The Indie Gamer Chick Mailbag: April 21, 2014

I typically get a lot of questions on Twitter about random game stuff. Thoughts on the indie scene, on mainstream gaming, etc. I’m quickly learning that Twitter is a lousy place to answer any questions. It’s tough to explain complex opinions in 140 characters or less. So I figured I would start a mailbag feature. I announce it, and suddenly I go from getting questions every few minutes to getting no questions at all. Grumble. Well, a few guys did ask some stuff, so I’ll give the whole mailbag thing a try.

@LostScarf asks

Do you think Indie games would be more successful if they took the time to add Online Co-op, or it wouldn’t matter?

It depends on the game. Some titles really could have benefited from a more robust online experience. But there are roadblocks if you attempt it. On XBLIG, getting online working was overly difficult. Developers did not have access to Xbox Live when making games that would utilize Xbox Live. But even when you’re not developing for a system that actively seems to be trolling its own developers, optimizing an online co-op experience is extremely difficult. Especially if you give a shit about the emotional and psychological experience of your game. There’s almost no way to measure how effective your work is in those areas, especially if your concept involves two strangers working together. It’s a leap of faith.

Does it make a difference in a game’s sales? I’m not totally convinced. My favorite aspect of Terraria was playing it with Brian on two PS3s and two TVs. We also very much enjoyed sharing some of our extra plunder with my fans on Twitter. Hell, I met my best friend Bob that way. But, I was surprised to learn that most of the Terraria fans that follow me on Twitter never played it co-op at all. That’s not that uncommon with many indies that have an optional co-op mode. So I guess, unless a game is designed specifically with online co-op in mind, it won’t make a big enough difference that anyone should lose sleep over it.

@iilusionofchaos asks

If you could change one thing about your favorite game, what would it be?

My favorite game ever is WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgame$ for Game Boy Advance. It just got re-released on Wii U’s Virtual Console. Easy answer here: I wish it had online leaderboards.

@TerrorSkwirl asks

Who/what do you think is the most well written character in recent memory?

Clem from Walking Dead. Her actions, speaking style, reactions to situations, and emotional state all feel like a real person. The strange thing is, there are a lot of secondary characters in the Walking Dead games that feel like lazy stereotypes, if not outright parodies. There’s just enough of those type of characters that you wouldn’t expect to see such an incredibly authentic character emerge. Clem is a real person in a real zombie apocalypse.

I’ll give a close second to Balloon from Doki-Doki Universe. Her undying love for protagonist QT3 was so moving and, again, authentic. Doki Doki was, as of yet, the only game I streamed my entire play-session on Twitch. I had some tough guys admit they were tearful as the ending between QT3 and Balloon played out. No violence. No cursing. No high-stakes. Just love and admiration between two friends, and it was more real than many of cinemas highest-paid actors are capable of delivering.

@Scott_A_Bennett asks

if you could only change one thing about the indie scene what would it be?

The perception that the community is too exclusive for newcomers to jump in. I think people expect the scene to be populated by anti-social, standoffish artsy types. They exist, but they’re very much the minority. The indie scene at large is so very welcoming and encouraging to newcomers. Hell, you don’t even have to be an active developer. I’ve never made a game, never will, and I have a site that, more often than not, doesn’t speak highly of the games I play. If the general perception of the indie scene were true, I would have been run out of town a week after I arrived. Instead, I’ve found an endless stream of new friends and fantastic relationships. And I’m certainly not alone in this type of experience with indies. That is the story that we need to make sure gets told. Unlike a lot of other things I wish would change, this one is very easily doable.

@Rabite890 asks

do you find the reports about the number of steam games that go unplayed/uninstalled to be as bad as some do?

Whenever I go grocery shopping, if I’m hungry when I go, you can bet the shopping cart is going to be overflowing full of all kinds of stuff I would normally not pick up. Then it will linger in our kitchen cabinets until it goes past the  expiration date.

That’s probably what happens with Steam, or hell, any platform when a sale hits. I have 217 PSN games on my PlayStation 3 and there’s at least 40 I’ve never booted up. I either got them with PlayStation Plus, or I bought them when they were on sale and just never got around to playing them. I do it on my Vita too, then the shitty, too small memory card fills up and I have to start deleting stuff. I can always redownload it any time, of course, but I probably won’t. It’s impulsive behavior from people with too much disposable income, but by no means indicative of any problem on the indie scene.

And finally, @Bonedwarf asks

I’ll give you a tough one. You can give 12 words of advice to all aspiring indie devs. What are they?

Nothing will go exactly as you envision, so be patient and humble.

(points at the screen and counts the words silently)

Damn, I’m good.

Well, I had fun doing this. If you guys had fun reading it, just send me a tweet with the hashtag #IGCMailbag and we’ll do it again. It will help keep the content on this site going when I’m post seizure and unable to get my game on.

Like my new logo? The gentleman who designed it, Kenneth Seward Jr., is for hire! Visit his site and check him out on Twitter. Reasonable rates, awesome work!

Still here? Cool. I have a new blog that will contain my non-gaming related ravings.

 

Tales from the Dev Side: XNA, XBLIG, and Me by Michael Neel

XNA, XBLIG, and Me (aka The Story of GameMarx)

by Michael C. Neel of GameMarx.com

Tales from the Dev SideIn November 2008, the same month Xbox Live Community Games launched, I organized a geek dinner.  I wanted to make sure there was some real geekery involved, so two days before the dinner I downloaded Microsoft’s XNA Game Studio.  Until that weekend I had never developed a game.

This is not to say I never thought about it.  I have been reading about game development since the early 90’s.  My favorite topic is implementation of artificial intelligence.  By 2008 I had read at least 10 books on game programming and installed the DirectX SDK on three separate occasions.  Generally the process was install DirectX, follow some basic tutorials, see the effort required to make an actual game, loose interest.

XNA was different.  In two days I went from knowing nothing to having a fully working Atari 2600 Combat clone.  I went to the geek dinner with more than just some example code, I had a working game.  I never got to share much code though.  Some people brought kids and the kids wanted to play the game non-stop.  They fully enjoyed this crude little game and got too loud shouting exclamations of fun for the other patrons.  A game that I made!  Granted I stole 100% of the gameplay but seeing the kids faces I was  hooked.  This is the drug that makes indie game developers, aka people willing to starve making something that will make them no money.

