Deep Plaid One guy trying to make some interesting decisions

This blog is being “sunsetted.” Probably a word.

Posted on November 4, 2012

I hereby "sunset" this blog. (That's a Zynga euphemism for "close down.")
There is, however, a new Tumblr-based blog, which I totally promise to update more often, albeit with usually shorter posts! You can find it here:
http://deep-plaid.tumblr.com/
Please switch your RSS feed to it or whatever. Thanks!

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On Business Decisions for Indie Games

Posted on September 10, 2012

There's been a lot of controversy lately about Steam, Greenlight, and their decision to put a $100 fee on submissions of indie games to Greenlight.

It's been hard for me to pin down my own feelings on all this, until I realized that they were already summarized by Jon Blow in a talk he did a year and a half ago.

When asked by a student about how he made the decisions surrounding selling his game on Steam and the Humble Indie Bundle, Blow answered:

It's not that important of a question. If you get to the point where you're actually asking yourself 'should I sell my game for cheap on Steam, because more people will buy it?', that is a really good problem to have! Because it presupposes that you finished a program, that the thing is playable, and that people will want it. All of which are much MUCH more difficult than making the right decision about where to sell something. I'd say focus on those things. … I really cannot impress upon you enough how difficult a thing it is, and how rewarding it is when you manage to do it.

[You can find this quote in this presentation, around the 48 minute, 22 second mark.]

If you read this as "if you build it, they will come", you're not really reading it. Jon is saying that making a great game is such a difficult endeavor that it's about 1000 times as difficult as making a decision of what platform to be on. (Exercise for the reader: how long does it take you to make a great game? How long does it take you to raise $100? If you think the ratio is smaller than 500-to-1 then you are probably majorly underestimating the time it will take to make your game... or, your game probably isn't as great as you think.)

Actually, I'm going to contribute some original opinion of my own here... though I think it's one that is partly implicit in Jon's statement above. If you are worrying about the precise details of how and where you'll sell your indie game, and your game is less than 75% finished, then stop worrying and go work on your game. I say this for several reasons:

  1. You still have much, MUCH harder problems to solve, and you'll have nothing to release until you solve them. Go solve them.
  2. If you think your game is less than 75% finished, that probably means that your game is less than 50% finished. This is a good rule of thumb in general.
  3. Steam is only ever going to accept the top 5% or so of finished indie games; this is all they've ever accepted. Sharing your game when it's not even close to finished seems like an exercise in futility.
  4. By the time you finish your game, there's a good chance that the sales options available will have dramatically changed.

This last point is important. I've been working on an indie project since I left OMGPOP in March. During this time, within just two days, the following things happened:

  1. Steam announced Greenlight
  2. The OUYA kickstarter was launched and funded

    Each of these events completely changed the possibilities for how I might sell the game I'm making. Luckily, my game is relatively platform-agnostic, partly so that I can minimize the effort I spend thinking about things like this until it matters. Even now, I regard it as still being too early to worry about how I'll sell my game and which of these platforms I'll be on... if all this changed in 2 days, what else could change in the months/years remaining before the game is ready to launch?

    Why worry about the best place to be on a landscape when that landscape is made of quicksand and shifts every day? If your plan is dependent on being at a certain point on that landscape, you'll probably fail because the landscape will change before you can launch. Instead, focus on making a great game first and foremost, and making sure that it could fit in at many places on that landscape. Deciding between those options will be less scary and important in the end... and the inevitable changes in the interim won't sink your project.

    Eisenhower said "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." In other words, think about your plans... but don't pretend that any one plan is as valuable as the fact that you're thinking through all the possible plans.

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    New Game: “Schrodinger’s Kittens”

    Posted on August 27, 2012

    Over the weekend I made a little experimental game about quantum mechanics. This was a good way of taking a break from my "real" projects and recharging my batteries, creatively.

    A game about quantum mechanics, plurality of worlds, and kitten genocide. With apologies to Canabalt.

    Play the game here.

    Here's the Ludum Dare page for the game.

    So. I kinda made this game on accident...

    On being a “Gameplay Programmer”

    Posted on August 17, 2012

    My profession is: "Gameplay Programmer."

    However, some people may not understand exactly what that is. Allow me to expound on it for a moment.

    My job is to take the abstract design ideas about what would make for a fun game, and create the lines of code and math formulae which turn those ideas into something you can actually play with.

    My job is to engineer a system of moving parts. The trick is that my systems all have one special moving part: a human mind, experiencing joy.

    My job is to take the dozens of decisions made by game designers about what will make for a fun game, then implement them... and make hundreds of tiny decisions about that fun which the designers never thought about.

    My job is to read the minds of game designers and what they intended; and to read the mind of game players and what they'll expect. (It helps a lot that I am a game designer, and a game player.)

    My job is to make the part of the game that people play.

    My job is to create mathematical structures that evoke emotion.

    My job is to create art that people can interact with.

    My job is sculpting gameplay.

    In summary: I have the best job ever.

    Thanks for your time!

