Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Game Reviews Are Kind of a Mess

Each person has a gaming fabric. Not something they can hang on the wall or cover their bed with, but something more nebulous that determines their personal likes and dislikes in regards to video games. Some people’s gaming fabric may include the embrace of genres such platformers, role playing games, first-person shooters, rhythm games, etc – while some may be fueled by pure aesthetics or other personal pleasures. Each person’s gaming fabric is unique, and it is formed over years of gaming experiences, but when people with similar or dissimilar gaming fabrics talk about games, they can enjoy the common ground of discussion regarding their likes and dislikes.

When I was a young lad, videogame reviews were a little different than they are today. When a magazine gave a game a score, you felt like it really meant something. You knew where it placed a game among its peers. If The One magazine scored the latest Bitmap Brothers’ game 40% or 80%, you were able to process that score based on how you felt about previous scores that magazine had given other games. It was like The One was a single person, with its own opinion. A single gaming fabric you could rely on for consistency – a hive mind of writers coming together to offer a single voice.

Whether you agree with someone’s opinion or not is a different matter, of course. Everyone has their own unique opinion and each person will react to practically everything in a different way than someone else. And that, my dearest of friends, is why I think the current state of game reviews is a mess. A joke that I heard many years ago: “Opinions are like assholes; everyone has one and everyone else’s stinks.” Funny, and sometimes true!

Many video game review websites and magazines today lean towards promoting the expression of their individual writer’s opinions. Walter Writer may really like the latest game from Gary Game Maker, and score it 90%, whereas Jenny Journalist may dislike it, and would have scored it 40% if given the chance. This is fine, in concept, but it devalues the overall value the website or magazine can offer due to the fact that the opinions offered are varied and inconsistent with scores that may have been stated by the website or magazine in the past.

Adopting the approach of individual writer expression is an admirable thing to do, and it is the right thing to do in many regards. It is a more laser focused opinion than that of a hive mind. However, it does not reflect the website or magazine at large and therefore requires the reader to be aware of the fact that this is not the opinion of the site/magazine but the individual, instead. You are not tapping into a single gaming fabric, but potentially three, five, or more.

I say “instead”, because I believe most people visit websites and read magazines with the assumption that the opinions are from the “site” or “magazine”, and not purely the opinion of the person who wrote the review. Sure, most of the expression is of course from the writer, but an editor typically proof reads every review for flow, spelling, grammar, and to ensure it reflects the style and legacy of the site or magazine itself. After all, if their scores are to be included on a site such as Metacritic, they want to offer its readers some sense of consistency, right?

A review score given to a game is seen as a measurement. A low number means the game is bad, and a high number means it is good. If that score needs to come with the caveat that this is a personal expression of a single person’s experience and is not necessarily connected to other scores presented by the site, then I think the value of that measurement becomes a tricky thing to quantify. In almost everything else in our lives, a measurement is reliable. The height of someone is not an opinion. It is a fact. Sure, a score given to a game is not a fact, like a measurement is. It is an opinion. However, having a review opinion be that of a “site” or “magazine” is more helpful and easier to understand and digest and thus provides a greater service to readers than presenting a myriad of opinions to decipher the true meaning of.

There are some situations where an individual’s opinions are the entire point of a website, such as Jim Sterling. Having originally been the reviews editor for Destructoid and with the Escapist for a short period of time, Jim went solo in 2014 and now runs his own website that offers his personal opinion of video games: http://www.thejimquisition.com/. This is a perfect example of where a single writer’s opinion is extremely valuable. You can rely on Jim’s opinion to be consistent, because you can get a sense of his likes and dislikes from his history with games and how he has rated games in the past as an individual.

However, when reading a website or magazine that offers opinions from a variety of different writers, the reader is required to become knowledgeable about the individual who wrote the current review to know how it fits into the writer’s gaming fabric. It is perhaps ironic that many websites and magazines are leaning towards the individual writer’s opinions because it encourages readers to seek out individual writer’s opinions they value and avoid those they may not, which could lead to lower overall readership if their preferred writer did not review a certain game or it can encourage more solo ventures like Jim Sterling.

