Friday, February 23, 2018

Games Manifesto

I previously blogged about Australian made games that feature Aussie themes, characters and locations. Florence, TY the Tasmanian Tiger, Golf Story and Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze are juts a few examples.  However the majority of games made in Australia are location agnostic or set in other places. Very few include Australian themes or characters.

I made two Aussie themed games back int he early mid 2000's - TY the Tasmanian Tiger and it's sequel Bush Rescue. I did the initial design on the 3rd instalment before leaving Krome in 2005. I've also tried to set up new projects that have a strong Aussie bent.

Steve Stamatiadis and I created a concept called Kat Burglar, staring Aussie Kat Kelly as a free spirited adventurer who specialised in re-acquiring cultural items that had been taken from the original native owners. Her catch phrase was "It doesn't belong in a museum!" and was an anti-Indiana Jones.
Kat Burglar took relics from museums and returned them to the countries of origin

We designed the game and built a prototype but sadly we couldn't find publisher interest.

Like many Aussies, I also wanted to make a Mad Max game, and over time produced many pitches for games inspired by the movie. We even got to pitch EA on doing the official Mad Max game back in 2003 before Fury Road was put on hiatus.
Desert Riggers - a Mad Max inspired game design from 2003

Right now Pete Mullins and I are slowly building out Billy Carts, an Australian themed racing game featuring Aussie animals - it kind of follows in the footsteps of TY with a humorous take on the genre with a larrikin sense of humour.
Billy Carts

So, with a renewed interest in making games that celebrate Australia I thought it could be useful to create a manifesto as a set of guidelines to help myself and others make these games. Then it occurred to me that this just isn't about Australian games - it's about making personal games - and that could apply to anyone, anywhere.

Some of my favourite creators, no matter how otherworldly their content is, have always infused their art with their DNA. George Lucas drew upon his experiences growing up in Modesto, his love of cars and the serials he watched as a kid and put those in Star Wars. The Empire and the Rebellion were also inspired by the Vietnam war which affected him and his generation.

Likewise JK Rowling took her very real life experiences of poverty and depression as inspiration for themes in Harry Potter as well as drawing upon people she knew for characters and places she lived as settings.

Of course these are just two famous examples - so many great writers draw upon their own lives for inspiration.

So, here is my first pass at a manifesto. It's no longer about making Australian games but about making personal games.

Games that can only be made by you.
Games Manifesto 1st Draft

So, what do you think?
Is this a manifesto that you could use?
What would you change?

- Johnno

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Australian Themed Games

I’m Australian and I reckon Australians make great games. 

Many of our games hold their own against the best from around the world. We’ve also produced some of the most downloaded games, Fruit Ninja for example, has been a global phenomenon.
Fruit Ninja has had over a billion downloads

Right now, in 2018, Australia is home to a thriving indie scene producing some extraordinary games. The recently released Florence by Mountains is a fresh and exciting example of what the games medium can produce and it's set in Melbourne.

Florence by Mountains

But what I want to talk about is the lack of games set in Australia and/or featuring Australian characters made by Australians. This is more of a discussion out loud with myself than an essay offering any real answers. If you, dear reader, have some insight into why Aussie game developers prefer to set their games in sci-fi or fantasy worlds or in countries other than Australia then please let me know in the comments below.

I’ve thought about this lack of Aussiness for quite a while. Back in 2000 I started work on a brand new game called Ty the Tasmanian Tiger. We shipped it on Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube in 2004 to worldwide success. In fact, the recent re-release on Steam is one of Steam’s highest rated games. Ty is an unadulterated Aussie game set in Australia starring Aussie animals and featuring true blue Strine. It’s fairly over the top in it’s Australianess - I wrote the script and co-designed it so feel free to blame me - but most of the language I used is based on real life language I heard growing up or spoken by people around me while making the game.

I co-created Ty to be 100% Aussie!

The creation of Ty was in part a reaction to American and Japanese companies using Aussie characters in their games. Crash Bandicoot and Sonic the Hedgehog have Australian animals in them. It was hearing Crash’s sister, Coco, speaking for the first time in an America accent that pushed me over the edge and made me want to make a game that was a true Aussie game.

