Speed up your Rails apps with Skylight.io
weheart

Ignore the computers and spend the time talking instead – Interview with Martin Jonasson

You started making games around the time when the Experimental Gameplay Project was getting popular, and you’re using its methodology until this day. Can you talk about what makes prototyping many small games so compelling to you?

Most of the game ideas I get are along the lines “wouldn’t it be cool if…”, that lends itself well to smaller scope mechanics and not at all well for more broad concepts. I also have a very hard time keeping a larger game design in my head at one time, I much prefer getting bits out and trying them before committing to something larger.

It’s also immensely satisfying to sit down for a day and blast out an idea I’ve had. Game development is a slow moving and incremental process for most of the time, save those first few hours when you’re trying out something new. It’s a pleasure.

Many of your games started as game jam projects. You’re also co-organising the No More Sweden game jam. What’s the thing that you love most about game jams, and what’s the one you hate the most?

When I left my day job to go full indie my perspective on game jams changed quite a bit. As an employee with a limited time to work on games they were a great opportunity to buckle down and make something over a weekend. But, when you’re indie and can (and should) work on games all day, every day. That’s suddenly less interesting, at least for me. Nowadays, game jams are mainly about the social parts for me. Getting a chance to meet old friends and making new ones.

This matches my feelings about jams rather well, it’s great to get together and make games for a couple of days, but, really I just wish we’d ignore the computers and spend the time talking instead.

Before rymdkapsel you mainly worked on projects of smaller scope. At what point during its development did you realise that rymdkapsel was going to be bigger in scope, and eventually, a bigger success?

The scope of rymdkapsel very much snuck up on me. I don’t think I would have had the guts to do it had I known what I was getting into. The process of making that game was odd. I had the basic game working after just a month, it’s scary how similar a screenshot one month into development looks to the final thing.


One month into development


PSM release one year later

After about two or three months I posted a teaser trailer, which then got me in touch with Sony to publish on Vita, that’s when everything took a step up. I had a gut feeling it would be well received, but I was never convinced it’d be a success. It was a massive privilege to get a shot at making something like that and having the resources to make a good go at it.

Rymdkapsel launched on Vita via PlayStation Mobile, then came to iOS and Android, then finally to Steam. Can you share how the different platforms worked out for you in terms of revenue and how you experienced the ease of porting and self-publishing on the different platforms?

The revenue split is roughly this: iOS is half of total revenue, Google Play about a fifth. The remaining third is evenly split between the PC version (Steam and Humble Store), a Humble Bundle (November 2013) and Sony.

I struck a PubFund-esque deal with Sony, meaning I got an advance on royalties which helped immensely. Without that the game wouldn’t be nearly as polished.

I didn’t find any of the platforms to be all that different from each other. The ease of updating on Steam (and to a lesser extent Google Play) is probably the one thing that sets it apart. They all take a couple of days of poking to get your head around.

Could you describe how you managed the transition from being a web developer to becoming a full-time independent game developer?

I was lucky enough to have a skill that was in high demand, meaning that I could charge a hourly rate three or four times that of my actual needs. That meant that every hour of web development I did paid for two or three hours of game development. As I did mostly interactive flash web stuff, my skills transfer nicely across. I tried doing game development as a freelancer, but (save for one project) it was an exercise in frustration.

You’re based in Sweden which has relatively high taxes and cost of living compared to other regions. Do you feel that this factor makes making a living with independent games a more difficult goal to achieve?

It’s a a double edged sword. Those high taxes pay for the social security net that keeps me from dying when I get sick, even if I’m broke. They also paid for the infrastructure that got me a great internet connection and allowed my parents to get a computer on the cheap. As did they pay for my university degree in Game Design.

So, for most of my life, before I made a successful game, they were an asset. Now, they game is doing well enough that I’ll manage, but I still happily pay my taxes knowing they help me, and more importantly others that need it more.

You are doing weekly game development streams on Twitch and participate in events like Mojam. How did you get into streaming and what’s your main motivation to keep doing it?

I only really got into streaming in time for the first Mojam in 2013, it seemed like an interesting experience and indeed it was! I enjoy talking about what I do and why I do it, and hope to maybe share some of my knowledge along the way. I’ve held a few courses as a teacher before, and that’s fun too, but streaming lets me get much more of an outlet for that without having to deal with homework!

The main charm that keeps me coming back to streaming is the immediate interaction with the audience. As I said earlier, game development can be a slow moving process, even if you’re fast it’ll take weeks from you doing the work until it reaches your players. With streaming you cut that loop short, it’s a matter of seconds instead.

Many people that come from Flash game development have moved on to Unity. What made you choose Haxe as your primary development environment?

I never liked working in 3D, I don’t know if it’s because the games I played growing up was exclusively 2D, it may also be that I’m lazy. Either way, I find 3D an unnecessary complication for my purposes. And, with Unity you’re forced to deal with it, even if you just want to do 2D. Haxe and OpenFL came along at a perfect time for me, it was such a smooth transition I hardly felt like I switched. That said, I’m not chained to that forever, I may still switch over if the tech requires it.

You designed a four-player arcade machine called Crime City Arcade together with Niklas Ström, and published instructions including the laser cutter schema for how to build your own. How has the reaction been from people playing it and from people building their own versions?

It’s a great machine to bring anywhere, even though it’s big and cumbersome, every time we take it out, we wonder why we don’t do it more often. As far as I know no one has made another one from our plans, but there’s quite a few four player machines out there.

The biggest upside of having it is that people seem to think it’s some magical device, but really, it’s just a screen in a box with a couple of controllers. I can pop it open and show them how it all works, hopefully that makes building your own a little bit more approachable.

We dream of making one that’s battery powered so we can bring it around to parks and set up little ad hoc arcades over the summer. I’m excited for that!

Any chance that people who don’t own an Ouya will be able to play Mrs Dad Vs. Körv at some point?

Yes. One day!

What is your favourite fruit?

I’m not much of a fruit person, especially not grapefruits. They’re awful.

Could you share some advise for people who are just starting out making games?

Don’t worry about stuff. If you’re just starting out, pick any programming language, any platform and just make something. If it turns out good, you can deal with that as it comes. If it doesn’t, just make a new thing. Use source control, eat your vegetables and be nice.

Promoter’s auto-detection will be a paid-only feature starting July 1

I’m making a change to what is included in the free Promoter plan. Promoter has been around for a few years now, and has slowly been growing to track press for over 2500 games. Over 85% of these games belong to a free account. When starting Promoter, I made the mistake of not adding a time-limit to the free plan.

Today, hundreds of games that have been released years ago and are not getting press anymore are still constantly processed by Promoter’s auto-detection feature. During the early growth it was possible to mitigate this by optimising the server code and adding more servers. Now however, too much server time is consumed by customers that will likely never pay for the service. This has a direct negative result for paying customers: The auto-detection is getting slower with every new signup.

To solve this, free accounts will no longer have access to the auto-detection feature starting July 1. New customers will be able to signup for a 14-day free trial that is similar to the previous free plan that included the auto-detection.

To trade something with someone

Sometimes I contact developers who are about to release their game on Steam if they want to try out Promoter to track press mentions. I’d offer them 1 month for free, since they’d often hit the limits of the free plan really quickly during the launch window.

One developer was generous enough to offer me a Steam Key in return. There was something I really liked about that, so I’m going to try the following for a bit:

Email me a Steam Key of your game, and I’ll give you 1 month of the Studio plan for free. The small print: The offer is limited to one free month per developer, regardless of how many keys you are sending me. If I already own the game or know someone who’d really enjoy it I’ll give it away, otherwise I’ll use it for myself.

Speaking of which, you can BCC any email containing a Steam Key to Promoter to automatically mark it as used.

"Like Working In A Band" – Interview with Douglas Wilson

Today I’m talking to Douglas Wilson, the creator of Johann Sebastian Joust and possibly the single biggest driving force behind the sales of PS Move controllers. (At least I bought four of them just to play his game.)

Our generation grew up on games that you could play with 2-4 players in front of a home computer. Playing together in a physical space is a very important part of almost all games you worked on. Do you see a Renaissance of local multiplayer games?

Yes, definitely, at least in the indie scene. You see game collectives around the world (like Babycastles in New York City, Wild Rumpus in London, Dirty Rectangles in Ottawa … the list goes on) throwing events and bringing people together to play installation games and local multiplayer games. My own party game B.U.T.T.O.N. was made specifically for the GAMMA IV exhibition in 2010. There are more opportunities than ever to show such games.

The PC and PS3 versions of Sportsfriends were funded on Kickstarter just two months before the PS4 was announced. What are your thoughts on releasing the compilation at the end of the console’s life cycle?

More than anything, Sportsfriends is a passion project. It’s not primarily a commercial venture, though certainly we hope to make enough money to cover our hard work! Porting the games to PlayStation 3 is an opportunity to get the games on a console, which we think is the right “environment” for the games. Putting the games on a console will help us get them to a wider audience. It would be great to release Sportsfriends on the PS4 as well – we’re still looking into that.

You have been critical of the traditional use of motion controls that focuses on increasing the level of immersion. In your own work you often try to make players look at each other and away from the screen. Why do you think there is so little – for the lack of a better term – innovation in motion controlled games?

I don’t think it’s impossible to use motion control to aid immersion in a virtual world. I just think it’s a difficult path, and it certainly isn’t the only path. There’s a more under-discussed approach, which is using motion control as a kind of slapstick comedy. That’s the approach I’m most interested in, at least. There are a number of commercial games that do this very well, like Dance Dance Revolution, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, and Kinect Party. But because of all the sci-fi imagery around the idea of virtual reality I think consumers often expect a more traditionally “immersive” experience from new technologies. Sigh!

In addition, making motion control games requires a whole way of thinking about game design. At least personally, I found that I needed years of playing with physical games before I really understood the genre in a deep way. I had to “unlearn” a bunch of traditional design wisdom.

Your studio Die Gute Fabrik works on multiple titles simultaneously that are very different in nature and scope. How do you decide which projects to work on and how to prioritize them?

More often than not, our games start from the “vision” of one person. For example, Where is my Heart is the brainchild of our collaborator Bernhard Schulenburg. Mutazione is a project Nils Deneken (my co-owner) has been wanting to make for years. And Johann Sebastian Joust is very much my project, and speaks to my interest in physical games. I guess you could say that each game has a “project owner”. The rest of us then try to help that person bring their vision to life. For example, Nils helped me with the design of J.S. Joust, and I’m helping him with programming, design, and production on Mutazione.

Balancing all these projects has been a challenge, and is something I’m still learning how to manage!

Die Gute Fabrik was initially founded by Nils Deneken. How did you decide to become a partner?
I met Nils at IndieCade 2008 (he was showing Rückblende, I was showing Dark Room Sex Game). I learned he lived in Copenhagen (like me), so we stayed in touch and started hanging out. We worked on some game jam projects together, and later we worked together on B.U.T.T.O.N. As I was finishing my PhD, I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in academia or go full-time indie. Nils asked if I wanted to work with him. You don’t say no to somebody as talented as Nils!

You have worked together with many different people on different projects. In a way it reminds me of a musician who’s working together with other musicians, sometimes being the lead, sometimes contributing. What do you feel is most important when collaborating?

I think your comparison to music is spot-on. I definitely think of collaboration like working in a band. All the instruments have to come together in a synergistic way, and there has to be enough trust between the band members. If that trust breaks down, the whole project falls apart so quickly. Also, it’s important that each person brings something valuable to the team. “Dead weight” (so to speak) isn’t just inefficient, it also can interfere with team morale.

You made a game called Tower No Tumble for the Sifteo platform. What was your experience working for a relatively small platform that has not yet been adopted widely?

It was an interesting job, but also quite difficult! I think we did a good job, but it takes multiple projects in order to deeply understand the design principles of a new platform. I mean, it took me years playing around with Wiimotes and PS Move controllers before I really “got” motion control games. Physical games are particularly challenging because you need to convince the players to help you “referee” the game in the physical world. For example, in Tower No Tumble we had to explain to the players how and when they needed to build a tower out of the cubes.

Some of your projects heavily rely on open source software for the technical groundwork. How do you feel about the idea of open source within the game developer community?

Open source software has been crucially important for me! Eventually I’d like to open source J.S. Joust and some of my other games, or at least some of my tools. I’ve already open sourced my Unity bindings for the PS Move API, and I’d like to share more. But maintaining those projects is definitely time-consuming.

You recently moved back to NYC after living in Copenhagen for several years. Can you talk a bit about the differences you see between the two, living and working as an independent game maker?

It’s certainly busier here in NYC, which is both good and bad. It’s good because there is so much going on, and so many talented games people here. So many of my favorite game designers live in NYC! It’s not such a traditional development hub like Seattle or San Francisco, but as a result many of the developers here have had to make their own way. There’s a lot of cross-pollination with other cultural spheres like art and music, which I think is wonderful. And there are a number of universities and arts organizations (Babycastles, Eyebeam, NYU Game Center, Parsons) that give out artist grants or organize events.

But it’s brutally expensive here, especially since I have to pay for my own healthcare (unlike in Copenhagen). It’s almost too busy here. It’s been hard to find a tight-knit group of colleagues and spend quality “slow” time with them. Everyone just has so much going on! As someone who thrives working collaboratively, I’m having trouble adjusting. We’ll see if I can make my way here. There are certainly other appealing videogame hubs in the States.

