Thursday, May 31, 2007

Your tax dollars at work.

First, my trademark for Skill City got declined by the United States Patent and Trademark Office because the name given on the registration was incorrect, according to them. What was the name? Nathan Reese, Skill City Inc. It turns out when the form asks for your name, and then the name of your business, you aren't supposed to actually fill that in. The kicker is that if you do, it voids the entire application and you cannot simply repair it. You just get to kiss your 250 dollar application fee goodbye.

So I did that. It was a fond farewell because I was really just starting to feel like me and my money were getting along.

I filed again, and guess what? I got it back again, this time saying that a pending application by a company with a similar name and logo are too easily confused with mine. Who would that be? Nathan Reese, Skill City Inc. of course. I was also told that my choice of colors was not acceptable because I used works like purple and orange, and they would have chosen to name different colors like red and blue, and yellow.

Apparently you don't have to be color blind, or a mad man, to work at the US Patent and Trademark Office, but it helps. We also choose to interpret the word "helps" as "is an absolute requirement" just as we also tend to think that orange is a different color than yellow.

That's just me though. Its not like it cost me nearly six hundred bucks to squabble over semantics with a faceless pseudo-attorney someplace in Washington DC. No... no wait... yes it has...

Oh but wait, the whining continues: 7 months ago I filed the artwork for our 5 titles with the Copyright office. I used Form VA for Visual Arts, as I wished to copyright the artwork for the games and not the sound. The first title, Antskrieg, was accepted and I received a letter back with my certificate. The second title, Explodinator, was rejected and I received a letter back telling me I should use Form PA for Performing Arts when copyrighting a video game.

Ok so who at the copyright office read my first application, and who read the second one? Clearly there should be some kind of actual system to this instead of just throwing a dart at the pile of Copyright Application Forms and announcing "These will be randomly rejected, the rest will be accepted."

Keep this in mind when starting your own video game company my dear readers. You must deal with a government that is as old and belligerently stupid as any carnivorous dinosaur ever was. You could say to yourself, that you have common law copyright. You do, its just nearly impossible to prove that in court, especially when the guy stealing your work has more money than you. So make sure you file often, and file early, because the one guy that handles all this stuff for the entire nation has the IQ of a pomegranate.

Thus ends this weeks Rant. Im in a foul mood because I just checked our metrics. 7000 downloads in two weeks!! Holy Crap Thats Awesome! How many of those registered for a new account? 500. How many of those subscribed? 9.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lickable wallpaper.

I'm totally open to suggestions on what you think would be interesting for me to tell you about during my rise from just a guy, to just a guy who does his best to run a video game service.

I have had quite a good time playing my own games and meeting an absolute crowd of new people. In the week that we have been actively advertising our presence, and openly discussing "the product" on developer forums and gamer blogs we have had just barely shy of 500 new accounts made.

Of those, 60% are repeat users, so quite a few people make an account and look around for a bit and then leave without ever talking to us again. I do intend to change that though, I have a survey I'm going to send everybody so I can find out what they think. I was just going to call that Montel Williams show and see if I could get hooked up with the psychic he always has on. You know the one who looks like somebody deflated a toad and then put lots of make-up on it? That's the one. She could certainly tell me what everybody thinks using her supernatural psychic powers.

Failing that though I'll just use The Internets to write a little web survey and get some more feedback.

So far the following ideas have met with smashing success:

1. updating puzzle games people love, that they haven't seen for years
2. making those multiplayer capable over the Internet
3. changing mechanic so they are new enough to not be the "same old thing"
4. Players Online screen
5. Challenge system
6. Avatars. Everybody loves dressing up an avatar.
7. Its an every day occurrence now that I am told how much people love the music.

What hasn't been successful? What is in our system that nobody uses?
1. General chat room. Nobody is ever in there, though people do chat during and after games a lot.
2. Subscription. Please subscribe, we need to pay the rent.
3. Skill City Map. I haven't yet witnessed anybody who uses it to navigate, no matter how cool it looks.
4. Baking with Nucoa. Everything just turns out greasy, someday I'll find out how to make this butter alternative work.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Coming soon to a theater near you.

