Rizer

Coffee with Johnny Two Shoes

25 March 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of grabbing a coffee with Max and Josh Scott-Slade who make up Johnny Two Shoes, and are probably best know for their great game, Plunderland. I saw on Twitter that they were heading to the fine city of Norwich to take a lecture at Norwich University College of the Arts, so dropped them an email cheekily asking if we could meet up. Because they’re such nice people, they agreed, and so I had a chance to ask them about how they got to where they are and what it takes to build a successful iOS indie games company. I thought it would be good to share some of the key things I picked up.

Plunderland

Work for hire always sucks

Having read up on what the Johnny Two Shoes boys had done in the 3 to 4 years since starting, I noticed that they had quite a few client projects in the mix for big names like Channel 4. As someone who freelances making non-game apps, I wondered whether this might be a good direction to head in, and I still think it might be a good direction to head in as a stepping stone, but Max and Josh helped me to realise that that’s not the end goal. The truth is making games for someone else limits your creative freedom and never has as much earning potential as you could have making something you want to make. Stressing out with deadlines working on stuff you don’t enjoy doing just isn’t worth it. The guys say with the success of Plunderland, they’re now done with freelance work — good for them!

Make the game you want to make

You’ve probably seen similar advice before, but I think it’s worth repeating as it’s an easy trap to fall into, particularly when success eludes you. Don’t try and copy someone else’s game or make something that you think other people might enjoy but you yourself won’t. Make the game you want to make — the game you’d enjoy playing. That’s what JohnnyTwoShoes set out to do with Plunderland, and Max told me he still plays it on the tube because he enjoys it. This has the effect of making the game really fun for you, and if you find it fun, there’s a good chance other people will love it too.

Marketing is overrated

Journalists only want to write about stuff from people they already know: people who are already popular. Once you’re at that point, then they’ll be asking you if they can review your app, not the other way around. Knowing the right people obviously helps, but the really key thing is to make a game that people will talk about.

It takes time … keep going!

Max mentioned he’d been making games for 13 years, which is quite impressive for someone in their mid-twenties. We talked about how Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game that they made. Whatever looks like an overnight success from the outside always has years of working away unnoticed preceding it. I think the best advice I got from Josh and Max was just to keep going. Keep making games you love and build on the experience gained from each one. Nothing happens overnight, so I need patience, passion and determination to keep going.

Thanks again to Max and Josh for taking time out to meet with a random guy who follows them on Twitter! You guys are awesome.

My Originality Conscious

11 March 2011

Originality seems to be one of those issues that I keep on thinking about time and again. I guess it’s natural when you’re trying to be creative on demand in order to make a living to be questioning how much you should be “borrowing” from others. This week, like most weeks, I started work on a new game (although I’ve got a good feeling about this one!) which got me thinking again about the nature of originality.

I probably don’t have the best track record when it comes to making original games. Brainz is the numbers game from Countdown, and Flying Cats started with the thought that I could make something a bit like Fruit Ninja. My new game, at least initially, is going to be similar to a Wii Party mini-game and will take place in a world inspired by Studio Ghibli films. The question in my mind is is this a bad thing to be doing?

It would seem that being similar to existing games certainly doesn’t hinder success. When Tiny Wings got popular, people started pointing to other games with a similar mechanic that already existed but few people had previously heard of. Harbour Master was a deservedly successful game, made by Keith and Natalia who are loved and respected by the indie community, but it did attract more than a couple of comparisons to Flight Control. But both are great games in their own right. Even Donkey Kong bears a slight resemblance to Space Panic.

Truth is that there’s nothing new under the sun. Everything is some form of evolution of what has come before, and there’s nothing stopping two people having the same idea either. I wrote a brief for a game idea I had at the end of last year that looked like this:

“The idea is for an side-scrolling iPhone game where you must avoid the rain and stay dry. Rather than jumping on moving platforms, you must pay attention to what happens above you and time running for cover. The above action will involve various monsters that go about their daily lives in the world above, but will stop rain from falling beneath them. It will also combine RPG elements, by being able to spend gold collected on power-ups.”

Imagine my surprise when I saw The Rainy Day appear on the App Store. So many aspects of my idea are in this game, from the concept, to the wet-gauge, to the background story. They just made it less awesome. No matter how unique you think your idea is, someone could easily come up with something similar.