OK, now I have that aspect out of the way, let’s move onto opinion versus analysis. In my opinion; an opinion of a video game is a relatively simple and natural expression of how something affected you while you were experiencing it. I use the word simple in relation to how the individual is free to focus on the single train of thought of how it affects them, and not need to explore outside of that framework. An analysis is a relatively complex study of how something functions as a single entity as well as where it sits among its contemporaries.

To me, an opinion piece is for entertainment. Analysis is for information. These two things can (and should) be combined to present an entertaining and informative piece that helps the reader understand the game by offering some kind of anchor for them to measure it by. A pure opinion piece may not help the reader understand the qualities of a game, as too an analytical piece may not effectively reveal the qualities of a game. But, when combined they can offer much more.

If you have ever used the phrase, “It’s not for me, but I can appreciate it for what it is,” then I think you might make a good game reviewer. In my opinion, reviewing a game is not only about how it affects your own emotions or how it fits into your personal gaming fabric, it should also be about how well the game achieves what it was designed to achieve. Whether it is something you like or not is still valid, but I don’t think it should be the main focus of the review. Just because I may not enjoy playing Monster Hunter, does not make it a bad game in my opinion. I can see that it is a good game. It’s just not for me, yet?

So then, if I were tasked to write a review of Monster Hunter would it be fair or right for me to write a pure opinion piece and score it as an average game purely based on my own personal bias and how it fits into my gaming fabric? I expect many will say yes to this. But, to me this is a disservice to the readers and shows a lack of respect for the game because it is not an accurate reflection of the game. “But, it is an accurate reflection of your personal opinion,” I hear some cry. So what? Which is more important: my personal opinion of a game and how it fits into my personal gaming fabric or an analytical study of a game?

Well, I think both are important. But, the problem is that the majority of game reviews today are purely opinion pieces based on how it affected a single individual, and not critical studies, digging deeper and going beyond emotions and personal bias.

If I were to write a review about Monster Hunter stating that it is too complex and does little to guide or help the player ease into the experience it would technically be an accurate portrayal of my experience with the game. But, it would also show my ignorance of the game and discount who the game is made for and what the game does well and what the game may also do badly within the context of what the game is and what it was designed to achieve. I must step outside of my own personal taste, and consider the possibility that this might be designed for someone with a different gaming fabric than mine. Oh, the horror. Dare I say, “try to be objective!?”

A definition of “being objective” may go something like this, “Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” Some people like to belittle the idea of being objective by literally stating the facts about a game, such as requiring button presses and containing polygonal creations on the screen. I think being objective is a little more complex than that. I can objectively say that Madden NFL 2016 is a good game, even though it is not something I personally enjoy. How is this? I can analyze the controls, gameplay, visual and audio communications presented, and many other features that make up the whole experience and determine that the game achieves an admirable level of sophistication. If I then combine this objective view with my opinion of the singular parts, such as art, audio, context and such, I can determine whether I think those individual elements are of quality and how it combines to make a whole experience, and also compare all of these attributes to similar titles.

Looking at the art in Madden, for example, I think the polygonal models and texturing of the characters and environments is expertly accomplished and consistent with the developer’s intent to create a believable experience. The audio also delivers a high quality aesthetic that when combined with the visuals create a world that produces an emotional reaction – one of excitement and competition.

I don’t want to go into too much detail with Madden as it is a massive game, but hopefully you get my point. I think it is not only possible for a review to present an individual’s opinion and objective analysis of a game, but I think it is vital that reviews do so. Sure, it may be uncomfortable to step outside of one’s own skin and go beyond personal opinion, but I think that is what readers deserve.

