Thursday, June 28, 2007

Business as usual?

As can be expected the concept art for Potions 101 is vastly different from what is being drawn right now in the room next to me. Jacob, our artist, has the magical ability to do things. He does those things with pencils, and often with a Wacom Tablet. The result of these frightening rituals is art that is luscious to the eye. I often close his door as I walk past, because part of the work process to produce these wonders means that he must have his music up really loud.

Skill City is in the "bumbling along" state right now. I'm almost positive that's a technical business term. We aren't making a lot of money, but we aren't wholly unpopular either. We still get several new accounts a day.

The plan thus far had been to mass mail everybody in the database with an announcement that all the games are free (bye bye keys!), and that we have progressive tournaments ready to go! We missed the deadline on progressive tournaments. There was some issues with communication here that fouled us up and for a moment, it was enough that a tiny bit of confusion caused us to miss patching it in on Tuesday.

No worries, that buys us more time to debug and playtest everything before we patch it in next week. Then I will send out a mass email to the whole wide world and announce our new features. Hopefully that will get some people in to try the rest of the games.

Right now, most people seem to login and play the free one then log out and never return. With all games free, I intend to keep more of them in our system. With progressive tournaments up and running, I intend to actually make some money.

We shall see how that pans out on Tuesday.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The To Do List

I'm making this list in a public place because I get asked this a lot in forums, in chat, and in person.

In true first grade essay form I title this piece: What I Think Skill City Needs Before it Goes Live

Well ok it's already live, but I don't know what comes after BETA test, Gamma? Delta epsilon nu? Sounds like a fraternity to me.

Here is the list:

1. Installer is too big. I would love to make the installer something really small and break the client off from the games, so installation is just the client. When you play a game it will download the latest version of the game.

2. Patching. This will now be much easier for the user, because when you play a game its version info is checked and if there is a patch for that game only it will patch. You don't have to dowload 5 patches as soon as you start the client, just because you haven't played for a month.

3. No more Windows Installer. Its a terrible terrible unstable thing designed by a madman and I have a heap of technical support emails for people whose machines simply wont run it because it has too many weird components.

4. Progressive Tournaments. These are going to be in very soon.

5. Paypal. People all over the world use it, and right now we only take Visa and Mastercard. We need to accept something with larger use, like a gateway that just takes everything... like paypal.

6. Two more games: potions 101 and hangman. Potions 101 is as good as gold, its rolling through production and picking up steam. Hangman is... well its simple. Im not too worried about timeline on that title.

7. Website. Our current website is hard to update. I think maybe something with less graphics might be better, I'm doing a little updating on that. The survey so far says people don't like it.

8. The games. The existing games are in a constant state of update and patching to fix issues. I really don't get a sense we are terribly stable yet. I run in to one bug every ten games I play, on average. They could also use a little more fluffing up.

All of this comes down to time of course. Do we have the time to do it? If we rush something out so that we can start making money on it to buy ourselves more time to polish the product and then patch later, was that a good decision? Most of the time it isn't, but most of the time these games have corporate funding of some kind!

We'll get this list done, and it will be fast and solid because thats how we roll here at Skill City.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Im the tin dog!

Sometimes I actually do feel like that, then I realize that its totally not true. I'm not the tin dog. I'm The Master. The cool new snakey one, not the dumb old black and white one.

On to this evenings topic! I had a lovely phone call with my friend Andrew who brought me up to speed on his thoughts re: Potions 101.

He made several interesting points, one of which is a roadblock to many users of Skill City: They see the games as clones, and then they have a hard time with the fact that they aren't.

Saying "Its Dr Mario except for the following list of changes, that when viewed from 30 paces distant will reveal the game is not Dr. Mario at all." That just confuses people. I try not to even name a games original inspiration because of that very effect.