The Rainy Day

I’ve said before that originality shouldn’t be king, but our primary focus should be on implementation. That’s not to say we become rip-off merchants, and I think you can trust your conscience to tell you when that is what you’re doing. Whatever unique and amazing idea you come up with, there will always be parallels to be drawn with other games. And that’s OK. We make games out of who we are — they are creations that reflect us, our personality and our likes and dislikes. Who we are is made up everything that we’ve experienced, watched and played. So if your game starts to look like something you’ve seen before, don’t freak out — it’s all part of the creative process. Just make sure that the end product is great in it’s own right.

My New Project & Two Tone Cel Shading In Blender

3 February 2011

New Project!

I said I wanted to be more open in whatever I developed next, so it’s time to talk about my only-started-this-week project with no name. The idea behind it is that it will be a platform game that teaches music theory. The main control mechanism will be an on-screen musical keyboard on the iPad, and when you play notes and chords in the right key, the character will run, jump and attack. Not at all sure how that will all work yet. This week I made a start on the artwork – as artistic ability is my primary limiting factor, for me it makes sense to start there, although it does defy conventional wisdom. I’ve decided to use Blender to create all of the assets in 3D – the rest of this post explains why, and shows you how I’ve created the cartoon look so far.

Why make 2D looking characters in 3D?

My initial thought was that I could do all the art for this project using vector art in Illustrator. I’m definitely no artist, so I knew this was going to be a challenge, but I’m always up for expanding my skill-set and decided I’d give it a go. Here’s what I came up with initially:

Character in Illustrator

He looks ok I think, and I got some good feedback from people on Twitter. So my next step was to put him in some kind of action pose, but I didn’t get very far! I found that keeping proportions, and getting a good pose was pretty hard. But for this project I was going to need tons of sprites to animate the character walking, running, jumping, attacking, getting hurt, dying… In Flying Cats Game I did about six frames of animation per cat, and that was a tedious process. I’m guessing there must be easier ways to create 2D animations than creating duplicates and moving bezier points around, but it was at this point I decided I’d go down a route I’ve been contemplating for a while, and launched Blender.

I’ve done a tiny bit of 3D animation in Blender before, and I kind of know about rigging and animation. Plus, one day I plan on making games in 3D, so it makes sense to improve my skills in that area. The plan is to animate the character in 3D with a static camera and render the frames for each animation so that they can be combined on a sprite-sheet and brought into the game; a technique pioneered by Rare on Donkey Kong Country, back in the days when you needed a massively expensive Silicon Graphics workstation to do this kind of stuff. Thankfully technology has moved on somewhat.

I’ll blog more about exactly how to go about doing this with Blender and cocos2d at some other point – as it stands I haven’t got that far yet myself. My initial problem was in keeping a two tone cartoon look that I’d created in Illustrator when rendered in Blender. The eventual look of the game that I’m aiming for is something akin to Wind Waker, but as I said it will implemented in 2D, which I imagine will make it infinitely easier than what Nintendo achieved with that game.

Technique

Before I’d finished the model, I started experimenting with rendering. The obvious place to start was with Blender’s Toon shader models for diffuse and specular material properties. I’m going to assume some basic understanding of Blender, but hopefully you should be able to follow along even if you’re a beginner. I’m using Blender 2.56, which has a much friendlier interface than pervious versions. It might still be in beta, but I’d recommend using it unless you have a strong reason to stick to the stable version.

You can follow along in this five minute video tutorial (sorry the sound is peaking a bit):

I’d love to hear your feedback on the project idea and the tutorial – please get in touch!

The App Marketing Formula Myth

28 January 2011

It’s great to back on iDevBlogADay! If ever you needed proof that it serves as the prunes to a lazy man’s blogging habit, I am it. Thanks again to Miguel for all his hard work on this.

I’ve been keeping up with reading the iDevBlogADay entries, as well as many other inspirational and relevant posts. I probably read too many blogs in fact, which can make it hard to work out who to trust. Seemingly everyone is offering their advice on how to become successful on the App Store, how to make it in life, how to get things done better, but I’ve come to realise that you always need to be careful to realise that it’s only ever one person’s opinion, and no matter how successful they may be, what worked for them won’t necessarily work for you.

Marketing for example is something most of us probably suck at. There are lots of good posts talking about how to market your app, and they offer some good advice that you should follow. But if anyone ever tells you they have a formula for success, then they’re lying. Take Flying Cats Game for example. I think I ticked a lot of boxes with what you should do to get the word out about your app. I made a good game that people enjoy playing, I tweeted about it from the word go, I got it out to beta testers and got their feedback, I added social leaderboards, I set up a Facebook page, I set up a Touch Arcade post, I made a gameplay video and put it on YouTube, I tweeted about all of that, I blogged, and I sent promo codes and press packs to all the big review sites. And the result? FCG’s sales have been below my lowest estimates. As I’m trying to set this up as a business, sales and the bottom line is my primary metric for measuring success, and so far, in this respect FCG has failed.

