Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Keys to working with offsite writers


Managing multiple writers, particularly ones you don’t see in person everyday, can be an extremely difficult task. Maintaining a consistent character voice or organized plotline is difficult for one writer, and while spreading it among different contributors helps to alleviate each individual workload, keeping everything straight becomes quite a challenge for the person in charge of the project.

In Kiwi’s quest-based games, new content is introduced on a weekly basis - that’s a lot of work for the teams creating it. Kiwi tasks much of this new content creation to off-site contract writers. Some of our contractors work on the main plot, which is weaved into a continuing story, others work on stand alone quest chains. Having offsite writers is crucial for our workflow, and I’ve compiled some best practices on how to manage the multiple personalities and work styles. 



Choose Excellent Writers 
The first step to establishing the top-quality writing team you’re looking for is to find top-quality writers. This may seem like an obvious step, but doing your due diligence at the beginning of the teambuilding process can save you countless headaches down the road.

First and foremost, test your new additions.  No matter how exemplary the referral, it’s important to test each individual. I give the writers tests that are more difficult than the actual contract writing required in order to be sure they can meet or exceed the needs of the game writing. 

Assuming they meet your expectations and pass whatever test you give them, keep up the close scrutiny for their first few projects. If they aren’t excited about writing and willing to learn, they probably won’t be a longterm solution for your team. Writers can get very defensive about their work (no matter how simple the mistake), and that can be a deal-breaker. Avoid these kinds of complications at all costs. 


Train Your Writers
Once you’ve found an external writer worth working with, it’s important to get him or her up to speed ASAP. I recommend having a writers guide or wiki. You don’t want to explain the world, characters, and the plot repeatedly to each new writer. If you have a single document that you can send to each person you work with, you’ll save time ramping new team members up and correcting simple mistakes later down the line. For complicated projects, get into the habit of writing and keeping outlines. That way, you don’t have to remember what should be coming next or whether they hit the right points. 

To make sure your writers are ready for the job ahead, start them off small. Give prompts to the writer during their first few projects. I will give a writer a 3-quest chain that has the characters listed, and all prompts written in. As I become more comfortable that they know the material, I remove the prompts and give them more control over what they write. 

Finally, make sure to give plenty of feedback - positive and negative. It’s important to encourage the writers, as well as give them guidance on nuances in the writing. 


Think Like a Writer
The best way to make sure new writers are contributing meaningful content to your story is to know the story yourself. You should know more than anyone what is going on, how the characters sound, and what they would and would not do. 

At the same time, don’t be afraid to learn from your writers. Encourage your writers to really think outside the box, and let them run with ideas that they are passionate about. Even if I end up making plenty of edits in the final draft, I love learning new ideas from my writers on how to squeeze a multitude of information into 125 characters. 

That said, make sure to leave enough time to make necessary edits and ensure that everything is a good fit. I prefer about a week of runway before launch day, but more complicated stories or projects may require more attention. I’ve also had a few writers disappear on me at inopportune times (usually for legitimate reasons), and I had to quickly turn their project over to someone else. The more time you leave for final edits, the less you have to scramble at the end.


This is by no means all that it takes to manage a team of writers, but it’s a good place to start. It’s extremely important to know the people you’re working with - at least as far as personality, skill, and accountability - so that you can plan accordingly. 


- Trisha Huang
Game Writer, Kiwi, Inc.

Friday, August 22, 2014

An Artist Transitions from Console to Mobile Games: Lessons Learned


Before joining Kiwi Inc., I spent the first five years of my career working on AAA console games. In more than two years since I’ve been with Kiwi, I have learned a lot about the differences between each platform. Previous experiences with projects like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 were instrumental to helping me gain a bearing in the games industry, but ultimately offered less tangible experience when applied to mobile games.

That’s because mobile game development is a very different process than building games for PC and consoles. Even though the end goal of building any game is same - to create something fun and engaging - the nature of the mobile platform is different, and demands a totally different approach for artists and developers. In many cases, the lessons of “traditional” game development can get mobile developers into trouble! If you are an artist or developer looking to make the jump from AAA to mobile development, consider shifting these paradigms when you get started building games for mobile.

Build an Elite Squad...Not an Army
Console game teams are generally huge, and each member has a specific function or skill set.  In contrast, mobile game teams need to be able to move fast and hard like an elite team of Navy Seals. Like these commandos, mobile developers need to be be multi-talented to handle new challenges and more than just experts in their domain. Mobile game timelines are short and the pivots can be hard. Developers need to adapt and be capable of filling in key gaps to survive in such a harsh climate. An environment of trust should also be fostered because smaller teams lack the redundancy that larger teams have, and each member is tasked with a larger individual responsibility.        

See the Big Picture on the Small Screen
In PC or console games, attention to detail adds richness and depth to the worlds you create. On a 5 inch screen, that level of immersion is much more difficult to achieve. Knowing when and where to pull back visually is crucial - not all detail is good detail when everything needs to be readable on a pocket-sized screen. Think big shapes with contrast and strong color palettes. Testing your assets on a mobile screen as soon as possible (and NOT on a monitor or LED TV) can help troubleshoot small problems before they become major issues. This will help cut down your production time and costs.

Prototype Like Iron Man
Games are not easy to make. The mobile market seems to shift every few months, and developers are forced to get on board quickly or be left behind. In order to be effective, companies have to be able to produce quickly, learn from their mistakes, and adjust to the new climate. Building a prototype, whether it is an animatic in flash or a slice of the game with only its core elements, is crucial. Here is the feedback loop: Build core elements, get feedback and iterate until you get it right.

Pipeline to Success
For any game developer to be successful, they need a rock solid pipeline. Artists need to be able to see their work in the game with the click of a button, and nothing can cripple the development of a game faster than slow asset delivery and iteration.  Applying the same rigorous approach to pipeline development, regardless of the project’s size or scale, is key to avoiding headaches in the future. This is something worth investing in or hiring someone to set up for you.