We discussed my mechanic changes, and mostly we talked about the fear of leaving a full field behind when you clear yours of the imps that populate it. I had put in the bomb... but maybe, just maybe that isn't going to be enough. Just depending on smart play will take a game out of the "flow" region of entertainment where enjoyment comes naturally. Instead it makes the game a chore, and nobody likes doing chores. There was the exception of my sister that I think did enjoy doing chores, but I suspect it was some roundabout method of being existential and avoiding the more terrifying aspects of simply existing that drew her to enjoy house work.

Andrew proposed that there be something else, another powerup that can occur. After all, why stop with one? His suggestion was something like the Rainbow Crash Gem in our Mega Gem Battle... or at least cripple it so it only clears half... then what if another simply turned all of one color in to bubbles?

We talked about bubbles then for a while. It's an attack, yes its annoying, but it also adds a rich element to the game that allows greater counter attack, if used properly, that you never could have done before. Chains combos reaching double digits? Perhaps.

I still like the bomb. I think we'll add in the rainbow crash too, just because they are pretty and Jacob likes to draw rainbows, and unicorns. Sometimes he draws rainbows and unicorns on the same page even.

Customer Service is Dead

I sit logged in to Skill City from 9am until about 11pm every day just to talk to the people who use it and make sure they have somebody to go to if they have questions or problems.

When the tidal wave of Penny Arcade people came in I greeted them all individually and made sure they know who I was and that I was there for them.

I was a bit surprised by how few said anything back to me, or ever asked me for help. Then Neala comes up and says that just about everybody is chatting with her. Why not me I wonder?

She asked around and got her answer: they thought I was bot.

Its a very very sad commentary on the state of human interaction with business that when somebody gets a personal greeting they assume its a robot and are so sure of their assumption they never actually check.

I did get one person who said "Is this a bot?" and I said "No. Last time I checked I was a person." He then requested that I take a Turing test. I informed him of my failure rate at tests, especially when put on the spot like that, and he decided I was indeed not a bot.

I think the reason that customer service is dead at so many businesses is because the management of those businesses is dead. Their zombie attitude, or even blatant hostility towards their customers, spreads to the workers. Much like zombies spread their undead scourge. I like zombie movies.

Lately even the ennui at the local Subway sandwich shop has made me no longer desire to eat there. Walking in to get a sandwich is like walking in to some kind of concentration camp where hollow eyes and sunken cheeks turn in your direction as you enter, pleading with you to simply end their misery.

Granted if they hate it so bad, they should go get another job. But it wouldn't hurt the employer to make the place a little more tolerable either. The place has NO air conditioning and the poor sandwich creators stand with their backs to the heat belching ovens all day. Ugh. No wonder they scowl at me when I ask for my bland sandwich to be toasted, in hopes of coaxing out some hidden flavor.

This morning I tried to visit the people who just moved in next door to us. They are a CAD translation software company called Elysium Inc. For those playing along at home, thats the place Greek Mythology equates to the Christian idea of heaven. I walked in with a little bag of chocolates and said hello so some of the programmers. They said hi, and I got that sense of Subway Face from them. That same sort of soul drained look, and it isn't even past 4pm yet. The female coder said I should take my gift to "the boss" so I did.

This man attacked me verbally, told me I was a solicitor, commanded me to leave his office, and then stood up and herded me towards the door before I could finish a sentence. I managed to say over my shoulder I was the business owner next door and wanted to give him a present. He told me that his business was not a fun business, it was serious, and to get out as he shoved me towards the exit.

Customer service is dead because people like him run companies. I have never met him before, and yet he insulted me, insulted my business, wouldn't let me even speak, and was physically abusive to a total stranger who was quite literally bearing gifts.

Take heed my readers. Should you start your own business, your attitude towards people is the same one your employees will wear towards your customers.

Can I swear? Can I say that assholes who run businesses have businesses full of assholes? I probably shouldn't. Swearing is crass.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The wang has smacked us

I didn't want to talk about it until I had a few days to wrap my head around what had happened. It was all so much to handle. Now that the event is over, I'll relate the whole story to you here.

