Archive for November, 2007

All Quiet on the Western Front

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Marketing an indie game is hard work. Finding succesful advertising channels is even harder. The arcane math for figuring out whether X cents per click translates into Y downloads which translates into Z purchases is frustrating. It’s not that the math is complex. There really isn’t much math involved actually. The work is 50% empirical and 50% assumptions and WAG’s (Wild Ass Guess). I’ve used a combination of Google Analytics, controlling for a single variable type advertising rotation, and anecdotal evidence from customers to conclude that my advertising efforts are pretty meaningless. A mention from Bill Harris on his blog Dubious Quality was probably worth more than my entire (admitedly small) ad budget.

So what is my strategy?

1. Well, I’m going to continue to dabble with Adwords and targeted banners because hope springs eternal. So far these types of ads just haven’t converted into demo downloads or purchases. The hope is that the exposure pays off after some delay. The potential customer comes back later at a more opportune time to really check out the website and game. I’ve got more controlled testing to do before I write this off completely but the prospects don’t look promising at this point for paid per click advertising.

2. Focus on contacting reviewers, game bloggers and raconteurs.

3. Promote the upcoming free mini expansion pack.

4. Get another product out. Work proceeds apace on Project: Brimstone. The greater the mass the stronger the force of attraction.

5. Improve the website with the inclusion of a sign up for a mailing list/newsletter and a poll on how you found it.

This whole process is a war of attrition. Like trench warfare in 1916 gains are measured in yards and not miles and progress is slow. But momentum does build. I’ve been told that the game has a nice buzz going for it in some of the dives and speakeasys of the gaming community. That’s what I need to foster. I got a big boost last week when Jeff Green of Games For Windows mentioned the game on the 1UP YOURS podcast.

I’m going to end this entry with an image from the upcoming free mini expansion pack for Armageddon Empires “Cults of the Wastelands.” Meet the Doomsayers. These are the crack troops of the Fist of the Wasteland. They have a nasty habit of dropping in when you least expect them. Submit or Die.


Technology’s March

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

I was away for the long holiday weekend so I am playing catch-up. We went to Virginia for Thanksgiving and snuck in a trip to Washington D.C. What trip to D.C. would not be complete without a visit to the National Air and Space Museum? My two kids (9 and 7) had never been before so it was a real treat. The orginal Wright flyer is there. So is this beauty:

One giant step for mankind

The picture doesn’t do justice to the feeling you get when looking at it that it was assembled in somebody’s garage. This is an actual lunar module that wasn’t used because testing was completed before it was needed. You can see screws on the outsides of the metal panels. But besides the appearence of being rather crudely manufactured what’s probably most amazing is that the electronics and computing power onboard are miniscule compared to my 3 year old desktop that won’t run anything without the graphics settings turned way down. The best circuits of the day went into making the lander. When I was studying electrical engineering in the mid-eighties the frontier was VLSI. Twenty plus years earlier when they were designing the lunar modules the technology was described here

“Informally, the programs were called “ropes” because of the durable form of read-only memory into which they were transformed for flight, which resembled a rope of woven copper wire. For the lunar missions, 36K words of “fixed” (read-only) memory, each word consisting of 15 bits plus a parity bit, were available for the program. In addition there were 2K words of artfully timeshared “erasable” or RAM memory. Allowing for the identical Apollo guidance computer (AGC) in the Command Module (CM), containing a program called COLOSSUS, it is correct to say that we landed on the moon with 152 Kbytes of computer memory.”

So what does this have to do with strategy games? Well, on the drive home I started designing the ultimate space opera game in my mind. While winding through the mountains of West Virginia in the middle of a torrential rain storm I started thinking about the difference between the Lunar Module and the planed Orion spaceship…..and the difference between the Wright Flyer and the Lunar Module. I was contemplating this because any epic space opera game like MOO usually has to have a research system that drives technological change and “refit” system where old designs and gizmos are replaced with the latest and greatest. The scope and pace of the technology change in the research system drive this.