It’s All About Scale
Mobile game budgets are tighter, timelines are shorter, and teams are smaller than those at console or PC studios. With that in mind, outsourcing work can be crucial to economically scale your operation. Finding good outsourcing vendors, especially ones who can deliver with quality at a price you can afford, can be difficult so can consider hiring a team of remote freelancers. You may need to also add an art outsourcing manager or personally manage the team, but generally freelancers are flexible, skilled, and easier to negotiate with than large art vendors. 


About the author: JUAN MENDIOLA
Juan Mendiola has 7+ years of experience in the entertainment industry as a 3D artist,working for companies such as Electronic Arts, Activision and Walt DisneyFeature Animation. One of the highlights of his career was being part of theteam behind Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which generated 1 billion dollarsin revenue in 15 days. Currently, Juan is the Lead 3D artist Palo Alto-based Mobile Gaming startup Kiwi. Some of his professional interestsinclude entrepreneurship, mobile games and 3D printing. Juan's personalwork can be viewed at www.designsbyjuan.com.

This article was originally published on App Developer Magazine, on August 22nd, 2014. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Feature Friday #18 - Dungeon Plunder

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. 

~~~

Okay, no more soccer games for a while, I promise. Actually this week I’ve been playing a game that’s really unlike anything I’ve seen in a while. Dungeon Plunder is a semi-open world roguelike that oozes old school. It does a great job of mixing chance and strategy, and offers way more depth than you might expect. 

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t hot on Dungeon Plunder at first glance. The icon could use some work and both the pixels and somewhat clunky controls threw me a bit. It’s nice that you can choose your class from two or three options (this varies based on the game version - more on this later), and although not immediately apparent, your choice makes a pretty big difference. The game basically consists of your character roaming around fighting monsters and collecting rewards, pretty standard stuff. But Dungeon Plunder’s combat system is probably the highlight of the game, and really deserves a closer look. 


When you engage an enemy you’re presented with a five reel slot machine. The same symbols appear on all the reels even though each character has an item only they can use. Turns are fast and play out basically like a hand of five card draw: one spin gives you items, you choose how many you want to keep, then you spin again and keep the results. Any item you have at least two of will affect play that turn - two weapons deals damage, two hearts heal you, etc. - and the more you have of each item, the more its effect is amplified. Each character class also gains stat points and special abilities by leveling up - e.g. amplifying damage or gaining extra spins. Combine these with the reel selection in battles, and players have a good amount of agency, keeping play fresh a long time. 

This is all helped by the roguelike element, where each death is permanent, but some traits and items carry over to your next game. I haven’t been able to determine exactly when or how, but if you progress far enough in one game, you get to start over at a higher level the next time you play with that class again. You can also find runes randomly throughout the game - item drops that permanently immbue your character with stats - to help advance progress farther each time. 


True roguelikes frustrate me, so I think this is a pretty good compromise. Between the art and the fairly barebones nature of the game, I’m assuming that Dungeon Plunder was a fairly low budget game. In this context, roguelikes are a great way to save money - most players won’t be able to advance too far, or at least not before you’re able to expand the game. Though as I’ve already mentioned, Dungeon Plunder is really fun and fairly deep, because the developer allowed enough of your progress to carry over. Well done. 

I think the thing that impresses me most about Dungeon Plunder is how it handles multiple elements of mobile so well. Sure the graphics and leveling up are more reminiscent of NES or old PC gaming, but there’s more. All too often these days, developers try to implement a gambling or randomized element into their games, and rarely does it create a fun experience that doesn't feel slimeyDungeon Plunder’s slot machine style battles are a perfect example of how this can be done right: they’re fun, strategic, and un-monetized. Equally important is the fact that the entire game is untimed and mostly playable with one hand. These are crucial features for mobile games - even ones with core elements - because they emphasize strengths of the platform: playing on the go and in short bursts. All the enemies in Dungeon Plunder are stationary, and even battles can go as quickly or slowly as you allow. All of this mixes extremely well with semi-roguelike to create an experience that’s immersive, but not too serious. 


My biggest criticism for this game isn’t even content-based, it’s one of confusion. There are two versions of Dungeon Plunder in the App Store - one paid, one free - but both offer IAPs for additional content. Fortunately, a quick google search produced an explanation the developer gave on Reddit

"Sorry for the confusion - here's a rundown of the differences:
Free has 2 classes with ads, Paid has 3 with no ads. Ads will be removed off the free when you spend $3 worth of classes/skins.
Free version has IAP runes and scrolls available, paid doesn't have them.
Full upgrade (platinum) with all classes and skins ends up costing the same as it's priced $2 cheaper on the paid but if you're just interested on the missing classes you'll save $1 by using the free version ($0+$3) vs Paid ($1.99 + $2.00).”

That may not all make sense without having played the game much, but it’s actually a fantastic answer. The developer not only provided a fully functional free version, he created a more robust paid edition and left a way to get the same full game no matter which you originally chose. 

Dungeon Plunder looks mediocre at best, but in actuality is way better than that. Such a deep experience, built explicitly for mobile, does a ton to cover up what are ultimately superficial shortcomings. This is a game that crosses several genres and really captures the best elements of all of them. 