Would you like another peek at the future? Gaze now in to my magical crystal ball and all shall be revealed.

After some looking we noticed that the system to challenge somebody online to a game was a bit lacking. Lacking so entirely that it was just not even present as if we hadn't coded it. That was all due to the fact that we were working on getting a bunch of other stuff done instead. Now it is time to add the Challenge! screens in.

We built a screen that you can go to and choose the game you wish to play, then specify if its for cash, or tokens, and then who you want to challenge. Its pretty sweet, because now you can control who you play against just by challenging them to a game. The exception here is that they must not already be in a game, because once you challenge them the above pictured window will pop-up. That would be really annoying if you were playing Explodinator and that came up.

We have another major roadblock to Player Happiness that we are overcoming on this next patch as well.

If you have played Skill City by now, and hopefully you have because its linked all over the place, then you might have thought to yourself: "This place is really really empty. Nobody is logged in at all. I would really enjoy eating some Pecan Sandies right now."

After you return from your trip to the kitchen, bag of cookies firmly in hand, you sit down and keep playing and only ever see phantom people blink in to a game room, and then vanish.

That's because Skill City removes you from the main game room chat when you are playing a game and puts you in to your own private chat. So, there are plenty of people online. You just cant see them because they are all busy playing solo or with others.

We fixed two problems here then:
1. Finding a playmate is now ridiculously easy
2. You can now verify that you are not alone, and see who else is in Skill City with ya.

Enter the Players Online screen.

Here you can see who is on, what they are doing, and then have access to some easy little icons to click them and talk to them, or challenge them. Good thing the challenge system is being built now too eh?

You also have the options of hiding yourself from the Players Online list, if you wish to be invisible or whatever. The truly cool feature is the note. You can put in something like "I want to play Quadria, challenge me. I'm also up for Ants." so that people know what you want, and are not afraid to talk to you / challenge you.

We also continue to add about 10 or 15 new avatar items per week.

Who wouldn't want to look like this dashing Student Mage? He even has that Tom Selleck mustache that just scares the heck out of anybody who sees you coming.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


I crashed on my mountain bike for the first time in two years. I could sense it coming that morning as I clipped my feet on to my pedals and started powering my bike along the dusty trails. I made the mistake of looking down at my bike and thinking about the scratches along the frame, then wondering to myself when I would crash because it had been such a long time since I had fallen.

I was real tired from riding Saturday, and so I set off down a cursed hill named Cactus that was already the site of grisly biker death (due to mountain lions) a good 4 years back. About a 16th of the way down the hill sure enough I hit some dusty and my back tire began to swing wide, it was go over a cliff in to the namesake of Cactus Hill, or enjoy a picturesque swan dive over the front of my bike in to an erosion formed mini-ravine. I opted to dive, and the judges were they present would have applauded my gracefulness as I slammed in to the ground tucked neatly in a ball and taking the blunt force on my shoulder and hip. Mind you years of training in martial arts (Ninjutsu) came in play immediately. Never break a fall with your hands, unless you enjoy broken wrists. I personally do not and was relieved when I stood up after tumbling three times down the hill only to find that I had some minor scrapes and a few weeds sticking out of my helmet. The "roadrash" up my leg and shoulder was only just starting to bleed, and all told I was in great shape. So was my bike.

Showering the next morning was like being immersed in stinging jellyfish. I miss having skin.

So on to business! We opened a account and paid for a premium listing which was I think possibly the worst mistake ever. Their service was terrible. I opened the account on the 13th. The download showed up on the 18th. It took them 5 days to "process" despite the premium account being advertised as a one day deal. Then come the emails from upset downloaders that one they have sat through the godawful slowness of their installer says "Archive is corrupt" when they try to install.

I test and get the same error. I have a friend test and he reports it installs fine, so their distributed network appears to have a rotten apple in the bunch.

It takes them 4 days to email back about the issue, and I get a form response.

