Tuesday 31 July 2012

Project Announcement: PAX10 Nominee, The Swapper

This is one of my favourite parts - getting to talk about something new. When that something new is already winning awards and is looking in good shape it's even better.

The Swapper is a 2D puzzle platformer with a certain sort of psychological, thinky tone that should explain why I'm working on it. More than that, the found-object-based visuals (clay, bits of bicycle etc) are just beginning to come together after months of narrative design work. It's Helsinki-based Facepalm Games' first game, and it's as solid a puzzle explorer as I've seen.

Another major reason I got involved was The Swapper's enviable status as one of the seven games to be backed by Indie Fund. I can only figure that those guys know their stuff, and that they conducted a far more thorough due diligence than I ever could.

It's been a lovely, tight script for me to have a crack at. At around 6 hours playtime we're only shooting for about 3,000 words of short, high-value text logs and dialogues. Combine that with a game editor that lets me  redraft text and test it on the fly and there's just no excuse for every word not being right. The game's concerned with the metaphysical and ethical ramifications of a device that clones people and lets them swap between bodies. I like that sort of thing, don't you know.

We've just begun the writing process, and the game world is taking on detail and meaning. At the end of the month the game's won us an exhibition spot at PAX Prime (31st August 2012), so we'll all be jetting off to Seattle to show the thing off. It's going to be my first experience of the US show circuit, and I'm looking forward to - for once - being able to come face to face with the people who play our games - and with any luck watching them have fun.

The game is due in 2013, and you can read more and check out screens & trailers in the official press release over at the Facepalm blog.

Saturday 21 July 2012

ir/rational Redux - Postmortem

My word. It's done better than I expected.  In under a fortnight...

  • ir/rational Redux is just about to hit 100,000 plays on Newgrounds
  • 300,000 plays web-wide
  • 4.11/5 stars user rating on Newgrounds
  • 6th highest scoring game this month
  • 40 pages of user reviews and comments

Play Session Stats
But let's look at some play stats rather than a bunch of self-congratulatory ones. Just under 50% of everyone is quitting out in 1-5 minutes. This sounds high, but doesn't particularly surprise me - I know the second I saw a massive page of text in a Flash game I'd consider quitting out; and if you make it past that to the second or third puzzle you're going to realise quickly enough whether or not the game's for you.

Once past the 5 minute barrier, though, there's a dip in the drop out rate and if you stay longer than 5 minutes chances are you'll stay longer than 10 too. I've got you hooked.

The average playtime for those that play past the first couple of puzzles is 15m-26m. This is great, because it means most people who play on, finish the game, or at least spend 20 minutes trying and then rage quit on level 7 or level 9 (difficulty spikes, bad design).

- 28% of everyone who lasts more than 5 minutes spends more than half an hour playing the game.
- 3% of the same take about an hour.

This are invaluable numbers when it comes to thinking about what's next for the concept. The biggest and most obvious hurdle is this - when you can't just adjust a value and give the bad guys twice as much HP, how do you manage the difficulty curve for a game which takes some people ten minutes, and some people 5x that?

Flash Marketing
I've learnt very quickly about flash game marketing during the last fortnight. Reddit is your friend, lover and guardian angel. My day 1 post on there - no doubt aided by my shameless credit name-dropping - immediately put me about 10,000 clicks ahead of everything else on the site. This in turn got me a daily prize and into the Hot New Games list. The clicks and good reviews I scored from there got me onto the front page. I'm now off the front page and the hot new games - and clicks have dropped off quickly - but the game should pick up again any day when it makes it onto the Best Games This Month list.