~~~

Dungeon Plunder is only available on iOS but has equally cool free and paid versions. It’s definitely worth checking out the free one, and from there you can decide if and how you want to upgrade your experience. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, July 11, 2014

Feature Friday #17 - Pixel Cup Soccer: Maracanazo Crush Brazil

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. ~~~ I didn’t write a post last week because Friday was the Fourth of July, but we’re back and the World Cup is still going, so let’s finish it off with another soccer game. This week it’s Pixel Cup Soccer: Maracanazo Crush Brazil (say that three times fast), a pretty fun soccer sim that captures the old school arcade feeling, but doesn’t really bring enough to the table. Pixel Cup Soccer: Maracanazo Crush Brazil starts with a quick intro video, alluding to the real-life match giving the game its name (I’ll abbreviate that going forward, but the full title is relevant here, plus it’s also necessary to differentiate it from the company’s other game, simply Pixel Cup Soccer). The Uruguayan developers at Batovi Games Studio made a really cool pixelated video that both provides context for the game and highlights their country’s triumph. Fittingly, they’ve set the player as their home team, pitted against the soccer powerhouse that is Brazil.
No hometown bias at all...
The soccer part plays very much like an old NES sports game with only two buttons and player quality that’s dramatically varied, and it’s great! Many sports games today are able to handle realistic detail and nuanced play, but just as often, the games seem to trip over themselves in the process. Too many controls, pass variations, chip shots, et al. often complicates gameplay and crushes the overall experience. Pixel Cup Soccer keeps it simple and creates a very playable game - on offense you can pass or shoot, on defense you’re able to switch players and slide tackle. That’s it. 
Scoring isn’t too difficult - it basically requires doing laps in front of the goalie until you get him out of position, or curving a shot past him. In a weird twist, one goal is all that’s required to “win”, because a single Brazilian goal ends the game. This shifts the challenge from whether you can score, to how many times you can net the ball. 


You can also pay to keep playing

The 45 minute clock is sped up to two minutes of real time, and each goal you score subtracts 10:30 from the time elapsed. With goals possible in less than five minutes of game time, your potential high-score is limitless, though I’ve had trouble reaching double digits consistently, and 154 is the mark to beat as of this writing. I enjoyed the gameplay and have had a good time with Pixel Cup Soccer, but with virtually no customization available, it gets old pretty fast.

Pixel Cup Soccer isn’t a bad game, and it succeeds in capturing the old school feel. The art is great, gameplay is super easy to learn and not too difficult to master, and the Game Center competition makes you want to keep playing. If you’re looking for a retro experience and a couple hours of fun, this should cut it, but the game lacks depth. For a free game that doesn’t bludgeon you too hard with ads, that’s not the end of the world, just would’ve liked to see a little more given how well it started. ~~~ Pixel Cup Soccer: Maracanazo Crush Brazil is free on iOS and Google Play. It’s aforementioned counterpart, Pixel Cup Soccer, can be found on both iTunes and Amazon App Stores for $1.99. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, June 27, 2014

Feature Friday #16 - Score! World Goals

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. 

~~~

The World Cup’s here and everyone seems to be talking soccer (or football, or fĂștbol, depending on where you’re from). So I felt it was only right to check out a soccer game this week in hopes of getting even more people interested in the world’s most popular game. I’ve played many of the popular soccer simulators like Fifa, but wanted something different. I was excited to have found it in Score! World Goals, but my initial enthusiasm waned as I got further into the game. 

Score! doesn’t have you play out a whole soccer game, but instead puts in you climatic situations and has you control the key passes and shots leading to major goals. This is fun, different, and often very well done. A lot of the levels are really intuitive and play out smoothly, making you feel like a soccer star, even with little or no prior knowledge required. I like the bitesized pieces and the attention to detail with regards to players, teams, and historical events - cleverly working around the lack of league or FIFA rights - making the game unmistakably about soccer while simultaneously focusing on precision as much as the sport itself. The problem is that the control (which is the key to gameplay) is really hit or miss, at times feeling just right, but often leaving me scratching my head. 


Sneaky...

Taking full advantage of the touch interface, you drag the ball to its target - whether pass or shot. The game follows your motion pretty well and there’s no time limit, but the biggest problem I’ve had is that Score! often shows you a path that’s inconsistent with the action required to actually beat a level. Before each level you’re shown a diagram detailing the ideal path of the ball (you’re also able to refer back to this map whenever you want during play), and the game stops each time action is required. While you can see where the ball needs to end up, how it gets there becomes the challenge, though I’ve found it’s not always a good one. The game uses a three-star scoring system, as each pass and shot is rated “Ok”, “Good”, or “Excellent”, though this is extremely inconsistent in its own right. So far Score! has mostly alternated between mindlessly easy and impossibly difficult, rarely reaching that hallowed middleground. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, because each Excellent pass is satisfying in itself, and many levels can be repeated at rapid fire, but it also bogs down more than I’d like. In between passes the computer runs the rest of the play itself, kind of neat if you like soccer, but more often building frustration, especially on levels that require a lot of tries. I’ve found these instances to crush replayability and hamper my overall impression of the game. 

I only briefly mentioned the issues with the scoring, and I won’t go too much deeper, but it does deserve a little more explanation. In a level with only one or two actions required (such as a free kick), there can only be so much variation in your movements. I feel the game does a poorer job in these instances, giving too much leniency on some bad plays, but making others frustratingly vague. Plenty of passes also seem to get near enough to your players, only to have them run right past the ball or stop short because it didn’t quite reach the game’s hit box. These cases could certainly qualify as Ok, allowing for more differentiation between Good and Excellent passes, a much bigger problem I’ve seen overall. Way too often I’ve seemed to make an identical motion, only to have it scored drastically different between tries, this is frustrating and devalues the experience by making performance seem much more random than it should.


The ball is literally behind you

The worst part is that a lot of these things could’ve been avoided, and Score! could be a really great game. A simple way to skip dead time would make me much more willing to replay levels, subsequently earning more in-game currency, "credits", and eventually playing longer. Other small tweaks to the actual scoring and players’ ability would’ve made a big difference too. It would also be really cool if the quality of your passes affected your subsequent passes and shots - for instance, an Excellent first pass makes it easier to have a high scoring second pass, while an Ok first pass makes it that much more difficult based on the players’ positions. Something like this happens in a couple of levels, but it seems like a fairly minor change that would’ve made the game much more dynamic. The gameplay is pretty cool, and if it were polished a little more, could be something truly great. 

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed playing Score! is the game’s advertisements. It’s a free title and I certainly don’t mind them showing ads, especially because they’ve done a really great job in a couple of areas. First, ads seem to be shown at a pace proportional to your in-game progress. That is, when you’re rolling through levels in just a try or two each you don’t see many ads at all, but when you get stuck for a few minutes on a level you’re sure to see one when you finally do advance. Secondly, a good percentage of the interruptions aren’t actually the ads themselves, they’re a prompt asking if you’d like to view a video ad in exchange for credits. Not unique, and I can’t fully assess how this affects their advertising revenue, but certainly more user friendly than they need to be. 

Score! is also an extremely deep game, with close to 50 level packs, each containing 30 original levels, played out three times each at different difficulties. That’s a lot of soccer, coupled with a unique daily goal as well. I’d argue that the game could use some serious work in its UI - the main menu is more than a little cluttered, and the level selection screen isn’t as fluid as I’d like - but cosmetic preferences always come second to functionality. With the depth offered I hoped Score! would be a little more generous with their credits, though I’ve found the pace is basically one level pack at a time, after which you’ve earned enough to unlock another. 


Too. Many. Options.

All things considered, Score! is unique and certainly has its fun moments, but lacks a lot too. I’ve been constantly frustrated with the controls and even left levels unbeaten on more than one occasion - truly a rarity for me. The game’s daily goals keep it going, and my desire to try new level packs have kept me interested (especially during the World Cup), but I often feel that my interest is not being fully rewarded, which isn’t exactly ideal. If you’re looking for something a little different to satisfy your soccer cravings, check out Score!, just make sure you bring plenty of patience too. 