    My Dear Esther “word-spew review”

    Posted on June 20, 2012

    I sat down and wrote out my thoughts on Dear Esther for a mailing list I'm on. I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing here.

    ...

    Dear Esther, like the work of Tale of Tales, isn't really a game at all, and shouldn't be approached as one... it's an "experience" first and foremost. I'm fundamentally interested in games; but I also sometimes have to remind myself that no matter what creative work you're making, you're first and foremost making an "experience". Seeking out things like Dear Esther, which are purely experiential, is an important exercise for me, to focus on these elements (and stop trying to "see through the code" and focus on pure game mechanics).

    Connectrode 2.0 Update!

    Posted on May 29, 2012

    Three months ago I thought the story of Connectrode was over. And I was okay with it. I knew that, if and when I ever designed/developed another indie game, it would be something new, and more ambitious than a tile-matching puzzle game.

    But then Zynga effectively asked me to give up control of it if I wanted to stay employed, and I said no, and then I shared the story on Gamasutra. The story then got picked up - much more widely than I expected. And the response was almost wholeheartedly supportive, which surprised and moved me. The week after, some drama exploded on Twitter, and there was another groundswell of support.

    And though I expected a spike in the sales of Connectrode from sharing the story, I thought it would be in the low hundreds; instead it ended up being in the low thousands! The screenshot above is a representative sample of my Twitter feed that day: it turned out that a lot of these sales were from people buying the game as a way of saying: "You rock, I support your decision and your values."

    And that was... unbelievably moving. I don't have words to describe how it felt. I talked to my partner, Dale Austin, and we decided the best way to express our gratitude was by spending some time improving Connectrode.

    Turning Down Zynga [Finally Re-blogging]

    Posted on May 20, 2012

    [This op-ed about my choice to move on from OMGPOP/Zynga was published on Gamasutra about two months ago. I'm finally reposting it here - without further comment, mostly for archival purposes. I've just (finally) submitted version 2.0 of Connectrode to Apple - a "thank you" update for the outpouring of support we received in response to this article - and with that done, I'll be updating this blog more often soon...!]

    Millions of people are playing mobile game sensation Draw Something right now; and every game developer heard last week that the game's developer, OMGPOP, was acquired by Zynga. Every business news outlet has reported that OMGPOP was acquired along with all developers.

    But that's not quite accurate: there was one OMGPOP developer who didn't accept employment with Zynga -- and that was me. It made perfect financial sense for me to join, but in my case, Zynga asked for too much.

    "I hope they don't make me choose between Connectrode and a job," I told my wife Laura. "I really hope that they don't turn it into that choice."

    All Games Are About Choices

    Posted on September 24, 2011

    Today I read a very thoughtful blog post by a game designer who I greatly admire, but with whom I absolutely disagree: Chris DeLeon wrote a scathing dismissal of the argument that games like Galaga are based on interesting decisions. (That argument was itself presented in response to Chris' previous blog post, titled "Many Games Are Not About Choices.")

    I'd like to respond with an assertion: that Galaga really is a game based on interesting decisions; and that, in any game which includes anything that could possibly described as "challenge" (in other words, virtually all games), the gameplay is in fact entirely based around interesting decisions. My argument is that we should take Sid Meier's definition that "a good game is a series of interesting decisions" (which Chris dismisses as only applicable to certain types of games) and apply it in a deeper and more holistic way than it's typically applied; and that doing so will show how it is possibly the most important, fundamental law in the field of game design. Recognizing this may involve rethinking one's definition of the term "decision"; but I believe that thinking this way reveals certain fundamental truths about game design which seem to elude even many experienced game designers.

    Mario's resume, like mine, is varied - though none of my jobs' descriptions have been "killing baby monkeys." Yet.

    Quick Connectrode Update

    Posted on July 30, 2011

    Deep Plaid Games' latest game, Connectrode, has had considerable success to date; I thought I'd post a compilation of some quick data and links:

    • We launched on July 2nd (not the best timing as many games were either launching, on sale, or releasing in-game specials over July 4th weekend).
    • We were reviewed by the Austin Chronicle on their blog, on July 13th.
    • We were reviewed by TouchArcade on July 18th.
    • We were featured by Apple (in "New & Notable" on the App Store) on July 21st.
    • Joystiq featured us in their "Portalbliss" column on July 27th.
    • Several other major app/game sites have done reviews, all of them positive.
    • Flixel creator Adam "Atomic" Saltsman tweeted about the game and mentioned it during a recent appearance on the TouchArcade podcast.
    • The game has hovered around the #10 position in both the Puzzle Games and Strategy Games categories on the App Store since being featured by Apple.
    • The game's peaks (to date) in the All Games category at ranking #70, and at #125 in all apps overall.
    • All of this is for the U.S. App Store. We've seen comparable success in the Australian, Canadian, and U.K. app stores, though with different timings.

    The game is doing well financially as well, and the enthusiasm in most of the reviews and on Twitter is both humbling and exciting.

