Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Paris Conference: "How to emerge on the AppStore" - Part I

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit the French Videogame Festival in Paris. I went there especially for the “How to emerge on the AppStore” conference. Among the speakers, Vincent Dondaine, the CEO of Bulkypix, one of the major French iPhone game developer and publisher. My main concern was to understand why an iPhone game developer would ever need a publisher, since Apple approves almost everything submitted (except porn). If you respect Apple Guidelines, your app get on the AppStore, period. So, why the hell would I need a publisher?

I guessed all the PR work is a first solid point. But is that worth the 30-50% cut any publisher takes?! Most indies are self-funded so they even don’t rely on publishers’ big bucks to develop and market their games. That’s the case of Press Start Studio, a small French team who brought a splendid action game to the iPhone and the iPad this year: Twin Blades. I didn’t ask them directly, but as their game were almost complete, why did they need to find a publisher and sign with Bulkypix? What makes iPhone game publishers so special and attractive?
Short answer: they know Apple. I mean personally. They can put a face on Apple. They can pick up the phone and talk to Apple. This is the huge, terrific, tremendous difference between a publisher, with 50+ games in catalog, and any given subscriber to the ADN. So that’s the trick. Pure lobbying.

Of course, I could still go on my way and take the risk that nobody will ever notice my game, hidden in the deepest unreachable land of the AppStore… Yes, unreachable, and the guy who writes this is the kind of man who usually clicks on every 50 pages of a Google search. But I can’t browse anyway beyond the 200 first games in the AppStore. Where are these 250 000 apps? I don’t know really, but what I know is that I don’t wish my game to be in the 249 800 that I can’t find out. And this is where Bulkypix, Chillingo and friends come in. They can ask directly to Apple to bring any game upfront for a given timeframe where a marketing campaign is forecast. And guess what: any of their marketing plans looks definitely more serious than any of mine, unless I’m the developer of Doodle Jump or Monster Dash. Because if I don’t want any middleman, that’s the only other possible route: be one of the best, instantly, from day 1, and get a bit lucky about the game adoption speed by the community. Otherwise, I’m as lost in the AppStore as my uncle’s homepage is on Google (yes, the one that shows all those cool fishes he got last Sunday). That’s the frightening stat for every iPhone developer: 90% of apps are downloaded less than 10K.

In my next post, I will give more details about the conference, but I first wanted to explain the biggest point – the publisher point – which was not obvious to me.
Finally, from my own investigation, I’ve managed to know the average cut of the publisher in the iPhone world, because that’s another world. We’re not in the AAA console and PC MMO wars here, and this is good news: the iPhone publisher cut lies in the 10-20% range.

Friday, August 20, 2010

20 Gamescom cool pics

I’m just back from two days in Cologne, it was my first Gamescom, and my very first videogame show outside France as well. All I can say is that it was terrific! Here are some cool pictures from the show.

I got your attention now. These two girls were the nicest and, as you guessed, the cutest of the show. Proof that Germany hold massive destruction weapons.

Machinarium artwork on a wall. Indie games are in the house!

Brock Jones, the “50% producer, 50% engineer, 50% whatever-else” guy from the Runic Games, the 30 people team that worked on Torchlight 2. I tried the game and it’s awesome.

Justin, from the Eyepet team at Sony London Studios. This very nice guy took the time to explain me how the PS Move works with the Eyepet, the result is very impressive and accurate. The best use of the PS Move so far.

“Hey, young males, let me explain you, games are not free, not free like in not free (german) beer.”

Louis-Marie Rocques, the founder of Eversim. His new game is a highly realistic geopolotic simulation. This guy is also my new hero since I discover he’s responsible of L’aigle d’Or on Oric Atmos, and all the Silmarils titles on ST/Amiga.

This is the moment to NOT loudly claim that Episode One is crappy.

Preinstalled with the Gamescom.

You should know these guys if 1) you like videogames 2) you’re french. They are members of the amazing Gamekult team! I did appreciate their kind words and availability.

Skeletor’s PC for surfing and dating (when He-Man leaves him alone).

I think this is a MP3 player. As a bonus feature, it desintegrates everybody around when playing Britney Spears.

This is not a toaster, but maybe you can find a way to burn your bread with that.

The PC of Jules Vernes unveiled!

The invention of the penalty-without-goalkeeper. Clever.

Lazy aspiring assassins.

T-fighter pilot leveling.

The senior zone.

Napoleon using cheatcodes (Civilization V).

Kids joining the army after eating popcorns.