Also, I should mention that there are just so many more funding opportunities in Scandinavia. In fact, part of our company is still based in Denmark, and we’ve been working on Mutazione with generous grants from Nordic Game and the Danish Film Institute. Without that support, I couldn’t be full-time indie right now.

Everyone who follows you on Twitter knows that you’re very passionate about music. Are you interested in working on a game where music is at the center of the play experience?

Yeah! I’ve been working on the ambient sound engine for Mutazione, which is heavily music-based and features the music of Alessandro Coronas. In the game, you tend to these gardens where you grow a variety of plants. Each species of plant makes ambient music from a particular instrument or texture. Essentially, it’s a kind of generate-your-own Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. It’s one component in a larger adventure game.

And, I should point out, Johann Sebastian Joust already is a game where music is at the center of the play experience! The J.S. Bach music (selections from the Brandenburg Concertos) are absolutely key to the “identity” of that game.

Looking at the independent games scene today, what are you most excited about?

Hard to choose just one thing! I’m excited to see more cross-pollination between videogames and the contemporary art world, as I think both spheres have a lot to learn from each other. Just this past March, I got to show Mutazione at a small exhibition at SFMOMA, which was obviously a huge honor. It seems like museums and galleries are increasingly interested in videogames these days. For example, there’s currently a great exhibition at the Museum of Design Atlanta celebrating “alternative voices in game design.” More importantly than the museums themselves, it seems like more contemporary artists are “discovering” games and the world of independent games. This kind of cross-pollination will help bring a broader diversity of creators and collaborators, which is certainly exciting!

One thing left for Sony to fix

I live in Sweden and I intend to stay. At least twice a year I visit my parents and friends in Germany. Every time I try hard to remember to buy several German PSN prepaid cards, because I canceled my German credit card after the PSN hack. Back in Sweden I use the prepaid cards to buy the games I want to play on my PS3 or Vita. Every time, I run out of credit before I go back to Germany. Today I did not buy Hotline Miami, because there’s less then 50 cents missing on my account, and I can’t add more money. Looks like I’ll have to wait until Christmas.

Once I moved to Sweden, I tried to migrate my digital life as well. I love things to be in order, that’s how I’m wired up. I spent the last cents of my iTunes account for apps I didn’t want and confirmed with a joyful Apple representative that I’d like to switch to the Swedish App Store. I managed to migrate my Adobe account to Sweden, which was a complicated procedure beyond belief, but it was within the realm of possibility.

I’d like to do migrate my PSN account from Germany to Sweden, countries that are both part of PlayStation Europe. It’s not possible. I could open a second account in Sweden, but managing two personal accounts on two Sony systems is frankly how I imagine hell. I acquired a substantial digital library from Sony and I don’t want to split it up.

I’ve seen Sony change for the better in the last 12 months. Now I’m waiting for them to fix how they treat people moving from one country to another. Because there are 214 million of us.

Introducing Raev

Without the vibrant Ruby open-source ecosystem I would not have been able to develop Promoter by myself. It uses over 45 Ruby gems today, many of them handling essential tasks. I have been wanting to extract some features from Promoter and make them available for other developers for some time, but didn’t get around to it until now.

Raev (Swedish for Fox) is a Ruby gem for fetching, parsing and normalizing meta data from websites. If you want to parse meta data from websites or RSS feeds you’re faced with the challenge that practically no one in the real world is using sensible standards or microformats. Raev tries to take away some of that pain by parsing and normalizing meta data to something more usable. The feature set of version 0.1.10 is still somewhat limited, but it offers some things that you might find useful:

  • Fetch the Twitter handle from a website
  • Fetch the RSS feed from a website
  • Return the base domain (without www) for an url
  • Resolve shortend or proxied urls and remove UTM analytics parameters
  • Normalize the author name of a RSS feed entry

I’m planning to add more features to Raev that deal with scraping meta data from article pages, such as headline, publication date, and author name.

Starting a Trend

During the weeks before our release of Spirits on the App Store in 2010, we looked how other successful indie titles had priced themselves. We decided to follow the same model as Osmos. We released a version called “Spirits” that would run on the iPhone and iPod touch, and a more expensive version called “Spirits for iPad” that would run on the iPad. While this model worked for us in terms of revenue, we missed a trend that was about to happen: Making games universal so they run on any iOS device without the need to repurchase. As a player today, I’d expect a game on the App Store to be universal.

With the comforting option of following a successful trend, it’s easy to forget that it’s possible to start a trend yourself.

When Queasy Games released Sound Shapes for the PS3 and Vita, they offered both versions of the game for the price of one, making it the first game to support Sony’s Cross Buy initiatve. When Dan Tabar asked players to pay for the Cortex Command Alpha, he started the trend of paid, iterative development, paving the way for Minecraft and Steam’s Early Access.

How do you come up with a model that will work in the future? A viable strategy might be to design for yourself. What do you want as a customer that noone is offering today?

Promoter Database Upgrade

Promoter suffered some serious downtime over last weekend and the following Tuesday due to problems at my hosting provider Heroku. I’ve been in touch with them to discuss how to avoid this kind of downtime in the future, leading to the following steps:

  • I upgraded the database of Promoter to the next higher database plan, which has an expected uptime of 99.95% (instead of 99.5% for the old database). The new database is also noticeably faster, thanks to in-memory cache.
  • I set up a read-only Follower database for redundancy and failover. If anything bad happens to the production database in the future, I will be able to switch to the Follower database within minutes. This should help to reduce downtime significantly.

I apologize to everyone who was affected by the downtime. If you have any questions or feedback please email me at andreas@madebypixelate.com.

New pricing for Promoter starting December 1

When I launched Promoter, my goal was to have the most afforable and indie-developer friendly pricing possible. Today, Promoter makes enough revenue to cover the server costs, but that’s pretty much it. Maintaince and customer support are paid out of my own pocket. I want to be able to keep Promoter running and spend time developing new features for it, so I decided to raise prices for the unlimited plan.

Starting December 1 the new pricing will be:

Period Price inclusive VAT*
1 month 16 EUR 20 EUR
3 months 40 EUR 50 EUR
6 months 80 EUR 100 EUR
1 year 120 EUR 150 EUR

*Note that if your business is located outside the EU, or if you have a valid European, non-Swedish VAT number, you won’t be charged VAT.

The new prices better reflect the actual costs involved in running Promoter, while still being very affordable compared to the value it is providing.

Your current plan won’t be affected by the price change until it runs out. You can choose to upgrade or prolong your current plan up to one year for the old pricing until November 30.

Promoter changelog

Since the public release of Promoter a year ago, I’ve implemented many new features, both based on feedback from users as well as on our own everyday use. Here’s a detailed list of what has been added.

  • Faster and more frequent auto-detection for reviews and mentions.
  • Official support for non-gaming apps.
  • Larger index of app and gaming sites (700+), categorized by platform and recommendations, sortable by number of Twitter followers.
  • Keep track of awards and order them by date.
  • Integration with dopresskit.com, automatically fetches the best quotes and awards from Promoter and displays them on your press kit.
  • Redesigned dashboard for quicker overview over all products.
  • Show headlines of reviews in the timeline.
  • Move a review to a different product.
  • Set email notifications per product and user.
  • Export the festival calendar as ICS or get email notifications one week before each deadline.
  • Export reviews, writers and sites as CSV.
  • Display a header image on your public page.
  • Reorder quotes and reviews on your public page via drag and drop.
  • Fetch quotes and awards from your public page as XML or JSON.
  • Show expired and used dates for promo codes or Steam Keys.
  • Install Promoter via the Chrome Web Store.
  • Choose between more flexible pricing plans: 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and 1 year.

Do you have an idea how to make Promoter even better? Let me know on Twitter.

"Flip The Question Around" – Interview with Andy Schatz

Andy Schatz has been highly influential and inspiring to the independent game development community for a long time, so I’m delighted to have had the chance to talk to him about Monaco and the Venture Games, the growth of indie games and the most important skill to run an indie studio.

Your first two games Venture Africa and Venture Arctic are about managing an ecosystem of animals. Was the theme of the games mainly driven by your interest in the subject, or did you also see a niche that no one was serving at the time?

It’s surprising to me how often I get this question. I design games based upon themes and mechanics that I observe in the real world, not based upon other games, and I have a passionate interest in animals and the environment. I would actually flip the question around and ask the people that design shooters if they are doing it because they love guns, or if they are doing it for business reasons.

Venture Africa was a finalist for the IGF Grand Prize in 2006, the year Darwinia won, when Braid’s prototype was awarded for its Innovation in Game Design and when the Student Showcase featured thatgamecompany’s first game Cloud and DigiPen’s Narbacular Drop that later would lead to Portal. If you look back, how would you describe that particular time for making games independently and how does it compare to today?

There was a period of three years that saw exponential growth in the indie scene, starting with the year Gish won, through Darwinia, and onto the World of Goo/Fez year. This was spawned by the existence of new distribution platforms and the casual game revolution familiarizing game players with digital purchases. These days there are tons of opportunities for indies, mainly because we have a healthy variety of competing options for funding and distribution. Customers and the press have acclimated to the new status quo, and growth continues unabated.

You have been running your own studio Pocketwatch Games in San Diego since 2004. Aside from the ability to design and develop games, what skills do you think are the most important for running your own company as an indie developer?

Every studio succeeds based on its strength. Some developers are great coders – those ones should code. Some are great marketers, some are great with business. Some people are great artists. The only skill that is absolutely required is the ability to actually finish games. Being successful takes more than that, of course, but that’s the only one that is common among all successful developers.

After the success of Venture Africa you hired someone full-time to work on Venture Arctic, which didn’t sell as well, so you had to let that person go again. During that time, did you feel that you needed to change your strategy and move away from the family-friendly brand that Pocketwatch Games was intended to be?

No. I still felt that I was onto something with the Venture series, and so I did 6 months of contract work so I could try again. It was disappointing to me that Venture Arctic flopped, but it wasn’t surprising. Venture Arctic was more interesting than it was fun.

In the end of 2009 you started your current project Monaco, originally to take a break from working on Venture Dinosauria. On your blog you described how Monaco felt like “an ‘easy’ game design” and “very different from the Venture Games”. What exactly was it that made it feel easier?

Working with a singular player character is much easier than working on a god-game. The problem with god games is that the limitations, goals, and player identity must be invented out of the blue. With a player-character, all of these game design decisions flow from answering the question “who am I”. With a god game, it’s up to the designer to invent the immovable rock that stands in the way of the omnipotent god. Without such constraints, there is no game.

After four weeks of development you considered to release Monaco as an Xbox Live Indie Game, but kept working on it until today, effectively turning it into an AAA Indie Game. How did you make the decision to work on it “until it’s done” and thus highering your stakes?

Ha, there’s lots of stuff packed into this question. First off, I despise the term “AAA Indie Games”. I wish Chris had never suggested that. Some of the best selling indie games of all time would never have been described as AAA Indie Games, and some of the AAA Indie Games are bad and sell like crap. Sure, you can see the difference between indie games that are the product of years of work and those that are from a game jam, but I feel like there’s too much emphasis on those differences already, so why would we want to separate the playing field even further?

As for how I made the decision, I can’t really talk about the details of it all just yet, but the [redacted] story is that it wasn’t really intentional, but it was necessary. At every step along the way circumstances would throw up a road block that forced me to plan for another 6 weeks, or 6 months, or year on the project. I’ll talk about it all when I’m done!

Your initial game design for Monaco goes all the way back to 2003, where your previous employer pitched it to Microsoft Game Studios. Do you feel that the best ideas are the ones that you can’t stop thinking about? Or did you ever feel like “If my idea for Monaco was any good, I would already have done it years ago”?

The best ideas are the best ideas. :)

Monaco is a co-op heist game where each of the up to 4 players have their own unique character class and abilities. How do you balance each character class to make sure it’s fun for everyone? Do you constantly play-test with 4 players?

We do play test a lot, though not that often with 4 players. I’ll be launching a closed beta soon, so I should get an idea about which characters are best then. That said, balance is overrated. It really only matters in competitive games. In single-player or cooperative games, all that matters is that each player has a role, a specialty, and each is fun to play. Then it’s up to the players to discover the imbalances that can give them extra advantages when competing with each other for high scores.

You’re planning to release Monaco on PC, Mac and “at least one console”. Are you aiming for the same release window on all platforms?

Yes! It will be a simultaneous launch.

Monaco was one of the first games to be backed by the Indie Fund in 2011. How did you fund the development of the game before that? In what other ways are you benefitting from the Indie Fund besides the funding itself?

Well, I had winnings from the IGF, savings from before I started Pocketwatch, and some income from the Venture Games. Indie-fund is of course a fantastic resource in terms of advice and moral support as well. I couldn’t have done it without them.

One of the highlights during GDC is when you occasionally host the IGF awards ceremony. Do you write your own script, or do you have “professional” help? And why is the telepromter placed in a way so half of the audience can read what you’re going to say?

I do write my own script! That’s why it doesn’t have professionally written jokes ;) I am not in charge of teleprompter placement.

What’s your advise for people who want to make their own games and are just starting out?

FINISH YOUR GAMES! If you don’t finish, you don’t matter!

