no tutorial. Before I went to that night of pub testing, my solution for no tutorial was having no complexity. There was infinite ammo. There were no gameplay modifiers. There was no charging of shots. You would just fling rings as fast as you could. While it wasn’t a bad game, it wasn’t very interesting to work on or think about. So I wanted to make the game a little bit deeper, but had to think about how I’d train the player without a tutorial.

The first thing I focused on was creating an environment where mistakes were safe. Obviously, the main thing that helps is that it’s just a game. Nobody’s life is on the line. You don’t lose a bunch of money if you don’t play well. However, I wanted to make sure that losing wasn’t a big deal. If you didn’t do well in a round, you have a quick 3-2-1 countdown to relax and then back to action. If you lose a game, you hit OK and start a new one. There are no cutscenes or massive dialogs or stat summaries or anything. You’re two taps away from a new game.

The next thing I thought about was layering the complexity. There are only two things that you need to know in order to play the game. The first is that you swipe to fling rings. The second is that the red things are bad. So for the first one, I kind of cheated. I put in text. I also put glows on the AI players to simulate what a finger was doing. To be honest, most people I watch play figured it out even before I put either of those in. The second one was a bit more difficult. Whenever one of the jaggies goes into a zone, I pulse the increased scores. It gets across the point that there is an association between score and jaggies going into zones, but when three things flash at once, I don’t think the human mind is very good as forming the association, especially when it’s an association to something non-intuitive. I think the thing that’s less immediate but does sink it in is when you get scored on and your number doesn’t pulse. I think at a fundamental level, after seeing it pulse before and experiencing it not pulse makes you feel like you don’t like that as much as when it does pulse. I know it sounds ridiculous, but this is how I think. There are a lot of advanced mechanics that I don’t think are required to have a good time. For example, how ammo works is reasonably complex, but as long as you know that when your bar is empty, you can’t fling rings, it’s fine. The more you play, the more you’ll notice that when a ring enters your zone, that little number pulses, but it’s not critical. I also added the instruction text “Hold to Charge” after you’ve successfully flung a few rings. It goes away after you’ve successfully charged a few rings. In most games that I’ve observed, that never happens. Ha ha.

The biggest thing I had trouble with and toiled over were the modifiers. In my early build, all the gameplay modifiers were unlocked at all times. So there were already so many things going on and it was a fast-paced game and on top of that random stuff was changing behind your back. I’m glad I decided to go with random modifers rather than player activated ones, but there’s a certain WTF experience you get with randomness. The next version was to start with simple modifiers and slowly introduce more and more complex ones behind the scenes. The idea was that I wouldn’t use modifiers where you need to understand how ammo works until you probably understand how ammo works. But then the confusing part is when do modifiers unlock and why? So what I eventually ended up with was that you can unlock the modifiers by just scoring points. The more points you score, the more modifiers you unlock. It was a nice simple mechanism that allowed me to make it so that you didn’t have to think about modifiers when you first played the game and also made it clear when a new modifier was going to become active.

The last thing I spent a lot of time on for training purposes was AI. Originally, I just wrote a really stupid AI so I could take screenshots. Trying to play 4 players at once and take screenshots is not fun. I wasn’t actually thinking I was going to ship any AI players. It was designed as a 4 player game and I didn’t know if I wanted to be judged as a 1 player game. But then I saw how people responded to watching the AI. As soon as the game started, and the AI went at it, people started mimicking. Comparing the time it took people to start playing with and without AI was huge. Without the AI, people would sit there for a bit and ponder what was going on and what they should be doing. With AI, people just jumped in. So I tried to extend this idea a bit further. First, I wrote an algorithm for the AI to start leading, but then follow. What I mean by this is that at first, the AI just plays how it wants to play. As it collects data on how the player plays, though, it’ll start trying to balance itself properly. So, if the player is firing really slowly and infrequently, the AI will do the same. If the player is charging lots of rings, the AI will do the same. Also, if the player is doing very well, the AI will become a bit more aggressive and if the player is doing poorly, the AI will become a bit more passive.

