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GDC 2011

How to Win the IGF in 15 Weeks or Less

Posted by , in Summits, Indie Games, Design, Production 01 March 2011 - - - - - - · 1,054 views

Andy Schatz, the developer of Monaco, took the stage to preface his session by saying he isn't going to talk about how to make an IGF winner but, rather, just to tell his story.

"What's [important] is your inspiration and motivation when making games," Schatz says as he recalls September 29, 2009, adding "I was depressed." He talked about being in a rut and making indie games for five years and having it go nowhere. He was working on the third title in his Venture sim series and "it sucked" (as Schatz recalls). He had reached the end of the time he was giving his independent break from AAA game development and was depressed. So, next, Schatz took on board games because they're "all about mechanics" and says it's a very good way to get your brain flowing.

Andy Schatz talked about wanting desperately to make a game about "stealing shit," but was concerned that the fanbase he earned from the Venture sim series (who were largely kids) would conflict with the goal of a game about stealing things. Despite that, though, Schatz made a Monaco board game. He did this on a break from his full-time project and then, when he took his next break from his full-time project, he took a break and he said he's going to make Monaco as an XNA game in a week and that would be his last break from the third entry in his Venture series. Schatz said he wanted to make this heist game like a roguelike.

After tackling some of the technical details of prototyping Monaco, Schatz moved on to talking about what type of tools to use when making a game. Schatz talked about using Torque for the Venture series and citing it as a mistake, then using Unity which (he feels) would have enforced a certain look on the game, and then customizing the look of Monaco by using the "just enough of a framework" XNA toolset.

An interesting side-note about Andy Schatz's presentation is his use of old Facebook status updates, which he uses to bind the session to a narrative spine and function as an ad hoc "digital archeology" (taking the term from GDC cohort Ben Abraham).

Schatz then talked about Ventura Dinosauria (the third entry in his Venture series) and that DINOSAURS ARE AWESOME. And he is correct. Unfortunately, Schatz couldn't make the game fun. "If you want to have a takeaway from this, this is it: I made sure I worked on one cool thing every day. [...] And I never worked on something that took me longer than one day." I'm editorializing here, but: this is awesome and a completely true and valid approach to independent development. "When you think of game development as a holistic thing," Schatz continued, "you get much farther when you're enjoying yourself."

"The number two thing that you can take away from this," Schatz says, "is that you should have people playing your game from day two." He cited his experience from the recent PAX expo. Schatz also makes a crucial difference between "advisors" and people who are just playing ("people who don't know shit about games"). "You can't have too many advisors," just people who align with your general goal and can give you good, pointed advice. The people who don't know about games, regardless of how bad their opinions are, their impressions are crucial. "There are three questions I ask every one of these people: 'What did you like?,' 'What did you not like?,' and 'What confused you?," and when they tell me what I should change, I ignore them."

In talking about how he financed his independent operation, Schatz cited contract work as the best way to make a lot of money, but "it's not fun." "If you're working on a project that just makes money you're going to make money or you go out of business. And if you're working on a project to make recognition you're going to make recognition or you're going to just make money," Schatz said of his independent development philosophy.

When talking about moving Monaco from tile-based visibility to movement to his new lighting and visibility algorithm (that went from being a pretty but distracting mosaic look to a more vector-based approach) took Schatz two months. This was his first and, by far, his longest feature to work on and broke his one-cool-thing-a-day work goal. "Even though it did take me two months, it was something I felt that was cool and interesting."

Schatz then turned to a discussion about game mechanics vs. "experience" and the difficulty in marrying these two things. "As an indie, you're never going to get over that uncanny valley hump, [...] but there are areas" in which independent developers can bridge the realism gap such as, as Schatz points out, sound. He creates a very complex soundscape in Monaco to help the game's overall "experience."

Andy Schatz ends the talk with a near-final Facebook status update that shows how much his mood has increased and how much more productive he was when he did something that he enjoyed. "And fifteen weeks later, I had won the IGF."

The Full Spelunky on Spelunky XBLA

Posted by , in Summits, Indie Games 01 March 2011 - - - - - - · 600 views

This talk was given by Derek Yu and Andy Hull. Derek started off the talk by describing his development history, contrasting his "small" games (Diabolika, I'm OK, Spelunky) and his "large" games (Eternal Daughter, Aquaria, Spelunky XBLA.) He said that these smaller games were important to his ability to create the larger games, in ways he would go on to describe later in the talk.

Derek described his prototyping process, which he compared to doodling. He just makes things that interests him at the time, without worrying about whether others will like it, or whether it would be worth commercializing. The key, he says, is to "get [his] ideas out," to simply create things.

He then described Spelunky's influences, a combination between the replayability, improvisation and excitement of roguelikes, and the more visual, action-oriented, immediately gratifying platformer genre.

One of the most technically interesting points of the talk was Derek's algorithm for level generation in Spelunky. A larger area is broken up into a 4x4 grid of rooms, and a random "path" is chosen to progress room-to-room from the top of the area to the bottom. This establishes certain rooms as vertical or horizontal corridors, etc. Then, templates for each room type are used, with random embellishments added for obstacles, treasure, and monsters. According to Derek, working on a procedurally generated game is extremely gratifying, because not only does it allow small teams to create more content, but the game is always new and surprising to play, even for the developer.