I finished my trip by visiting the cathedrale of Cologne, wonderfull, OK, but it’s 100% ripped off from DMC.

Hope you enjoyed my pictures…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Choosing the iPad for indie game development

Pixel iPad, Image Courtesy of SprayerDaYuri

Tomorrow is the day the iPad will officially be launched here in France. Many Apple fan-boys and others are feverishly waiting for it. For indie game developers, iPad is a promising new platform, and after a few months of spreading the US market, 44% of iPad apps are games. How does it impact to indie newcomers in game development? Formerly, my project was to target hardcore gamers, typically Steam users. I didn’t have any good a priori about Apple new device, and it took me a while to understand how the iPad can be a gamer must-have. I admit now that it the iPad has deeply changed all my projects. This is why I didn’t post on this blog the last four weeks: I needed time to digest that information and decide which road to take.

The bigger screen is everything

While I’m really astonished by the gaming potential of the iPad, I can’t say the same thing about the iPhone. I still think it’s a poor gaming device for anything else than small games. Doodle Jump and Panic Parachutes are two great games (and two best sellers) in the action category, and I can’t imagine bigger games for that small screen. Maybe that’s just me, but I have the conviction that Multitouch needs more space to unleash its true power. So, I think different about iPad, especially because its wide playing area. It’s like saying I wouldn’t play soccer in the cubbyhole, but in the garden…

Definitely, I think that the iPhone is doomed to casual games, because its small screen, and it’s no surprise if Nintendo president saw Apple as its new sole “Ennemy” ( since the Wii launch, Nintendo strategy is mainly focused on casual games, see the DSi XL for senior audience now…).

iPad + Desktop projects

iPad is cool and fun, it’s my new toy as a gamer and as a developer, but I’m still attached to PC games. So what? PC or iPad? Both! Because I think these two worlds are compatible, I will take both roads. This is why I’m now looking for a game design I can easily port to PC. The goal is not to mimic PC games (like all those crappy fighting games) but to really take the most out of the Multitouch capabilities. Popcap did an awesome job to make this happen on Plant vs Zombies HD. The game was excellent on PC. It’s nothing but brilliant on iPad, thanks to the multitouch and the cleverness of developers who tuned the gameplay at its best. They didn’t just increase the resolution of the (average) iPhone version and add “HD” in the title. In fact, direct ports from iPhone to iPad (something we could call “the HD syndrome”) aren’t very exciting. As a gamer, what I expect is iPad games which were not possible to make on iPhone. Otherwise, the “HD” suffix only means “nothing else than prettier graphics inside”.

To take the most of the Multitouch capabilities, the iPad version should be developed first. It sounds that the perfect version is the iPad version, and it’s true. That’s what we can see with Plant vs Zombies: the iPad version is superior to the PC version. Why? It’s funnier to play, nothing else, thanks to the multitouch controls… As a consequence, I see now the PC version as a one-touch port from the iPad, even if it was released one year before! So I guess this is what I’m going to do for my game development: 1) get something awesome on iPad 2) expect hardcore gamers to be epileptic enough to simulate multitouch with mouse clicks :-)

I know this is not obvious to build a gameplay which can be fun on both platforms, but that’s another cool challenge for me.

iPad + Multiplayer?

This is the point where I’m not convinced at all. Is iPad comfortable to play multiplayer online games? iPad is rather a toy you want to play alone with, in your world, at home or on holidays, but I’m not sure I want anyone from the outside coming in. I can’t explain this clearly now, it’s a matter of physical perception of things, others and technology.

Strangely enough, I don’t bother if a friend put his hands on my iPad, and I share some privileged moments my friends and family around the iPad running offline multiplayer games. An example: Small World. This is the adaptation of a board game from the same company. The hard part is to know the rules, but once you know them, and once you find a friend to play with, it’s really enjoyable.

My point is: multiplayer iPad games remain in the offline world. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe that’s because there aren’t any online multiplayer game I can enjoy now on the iPad… I don’t know… but I feel that the iPad experience is tight to the personal and physical entourage of its owner.

This impression ruins my previous analysis about making online multiplayer games on PC. But I can still afford to adapt my strategy, and I think that creating something great on iPad is more important to me than creating an online multiplayer game on PC.

In my next posts, I will recount my first steps in the iPad development world as a common PC developer. I know it sounds like a switch :-)

Monday, April 26, 2010

My five top reasons to be Indie

Image from Mobygames

I know I should stop brainstorming and run into production, but I feel the need to share those deep motivations that pushed me on the way of game creation. If that’s invigorating to me, maybe that’s invigorating to you…

1- You love games, and you want to create that cool game in your way. It's still very nice when you are your first customer, and this is a great chance to be involved in something you love, especially when you are the boss, when you move the ship in the direction you choose, when you drive.