I’m actually really happy with the way that the learning process in Ring Fling has gone. In the play sessions that I’ve had with co-workers at Mind Candy, people seem to get the basics without any problem. The people who have played a few times get the more advanced concepts. So yes, watching my trailer is a pretty baffling experience, but it’s a game that’s meant to be played and if you play it, things will make sense. I hope.

I think this is the last post about the actual development side of Ring Fling. I can’t wait to write about PR / Marketing and launch. If you have any questions about anything Ring Fling related or not, drop a line in the comments.

Ring Fling – Developer Diary 5 – Strategery

Ring Fling


Ring Fling launched today! It’s very tempting to give up on the continuity of this developer diary series and just jump to launch, but I’m going to refrain from that. Firstly, I think it’ll take some time for it all to sink in with me. Today has been unbelievably awesome. I’m still trying to put into perspective the number of times things went several magnitudes more awesome than I expected. So, I’m going to stay the course and talk about balancing Ring Fling.

I walked into that pub thinking I was basically done. I had all the features in. It was fun to play. I was 90% there–or so I thought. I wasn’t even in the ballpark. I was about 12 hours into development at that point. That’s about 10% of the total time I ended up spending.

After the pub testing, I knew there were loads of changes that needed to be made. On top of the changes that I had implemented in the pub, I had a huge list of feature requests from people who I have tons of respect for. More importantly, though, I watched them play and mentally noted things that concerned me.

There were a handful of things that worried me. The input handling wasn’t quiet right. There were behaviors that I just didn’t really consider. However, there was one thing that stood out more than anything else. There was absolutely no strategy. Scoring was nearly impossible and the only viable strategy was to spam rings as hard as you could.

In fact, this reminds me of a massive regret I have about the trailer. I recorded the trailer and edited it together in a rush. I posted a blog post announcing Ring Fling and it became clear that people wanted a video. I’m much better at writing code than I am at writing English and my descriptions just weren’t cutting it. So I set up a crazy Rube Goldberg mechanism to record some gameplay and edited it together. It was the first time I had ever edited any video ever. So the massive regret that I have is that when selecting clips, I seemed to grab the most “exciting” clips, which all show me and Carly spamming rings. In actuality, as the game is currently balanced, it’s much easier to win by patiently charging and shooting fast, accurate rings rather than a spread of random small rings. At least making that insane trailer got me a mention on the Huffington Post.

Anyway, I was very concerned that there was no strategy. After that day, every feature that I added was intended to encourage players to fling rings in a less spammy way. So the first feature was actually a recommendation from Luke at the pub testing. I tried to get it in live at the pub, but messed something up and got confused. The feature was charging rings. In a very simple way, it provided a benefit to holding a ring down and not just continuously firing a stream of poorly aimed rings.

The next feature was an ammo limit. In the original version, you could fling as many rings as you wanted. The first version of an ammo limit I tried was just a refresh time. Every quarter of a second, you’d get another ring to fling. However, it ended up being a really awkward thing to balance. If you were under attack, it was no where near enough to feel like you stood a chance. You’d just feel like once people ganged up on you, it was over. Also, when you weren’t under attack, it was way more rings than you could effectively use. To find the solution I shipped with, I actually thought back to my days playing Crossfire. I remember that when someone went massively on the offense, it meant the defending player had more ball bearings to fire back. It was a very nice risk-reward balancing mechanism. So I implemented conservation of rings. If you shot a ring, you had one less ring. If a ring entered your zone, you gained an extra ring. This created a few dynamics that I really like. The first was that if you were under attack, you implicitly got more rings to defend yourself. Secondly, it emphasized accuracy in two ways. It emphasized accuracy immediately in that you had limited rings, you needed to make them count. The more advanced way it emphasized accuracy, though, is that you always wanted to get a perfect shot so that the ring would bounce back into your own zone. This is a technique much easier to pull off in 2 player than 4 player games.