“Good Business Decisions” – Interview with Zach Gage

Zach Gage is both a conceptual artist, and a game designer from New York City. I talked with him about deciphering the success behind SpellTower, the strategy of avoiding focus and why indies should act like local businesses.

You originally designed and developed your word game SpellTower within two weeks. You constantly kept improving the game after its 1.0 release, implementing feedback from players and slowly gaining momentum this way. That’s a very different model compared to working on an AAA indie game for 3-5 years. Do you see a shift in indie games more towards games as a service, where releasing the game is just the start of the journey?

It’s difficult to say for sure if the model that I used with SpellTower was a good one to emulate. It’s definitely seen success in some other games (most notably Minecraft), but it’s also worth noticing that very few iOS games ever recover from a not-killer first launch, and given that evidence, it seems like this is a bad strategy… and yet we see it from time to time cropping up.

I think the reason this is happening is because even though it isn’t a great strategy for economic reasons, it is a great strategy for learning. For me in particular, I’ve always had problems figuring out how to make my games relatable to the masses. Making strong and successful tutorials is extremely important on iOS, but it’s also extremely difficult. Another issue for me is that I frequently make games in areas in which I don’t have any knowledge in. Putting out games piecemeal and implementing feedback as it comes in is a solution to those problems.

Of course, there is an upside to the slow release, and that’s the community building aspect of it. While that part is really powerful, I think in most cases, the same thing could be done with a development blog, which is a lot safer.

When you’ve released a game, at some point there’s always the question if it’s worth to keep working on it, or if you should focus on the next project. Giving the impressive quantity of works you’ve released, how do you decide where to put your focus on?

Even with 3 works out, I think I have about 5 sitting around in various stages of completeness. I kind of have a strategy that avoids the question. I pretty much work on games only when they’re fun for me to make, so if I’m half way through one and I have a good idea for something else, I’ll go off and work on that. Eventually I end up having a ton of prototypes that are all nearly finished that I can show around to my friends. This takes a lot of the pressure off needing to get something out or find my next ‘big game’.

Once I get excited enough about a prototype that I feel like I can tackle the remaining boring 10% (polish mostly), then I spend two or three weeks pushing it out the door.

You both work on projects by yourself, and collaborate with others as in the case of Ridiculous Fishing. Is this an important balance for you, to be able to follow through with your vision in one project, and to be able to share ideas and refine them together in another project?

I really like collaborating, but its a very tricky thing to do. Collaborative disputes can be very dangerous, and on any project with more people you need to be sure that everyone has respect for everyone else’s ideas and skills. On the other hand, if you can do it successfully you nearly always get stronger products as a result, and you always learn a ton.

I definitely like to do both, but working by myself is definitely a lot easier.

SpellTower didn’t get a feature by Apple until version 3.0 added support for the Retina Display of the then just-released new iPad. Do you feel this was the major reason for the feature?

With Apple it’s usually a lot of little reasons. Retina support was important, but so was multiplayer. I think they also felt that the game deserved a feature in general. They were just waiting for a big update of any kind to promote it a little bit.

When the sales charts for SpellTower raised dramatically from #297 to #6 for paid iPad apps, you reduced the price to 99 cents to “take on Rovio and Zynga”. The sale created an immense buzz, sold you over 20.000 copies, and got covered pretty much everywhere in the gaming press. What did you take away from this whole experience?

I think the biggest thing I learned was that my strength as an indie is being a human who cares about his work. As an indie, one of the hardest things is PR, and while you’re trying to learn how to do PR, there’s a lot of pressure to emulate time-proven methods. But it turns out that those methods are really built around how to promote products that don’t have a face or a human behind them.

As indies, we can do more of a grassroots PR, we can play to our strengths. One of the biggest learning moments for me was when I was going to release an update that targeted literally 8 people who had sent me emails that they were unable to play the game. It was right in the middle of SpellTower’s climb, and I didn’t want to damage the climb because when you release an update Apple nukes all your ratings. Essentially it can look like your app has only been reviewed 5 times instead of the 1000 times its actually been reviewed. It seemed like a bad time to put an update out for so few people. I was sitting at my computer looking at the Reject this update button, and I kept thinking “I should click this, this is a good business decision”, but I just couldn’t do it. It felt totally unfair to those 8 people. So instead, I just explained the situation in the update text and on Twitter. Instead of trying to come up with some sneaky way to get people to do what I wanted (typical corporate PR), I just told people what was going on, and hoped that they would be friendly and help out if they felt like it. By the morning I had close to 600 reviews. It was amazing and humbling.

I used this strategy a few times. It takes a bit more work than traditional PR, and responding to so many emails and tweets is exhausting, but it has always felt like the right thing to do. And this will sound super sappy, but really nothing compares with putting out love into a game and a community and having them send love back.

Obviously you can’t ask users to do things for you all the time (much like you can’t ask your close friends to), but consumers/friends will step up to the plate when it counts.

Before SpellTower you developed and released five different apps on the App Store, including the games Halcyon, Bit Pilot and Unify. What did you learn from making and releasing these games?

Man, that’s a hard question. I learned SO many things. I really had no idea how to make video games before those releases, so nearly everything I know is from them.

I guess the biggest stuff is how to prototype quickly and how to develop a game idea from the initial prototype to something more fleshed out. Bit Pilot took a full six months from the day I made the prototype to the final version and that’s pretty shocking when you look at what the original prototype had (the exact ship and control scheme that is in there now, and you flew around dodging asteroids until you got hit). I just didn’t really know how to turn tiny things into full fledged tiny games.

Another big thing I learned was how to make tutorials. I think that was probably the hardest thing since it’s never something I paid attention to when I was growing up playing video games. I don’t think I ever really made a game with a good tutorial until SpellTower, and even that took a lot of post-release iteration.

You have a very modern, beautiful website for SpellTower that was done by Chris Driscoll and a great trailer by Kert Gartner. Many indie developers do these things themselves as they are on a limited budget. Why did you decide to outsource this?

Thanks! Those two guys are amazingly talented, and I was really lucky to get to work with them. The biggest part of that decision was that SpellTower had done fairly well on its initial release without an Apple feature (≈50k USD), and I decided that since I had a little money and thought the game should be doing a lot better than it was, in preparation for the big multiplayer update I was just going to go all the way with everything. So that meant getting the trailer in place, agreeing to Chris’ generous offer to do the website, making a strong icon and screenshots for the App Store, and really being on the ball with trying to drum up press and respond to emails. In the end I think that trailer and website didn’t individually make SpellTower a hit, but they certainly made a big difference. One thing I never really realized about hits is that it’s not one gigantic thing going right, it’s tons and tons of little things going right. Having a great website and a great trailer were really instrumental in that happening for SpellTower.

During an email discussion between indie developers you stated that one key lesson from your career is to “Treat consumers like friends, and they’ll treat you like a friend.” Can you talk a bit more about that?

Totally. There’s a lot of pressure as an indie to try and market yourself like big PR companies do. Its not that anyone is specifically telling you to do this, but everyone is telling you to market yourself, and there really aren’t very many models to look at for how to do this properly. The problem is that really this whole indie explosion is very new, and even the indies that have found great success are still deciphering exactly what happened and how they got there.

I think one trend that is very common amongst successful indies though is being friendly with customers. This obviously isn’t true across the board, but it’s something that Vlambeer, Mikengreg, Penny Arcade, and Mojang have in common… and it makes sense, indies shouldn’t be fighting with AAA companies in marketing dollars, we should be doing the stuff that those huge companies can’t do. And one thing they absolutely can’t do is let consumers put a face to the game. They can’t let consumers be friends with their developers. Even if they could somehow pull it off, their audience is just too large. Indies don’t have this problem. We don’t need to sell 500 million copies of our game. We can act like a local business where you know all the people who come in, but one that’s local to the internet.

In your Thank-You letter for people who bought SpellTower you wrote “We make games to make people happy. We make games because it makes us happy.” How would you describe the thing in games that have the potential to make both players and it’s creators happy?

That’s another tough question! I think for me, I enjoy exploring the systems that games let us find. I think what’s so magical and so difficult about games (and all forms of art really), is that they are a medium where we can make something that’s so much more than it is. You can, in an afternoon, come up with a game that someone could play their entire life, and never truly understand, that thousands of people play their whole lives and never understand. And not only that, but even in creating it, you don’t totally understand what’s going on. It’s a collaboration with the universe. That’s amazing! To work towards something so dynamic and lively that it could engender people in all walks of life to be curious and explore it. What’s not to be happy about?

Did anyone ever get mad at you for losing personal files by playing lose/lose?

Not a single person. There were a few instances of hate mail, but nobody who ever tried it complained.

What’s your advice for someone who’d like to get started with making their own games?

This one’s easy. Get started right now and make games. It doesn’t matter if they’re in GameMaker or HyperCard or drawings on a piece of paper with marker that you just describe what the game is. Whatever you can do, do it. And just keep doing it, trying to make it closer and closer to the thing you’re dreaming about.

Don’t worry about if it’s good or not, what program to use, what language to learn, or how it’s ‘best’ to get started. The best way to get started is to get started. Whatever language or framework you pick will be correct. It’s not that it’ll be the thing you use forever, but even wrong choices are valuable. Just make games.

Also, (common, but if you haven’t heard it yet) listen to Ira Glass on creativity and failure.

A new, modern website for Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastian Joust

I designed and developed a new website for Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastian Joust. In this blog post, I’m going to give you some details about the design goals and used technology.

The previous site for the game was part of Die Gute Fabrik’s main website. My goal was to make a separate website hosted on jsjoust.com to have more room to show video, photos and background information. Since it’s easier to show, not tell what Johann Sebastian Joust is about, a video of people playing the game should be the first thing you see. The site should also be modern and standards-driven and look great on any device.

To enable this I’m using a Responsive Design that adapts to any resolution using Media Queries. No matter if visitors have a desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile phone, the site will always show all content in an appropriate layout. Visitors won’t need to fiddle around and zoom in or out to be able to read the text. This also saves development time compared to building a separate mobile version of the site. The site offers four different layouts that are based on the Skeleton boilerplate and a sixteen column grid. To support the Retina Display I’m using sprites and photos at 2×.

The site consits of the homepage and a separate press kit, based on the one I made for Spirits. The goal of the press kit is to make journalists happy and simply have everything in one place, right in the browser. No need to download a ZIP file with a complicated folder structure and information hidden in Word documents. As the homepage, the press kit is fully responsive.

Johann Sebastian Joust has already won several awards and gotten some nice press, so I wanted to highlight this on the site. The testimonials and awards for both the homepage and the press kit are loaded via jQuery as JSON-P from Die Gute Fabrik’s public Promoter page. This way, quotes and awards only need to be updated in one place. Promoter also automatically finds new reviews and mentions of the game, which makes it easier to add new quotes.

The game is currently in private alpha and still in development, so I wanted to give people a simple way to get notified when Die Gute Fabrik will make it available to the public. This is done via a prominent newsletter signup field that hooks into Mailchimp.

Upcoming events where people can play the game are announced on the Twitter account @playjsjoust. A Rails app hosted on Heroku is parsing and caching the tweets once a day. The chronic gem is used to parse the dates of the events from natural language (e.g. July 20) to a datetime string that can be sorted. The site then loads the cached tweets from the Rails app via jQuery as JSON-P.

For the photo gallery I skipped the overused lightbox. Instead clicking on a photo will simply double it in size, while staying inside the grid layout.

I also wanted to add a little bit of playfulnes to the site. Clicking the character illustration changes the background color of the site and plays one of four activation sounds from the game. Modernizr is used to detect if the browser supports the HTML5 audio tag.

To improve loading times, all JavaScript, stylesheets and PNGs are compressed using CodeKit. FF Dagny Web Pro is used for all type on the page. It’s implemented as a webfont in CSS, served by TypeKit. The site was coded using Coda 2.

Promoter integration with presskit()

presskit() is an awesome free tool by Rami Ismail of indie studio Vlambeer that lets you quickly create your own press kit to host on your own server. It’s loosely based on the structure of our own press kit for Spirits for Mac.

Now, you can use Promoter and presskit() together. With the new integration you can pull selected reviews and awards from Promoter and automatically show them in your press kit.

Simply tick the checkbox “Integrate with presskit()” in the settings for your game in Promoter. Then copy/paste the code snippet into the data.xml file for your game in your presskit() installation. All awards and quotes that you marked as public will show up in your press kit, sorted by newest first and always up-to-date.

Thoughts on Adobe Creative Cloud

Adobe’s Creative Cloud launched today. I’m using Adobe’s tools a lot, so I’ve been pondering on the question if it’s worth for me to upgrade to CS6, and if I should upgrade to the cloud, or to the traditional boxed edition.

The first question was easy for me to answer. I had tried out the beta of Photoshop CS6, and was impressed with the significant performance boost thanks to the Mercury Graphics Engine. As a freelance web developer I often have to work with PSDs that are measured in Gigabytes, so I need this increase in performance to actually get my job done and stay sane.

So, is it worth for me to upgrade to Creative Cloud? So far, my upgrade path looks like this:

Flash MX Professional → Flash MX 2004 Professional → Studio 8 → CS3 Design Premium → CS4 Design Premium → CS5 Master Collection

I upgraded my way from Flash to the full suite. I skipped CS5.5, because I didn’t feel it was worth the upgrade for me. I upgraded to the Master Collection since I kept running into situations where I needed to edit video and audio files.