2- The Rise of the download era and online payment.
Whether your game is for the casual market or for the gamer market, there are number 1 download service operators doing a giant business:
- If you make casual games, you can't go without Bigfish. Luckily, it's not hard to be on Bigfish. The business model is very robust, and if you bring enough value your game can generate a comfortable income. The competition on this market is very tough, but who knows...
- If you make games for gamers, being on Steam is a priority, but you will need good reviews of your game, or they won't even answer to your emails. There is less competition on this market, so if your game is really fun and attractive you can still make business on your own.

3- Some crazy dudes shown us the way.
More accurately: Jonathan Blow, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel shown us the way. Ok, I won't go playing soccer even if Beckham shown me the way. The question is: can I play soccer as good as Beckham? Answer: Not even in my dreams. Can I create something as good as what Jonathan Blow did? Answer: Well I hope, but maybe I'm dreaming, and I will never know if I don't give it a try!
Anyway, even if they are now joining in a kind of superhero league against the villain publishers, these guys are not superheroes. They have very good ideas, they have the skills to realize them with solid computer science background. That's a huge work, and I hope that's within my reach.

4- There are some proven solutions to online marketing
This is the logic sequel from point #3: the crazy dudes didn’t have any marketing forces, but that’s not a reason to think they didn’t have a solid marketing strategy. Not only it would to be a big mistake to think so, but it would also be insulting for their brains. I can’t imagine they were that lucky. Of course luck is still a factor. They made a great game with solid and fun gameplay mechanics, all with beautiful content. They added value to the gaming panorama, definitely, but that’s not all: they knew how to tell the world about it.
Even if that’s the most interesting point here, I won’t develop it for the moment. In a next post, I will explain my views about the best "indie path" from the game prototype to its release and after. Whatever your strategy is, it should all start with the same creed: Blog early, at the very beginning of your project. That's just what I'm doing with this blog, just like every other indie game developer around. Blogging has become mandatory to get exposure. Of course, that's also a place to share views, tech advices, etc. But first of all, this is the main window between your geek-room and the rest of the world.
A side note: burry this stupid idea that ideas can be stolen, ideas are not important, while turning ideas into realworld games are.

5- if, like me, you decide to target the hardcore gamers, your potential audience may be lower but the current PC gamers is under-served (see the reasons in my previous post), so any new game in this genre will attract all those starving gamers. At least, it will attract me… That’s my “Build it and they will come” reason.

Last but not least, I forgot the obvious (number 0) reason to jump into game creation is the community of indie game developers. This is not specific to game development since any given community is usually very active on Internet (fishing, bowling, plane modeling...), but that's a good reason anyway. People around love to share their experience and skills, and this is a huge value for every newcomer!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Picking up the right design for my first Indie game

Pixelart Landscape 2: Watching

by Josiah Sparklepants
Image used under Creative Commons license

Let’s say I have 10+ game designs in my notebooks and dozens of drawings here and there. They are all focused on hardcore gamers since I’m one of this tribe, and my imaginary games are the ones that I just can’t play in the real world. Anyway, the fact is that my budget to go in production is low, and I can’t do everything by myself, so I have to pick up in my notebooks a game design which is the most compatible with my means. After months of brainstorm about my first game, I can now conclude that I should:
  • Go 2D
  • Go Online Multiplayer
Go 2D

- In top-notch 3D, a game is directly compared to AAA titles, and this arena is already overcrowded with multi-millions dollars productions. So let’s simply avoid an unfair competition.

- Big publishers don’t create very much 2D stuffs (except « King of fighters » series and other 2D fighting games), so, if you are not cloning any of the Street Fighter friends, there are great chances that you can be noticed.

- Any 2D title that comes up is often identified as an Indie game, or as a smaller game which price can be lower. Not « low » as in « budget », but « low » as in « you have as much as what you paid for ».

- 2D doesn’t mean « not 3D ». In fact, what’s important is the original style behind the word « 2D ». You can use 3D cell shading, or any rendering trick that gives a retro feeling, or – at least – a handmade feeling. That doesn’t mean using amateur content (it’s obvious to say the production value should be as high as possible) but that means giving a human face to your game. It’s like smelling the wood of the barrels when visiting a French wine exploitation. To me, I think it's easier to give this handcrafted feeling in 2D. 3D is often seen as a cold media, and you will need really great artists to blast your 3D content out of this coldness... or to find this cool shader that works. That's why I still prefer 2D over any 3D trick...