It is ironic that non-Australian developers have made more of an effort to create Australian characters and use Australian settings than the local development community. Notable examples include Beneath a Steel Sky (made by UK Revolution Software), Saxton Hale from Team Fortress (which was co-developed by Aussie Robin Walker), Junkrat from Overwatch (by US based Blizzard), Mad Max (developed by Sweden’s Avalanche Studios), Uncharted’s Chloe Frazer (by US based Naughty Dog) and Chips Dubbo from Halo (by US Microsoft) to name just a few.

Saxton Hale from Team Fortress

Beneath a Steel Sky

Junkrat from Overwatch

Here’s a list of games that use Australia as a setting:

And Kotaku has this article on Australians in games:

I did some research into the number of Aussie made games featuring Australian characters or locations and my list came up a little thin, which is surprising given the large number of indie games that have been made in recent times. 

Locally made games with Australian settings and/or characters include the previously mentioned Ty the Tasmanian Tiger games (four of them!) and Florence, the wonderful golfing RPG Golf Story,  Bioshock which was partially developed in Australia, a bunch of AFL and Cricket games, Down Under Dan, Escape from Woomera, Melbourne Cup Challenge, Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze… and that’s all I could find.

Escape from Woomera

Golf Story from Sidebar Games

What have I missed? There must be more than just the handful of games I’ve found.

So, why don’t Australians make games that celebrate their country, culture and people? We definitely have a “voice” that is uniquely Australian. You can experience it in games like Fruit Ninja, Florence, Crossy Road, Ski Safari and other games that aren’t overtly about Australia but still manage to exude a sense of Aussie charm.

I’ll throw out a few ideas.

Fantasy and Sci Fi Rule

Game developers have a penchant for fantastical works and these tend to be set in made up places. And traditionally the origins of video games are steeped in scifi/fantasy so it only makes sense for the current generation of developers to follow in these footsteps.

Movies have a Big Impact

Game developers take a lot of inspiration from movies and the majority of blockbusters are set outside of Australia. By constantly reinforcing New York and LA as important cities it makes sense for a developer to set their game there. It's much faster for a player to get a sense of place with New York than Adelaide.

Cultural Cringe

Australians tend to suffer from cultural cringe and find hearing their own “voice” in any medium to be, well, cringeworthy. Interestingly the term cultural cringed was coined here in Australia :-)

As I mentioned earlier I’ve made Aussie games with the Ty series . These are over-the-top examples of Australia but I believe there is so much more that can be be done to explore the uniqueness of our country. There’s an untapped well of stories and characters  that are perfect to explore in the games medium. I would love to see indigenous developers draw from their rich history to create something like Cleverman for games.

I definitely want to include more Australian characters, themes and locations in my future games. They’re probably going to be more in the style of Ty the Tasmanian Tiger than a work of art like Florence - but you gotta start somewhere. 

So what do you think? Is there a reason for the lack of Australian made Aussie themed games?

- Johnno

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Billy Carts Track Manager

I'm working on the game part-time so progress has been a little slow.

I've also been switching between Swift and C# which I find slows me down. There's enough difference between developing in Xcode with Swift and Unity with C# that I often find myself having to google how to do things. With Skip and Save done and dusted I am now focusing 100% on just Unity and C# so hopefully my brain will be able to store Unity/C# and not have to swap it out with Xcode/Swift :-)

I've recently been working on the track manager which lets the player race around an endless world in any direction. Previously the game was a single road down hill runner. While that was fun, it didn't offer enough of a point of difference to other games out in the market - and as a designer the idea of an endless world to explore offers so many more possibilities.

Currently the track uses a 3x3 grid of prefabs which rearrange themselves around the player so there is always an adjacent track.

Here is how it works from up high:
Endless Track Generator

Here's how it looks in game:

Endless driving (still with pop in)

At the moment the new track pieces are randomly placed so the scenery can suddenly change to a different track layout which is disconcerting - and there's also noticeable pop in when new tracks appear out front. The idea was to get something in fast to test the concept.

Now that it works, the next step is to make sure that the "infinite" track layout is generated procedurally but in a way that the tracks connect logically so the scenery flows from outback to forest to townships.

At the moment I'm using 3 track tiles that Pete has provided for testing:

Track 1

Track 2

Track 3

There will be different themed pieces and of course content that fits on each piece like houses, dunnies (Aussie outdoor toilets), old car wrecks, animals, fences and all manner of obstacle and collectable.

This is an Australian themed game and I'm really excited about the assets Pete will be creating to make this a truly Aussie experience. One of the things I'm keen on doing is injecting humour into the game through the characters, animals and landscape. Pete and I both worked on TY the Tasmanian Tiger (I co-created TY) and we also did an Aussie comic strip together called Dingo Boy - so we're no strangers to creating Aussie content.