Since as long as I can remember I have been a Penny Arcade fan as are the two programmers here, Chris and Drew. Of course the artist, Jacob, had heard of them before in that he tries to keep in touch with anybody on the Internet that the art world talks about. Gabe's comic book style has evolved so much its awesome to just go back to the first comic and witness the start of it, like watching a galaxy form from cosmic dust and particles.

Naturally when we had started researching where to go for advertising I had gone to my old haunts: the web comics and the game blogs. It's probably no surprise that most people these days don't hear about a game from an advertisement, they hear about it from a friend. That friend most likely read about the game, or saw a trailer, on the Internet.

So I decided that web comics would be a good place to advertise and I hit up Penny Arcade for the ad. Their rate was double that of other sites, but their name is behind everything they promote. It's quite different from a normal banner ad in that they aren't just showing you an ad, they are showing you something they believe in. I couldn't afford to advertise there so I had to go out and raise the funds for a ten thousand dollar minimum campaign by cashing in one of my retirement funds.

If you are gonna start a company, and its something you believe strongly in, then I think its only natural to put your entire being behind it. Finances included.

I had a campaign running with Blind Ferret already, and it was doing pretty well, we had about 15 new accounts a day, but it wasn't enough to get us over that "I love your games, but there is never anybody online to play them with" sort of hump we were scrambling to climb.

Then the news came, Penny Arcade was going to review the site and get back to us with a decision on if they would allow to advertise. Shortly after that I got the email that they had decided not to, since we were "a casino." Needless to say my heart sank. I was extremely crushed getting that kind of news from a site I looked up to and respected so highly. I wrote back with a letter explaining we weren't a casino and basically overloaded them with links to videos of our games on YouTube, explanations of how our system works, and so on.

It worked. I got back an email that they would take a closer look, and that night I saw Tycho log on and try the games. The next day I got an email that they were still on the fence about it because of the cash tournament aspect, and when they are on the fence about something they chose to not advertise it. I cannot fault them for this, a personal policy like that makes decision making in a business much easier, and it's clearly working for them because they are quite successful.

Then came the news that made my heart stop, I think I literally had a little bit of a heart attack when Jeff (the advertising manager there) told me that Tycho going to mention us in the news.

We weren't going to get a banner ad up, but instead would get talked about on the most popular game related blog in the universe. I did a dance then in my office, with the door closed, so nobody could see what it looks like when a man having a heart attack does little happy dance. Its something you can't ever unsee, and it burns itself on to your retinas.

Wednesday the news went up. We went from having an average of 15 new accounts a day, to about 1000 in a 48 hour period. Let me just praise everybody here and the servers themselves for performing admirably. Even with all that traffic we never topped more than 5% utilization. Hooray for good compact design!

Anyway we now have a large user base and finding a match up has never been so easy.

Now we need to make sure we can carry that momentum. To do so we are adding progressive pot tournaments, that's where you pay something like 50 cents to enter a tournament with a prize that I start at 100 dollars. Every time you or somebody else enters, your entry fee gets added to the pot and it progresses. You can enter as many times as you want, and the tournament runs for a week. At the end of the week (or two days, or a month, whatever) the top 5 places get the pot split among them with the first place winner taking more than the second, the second taking more than the third, and so on. Games are played in single player mode so there is no waiting or issues with finding a match up.

Then about two weeks after we launch those, the next game will be ready for launch. Only subscribers get to play it for the first week, as a perk to thank them for subscribing... but then its open the public. We will pretty much just keep cranking out games every couple weeks from then on.

Yes, Tetris attack (aka Panel De Pon) is one of them.

Friday, June 8, 2007

How I learned to stop worrying and love the game design

My prime directive: Make all games multiplayer-interactive by some kind of interference mechanic.

So how was I to take something with a Dr. Mario mechanic, originally, before I nuked it, and make it fit this directive?