I closed the account this morning and got my money back.

This leaves me in a weird place. Our download is rather big, and the stats so far have been promising. shows about 600 downloads, and that's only one of our 3 mirror sites from the main repository. How many of those were real, or completed, I cant say. That's another reason I think is poor. Its not hard to see if a file completed sending in the weblogs for any of my other mirrors, they all give me access to those.

I'm not railing against, I just want to share my negative experience. YMMV and all that. They were good at providing basically free bandwidth for people to download, I just don't think the headache was worth the 100 bucks.

At this point, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that our web hosts don't kick us off for sucking down too much bandwidth. Then of course primary to that concern is that in one week, after the bulk of this weekends banner ad driven traffic realizes their trial period is ending, that we get some subscribers.

We are approaching 300 accounts in the database now. When we reach 500 I think I'll go buy another bottle of champagne. It was so tasty last week.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Friendly like a knife.

"In a lawsuit that is sending ripples through the once-friendly online casual games industry" begins this article about the Big Fish v.s. iWIN law suit.

A year ago I had hoped that the casual game industry was friendly, I mean they do make games called Chocolate Castle and Micro Panda. Those names alone let you know that you are in for a warm hug.

The casual games industry is the opposite of friendly. I think its the cosmic sense of balance at play. If you make games about cute huggy bunnies and silly unicorns all the time then somewhere in your company all the evil has to go someplace. Most industry people keep a fresh supply of extra absorbent towels around the office to sponge that acidic foulness and then neatly toss it in to the incinerator. I think a lot of people in this industry ran out of towels, and so they just troll indie gamer blogs and forums where they bash people with their big troll clubs.

Gamers and game developers are just as petty and snide as any other industry, probably worse because of the maturity level of its own market and medium. Its young. Say it isn't and I'll point you towards other art mediums for comparison: books, paintings, song... to our 40 years of electronic media they have hundreds and thousands.

The Casual Games industry is an industry. It never was friendly despite its Chocolate Castle, filled with prancing German ballerinas, and all this lawsuit is doing is proving that to people who aren't part of the industry already. Industry is about robots making cars, and giant corporations stealing from each other.

Skill City will never be industry.

We just hope that while we stand here and cavort and sing, you love it enough to throw some money in to our hat. The rent is due soon.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Next game!

We began work on our next game some time ago, but it was shelved so that we could focus on getting the massive amount of work for the Skill City Navigator finished.

Now that the Navigator is done, we are working all the various back end support utilities and tools that will allow us to provide technical support tracking, easy solutions for customers, etc. Nobody wants to manually type in a bunch of SQL queries every time somebody says "I cant reset my password, what was my email address again?" Stuff like that.

Once we have those tools solid, I would say in about a week or so, we are going to finish up the third game in the Magic School district. Although people keep seeing that district and thinking hey its just a rip off of this, I know better, because its actually a rip off of this. I would prefer to use "inspired by" rather than saying rip off, but couching terminology is something I was never guilty of doing.

What is this game? Well its titled Potions 101 for now. It might get its name changed to match the mechanic in play but for now I like the title. Its a class at Magic School that has been over run by the wildlife that the students are supposed to be studying. One of our "npc" characters is named Chase and he is the young Wizard prodigy of Magic School. With his assistance you are tasked with vanquishing the magical animals and restoring order.

The music is done, I was going to be doing sound effects this week but with launch of our ad campaign coming up tomorrow, and my all day project of uninstalling windows Vista, I have been too busy. Side note: I uninstalled Vista. I got tired of basic tasks taking many times longer than normal, and general instability with every program.

The game itself is a standard match-3 mechanic taken up to a match4 mechanic, where one of the pieces must be one of the monsters. Ever played Dr. Mario? That's my inspiration here, but if you read below in another blog entry, one of the factors I need to work in to this game is that its multiplayer. Dr. Mario was a fun game, but there was a lot of things I didn't like, and thus as with everything else I solve the problem by making something new and improved.