Around this time I remember looking at the games in Xbox Live Community Games (now Xbox Live Indie Games).  There was some weird junk like In The Pit (a game with no graphics) and sin(Surfing) (more tech demo than game).  There was also fun games like Weapon of Choice (Contra inspired shooter) and Blow (artistic physics puzzle game by yes, that David Flook).  It was a bizarre freak show of gaming that welcomed everyone to join it.  That has always been best thing about XBLIG, anyone can share their game.  To paraphrase the mis-attributed Voltaire quote, “I think your game is shit, but I’ll defend to the death your right to publish it.”

It would be a year before I could focus on game development again.  I had just launched CodeStock, and had CodeStock 2009 to plan.  I wasn’t completely passive however, in the between time I talked Dylan Wolf into forming FuncWorks with me.  Dylan is by far one of the best programmers I’ve known (also, not found of me linking that post).  We work well together, never clashing on egos.  Probably because he accommodates my ego and I don’t notice.  Shorty there after, acknowledging we need a graphic artist, we add my then girlfriend now wife Cicelie.

As CodeStock 2009 wrapped, we focused on game development (after a brief attempt at a t-shirt site for Cicelie).  With the experience of hosting the Chainsaw Buffett podcast I launched the Feel the Func podcast.  This turned out to be the smartest thing I did, though it was just a side project at the time.  I also did a really dumb thing, common among new game developers.  I made a teaser video for a game that four years later still is nowhere near done.

It doesn’t look like much, but as a developer I had created a model, animated that model (which is why the walk cycle sucks), rendered it in game, moved it with a controller, and blended the animation with user input (turning the torso).  I wish I had a video of Cicelie’s model moving (the mech screenshot at the end) because she did a much better job than I.

In the next few months we began to realize the size of scope required for ROCS.  My oldest daughter wanted a game she had been playing at school for her birthday called Rumis.  I suggested we pause on ROCS and create a game based on Rumis called IncaBlocks.  I also decided I was not under enough stress and signed a publishing contract for my first (and only) eBook the XNA 3D Primer.  Both were completed in the next three months.

I learned a lot in those three months.  First, I have no desire to be an author even though I enjoy writing.  Second, I suck at game design.

IncaBlocks flopped, and flopped hard.  Not even a dead cat bounce.  The best thing I can say about IncaBlocks is it wasn’t ROCS.  If I had taken my dream game and killed it with the mistakes I made on IncaBlocks I don’t think I could have recovered.  I had little emotional investment in IncaBlocks and it was easy to do a cold, clinical autopsy.  Final verdict?  The game is not fun and there is no awareness of XBLIG even within the Xbox community.

I wasn’t sure what to do about the first problem, but I had an idea on the second and GameMarx was born.  The idea was to create an XBLIG review site that treated indies as AAA games were treated.  This mean not just reviews and news, but also podcasts and videos plus a database of games.  Websites and podcasts I knew, but I had a lot to learn about video production.  One of these days I’ll dig out the very first episode of “The Show” that was scrapped and reshot, but man is it rough.

Reviews were serious business at GameMarx.  We create a set of standards and guidelines and followed it religiously.  The biggest rules we didn’t write down: the price of a game is never a factor, avoid the “angry reviewer” style, and a review is the personal view of the author, nothing more.  These rules required a lot of time and effort from a reviewer, but we still ended up writing a combined 99 reviews in the year we spent on written reviews.

There were only a handful of video reviews done.  I wish we had done more of these, but they took a lot of time to edit (I still need to finish editing Dylan’s video review of Aesop’s Garden).  Instead we created a segment on The Show to talk about new releases and recent reviews while playing the games.  This concept lead to GameMarx Trials where we played a game’s trial mode site unseen.  Far from a review (each episode starts off with “this is not a review” title card) these were much easier to produce quickly and get out while the games were still on the new release list.

As GameMarx grew it became clear that XBLIG websites had the same problem as the games – no awareness.  We were far from the only site covering XBLIG, and I decided to build a website of websites that would link us all together (webrings for those old like me).  I contacted all the sites I knew of, got permission, and also contacted Nick Gravelyn and Andy Dunn (aka the ZMan) about taking over the domain XboxIndies.  The site keeps a database of XBLIG, sales and chart performance, and also aggregates news and reviews from the participating sites.  We even made a small API for mobile app developers (check out XBLIG Companion).

In the news category we pretty much had our hands full covering Microsoft’s neglect of the service.  In 2010 Indie Games were moved into specialty shops behind avatar clothing.  I wrote numerous articles about the limitations of XBLIG imposed by Microsoft on pricing and features.  Frozen sales dataGame rating manipulationsDashboard freezes.

None of these articles got much mainstream attention.  So in 2011 when the XBLIG section was again buried, I took my growing video editing skills and created a video using Major Nelson’s own words against him.  This is GameMarx most popular non-boob video to date:

Didn’t make the cut, but there was a bit for the video where I tried to voice search for “Cthulhu Saves the World” and “Zeboyd Games” with no success.  (If you want to know the most viewed video including boobs you’ll have to find it yourself.)

At the end of 2011 we decided to step away from covering the games.  The site was growing, but it was clear to us the effort required was going to mean that’s all we did.  In 2011 we played every game released on XBLIG so before hanging it up we did the GameMarx 2011 XBLIG Game Awards.

What made it easy to leave was XboxIndies had a steady flow of content from other sites, and Indie Gamer Chick was here to stay.  While Cathy has a different style, and is dead wrong about review scores (no I’m not), she is getting attention for XBLIG developers and games.  I’m also 37 and she’s still in high school I think with the I-don’t-have-three-daughters kind of free time I don’t.  This means not only can she review many more games, but also has time to put together a project like the Indie Royale Indie Gamer Chick Bundle.

Leaving the review world meant we had a bunch of game codes we no longer had a right to use.  So we created the GameMarx Indie Mega-Pack Giveaway to unload the extra codes (with permission of course).  Several XBLIG developers contributed more codes and we ended up over 50 games to giveaway.  Voice actress Rina-chan lent her talents to the promo video.  We also ran a survey of the entries and collected some data on what gamers think about XBLIGs.