~~~

Score! World Goals is free on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. While it may not be perfect, Score! is pretty fun and definitely something different, so if you’re going a little soccer crazy right now it’s worth checking out if you have any of those platforms. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, June 20, 2014

Feature Friday #15 - Yukon Warrior



Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. 

~~~

It’s really hard to make a great game, even harder to make one that’s perfect. That’s all I could think about while playing Yukon Warrior this week. Here’s a really fun game that does a lot to make itself stand out in a sea of clones and uninspired spinoffs, but it doesn’t go all the way. The gameplay is shockingly fun, but ultimately gets a little too stale a little too fast and really leaves me wanting more. 

Yukon Warrior is effectively an endless (or at least auto-) runner, but it’s also a lot more than that. Instead of dashing to avoid a giant beast, or just trying to stay on level footing, you’re running into swarms of demonic woodland creatures, massacring everything in sight. Sounds a little crazy, is a little crazy, but also extremely fun. The game rocks the gore pretty well, but you don’t feel so bad for the animals as they try their best to trample, slash, and generally ravage you, eyes glowing red the whole time.

The resemblance is uncanny...

Even if you’re not a fan of demonic animal slaughter, Yukon Warrior is a blast to play. You have multiple attacks, each of which does something a little different to give you a chance against the waves of fauna stampeding towards you. Although the tap/drag/hold mechanics aren’t perfect, given the frenetic pace of the game, they do a pretty good job. They scale difficulty pretty well throughout the levels - adding powerups and upgrades as you reach bigger and badder animals - but ultimately stop too soon. After only 10 levels you reach the Last Stand, an endless showdown to see how long you survive against the undying undead. It’s in this process that the game shows its biggest weaknesses.

You can’t really say that Yukon Warrior doesn’t have depth, in fact there are dozens of upgrades available and each one gives your character a significant advantage over your foes. The problem is, it takes a disproportionately long time to accrue a worthwhile amount of “spirit”, the game’s currency. Coupled with the scant number of levels, this becomes a problem. If everything was spread out over 15 or 20 levels, rather than 10 , the grinding might not feel so… grindy, but even as fun as it is to beat down scores of savage animals, it does eventually get old. After several hours I got to one of the major upgrades - double tomahawks - and was able to effectively beat the game, but it still felt like too little too late. Admittedly, I’ve kept playing even past this point because as I said before, the gameplay itself is really satisfying, I just wish I had a little more to play for. I will say that having a leaderboard through Game Center is huge in letting me track my progress and strive for something (I’m #68 in the world as of this writing!), but it’s still not quite enough.


The developers also made Yukon Warrior as minimalistic as possible, and I’m still not sure if I like this or not. Reducing clutter is always preferable, so on the one hand this is nice. In the same vein though, a barely visible, but still robust menu can help a game quite a bit. The play screen is completely void of anything not related to gameplay, minus a small pause sign in one corner. That’s great, but when you activate the menu, your only options are Resume, Restart, and Wave Select. From Wave Select you can choose the levels, make purchases, and check the leaderboards, but that’s it. No sound options, no way to recall a tutorial or change the controls, no credits, nothing. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, it just feels unnecessarily blank. 

Let me reiterate that my biggest complaint about Yukon Warrior is that there isn’t enough, and that’s a pretty good problem to have. RareSloth Games did a really nice job making this game, especially given that it’s their first project, I just would’ve loved to see a little more. It seems that between the UI and level length, the developers went with the less-is-more approach, and while that’s probably better than bogging everything down with fluff, it’s disappointing given how great this game could be with a little more meat to it. 

~~~

All in all, Yukon Warrior is a pretty great game, and is more than worth the free price tag it holds on iOS. RareSloth’s website also has a Beta signup for their next game, and they offer some great tips for working with Mobile. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Finding Success in Failure

A good friend of mine died recently.  Fabio had cancer for the last 5 years but never quite drove it into remission.  The constant drugs and surgeries eventually took his life.

Fabio’s life couldn’t be more different from mine.  My professional life takes place in a chair at a screen, his took place outside in the open air.  I ride mountain bikes for fun to relax from the stress of work.  He was a truly world-class professional cyclist.  In his youth he was Italian national trials champion moving on to work full time in the bike industry as a product tester and product manager, finally starting his own business in SF.