There is no formula for success. Not even successful people can tell you what it is. But I’ll give you my opinion on why FCG has slipped into the obscure 0-2 downloads per day section of the market. I think it’s precisely because it’s a good game.

I’m not suggesting that bad games are the way forward — certainly not. But the fact is that good doesn’t cut it anymore in this market. Just being good is dull, it’s what everyone else is doing and it won’t make you stand out. You might get lucky being good, and get featured by Apple, but that’s an incredibly risky strategy and not the foundation for building a business. What you need is something remarkable.

Ironic really that in my last iDevBlogADay post, I claimed that originality was overrated, and that creating magic was key. Didn’t I tell you not to trust blogs already? I think I was wrong. Magic is crucial, but playing it safe is fatal. Just because Nintendo keep the same characters a lot, doesn’t mean they’re not doing some of the most innovative gameplay out there. And because they’re massive, the need to innovate is less anyway. If you’re one or two people, amongst thousands of other ones and twos, you need to be remarkable.

But this is all just my opinion, and I may change my mind later! What I do know is that I need to try a different strategy, because the last strategy didn’t work. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result, right? The problem I’ve found with accepting nothing less than the remarkable, is that it feeds procrastination, which has characterised the month of January for me. I want to have a clear direction and a clear vision before I set out on the next project, so I’ve been taking time to regroup and reassess everything. How I make things remarkable, I don’t know, and I certainly don’t know how you make things remarkable yourself. But if you set out to be average, you set out to fail. In my opinion, anyway.

Goals for 2011

3 January 2011

I thought I’d share some of the things I’m aiming to achieve in 2011. I’ve tried to make them SMART goals, which means I’ll have no excuse not to look back this time next year and assess how far I’ve come. Goal setting can be very powerful when done right — I’m intentional about wanting to grow my business, so it’s a vital activity to make sure things are progressing and I’m not stagnating.

Release four unique games

This will be a big step up from the two in 2010. I want to make sure I’m outputting games at a reasonable rate, but not so crazily fast that the quality will suffer. I feel four is a good number for this, as it’s certainly stretching, but still achievable. I also want to do some fairly big updates to Brainz and Flying Cats Game.

Games to account for a minimum of one third of total income

Currently freelancing makes up about 95% of my income. One of my more short term goals for Rizer is to work on my own projects full time and ditch freelancing, but that can’t happen until I grow the games side of the business significantly. Getting more games out will help I’m sure, but I also need to improve my marketing skills and think differently to make this happen.

Submit a game to IGF

I can’t see any reason why this wouldn’t be a great idea. It’ll bring added coverage to future projects and also I think it will help the games themselves to keep this in mind. I want to build a business not by jumping on band waggons and producing crap, but by producing games of true creativity and quality, and I think keeping IGF submission as a consideration will help me to keep on this track.

Attend two developer conferences

I want to do this primarily to get out and meet new people. So much in life and business comes from the people you’re connected to, so I want to increase and strengthen these connections. Things seem a little bit limited in the UK, so the chances are these might both be World of Love – I’m already booked in for the one in January, so that’s a good start!

Spend money

The guys at Retro Dreamer did a great post about this a while ago, so I’m planning to make it happen this year. My laptop is nearly three years old and showing signs of age, so I think a new one would be a good thing to plan for. Also, planning an iPad 2 and iPhone 5, and a few enhancements to make make my office set up more ergonomic.

Consume more

I’m not talking about food – I think I do enough of that already! But I’ve realised that there are a lot of films I want to see, a lot of books I want to read, and a lot of games I want to play, but I don’t make time for that sort of stuff because I’d rather be working. The truth is that I’m limiting my creative input, and so limiting my creative output. So (being specific and measurable), I want to watch one film per week, play a game every week and read one book every month.

Looking forward to a great year ahead!

Happy Christmas!

24 December 2010

Flying Cats Christmas card

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you all have a great and relaxing time with your families. Thanks to everyone for their support this year – it’s been a great one, but I can’t wait for 2011! Remember to check out Flying Cats Game if you haven’t already, for a bit of thoroughly non-festive fun!