In a game like MOO or Gal Civ Moore’s Law style technological change is let loose for what would be decades or centuries over the course of the game play. The difference between the laser and the stellar convertor was vast orders of magnitude. A early game ship is vaporized almost instantly when confronting a mid game ship. The scope of the game play goes from fledging space travel to interstellar imperiums.

A contrasting approach is the Honor Harrington universe where R&D proceeds at a slower pace. There are still discontinuities where sudden jumps in technological innovation change the strategic calculus. The introduction of missile pods is one such occurence. This type of breakthrough opened up windows of opportunity that suddenly closed when the opponent countered with a technological or tactical response.

Here are some general thoughts on how I would approach this:

1. Slow down the pace of technological change by decreasing the time frame.

2. Limit the array of weapons to Energy, Missile and Kinetic. This is pretty standard.

3. Each weapon category can have a limited number of designs which must be prototyped and then are available for inclusion in ship “class” designs.

4. Each weapon prototype which is put in to production can have generation versions. The system that governs the interaction/resolution of weapon parameters vs. ship defense/survivability should be discrete and normalized to comprehensible numbers i.e. gains are never measured/displayed in percentages.

5. Each hull size can have a fixed number of class designs. Some amount of resources/time must be spent blue printing, prototyping and deploying them.

6. Ships are laid down in orbital construction yards and are assigned to the yard as an asset. So many turns must pass before they are launched. If the yard is destroyed so is the ship.

7. Grant access to all hull sizes immediately.

8. Come up with some system to reward multi hull size use.

9. Allow each hull refits where old components are upgraded to newer versions.

10. Allow planetary invasion on a seperate hex map like Emperor of the Fading Suns. Wait, that doesn’t belong here….but do not forget.

Themes and Memes

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

Scott R. Kroll had a great post a couple of days ago about the tyranny of the elves…I mean about how fear of failure drives game designers/companies to cluster around the same old themes. High Fantasy and World War II are probably the two most popular genres. Throw in Space Opera and I’ll admit you have my three favorites. But like Scott said the SAS motto is “Who Dares Wins” and when I decided to try my hand at making a game I was aiming to dare. Of course it’s easier to take a gamble when the stakes are low. A failure for me is measured in the tens of thousands of dollars and some lost time. If you are calling the shots with a team of 50 and a 10 Megaton budget then straying from the safe bet is going to be a lot harder. That’s one of the glorious things about the new age of indies and digital distribution. You have small companies trying to fill small niche demands that ordinarily might not ever get their chance to shine.

In the board game world one of the dividing lines between the “Euro” and “Ameritrash” game designs is the role of theme. Savants like Reiner Knizia can imagine and design a group of rules that is mathematically elegant, beautiful and a joy to play. After they have printed the rules, assembled and sorted the meeples into little plastic bags and shrink wrapped the box, they spray paint a theme on the game. Ancient Egypt spray paint number 5, Old Kingdom brown.

While I really enjoy Euro-style mechanics, Armageddon Empires is a strategy game that lives in the Ameritrash trailer park…and quite proudly. Everything about the game sprang from the simple idea of “A post-apocalyptic board game where you try and rule the wasteland.” The theme was the genesis of the game. Every design decision was based on how it fit with the theme. My next game is a computerized version of a board game that I designed that is a twist on this. Project Brimstone started with a simple concept statement like Armageddon Empires did. However, once I had the theme I tried to lay out an elegant and simple framework for the games mechanics that incorporates a lot of ideas you might find in a Euro-style game. Things like set collecting and biding. Like many games you find today it is a hybrid of sorts.

To finish off this entry I’d like to point out some of my favorite not so common themes for games and some games to try out:

The Old West
Give Worthington Games new “Cowboys: The Way of the Gun” game a “shot.”

Angle Eyes

Or you can try and scrounge up an old copy of Avalon Hills Gunslinger on ebay.

Go to your God like a Soldier!
Victorian colonial military engagements are a bloody good time. Try out Victoria Cross, a neat little block game also by Worthington Games

Victoria Cross

Adventure Noir
Jason Lutes is working on Thrilling Tales of Adventure which looks very cool.

Nazis! I hate these guys.