Upgrading to Creative Cloud only makes sense if you’re planning to keep using Adobe’s tools over the lifetime of your business and if you’re interested in having access to the latest major releases. Let’s assume I plan to use Creative Suite over the next 3 years, how would the costs look like? Let’s also add my existing Typekit account.

Master Collection Boxed
Upgrade from CS5 to CS6 1,049.00 USD
Yearly upgrades (based on upgrade price from CS 5.5 to CS6) 2 × 525 USD
Typekit Portfolio Plan 3 × 49.99 USD/year
Total 2,248.97 USD
Creative Cloud
First year Creative Cloud discount for existing CS users 12 × 29.99 USD/month
Second and third year subscription 24 × 49.99 USD/month
Typekit Portfolio Plan Included
Total 1,559.64 USD

In my case it’s cheaper to go with Creative Cloud, even though it might look different for you if you don’t need access to the Master Collection or don’t care about upgrading on every major release.

Let’s look at some of the other benefits Creative Cloud is offering over the boxed thing:

  • Typekit included. There’s some real value in there if you’re making websites for other people. You can easily offer great web fonts to all your clients without having to worry about licences or hosting.
  • File syncing and sharing via creative.adobe.com. Looks promising, but Adobe will need to play catch-up with Dropbox (on integration) and CloudApp (on sharing). I feel that they have a decent chance though, as long as Typekit founder Jeffrey Veen stays on board.
  • Integration with Adobe Touch Apps. On the iPad so far there’s Photoshop Touch, Ideas, Proto and Collage. You get one month of Creative Cloud for free if you buy three of these, an arrangement that’s probably due to Apple’s App Store rules and policies.
  • New installer. With Creative Cloud you can install all apps from creative.adobe.com with one click. This is a major improvement over the times when you had to set aside a full day to install Creative Suite and basically couldn’t do anything else on your computer during this time. (It wasn’t that long ago, the CS5 installer behaved like that.)
  • Choice of language. You can finally decide which languages you want to run your apps in on an app-by-app basis, and you don’t need to make the choice at the time you’re buying the app anymore. This might seem like a minor thing, but for international customers it’s great to be able to try the localized version, and switch back to English if needed.
  • No upgrade anxiety. You stop spending time on evaluating if it’s worth to upgrade to the next major release.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning the downside of Creative Cloud as well. Cancel your subscription, and you won’t be able to use any of the apps anymore, no matter how much money you did put into your membership over the years.

Overall, Creative Cloud looks promising and I hope Adobe can deliver on its newly found vision. It’s off to a good start.

Interview: Bit Barons on Astroslugs, funding, portals and publishers

In today’s interview I talk to Alex Zacherl from the small Munich-based game studio Bit Barons. As usual, I simply ask about the things I’m most interested in – behind-the-scenes stuff that you don’t hear about that often.

Your studio consists of three core team members. How did you meet and why did you decide to start a company together?

We met at GDC Europe 2009 where Alex Widl and Sergej showed their prototype “Qubox”. I went to their booth and played the game. We started talking and quickly found out that we all wanted to make our own games instead of getting jobs at one of the big studios. We needed a legal vehicle to facilitate this so we founded the company and got an office.

How long did the development of your puzzle game Astroslugs take and how did you fund it?

Hard to say. If you count the prototyping phase during the last months of university and the time we spent working on it part-time then it took us nearly two years to release the game. We worked full-time on the PC/Mac game from November 2009 to January 2011 and then about another six months on the iPad/iPhone version. We funded the development both with our own money (more than legally needed for a GmbH), a good amount of public funding (94.000 EUR from the EXIST Gründerstipendium) and some smaller contract jobs.

Astroslugs has been released on iOS, as well as on PC and Mac where the game is available to buy directly from your website. What were the most successful platforms for Astroslugs, both critically and commercially?

iOS definitely was our most successful platform, both from a monetary and reception standpoint. Astroslugs got about 600 user reviews so far and 90% of them are the full five stars. It was also featured by Apple which gave us some pretty nice sales numbers for some time. Compared to that, the PC/Mac version was not very successful. We got good reviews and great player feedback but nearly no one bought the game in the first place – neither on our on site nor on any of the portals. Retail was also pretty negligible for us.

The game is also available on 15 different game portals including OnLive, Desura and GamersGate. With the overhead in paperwork and supporting different APIs, was it worth it to get the game out on as many channels as possible?

No. In hindsight it didn’t make any monetary sense as the portal sales were so very small. In our experience, no portal other than Steam justifies any workload that is bigger than half an hour – at least not for a game that received so little promotion as ours. This may have changed with the rise in popularity of some of the indie portals like Indievania and Desura though. We haven’t had to support any APIs – but the paperwork and networking needed to get the game on the different portals was immense.

One game portal is conspicuously absent from the list. As a small indie studio, what’s your opinion on Steam?

Steam is pretty good for consumers and seems to be a great distribution channel for many indies. We were not able to convince them that our game would make sense on their platform so we were left out – that’s life. Should we ever make another computer game we’ll definitely try again to get it on Steam.

Astroslugs is also available at retail stores. How has your experience working with a publisher been?

An old indie wisdom says that all publishers are evil. We were lucky because working with the guys from Headup Games was pretty smooth and transparent. Though we had a long contract we never had to actually get to it – just calling them on the phone made things work pretty well. It helps that they’re about our size. Though this can obviously also be a weakness, as a small publisher (with a small game such as ours) will never be able to push the same number of boxes as the big ones (but with whom you can’t really work). Compared to that, working with another publisher who is in a completely different time zone, who we can only contact by email and who is less transparent is something we won’t do again.

How do you react to player feedback and user reviews?

We answer e-mails and comments almost immediately when they arrive. At least when this is possible. It’s a big problem that you cannot communicate with the players and commenters on the App Store at all. Most problems only require a few words to fix them or the confirmation that there is really a/no change planned.

Can you tell us about the next game you’re working on? What’s your approach for developing the idea of your next game?

We’re working on different games and game ideas that are in different stages already. Our next release will be an awesome board game that we’ll bring from the physical space to mobile – the money for this comes from a big German board game publisher. Then there’s our trading card game which has been a physical prototype for too long and which we’d love to get out of the door next – negotiations are at work. And then there’s our Monster RPG called Guardians of Era which is still only a concept with a small prototype and for which we’re trying to secure funding (it’s a pretty ambitious project). After that, there might be an MMORPG or two. =D

Do you feel you’re able to fund the next project from the revenue stream of Astroslugs?

No. This has always been our plan but it didn’t really happen. We had pretty good sales when Apple featured the game on the App Store but since then they have been very low. This probably comes from a lack of promotion (and funds for that), from a rather stupid business model and a focus on a very casual audience. Our next games shouldn’t have these problems, so we’re confident that we’ll be able to finance 100% of our costs from our games’ revenues once they are out in the wild.

What’s your advice for people who want to start their own game studio?

Do it now. Start part-time if you must. Go full-time as soon as possible. Make some small games first. Don’t think casual games are easy. Make a game that you love. Have fun. Strive to be independent – don’t give up when you’re not. See Rat King and Mimimi Productions for guys who are doing it the right way.

Keep track of your game's awards in Promoter

When marketing your game one thing always helps. Being nominated or even win an award at a games festival acts like a seal of quality, trusted by press and players alike. We put our best accolades into press texts, app descriptions and on our website.

We didn’t have a good way to keep track of those recognitions though. Usually we’d just copy them from a text file laying around somewhere, and make a new list with the awards we wanted to highlight.

Looking for a better solution, I added support for Awards & Recognition into Promoter, which is available starting today on every paid plan.

With this new feature you can easily:

  1. Keep track of awards, nominations, exhibitions and shortlists for each of your games, sorted by year.
  2. Show selected awards on your promotional webpage on Promoter.
  3. Display your awards on your own website, dynamically loaded via XML or JSON.

I hope you like this new feature – let me know on Twitter what you think of it!

Being a Freelancer in Stockholm, Sweden

I have been working as a freelancer in Stockholm since 2009. When I started out, I asked everyone I could for advise. Over time, I did get a lot of questions myself about how to freelance. Here’s what worked for me and what I advise if you’re just starting out:

Register your company at Skatteverket and choose a form. Sole trader (Enskild firma) is a simple way to get started, with the least amount of paperwork and overhead. But make sure you understand all your options before choosing a company form.

Set a regular hourly rate. This is going to be the maximum you’ll get. Clients might want to get a cheaper rate, but they’ll never offer you more than you’re asking for. Understand what the common hourly rate in your field is. Ask other freelancers what they are charging. Don’t set it too low. Understand that you’re not going to be able to bill 40 hours per week. Being a freelancer involves plenty of tasks that you can’t bill anyone for.

Some clients ask for a discounted rate when they work with you for the first time. It can be worth it if you’re interested to work more with this client in the future.

Be dependable, respond fast and get your work done. You’ll get most jobs via recommendations, so give people you work with a reason to recommend you.

If you can’t or don’t want to do a job, always recommend someone else who might be interested. The client will remember that and the person you recommended will do as well.

Use a tool for project management and client communication. Don’t just send tons of emails back and forth. Basecamp does a better job.

Time track every project you’re working on. Do this even if you’re offering a fixed price. Harvest is an excellent tool for this, plus it saves you a lot of time handling invoices.

Get good at estimating. Break projects down into parts. When a project is done, evaluate your estimate and try to make a more accurate estimate next time.

Worry about your cash flow. Skatteverket collects tax payments from you in advance (Preliminärskatt), before you even know how much you’ll make this year. Clients pay late for different reasons. If you enjoyed the perks of being an employee (like getting a salary every month), this is going to be the hardest part to get used to.

Get an accountant. Don’t do your bookkeeping and taxes yourself, it’s effectively more expensive. Understand which expenses you can deduct and how to invoice your clients correctly. Understand the different rules for VAT (Moms) if you invoice clients that are based outside of Sweden.

Get a company bank account. Have a separate company savings account for your taxes. Everytime you get paid, put the VAT there, and a good part of the invoiced amount. Ask your accountant what percentage you should expect to pay in taxes.

Buy the software you need to get your job done. It can seem expensive, but it’s an investment that easily pays off.

Get a company insurance. Negotiate the offers you’re getting. If you don’t, you’ll get overcharged. There is no list price. Every time you get invoiced, compare the insurance with the terms from last year. It will have changed to your disadvantage. Ask the insurance company for a discount, you’ll get one.

Get a pension plan and a long-term sickness insurance. Often you’ll only get the pension plan and insurance in combination. Ask the insurance company to pay the health check for you.

Go to local events and talk to people. This is the best way to let people know what you’re doing and that you’re freelancing.

Twitter is more important than LinkedIn. Twitter will tell you about news, events and jobs in your field. LinkedIn will make recruiters call you on the phone about jobs you’re not interested in.

Have a website that tells people what you do and how to contact you. Make sure people can access this information on a mobile phone.

If you sign a contract or NDA, make sure you’re happy with the terms. Negotiate out anything that you’re uncomfortable to sign.

Backup your work daily and use offsite version control. GitHub is great for that.

If you’re from abroad, learn Swedish to a conversational level. SFI and SAS are free and decent enough. Stop caring about your grammar, speak Swedish whenever you can.

Be prepared to have to learn something new on every freelance project. Freelancing is about being flexible and adapting to changing working environments.

Work on your own stuff. Have interesting side-projects you can work on whenever you have downtime.

Missing anything? Let me know on Twitter.

Interview: Broken Rules on running a studio and Chasing Aurora

I first met the guys from Vienna-studio Broken Rules at the “indie hostel” during GDC. I remember them sitting in the overcrowed lobby, discussing and playtesting a new project and bouncing ideas back and forth. It was an interesting contrast to other indie games, which often are designed by one or maybe two people. I asked Felix Bohatsch how they run their studio.

Broken Rules started out as a student team – today it has 7 team members. Do all of you have the same stake in the company? Does everyone work full-time, or do you rely on additional sources of income to pay your rent?

Clemens, Martin, Peter, Jan and I all have stakes in Broken Rules. These five are also employed full-time at the company. Andrea and Josef are employees and work about half-time.

Until now we only once did contract work and struggled a lot with it. At the end it was not worth it financially. As long as we can afford to, we want to avoid doing contract work in the future. Currently we are only working on our next game Chasing Aurora.

In 2010 Broken Rules merged with iOS developer Radiolaris. What was the reason of merging the two teams?

Merging with Studio Radiolaris was never planned, but when the opportunity showed up we did it. Studio Radiolaris was founded by two people who we knew from university. We used to share an office with them for a long time as well. After developing three games for iOS, Fares, one of the founders, wanted to return back to an academic career. Martin wanted to continue developing games and as we knew and trusted him, it was a logical step to merge the companies, games and talents.

With a bigger team coming from different backgrounds, is it harder to follow a single vision? What are the pros and cons of merging compared to just working together on a project while keeping companies separate?

Yes, it is harder to follow a single vision. We try to periodically re-focus our vision in the team by talking about it, killing darlings and doing esoteric stuff like manually cutting and pasting a giant analog moodboard. Following Gaijin Games’ Storytelling through Symbolism talk at IndieCade 2011 we try not to worry too much about diverging interpretations of the vision, though. Instead we see it as an opportunity that might help us communicate the vision to a broader audience.