I don't want to bore you with the details, especially when playing the game will be more fun if its a surprise, so I'll skip to the end and give you some more eye candy. Here are the concept sketches for our little monsters that you must eliminate. I am also including the concept art for the puzzle pieces. In the case of this game they are spells, or spell components, that when grouped up release an effect that vanquishes the monster of their same color.

Sorry if this blog is wandering today, I had a late night with my friend Jim Beam.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Screeching and other sounds

"Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable."
-Samuel Johnson

IF you write music, you don't need to read this. You will probably just read a few pages of me flopping around in a nomenclature like a suffocating fish.

I don't write music. I don't know anything about wine either, but I know what I like. I have been a fan of all kinds of music since I was old enough to hear. Everything from rap to classical music to bizarre Swedish death metal has, and still does, grace my playlist. Ok not so much the death metal, but sometimes I do enjoy a little rock powered fury on.. the... um... I don't even know that lingo either.

Its really hard to work with musician because I have music in my head, just like I have ideas for characters and games. The hard part is sitting down and writing it out, all I can do for the music is write out the imagery that I want the score to evoke.

I fall back on my film school training for that. I found that the hardest piece we did was the theme song for our Winterbaum district. I had a visual, and I could hear some of the score as I sat in my office and thought about it. I think the master of "winter" themes in his music is Danny Elfman, with Tchaikovsky coming in a close (if not equal) second place. I called the music guys, which in most cases is just the music guy. Peter and Jesse do an amazing job, Jesse is just always busy and when I interface with "the music people" its always through Pete.

Pete showed up and I walked him through this long visual sequence. We start in the frozen wasteland, its barren and lonely, snow is falling. Trees are few and far between, perhaps there is a deer, but the typical forest wildlife is sleeping. We wander around a little, see the winter sights, and then we find ourselves being drawn in to a large mine, its not a mine, its a dwarven mine and as we descend we find the warmth and life that the frozen wasteland above is hiding. Its a party, start the drinking music! Then as our camera of the mind wanders out of the under ground kingdom we are back outside, leaving...

That's how it went, and if you want to hear what they produced please take a moment to download and play Skill City.

You see, when you first log in you hear the Opening Theme. It takes you on an audio walk through the various districts, and when it ends, the jukebox begins. You hear the main theme to each district played in full, and they fade in and out gently so that you hopefully don't notice them too much. The Winterbaum theme is in there. Its actually been revised but only once, the bagpipes had a bit of dissonance in there and I asked for that to be fixed. I also asked for a Porsche and a magical pink horsey but Pete and Jesse can only do so much.

What about the sound effects? Well if you listen closely, and I mean really closely, you can tell that most of them are actually me. Yeah I had a fantastic time screeching and clucking and screaming in to my microphone. I would wager that my neighbors had a fantastic time listening to it too. The cops never showed up though so I'll make sure to be more realistic next game I record.

I start with a list of the events in the game, and then think of events that don't exist visually in the game. Abstract things like getting a combo or "doing good" need sound effects too.

I'm tired now though. Talking about sound effects and how I do all that will give me a good topic for later.

Today flew by, as I got the new website completed. I opened the account too, farewell to $99 dollars but hopefully it will be worth it. Have you seen the new site yet?

Check it out!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Yes, have some.

Today I got an email from a reader and fellow game designer/coder/developer named Jon who works hard over at White Tree Games. He asked me something that I had never actually written down before, so I was pleased to have the chance to do it.

"What are the main criteria behind the design of your games?"

Its one of those questions where you know the answer because its just something that's in your head, and has been so long its just sort of part of you. Like asking somebody "Why is holding the door for a woman polite?" You just know it is, you never thought about why, but given the chance to write it down you have the opportunity to quantify something pretty abstract and then let everybody else see the result. I'm a total essay nerd, I'm just going to come out of the closet right now and admit that I was the only one who liked getting writing assignments in school.

So here I go, trying to answer that question. What is the main criteria behind my games?