The last feature toward the goal of reducing spamming was the gameplay modifiers. At first, the theory was that you’d want to fire less rings when there was no modifier active since in a few seconds, you’d get much better rings than the ones you were currently firing. This gave you a few seconds while modifiers were inactive for everyone to take a little breather. This didn’t have nearly as big an effect as I had hoped for. In fact, in a lot of games I play, people spam much harder when the gameplay modifiers are inactive since the rings are weaker. They feel like they need to fire more to make up for it. The actual effect that I observed, and was happy with, was that because the the rings were more powerful with active modifiers, it was now possible to shoot a single ring in the perfect way to score. This is especially true with the Heavy Hitters and Fast Forward modes.

Once I had these features in, I could pretty much always defeat a spammy player by choosing better tactics. While new players will always start spamming rings, as long as it’s not the best way to win, I hope that players will drift into choosing better strategies over time. It’s not to say it’s not still an intense game. It’s just that if played optimally, it’s not a completely mindless flickfest.

Ring Fling – Developer Diary 4 – Pub Testing

Ring Fling

On the second day of development, I was feeling great about where Ring Fling had gotten and decided to see if anyone wanted to meet me down at the pub and have a go. My very kind friend, Mike Bithell, volunteered to play Ring Fling and give me some feedback. The boys from Makielab were also up for a laugh. Little did I know, that Ring Fling had gone Alpha.

Obviously, on and indie title, there are no publishers and no milestones. I was just coding along doing whatever I felt like. In the console game industry, there are 4 major milestones for a game: green light, alpha, beta, and gold. In theory, green light is when you have a “vertical slice” of the game to determine if the project is worth moving forward on or not, alpha is when the game is feature complete, beta is when all the critical bugs are fixed, and gold is when you have a party. In my experiences, though, it’s very different. Green light is when you’ve hacked together a demo that convinces that publisher that you might actually be able to finish a game. Alpha is when you’ve made the game you originally set out to make in your game design document. Beta is when you’ve changed the game you thought you were making into a game that you’d be happy to show to the public. Gold is when you send a build to your publisher and feel really awkward for a few weeks because you have no work to do, but you don’t know if you’re actually done yet.

Anyway, by my own definition, Alpha is when you’ve made the game you originally set out to make. The implication is obviously that the game you set out to make is generally not any good. There’s no real way to know that it wasn’t going to be any good, though, other than to make it and try it. Well, if you’ve had as much experience as me, it’s easy to know that it won’t be any good, but nearly impossible to know exactly what parts won’t be good and what kinds of solutions will address those problems.

So we sat down at the pub and started to play. One of the incredible things about having such talented friends is that within 10 seconds, people were demanding changes. Fully expecting this to happen, I had brought my laptop. I’d never done live coding like that before. Within about 20 minutes, we had done 10 iterations on the game. We tweaked the sizes of each of the zones. We added clearing of rings in between rounds. We limited to the number of rings you could fling. It was incredible how much better the game got after 20 minutes of tweaking.

However, it was clear that there was still a lot of work to be done. There were quite a few features that were requested that I couldn’t get done in a few minutes and I added all of those to a list. What really stood out, though, was that playing Ring Fling for 20 minutes was exhausting. There wasn’t a whole lot of strategy involved. It was just a game of speed and accuracy. While that wasn’t the end of the world, it wasn’t something I was remarkably happy with. In fact, one of my biggest regrets with the gameplay video I posted is that I didn’t show much strategy with charged shots. I was just in a rush to edit something together that I grabbed all the “exciting” parts rather than clearly demonstrating the full range of the game.

We spent the rest of the night just chatting about Ring Fling, Thomas, and Makies. I wrote down any ideas that I thought could make the game even the slightest bit more varied and strategic. Before that night, I naively thought I could have the app ready for App Store submission with another 6 hours or so, bringing the total up to 18 hours. However, after a 20 minute play session at the pub and a conversation for a few hours afterward, I knew I’d be investing a whole lot more time into Ring Fling. I had started on my path to Beta, turning this little game into something I’d be proud to release on the App Store.