Cardboard Incarnations

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

I’ve noticed what might be a growing trend of small indie developers leaving (at least experimentaly for a project or two) the digital arena for the cardboard killing fields. I base my “trend identification” on two data points…which when connected make a line :) The first is the case of Crosscut Games. For a long while I have followed their progress on Dungeon Delvers, their dungeon romping tribute to games like Talisman. Then last year it looks like they were inspired by something to take the plunge and go completely cardboard. The result is the impending release of Galactic Emperor.

Galactic Emperor

Over at Digital Eel, the developers of the brilliant Weird Worlds franchise, the future is cardboard as well. Eat Electric Death, besides having the best name ever invented, looks to be a great tactical space battle game coming soon to a game board near you.

Eat Electric Death

So, what to make of this? It’s not like making a board game is really any easier than making a computer version of the game. The work is just done in different cubby holes with different skill sets. Some of the skill sets overlap considerably. The fundamentals are similar in the design and prototyping aspects. Art conceptualization and generation can be identical. Design iteration and play testing is pretty much the same in concept. The creative process diverges at the big chunk in the middle…..implementation. The computer game has the code monkey stage where the game is built via computer code. The card board version is built by artists designing and creating components in photoshop, illustrator, Indesign etc. and a project manager who finds other companies (usually in China) to print, mold inject, and press the game components. The components also have to be assembled, shipped (by cargo ship in a container) clear customs and then be warehoused. All that is unbelievably easier said than done. Finding a printer that delivers the materials just as desired is hard. It’s a full time effort that requires tremendous knowlege about the printing/production process, attention to detail and excellent negotiating skills to boot.

Barriers to Entry: Then there is the fact that a physical product like a board game is quite a different beast to sell. The entity that owns the customer has all the power. As a software indie you can set up your shop and own every customer you can get to browse your site and buy your digital good. The marginal cost to create each digital copy is essentially zero. You don’t have to come up with the capital to do a print run of 10k units so that the cost per unit is reasonable. You don’t have to split the revenue with a retailer who gets 40-60% of the retail price based on how the “power” is distributed between the two of you. You don’t have to rent a storage space every month or park your car in the driveway to store all the boxes waiting to find their soul mates. If you sell the physical good from your website you have to prepare the games for shipping, print shipping labels, print postage and wait for the UPS/FEDEX guy or drive the stuff over to the drop off points yourself. When I worked for TravelBrains, this type of process could easily take an hour and a half at the end of every day….and folding laundry is a lot more fun.

The competition in the board game space is tough as well. New technology and the rise of China as a micro printer has made it possible for small guys to get into the market by easing the barriers centered around physical manufacturing. You don’t have to be a huge toy corporation to make a reasonable quality physical product nowadays. Like I said before you do need some expertise and some amount of capital. Consequently everybody and their brother has a dusty board game prototype they are pitching or building. Competition for retail channels is intense. The distribution system is in flux as well. Your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) is diminishing and taking the boats for the West. You can sell through a large distributor but you will probably wake up one day and feel like an abused spouse in a homeless shelter. If you decide to do the distributing footwork yourself then get ready for some serious traveling, flesh pressing and lonely nights on the road.

So why make a card board game if you are a small indie developer? The challenge is one thing that comes to mind. I think the challenge of the creative process is what drives a lot of indies, me included. It’s a different way to create something… a change of pace. The thrill of having something tangible as a result of your hard work is also probably a big factor. For all the entertainment that computer games provide they intrinsically lack the tactile experience of a board game.

Just to note: There are also some established board game companies that have done a great job of going from card board origins to digital. Days of Wonder has a system for playing its many fine games online. I don’t know if I would categorize them as an indie though. They probably generate revenues in the millions. Mark H. Walker’s excellent Lock and Load company is indie but publishes through Matrix. Heroes of Stalingrad, a digital version of his tactical board game system looks really interesting.

To Rule With An Iron Fist

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

The week started well with the release of 1.06 for the PC version of Armageddon Empires. The Mac version (1.02) is being tested now and will be up shortly. I’ve gotten some good feedback from players that I’m on the right track.