I thought first about making your performance increase the difficulty of your opponent by having additional little beasties spawn on them. That would definitely add some annoyance factor, and it would certainly speed on their way to defeat as you do better. It would also give them the balance of now having more beasties to clear so they can simply get more points than you.

But what about when they clear that extra gremlin / imp/ dancing little monster thing? I should consolidate my nomenclature... I will call them gremlins from now on. So anyway you have given an extra gremlin to your opponent, wont he just clear his and give it back? This becomes a balancing act I didn't want to deal with. I scrapped the plan and decided to do something else.

This is the part where I find it extremely helpful to have a story for every game. Even if the user never reads it, your game needs to be encompassed by a story. Something as rich as a short little story can always give you a firm place to stand and think. Sit with me for a moment in the Magic School Classroom. What do we see here? Whats life like? Well there are hideous gremlins all over the place so its not entirely a bowl of cherries at the moment but as we clear them up we get a chance to race our opponents. Lets be nasty to them too and try to tip the odds in our favor eh?

Then it comes to me, and it fits the theme and my mental image of this game. As you clear imps, or puzzle pieces that have built up and touch 4 of a kind, you increment a counter. When that counter reaches its limit, lets say 4, you will toss useless pieces in to your opponents field. You see this in our Quadria and Mega Gem Battle game too. The mechanic of this interfering piece, which I like to call interferons because I fancy myself a virologist, is different in just about ever game. Sometimes you have to activate them, transform them, or rid yourself of them by various methods.

I decided that I would make them bubbles. What magic is complete without puffs of smoke, flames, and bubbles? Add some paprika and you could have some really terrific chili too.

Anyway that's what I decided on. Bubbles. You will get these annoying pieces based on the performance of your opponent. They are weight triggered, so to pop them and get them off your screen you just have to stack up some stuff on top of them until they burst. Doesn't matter what you put on them, however you should probably try to balance out your immanent death from overflowing your field by popping them with wisely placed pieces which come crashing down and trigger a combo. They make combos so much easier. See how that works? They have to hinder, but the wise can turn that in to help.

Then the player gets that "Oh darn, you attacked me!" and then a "Thanks for that. Now I'm gonna make a comeback!" experience. Personally, I don't play puzzle games that lack this because to me they are unbalanced. One player pulls ahead, and you can just give up because then you cant catch them. Balance is key my dear readers, and now let us walk the tightrope of project management and get this game made!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Internet shminternet

Im currently involved in the middle of some ISP ugliness regarding DSL Extreme, and my current ISP who is SpeakEasy.

Both are, quite frankly, terrible. Speakeasy is so expensive only a madman would buy it (I currently am that madman) and DSL Extreme is so cheap they make up for that by never working properly and by hiring harpies as customer service reps.

Until I get this worked out I'll have to put my blog on the back burner. I should be back tomorrow though, I have the luck of the Irish on my side. Thats right, I keep an Irish guy shoved in one of my desk drawers.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

More thoughts on game design...

I figure that sharing this info probably makes for the more interesting blog entries. This is gonna be a multi-part entry so that I don't end up writing a novel in one day and boring you, or entertaining and informing you so much in a single 24 hour period that your head literally explodes.

Here is a movie where you can watch my original title called Antskrieg being played by myself and friend of mine in Skill City.

Designing this game was an absolute blast. How come? Well for starters my kitchen was over run with gross little wiggly ants that morning and I find that even the most mundane tasks spark my imagination. Second, seeing your imagination come to life and then be shared by other people is a reward that defies words. You just have to try it.

Im in the middle, or what I actually hope is the end, of the fine-tuning process on our new game called Potions 101. I think I have said it already, its a game that is inspired by the title Dr. Mario.

This game was fun, but it was also extremely short lived for me. I beat one or two levels and then put it away because it didn't keep my interest. Multiplayer mode was even worse for me. It was just a race to clear your screen of the little dancing germ monsters.