Fabio seemed to have no limits on a bike.  Going for a bike ride with him was usually fodder for a story that started with “This one time, Fabio …”.

For example, there was this one time Fabio rode along a fallen tree that was about 15 foot above some abusively sharp rocks, clearly representing impending doom.  Once at the end, he hopped over a giant mound of upturned roots and back onto the trail in front of me.  I watched this from below as I cautiously walked my bike over the same rocks.  The magnitude of this can be expressed easily in words, you kind of had to be there.

Or this one time, Fabio rolled up to a 20 foot drop that most people would think twice about standing on top of, let alone consider it something to ride down. Unbelievably, I watched as Fabio rolled into the most casual vertical dive before pulling several Gs at the bottom, without even checking out the drop. His first words were “Did you get a good shot of that?” all the while with a smile on his face.

This is made all the more incredible when you consider he would do these things while treating cancer with plastic tubes digging at his insides, scars through his stomach and all sorts of chemicals pumping through his veins.

When he died I considered which one of these feats of daring had the most influence on me.  It turns out it was actually something very mundane and small.

This one time Fabio fell off his bike going around an easy corner.  I saw it happen.  It was because his front wheel fell out from under him because he was pushing his speed so hard.  This is a corner that most mortals like myself would ride virtually upright around, since the chance of falling on its wet roots was high.  I couldn’t believe he hit the corner at such a high velocity.  The fall obviously hurt, but Fabio brushed himself off and just kept going.  I asked if he was okay and he told me he’d been falling like that since he was a kid, so no worries.  In fact, he went on, if he didn’t take a fall like that at least once during a ride he wasn’t trying.

Without those little failures he wouldn’t have pushed his skills far enough to be able to do take on those bigger challenges.

There was an acceptance that failing was part of the process to ultimately succeed.

He didn’t dwell on the consequence of the fall.  He let his muscles absorb the knowledge of the limits of traction, but he didn’t allow his mind to linger, instead he was looking for the trail ahead and the next massively impressive stunt to conquer.

Now what does that have to do with making games?  We all spend so much time at work that it’s hard to not see that our general attitude to life bleeds into everything we do.  So now, I give myself permission to go beyond my own limits everyday, knowing that I’m probably going to fail once in a while.  But more importantly I try to encourage and empower others to push beyond their own limits too.  Like teaching my kids to ride their bikes, I have to fight the fatherly instinct to protect (aka micro manage) and learn to let go and see them take their own small spills as they fight for achievements far greater than anything I could have hoped for.

Fabio's influence then, I hope, is being felt by not only me, but also my family at home and at work.  Thanks Fabio.

- Jason Woodward
Executive Producer, Kiwi, Inc.

Feature Friday #14 - Gravity Lab!

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. 

~~~

First impressions are tough. So are second impressions. Sometimes you can immediately get a sense of what you’re walking into, other times not so much. That first line is an example of the latter, so is Gravity Lab, the game I’ve been playing this week. At its core this is just a three-star physics puzzler, but it’s also much more than that, and also a little less… Sorry, very confusing, I’ll explain. 

Visually, Gravity Lab is stunning. It’s really high quality 3D animation, and uses the Unity Engine as well as any game I’ve seen. Seriously, the opening cutscene instantly made me like this game (great first impression!). Then I started playing, and immediately wanted to go back and watch the cutscene a few more times. The first dozen or so levels of this game are absolutely… unimpressive. In fact almost the entire first Lab did nothing to differentiate itself from Angry Birds or the scores of other physics puzzlers out there, besides having really nice graphics (that would be a bad second impression…). Whether it was the graphics, my curiosity, or just the fact that I’d sat down to play this game and wanted to give it more than a couple minutes, I kept playing. It's a good thing too, because when I did, I found something pretty great. 
Oooohhh pretty...
I still wouldn’t say that Gravity Lab revolutionizes gaming or even the physics puzzler, but it certainly has enough going for it to keep me occupied, the problem is that it took quite a while getting there. The game has you drag and shoot a little robot named Steve around a zero-G space, hitting blocks and collecting stars. Steve can’t touch the stars or he zooms away, but the blocks nab the pointy little things and are your keys to success. The levels get interesting when the blocks start changing their gravitational pulls and outside forces like portals and trampolines are thrown into the mix. 

I blew through the entire first Lab in one train ride, needing more than one try on just a handful of the first 30 levels, and feeling largely unsatisfied. In fact, it took until the very end of the opening Lab to find any challenging puzzles at all. As I said earlier, this changed over time and I’ve since found myself stuck on levels for frustratingly long, but I believe the lag in getting to this step could be a major turnoff to less patient players. It seems the developers weighted the quantity of levels over the quality, but may have miscalculated. 

The decision to back-load the better (and more challenging) levels is a curious one, but it’s almost certainly an impact of the developers’ larger plan for the game. As a free-to-play title, Gravity Lab utilizes one of my favorite monetization methods: selling additional content. You can play the entire game for free if you go start to finish, or you can pay $3.99 to unlock later Labs, extra levels, and a whole bonus game. This is certainly an explanation for the boring levels being first - the developers are tempting you into paying if you like the overall gameplay, but are craving more of a challenge. It also allows both paying and non-paying users to have the experience they want with the game, and even stays away from that gross pay-to-win label. Buying all the levels will also allow you to play Gravity Lab offline, a uniquely shrewd feature unavailable to non-paying customers.
I will say that after getting to the bonus levels I was a little underwhelmed, but that’s not as negative as it may seem. The chase to unlock the bonus stages was such a challenge in itself that unless the prizes were phenomenal it wouldn’t really compare. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, but that does say how much I enjoyed nearly perfecting the game in the process. There are both bonus levels and a completely separate bonus game. The levels feature both green stars - which only Steve, not the blocks, can capture - and red stars - which can't be touched at all - and several different kinds of challenges. The bonus game, meanwhile, is essentially an endless runner mode (okay, it’s not technically endless, but I don’t think I’ve made it more than a quarter way through, so it might as well be) that’s been the hardest thing so far. You can buy extra lives and continues for the bonus game, serving as the only IAP other than the level unlock and plenty of hats.

Overall, this is a really good game that makes a great first impression visually, and a really so-so first play through. If you can make it past the first twenty or so levels you’ll really like Gravity Lab, and if you can’t, well there’s still the tutorial to watch over and over. Even ignoring the first chunk of levels which you should fly through, the game provides a lot of depth and a fair amount of replayability, and it’s definitely worth a look. 