Derek also pointed out the role small releases play elsewhere. He brought up Super Meat Boy, Google Labs, and Haruki Murakami's process of writing short stories inbetween writing larger works as "success" stories for the process of making small, exploratory games inbetween making larger, more draining works.

At this point Derek handed the mic to Andy Hall, the programmer for the Xbox Live Arcade version of Spelunky. Andy started off by describing the genesis of the XBLA version of Spelunky: Jonathan Blow contacted Derek and asked if he would be interested in making an XBLA version, and helped smooth the greenlight process with Microsoft. Blow even offered the source code for Braid's engine to the Spelunky team, although they eventually decided to create their own engine after running into some difficulties using Braid's.

Another thing Andy mentioned was the fact that Spelunky XBLA is treated more as a sequel than a port of the original Spelunky, which was difficult to adjust to -- it felt awkward to change things from the original game, but the original game will always still exist for people to play. Of course, they did not want to break what worked in the existing version, but instead make them better.

Some of the things they improved from the original version were the controls (even Andy had difficulty with the original controls), and the artwork (upgraded to beautiful HD.) Derek and Andy also announced that Spelunky for XBLA will support 4-player local multiplayer, and said that more information about the multiplayer game modes will be available in the coming weeks.

According to Derek, Spelunky for XBLA will likely take around two years by the time it is done. Derek and Andy primarily work over Google video chat, as Andy is located in Connecticut.

The Journey to Creating Shank

Posted by , in Sessions, Summits, Indie Games 01 March 2011 - - - - - - · 1,242 views

Jamie Cheng, one of the founders of Klei Entertainment, started his presentation on the team's development on Shank by showing a graph of Klei's games getting "[m]ore and more violent over time" starting with Eets, then Sugar Rush, and culminating in their most recent game, Shank. Klei experimented with the game early on by creating a quick demo of Shank in Flash and was done over a weekend; a lot of the moves were in and the demo, on the whole, gave them the confidence to move forward. The actual Shank character design came a few weeks later. Within two months, Klei had a very capable demo of Shank with a representative character design, a good sample of moves and abilities and combat flow.

With so much of the game representative in the early prototype, Cheng joked "What did we do for the next year?" Over the next year, Klei worked on the engine, polish, and the necessary work for releasing the game for multiple platforms. Publishers were telling Klei not to show the game, because that would "hinder [their] ability to promote the game." And Klei chose to, largely, ignore that and show the game (because it's "[theirs] to show") at PAX 2009 using a box gotten from Home Depot that was decorated pretty impressively to demo the game to PAX 2009 attendees.

Cheng moved on to discuss the "[t]echnically hard things" for Klei. The first mentioned were that the Playstation 3 port wasn't anywhere near ready for release with Klei only having about four months to their release date. Another issue was the 2GB download of Shank, of which 1.4GB were all in the game's cinematics. The last of the listed big, technical issues during development were the fragmentation issues on the Xbox 360 that were leading to great disparity in loading times and other issues during testing.

Klei worked on thirteen levels in three months after only having two playable, polished levels to show off to people. At one point on Shank's development, their development office also flooded due to a neighbor's dishwasher that flooded their office with water. Despite the flooding, though, their computers (which had their power supplies at the bottom of the case), survived three-four inches of flooding. Somehow.

Some of the post-release statistics on Shank: Average session duration for Shankplayers was 56 minutes. It had a 26% conversion rate on Xbox Live Arcade. And 30% of people who played the game (on normal mode) finished the game. An interesting thing that Klei learned after launch was the difference between "Aggressive vs. Defensive players." The team learned that aggressive players learned and loved the control scheme a lot due to the smooth combat transition, but that defensive players who wanted to run away from fights ran into issues with the control scheme since it wasn't really intended for that play style and it just felt "sticky."

The publisher relations with EA were a mix of "Less Good" and "Good." In the "Less Good" column was "arbitrary deadline," "'olde style' PR" ("press releases are horrible!"), "consumer expectations," and "possibly reduced upside" (versus self-funding). In the "Good" column, however, was the "creative freedom," "'true' support," "multiplatform," "marketing," "marketing," "reduced risk," and "less platform requirements." Cheng, overall, feels that the choice of EA as a publisher was largely a positive thing for the game as, otherwise, the game likely may not have shipped.

"Well, how'd we do?" Shank "sold more in the first 24 hours than Eets: Showdown did [in its] lifetime." XBLA reported 41,000 units in the first week but "multiplatform release was key for profitability." The game has had a particularly "long tail" on Steam, however, and Cheng waxed positively about Steam's role.

Overall, Shank had three months of prototyping, nine months of tools, and six months of miscellaneous other work. The crunch for Shank was largely on the designers and artists as the game was very content-heavy in a short timespan, but the engineers only had to work a couple weekends over the course of the game's entire development. It was a pretty tough time for the team (at times), Cheng said, but overall it ended up working out.