This does not invalidate opinion pieces. Hearing someone’s pure opinion of something is very valuable, especially if you trust that person’s opinion. But, it is not always helpful. Everyone’s gaming fabric is different. If the individual whose opinion you trust happens to review a game that is a bad fit for them but a good fit for you, then you might miss out on that experience if you put all of your trust in that opinion. However, if that review is more of an analytical-opinion combo review and not only focused on their personal experience, then you might then be able to see some of the game’s qualities despite it not being a match for the reviewer’s taste.

I feel as though I should also add that as a game developer, I gain much more satisfaction from reading detailed analytical reviews than pure opinion pieces, because critical analysis shows the writer’s thought process on how they came to a conclusion and demonstrates their understanding and perspective of the game by looking under the hood to judge the inner workings and not just the surface experience of the game and their personal taste. To appreciate something, you must break it apart piece by piece to understand how it works and if it works well.

Thank you for reading this rather long blog piece. If you have a 3DS, you should purchase Dementium Remastered because it is a great game. And, if you have an iPhone of iPad you should do yourself the courtesy of downloading Totes the Goat, because it is fun and free! It's simple math, really. :)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Dreaming of Voxel Goats

Totes the Goat

What's Up?

One year ago I could not have imagined that I would be making a new game that was specifically designed for the mobile market – let alone be ecstatic about it! As such, I thought it might be a good idea to write about how I got here, how it feels, and where this might take me.

What About Nintendo!?
For many years I have been 100% dedicated to developing games for Nintendo handhelds. Sure, some of our games have also been ported to other platforms. But, they were all originally made for Nintendo platforms. Part of the reason for this when we started Renegade Kid was that it was a logistically sensible thing to do, considering my experience with the SNES and N64 prior to the release of the Nintendo DS. The other portion of my reasoning was my love for Nintendo, and my love for Nintendo handhelds. I love them, you see!

What has changed? Well, my love for Nintendo hasn’t changed. But, the market isn’t quite as healthy as it once was for us. I think it began with the launch of Moon Chronicles for the 3DS in May 2014, and was cemented with the release of Xeodrifter for the 3DS in December 2014. Naturally, everyone has their own opinion regarding creative works, so I accept that not everyone will agree with mine. From my perspective, Moon Chronicles and Xeodrifter are both great quality games that were released into a healthy market – a combination for success, right?

Neither game has sold very well, unfortunately. This is not based on my perception of what I think is a good number of units to sell. It is based on the revenue needed to fund a team of four with reasonable salaries and no office space overhead – basic return on investment (ROI). Sure, there are 100 reasons why these games may have not sold more, but the inescapable reality is that the tremendous effort required to create those games versus the reward did not add up in the end. It wasn’t for lack of trying on our part. It wasn’t for lack of support from Nintendo, either. It just didn’t work out.


What's Happening on the App Store?
On occasion I visit the App Store on my iPhone 5 to see what’s new and looks interesting. I was swept into the Crossy Road malarkey, and am still enjoying the occasional romp across the streets. I was impressed by the fact that an honest freemium game can be received well both critically and financially. At a time when I felt the mobile space was a wasteland of money gauging, Crossy Road showed that there is still room for more than just clones of Clash of Clan and Candy Crush.

This led me to start thinking about the mobile market. The beauty of the mobile market is that you can create a great game that is very simple, without the need of many people or much time, such as Crossy Road, Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, Temple Run, Subway Surfers, Two Dots, Alphabear, and all of Half Brick’s awesome games – to name but a few!

How Does it Feel?
OK, so that’s how I got here – now onto how it feels now that I am here! It feels great. Haha, simple as that. Even though I am still working on finishing up Mutant Mudds Super Challenge and Dementium Remastered, as well as finally delving into Treasurenauts, I can’t help but feel excited by the prospect of completing a tiny project. The sense of excitement I get from the concept phase of any game I have worked on is wonderful and magical. Development naturally evolves into production at some point, which is still a lot of fun, but as production moves forward the energy from the concept phase is replaced with the required discipline to keep marching forward, and only when the end of the tunnel is in sight do you start to get new energy from the excitement to see the finished game.

With a simple game, the concept excitement doesn’t have a chance to wear off before you’re already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel – double excitement! 