~~~

Gravity Lab is available for free on both iOS and Android. You can also get it on BlackBerry World for $0.99, making it two weeks in a row that I’ve played a game that’s actually available on a platform other than iOS and Android, so that’s cool. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, June 6, 2014

Feature Friday # 13 - Worm Run

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. 

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I feel like my last two posts have been fairly negative, so with June starting I’m turning over a new leaf. Great timing too, because the game I’m playing this week is awesome. That game is called Worm Run, and it’s an endless running/jumping/flying platformer that flat out crushes everything it sets out to. I’ve discussed endless runners before (and probably will again), but I don’t know that any of them have been as complete as Worm Run

The comparisons to Jetpack Joyride can’t be missed, nor should they. Halfbrick created one of the best endless-whatevers, and I don’t think I’m assuming too much in saying the game had some influence on Worm Run (you’re flying a jetpack after all…). That doesn’t take anything away from Worm Run, though, and in fact makes it even more impressive, since it improves on pretty much every aspect of an already great game. Instead of autorunning and only maintaining the character’s elevation in a control scheme that hasn’t changed since the early days of Flash, Worm Run puts you in total directional control of your doomed little flyer, apparently named Zeke. You can run forward and backwards as well as control your flying with directional swipes. I think the coolest part of all is that you have to constantly swipe to keep your speed up, turning games into a flurry of thumb-flying action. 

Worm Run is fast and really fun, and would be a pretty sweet platformer game on it’s own, where it takes an extra huge step, but also stumbles a little, is the chase. On an ever-changing map littered with Grubies (from the developer’s name - Golden Ruby), navigating the spikes, lava pits, and other sources of imminent demise would be something of a challenge, but there’s of course the titular worm to deal with first. Everything about your enemy is perfect - its looks amazing, completely contrasted by both color and size against the background and runner, and moves in a way that optimizes both difficulty and fairness, while remaining visually interesting and physiologically accurate. The worm is able to chew through the platforms which stall Zeke, but is also forced to wind its way around the edges instead of cutting corners - this makes certain areas mad dashes but buys you time other places. 



It’s true that these controls are better than almost anything I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. The omni-directional movement is a little loose, and I swear there have been times that I’ve hit a gap only to be bounced off because my swipe wasn’t interpreted as I intended. This happens in plenty of games, but it's particularly frustrating when you’re trying to constantly avoid imminent destruction and have just a split second to outrun a giant evil worm. But I digress, if my sole complaint is that occasionally this game feels a little too hard, there isn’t really much to complain about. 

Worm Run is great, and has been for a while, seeing as it was successfully funded on Kickstarter back in December 2012. This is noteworthy, as only 35% of Kickstarter games are successfully funded, lower even than the 44% success rate for all projects (full data here). This doesn’t mean that all games are hopeless or that Worm Run is one of a kind, but there are certain things developers looking for crowdfunding can do, and Golden Ruby did enough of them right.



