Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…


I’ve spent part of today tweaking the upsell for Kudos 2 today. The ‘Upsell’ is the efforts the demo makes to get you to buy the full copy. The original demo was pretty lacklustre in that there was a nag screen that had a default background with some screenshots from the game, and it basically said “please buy it”.

I figured I could do better than that, and in a flash of inspiration I replaced the default avatar on the upsell screen with the players actual avatar they used in the demo. Then, instead of the text saying ‘would your character have done well?” it uses their name, so it’s ‘would bill have done well?’ etc.

I also added a quote from a review of the game that was massively positive, to remind people how great the game is :D and I enclosed the upsell text in a nicer formatted white window so it looks much more polished.

Then I ditched the default, fixed screenshots and replaced them with 3 dynamic ones, where they constantly cycle through a total of 9 upsell screenshots, cross fading between them and thus adding some minor movement and animation (in some ways) to an otherwise boring upsell screen.

It won’t double conversion rates, but it can’t do any harm.

Also, I replied to an email about a potentially important deal for the game today. You have to make some pretty big guesses in my job. When people say “how much for the rights to X” you have to really stroke your chin and think about the right figure. At the end of the day, it’s a bit of a guess…

Game designers are blind cockney elves

All game designers are blind. Every single one of us. Peter Molyneux, Will Wright, Sid Meier, even little old me. We are all massively totally hugely blind.

In some areas.

It’s inevitable.  That game you enjoy and play a few hours each week, we spent at least a year staring at it EVERY DAY. We possibly sat in three hour meetings about the inventory screen and whether it should be done another way. If we did any serious play-testing, we saw the “you have been attacked by a cave troll” window about 500 times. It’s not news to us, it’s just like the furniture. No big deal.

When I used to work in city server rooms, I ended up totally blind to the security, and the cabling. City server rooms are so security concious its laughable. One room even weighed you on the way in and the way out to check you didn’t swipe anything (or leave anything in there). Many of them had CCTV pointing at you at every stage of the torturous trip in and out (swipe cards, pin entry, physical keys all combined). After a while, you ignore it. Most server rooms have so many cables running from computer to computer that it all gets put under the floor, and round the back of some of the racks is an exercise in cable tangle hell. After a while you ignore it.

The problem with being a small team or lone game designer, is you ignore those really obvious faults, inconsistencies, confusions, bugs and irritations, not because you don’t care, but because you cannot see them. Most US game designers don’t realise all the elves have mid-west accents. Nobody thinks their accent sounds weird, but it always does, to other people. Cockney elves may sound amusing, but to a cockney, a mid-west elf is just as silly.

I’m sure I’m making the same mistake with my new game, but I’m doing what I can to avoid it. Different people, of different ages, genders and nationalities are giving it a try. They always spot things I never would have, because I’m blind to them. If you are making a game on your own, you are also blind to your mistakes. Get someone else to take a look, and listen to what they have to say.

sandbox games and spore

I wrote a new article for bit-tech, you can see it here (courtesy of digg)

It’s about how sandbox games are getting less sandboxy, with a lot more in the way of aggressive hinting and quests to tell you what to do. I consider this to be a slight dumbing down of otherwise good freeform games. I don’t play games to be told what to do, I could get that in a day-job :D

I got thinking today about spore, my slight disappointment with it, and thinking about whether it’s a genre I could tackle in the future. I certainly think the game is too simple and dumbed down, no doubt to appeal to the mass market. The section of the game I enjoy most is the creature stage, but it’s far too predictable, and simplistic. There really isn’t enough in the way of simulation complexity to give me enough of a freeform game there.

So I was wondering about whether I could do a different take on the ‘cell stage’, which is more of a ‘sim fish creature’ game that anything really cellular. I love the ‘look’ of that part of the game, but I thought the gameplay was too simple. There are basically two food types (meat and plants) and you avoid big things and eat little things. Also there are some bits of meteor you need to hoover up. I’m pretty sure there is huge scope to expand on all this and make a better game. It’s certainly the sort of game I enjoy coding, and it would fit nicely in with my general portfolio of stuff whilst being a new game (non sequel).

Just a thought.

Some changes to Kudos 2 (for the better)

I’m really pleased with some of the last minute improvements and additions to Kudos 2. For one, there is an NPC drawn from a portrait of everyone who worked on the game, which is kinda funny and cool. Another thing I’m pleased with is a new system when someone asks you out for the evening. If you can’t afford it, you can say so, and they aren’t *that* snubbed. But better than that, you can just lie and pretend you can’t afford it. This reduces your honesty :D (BTW A friend of mine reckons honesty should be a pre-requisite to a science job, what do you think?)

I’m also putting a system in where once you have customised and selected your avatar, it’s saved out as a random pre-set, so you might see your old creations come back as defaults (inspired by spore, clearly :D).

The biggest difference in working methods between Kudos 1, and 2, has been getting family members and friends to try the game at an earlier stage. It’s amazing how many issues other people can identify in just five minutes that you will never think of. An example is “why don’t people thank me if I pay for their evening?”.

Good point :D

Fiddling with variables

A lot of the vital design stuff on my games is coming ton conclusions about cause and effect that are simple enough to work inside the context of a PC game.

Take alcohol. What are the effects of alcohol? Well they are many and varied, according to scientists and doctors, low levels of some alcohol can actually be beneficial as a prevention against heart attacks. High levels will ruin your health, and we probably agree that alcohol will give you a higher level of confidence, and relax you.

But… does it make you happy? This is a complex question. In my experience, alcohol exaggerates moods, so miserable people become more miserable, and happier people get more happy. The problem is, this is a bit of a personal opinion, and not easily explained in game terms. In the simplistic fashion of a sim game, alcohol makes you happy, albeit at the cost of reducing your concentration, and having potential health effects.

So I find myself wrestling with how to set the numbers in Kudos 2. Right now, you get a confidence and relaxation boost automatically from all alcohol, but only deliberately chosen alcohol in restaurants directly makes you happy. The happiness associated with alcohol from a bar or a wine and cheese evening is factored in with the other effects. If this seems slightly woolly, and not 100% accurate, it isn’t, but that’s game design. The problem is, you could add more and mroe complexity until the game took 20 years to make and a manual like a phone directory to play it. The trick is making the effects in the game seem just real enough to suspend disbelief, whilst still keeping it as just a game, and not an exercise in statistics.

Tis a fine balance…