I want to keep the primary focus of Skill City on tournaments, which means that games need to be head-to-head directly, or indirectly within the game. Every game thus far has some kind of way that your positive performance will negatively affect your opponent (ie clear 4 rows at once in Quadria and you send rows of gibberish to your opponent).

I was playing with the idea that games could lack the head-to-head element as long as two unrelated games always had exactly the same odds on every level. Then scores could be compared post game in a fair environment to award the winner. This is how our competition works now, and one of the main reasons I started Skill City: I hate having my score anonymously compared to a faceless person and then told I won/lost. It removes all sense of community and competition, and makes the game little more than a slot machine where I get the results via form letter 5 minutes after pulling the handle. That is the opposite of competition, and the anathema of all fun and excitement.

I come up with games quite often in my sketchbook and fall in love with the idea of them, until I come to the big question: How is this going to be head-to-head? If I cant answer it, I gently turn the page and say farewell to that game design. This has happened only once.

Lucky for me most games are easy to tweak so that they have a head-to-head element. Even traditional game mechanics can be upgraded to support this. For example, I thought of about 4 ways to make Minesweeper head to head while I was trapped in the Seattle Airport last weekend for 6 hours. Thank to Starbucks and their sugary baked goods for making that hideously long pre-dawn layover bearable.

That's my primary criteria when I design a game, but there is more.

The secondary goal to achieve in my game design is to make the product fit Skill City. Skill City isn't just the software, its a whole world. When you first login you see a map that shows you the geography of the place these games are played. I have written pages and pages of story that the general public, much to my internal sadness, will never even read. In them I detail who founded Skill City, why they did it, who the characters that make up this place are... I created a world.

Why are you playing this game? What do you get for playing it? Where is the game taking place? Who is in the game?

This series of questions boils down to one thing: Theme.

By way of example take the game called KLAX that was pretty popular a while back, a long while back, like dinosaur times. It was fun, don't take me the wrong way. However I have a hard time with this game because if I was to try and update its mechanic to fit my world, I probably would have no trouble doing so and could even make some great improvements to it. (please disregard the sound of me tooting my own horn)

Anyway I would have a hard time thinking of how this game fits Skill City thematically. Skill City is a very Steam Punk meets Disneyland fantasy sort of place, I don't know how this weird set of 3D blocks tumbling at you can fit.

Then as I write this, I cant help but start to day dream about how it could... Maybe the board moving the pieces toward you is a river instead of a conveyor belt. The pieces are cute little turtles, frogs, and fish, and you stack them up in baskets. I then write a little story about how you are a fisherman and replace the cursor mechanic that was formerly some kind of platform that slid back and forth, with something more suitable. I have no idea what, but already my brain churns with the ideas and possibilities here.

I suddenly want to stop this email and go write a treatment for a KLAX type game.

I also use time as a limiting factor for the games instead of increasing levels. Pieces don't fall faster as you advance in score, the game doesn't get harder the longer you play. You can play at your own pace and just have fun, but to prevent you from just going forever I limit a round to 3 minutes. That also plays in to the head-to-head where two equally skilled players could conceivably play forever. Gotta prevent that.

Those are my two main criteria. Head-to-Head in real time, and theme. Its worth saying that everything else is considered as well, but not with the high priority. What is everything else? Easy to learn intuitive control, fun to play, bright happy graphics, sound effects and music that are acceptable when listened to 80 times in a row and that enhance your visual experience.

That would be a good blog entry for tomorrow. I'll talk about sound and music tomorrow eh?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Desk zombie.

For a limited time only I have been replaced by a zombie. I only barely resemble the active healthy person who used to sit at this desk.

I caught a really nasty head cold over the weekend and it has been getting steadily worse as the week goes on. Im at the "dizzy and light headed" stage now as the infection moves from my sinuses in to my lungs where it will take up its phlegmy residence and prolong my misery for weeks in the form of a gurgling cough.

Lets all take a moment to appreciate the word spetum. It does so seldom get mentioned.