In fact, the developers did just about everything right, and made a really incredible game. I thought I’d seen it all from endless runners, but this isn’t just an endless runner. Simply put, Worm Run is a very well made game that looks great and plays even better. It very much allows for pick-up-and-play gaming, but has enough depth to keep you playing for quite a while. Stop reading, start playing it now.

~~~

Worm Run is available on Android and iOS for $0.99, and Windows phone for an even more ghastly $1.49! While free-to-play is nearly universal in the endless-whatever genre, the quality here really warrants the price tag if you’re at all a fan of these games. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Art Direction in Video Games - A roadmap for finishing your projects


These notes were inspired by the idea that it's difficult (near impossible?) to complete art for a game. The challenge is keeping the team inspired while working against deadlines, disagreements & lulls of creativity. 
  • Commit to a vision: If you have the luxury of time on your hands, create a style guide before other artists join the project. This forces you to actually think about what it is that you are doing and trying to accomplish, visually. Strive for consistency and clarity in style, shape, size, line, color, perspective and anatomy. Sell the team and yourself on the gestalt and the fiction of the game. Sounds daunting? Here’s a trick to take the pressure off; If you’re still trying to figure things out, schedule it in to your daily routine. Dedicate an hour at the end of each day for a week to reflect, curate, itemize and resolve your work. You will be left with the beginnings of an elegantly compiled style guide. 
  • Alignment in vision: Aim for each artist to have a clear understanding of what the game should look like. Distribute the style guide and have an open forum to discuss the visual direction that has been chosen and why. Hold art "town hall" meetings to get realtime feedback from the team about the overall look and feel of the project. Great ideas tend to be presented by team members when asked for feedback on artistic decisions that have already been made. Remember that alignment in vision is a living process. It involves many opinions and may never be fully realized. Aspire to give artists a visual and mental starting point rather than having them start with an intimidating blank canvas.
  • Play to strengths: Amidst a hectic production schedule, where artists may feel less inspired, enabling them to do what they do best can significantly increase engagement. If an artist excels at sketching, then allow them to focus on that skill. If they show an interest in other artistic areas, such as painting, work out a tactical plan to exercise that skill. For example, dedicate 90% of their time towards what they do best, and allow 10% for skill development. Keep your team strong and flexible.
  • Chunks, not bites: Rather than having artists complete daily isolated tasks, think of their contribution to the team in terms of chunks of work. Aim for significant outcomes from each artist. Let them know how their work fits in to the big picture and benefit's the project. Taking ownership of a large portion of work is empowering and acts as motivation through the daily grind.
  • Keep things moving: More is lost through indecision than wrong decision. Aim for rapid iteration. Avoid getting caught up in the beauty of just one image. When it feels right, move on to what needs more attention.
  • Celebrate the milestones: Show that deadlines matter. Successful delivery is something to celebrate. This could take the form of a presentation of all the work done by the team in a meeting or on a visual board. Let them take a step back, see how it all came together and appreciate it.  A round of applause goes a long way.
  • Work is for the game: Remind yourself and others that the work you are doing is for the game. It is dangerous to fall in love with an isolated idea only to have it be misaligned with the overall direction of the project. Check-in with the Design and Product teams frequently to make sure you’re staying on track.
  • Play the game! Each artist should be playing the game that they are building. If it is too early on and a build is unavailable, the Art Lead/Director should understand enough about the game to describe it in detail to the team. The artists should know the context for which they are creating art. Inspire them with a written synopsis and reference images that capture the spirit of the project. Daily interactions with the Game Design & Product team also provides a healthy dose of inspiration. Immerse your team in the theme of the project. Artwork should not be done in a vacuum.
Obviously not every single point will apply to all teams and all artists, nor is this list entirely comprehensive. The important thing is to create a roadmap like this one for yourself, with what's best for you and your team. If you're planning ahead and doing what you set out to, you'll be just fine.

- Ricky Baba
Art Director, Kiwi, Inc.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Feature Friday #12 - Guide The Light

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. 

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Mobile gaming has changed immeasurably since Apple opened its App Store almost six years ago. It seems that with each new year we’ve seen several different paradigms that take the platform in a direction, only to be shifted again by the next trend. It’s been the features that don’t dictate gameplay, but provide value across genres that have prevailed while other gimmicks faded away. These are things like Game Center achievements, friendly and encouraging character animations (even if they don’t have anything to do with actual game itself), and an emphasis away from actual story, opting instead for a common theme to hold the game together (think Temple Run - they never even explain why you’re running from those Demon Monkeys...). All of these aim to provide depth to a game, while simplifying the actual gameplay into the ever popular bite-sized pieces mobile gamers seem to crave. Sometimes, though, it backfires. Guide The Light is a pretty good puzzle game that gets in its own way with features like the ones listed above. 

At its essence, Guide The Light has you use mirrors to connect different colored beams from one point to another. Of course there are intricacies and special abilities to make this more complex and challenging, plus a few that nearly ruin the whole experience (more on this later), but that’s the premise. It’d be perfectly fine if they kept it like that, but the developers decided to add in the aforementioned “staples” of mobile games. The Game Center achievements basically amount to “You solved this puzzle” and most of the animations serve only to slow down the game. I suppose I appreciate that there’s some kind of theme to it all - you’re trying to recover jewels from the pyramid, and various traps are set to put an untimely end to your expedition, or something like that - but my attention to detail (or lack thereof) shows the overall relevance to the game itself. I don’t feel a need to belabor this point, so I’ll leave it as this: if you’ve made a good game, don’t feel that you need to put gimmicky features in it just because everyone else does. 
I've achieved so much!
For my next point, let’s handle the good game aspect. Guide The Light is a good game, but not a great game. In addition to the mobile features it shoehorned in, later levels have some really annoying aspects that detract more from the game than they add. Guide The Light has depth - 50 levels total - and most of the advanced items succeed in making the game challenging, in the right way. Boxes that produce multiple colors, double-sided mirrors, and motion-activated walls all force you to get creative when solving later puzzles. On the other hand, booby-trapped barrels and walls, plus creeping spikes and crawling spiders lead to constantly restarting the level, and slow the game down to a crawl. It’s true that I wouldn’t have reached these misguided challenges if I hadn’t enjoyed the ones I played first, but that doesn’t change the fact that these end up making incredibly more frustrating. 

Another feature to help me through the tough times was the Vision Crystal, the once-per-fifteen-minute get out of jail free card. Yes, set on a 15 minute timer (which you can pay to remove), you’re allowed to watch a video depicting exactly how to beat the level you’re currently stuck on. I’m torn because although it’s easy to detest the pay-to-win strategy, I appreciate the relief in skipping some of the levels that drove me equally crazy. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like the developer is acknowledging the game’s faults and weighing them against the users’ inherent distaste for cheap monetization tactics. True, the solutions are probably online somewhere, but this leaves a weird taste in my mouth at the very least. Despite my compaining, I’d imagine anyone looking to get something out of the game will use this feature sparingly, making it more of an irritant than a real concern. 
Dun, dun, dun!
It might be hard to believe, but through all this I mostly enjoyed playing Guide The Light. As I said earlier, the criticisms all come from getting too far into the game and being subsequently disappointed that the later stages didn’t live up to initial (high) standards. For a puzzle game, it’s solid, if not spectacular. As a story-based adventure, on the other hand, it falls completely flat. If there’s a lesson to be pulled from Guide The Light, it’s do one thing well, not several things okay. 

~~~

Guide The Light was developed by Phasic Labs and published by AppyNation. The game is only available on iOS, and goes for $0.99. It's a pretty good purchase for a while, and if you're into colorful and tricky puzzles, is definitely worth a buck. There's also a free version, so you can check the game out before you buy.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Feature Friday #11 - X Invasion 2

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. 