    We're still planning an update with volume control support, and GameCenter support for leaderboards. There's also many requests for a harder difficulty mode, which is something I'm thinking a lot about and which may make it into the 1st or 2nd update we do, we'll see...!

    Fun times!

    Why Connectrode costs $.99 (…and why it shouldn’t have to)

    Posted on July 5, 2011

    Over the weekend I released a game that represents many hours of work, most from my own spare time: an indie puzzle game for iOS titled Connectrode. The release of the game is a big moment for me and I could probably write 1,000 pages about its development...! But instead I'll restrain myself and just use the game as a springboard to blog about some related game development topics I've wanted to blog about. Today I'll talk about the business side of things... and especially the state of the iOS App Store.

    I'm selling Connectrode for $.99... and though that price is a fact I've long accepted, that doesn't mean it's one I'm happy about. The fact is that the current state of the App Store left me no choice but to sell my game for $.99. Why is that the case, and how did the App Store get that way? Is the price erosion that's occurred there an inevitable fact of digital distribution, or could another system have prevented that phenomenon? Is my game really worth less than a pack of Altoids?

    I absolutely believe that I've made a very high-quality puzzle game, worthy of comparison to classics of the genre such as Tetris and Dr. Mario, as well as modern gems like Drop7. I'm also very proud of what I've accomplished just in designing a fun abstract puzzle game: creating any type of gameplay that is truly "easy to learn, difficult to master" is a difficult feat. I'm also very proud of the work that my ragtag team of Austin-based indies has done in creating excellent art and audio for the game (I particularly love the music, by David Pencil, who did the soundtrack for Penny Arcade: The Series season two).

    Yet the fact remains: I'm selling the game for less than the cost of a burrito! How did things come to this?

    The current state of the iPhone market has been described well before, and it's been this way for a long time: read How to Price Your iPhone App Out of Existence from 2008, or this post from 2009 by Adam Saltsman about Canabalt pricing instead. (Small world: Connectrode uses the Flixel iOS engine that Adam's company used for Canabalt and which he was kind enough to later open-source.)

    But the bottom line is that I have little choice but to release for $.99, and I feel a bit dirty about it... and not just because I'm giving away a quality product virtually for free. I see developers launching quality games at $.99 as increasingly damaging, not just to the iOS market, but to the entire games industry. Reggie of Nintendo raised these concerns, and I think that such statements are more than just Nintendo lashing out at its mobile-game competitors: it's the perspective of a company that's been in this business a long time, pointing out business practices that really are not only unsustainable, but actively damaging.

    A big part of why this problem came about is simply that many small indie app and game developers are not very business-savvy. Their understanding of economics goes as far as "if I sell my game for less than this other guy, I'll probably sell more; and since it doesn't cost me anything more to make each copy, I can easily make up the difference in volume."

    There's several flaws with this logic, and one of the big ones is that price sends a signal.

    • If game A is $5 and game B is $1, customers are going to take this alone as a sign that game A is of higher quality, and worth more, than game B.
    • Even taken alone, if game B costs $1, customers just aren't going to perceive it as valuable. We can't sell games for less than a pair of socks forever and expect people to treat what we're producing as works of real value (commercially or otherwise).

    My concern (and Nintendo's) is that this perception is carrying over beyond the mobile app market; when polished games stuffed with dozens of hours of gameplay (such as Angry Birds) are being sold for less than a box of Kleenex, how long can we expect people to continue paying $60 for a AAA that provides dozens of hours of gameplay?

    We're not just eroding prices, we're eroding the public perception of the value of what we do.

    So what would a digital-distribution market look like where this decline wouldn't have happened?

    A lot of people complain about the App Store being too much of a closed platform, and that it is too tightly controlled by Apple. But my contention is the opposite: Apple (who really does know better) should have controlled the market more, to prevent the classic "Tragedy of the Commons" which has run its course. The market could have been healthier for everyone if Apple had not let developers simply release their game for the minimum price. Instead they could have:

    1. Required developers to release their games for something close to the maximum price the market would bear, say $10 (depending on the scope and nature of the game).
    2. After a while, encourage the developer to put the game on sale for $5 briefly; and help the developer arrange for the game to be sold in "value bundles." Note that these are always couched as being a sale; this sends a completely different message to consumers that doesn't degrade perception of the game's value.
    3. Eventually, as time passes, the price on a game could be gradually dropped, until it reaches a "bargain bin" minimum price of $.99.

    This is the strategy that 99% of businesses actually follow in pricing products, because 1) it actually captures the most money in the market and leaves the least money on the table; and 2) it maintains maximum public perception of what the products are worth. And guess what, one digital distribution market has done exactly this, to terrific success: Steam.

    Unfortunately when it comes to business decisions, I have to be a realist, not an idealist; I decided to release my game for $.99 because that's the reality of the current App Store market, and because I believed I had a product whose quality gave it a chance of being one of the lucky few. Pricing my game higher wouldn't accomplish anything to stop this trend... But what I can do is try to draw attention to the problem; point out the alternative pricing strategies we developers could have followed; and hope that future digital distribution markets learn from the mistakes of the App Store.

    Further reading: