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!