How does this affect us as a company? (see how I worked that in)

I think a lot of businesses forget about illness as one of those production killing factors they have little to no control over. We already missed our programmer for about 4 days when he became ill with a rather nasty skin infection. Now one by one people at the office are sharing this germ and its so close to our deadline, what will become of us?

Its no big deal if a 100 person company gets a rash of influenza, or just a normal rash, but still. When a 4 person game studio gets sick, its suddenly a 2 or 3 person game studio. Its hard to get much done.

I was working on the new website. I know, you are thinking we already finished the website but honestly there was so much wrong with the website thats up right now I just had to take it out behind the barn and do an "Old Yeller" on it.

I pushed back our launch by a week. I cant aford to do that again, but I am confident that we are going to rock the casbah on Friday the 18th with our official launch.

Why havent I shown everybody here a link to the website where the Beta installer can be gotten? Because I am waiting for the next patch, the one with prettier game screens and more avatar stuff. I dont want to share our system with the public until I am confident that your first impression will be a pleasant experience.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Total protonic reversal.

I had to take a few days off and attend the wedding of a truly great friend up in Idaho. Did I ever mention that I lived in Idaho for a brief period? While there I worked for the source of misery, but I got over that and now I make games in sunny places. In the trued form of nerd-boy that I am we all exlcaimed "weddinged!" in our best impression of a Teen Girl Squad voice-over.

Personal mumbo jumbo aside lets talk about Skill City, because thats what this blog is for.

We had a meeting to re-do the website, and I now have 3 days to get it built entirely before we launch. I think I wont be working on my suntan or going to the gym to work on looking better with a sun tan. Instead I will be sitting at my desk frantically trying to meet that deadline: our banner ad displays on Friday.

I think I can do it. I am also pretty confident I can do it even while managing to slink away to the gym and swim laps. As for the sun, it is the enemy of pale complexion anyway, and going outside would cause my nose to fill with the sweet scent of blooming flowers shortly before my sinuses shut down in painful itchy watering yuckiness. Maybe its a summer cold?

Anyway our tasks this week are simple:
1. Make a banner ad
2. Make a website
3. Finish the huge list of features we want to shove in to the installer before we put it online Thursday night
4. Come to work Friday morning and stand, poised like a coiled snake, waiting to thwart bugs and technical support drama resulting from product launch.

Go team venture!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Once again, from the top.

Off Topic
Im going to a wedding in about an hour. I have that pre-flight sense of dread that I get every time I travel by airplane. Its not the fear of flying, its the fear of missing my flight. I have missed flights before and the resultant nightmare... well thank goodness the gate agent thought I was 16 and was going to be lost in big scary Los Angeles if she didnt pull some strings and get me on the next flight. Hooray for looking like a child I guess. (I'm 31 for the record)

Back on Topic
Our website is up. You can see it here:

I enjoy it as a second attempt. It certainly gets the idea across that we have pretty art, but I honestly think its a couple of things, and most people at work here agree with me:

1. Its claustrophobic. I feel enclosed in a very small space.
2. Its like looking at a 6 page banner ad. Its trying to get you to download the games without giving you enough of a reason to.
3. Too many images, too much CSS. Where is the mind relaxing white space? We are guilty of doing something that our competitors do: shoving 80 billion things in to one page and then losing your attention.

Now I dont think the magnitude of our transgression on item 3 there is as bad as our competition but I think its present.

The true drama arises from the fact that our launch date is a week from today. Will I be able to re-do the entire website in just one week, from soup to nuts? Will I be able to find a layout that I like if I only have this weekend to do so? Will the Rocketeer save Betty from certain doom as he car plummets from the cliff!?

Stay tuned next week Space Cadets! Our adventure continues!!

Or something. Honestly I'll just end up using my fiendishly long layovers in Seattle and John Wayne Airports this weekend to sketch out a new site. I think 6 hours of social isolation in a crowded noisy airport will be just the thing to get that done. Thank goodness they have free WiFi too.

What did version 1.0 of the website look like?

Here is a screenshot, complete with a little alignment glitch, but you get the idea.