Getting back to development was a wonderful feeling.  I took an idea I had for a game called Captain Dubstep and made a goal of submitting it to Dream Build Play 2012.  At this point most of us XNA developers admitted XNA was dead from Microsoft’s point of view, so I created a site called “XNA’s Last Dance” and extended an invite to XNA developers to add their blogs and commit to entering what was the last Dream Build Play competition for XNA.  This site wasn’t a success in terms of traffic, but it had a since of community behind it and I’ll probably bring over the idea of the site into GameMarx later this year.

What happened to Captain Dubstep?  Well, the game wasn’t fun but we did manage to make the deadline.  We did a whole postmortem at GMX 2012 if you care about the gritty details, but let’s just say we had no scope defined so it was a train wreck of direction changes.

I looked at the screenshots and was like "What is he talking about? It doesn't look bad at all!" Then I watched the trailer, and was like "um, this looks like the worst thing ever created by man."

I looked at the screenshots and was like “What is he talking about? It doesn’t look bad at all!” Then I watched the trailer, and was like “um, this looks like the worst thing ever created by man.  Way worse than Ouya.”

I wish I could say the rest of 2012 was as productive.  We did launch a few open source XNA based projects including XTiled and XSpriter.  Most of the time though we spent in limbo, not sure of where to go after XNA.  We changed the podcast to “mike only” and tried our hands at Let’s Play videos.  I thought exploiting my daughters by making them play NES games on camera would be internet gold, but creating a viral video is harder than it looks.  It also has become clear that making Let’s Play videos takes more time than anything else we’ve done, and would kill any time for game dev.

In May of 2013 I participated in the Ludum Dare, and in a weekend created the game Quest.  For the first time I used Unity and I loved it (after a brief period of projecting my old XNA girlfriend on it).  Unity is not like XNA in that you will do more scripting than programming, but once you get the hang of the IDE you can be much faster.  The asset store is also a huge plus for a Unity developer – tons of art is a few bucks away.

Ludum Dare has a since of community I haven’t felt since the “good ol’e days” of XNA.  If you’re a game developer, go now and mark your calendar for the next completion date.  There are three full competitions a year and mini-LD competitions just about every month.  I cannot recommend this more.

So what’s next for GameMarx and the FuncWorks crew?  I’ve had plenty of time to think on this while recovering from having all teeth extracted due to extended radiotherapy I received ten years ago (fun FuncWorks fact: both Dylan and I are cancer survivors).  The podcast will return shortly and will stay developer focused (probably with more Unity talk).  If the content is useful to other developers I cannot say but hosting it has forced me to study deeper into game design that I would have on my own.

I want to continue Let’s Plays, but with a focus on Indies.  The indier the better.  I’d like to get to a point where I can regularly cover indies in GreenLight or Kickstater.  Yes, that means betas and prototypes.  I have no interest in the review side of things, I’ll leave that to Cathy and her growing staff (besides, she isn’t a fan of Kickstarter so I won’t have to worry about her page views crushing mine).  This doesn’t mean I will play anything, I’m only going to play a game if I find it interesting at some level.  And this doesn’t mean only positive comments – sending me your baby’s prototype means I can comment on how ugly it is even if it’s really smart.  Also it has been eating paint chips so you might wanna check on that.

I’m still kicking around game ideas for FuncWorks.  I want to get out another game or two in Unity before attempting anything like ROCS.

What about Microsoft?  Well Unity means I won’t be making any XBLIGs for the Xbox360.  The Xbox One?  Who knows, even Microsoft can’t figure out what the Xbox One will be for Indies and with no plans for Indies at launch I see no reason to make any plans myself.  If they get their act together and create a viable program I’ll look into it.  Keep in mind while they announced/reversed their self publishing stance this week the XBLIG dashboard was frozen.  Microsoft has yet to put indies on an equal playing field with publisher backed games in any of their stores.  Call me jaded, but I just spent the last five years waiting for them to deliver on the promise of “democratize game distribution” and will need to see proof before believing this time is real.

Last, a big thank you to the fans and community who have shared in our journey.  I’m still surprised and smile every time someone sends us an email!

Your Bright Futures

So I’m making the transition from an XBLIG-centered site to more sweeping coverage of indies across all platforms.  It’s kind of scary.  I’ve spent two years focusing on this little unsung platform that is Xbox Live Indie Games.  But I’m not the only one braving new waters.  Hundreds of Xbox Live Indie Game developers are exploring new development formats such as Unity or Monogame, with the intent of going multi-platform.  With both Sony and Nintendo aggressively courting indies, not to mention upstart Ouya and the existing (and thriving) PC indie community, there’s no shortage of places to go.  Well, so far Microsoft hasn’t said anything.  My theory is they’re in a medically-induced coma after sustaining life-threatening whiplash following the quick and reckless 180 they pulled.  Again, just a theory.  But if you see any Xbox guys wearing neck braces, just nod knowingly.

Anyway, with this move I’m making, which has me a little on the jittery side, I was curious how the development community that has supported me for the last two years is handling the transition.  What plans they have for the future, and what lessons they’ve learned from Xbox Live Indie Games that they’ll be applying to the future.  Here’s what they had to say.

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Tales from the Dev Side: Why Boardgames are a Great First Game by Sean Colombo

Why Boardgames are a Great First-Game

by Sean Colombo of BlueLine Game Studios

After Indie Gamer Chick said that our game, Hive, was the best game since Tetris (okay, I’m seriously over-exaggerating heavily paraphrasing here), she brought up that there seem to be a decent number of game developers starting out by making video versions of board games.

It was no accident that I chose to start with our first major offering being a board game. There are quite a few advantages of starting your game company with board games, and today I’m going to share some of them because it’s IGC’s anniversary and I’m an Indie Game Developer so I’m too cheap/skinflint to buy her team a real gift.

Faster to Market

Probably the single biggest obstacle that I’ve seen keeping people out of the game industry is that they can’t finish their game. We all love games and tend to have big visions (eyes) and finite amounts of time (stomaches). So it’s really a race to finish a game before we lose motivation or come up with a more distracting idea to pull us away.