One pro of having everyone who’s working on the game in the same company, is that it is easier to deal with financial issues. First it is easier to work for a smaller income, if you also hold stakes in the company. Second we don’t need complicated contracts upfront that try to fairly split the risk and possible future income. Everyone gets paid the same income and if the game is financially successful it simply means that Broken Rules can keep paying and keep developing great games.

Cons are that everyone has a say on the design of the game. We keep things very democratic, and while that can be a bit tedious sometimes, it generally works well for us. It also means that everyone is creatively invested in the game which keeps motivation up and everyone happy during the long process of developing Chasing Aurora.

What does a typical day at your studio look like? What’s the day-to-day process of working together on a Broken Rules game?

Everyone has a slightly different work rythm – and three guys have babys at home, but we have core working hours, where everyone of the team is at the office. Some come and leave earlier, some later, but we usually have a few hours every day where everyone is at the same physical space. This assures face-to-face communication, which we find to be usually faster and more efficient when dealing with problems. It is even more important as we are continually improving our in-house engine Ginkgo in parallel to building Chasing Aurora with the same engine. Things break and it’s way easier to fix bugs when one can look over the shoulder of the one who has a problem.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday we do a SCRUM meeting when everyone is at the office (usually around 11:00 am). These meetings help everyone to be up-to-date on the process of the game and highlight dependencies.

We try to have teams of two to three people working on a specific task. More people make communication harder and less people usually result in insular solutions to a given problem. Four eyes see more than two. When someone is away we try to find tasks that can be worked on alone.

What tools are you using to communicate with each other and to organize your projects?

We try to do most communication while everyone is at the office. We have an analog SCRUM board where the tasks for the next two weeks reside. We adapted SCRUM to our needs. I would say it’s quite a loose and flexible interpretation of it. Basically we write a task and who’s responsible for it on a small piece of paper and stick it to the board. The task starts in the to-do section and then moves from In Progress via Check to (hopefully) Done. We found that sprints of two weeks work best for us. You can read more about how we SCRUM on our blog.

Usually only big tasks like “build situation X”, or “improve flight behaviour” are written down on the SCRUM board. For finer detail we use Basecamp, where we keep todo lists for our smaller tasks and bugs. We also use the messages and writeboard features of Basecamp to slowly communicate about specific design topics.

To structure our process we play test often, basically every three weeks. Usually with about 6 people. These tests give us a deadline to work towards and keep us focused on what the players want of the game.

For milestones we try to use externally dictated moments, mostly festival submission deadlines, conferences or expos. Simply because these are harder to push.

Your first game And Yet It Moves is available on Wii, PC, Mac and Linux. Players can buy it from multiple channels, including Steam, Mac App Store, Humble Bundle, your own website and others. What’s your experience with having a multi-platform strategy? Is the extra work needed to get it on other platforms and channels worth the additional sales? Which channels worked best for you?

Going multi-platform worked great for us. This approach made the long tail of And Yet It Moves possible. Interestingly enough, 2011 was the most successful year for And Yet It Moves financially. Two years after its launch!

The most important channels for And Yet It Moves are Humble Bundle, Steam, Mac App Store and WiiWare.

You’re currently working on an ambitious new game. In Chasing Aurora players control a bird flying over the alps. How did you decide on the game idea and setting? How long did it take to find a vision for the game?

Yes, it definitely is ambitious. To tell you the truth it grew a lot bigger than we originally wanted it to be. We recently realized that our expectations of what a Broken Rules game has to look and feel like, will always make for an ambitious project.

It all started with flying, wind and motion controls. We built a few prototypes that mostly focused on elegance and soaring through channels of wind. After a few month we postponed these ideas and focused on the playfulness of flight and the freedom one gains through it. We build a local multiplayer prototype, which I would say was the starting point of Chasing Aurora.

Mountains where part of the idea from the start. (Fun fact: the original project title was Fujiyama.) Early on we decided to use the Alps as a setting as it is a part of the world we all know very well, as we are living and working in Austria. We wanted to get inspiration from something local, rather than something exotic.

We started brainstorming circa January 2011, while we were working on contract work and still building our own engine. I would say that we only recently pinpointed our vision. So it took us about a year of prototyping and discussion to develop a clear vision of what we want to convey with Chasing Aurora.

How do you fund the development of Chasing Aurora? What development time are you expecting?

We are partially funded by departure, a fund for the creative industries given out by the city of Vienna, and through the sales of And Yet It Moves. We will launch Chasing Aurora in 2012, so we expect a total development time of about 18 month.

Despite common advice of extracting tech from existing projects, you decided to develop your own 2D game engine Ginkgo from scratch, after experiencing trouble with Torque. What have you learned from building your own tools?

It’s both scary and exhilarating at the same time. It’s scary because it takes a lot of time and resources away from working on Chasing Aurora. Ginkgo was mainly made possible because in 2010 we got a subsidy from ZIT (also Vienna) to build the core foundations of it. That was a major point in deciding to build our own engine. The big danger of programming everything ourselves, is that we might get caught up in feature creep. Especially because engine tasks are easier to define and close, thus being more fulfilling to work on, than game tasks. To avoid this we keep a close look on what features are really needed and what things can be done via workarounds instead.

It’s exhilarating because Ginkgo is already such a great tool, that is built exactly to our needs. It really is a joy to work with. And as Ginkgo was planned to be platform independent from the start, we look forward to easily port our future games to multiple platforms. This will hopefully enable an even longer tail for our future games.

What’s your advice for people who both want to make their own games and a living from it?

Do what you love and what you do best. Always keep a close look on what you want to convey with your game, kill your darlings and focus on what the player will experience. Start small and don’t aim too big.

Influence of gaming sites via Twitter followers

The site index in Promoter now includes the Twitter name of every site and the number of followers. (As long as the site actually is on Twitter. I can’t really relate to why some sites choose not to.) This should help you to get an idea about the influence and reach of any gaming-related site.

The research of the Twitter names was done manually to ensure correctness. The followers count is updated once a day through the Twitter API. You can click directly on a Twitter name in the site-index to go to the related Twitter profile.

The site index is available to everyone who signed up for a Promoter account, free or paid.

Thanks to @chrisoshea for the suggestion.

600+ gaming sites categorized by platform

When you’re about to release your first game, it can be hard to figure out which gaming sites you should contact. When we released our game Spirits on the App Store, we had to do a lot of manual research which sites were relevant for iOS games. Now working on the Mac version of Spirits, we had to figure out which sites actually cover Mac games.

Every game developer talking to the press has this problem. Since Promoter already had a list of 600+ gaming related sites that it uses for the auto-detection feature, I decided to categorize all sites by the following platforms to help solve this problem:

  • 360
  • 3DS
  • Android
  • Browser
  • DS
  • iOS
  • Linux
  • Mac
  • PC
  • PS3
  • PSP
  • Vita
  • Wii
  • Wii U
  • Windows Phone

Now, let’s say you’re porting your game to Android, but have no idea what the press landscape there looks like, Promoter gives you a current list of all major and minor Android gaming sites. This gives you a great starting point on deciding which sites to contact.

To access the list, simply signup for a free Promoter account and then click on Sites in the main navigation. To only show sites for a specific platform, click on a platform tag beneath a site.

Interview: Vlambeer on the iOS launch of Super Crate Box

When Super Crate Box came out for the Mac in 2010, I was astonished by it’s instant play- and replayability. Released for free and acting as a ‘business card’ for Vlambeer, it became clear that it would be worth to keep an eye on the dutch indie studio.

With Vlambeer being one of Promoter’s first customers, I was happy to see that they managed to organize a successful iOS launch of the game, not an easy task in today’s super competitive market. I asked Rami Ismail how they did it.

Super Crate Box has received coverage on major gaming and iOS sites such as TouchArcade, TUAW, Joystiq and PocketGamer within 48 hours after release. How many of these sites did you contact and how did you approach them?

We use a different approach for most games, but one thing we do is to get to know the people we’re requesting to write about us. It’s a common (and rather insulting) misunderstanding that the press are corporate, evil, money-sucking mindless drones. They’re almost without exception passionate and helpful people that care about the medium. In that sense, they’re not so different from developers like us, they just contribute in a different way than we do.

With that in mind, we always contact people we like working with first with what we call a focused mailing. These are personal e-mails to known fans and some people critical of Vlambeer in which we point out we’re releasing something and offering them a look. After that, we wait a few days and check Twitter, Google and Promoter to see who picks up on the story and reach out to them. After that second round has had their go at the story, we usually ‘shotgun’ the rest – we release a press release and send it to every outlet we can find.

The PC and Mac version of SCB was released for free in 2010. It was nominated for ‘Excellence in Design’ at the IGF 2011 and selected as the ‘Best Free-to-Play PC GAME’ on IGN. How did the popularity of the PC version help with the iOS launch?

It did definitely help to be able to mention the prizes and awards of the PC version in the e-mails. We don’t think it was crucial for the critical reception, as the iOS media is mostly unaware of the indie gaming scene and the other way around. We do usually mention that we’ve been nominated for the IGF and that we won some awards when reaching out to new people – that seems to work rather well.

How long has the original game been in development? How long did it take to port the game to iOS?

The original game was developed in about two days of hard work followed by eight months of polishing, the port took about two months of hard work and then four months of tweaking. Especially controls and getting all the details right took more time than we had anticipated, but in hindsight we are pretty happy we did invest that time into it. The controls, although controversial, definitely seem to do the job and we’re happy to see that the vast majority of people seem to like them. We’re trying to reach out to people complaining about the controls to see if we can help them out through Twitter or Facebook.

It can be difficult to port a keyboard based game to the touch controls of iOS. How did you test the usability of the new control scheme?

It was difficult! The one thing we felt really helped out was testing in the train to the offices. Asking random strangers to try the game was both incredibly interesting and motivating. People were extremely responsive to our requests and often brutally honest. Using the feedback, we tweaked, improved and tried again until we had a schedule that worked consistently without significant problems for a week of train testing.

If you’re able to estimate, what’s the conversation rate between free PC/Mac downloads and iOS sales?

At this point, for every 40-something PC downloads there is a single iOS purchase.

There are several ways to send out press copies, such as custom builds for specific UDIDs, TestFlight or Apple’s promocodes. What did you use for SCB? How long in advance did you send them out?

We used Testflight for some press we involved early in the process, but we extensively used promocodes in the week before launch. We feel the iOS market has a short memory span, although core iOS gamers (such as those on the TouchArcade forums) behave more like the traditional gaming crowd. We started by reaching out to those forums and waited until a week before release before really starting our ‘media push’ so that the peak of the coverage would coincide with the release.

When contacting journalists about your game, what’s the three worst mistakes one could make?

We have a few things we never do:

  • Starting with a lengthy introduction. Get to the point. If you assume your first paragraph is the only one potential recipients will read, it has to be short, powerful and sweet. Press often has to read through hundreds of e-mails a day and if you start by telling about your hamster dying last week and how you’re so sorry that affects your writing, they’ll not make it to the second paragraph.
  • Not being personal. We’re an indie and that means we do not have marketing budgets. This has an advantage to it, though – you’ll get to be a person or studio with a story to share. You can connect to the media personally, without a PR department between you and the people writing about your game and studio. Remember that they’re people and they like talking to people – that’s way more interesting than mailing with the secretary of the secondary junior PR manager who never spoke to people making the game anyway. Be personal and attentive.
  • Sending anything but plain text and links. We’ve heard stories about people sending their press releases with 250MB of art and video assets. Funnily enough, it turns out, some people still don’t have mailboxes that handle that really well. Some will delete your email to make space in their inbox. We’ve also heard stories about press releases being sent as beautiful PSD and PDF documents. The press has limited time so make things easy on them. Send plain text, link to a press kit, pre-uploaded trailers or a few images they can download. In the optimal situation, they’ll read your first paragraph, be interested in what you offer and then be able to copy and paste parts of your mail directly from the mail into their story to get started on their article.

In mid-December you announced that SCB iOS would be released on Thursday, January 5th. Was the game already approved by Apple when you announced the date? How did you choose the release date?

Yeah, the game had been approved by that date. We had discussed this at length amongst ourselves: We had decided that christmas was the worst possible time to launch. We hoped that after christmas, there would be a gap in the supply of new games as every ‘big’ player would’ve launched to grab the top spots during the one week in which the App Store freezes. On top of that, we felt there was a pretty big chance people who got their iDevice for christmas would still be intently checking for new releases and thus stumble upon Super Crate Box.

You also announced at your blog that you’ll release an update with new game content once 5 million crates have been collected by players worldwide. When did you work on this update?

We worked on that from the release date until Sunday, which means we’ve barely slept for four days in a row. We functioned on ridiculous amounts of caffeine, but we feel we have to try our absolute best at keeping our promise to our fans and customers. The fans are the most important thing we have.

To be honest, we had never expected the crate counter to soar this fast and wrongly expected the rate to mimic the original Super Crate Box (two weeks) – we’re pretty overwhelmed. Lesson learned, we suppose – but we’re going to take a day long nap or so after this.

SCB is an universal app for both iPad and iPhone priced at 99 cents. What are the reasons for going universal and how did you decide on the price point?