I look forward to sharing more soon!

- Johnno

Friday, February 02, 2018

Apps versus Games

At the end of last year I took some time out from making games to try my hand at developing my first app. The app is Skip and Save and was designed with the Apple Watch in mind, but also works on the iPhone and iPad.

I designed Skip and Save with the Watch in mind

Creating this app was a new experience for me. And for the most part it was an enjoyable one.

I completed the app at the start of December 2017 and submitted it to Apple with a release date of 24th of January - roughly 8 weeks before launch so I had the best possible chance of being considered for Apple featuring. Apple recommends giving them 6-8 weeks notice and if you’re a developer I highly recommend you do this too - more details here:

I built Skip and Save, which is a saving app, primarily for my use. As I mentioned in a previous "making of" blog post, I often skip a treat and “bank” the money putting it toward buying something else later on - like a book or game. Regardless of the financial success of the app this was something I wanted to use and I figured I could also release it for others to enjoy.

So how does making and releasing an app compare to making and releasing a game?

Making the App

I enjoyed building the app just as much as building a game. It was a challenge to learn new stuff like how the UI system works and how the Watch handles complications. It was also a challenge to use storyboard in Xcode to make my app responsive to  different layouts and device sizes. I’ve used XAML before and found it much easier to create UI layouts. This is something I hope Apple can improve on in the future. For any Unity developers I can tell you it's easier to create responsive UI in Unity than Xcode!

Building the Watch component of the app was also much easier than the iPhone component. I figure this is due to the maturity of the WatchOS side of things. The Watch app took 25% of the total development time.

Marketing the App

Where apps depart dramatically from games is in the release/marketing phase. I had to find out which sites cover apps and the best app press release services. I did a lot of research and consumed a lot of App developer podcasts for best practices.

I reached out to sites that featured Watch and iOS apps with press info and pre-release promo codes. I also promoted the app leading up to it’s launch using the new Pre Order scheme on the App Store.

Sadly, on launch day, I got zero press interest and no featuring. Brian Mueller, the developer of Carrot, recently tweeted this:
"CARROT To-Do got 26 downloads and zero press coverage on launch day."
So I guess a lot hasn't changed in the last five years.

In my experience the App news sites are a lot tougher to crack then the game sites. My press release did seem to reach the far corners of the web though, as I received many emails from marketing folks offering to “promote” my app for a fee!

Apps are Different to Games

Here is where I think apps diverge in a BIG way from games.

With games you are solving a specific problem.

Players want to be entertained.

With a game, regardless of its genre, art style, team pedigree or core mechanic, your title has the potential to solve that problem. Your game simply has to entertain people!

With an app you’re solving a specific problem. This means you’re only appealing to those people that have that problem.

Skip and Save's market is people who are interested in saving money, and in a very specific way. So the potential market is a niche audience.

People don’t think “I need a new app, here’s a free one I’ll download it and give it a try!”

They think, “I need a better photo sharing app, let’s see what’s available.”

From my own experience with games, I tend to download a lot each week in different genres and from different developers because I want to have fun. And any game has the potential to scratch that itch.

This is obvious in hindsight, and as I mentioned I was making this app regardless as it’s an app that I wanted to use. But I do feel for my fellow non-game developers. They have it tough!

Will I make another app? I think I will. I have some problems that are specific to me that I want to solve. Only this time I'll focus on the Watch and not worry about the iPhone/iPad version - so this will drastically reduce development time. The Watch is how I use Skip and Save and the Watch is probably how I will use my future apps.

But for now I have a game to make :-)

- Johnno

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Skip and Save launch

Today my first non-game app, Skip and Save, launched on the App Store.
You can download it from the App Store here.

To be honest, I have no idea how it will fair, or if anyone will be able to find it. I did a lot of research into app marketing - I followed sites that review apps, listened to app developer and app marketing podcasts and tried to understand the app market place. But it's still a new world for me and quite different to games.

Making the app was a lot of fun, so I would love for it to have some success to give me encouragement to make more apps. We'll have to wait and see how it goes. Expect a blog post on how the market perceived it in a month or two :-)

In the meantime, Pete and I are making progress on Billy Carts. I've been reworking the Track Manager code that builds the world around the player as they travel in whatever direction they choose. Will post some more screen shots soon!

- Johnno