Acknowledging this tendency, we should set ourselves up for success by choosing projects where the total amount of work is smaller. Starting with an existing engine (eg: Unity) or releasing a very simple game are good strategies. Similarly, you can cut down the scope of your game drastically by choosing something – such as board games – where thousands of hours of playtesting have already been done on the concept.

Many people forget to bake this into their time-estimates for the game, but the playtesting needed to make a game actually fun and with high replayability, is far trivial. For some examples, I was playing a paper-prototype of Chess: The Gathering around a year ago and I think Tim has been playing it every time I’ve seen him since then. It was a little awkward that one time during yoga class, but let’s just all be thankful that using Warrior Pose to summon pieces didn’t make it in the game. Similarly, I played Cannon Brawl about a year ago and the gameplay was what many would call “done”, but Pete and his testers kept at that thing and now there’s awesome new units that are like magic missiles and ba-bombs!

We certainly had to do a bunch of playtesting of our interface for Hive, but the literally-thousands of games of gameplay playtesting by John Yianni (the developer of the Hive board game), made it so that we could spend a decent chunk of time polishing visuals and AI while still being able to complete the game before we died of old age, went broke, gave up, etc..

screen4

Market Recognition

Additionally, when you’re starting out nobody knows/cares who you are. If you start with a board game, all of its fans already know what your game is about! On our very first blog post where we announced Hive, we almost immediately had a commenter (who was a complete stranger as far as I know) telling us that they were looking forward to it! That kind of instant fanbase doesn’t happen on its own.

This is probably the point where someone digs up that quote from one of the Team Meat guys that goes something like ‘if you have a good game, the internet will make sure everyone finds it’. Those meaty fellows are wrong. They make great games and I love them to itty bitty pieces, but they built up a following from about a decade of games prior to Super Meat Boy and even had a specific MB following from their flash game “Meat Boy”. If they didn’t have their presence built up, SMB would not have sold as well. This buildup is the same for many of the indies that we think of as overnight successes: Behemoth cranked on several Alien Hominid releases before the (mainstream) world learned their name from Castle Crashers, Rovio released around 35 games before they ‘launched’ (ba-dum-cha) Angry Birds, and Notch (Minecraft) has been making games since the mid-80s.

Are you still not convinced? Wow, you’re stubborn. Allow me to predict the future! Ian Stocker made Escape Goat which Indie Gamer Chick reviewed as the best XBLIG of all time (no joke) and currently reigns #1 as the king-goat of the Leaderboard. He’s also released Soul Caster I & II and is finishing up Escape Goat 2 with Waking Mars artist Randy O’Connor, at the time of this writing. My prediction: even though EG1 was critically acclaimed, the reputation-snowball is going to make EG2 sell more than twice as much as EG1. I’m so confident that if it doesn’t, I’ll give out all of my remaining free-codes to Coagulate on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Now that I’ve beaten this dead-horse back into stardust… we all agree that your sales suck until people know you. Here’s where boardgames come in: board game fans will buy your game without knowing who you are. Now, you won’t get all “board game fans” but fans of Hive didn’t need to hear of BlueLine Games before they bought our first game. After 100 repetitions of our splash-screen, now they’re fully borgified and will probably buy our next title, Khet 2.0, even if they haven’t played that specific board game.

Attainable IP

Other than the very mainstream board games whose rights have been bought up by Mattel and Hasbro, many board games creators are still willing to deal with indie developers. The board game industry itself is parallel to the video game industry in many ways and most of their developers are “indies”. One of the larger challenges in working with these developers is that most of them aren’t going to want to put an up-front financial investment in. You’ll have to be prepared to eat through your savings just to take the gamble at releasing another game to market that may or may not be successful. That’s just part of the job though.

In addition to indie IP, there are a ton of games that don’t even require a license. For example, BoardGameGeek lists of over 600 public domain board games. These come with their own challenges too, of course; every platform seems to have 3 versions of Chess, Checkers and Go within a week of launch.

Spectrangle360 was another Chick-Approved board game based on an existing property.

Spectrangle360 was another Chick-Approved board game based on an existing property.

Reusable Code

Board games have a lot of re-usable concepts in them. Players, pieces, boards, plies, AI based on Minimax, etc.. If you do it right, you can make your second game far more quickly than your first. We had hoped we could make our second game in half the time of the first. So far, it looks like Khet 2.0 will take one-quarter of the dev-time that Hive took.

One huge caveat here is that making reusable code is a huge difference from writing a general-purpose board-game engine. If you want to start your project by making the most universal, extensible board game engine in the world, then you’re almost certainly never going to finish your project (see the first section of this post!). However, as you create things you need, it’s fairly easy to plan ahead and make sure that anything general you’re writing (such as Minimax AI), is made in a reusable way.

Now, Step Off!

If you’re looking to make a game to break into the industry, board games can be a great way to start! However, if you try to knock off Hive or Khet, I may have to go all Dr. Karate on you!

But seriously, have fun making games and whatever game you decide to make – best of luck finishing it!
– Sean Colombo

If you like board games or indie game development, please follow our twitter @BlueLineGames, or our Facebook page to see behind the scenes!

Tales from the Dev Side: How Xbox Live Indie Games Prepare You for a Career in Game Development

How Xbox Live Indie Games Prepare You for a Career in Game Development

By Roby Atadero

You often hear about professional game developers leaving the industry and choosing to work on indie titles instead. Don’t let that fool you into thinking indie games are only meaningful for people getting out of the commercial industry. You can break into the industry by working on indie games too.  Indie titles not only give a creative and relaxing outlet for industry vets but, they can also prepare you for a full-time job at a professional game studio if you have never worked at one. Sure, working on a small mobile game or a web game is great and all, but, it pales in comparison to having worked on an XBLIG when it comes to getting a job as a full-time traditional (console) game developer.

My buddy, Andy, and I started working on our indie game, Spoids, in 2010. At the time, he was finishing up school and I was working as a Java programmer for a small company. After working on this XBLIG (Spoids) for a little over a year, Andy eventually got a job as a Network Administrator / Tools Programmer and I finally got a job as a Gameplay Programmer at a professional development studio.