Some Development Details
I have teamed up with Gordon K. Larson, who I have worked with before, to make a new mobile game on the side in a hobby capacity while I continue to work on Renegade Kid titles. Gordon also has a fulltime gig elsewhere, so we dedicate weekends to the mobile game to balance out our efforts. We officially started the development of Atooi’s debut game on July 1, 2015. I was also lucky enough to enlist the code wizard himself, Matthew Gambrell, to help out post-launch with gameplay refinement and updates.

As you probably already know by now, our first game is Totes the Goat. Here’s a little write-up I did for it:

Totes the Goat is the debut game from newly formed mobile studio, Atooi – led by industry veteran Jools Watsham. A charming arcade experience with vibrant voxel art and easy-to-use swipe controls, Totes the Goat will have you happily hopping down a cliff like a kid. Leap from platform to platform – bringing each one back to life – while avoiding hazardous Wily Wolves, Cranky Crows, and Bully Bears – oh my! Once a cliff tier is fully rejuvenated, hop down the cliff to the next tier for an endless journey of jumps! How low can you leap? How totes is your goat?

That is a really fancy way of saying it is an endless Q*Bert with a Crossy Roads wrapper – but, some people don’t like to hear that sort of cheap talk - unless it can be quoted from someone else! :)

Totes the Goat -

What Was the Design Approach?

I approached this project very analytically from the start. I visited the App Store and looked at what were the top grossing free games, and I looked down the list. The majority of the games were games very similar to Clash of Clans and Candy Crush, as well as a wealth of Casino games and license properties that utilized a proven monetized formula – typically resulting in another clone of Clash of Clans or Candy Crush.

The first “original” game that stood out was a pool game, at #15, and then Criminal Case at #24, Racing Rivals at #26, Cooking Fever at #29, Tap Sports Baseball 2015 at #33, Trivia Crack at #45, my beloved Crossy Road at #48, and so on. If you are squarely focused on aiming for the #1 top slot, the current chart suggests you either create a “Candy Clan” clone, a casino game, a licensed game, or do something completely different and hope for the best.

I am not squarely focused on reaching the top slot. I just want to make a game that generates a little revenue. That is no small achievement in the mobile market. I wanted to learn what may have made Crossy Road so popular and see if I could tap into that “formula” somehow.

Looking at Crossy Road's Guts
My breakdown of Crossy Road: classic arcade gameplay + relevant art style + charm/humor + soft-sell monetization. In a nutshell, Crossy Road is a free endless Frogger executed in a colorful voxel art style with a cast of varied and interesting characters that bring more than just themselves to the game – they often alter the look of the world too. And, there is no forced advertising - only what the player chooses to view. That's what I refer to as a soft-sell.

One of the most clever aspects of Crossy Road is the gameplay loop and how the game over menu is presented to the player. Everything is geared around the player scrounging together 100 coins to unlock a new character. After your very first play session, you are immediately offered a free gift, which happens to be 100 coins! How fortunate!! Oh, and hey, what’s this? A new menu item appears telling me how I could spend the 100 coins: unlock a new character!

Coins can be collected in the game. They can be earned by watching videos. You can receive free gifts in the form of coins. You can even buy a piggy bank character that increases the values of coins in the game. Once you find yourself in that loop of coin desire, you may soon realize that you could just drop $0.99 to buy a certain character of your choosing – but that is your choice. No hard sell.

Sounds Good to Me!
Needless to say, I am trying to incorporate all of this loveliness into Totes the Goat. It is an excellent model for a simple “endless” game. Naturally, I am not the first to attempt this. But, that is also helpful for my analytical eye. How well have these other games incorporated this approach, and what did they do differently? Did it work better or worse? The main thing that is missing from the vast majority of games that seem inspired by Crossy Road’s example is the menu loop and how the many important elements of the system are presented to the player, which surprises me. This seems to be instrumental in the whole system working.

In games that have failed to communicate and/or support this properly there is a loss of variety in the overall experience due to the fact that most endless games are somewhat repetitious, and therefore rely on something to offer variety. In Crossy Road’s case, the variety comes from the characters and any effects they may have on the world.

If the player is not reminded of the rewards offered by the game (the characters) and the means in which the player can get their hands on them (coins), then the player will ignore any subtle small signs that attempt to suggest these or they’ll be utterly confused by the mixed messaging and quit.
Another vital element that is missing from many of the Crossy Road wannabes is with their rewards. The cast of characters, or more to the point: how do the characters affect the world? Just getting a different looking character is cool, but after you have one you like, you may lose the desire to get another. No rewards = no reason to get coins or spend cash.

The difficult thing is that all of this nonsense doesn’t even cover the gameplay experience inside the game. So, to create a good game AND an effective monetized system that is understandable and appealing is a tall order indeed. But, that’s what makes game development fun, right? 

Totes Screens

What About the Actual Game!?

OK, so with the idea that I wanted to create a game with classic arcade gameplay I went searching for ideas. What were some of the most popular arcade games in the old days? Which ones could be adapted to a simple touch control interface? Which ones haven’t already been done to death in the market? I was leaning towards a certain idea until a friend of mine suggested Q*Bert. It was such a perfect suggestion because I was already married to the idea of creating voxel art for the game, and not many games are suited as perfectly to voxels and an isometric view than Q*Bert.

I immediately ran with the idea. Now, just because the concept of Q*Bert had been established didn’t mean determining the gameplay would be easy. It is easy to make a terrible game based on Q*Bert. It is much harder to make a good one. And, do I make it endless or level-based? What are the controls? What is the theme? The world? The main character? The name of the game? All of these things were very important, and needed careful consideration.

I quickly decided that it needed to be endless. The vibe of an endless game is very different than a level-based experience where you are rewarded with three stars at the end, etc. Endless felt right. Once I had determined that the player would leap from one platform to another; I needed to figure out what you play as and where you play. I started to think about what might act like this in nature. I started writing down thoughts, and quickly a goat came to mind. Some live on cliffs and leap around. Perfect! And then the idea of leaping from one completed level down to the next made sense for a goat. It started to all come together very naturally. I love it when that happens. It doesn’t happen as often as I would like.

What's in a Name?
Almost immediately, Totes the Goat became the name of the game. I often use the saying totes ma goats, because I’m a dork, so a play on that saying felt suitably silly and fun. Totes the Goat was born… as soon as I secured the dotcom!

Speed Bump Ahead!
About a week or two into the development, my heart sank when I saw a new game in the App Store that looked very similar to Totes. I couldn’t believe it. Similar voxel style. Similar cliff/mountain concept. I felt sick. It was such a strange coincidence. I downloaded the game to get a feel for it and to find out if it was worth continuing development of Totes.

Thankfully, the gameplay was considerably different than Totes. It did adopt the Crossy Road approach with the swing of things, but all in all it was not a deal breaker for me. Phew. A scary experience, but one I thought we’d be OK with. The mobile market is so big that there seems to be enough room for similar games. Sometimes that can be helpful, and sometimes it can hurt. We’ll see.

Would you believe it, the same thing happened again the following week! Another isometric game, and this time it even had an actual goat as the main character. On a mountain! At least their goat was focused on only climbing up. The visual presentation was very different too. But, come on! Really!? Two very similar games releasing now, when there was nothing really like it before? Oh well. This is one of those times when you need to go with your gut. You either cut your losses and start again, or you stay the course. I stayed the course because I have faith in the core concept of Totes the Goat and that it offers something those other games do not.

Don't Forget About Me!
Another aspect that I researched was how games on the App Store are frequently updated. The way I look at mobile games is that they are more of an on-going service for the player, constantly providing updates both large and small. This is a great thing for many reasons. It is great for the player – receiving fixed/new content on a regular basis. It is great for the developer too – there’s a chance the game will be highlighted in the App Store as an updated title, plus it shows up on player’s device as an available update, which helps remind players that the game exists and may result in a new play session.

Updates are nothing new in the mobile market, but it is a unique aspect of that market when compared to most other gaming platforms.

My hope is to continue making updates for Totes, both big and small, to keep the game going in terms of new content and awareness in the market. In fact, we have already submitted an update for the game post-release and are hoping it is approved and released on Dec. 17. Fingers crossed for a featured spot on the App Store, but as it is one of the busiest times of year there is a lot of competition.
Totes the Goat - Featured

But, How Did the Game Get Featured on the App Store?

One of the most important and most challenging (and nerve-racking) aspects is trying to get your game featured on the App Store. This is what everyone wants as it can lead to more downloads and the potential of more sales. Sure, but how does that happen?

I don't think there is a guaranteed way to get your game featured on the App Store. Maybe if you're a huge publisher and/or have a highly anticipated game your chances increase dramatically. But, for the rest of us we need to do everything we can to increase our chances of being featured.

One of the first things I did, even before starting development of the game, is try to talk to someone at Apple about what things they look for when considering games for feature. I was fortunate enough to get a hold of someone who was willing to provide information in this regard. Good things to consider, include:
  • Game Center Support.
  • Metal (Unity) Support (or any relevant OS enhancement features).
  • App Size: Under 100MB (enables downloads to happen anywhere, and not require wi-fi).
  • Replay Kit.
  • Video Preview on App Store game page.
The list of features that may be attractive for being featured on the App Store will likely change a lot over time, so it is important to do as much research as you can by talking with other developers and the folks at the App Store if possible.

It is also important to think about your release plan as well as future updates. Something that is referred to as a "roadmap" at Apple. This is helpful for you as a developer to nail down your launch goal and also what you hope to add to the game in the future, and when you hope to release it. As with most digital stores, the more information you can provide to the team the better.

I did not know if the game was going to be featured or not until the day of release. I was insanely excited and truly grateful when I saw the little Totes icon on the App Store front page. To secure a spot on there as a first-time indie team, as Atooi, is a huge accomplishment and one I do not view lightly. I was prepared for it not to be featured, and amazed when it was!

How's it Doing?
In less than one week, Totes the Goat has been installed over 170,000 times and there are over 105,000 entries on the Game Center leader board (as of Dec. 10, 2015). It has a 4.5 star rating from 104 reviews on the App Store. To me, these numbers are great. A ton of people have played it, and they like it! That is half the battle.
So, all in all, not a ton of cash has been made from video ads / in-app purchases yet, but it is off to a good start for a small game that did not cost a lot to develop. It is all great information for me to digest and try to learn from and hopefully improve upon in the future. If there were annoying banner ads, and full screen pop-up ads after each death, and a forced video ad after 3 or 5 deaths, would it have made more money? Probably. But, what would that do to the long term user enjoyment and engagement?

Paying a dollar to remove annoyances is a practice many games employ on the App Store. I would prefer to avoid that kind of tactic, and that is why I chose a different route for Totes the Goat. Only time will tell if this will pay off. Because, in the end I need to make money from making games in order to make more games. It is a natural cycle. Fingers crossed the soft-sell approach of Totes will pay off.

Totes - top ten chart

Closing Comments

I am very excited and energized about the mobile market. It is an interesting and challenging place to try and make any kind of impact. I will be continuing to develop games with Renegade Kid as my full-time gig, and am equally as exicted to finish up Mutant Mudds Super Challenge, Dementium II Remastered, and Treasurenauts.
If you would like to check out Totes the Goat, you can find it here on the App Store. You can also see a bunch of other stuff about the game and the company here, at atooi.com.

If you like the game, please rate it on the App Store and share your enjoyment with a friend. :) If you REALLY like the game, please consider watching an insane amount of video ads or buying one of the characters. :D Thank you! The new update will feature some new characters, like this one... 

Totes the Goat - Snowy

How totes is your goat?

(Originally posted on Gamasutra)