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Everyone talks about the good ol’ days. The air was fresher, the grass was greener, games were more fun and they didn't ask you for money (you know, except for that big ol’ price tag on the front). There are a lot of good older games, granted. There were also a lot of really bad games and just kind of okay games that gamers in 2014 would never put up with. I won’t name names, but I’ll say that I’ve played some “classic” NES and SNES-era games in the last year or so that made me question a lot about my childhood… Presumably in an effort to recoup the past, developers have added increasingly more “old school cool” devices to their modern games, some good, some not so good. This week I played a game that found a way to do both, simultaneously impressing and infuriating me. That game is the flying, jet-fighting, bomb-dropping, alien defending simulator X Invasion 2

Everyone Jonesing for their 90’s or early-2000’s fix can find solace in X Invasion 2’s old school graphics and sound effects. The game screams retro - pew pew pew! (yes, those are actually the sounds of ships firing) - and hits the mark pretty well. It’s level-based and does a great job stretching the tutorial over the first half-dozen or so levels, showing all the aspects of gameplay without dumbing it down too much. The developers at Viderea, Inc. did some really great, untraditional things with the level design and that did a lot to keep the game fresh. I’ve played plenty of jet-fighting games, and most consist of the same few elements: flying, shooting, upgrading your plane, then flying and shooting some more. X Invasion 2 has most of these, but notably leaves out the whole upgrade-and-buy-new-planes aspect. The lack of this RPG element is bittersweet for me - I like that they’re trying something new rather than relying on traditionally successful models, but I think they chose the wrong feature to leave out. 
Come on, this was great!

I love that there’s an order to the levels, and consequently, that the game dictates which plane you’ll be using. I like that they simplified things and took the choice out of the users’ hands. I don’t even mind that they ommitted one of my favorite features - upgrading your ships and weapons - which also happens to add depth to the game. Where I think they missed the mark is in not allowing for any kind of progression or improvement. I didn’t notice this for a while, I was just going through the campaign, struggling a bit, but generally passing levels after no more than a few tries. Then came level 15…  

I don’t have a problem with difficult games or seemingly impossible levels as long as there’s a way to improve your chances of success. As may have realized by now, X Invasion 2 left this out, intentionally or not, and as a result I still haven’t beaten level 15. Ah the good ol’ days, when you’d get stuck on a level and be left with three options: 

  1. Pressing on, sometimes indefinitely. This offered a sense of satisfaction in eventually overcoming the challenge, but at the risk of going insane and diminishing your overall enjoyment in the game. Whether the game allowed grinding until you could improve your character enough to pass the challenge, or simply playing for so many hours that you’d exhausted every possible way to fail, this rarely felt wholly good at the end of it all. 
  2. Cutting and running, or “Do you value your sanity and your time more than your pride?”
  3. Buying your way to the finish (what we now call pay-to-win). Back before the internet and free-to-play, the shame of admitting defeat lasted much longer than the satisfaction of advancing in the game (when applicable).
I had no idea they still made strategy guides...

Now it could just be me (though I really doubt it isn’t), but I’d like a few more choices. I think that one thing modern gaming has done really well is fend off this stagnation and give users a chance to keep playing without going insane. Sure, plenty of games exploit this too, relying on the aforementioned pay-to-win, or finding other ways to soullessly eat money and/or patience from their players, but there are plenty of ways to do this the right way too. X Invasion 2 has an Arcade Mode, and that’s a good start, but I’d really like a way to get past level 15 at this point without diluting the game with an easier setting or the ability to buy progress directly. This lack of observable improvement is disheartening, and if I hadn’t been trying to make a point with this article, I probably would’ve stopped playing long ago. 

This used to fly a lot better in past decades, but there are at least two legitimate reasons for that. First, games were much less prevalent than they are now, so your choices were pretty much grind your way through this game, or don’t play video games. How long did you spend trying to beat Street Fighter II for the first time on SNES? There were no (acceptable) cheat codes or powerups that would help you win - success relied on improving your reflexes, anticipation, and strategy. It’s largely the same argument for X Invasion 2, but that’s exactly my point. If you couldn’t beat Street Fighter and decided to give up, you could play Mortal Kombat or… well that was about it for consoles. Sick of X Invasion 2? Here are dozens of other games just like it that you might have better odds with. 

The other argument for sticking with a game goes much deeper into the psyche. Sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion are two extremely human conditions that thoroughly describe why people have done things they don’t like for a long, long time. It can basically be summed up as:
People don’t like feeling that they’ve wasted something, particularly money, so they’re more willing to suffer through that something they’ve invested in (i.e. a bad game) than something else they’ve gotten for free
Since so many mobile games today (including X Invasion 2) are free to download, and therefore represent virtually no loss, users are significantly more fickle, and developers must work harder to keep them. Enter modern monetization tactics and pick-up-and-play game styles popular in mobile gaming today, and the rest is history. 

All this doesn’t negate the good, innovative things that X Invasion 2 does. Its accelerometer works as well as any I’ve seen, and the devs came up with a cool control-firing system that uses two hands in a non-awkward way, while actually improving gameplay. Firing is on the left, speed is controlled by sliding up or down on the right, altitude depends on the angle of your device. It’s that simple, and it works really well. Another small thing that I really liked, X Invasion 2 is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, not some anonymous terrain-less fictional world. While most of the map looks like Google Maps from about 2001 (hey I said the graphics were old school...), they built up notable landmarks around SF - Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, I think even Town Hall - and you can even take pictures of them while flying around in Tour Mode. 


All that said, X Invasion 2 is a pretty fun game, for a while. I had a lot of fun exploring different level types, and I thought the night vision, cloaked, and bombing levels were really impressive. Eventually though the game burnt itself out by not providing a way to improve or advance, and left me little regret when I stopped playing for good. The developers had a great start, and if they continue to update it, this could be a lot more than a niche flying game with some fun levels. Let’s hope they do.

~~~

If you’re looking for an old-school flying game that’s going to beat you up a few times, X Invasion 2 is awesome. The devs did a lot of fun things, and I really enjoyed playing this game for a while. Multiple game modes provide some longevity, but ultimately not as much as I would’ve liked. Still, if you want a good way to spend a few days this is definitely worth checking out. It’s available on iOS for free and does contain banner ads, but no IAP.