Super Crate Box is a bit of an oddity in terms of distribution. We want it to reach as many people as possible, however, unlike the original Super Crate Box we couldn’t release this one for free with two teams working on it and having to pay the rent. So we decided to launch the game as cheap as possible and with as little obstacles as possible. For Ridiculous Fishing, we might go with a completely different approach. We like to think of such strategies as being seperate per game we make.

You support both Game Center and OpenFeint from day one. Why did you go with both systems?

Again, wanting to reach as many people as possible. We believe Super Crate Box is something that’s worth spreading and making things simple and including features such as those help. We’re working on more additions in that category for later updates, too.

If you’d have to describe in one sentence why the original SCB became ‘the 2010 underground hit’, what would you say?

Hopefully because it shows that arcade games can still be original and new. Unlike many games nowadays, Super Crate Box allows you to play it, instead of letting the game ‘play you’ – all the responsibility for scoring high is with the player. We think in an age where many games guide the player through the game, that can be rather refreshing. We really hope that translated to the iOS version and we have faith in what we made. We’ve been having fun with it.

Black Friday Sale!

My friend Martin is doing a Black Friday Sale over at Bandcamp. You can get all of his game soundtracks for 99 cents each, including IGF-nominated Trauma, Spirits and classics like Understanding Games and Mr. Bounce. Listen to all his work and you can really hear how much he has grown over the years.

f/ Windosill and Hohokum

Tomorrow we’re doing our second game exhibition in Stockholm, this time at Fotografiska. We are showing Windosill by Vectorpark and Hohokum by Honeyslug. Samling + Les Big Big Byrd are playing live and the whole thing starts at 22:00.

Get your ticket here.

The perfect video game press kit

Video game journalists have to cover lots of games, and they don’t have a lot of time. Naturally, you should make it as easy as possible for journalists to write about your games. We have a decent press kit for Spirits online, but it’s not perfect. (Update: Our press kit for Spirits Mac is closer to the list below.)

I asked on Twitter how game journalists imagine the perfect press kit.
Here’s what it looks like:

  • High-quality screenshots with human-readable filenames
  • Option to download all screenshots in a ZIP
  • Embeddable gameplay videos on YouTube/Vimeo
  • Full gameplay description
  • List of features
  • Release date
  • Price point in USD and EUR
  • Available platforms
  • Direct download link on iTunes/Steam
  • Developer name and link
  • Publisher name and link
  • App icon and game logo in high resolution and with alpha channel
  • Packshot if applicable
  • Awards and nominations
  • E-Mail address of team member responsible for press
  • No buzzwords

Do you think something is missing?
Get in touch on Twitter.

Thanks to @Ludoistweetting, @LiveTouch, @Kargbier, @EngagingGames and @Dick_Hogg for the input.

Staff Recommended

Today is Saturday so I had some time to work on a minor new feature for Promoter. A few of the gaming sites that Promoter tracks now have a Staff Recommended tag on it. This is a highly biased personal selection, but there are a few rules that will automatically disqualify a gaming site from being considered a staff recommendation:

  • The site is an unreadable, horrible mess
  • The site has no personality
  • The site does not have a RSS feed
  • The site features booth babe galleries
    (Sorry Wired Game|Life, you almost got in.)

Sadly, from 600+ gaming sites, these criteria radically cut down the list to a few sites that I’d wholeheartedly recommend.

Introducing Promoter

In early 2010 I started to work on a tool that I wanted to have but didn’t exist. Something that helped us (A) to keep track of the press coverage our games would get and (B) to easily see which of our iOS promocodes we had sent out to whom. This tool became what Promoter is today.

So why spend time to develop a dedicated tool for this?
Here are some good reasons:

  • I don’t want to search Google or Twitter all day to see if someone wrote about our games.
  • One week after launch, I want to easily see which of the gaming sites we contacted did not review our game yet.
  • When we’re going to release Spirits for Mac, I want to follow up with the journalists who wrote about the iOS version.
  • A blogger contacts us that she wants to write about Mr. Bounce and would like to have a promocode. I need to know how many codes we have left and if any of them are going to expire soon.
  • I want to collect the best quotes from reviews, so I can use them on our website and in our press releases.
  • We want to submit our games to all important game festivals. I want a reminder when a submission deadline is coming up.

Promoter solves all these problems and saves us time. I built it for our very own needs. That means, it’s specifically built for small teams, for game developers that do their own marketing and PR.

Promoter is now officially in public beta and available to everyone. You can sign up for a free plan that includes 1 game, 25 reviews and 50 promocodes. There is no time limit on the free plan — you can use it as long as you’d like. You can always upgrade to the paid plan, if you need to manage multiple games, more reviews or promocodes.

The unlimited plan is only 99 EUR / year. There is no auto-renewal and you can keep all your data even if you don’t renew your paid plan.

If you’re a game developer, I’d love you to give it a try and let me know what you think of Promoter. Just get in touch with @promoterapp on Twitter.

New website

After 4 years I redesigned and restructured my website to better reflect what I do today. The site is built with Rails 3.1, and the design is completely based on Bootstrap. I feel like the older I get, the simpler the things I do become. And they old website already was pretty simple.

Naturally, the Flash games won’t run on your iPhone or iPad, but there you’ll get to see the comic book covers of the games instead.

Fan service

With the success of Mr. Bounce on the Chrome Web Store (it just has been featured last week), I decided to put some more time into the Flash version. While digging around in code I wrote in 2008, I tidied up a lot and significantly improved the performance. I also back-ported the 10 bonus levels from the iPhone version complete with the new music track from Martin Straka.

You can play the new version here on the site, on the Chrome Web Store or on Kongregate. Enjoy.

The new way of setting up a AS3 project in TextMate

More then two years ago I wrote a guide on how to use TextMate for developing ActionScript 3.0 projects using the free Adobe Flex SDK. It is the most popular blog post on my site until today. As with many other step-by-step tutorials, it has become outdated though. The good news is that it has become much easier to setup TextMate for AS3. Here’s the new way of doing it:

1. If you don’t already own it, download and install the trial version of TextMate from the Macromates website. If you are new to TextMate have a look at the online manual to familiarize yourself with the basic functions of the editor.

2. Download the free Flex SDK from the Adobe Open Source website. The latest stable and tested version at the time of writing is Flex SDK 4 Release. Move the extracted folder into your Developer/SDKs folder. If those two folders don’t exist yet, create them at the root of your harddrive.

3. Download Simon Gregory’s ActionScript 3 bundle for TextMate from GitHub. Unzip the downloaded file. Rename the folder to ActionScript 3.tmbundle and double-click it. TextMate will install the bundle and add it to the Bundle Menu.

4. Now let’s set up a new ActionScript project in TextMate. Select File→New Project from the menu, create a new folder for your project in the Finder and drag it in the TextMate Project Drawer. Click somewhere in the Project Drawer so that the new folder is not selected. Then click on the info button located in the bottom of the Project Drawer. Add two shell variables so that the ActionScript Bundle knows where to look for your files:

TM_FLEX_FILE_SPECS	src/Main.as
TM_FLEX_OUTPUT		bin/Main.swf

5. For compilation we want to use the faster Flex Compiler Shell (fcsh) instead of the default mxmlc compiler. To enable it go to TextMate→Preferences→Advanced→Shell Variables and add a new global variable:

TM_FLEX_USE_FCSH	true

6. Let’s write a simple “Hello World” application. Create two new folders named bin and src in your project directory. Then create a new file in the src folder and name it Main.as. It should look something like this:

package
{		
	import flash.display.Sprite;
	import flash.text.TextField;

	[SWF( backgroundColor='0xFFFFFF', frameRate='30', width='200', height='200')]

	public class Main extends Sprite
	{
		private var textField: TextField;

		public function Main()
		{
			textField = new TextField();
			textField.text = "Hello World.";
		
			addChild(textField);
		}		
	}
}

7. Make sure that ActionScript 3 is selected in the language dropdown menu and then save your project from the file menu. Press Apple+B to compile the main class. This will open the terminal and start up the Flex Compiler Shell. You will find the generated Main.swf in the bin folder.

8. Open the Main.swf with the Flash Player. If you have not installed it yet, you can find it in your Flex SDK installation under runtimes/player/10/mac/Flash Player.app.zip.

Notes from The Black Forest

The Black Forest has been a project I wanted to do for a long time. However, the idea of what exactly it should be went through a number of iterations. The very first idea was to have a ghost character in a game world that was slowly destroyed by the great void like in Michael Ende’s Neverending Story. The void would expand and act like a spatial time limit. You could only stay inside the void for a couple of seconds before you die. I developed a simple prototype, but playing it was not very enjoyable since I did not put enough time into the level design.

Instead, I got side-tracked by working on my own 2D game engine called Pelikan. It was supposed to be super-flexible, easy-to-use, have a beautiful clean syntax, help you focussing on actual game design work and make prototyping so much faster. Well – I was wasting my time on building an engine for rapid prototyping, instead of actually prototype. I finally ditched Pelikan when Flixel came out, since it was doing everything I wanted my game engine to do, but in a better way.

If you really want to make your own game engine or any other framework it is worth looking at what actually worked. Adam Saltsman distilled his Flixel library from a variety of Flash games that he had worked on. David Heinemeier Hansson extracted the famous Ruby on Rails web framework out of the Basecamp source code, not the other way around. The good thing about this is that you don’t need to anticipate how you’ll use your code – instead you only implement what you really need right now and take out the useful parts later.

For the second idea I took a 180 degree turn. I would make The Black Forest a series of little game episodes, each one developed and released in a weekly circle. It soon become apparent that I was not able to develop one episode within a week. I simply had too many other obligations. We kept the idea of releasing an episode once a week, but developed them in advance and on the side, so we still had time for other projects.

With the episodic format we tried to combine some of the aspects of prototyping and episodic games. The prototyping allowed us to try out new game ideas in a quick way. The episodic structure should tie everything together into one narration of the hero’s journey – the main character experiencing different adventures in unfamiliar environments. I feel that there is a certain atmosphere in the series that comes out of this connection between the episodes. This was important to me since I wanted The Black Forest to be more personal than the other games we did before. I also wanted to explain as little as possible to the player and break through some established and learned game conventions. Figuring out what to do would be the player’s main challenge and motivation to play the game.

Finding Friends
In the first episode the player needs to figure out that the signal-red colored ghosts are not enemies, but potential friends that help him or her to find the exit. Every ghost the player touches illuminates the dark maze for a certain amount of time. The “latest friend” will follow the player, making it easier to draw the path.

Unlearn
A lot of games reward the progress of the player by constantly giving him or her new power-ups. How would it feel if you actually take something away from the player and question common game design conventions? People seemed to like this episode the most, but it suffered a bit from problems with the collision detection.

Harmony
What I like about this episode the most is that it does not reward any skills you might have attained in other computer games. This one is only about hearing. It’s the most difficult and frustrating of all episodes though and the audio-visual feedback to the player could be improved quite a bit.

Companion
The goal of the last episode is to meet the other ghost. If you touch the other ghost, a different music is triggered and stars begin to appear in the background. If the distance between you and the other ghost becomes bigger, the music slowly fades out and the stars disappear again. The level is generated procedurally, so the path is different every time you play. So are the chances of meeting the other ghost. You can not go backward, as you can’t go backward in time in real life. The idea came from tinkering about the likelihood of meeting your significant other – being at the same place at the same time.

As with previous game projects I worked together with Martin Straka, who made the soundtrack for the game and also came up with a lot of gameplay ideas. The Black Forest is our first game where the audio is probably as important for the player feedback as what you see on screen. Without the music “Finding Friends” and “Companion” would hardly offer any reward, and the puzzles in “Harmony” are completely based on sound. This was also the first time I worked together with Marek Plichta, who did the beautiful graphics and level design for “Unlearn” which added a lot to the atmosphere as well.

The Black Forest got a number of favorable reviews and mentions in blogs like Jay is Games, Game Set Watch, Play This Thing!, CreativeApplications.Net and IndieGames.com.

Useful Mac Apps

If you’re working on a Mac, there are a ton of useful and affordable applications out there. Here’s a list of tools that I use regularly. How does your list of favorite apps look like?

Dropbox. A super-fast file sharing app that feels like it’s part of the Finder.
Little Snapper. Helpful for taking and organizing screenshots of your projects.
Quicksilver. The fastest way to start up an application or find a phone number without touching the mouse.
Screenflick. Simple screen capture app that we use to record trailers of our games.
Sequel Pro. A tidy graphical gui to admin your local and remote MySQL databases.
TextMate. The best text editor around. Lightweight and extendable.
Things. Simple, but powerful task management that syncs with it’s iPhone companion app.
Timepost. Unobtrusive time-tracking that syncs with Basecamp or Harvest.
Times. Beautifully designed RSS reader that feels much more like reading a newspaper instead of emptying your inbox.
Transmit. FTP-workhorse. Allows to edit remote files directly.
Versions. Well designed Subversion client. Makes things like tagging and renaming folders much easier.
Wallet. Stores all those user accounts, passwords, credit cards numbers and licence keys for you.
WireTap Studio. Easily record audio output from any application, system audio, microphone or line-in.