Netting some good website write-ups helped, especially when they came in the first week. Due to the way the portals feature games, you're better off with 50,000 plays in week 1 than with the same (or even more) spread out over a number of weeks.
"[I]t contains nifty logic puzzles, darkly amusing writing from Penumbra scribe Tom Jubert and has been reduxed so hard it looks and sounds brand new."Rock, Paper Shotgun 
"No doubt the central premise of ir/rational Redux could have come off as incredibly dry, but overall this is a supremely engaging work. A unique brand of dark philosophical humor is present throughout, and the puzzles manage the right balance of posing a challenge to advanced logicians, while remaining welcoming to the novice."JayIsGames
"The conclusions you have to reach are sometimes obvious, but the challenge of the game is figuring out how to reach them. While the game does take a brief, stupid side turn into the politics of video game censorship, most of the puzzles are amusingly high-minded."
"I can guarantee you've never played a puzzle or escape the room type flash game like this before so you are in for a treat."
A special shout out also needs to be made to Jay of JayIsGames for buying me the full version of the Clickteam game maker package so I could release the game unbranded. Massive compliment - that man knows his flash.

What I Learnt About Designing Games
(Or a list of all the crap I did wrong)

Difficulty & Designing Logic Puzzles
I approached the puzzles from the wrong direction. I started with a story, and tried to come up with logic puzzles that fed into it. As a result they feel crowbarred in - while they sit nicely with the story, the difficulty curve is all over the place, and worse: what makes those puzzles difficult is the way I've programmed the solutions, rather than the logic itself.

In the next game I'll begin with the logic, building complexity slowly, and set the game in a scenario more flexible in the opportunities it provides for puzzles.

Art is Important
I know, obvious, but I've been genuinely surprised by how polished people are finding the game - because behind the scenes, of course, it's all over the place. What's key here is this: this is essentially the same game I released three years ago, only with pretty pictures. The difference in response, though, has been massive. Good art is important.

How to do Flash Right
I've learnt a bit about the nitty gritty of Flash development as well. Don't get me wrong - I know nothing about Flash itself, but I know a bit more about alpha transparency and file compression and in-game ads and analytics. 
  • I know how to make a Flash game that's less than 18MB now (use as little alpha transparency as possible, use a non-lossy image format, don't store your text as image files, compress everything!). I also know you can make a successful Flash game at more than 5x the usual file size.
  • Implement Mochi for ads and analytics
  • Don't release buggy games
  • Don't use drag and drop software unless you really can't program (in which case do use it)
  • Do come up with a great idea and implement it to at least a mediocre standard.
  • KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

And What I Learnt About ir/rational as a Concept
The single most positive part of this whole experience is the sheer volume of player discussion and feedback. There is something fundamentally strong about this gameplay concept - it makes people feel smart, and it makes people want to talk about the game. I'm certain it's performing far better than it otherwise would simply because people are talking about it so much. On Newgrounds there are games with 3x as many plays as ir/rational, but with less than half as many comments. This game is a viral marketing gift. End of.

The other thing that players are really appreciating is the originality of the thing. I remember being in my early teens and discovering PCGamer magazine, and a new value in games: 'innovation'. Nowadays it feels a bit old hat to talk about it, but if I had a penny for every review along the lines of "I've never played anything like this, 5 stars" I'd have... well, more than the $100 dollars the ads have earned so far. There's a lot of clones and fluff on Flash portals - doing something smart and different picks you out from the crowd, even if you don't implement it that well.

What's Next?
I'm currently working on a development of the ir/rational DLC concept. Only very different. I'll know if it's going anywhere in a month or two.

You can play ir/rational at these fine places:

Monday 9 July 2012

ir/rational Walkthrough

The much requested walkthrough for ir/rational. I'm glad enough people are playing it to highlight how all over the place the difficulty curve is!

I've also included the logical symbol form of each argument (however you may find mistakes and changes here and there in those - they're just from my notes).

Sunday 8 July 2012

'Ask Me Anything', Monday 9th, 8pm EST

In the wake of ir/rational's modest success on newgrounds, and a sprawling reddit post that's mostly far too complementary, I was asked by the community to turn up for an AMA. I agreed, and then googled 'AMA' and was relieved to find out it's just reddit's term for a Q&A, and not some kind of perverse internet webcam thing.

As such, I shall be online for an hour or two from 8pm EST, Monday 9th July (that's tomorrow, and it's also 5pm West Coast and 1am UK). If anyone turns up I'll be answering questions on six years of games writing, ir/rational, Driver: San Francisco and other past projects, and just about anything else anyone cares to ask.

Hope to see you there.