Now it wasn’t as simple and easy as it sounds. I had applied for game development jobs throughout the years with no success. I had a Computer Science degree and had worked on lots of little PC game demos. However, it wasn’t until I was just about done with Spoids when I was actually able to start getting phone interviews at studios I was applying to. Before then, it always ended in an automated email saying the position was filled without having spoken or hearing from anyone at these companies.

So what made the difference? I had worked on an XBLIG with as high production values as we could muster during our free time.  I’m not saying you have to make the next big viral indie game or something super innovative. Just work on something that requires some challenge and do a solid job at it. Make sure to finish it all the way to the end and polish it up as much as possible. The more well done it is, the better chance that professional developers will think you are capable of joining their team. Don’t just get a proof of concept game going and stop halfway. The majority of the game development battle is in that last 20% of completion. You’d be surprised how many people who work on game projects as a hobby never actually finish a game to shippable quality.

UncompletedProjects

How Working on an XBLIG Prepares You as a Co-Worker

You can be the smartest, most talented indie developer out there but, if you can’t connect with your co-workers in their other fields, then it’s going to be a nightmare for both sides when it comes to working on a professional team.

So before we continue, let’s look at a quick overview of the various disciplines involved in game development:

  • Programmers – Make the game work. Give content developers the tools they need.
  • Producers – Keep the project scope manageable, decide what everyone works on.
  • Designers – Make the game fun, place all the content.
  • Audio – Make the game sound good.
  • Artists – Make the game look good.
  • Quality Assurance / Testers – Make sure everything looks and works properly.

There is a lot more to each of these disciplines but, this should give you a rough idea of what each sub-team deals with. So, what does all of this have to deal with how XBLIGs prepare you for a career in game development? Everything.

Usually teams that work on XBLIGs are pretty small (1 to 5 people). That means most of those people have to deal with things that aren’t their forte. Sure, you have your dedicated programmers or your dedicated artists but, chances are everyone had some kind of involvement with designing the game, the layout of the levels, tracking and fixing bugs, dealing with audio, keeping the project moving, balancing, etc.  Dabbling in each of these areas lets you see the challenges and issues that arise in those fields when it comes to developing a game.  This becomes more helpful than you think when you work on a full professional team.

No, you likely won’t be crossing boundaries much in a professional studio like you do working on an indie game. However, you can level a lot more with the other fields and work together to find solutions since you can see things from their point of view.

For example, if you are a programmer at an industry studio after having worked on an XBLIG, you can likely level with, understand, and communicate better with the designers you work with. Or you are more likely to sympathize with the people who work on audio and be able to develop the right tools they need to more easily get their job done. Why? Because you had to walk in their shoes a little bit while you worked on an XBLIG.  You probably didn’t thoroughly enjoy dealing with something on your indie game whether it was design, audio, art, etc. But seeing how those assets are created and the challenges these people face everyday allows you to better understand their issues and work better with them.

People in one discipline can easily start to become jaded towards those in other disciplines. So it doesn’t take much to start to feel a little irritated over time when you are getting work requests that you feel are “stupid” from the workers in the other fields.

DeveloperViewsSo again, getting to walk in their shoes for a little bit can really open your eyes and show you the walls they run into everyday. They have a hard job too.  Doing what you can to help make their lives easier will make you more desirable as a co-worker.

How It Helps Getting a Job

Game companies get tons of resumes every day.  The more high-profile the company, the more they get. And we’re not talking about two or three every day; we’re talking about tens to hundreds. As much as career guides and counselors preach resume format or getting good grades, the single biggest thing you can have is to show you have actually worked on and finished a game or a mod.  And if you have actually released something, then you’re definitely going to get put in the consideration plate over other applicants.  Not only that, but showing you have worked on a game for a console will garner even more attention since there are more technical limitations with a console than with computers.

Now, a lot of these points so far can be made for working on any kind of indie game, not just an XBLIG. However, the key aspect to what makes working on XBLIGs compelling is that they are made on one of the major home consoles. This is where you gain a lot of knowledge that you wouldn’t get working simply on PC or mobile indie games.

Technical Challenges That Cross Over

There are a different set of challenges, certifications, and considerations to take into account when it comes to working on console games as opposed to a strictly computer or mobile games. Let’s look at a few:

Memory

Memory is very precious on consoles whereas today’s PCs have oodles of memory to use. Because of this, worrying about too much memory usage on a PC isn’t usually a big problem. But on consoles, that is not the case. You have to be a bit more cautious of your memory usage. This includes XBLIGS.  Being able to manage your memory usage is a good skill to have going into a professional studio. It is a constant limitation everyone deals with from the programmers to all the content creators. If you’re not cognizant of how much memory you are using when developing something at a professional studio, many upset faces will follow you. And if you are lucky, they won’t beat you up when you walk down the dark hallway.

Certifications

When a game is released on the PC, it doesn’t have as many rules to adhere to as a console game would. This is because console makers like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo make sure there are certain standards that are adhered to before you can ship a game on their consoles. XBLIGs are no different.  Microsoft tells their peer reviewers that Xbox indie games must pass ALL of the certification requirements they have outlined. One example of an everyday console certification requirement is keeping your important game information inside the “safe zone”.

A lot of TV’s actually don’t show the entire image that is projected to the screen. When it comes to 720p/1080i HDTVs or old CRT TVs, a handful of the screen around the edges isn’t actually shown. Thus, important game elements shouldn’t be displayed on the direct edges of the screen space. Otherwise, they might get cut off.  Typically, you want to keep a five percent border on each side of your screen free of anything important the gamer would need to see. Thus, the inner 90% of your screen space is called your “safe zone”.

SafeZoneThis isn’t only done in games; it is done for TV shows too. For example, ESPN keeps all their text information within the inside 90% of the broadcasted screen space (the safe zone).  The image below shows their text information not going to the edge of the screen and keeping a nice five percent border on each side.

ESPNNow, PC games don’t have to deal with this. Computer monitors will show the entire screen space. Thus, they can render important parts of the game on the very edge of the screen if they want to. So, if you ever ship an XBLIG, this is an issue you will be dealing with while developing your game.

Now, there are a myriad of other certification requirements to deal with on consoles: minimum font sizes, allowing the primary player to play off of any connected controller, being able to select any storage device, being able to handle a hard drive being pulled out during save/load, using player profile settings for default control schemes, pausing the game when a controller becomes unplugged or their batteries die, maximum load times allowed, etc.