I’ve been having a great run of luck lately. I got a mention in Games For Windows magazine as an indie pick of the month. It was actually a “Full Death Metal Salute” which you really don’t see a lot of nowadays.

I got a surge of traffic from a French online magazine. I’m working on translations of my manual into French, German and possibly Spanish.

Troy Goodfellow of Flash of Steel fame had some kind comments and some suitable words of warning for the feint of heart at PTD Magazine

A nice review is up at Tacticular Cancer by Astromarine which lays out the good, bad and ugly very fairly.

Finally Tyler Sager at Gaming Nexus took a look and the game from a board gaming perspective and liked what he saw.

Project Brimstone Update: I’m in interface hell presently. The UI is going to be elegant this time. I promise. Where do you want the check mailed? The game design is elegant so the UI should be as well. I’m going to be talking more about it once I make a full announcement probably sometime this January or February. I want to get some artwork in first so that I can set up a few pages on the main website. My goal is to have the game done a year from now but from past experience I’ve learned the folly of daring to think such things. This time will be different! I am hoping it will be actually. The game is as always overly ambitious but like Dr. Frankenstein I can use many of the body parts from Armageddon Empires i.e. menu systems, design patterns, etc. to speed up the development. This is especially true in the AI department although just because I like doing that so much I intend to turn the volume up to 11 in this area. I’ve been messing around with genetic algorithm type code that is run offline to figure out things like choosing the best single option from some finite group given a set of environment parameters…rules of thumb arrived at via GA’s. The good news is that the PBEM architecture is already built and semi functioning. First pass form looks good though. The emails will be sent while the game is running if everything goes according to plan. The only manual labor part will be when you receive an email you will have to save it to the appropriate folder for the multi-player game to which it belongs

Cults of the Wastelands the first mini expansion pack is leaving the conception stage and entering the execution stage. I have almost all the artwork for the 10 new cards. I also have each mini cult designed and a rough idea of how to implement each cult’s special abilities. The first stage is to get the rules and cult actions working in the game. The second stage is to put the plumbing in for each AI so that it can adapt to the discovery that cult X is in the game and figure out what to do….or not to do.

Here is the Fist of the Wasteland. The Fist is an old fashioned Warlord with the power of an impressively armed military cult behind him. The Order of the Fist recognizes only the authority of the Fist and is intent on purging the wastelands of all those who refuse to kneel and submit to its rule.

The Fist of the Wasteland

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together!

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Over at the Wargamer in the Cryptic Comet forums, a player with the user name efelle posted a thread that really made my day. The game was seemingly won when the Mutants decided to air mail a present….or two. You can check it out here:

Twilight’s Last Gleaming

Primary Target is Lapuda

Unafraid of Elegant Complexity

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

Over at Flash of Steel, Troy Goodfellow posted some comments on another blog entry by Zack Hiwiller. Zacks’ assertion, if I read it correctly, was that modern sports games like NBA 2k8 were overly complex and simply unapproachable by anyone other than hard core fans. The ensuing analysis was that game design for these sports titles had been hijacked by the grognards who posted on the game’s forums and thus misled PR types into believing that this was what customers in general desired. Another contributing factor was that the designers, who were rivet counters and complexity lovers themselves “self selected” other designers of the same mindset to hire and promote….an echo chamber resulted.

I can’t comment on whether the anaylsis is correct. I don’t reallly play sports games that much and for me the wonder of Madden selling millions of the same basic game every year ranks up there with the Deer Hunter boxes flying off of the Walmart shelves. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an effete chess club sports snob. I enjoy a beer and an occasional Monday Night Football as much as the next guy.

Zach would like to see more games that serve a “middle” segment of the market. This is interesting because I always thought that consoles and therefore one of the biggest sellers on consoles (sports games) would naturally aim for the big bulge at the center of a “normal” distribution of gamers. In order to move the units that they do how can it be any other way? The conclusion that you come to from Zach’s observation is that gamers en masse are buying games that are too hard core (complex) for their tastes and are not enjoying them. But shouldn’t this market mismatch eventually stop? Consumer’s generally do get what they want. Eventually they stop buying or somebody else comes along with a better product.