Flying Cats Game: Now on the App Store!

20 December 2010

Just in case you might have missed it, Flying Cats Game is now on the App Store! Here’s a handy link to the app, and some lovely screenshots for you. You can also check out the Flying Cats Game page and view the trailer.

 
 

Flying Cats Game: Developing in the Open

17 December 2010

As soon as I started playing about with ideas for Flying Cats Game, I decided that I wanted to make the whole process open. I’d previously been worried about people stealing my ideas, but reading this article, among others (thanks to @dwsjoquist for the link), really opened my eyes. The truth is the chances of someone stealing your idea are incredibly low, and besides, what is there to stop someone ripping you off after release? Developing in the open is great for creating a bit of buzz, but I found from experience that there were two other excellent benefits.

Feedback

I have zero years experience in the games industry. The only stuff I made before Brainz was all at Uni, where the end product never needs to be particularly amazing. But out there in the land of Twitter, even amongst the people I follow, there must be hundreds of years of combined experience and some expert advice. And even people with less experience than me can offer some really great insights, just from having that different perspective. A couple of people told me that one of the images I posted on Twitter looked kind of scary (@chrismwaite, @celsiusgs), which made me stop and think. I was thinking of a game with monsters, but I wanted it to be cute. They looked so much like cats anyway that I decided to just make them cats. Without this outside opinion, I may never have taken this direction, and I think the game is much better for it. I also had a couple of people (@spritestack, @GeorgeSealy) point out that in the mock-ups I did that the cats were too big, so I made them smaller, which really helps gameplay.

Encouragement

Working on a game by yourself, it’s tough to stay motivated, and you start to question whether anything you do is actually any good. The fact that I had some great feedback about the art style (thanks @CocoaGeek and @chrismwaite!), and some really positive comments about the gameplay video (from @mysterycoconut, @celsiusgs and @madgarden) mean that I’m really positive about launch. Also, putting something out there that people like and want to see finished has really helped to drive me to completion.

I think the only thing I’ll do differently in the future is be more open! It’s great interacting with other developers about the whole development process, and harnessing the insight and encouragement of others has been invaluable.

Flying Cats Game: The Release Early, Release Often Strategy

16 December 2010

If you’ve not heard of the “release early, release often” software design philosophy before, I think it’s fairly self explanatory, but I’ll let you read up on Wikipedia if you’d like to. It originated in Eric Raymond’s essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, where Raymond discusses the benefits in open-source software development, but I think there are lessons to be learnt in making commercial, digitally distributed games as well. Flying Cats Game is a bit of an experiment to see if this can work in this context, but I think there are already examples on the App Store of this being a massively successful strategy.

When a game ships on a disc then obviously there has to be a final version that goes out that is the finished article, but digital distribution allows you to iterate far more easily, and so also allows a fundamentally new approach to game design. What I’m talking about in this context is certainly not about shipping something unfinished or not a full game in it’s own right, or shipping something with major bugs (so quite a distinction from how Raymond applies the term). My approach with Flying Cats Game has been to limit the scope of the game to it’s core essentials, polish that to a high quality and ship that. Then depending on the success of the game, I’ll add more features as I go.

I think this approach has a couple of really key advantages. One is that you limit the time you spend on the creating version 1.0 of the game, thus minimising the risk involved. Of course, if making games is just a hobby for you, then this might be less of an issue, but I still think it’s worth taking into consideration. The other main advantage that I can see is that big updates generate buzz, and adding lots of new features for free could potentially make your customers happier and more interested in your game in the long term. The main disadvantage that I see is that having a strong launch seems to be important on the App Store. However, I think if you create something that is of a high quality, but stripped down to it’s bare essence, you can still achieve this, particularly in the casual games space.

So will it work? It kind of depends what you mean by work. It has certainly minimised the risk factor in creating a new game; that’s undeniable. If Flying Cats Game is not a success, then maybe it wouldn’t have been a success if it had extra features either. I guess we’ll see. What you leave in and what you skip for version 1.0 I think depends on your own opinion of what matters. For me it meant shipping something fun, with an excellent learning curve, power-ups, Game Center leaderboards, multi-tasking support, Retina display graphics, and obviously something stable and as bug free as I could make it. What I left out were achievements, Twitter and Facebook integration, multi-player, iPad support etc. The key is to make sure you have a fun and well polished core game.

But who am I to tell you this is a good idea? Flying Cats Game isn’t even out yet! Well let’s take a look at one of 2010′s big App Store successes, Fruit Ninja.