If I could place all video game design in to categories, I would place this one in the "taking an existing product, and improving it so much its barely comparable to its parent." There are of course many other categories like "totally original production" or "slight upgrade to existing product."

My project with Dr Mario fit in to the first one, because clearly there is a game out there that I have played before and thought to myself "Hey this is nice, but I got tired of it too fast, here is what I would do if I was The King." Not that King, I don't wish I was Elvis, although I do wish I could do karate with a cape on and look even half as awesome as he did.

First place I start is to list out what I don't like about Dr. Mario. Well I sort of said it already:
1. Its too short. Levels are just a race to clear a few guys and then you move on to a level with more guys, repeat until you get bored which is going to be about ten minutes.
2. Multiplayer is awful and features no competitive interaction.
3. We don't live in an 8-bit world any more, so lets update everything
4. Add some depth to the game by looking at how the mechanic can be expanded. I'm talking basic game mechanic here, not just multiplayer or "lets add another color" although that is part of it.

Now that I have an enumerated list its going to be much easier to explain how I diverge from the parent product. First of all its too short. I play a lot of puzzle games, seriously tons, their weight alone could crush a star. I found that for me, and for those I observed playing, most people tend to lose interest if a level or match goes beyond just a few minutes. I'm not saying that playing a level forever doesn't have its appeal, I get plenty of emails asking for something like Quadria to run forever with no timer. I am saying that a game needs a limit, and if its not something like gravity where the pieces simply fall faster and faster until you are forced out, then it needs a hard time limit. I fall back on my secret love of 2-d fighters (Darkstalkers how I love thee) and say that a puzzle match is just like a fighter match. If both characters are equal, the match could last 8 minutes or more as they trade attacks and counters and blocks. Time itself will then decide the victor.

In Dr. Mario, like most other puzzles, you can also fill your screen, which will end your game. Im a fan of that mechanic too, it forces you to play smart.

So how is Dr. Mario short? What do I mean by short? Well you clear the bad guys and the level ends. You are then met with a new level of bad guys, clear field, and you just go at it all over again. Its like painting a bridge, get to one end and you turn around and start painting it again towards the other end. You know they do that right? Now you have a new cliche in your verbal arsenal.

I wanted to make Potions seem like it just goes on and on, because if you are good at it you could certainly last forever. Those who aren't good at it, well they can pretty easily last over the 3 minute match time. This is true of fighters IMHO, though fighters do get tough to go forever since you have limited life.

I decided to change the mechanic. Now when you clear the bad guys, you don't move on with tabula rasa. You get more, plus one for each time you have cleared, and your puzzle pieces from last time remain on the field, littering it with debris that now mocks you. You must clear down through that field of trash you left behind from a rushed level to reach the little dancing monsters who have now spawned afresh. This effects the entire game now. Not just up to the point you beat the level and cleared all the bad guys. Now your mistakes in the past, the trash you left behind is still there and its incredibly dangerous to your survival of this next round. Its also profitable, as you have more stuff to clear and thus rack up some points. Maybe you were smart and left it configured in such a way that it will trigger combos and give you even more points?

With this largely negative impact on clearing a level, there has to come a positive as well. Unbalanced games are genuinely un-fun. I further changed the mechanic: new pieces! Instead of adding more bad guys or more colors to manage, I just added a random power-up piece that you will get to toss in to your field. It gives you hope in dark times, it gives you something to look forward to, and most of all it helps get rid of all the junk on your screen: bombs!

Its a traditional "blows up everything around it when it lands" sort of piece. Nothing flashy, it just didnt exist before and I think it helps to balance out the fact that your field can now fill with debris and kill you pretty quickly if you aren't strategic.

So thats how I met two requirements, I made the game infinite, and to do that I modified the mechanic to balance out those changes. I do think I made the game a little harder by doing this. Originally Dr. Mario required little thought until you were up in to ten or more levels of play, I often found I didn't get that far out of sheer boredom with the mechanic though.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the other stuff I changed, and even some changes I haven't made up my mind on.