New url for RSS feed

If you are subscribing to our blog via RSS, please note that we moved the feed url to Feedburner. Please update your bookmark to http://feeds.feedburner.com/pixelate. Thank you.

Oh, and the screenshot above shows the highly recommended newsreader Times from Acrylic together with a desktop wallpaper from Little Big Planet.

December Updates

December is a busy month for us with lots of things going on. We just released the first two episodes of The Black Forest Finding Friends and Unlearn both here on Pixelate and on Kongregate. Episode 3 (“Harmony”) will be released December 20, followed by the last episode of the first season “Companion” on December 27. The Black Forest is the most personal, experimental and tiniest game we have done yet and so far people really seem to appreciate it.

We also pushed a big update for Mr. Bounce to the AppStore which contains five new levels, new game elements and a new music track by Martin Straka. The new track is also available at our Soundtracks store.

The Black Forest Trailer

Here’s a gameplay trailer for our upcoming experimental game series The Black Forest. We are going to release one episode every week this December to play for free online.

Mr. Bounce version 1.0.1

We released the first small update for Mr. Bounce on the AppStore yesterday. The update includes:

  • Play your own music in background: Turn music volume to zero in game options. Close the game, and start your music track in iPod. Then startup Mr. Bounce again. Your music should continue in the background.
  • Better performance on iPhone 2G and iPhone 3G
  • Your name is highlighted in the Hall of Fame
  • Minor bug fixes

Mr. Bounce for iPhone and iPod touch

We teamed up with the new Berlin-based company Spaces of Play to create an iPhone version of our “breakout meets controlled chaos” game Mr. Bounce. It runs super-smooth, features 5 extra levels (25 in total), has real multi-touch controls and an online hall of fame right from the start. It’s only 0.99 USD or 0.79 EUR and available today on the iTunes App Store. Don’t forget to rate the game in the App Store.

Project Management for Indies

In this blog post I want to talk a bit about how we do project management. If you are an indie game developer you might say, “I don’t care about project management. All I want to do is games.” If you are the only person working on your game you don’t need to care about it. However as soon as you start working together with (or for) someone else you’ll need to find a reasonable way to communicate with each other.

Since Understanding Games we are using the web-based project collaboration tool Basecamp (affiliate link) for our written communication, alongside Skype for chat and discussing things in person. Here are some of the advantages of using Basecamp over E-Mails and plain notes.

Keep track

Basecamp enables you to assign and keep track of to-dos and milestones. While a to-do is usually a small task, a milestone stands for a bigger goal that you want to achieve until a certain date. Both to-dos and milestones allow for sending notifications or reminder via email, so you won’t need to check for them manually. A common workflow for us looks like this: I assign a to-do to Martin to compose a music loop for our next game. We discuss some ideas (style and atmosphere of the music, length of the tracks, what file format to use) on the message thread of the actual to-do. Once Martin has composed something, he uploads an mp3 on the same thread. In this way the complete discussion happens in one place and does not get mixed up with other discussions.

Prioritize

Basecamp also lets you keep track of milestones and any recent activity in all of your projects from within the Dashboard view. This way we can easily priorize which tasks need to be done next and what the other team members are doing.

History of communication

When you do your team discussions on Basecamp, it’s really easy to go back and see what you actually agreed on. Can’t remember if it was BF-SUCC.mp3 or BF-SUCC2.mp3 that sounded better? You won’t need to browse through all your emails. Just look into the according message thread.

Work asynchronous

We don’t have an office and we work from different cities in different countries. We have other jobs and freelancer gigs on the side, so we seldom work at the same time. Having all important information about our projects on Basecamp frees us from the necessaries of asking each other in real-time how something was supposed to be done.

For small indie teams Basecamp can feel a bit costly (paid plans start at $24/month) but from our experience the improved team communication makes this investment worth it. There is also a free 30-day trail and a free plan (one project, no file sharing).

More Soundtracks

After releasing the soundtrack for Hypnotic Discotheque Fascination last month we now also offer the music for Understanding Games and Mr. Bounce on our soundtracks page. Again, you can listen to all tracks on the webpage, and name your own price for downloading. Thank you for your support!

GDC Review Part 2

Thusday

The second day of the Independent Games Summit was packed with interesting panels: 2D Boy’s Kyle Gabler and Polytron’s Phil Fish talked about The Art of Independent Game Promotion, or how to market your game without spending any money. This talk was a good follow-up on the Monday-keynote focusing again on non-development topics.

Kellee Santiago from thatgamecompany did an insightful presentation on How Do You Manage Small Indie Teams, a topic that I believe is greatly under-appreciated by a lot of small indies.

In his talk Beyond Single Player Jason Rohrer questioned why independent developers are largely painting themselves into the single-player corner instead of exploring multi-player based interaction that is so common in board games.

Hothead Games had the most well-designed of all slides, but the only thing I can remember is that they are porting Braid to the Mac, which made me a very happy.

In Making Web Games: The Indie Experience Pixeljam Games discussed their goal to make original Flash games without the needs for ads. How? Make the player care about your game. This notion should be commonsense, but Flash games are still largely seen as commodities.

The day ended with Eskil Steenberg’s mind-blowing presentation on the open-source tools he wrote to develop the MMOPG Love completely on his own.

GDC Review Part 1

This is the first part of my personal GDC review. It was my first time there and it was just incredible to basically meet every single person that ever has been an influence to me on making original games. Thank you all for this great week.

Sunday

The conference week already started on Sunday with the first Flash Gaming Summit organized by Mochi Media. It was a one-day event that was only around $50 if you registered early, and the excellent catering alone was worth the ticket. Unfortunately most of the panels were a big disappointment. Most panelists spoke from the perspective of the big Flash portals and advertisement companies, advising aspiring Flash game developers to aim for easily consumable “hit games” and doing as many sequels as possible. During the first four panels no one talked about creativity, innovation or inspiration, even though Mochi Media claims that they are “fueling the creativity of the gaming community”. The MochiAd business model is good for creating revenue, but the Summit underlined that a big share of the Flash games scene acts more like the antipode of creativity, producing very few really interesting games. The day’s highlight then was the appearance of Edmund McMillen in the last panel discussion, arguing you should not aim for a certain target audience but make the games you are really interested in.

Monday

Probably the most interesting presentation of the Independent Games Summit was the keynote given by Ron Carmel from 2D Boy. In “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going Indie But Were Afraid to Ask” Ron gave away lots of interesting numbers like how much money they actually needed to make World of Goo. Ron covered stats on distribution and how sales are directly related to press coverage. An interesting fact is that of all World of Goo sales from 2dboy.com 25% are Mac and 10% are Linux sales. So developing for Windows only could make an indie lose 1/3 of the potential sales. For all the numbers and slides a PDF of the presentation is available.

(Photo by Sklatthill under Creative Commons)

Next in my list of memorable lectures is “The Four-Hour Game Design by Cactus”. Jonatan Söderström’s surreal presentation on how to make a game in four hours made me cry laughing, feeling I am dreaming all this. Coverage on Destructoid, Offworld and TIGSource made me realize – it was all really happening. The presentation was made completely in Game Maker and is available for download (Windows only).

Another really interesting one on Monday was Petri Purho’s postmortem on Crayon Physics Deluxe, last years winner of the IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize. In his presentation Petri explained how important prototyping is for actually making a game. Before starting prototyping Petri did never release anything and worked on a game engine for around 2 years of his life, without achieving anything more than a black screen. (From my own experience I confirm that developing your own engine does not get you any closer to making your own game.) There is a good summary about the complete postmortem on Destructoid.

Soundtracks and Shirts

We just released the soundtrack of our new game Hypnotic Discotheque Fascination on Bandcamp – if you liked the music and want to give us some support, go download the soundtrack and name your own price for the three tracks. You can also prelisten to all the tracks directly on the site. We are planning to add more game soundtracks in the future.

We also have a lovely new shirt in store which you can get from Spreadshirt. It features Jakob Ingvorsen’s “Black Forest” illustation from our homepage.

Hypnotic Discotheque Fascination

We are very happy to present our new game Hypnotic Discotheque Fascination that we designed together with Justin Gagne from Velle. We have been working on this over the atlantic for the last three months, and for us it has been a really cool collaboration. It features the best music score that we have had in any of our games until today, and Martin’s sound design has been the driving force for this project.

You can play the game at velle.us. We hope that you enjoy it!

For more information please read the press release.

A better workflow for developers and sound designers in AS3 projects

In our AS3-only game projects we always ran into the same issues regarding the sound assets. Often we wanted to try out a new sound or adjust the volume of a sound in the context of the actual game to see if it would fit in. This would require our sound designer Martin to send me the new sound file, or tell me “please make this sound +5% louder”. I would do the change, recompile the SWF and send it back to him. To achive a good result we would have to do this cycle a couple of times, which was very time-consuming and unsatisfing for both of us.

So I decided to write a little sound helper class called SoundControl to make things easier and more straightforward. Here’s how it works:

1. An XML config file is used to store all properties (id, file, volume, pan, startTime and loops) for the sound assets. This makes it easy to do changes directly, like trying out another sound or adjusting the volume. The startTime which is measured in milliseconds is especially important if you want to loop a mp3 file, since they always have a small gap at the beginning. You can measure this gap in any visual audio editor (such as Audacity or Adobe Soundbooth) and use the length of the gap as the startTime to loop the sound gaplessly.

<soundConfig embedSounds="false">
	<sound>
		<id>HelloWorld</id>
		<file>../assets/mp3/HelloWorld.mp3</file>
		<volume>0.5</volume>
		<pan>0</pan>
		<startTime>0</startTime>
		<loops>10000</loops>
	</sound>
</soundConfig>

2. You can choose between embedding the sounds in your SWF or to load them dynamically by setting the embedSounds property in the soundConfig tag. When embedding the sounds, you need to add the assets to the EmbeddedSounds class. Make sure to name the class for each asset the same as the id in the XML.

package de.pixelate.pelikan.sound
{	
	public class EmbeddedSounds
	{
		[Embed(source="../../../../assets/mp3/HelloWorld.mp3")] public static var HelloWorld: Class;
	}	
}

3. The SoundControl class enables you to play the sounds defined in the XML. Create an instance of the SoundControl class and add an event listener that will be called once the XML and all sound assets are loaded.

var soundControl: SoundControl = new SoundControl();
soundControl.addEventListener(Event.INIT, onSoundControlInit);

4. While developing you usually want to dynamically load the XML file, so you can quickly do changes and try out different sounds without recompiling the SWF.

soundControl.loadXMLConfig("xml/soundConfig.xml");

5. For production you might want to compile the XML into your SWF, so you can also pass a XML object to the SoundControl instance instead:

soundControl.setXMLConfig(xml);

6. Both commands will preload the sounds that are specified in the XML and dispatch Event.INIT from the SoundControl instance. Once your event handler is called you can play any sound by its id specified in the XML.

soundControl.playSound("MySound");

That’s it! You can download the source code (licensed under MIT) at github.

Vote for Mr. Bounce!

Mr. Bounce is nominated for “Best of Casual Gameplay 2008” in the category Action and Arcade browser games by the folks at Jay is Games. If you enjoyed playing our game, we would very be happy if you vote for it here. (You can vote once a day.)

Playing games on MacBook White with Parallels 4

I am really happy with the improved support for Windows games in Parallels Desktop 4. I can finally play a lot of indie games on my MacBook White (2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM), which does not have a dedicated graphics card, but a pretty underpowered build-in graphics chip. Here’s a list of games I could play at a decent speed:

  • Ad Nauseam 2
  • Crayon Physics
  • Knytt Stories
  • Migthy Jill Off
  • Night Of The Cephalopods
  • Noitu Love 2
  • Psychosomnium
  • Qwak
  • Rescue The Beagles
  • Rom Check Fail
  • The Shivah

New homepage

Today we published a redesigned version of our homepage, which features some very nice illustrations from Jakob Ingvorsen of Spoiled Milk. Every pixelate game now got it’s own “comic book” cover and you can also catch a glimpse of our new game “The Black Forest” that is planned to be released in 2009.

Bytejacker

Bytejacker might going to be my new favorite weekly videogame show. This is like a two-man version of the 1UP Show on steroids, reviewing downloadable and indie games, filmed on a roof in Brooklyn, NY.

Mr. Bounce on Miniclip and Whirled

Our latest game Mr. Bounce is now also available on Miniclip and Whirled. Your highscore will be saved on both websites. Whirled also awards you with trophies for your achievements in the game – try to beat my personal highscore (160,950) to get the Supremacy trophy.

Everyday Shooter (PC)

For some reason, I always play games long after their release date. So while the rest of the world already has played through Everyday Shooter, I am in the middle of level 4. I absolutely love the music in Jonathan Mak’s game. This is lofi guitar heaven. It feels like Lou Barlow is coming around the corner and starts to sing at any moment. Or like an Appleseed Cast album that has not been released yet. I’ve tried for too long to convince friends that video games can be a medium of expression. Next time I will just let them play this game.

Leaving Sweden

So, yesterday was my last day in Stockholm. After 15 months of living in Sweden I am back in Germany now. After having some vacation at my parents place I will move to Zürich at the end of August to work for the very nice folks at Spoiled Milk. I will work part-time for them, which allows me to invest more time into my own game projects. This is something I am really looking forward to. Being able to split up my time between game and web development has been a personal goal for a long time, so I’m excited to see how that works out.