I’ve been doing some internet detective work to see how Halfbrick went about developing this massively successful game. It appears that version 1.0 only had what is now termed “Classic” mode, as well as some OpenFeint achievements. So what did the reviewers say? Well, Touch Arcade said “It’s so simple, that it’s hard to explain the appeal”, yet saw that it had appeal and gave it four stars. I’d say that’s a pretty good start, and it’s an app that sold well straight away. Building from that success, it looks like their first big update was 1.2, which brought Zen Mode, combos and some new fruit. For anyone that’s bought it since, it’s almost hard to believe that combos weren’t in the original game! Since then, separate updates have brought in multiplayer, Game Centre leaderboards and achievements, and most recently (after the adding in a placeholder menu banana to tease us!) Arcade Mode. Also along the way have come separate iPad and Android apps. The game has really transformed since it first started life back in April.

Another great advantage to this approach is that you can more easily develop a dedicated fan base who are eager for the next update. Not only that, but what you put in the game can be moulded by your user requests, meaning that you end up with a product that is more and more attractive to the marketplace. Halfbrick said on the release of Fruit Ninja 1.2:

“We are listening! Every suggestion and every review from Fruit Ninja fans is carefully considered by our development team and we are committed to ensuring your game is of the highest quality! Today marks the biggest update yet for Fruit Ninja, which includes enough additions to DOUBLE the content of the entire original game!”

This is a phenomenal way to develop a rapport with your customers. Imagine how chuffed you’d be if you were one of the many that suggested feature-x, and it actually made it in to the next release! Interestingly, Halfbrick increase that sense of ownership by referring to it as “your game”. To quote The Cathedral and the Bazaar, “The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.” Of course, it’s also important not to mess with your users by making previous high scores irrelevant, or wipe leaderboards completely, so consider these issues from the start.

So this is the approach I’ve decided to take with Flying Cats Game, and probably subsequent games as well. I think there are big questions that I haven’t figured out yet, like how this applies to less casual games, where the genre dictates a larger initial investment in time, but while I’m focused on casual games, it’s the approach I’m going to take. I’ll be sure to let you know how things pan out.

Flying Cats Game: The Path of Inspiration

16 December 2010

This is the first of my Flying Cats Game pre-release blog posts. Firstly a bit of bad news. Today one of my beta testers uncovered an issue with one of the game’s menu graphics which was wrong on Retina displays. So that means back of the queue for me, and a pre-Christmas release is looking very unlikely. I happen to believe in miracles though, so we’ll see. And the lesson has been learned — I think any future submissions will need to go through a checklist.

Anyway, onto the good stuff! One of the things I love about indie games is that they reflect the character of the developer, and like any artistic creation, are a product of what the creator has consumed. I wanted to highlight some of the things that I’m conscious of inspiring Flying Cats Game to give an insight into the development process. So in no particular order…

Other Games

One of my favourite iOS games is Fruit Ninja. It’s fun and simple, and the general idea of things flying across the screen that you need to swipe started me thinking about other gameplay mechanics. I think also that I had in mind shooters, like the skeet event on Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games. Finally, I loved the art style in Linkoidz by Retro Dreamer, and originally set out to create a space shooter. Obviously the end product has nothing to do with space, but that’s all part of the creative evolution process.

Videos

I saw this great video linked to on Twitter, right at the point I was considering art style. By the way, Jeremy Messersmith‘s music is available on a pay what you want basis, so if you like this track you should definitely check out his work.

Music

The Wall-E soundtrack is one of my favourite albums to work to, and on it are some of the classic songs that make up the soundscape to this amazing film. This includes the beautiful La Vie En Rose as performed by Louis Armstrong, and I thought early on that I wanted something similar for my game. I finally found a jazz piece by Bix Beiderbecke that is safely out of copyright. It may seem like an odd combination, but I like that, and the way something created 85 years ago can be a part of something so new gives it a real timeless quality. 

Cats

Undeniably, the arrival of my kitten, Shigeru Miyamoto (or Moto for short) to our house played a part in the theme of the game! I’ve always loved cats, though, and I think they have brilliant character that is perfect for games. Add to this my Studio Ghibli obsession, and films like Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns and My Neighbour Totoro, that give cats that mystical quality, and they become an irresistible choice to feature in a game. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief insight into how my all these things things fused together to make something, that I hope in it’s own right is creative. Maybe Flying Cats Game might even inspire someone else in some way…