The goal is to be different from the AAA offer, so whatever is the look of your game, it has to be original and instantly differentiable, and choosing 2D graphics is just a common way to achieve this distinction.

Go Online Multiplayer

If you create a platformer or an adventure game, you have to ensure the players to keep it playing during a significant amount of time, say 6-10 hours (especially if the demo is 60 or 80 minutes). Even 6 hours of game implies huge content. In fact, any solo game requires an impressive amount of graphics content. But if you go multiplayer, your content is basically: players + 1 arena. You may add more arenas in the future but having just one is OK for the beta. Another route is to design a solo game where levels are easily built-up: any breakout game or some very clever designs (Cactus Bruce for example). In fact, Casual games – with the exception of adventure-casual games - are in general made around this model: no heavy-content levels, no-multiplayer, and that’s OK for the casual crowd.

We know that Hardcore gamers are more demanding. So if you remove the solo campaign, you have to release a multiplayer mode. If the multiplayer is awesome, they won’t even notice that the solo campaign is missing, simply because that’s not the purpose of your game.

The perfect example

A good example of such a game is Plain Sight (released on April 5th) from UK-based Beatnik Games. This game is roughly: retro-cartoon 3D + online multiplayer. The retro style means to me that it looks original enough so you can't even think it's a dirty made clone of any AAA title (see 1 screenshot and you get immediately 2 feelings: graphics are cool + it's not VALVE). And the fact that you can’t play this game alone is simply a way to avoid to produce large levels to feed those gamers who finished the solo campaign of Modern Warfare 2 in less than 10 hours. The result is still appealing to them thanks to the online multiplayer nature of the game.
I really think this is the perfect way for indies to propose something tailored to hardcore gamers in the current gaming panorama.

That said, it's not obvious to develop an online multiplayer game, and Beatnik Games (8 people) is more a small studio organization than an indie dude in his garage... So, in my next post, I will see more deeply the pros and cons of making an online multiplayer game, starting with the dev questions and how difficult it is to implement network functionalities in a game.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Targeting hardcore gamers – Part 3

Computer of the Dust
Image courtesy of Skeddles

In part 1, I gave my own internal reason to target hardcore gamers: that's what I play, and if I build something I enjoy, there are great chances that it can be appealing to others.

In part 2, I gave a market view, an external reason to target hardcore gamers, that can be summarized with this fact: hard-core PC gamers are not fed with the current offering of smaller titles.

Another fact is that, each year, there are more AAA titles that I want to buy than indie titles, and believe me: I watch everything, and I instantly buy any game that could entertain me.
So, in this last part, I give of my point of view about why I am starving of fresh cool and small games, and why other hardcore PC gamers may feel like me.

The reasons are:

1) Everybody seem to think hardcore gamers prefer gamepads, and have bought a XBox to rush on XBLA

I think it's wrong. One thing is to own a console, and another thing is to play on a PC with mouse-centric gamedesigns which are not huge FPS. When I search for such games, my choice is very limited. This argument will be blown away when consoles will have mouse and keyboard controls, but that's not the case right now and there is no industry move in this direction yet (despite this awesome mouse for PS3 made by a very quiet third-party).

The deep underneath choice in going to create a game for XBLA is: gamepad-based game design and mechanics. As a consequence, if the game is ever ported to Windows, traditional PC gamers won't feel at home... and I think that most of cool XBLA developers have understood this, and they don't insult PC gamers with ill-adapted game conversions.

2) The dev crowd is captured by the current buzz

Casual games, iPhone, and now the iPad... Those new gaming Eldorados are like Blackholes swallowing all indie developers around! When you see what has just been released on Steam, comparing to what they released one year ago... I know it's bad to compare (especially when I compare what cannot be compared) but it's like everyone has abandoned the spaceship except Doctor Hans Reinhardt.

3) Many developers feel that they would compete with AAA titles if the gameplay is too sharp

This is wrong if your game doesn't aim to be the next Half Life. Your project should not require too much graphics content, simply because this is incompatible with indie means. There are some very good indie developers around, trying to make some huge 3D project. This is very ambitious, in particular when you watch their impressive tech videos, but I think this is very risky, because the final game will be inevitably compared to current 3D production values of traditional publishers... where there is a bloody competition.