Each of these issues has to be addressed when it comes to professional console games as well as XBLIG titles. So, if you ever finish and ship an XBLIG, you will likely have dealt with all of the above, and thus be better prepared for this in the professional scene. A lot of these can be annoying and frustrating when you first learn that you have to deal with them. You’re better off getting annoyed by these on your own personal projects first and not later at a professional company.

Cross-Platform Development

One of the last big things that you can gain from working on XBLIGs is that you will get better at cross-platform development. Chances are you will have the game working on both Xbox and PC. In fact, you may even do the majority of your testing with your PC build. And since you need the game to run on both systems, you will want your game to be easy to develop and maintain for both systems. Thus, you will need to exercise good programming and abstraction strategies as you go so both builds share as much of the game code as possible. If you have done nothing but PC games and have constantly used the same third-party software, you will likely not be very prepared at writing well abstracted and managed code. Heck, you will probably hate yourself the first time you try to port your game to a different platform once you’ve finished it.

It is not simple to work on a game that needs to work well with an Xbox controller, mouse and keyboard, TV’s, monitors, the Xbox’s specific hardware, any random amount of hardware configurations from a consumer PC , etc. This is not something that comes naturally as you learn the basics of development. You only get better at this from repetition and learning from mistakes. XBLIG’s present a great situation for getting better at and perfecting your cross-platform development abilities. It’s quite an important skill for professional studios, who a good number of them work on games that run on the major consoles as well as PCs.

Just Make An XBLIG Already

In short, working on and finishing an indie game lets you see how each of the major disciplines work together to make a finished product. But working on a console game, like an XBLIG, let’s you see and learn a lot more of what AAA studios have to deal with on a daily basis. These skills will not only make you more appealing to hiring managers at studios, but it will just make you a better developer overall. Is the XBLIG platform fading into the sunset? Yes. Are there easier frameworks to start writing a game on such as Unity? Sure. But, there aren’t really any other cheap and easy ways to ship a game on one of the major consoles besides the Xbox 360. So, go ahead and try making an XBLIG; you’d be surprised where it takes you. Heck, it took me finishing Spoids to have what I needed to finally break into the industry. The same might happen for you.

Roby is currently working on South Park: The Stick of Truth.  Make sure to check out SpoidsIt’s Chick-Approved.  

Tales from the Dev Side: Screw XNA

The last month on the XBLIG scene has been an interesting one.  Since word broke that XNA would be phased out, I’ve been witness to public mourning, disbelief, and nostalgia.  XNA created a community out of dreamers, some of whom wonder where their future will be.  Others have been looking to the future.  At Indie Gamer Chick, we’ve had the guys behind MonoGame offer their version of a lifeboat to the marooned XNA development community.  This was followed up by a pitch that Unity is the way to go.  DJ Arcas, the man behind the million dollar-generating FortressCraft, is throwing his hat into the Unity ring.  And, almost uniquely among his fellow XNA developers, he’s not exactly grieving for the loss of the platform.

Screw XNA

by DJ Arcas

I’ve been programming for a very long time, and almost all of it was writing games. I cut my teeth on BASIC, went onto compiled Basic, learned Pascal, then started to use x86 assembler, to squeeze every erg of performance out of my games. Mind you, that was on a 486.  There wasn’t a great deal of performance in there! That was the way you had to do it; you sacrificed a control, flexibility and development pace, but gained a lot of performance. That was 1992.

When I professionally entered the industry, it was during the death-throes of the PS1, and the rise of the PS2. For the PS2, everyone was using the new-fangled C++. Many of the old-hands decried the use of this language – “It’s too slow!”. And, in a way, they were correct.

Poorly written, massively-inherited C++ is slower than a sloth covered in treacle. Well-written C++ has a tiny margin of difference. The real difference, of course, is how much you can achieve in the same time frame. We never went back, by the way. C++ stayed. Admittedly, you had to change the way you worked; you gained a lot of flexibility and control, but you were sacrificing performance. Still, the Xbox was a 700mhz machine, and we needed a game written in one year, not three!

I first saw XNA during the development of Burnout 3; there was an amazing demo doing the round, showing a car crashing into a wall at high-speed and crumpling. We were impressed, but dismissed it, as it was a PC-only technology. Microsoft promised Xbox, PS2 and GameCube versions. They never appeared, however.

I started with XNA shortly after the launch of XNA for XBLIG, or “Community Games” as it was called back then.  Can you believe it?  It took me seven days from first getting my hands on XNA, to my game being available for download on XBLIG. FallDown, it was called. I believe it was the 74th game on the service.

screen1

This is FallDown. Rats. I was hoping it would involve Michael Douglas somehow.

From then on, I reveled in C#; whilst I had to use the much sleeker, yet clunkier, C++ at work, at home I could write code at a rate five to ten times quicker than I could at work. C# allows you to create working systems much quicker, but at a slight cost in CPU time. You gained a lot of flexibility and power, but you had to work the way that C# wanted you to. Sound familiar? Of course, there was no way that a AAA studio was going to consider using C# on a AAA game. It’s far too slow, surely? The fact that you could write the same game in half the time; or a game that’s twice as good in the same time; never seemed to cross anyone’s mind.

I released many XNA games onto XBLIG, eleven in total. Some did very well (FortressCraft), and some did very badly (Steam Heroes). But each game was a step forwards; I took what I’d learned in the previous games, and applied it to the next one. Particle engines were written. Wrappers for physics. New and improved shaders. But these things took time, so much time, and weren’t always optimal. For instance, in FortressCraft, I developed a way of drawing meshes on the GPU, as opposed to uploading them at render time; many hundreds of times faster. If I’d known that whilst writing Stunning Stunts, I would have released a much better looking game; or the same game in a shorter time frame. Who knows how much better things might have gotten if I’d spent another four years working with XNA?

And now we move onto the end of XNA. What’s next? Quite unsurprisingly, many people are sticking with what they know, and are moving onto MonoGame, which is basically XNA all over again. When asked why, well, anything more advanced would be slower, wouldn’t it? and you’d lose control, and would have to do it the way they told you? All these things, sound awfully familiar to my ears…

Always been one to try out adventurous new things (You should see the bottom drawer in my bedroom!), I decided, at the end of last year, to try this new-fangled Unity everyone had been going on about. It had just gained Linux support, and was destroying the competition in the mobile arena.