It’s certainly true that complex strategy games have been abandoned for the most part over the last 10 years. Correlation or causation with the rise of the consoles? That’s a heated debate for another time. The companies/publishers that make them now like AEGOD, Matrix, Shrapnel and Battle Front are small and privately held. Their games are complex. They aim to serve a niche. On one end of the niche are the vocal grognards who know detailed penetration data on the sloped armor of a Panther tank. In the middle are guys who might have played Avalon Hill board games, spent time in a basement playing D & D, read some military history, know that cows don’t really MOO and generally enjoy some competition and taxing some neurons on occasion. That’s an important segement of my target demographic.

So given a perfect user interface does increasing complexity mean decreasing the potential customer base proportionally (or some other ratio)? I’m not trying to make a mass market game that’s going to sell 500k units so the answer doesn’t really matter to me…or at least I’ve got more leeway in determing where on the complexity line I want to fall. This whole long winded entry leads me to three sort of related statements that I wanted to make:

1. Don’t be afraid of complexity in your games. Without it you get rock, paper and scissors resolving everything. Add complexity to your games not by increasing variables, widgets or options but by making sure that some small subset of variables, widgets or options interacts in complex ways. i.e. Choose complexity of interaction over complexity of raw numbers. This is what I call elegant complexity. Just like physicists look for elegance (simplicity, symmetry, etc.) when building models to explain rare particles, so to should the game designer build a architecture in which simple concepts give way to complex interactions.

2. Create onion skinned complexity. Just as ogres are like onions, so too should good strategy games be. If you design a game well players should be able to enjoy the game by just mastering the first layer of the onion. As they learn the system they can peel off another layer of complexity and explore deeper. Civilization lets you do this. You can play the game and enjoy it without having to ever figure out whether you should build a farm, village, mine etc on any given tile. And I am not talking about setting the workers to auto improve…just playing casually and saying oh I think I’ll build a farm on that tile because I need some more food.

3. Many (if not most) people want instant gratification but are happy with the results when actually forced to put some effort into something. You appreciate what you earn by hard work not what is given to you easily or for free. I tangentially talked about this a little in my Defense of a Steep Learning Curve entry a while back. How many games have you thought at first were opaque but now on reflection seem like childs play. I’ve chosen to pitch games at a market segment that I hope appreciates this. It’s not an excuse for bad UI or a poor manual or lack of player aids (although I plead guilty to some of that). It’s a conscious design choice to say I’m going to lose a bunch of people because they sit down and can’t immediately intuit the game without some work and effort. Small guys like me can risk this. Of course you don’t want to create some monstrosity that requires you put some alien knowledge dispenser helmet on so players can figure the game out!

It's Child's Play Jim!

An Archeology of Strategy Games

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Don’t mind the pretentious sounding title. This is going to be a nuts and bolts entry that attempts to lay down some of the foundations for thinking about strategy game design….at least how I think about strategy game design. Being an amateur systems engineer and a formally trained national security policy analyst I like to create diagrams and “analytical frameworks.” Here is some of my best work:

Strategy Game System Chart

This homespun illustration points out the three major components of the strategy game system. The players (human and AI) are depicted outside the system box. They function as the inputs to the system. They formulate a strategy and then press keys and click the mouse to input their commands. Their commands are interpreted by a rule set. The rule set is far more than a command interpreter however. It also specifies how data within the game state space is processed. The data is represented in the diagram by the box with the Map/Agents label.

Armageddon Empires is built on this model. There are basically two types of objects in the game. Game data objects that have some specific set of attributes associated with them and must be able to be saved. The structure is hierarchical as well. A Player Controller Object contains Player Objects. Player Objects contain an Army Controller Object which in turn contains Army Objects. An object for you non-programmers is just a collection of data elements and operations (functions) that all work together. For example a Car object implemented in software would have data for its number of passengers, max speed etc. and the operations would be start, accelerate, stop. The diagram above doesn’t always translate perfectly however into computer code. I’m not a great programmer so a lot of the data objects have rules built into them. The other type of object I use is an interface object. These objects display menus, create the map, and retrieve and store the data of the Game Objects. The rules of the game emerge from their implementation. The battle module in Armageddon Empires is a perfect example. The way the cards are presented, the structure of taking turns attacking, and the presentation and processing of the die rolls are all accomplished by interface objects.