Cheng ended the session with his "thoughts on the future..." He cited the potential of the downloadable space but that, right now, the ceiling is relatively low. "The best breakout hits in the console downloadable space are making < $10M in profit, and there are comparably low number of games." He added that "the platforms really need to push the numbers upward and keep adding great features if they want this space supported and working in the long run." Cheng cited the role of Microsoft's XBLA "Summer of Arcade" which makes kings out of certain games, but other games get left in the periods before and after and get lost (comparatively).

The Humble Indie Bundle

Posted by , in Summits, Indie Games 28 February 2011 - - - - - - · 636 views

The first session in the Indie Games Summit this year covered the Humble Indie Bundle, and was given by Jeffery Rosen and John Graham of Wolfire Games. They gave a sort of postmortem for both the first and second Humble Indie Bundles, covering a lot of details about the design, preparation, launch, and results of the bundles. For those of you not familiar with the Humble Bundles, the Bundles were limited-time, pay-what-you-want, DRM-free, cross-platform game packs that ended up becoming runaway successes.

The idea for the Humble Bundles was inspired by the fact that every Steam bundle sale seemed to automatically get to the number one story on reddit. Wolfire itself put their toes into the water with the bundle concept by bundling Overgrowth with Natural Selection 2, which received a decent amount of press coverage and attention on Reddit, garnering 1600 sales. Another source of inspiration was 2D Boy's successful pay-what-you-want promotion for World of Goo. This led Jeff and John to begin considering how to top a pay-what-you-want sale.

The ideas Wolfire came up with to make an even more compelling sale were to add more games, add support for Mac and Linux platforms, make a better site, add charity donations, and release the source code to the bundled games.

Initially, it was difficult to get developers on board with the idea, especially because they had to limit themselves games already supporting both Mac and Linux. Getting charities onboard was somewhat easier -- 10 minutes into Jeff's complicated pitch, the EFF representative stopped him and asked, "So, you're asking me if you can give us money?"

Wolfire also covered some of the challenges with designing the Humble Bundle site. The challenges they faced included making sure the site was scalable, easy to use, while also providing good customer service.

For scalability, as Wolfire has documented in their own blog, they utilized Google App Engine to host their site. At the highest point, they had 70 instances of their app running simultaneously across Google's servers, and had nearly perfect uptime over both bundles. Amazingly, Google only charged them $10.

They also utilized two CDNs for the actual file downloads. For the first bundle, they used Akamai, and for the second they used MaxCDN. They recommend Akamai, which they say is the most expensive service, but also the best.

As for the ease-of-use goal, they designed their web site such that you did not have to register an account, fill a shopping cart, get a verification email, require a special client program download, etc. There was only one pre-purchase page, and only one unique post-purchase page per user.

Customer service wise, they used the Tender service to track support request emails as tickets, as well as the Olark service to do customer service via live web chat. They only had 18 live chat operators total, and most of the time only a couple people were active, but they managed to handle many many support requests in parallel once they got into the proper mental flow.

The gentlemen from Wolfire then described the specific pre- and post-launch experiences for both bundles. For the first bundle, there was initially very little press interest (with the notable exception of Ars Technica), and only once they began approaching the $1 million sales mark -- the threshold for releasing the source code to the games -- did other press coverage begin taking off. The first bundle achieved $1.27 million in sales over 138,813 contributions.

For the second bundle, they were concerned whether the first bundle was a fluke or actually a repeatable phenomenon. To improve the bundle, they planned new features to improve it beyond the bar set by the first bundle. They added new games, including Braid which was ported to Linux specifically for the bundle, and Revenge of the Titans, which was actually launched for the first time inside the bundle. They also made plans with Steam, OnLive and Desura to provide download keys for the games in the bundle, allowing users to unlock the game on those services instantly, something that was only offered after the fact in the first bundle. Humble Bundle 2 ended up an even larger success than the first, with ~$1 million going to developers alone, another ~$500,000 going to charities, and $133,000 as a "humble tip" which went to support the Humble Bundle as a business.

There were some unfortunate events that occurred post-launch. For example, some customers bought a thousand copies of the bundle at 1 cent per copy, apparently planning to resell the games elsewhere. Also, an estimated 25% of downloads were pirated directly from the Humble Bundle site itself (via shared CDN links), not even counting BitTorrent or other channels.

There were some other issues. After open sourcing Lugaru, a counterfeit version built from the open sourced code appeared on the Mac app store for 99 cents, significantly undercutting Wolfire's own offering of Lugaru HD in the same store, even coming in ahead of them in search because of the shorter name. Another problem (which I do not recall being publicized as much with the Humble Bundle as when it occured with e.g. Minecraft) is that Wolfire also encountered the same dreaded "account freeze" where PayPal placed their balance under hold for an undefined period of time. Wolfire's opinion is that while they were very satisfied with Amazon's payment system, and Google Checkout is at least good for merchants, despite PayPal's unpredictability it is virtually required to support because of how ubiquitous it is as a payment method.

In total, both bundles made $3 million dollars, of which $1 million went to charities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child's Play.