Five days later, AndyRoo and I had put together an underwater deathmatch game, in steam-punk, animated submarines, where you could fire physics-based torpedos through thick foliage, and dive in and out of shipwrecks, in a game that has full configurable controls, massively scalable detail, and would ‘just work’ on almost every platform under the sun.

Now. let’s just write that again. I wrote a game with the approximate gameplay complexity of Doom, with substantially better graphics, in 5 days flat, in an engine I had never seen before.

Now, XNA could most certainly have done that, barring the multiplatform stuff (MonoGame solves that tho), but I really can’t begin to imagine the timeframe it would have taken me write it. And in that timeframe, who knows what Unity would have added? Having a tech team of a few hundred people writing amazing new features for you really does help you stay on the cutting edge!

The real beauty of Unity, to my mind, is that you can try out advanced tech, and see if it fits your game. For instance, should your game have edge detection? In XNA, you’re looking at a few days of different ways of writing the shader, considering normal or luminance-based edge detection, optimizing, and then deciding that, actually, it looks crap.

In Unity, you simply drag the shader onto the camera, and comes fully configurable.. It comes with dozens of shaders like this, allowing you to quickly prototype up how it should look.

So you’re talking about several days of work, played off against several seconds. I already know where my vote is heading…

This is the usual point where people leap in and go “AH HAH! Whilst Unity is better for prototyping, it’s no quicker for writing a full game!”

This sort of comment is really self-evidently false; if you have a fixed timeframe in both systems, you’ll either finish in a 20th of the time in Unity, or end up making something substantially better looking in Unity. The fact that, in Unity, everything inherits from a generic object, meaning you can manipulate everything quickly; re-use of scripts, code and objects in Unity is truly incredible; from having actually used both systems, I can say that writing gameplay in Unity is much, much faster. I’ve never heard this from anyone who has ACTUALLY used both XNA and Unity, mind you.

“Oh, but it’s slower!”

True! Unity is slower. Is a LOT slower? No. A few percent, perhaps. Are you confident that your cascading shadow engine, which you wrote from scratch, is faster than Unity’s one? I wouldn’t be. Will your physics engine be faster than PhysX? Almost definitely not. Will you be able to optimised your graphics engine for the iPhone better than the Unity guys did? No chance.

“Ah, but once you try to do something Unity doesn’t want you to, it’s way easier in an API like XNA!”

I’m glad to say this isn’t true. If you try to do something Unity doesn’t want you to, you end up in exactly the same boat as you’re in with XNA; having to write it yourself, and wishing it was already written for you. You can even interface with C++ DLLs, meaning that, WORST CASE, it takes exactly the same amount of time.

That’s what really does it for me; if I want to mess about with their state-of-the-art lighting engine, I can. I don’t have to spend 3 years writing it first. If I decide that I need to implement some new, hitherto unheard of technique in my game, then that will take the same amount of time; but every other facet of my game will be done faster.

But I think the main thing I love about Unity is that if you make a variable public, a designer can then edit that from the WYSIWYG interface. That right there is a mountain of work in XNA.

For me, it boils down to a simple choice. Do you want to write a good game, or a good engine? FortressCraft was, really, a good engine, designed with the future in mind, and the much more complicated and in-depth Chapter 2.

But I managed to write this in 4 weeks:

And this in a few days :

Why would I want to order a bunch of parts from a garage, when I could pay someone to fix my car for me? Fixing your own car only has 2 real reasons; either you love it, or you’re trying to save money. If your goal is to have a car to actually drive on the road, you’d pick the garage option every time.

And that right there is the only – only – advantage I can see that XNA/MonoGame has over Unity. It’s free. (as the old adage goes, anything free is worth what you paid for it). Mind you, Unity has a free version; you miss out a bunch of the extras, but you can decide it’s for you (Slender was written using Unity Free, for instance)

If your game isn’t going to make $1,500, then Unity Free or MonoGame might be more suited for you. Go for it. Great stuff was written using free tools. But if they don’t work, or you need help? There’s almost  no support for free software, and you need to rely on the community.

If you want to spend a huge amount of your available dev time re-inventing the wheel, go with XNA. Go with MonoGame. Enjoy scratching your head about calculating tangents for reflections, wondering how cascading shadows work, and if you should implement A* or Dijkstra’s for route-finding. Me, I’ll be busy getting on with writing the game.

Fuck XNA. Long live the future.

Tales from the Dev Side: Unity in a Splintered Industry

As word hit that XNA was being faded out, non-developer me was curious where else the community that I’ve downright fallen for with would turn to next to create the games I both love and loath.  And the community has responded.  First, the guys at MonoGame hit me up with a semi-well-received, semi-controversial editorial touting their platform as the next big thing.  While a direct response to that from the mad bastard behind FortressCraft is still coming, industry veteran-turned-indie Scott Tykoski wanted his chance to sing the praises of Unity.  As always, I understand almost none of this.  But Scott’s a gifted writer and not prone to panic, so you should give him a read.

UNITY IN A SPLINTERED INDUSTRY

by Scott Tykoski

As the death knell rings for XNA and my Xbox Indie pals pay their respects on twitter, a question hangs in the air – “Where do we go next?”

And by we I mean the group of developers that got excited at XNA as an inexpensive multi-platform solution. We bet YEARS of development energy on a system that looked so promising, yet let us down in so many ways.

“Where do we go next, now that XNA is dead?”

We also have to deal with the “gold-rush” mentality that has come along with the mobile gaming boom. Indie/Hobbyist game developers are everywhere, and worse, most of them are making very similar games (take hit game, change the theme, rinse, repeat), intensifying player dissatisfaction with titles that don’t push any significant boundaries.

“Where do we go next, now that the world is oversaturated in unsatisfying games?”

And heres another challenge to overcome: our industry is undergoing HUGE, seemingly random marketplace shifts. Phones streaming games to tvs. Consoles putting games on the backburner to focus on movies and television.

“Where do we go next when there are so many platforms and nothing is certain?”

The honest answer? We go away. We give up and we move on.