UPDATE: You can find the AMA here.

ir/rational Redux Released!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that the suped up version of my old text-based logic game, ir/rational, is finally finished and has arrived on Newgrounds!

ir/rational Redux is half graphic novel and half logic puzzler. You find yourself in a locked room (inventive, huh?) and seek to escape - the challenge is not so much in the escape itself, but in proving deductively why you should bother at all. It's designed to introduce people to philosophy and a rigorous way of thinking, but also to challenge people's brains in fun sort of a way.

This version remains largely the same as the original in gameplay, but features entirely new visuals and sound, courtesy of Martin Santana (aeclipse mattaru) and Penumbra's Mikko Tarmia respectively, and a host of bug and polish fixes. Thanks to those guys it really is the game I meant to make in the first place. This is what it once looked like:

Right now the game's under community judgement at newgrounds, and if it gets enough votes it'll go onto the main site! 3 hours down and it's on the front page with over 1,000 plays! I hope you enjoy it, and if you do I'm sure you know what to do.

I hope taking the game into the browser and sticking it on a portal will win it a broader audience than the boring old .exe. However, it was always my hope that the core gameplay on show in ir/rational could really reach a far broader market. These sorts of puzzle are the sort of thing I'm sure could be added to the likes of soduko, crosswords and angry birds as a key component of commuters' pre-work iPhone entertainment, and this Flash release is very much a testing ground. If the game scores some good clicks I'll start looking at the options for bringing an all-new version to iPhone - if anyone in that sphere is interested in discussing things I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Silent Protagonists: A Unique Opportunity

I'm not the only person who wonders whether silent protagonists in games have overstayed their welcome. On the one hand, it's easy to see why they're so popular. Ever since Half-Life we've been convinced that players can better inhabit a virtual identity when there's no pre-scripted personality with which to compete for expression. Without a strong protagonist to make decisions and harbour motivations we can leave the player to fill in those gaps. Perhaps your Gordon Freeman wants to save the world, perhaps he's just interested in surviving the various unlikely scenarios he finds himself in. Maybe he's just shy.

Avatar's are also cheaper and 'easier'. With an unspeaking central character we don't have to worry about whether the player is standing on the other side of the room talking to a wall during a dialogue, nor do we have to take control away from them to prevent as much. We don't have to worry about whether the player knows who's speaking, or think about breaking to third-person. This is definately a view I've come to question.

What do avatars achieve?

I'm certain there are good contexts for avatars, and less good ones, but from experience it seems as if uncharacterised protagonists have simply become the default for first-person games. That should worry any writer, because often enough its results would seem ridiculous to anyone not bred on its rules.

Do avatars really help players to identify with their character? How does something like The Witcher 2 (where players are given control of their character's decisions, even though Geralt very much has his own personality that can't be overwritten) compare with Mass Effect 3 (where lines are written much more neutrally) and Half-Life 2 (no control and no dialogue)?

For me, the presiding feature isn't so much about character as about control. I don't feel like I'm competing with Geralt for expression in The Witcher, and I feel closer and more involved with his story than with Gordon's. I'm pleased to say that game mechanics have more say over my emotions than script delivery. Personality isn't something we're accustomed to being easily able to change in real life; the same is not true of the decisions we make.

In avatars' defense

However, the silent protagonist has a place in the grand scheme, and that's the point I want to make here. I'm currently working on an indie game that I hope to announce in the next month, and on that we began with an assumption of a silent protagonist, assessed it, and decided it fit nicely with what we were trying to do. There's a minimalist tone to this game, the soundtrack is ambient and the NPC dialogue un-voiced; but further, questions of identity and independence are central to the narrative. A silent protagonist (or, perhaps, one who can't / won't speak through most of the game) sits well with those ideals.

What struck me, though, was this: how many other narrative mediums offer this sort of flexibility in stylistic choice? Could you make a film in which the central character never speaks? Perhaps, but I think you'd struggle.

We talk a lot about the limitations of games as a narrative medium - lower quality visuals, player autonomy etc - and not so much about what makes it uniquely exciting. Silent protagonists may be over used, but they have a time and a place. I think it's pretty awesome to be in an industry that allows us to try crazy stuff like this and to discover just where that time and place is.