Notice the little Victory Conditions gauge coming out of the top of the game system box. The idea is that the state of the data is measured and some arrangements are better than others for the players. You win a game of Armageddon Empires by creating a game state where your opponents no longer have strongholds on the map. It’s pretty funny to think about what you are really doing when you play a game of Civilization for example (or any game for that matter). You spend hours staring at a monitor pressing buttons and clicking a mouse to arrange 1′s and 0′s into a favorable pattern that is massaged in a microprocessor and stored long term on a hard disk. You do all this to achieve a victory condition that can be as mundane as a screen that tells you something like “You have crushed your enemies and now rule the wasteland.” You don’t even get a food pellet!

The fun (or burden) of being a strategy game designer is that you are responsible for creating a fully functional data space and rule set. In other words you have to build a universe. How well the rules perform on the data set and how “fun” it is to create a winning pattern of 1′s and 0′s is the standard by which your creation will be judged. I’ll leave an exegesis on “fun” to the pit fighters at QT3 but I know it when I see it.

Contrast the game designer’s role with that of the national security policy analyst’s role. The analyst is presented with the rule set and game state structure as a given. The world is as it is…anarchic, organized around nation states and unsettled by the recent emergence of non-state actors. This next diagram explores some more of the structure that resides in the inputs. It’s the domain of the general, admiral and national security policy maker.

Behold the Agents and Actors

Those squiggly things are brains. They make plans based on what they know about the rules and data and what they think they know about other brains. The text next to the bottom brain is what is known as an analytical framework. You are looking at an abridged version of the best thing that I learned at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. It looks rather simple but it is in reality a very effective tool. The basic International Security Policy class (ISP 201) was focused exclusively around it…an entire semester. It was taught to me by Ambassador Robert Blackwill who was recently ambassador to India and also played a key role in the reunification of Germany. I’ll examine it in more detail in a future entry. The reason I want to take a look at it is because I have found it very helpful in using it as a tool to not only understand current events but also to create rulesets and data spaces. Analyzing in a formal way the manner in which players will formulate strategy to interact with your design is extremely beneficial. It’s also very useful when initially conceptualizing the AI before you have done any observation of how humans will actually play the game. More later…

Distant Thunder AAR Turns 16 – 20

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

Another dispatch from the front is in! This game is moving forward and it’s proving to be a challenge even for me. I haven’t found a single resource icon. I have Xenopods active and aggressive on my North West front and Mutant probes by light recon elements on my East flank. A second Xenopod recon element of “Consorts” was ambushed by my Imperial Commandos so I am hoping I have at least temporarily blinded the squidies. With this in mind I decided to go for broke and use my outpost card to put the Xenopod Home Hive within striking range and assault it with my sole army that could project any type of power. Battle Group Hammer commanded by Ulysses S. Starke dutifully advanced North and at that point the plan fell apart. As soon as he set up Fire Base Archon reports started coming in of Xenopod biomecha in the area. “Corrupters” no less…. I hate those guys. I don’t think they have discovered my Fire Base yet but if they do I am in trouble. I’m very exposed. The card draws have provided me with hero and recon cards but not much in the way of combat cards. Things wouldn’t be so bad if I had just discovered some resources. There is a small bandit outpost on the Great Berm but going after it would just extend and expose me even more. All this time the Mutants and Machines have been spending resources like crazy to get the initiative so they must be doing pretty well. If I am lucky it’s a sign they have found each other and are going at it. If that is the case then a quick victory against the Xenopods will put me in a great position. Of course I have to get past those bio mecha first.

Turns 16 to 20

Here’s a picture of the heroes of the day. I hate to think what would have happened if my Imperial Commando Bn. had not spoted the Xenopod bio mecha. Under the leadership of Adam Wraith they can really move around and cover some ground. They don’t have the recce special ability but on this open terrain they can move 5 hexes a turn so they don’t really need it.

Imperial Commando Bn