Goodbye, friends.

 

 

 

 

 

UH…WE’RE NOT REALLY SCREWED, RIGHT?
No, sorry, I’m kidding…we’re totally fine. :)

Actually, being in the Indie gaming scene has never been more exciting – even with app stores overflowing with crappy titles (we’ve fought that battle before, right XBLIG guys?). You see, every studio – from the one-man operations to the largest gaming conglomerates – is facing the exact same conundrum: “What platforms do we focus or development energy on?”

This universal need for multi-platform tools means we now live in an ecosystem ripe with ‘Make Once – Play Everywhere’ solutions. Unreal for the big spenders. Adobe Air for the Flash experts. Gamemaker Studio, GameSalad, Stencyl, & Construct for folks unfamiliar with code. And of course the mega-versatile MonoGame for anyone fully invested in XNA (Rest In Peace, sweet prince).

But while all these solutions have their disadvantages, be it price or flexibility, one toolset has them beat on all counts: UNITY.

What once was a fun little tool for prototyping, Unity (now at v4.0) has matured to the point where you can make some pretty amazing games, like the beautiful Kentucky Route Zero or the 4x Epic Endless Space.

Kentucky Route Zero

With Unity, developers can now rest assured that core engine systems are covered and they can focus on the most important task: DESIGNING A GREAT GAME!

But first..

THE BASICS OF UNITY
At its core, Unity is a 3d game engine where the developer can script using C# or go straight into scene creation using the fully featured editor, which feels a lot like using 3DMax or Maya (where you move game objects around in 3S space). While it may seem daunting at first, the toolset gives a great entry point for either artists or developers to start working on their game.

While the amazing editor would be reason alone to use Unity, the real selling point is the admirable cut of its cross-platform jib (ie: it can export games for every friggin’ platform). Titles for PC, XBox360, Wii, Web, Android, and iOS have all been made and released using the Unity, proving itself on multiple devices many times over.

It should also be noted that you can make a Ouya game RIGHT NOW using Unity. That’s pretty amazing cross-platform support, if I do say so myself.  Which I do.  Obviously.

SO MUCH 3D GOODNESS
While modeling, texturing, and animation have to be done in a traditional 3D program (3DMax, Maya, Blender, etc), Unity does all the heavy lifting when it comes to importing and rendering those assets. Lighting, post processing, shadows, and animation are all available out of the box.

I remember trying to get a distance blur effect hooked up for battles in Galactic Civilizations II but it was a huge pain and never happened. In Unity.. it’s as simple as dragging a effect script onto the camera object. Most effects are drag-and-drop ready…it’s simple to the point of sickening.

And lets talk for a bit about asset pipelines. The amount of raw data that goes into defining meshes, bones, UVs, and animations is staggering, and have given rise to third-party frameworks that manage this deluge of data. The fact that Unity makes the asset import and management process a two click process is a testament to the overall ease-of-use the editor provides.

THE JOYS OF C#
Anyone familiar with XNA is also familiar with the beautiful C# coding language. I won’t pimp that here, but Unity uses it, and it’s awesome.

Coding is as simple as writing your code, making a few public variables to use as dials, then attaching that script to your game objects. Those variables can then be tweaked in the editor, so writing modular code is buttery smooth.

The editor also has its own scripting API, so you can easily extend the editing tools as necessary.

THE ASSET STORE
Another notch on Unity’s belt comes in the ‘Asset Store’, where you can buy or sell anything game related.

Lets say you want a ‘Plants vs Zombies’ look to your game and need to animate several of 2D characters. You can go into a separate 3D program, rig and bind 2D planes, export the data, then use a 3D animation object to render your characters. OR you can purchase SmoothMoves, an in-editor 2D animation solution for 75$.

It’s the best 75 bucks you’ll ever spend, I assure you.

Chances are, if you need a game-related subsystem, someone already has a solution available on the asset store: just purchase, plug, and play!

NOW FOR THE BAD NEWS
Instead of a proper point-counterpoint, I decided to bottle up ALL the negative stuff to dump on you at the end. I know…I’m an a-hole.

First and foremost, the cost. Good news here is that a free version can be used by most Indies. Once you start making more than $100,000 a year, however, it’s time to go PRO, which will cost you $1500. Exporting features come in the form of add-ons, so exporting to iOS from the free version will run you $400, from PRO it’ll cost $1500.

Unfortunately, all the R&D testing I did was with a PRO version with a PRO iOS exporter, so some of my exuberance may come from using a super-slick $3000 version. You can dig around in the Unity Store to get some charts comparing features of the different versions.

Also, debugging was a bit more painful than in XNA and traditional IDEs. My testing of the tool was mostly on the art side, however, with a full-time developer testing out the coding front, so my pains could have simply been lack of experience. My fear is that you’ll be spending more time with print statements and less time with breakpoints.

Another issue, for those of us that love our retro graphics,the 3D environment can make 2D game creation tricky. It’s doable, but definitely less intuitive than making a proper 3D game.

The biggest drawback to Unity – as with any third-party engine – is the lack of control you have on the last 10%. You’ll always encounter areas where you want the engine to do something that’s just not possible (for one reason or another). While the main 90% will be smooth sailing, compromising on the last 10% of your vision may be too steep a price.

UNITY & MAKING GAMES WORTH PLAYING
So I started this editorial with that stupid ‘we should give up’ gag. It was mostly for fun, but there’s a legitimate feeling of helplessness that comes when your platform of choice is discontinued. There were too many crunch weeks spent on games using XNA to shrug it off as a necessary loss.

And while it sucks to see an amazing framework put to pasture, we are now drowning in possible alternatives. Alternatives that not only allow you target multiple platforms, but that alleviate the burden of creating the subsystems that your game will depend upon.

It’s for the sake of quality gameplay that I fully endorse Unity, and really any 3rd party engine. The overwhelming majority of your audience could care less about the underlying engine.. all they want is a new experience, something that’s not ‘Angry Birds with Zombies’.

Creativity on the Indie scene is a talk best left for another time , but always remember: originality is your key competitive advantage over the AAA studios. Use it! The less time you’re making engine systems that never excite the player, the more time you can devote to making original gameplay systems that will excite yourself, the player, and perhaps even our entire industry.

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