Of course, leaving Sweden is a bit sad as well, and I am thankful to have met a lot of friendly and interesting people during my stay. No more long summer days …

Mr. Bounce Release

Could there be a better day to release a video game than the Swedish National Day? We think not. Finally, after one year of long evenings and weekends, we are very happy to release our new game Mr. Bounce. (The game is also available on the Kongregate gaming site.) We hope you like it as much as we do. Thanks again to everyone who play-tested our beta version and gave us valuable feedback!

1UP Specials: RSVP

The guys from the 1UP Show have a great new format called RSVP where they invite influential people from the game industry (influential in terms of games as medium of expression) for dinner and just talk. The first episode features Erik Wolpaw from Valve, Dylan Cuthbert from Q Games, Jonathan Mak from Queasy Games and Mark MacDonald from 1UP. Very much worth seeing!

Ether (PC)

We certainly need more beautiful designed games. I don’t mean games that look good from a technical point of view. The notion that the graphical quality of a game can be measured in numbers is still common sense amongst a lot of people. From this perspective every new game has to raise the bar towards graphical realism. This is of course plain wrong. Instead, every game needs a distinct personality. Like Ether for instance – an atmospheric, physics-based Half-Life 2 Mod developed by Brown Dyed Hotel, a group of swedish students from Campus Karlshamn of Blekinge Institute of Technology. I only played it for several minutes at the Swedish Game Awards Exhibition, but I was immediately captivated by it’s beauty and I encourage everyone to check it out for yourself.

Mr. Bounce Trailer

We are currently putting together the last bits and pieces of our new game Mr. Bounce – optimizing the code, mastering the music, implementing a highscore list. Expect to see the game released on Kongregate during the next weeks. Until then, have a sneak preview at the trailer!

Bully / Canis Canem Edit (PS2)

A while ago I bought a used PS2 to play a bunch of games that I had missed so far and that I thought I would enjoy playing. One of them was Rockstar’s Bully (named Canis Canem Edit in Europe). It got a lot of positive reviews in the gaming press and playing a troublesome schoolboy sounded like an interesting game idea which got me very excited to play it.

The actual experience of playing Bully makes me feel like being in the office doing overtime on a sunday working on a PC that crashes every 10 minutes. The number of good ideas and intentions in this game equals the number of moments of pure frustration. I consider the mission system one of the biggest flaws of the game. Like in GTA you progress through the game by completing missions – if you fail a mission you are forced to do it over and over again.

A typical mission looks like this: Escort a school kid that is threatened by some bullies to his locker so he can return his borrowed books to the library. Ok, this could be a challenging, interesting task inside a video game, but:

The school kid will follow you at a really slow pace, while you have to lead the way. Due to a seriously unclever positioning of the camera, you can’t see where your fosterling actually is and therefore you can’t protect him from getting beaten up. On the way to the locker he needs to go to the bathroom, so you need to escort him there first. The target location is indicated by a symbol on the in-game radar-like map. Once you are actually there, you realize this is the girls bathroom and your friend will not follow you in there. Of course there is also some arbitrary timer running out, and you are just wondering if a single person has actually tested this or any of the other missions before the game was released.

You Have To Burn The Rope (Flash)

There has not been a Game of the Week post on my blog in quite a while, mainly because I simply have not enough time to play a lot of games anymore. I already was happy that Valve’s Portal was kind of compact, time-wise. Play You Have To Burn The Rope and guess how happy I was to play this little diamond. Be warned, it’s an intense experience.

Debug and Release Builds with AS3 Conditional Compilation

While working on our upcoming game Mr. Bounce I was searching for a way to compile debug and release builds from the same source in AS3. Our game project includes things like an internal level editor and cheat keys that we need for developing and testing the game, but should not go in the release version of the game.

I stumpled across something called Conditional Compilation on Ryan Taylor’s Blog – a new feature of the Flex 3 SDK. It allows you to define constants (Booleans, Strings, Numbers or expressions) at compile time, which are globally accessible within the source of your application.

You can define your constants on the command-line with mxmlc, in a Flex Ant Task or using a configuration file. See Adobe’s documentation for more information on this.

For our game we defined the debug and release constants in the flex_config.xml file that is located in the Flex 3 SDK folder inside the frameworks folder. Both constants are Booleans using the CONFIG namespace.

<compiler>
   <!-- (other compile options...) -->
   <define> 
      <name>CONFIG::debug</name> 
      <value>true</value>
   </define>
   <define>
      <name>CONFIG::release</name> 
      <value>false</value>
   </define> 
</compiler>

Now we can check for the debug and release constants in the source code and execute the correct code for the target build:

private function init():void
{
   CONFIG::debug
   {
      // Only init the level editor for the debug build
      initEditor();
   }

   initGame();
}

We could also specify alternative versions of a function for the different builds:

CONFIG::debug
private function init():void
{
   initEditor();
   initGame();
}

CONFIG::release
private function init():void
{
   initGame();
}

Alcon (ActionScript Logging Console)

I recently started using Alcon for logging and debugging AS3 projects. It uses LocalConnection to send your trace calls from the included Debug class to the Alcon console, so it is not dependent on the Flash or Flex IDE. It has some nice features that make it very handy including the ability to display both the current frame rate and memory usage. Another plus: It works on Mac as well.

Portal (PC)

Surprisingly, Valve’s Portal (part of The Orange Box) did run quite well on my low-end PC. While some people complained that it is too short, I am actually happy with the fact that you can play through it in one or two sessions. I just don’t have as much time to play games as I had as a kid anymore. However, Portal is actually longer than you’ll think at first, and it does a good job in playing with your expectations through the whole game. The puzzles are mind-bending and challenging, but never unfair. A slight motion sickness might occur, though. I am also going to spoil that the end boss is really really cool. But you’ll properly have played it already.

Another World 15th Anniversary Edition (PC)

Do you remember the feeling of immersion that you had when you played Half-Life for the first time? I just finished playing the 15th Anniversary Edition of Eric Chahi’s Another World (named Out of this World in the US) and I had quite a similar experience of being sucked into an atmospheric game world. In both games you play a scientist who has to learn how to self-defend against other species because of a failed scientific experiment.

While Half-Life is the effort of Valve’s great team work, Another World was almost done completely by Chahi himself – an exceptional talent in programming, art and design. The Anniversary Edition includes a highly interesting Making Of video presenting the little secrets and tricks of his game development process.

Compared to todays standards Another World is both quite short and really hard. Be assured that you will die a thousand deaths and that you’ll need to replay a bunch of levels many many times. It does not help that in theory the controls are elegant and simple, but sloppy and unforgiving in reality. Of course, Another World is one of these precious gems in gaming history well worth the struggle playing through it.

Serious Games Award

Great news! Understanding Games won the second price at the Serious Games Award in the category Best realization of a Serious Game (Bestes umgesetztes Serious-Game). The award was organized by the Hessian Department of Trade and Industry to promote computer games that provide an expedient usefulness in addition to sole entertainment.

Understanding Games Diploma Thesis

Many ideas in the Understanding Games series have their origins in various books and articles that I read during my diploma thesis research. So I thought it might be a good idea to make the influences and theories behind Understanding Games more transparent and release my diploma thesis as a downloadable pdf. The pdf contains a lot of figures, so it’s size is rather big (44 mb). Note that the thesis is in German language. You can download it here.

Setting up a AS3 Project in Textmate

This guide is outdated
Please read the new guide on how to setup TextMate for AS3 projects instead.

When developing Flash games I use a fairly uncommon combination of development tools which I’d like to share here. I’ll give an overview on how to setup the OS X editor TextMate for developing ActionScript 3.0 projects using the free Adobe Flex SDK. If you are new to Flash development and working on a Mac this might be a good alternative to buying Flash Professional 9 or Flex Builder since TextMate is available for a convenient price of €39. Setting everything up can be a little bit tricky and requires a number of steps so I try to be as clear as possible. Let’s go …

1. Download and install the 30 Day Trial of TextMate from the Macromates website. If you are new to TextMate please take a look at the online manual to familiarize yourself with the basic functions of the editor.

2. Download the free Flex SDK from the Adobe website. Move the extracted folder into your Developer/SDKs folder.

3. Make sure that you have Subversion installed. If you don’t you can download an easy-to-install package of Subversion from the homepage of Martin Ott.

4. Get the latest ActionScript 3 bundle for TextMate using Subversion. To do this, open the Terminal application, copy the following script into the Terminal and execute it by pressing return.

mkdir -p /Library/Application\ Support/TextMate/Bundles
cd /Library/Application\ Support/TextMate/Bundles
export LC_CTYPE=en_US.UTF-8
svn co http://macromates.com/svn/Bundles/trunk/Review/Bundles/ActionScript%203.tmbundle/
osascript -e 'tell app "TextMate" to reload bundles'

Now the ActionScript 3 Bundle should show up in the TextMate Bundle menu.

5. Download and install the Flex Compiler Shell — it compiles much faster than the standard mxmlc compiler by keeping everything in memory.

6. To use the Flex Compiler Shell from TextMate we also need to download and install the terminal application iTerm.

7. Now let’s set up a new ActionScript project in TextMate. Select File→New Project from the menu, create a new folder for your project in the Finder and drag it in the TextMate Project Drawer. Click on the info button located in the bottom of the Project Drawer. Add two shell variables so that the ActionScript Bundle knows where to look for your files:

TM_FLEX_FILE_SPECS	src/Main.as
TM_FLEX_OUTPUT		deploy/Main.swf

We also need to let TextMate know where the Flex SDK is located. Go to TextMate→Preferences→Advanced→Shell Variables and add a new global variable:

TM_FLEX_PATH	Developer/SDKs/Your Flex SDK Folder

8. You are still with me? Great. Let’s finally write a simple “Hello World” application. Create two new folders named deploy and src in your project directory. Then create a new file in the src folder and name it Main.as. It should look something like this:

package
{		
	import flash.display.Sprite;
	import flash.text.TextField;

	[SWF( backgroundColor='0xFFFFFF', frameRate='30', width='200', height='200')]

	public class Main extends Sprite
	{
		private var textField: TextField;

		public function Main()
		{
			textField = new TextField();
			textField.text = "Hello World.";
		
			addChild(textField);
		}		
	}
}

10. We are almost done! Make sure that ActionScript 3 is selected in the language dropdown menu. Press Shift+Command+B and select Build (fcsh) to compile the main class. This will open iTerm and start up the Flex Compiler Shell. You will find the generated Main.swf in the deploy folder. That’s it.

Ratmaze 2 (Flash)

Pixeljamgames – the creators of the superb Gamma Bros – just released Ratmaze 2. You are playing, well, a little rat inside a maze. The goal is to collect as much cheese and other types of food inside the maze until the time limit runs up. Each time you collect a food item your score increases and you get some extra time as a reward. The tricky part is that you cannot see the complete maze all at once. You can however choose to enable or disable scrolling in the settings of the game. (Enabling scrolling makes it a little bit easier since you can see which rooms adjoin.) As a secondary task you can also try to collect the bonusletters R-A-T-M-A-Z-E hidden in the maze which involves some physics-based puzzles with marbles. Give it a try, it’s a very nice game to play on a rainy sunday like today.

Rhythm Heaven (GBA)

The most games I currently play on my Nintendo DS are actually GBA games. So, why am I living in the past? Basically because the GBA has some very original titles. Well, at least in Japan. One of these wonderful games that you can’t buy in Europe or in the US (for whatever stupid marketing reason) is Rhythm Heaven. It’s essentially like Wario Ware except that you have to press the buttons in rhythm of the music instead. It’s a simple concept that will keep you entertained for quite a while. There are six varied stages with five levels each and a remix level at the end of each stage. The music is ingenious and catchy in a way that it makes you sing-a-long. Forget the music games you have played before, this is the real shit!

Qwak (GBA)

The platformer Qwak was first released in 1993 for the Amiga (and later for the CD32) by british developer Team 17. This great little gem shares it’s game mechanics with arcade classics like Bubble Bobble or Parasol Stars. It’s super-fast and pretty damn hard. Unfortunately at the time it came out the Amiga was already on it’s way down, so a lot of then Amiga owners will not have played the game. Which is a shame because Qwak is one of the best playable Amiga games out there. The good news is though that the game’s designer James Woodhouse has ported the game over completly to the Gameboy Advance. There are only 300 (homebrew) copies of the game, so make sure you order it for £15 including shipment as long as it’s available. And if you don’t believe me that Qwak is that great, download the demo for your PC first.

Cave Story (PC/Mac)

So … I try to get in the habit of writing some sentences about one game that I like each week. Let’s start with Cave Story which is a free Japanese platform/adventure game for PC and Mac developed by Studio Pixel.

In Cave Story you are playing a young boy who wakes up in a cave but by mischance cannot remember how he’d got there or who he is. While exploring large underground areas and talking to unique characters you unfold the weird but still enjoyable story. You’ll need good reflexes and button-smashing qualities since a lot of baddies seek your life and it can get quite hectic especially later in the game – not to mention the very challenging boss fights.

Overall, Cave Story delivers so much more than you’d ever expect from a freeware game. The cute graphics are lovely, the controls are accurate and the soundtrack adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game. All the details are perfect. Go and download it now if you have not already played it.