On the "small games" side, this is the exact opposite: there is less and less competition, because Publishers makes too few small games for gamers and when they do, it's a go-to-hell sign for PC gamers:

a) when a first party publisher makes a small game, the game is reserved to the online store to promote their own platform.

b) when a traditional publisher makes a small game, they just think PC gamers are not worth the effort (Capcom released ONE "small" 2D game in 2010: Megaman 10 ; Namco remakes are for Wiiware only). This choice is relevant since traditional publishers never shown anything that is: small + use PC controls (ie mouse/keyboards). It's like there is quite nothing between a VALVE hardcore FPS and a cool action indie game (except maybe Torchlight and a few others).

c) finally, when a traditional publisher makes a small game, they fail. Lucidity from LucasArts is a great example of what a a false true indie game can be, it's a good example of failure too. I think they don’t really know how to do this kind of games anymore and it’s no surprise if EA now chase the best of them (and they change the target from PC to PS3, which - in the case of Shank - is a good choice since this game has to be enjoyed with a gamepad).


If you create PC games, resist to the temptation to condemn Hardcore gamers. I'm sure that when the Apple tide is going out, true gamers will stand. And, now, at high tide, with only some small fishes around, there is a huge opportunity for game creators to innovate in projects tailored specifically to hardcore gamers.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Targeting hardcore gamers – Part 2

Soon after I understand that I could only make a good game if it’s targeted to me, I started thinking about real market opportunities. These are the external reasons; I mean all the reasons independent from myself, my skills and my ability to make games. I would have jump into game development even if I didn’t find anything cool during my researches, but – as results are good – I think it’s worth sharing my conclusions here. And it’s always invigorating to know you enter a cool and welcoming area.

As I said in part 1, a first reason to enter the game development could be the community by itself. Indie game developers love to blog, tweet, talks in forums, etc. And it’s an awesome resource for newcomers. Of course, this epileptic network activity is a way to get exposure on the net, and I couldn’t say that this is not one of the goals of Indie Game Soup (despite the fact that my blog is anonymous). But that’s a lot more than this. I don’t think you can make friends when your goals are purely commercial. And I’ve read many posts on the Indie Gamer Forum where it’s obvious to say that friends are talking together there.

So, Ok for the dev community, what’s about the real market? Well, my deep feeling, as a customer, is that hardcore gamers are not fed with the current offering for small titles. And this is especially true for those who don’t own the Xbox360, where the XBLA has a lot to offer (but also a lot of so-so games). On PSN and Wiiware, there is more selection by Sony and Nintendo, and, consequently, there are far less titles. So, is it an Eldorado for indie game developers? Unfortunately, the answer is No. As a console gamer, I looked at this business first, and I must admit I felt frustrated by what I discovered: the current state is that it’s longer and longer to get your game approved on XBLA, while it’s very hard to put hands on PS3 or Wii devkits if you are not yet in the industry. The fact is that it’s a pain to get on consoles if you are not supported and sponsored by a publisher. As a consequence, the console market is not the “cool and welcoming area” I talked about. That’s more like a fortress. And to smash in the portcullis of the console fortress, you will first need a success on the PC side or get enough exposure during your development to speed up the XBLA approval. Anyway, if your game design requires a gamepad, I could only recommend going XBLA, simply because most PC gamers don’t have any gamepad. If, by chance, your game has mouse and keyboard controls, then rush on the PC side, because that’s where heaven is waiting:

The facts:

- Steam is king.

- To get on Steam, you need to have either a publisher or very good reviews of your game.

- You can get reviews by 1) having a great game and 2) competing at the Independent Game Festival.

And this is supposed to be heaven?!? Ok, this still sounds difficult, but the bet looks more winnable to me, especially if you consider a true hardcore game, simply because they are not enough such games. If we consider the Indie section of Steam, here is the picture:

Total games released on Steam in 2009 in the Indie category = 68.

The average is between 5 and 6 indie games per month. These are low numbers. In Q1 2010, Steam has released 20 games in the Indie category, 30 in the Action category and 31 in the Strategy category. Of course there are some overlaps but we can quickly conclude that there are more big titles out on Steam than smaller games, maybe twice. This sounds like a paradox since Indie games usually don’t require as much time to develop as AAA products. Maybe the Steam internal policy is to limit the Indie offer so that it does not “pollute” too much the primary store, but I don’t think so. They simply want the best offer for their hardcore audience. And, naturally, they are demanding and this is exactly why they ask for good reviews.

In part 3, I will give try to explore why so few developers go this way. This will conclude my thoughts about the external reasons I can find to make games for hardcore gamers.