Archive for December, 2005

From Concept To Completion

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Different concepts for the game that became Bonnie’s Bookstore
Concepts for Bonnie's Bookstore

If you’re not in the game development business, you might not realize how much experimentation it takes to arrive at a final product. My recently launched game, Bonnie’s Bookstore, started off as a vaguely defined word game, without an overriding graphical concept or story.

Before any of these images were created, I had already settled on the basic game mechanic, after trying and discarding two other word game concepts/mechanics.

Now I had to settle on a theme. I had a list of possible game settings, as follows:


CONCEPT_______________RATING (Higher is better)
______________________ALL_____WOMEN_ONLY

StoryBook_____________7.7_________8.1
Traveller's Tales_____7.6_________7.4
BookStore_____________6.8_________8.1
CookBook______________5.9_________5.6
Monkey Tails__________5.5_________5.9
Tropical Fish_________5.4_________5.1
Paints/Paint Factory__5.3_________4.2
Birds (parrots, etc)__5.0_________4.6
Writer's Block________4.9_________5.1

I submitted these concepts (with additional details) to a panel of 24 people who had volunteered (mainly as a result of my postings on my blog) to provide feedback. The first numerical column is the average rating for the concept, by all respondents, the second is women only, which I was particularly interested in, as I felt the game’s sales would skew towards women.

Originally, Writer’s Block and Bookstore had been my favorite concepts, and StoryBook was among my least favorites. But everyone else, especially the women, liked StoryBook best, so we included that among the finalists.

Based on those results, I contacted an artist named Ian Wilmoth and had him create multiple concepts for me. He in turn created the Traveller’s Tales (i.e. travel guide, first one in Egypt) concept, as well as a Penguin concept that we had come up with after the original survey. He also subcontracted the Cooking, Monkey Trouble, and Storybook concepts.

Cooking Caper
Cooking Caper

Monkey Trouble
Monkey Trouble

Penguin Puzzle
Penguin Puzzle

StoryBook
StoryBook

Traveller’s Tales (i.e. travel guide in Egypt and other exotic locales)
Egypt Travel Guide

(Note that the names the artist included in the mockups don’t always correspond to what I called the concept, as my naming whims were rather fluid at that point)

To my surprise, even with the unconventional art-style, the StoryBook concept was getting great responses from people I showed it to.

However, the method by which the storybook concept was produced, hand painted water-color, would not scale up enough to allow me to make my targeted 40 backgrounds in a targeted 2-3 month window (we ended up with 50 backgrounds, plus other art, in a 4.5 month window). So I commissioned another artist who had contacted me, Von Caberte, to try his hand at the storybook style, using a somewhat different technique.

Von’s first pencil sketch
Von's initial pencil concept

Von’s first colorized image
Concept in color

I loved Von’s work, and signed him up to do all the art for the game. Since the above sketch didn’t fit within a specific fairy tale, the first image that was done that actually made it into the main part of the game was from ‘The Frog Prince’.

Pencil Sketch
Golden ball concept

Final Game Screen (incorporating a lot of interface revisions made along the way)
Golden ball final

So I was going with the ‘StoryBook’ concept – a sort of children’s story world brought to life. But I ended up bringing in elements of my other two favorite concepts (Writer’s Block, and Bookstore) as well, by creating a backstory that the lead character, Bonnie, ran a bookstore she had inherited. Somewhat bored with the lifestyle of a small shop owner, she soon began writing children’s books on the side (thus leading into the main gameplay). So I got three concepts for the price of one, I guess.

Anyways, here’s the title screen, which ties into the backstory.

Pencil Sketch
Title screen pencil

Final
Title screen final

Some other Screens from the final version of Bonnie’s Bookstore
Other Screens from Bonnie's Bookstore

All total, the art side of Bonnie’s Bookstore started about 2 weeks into the project, and included 2 weeks of concepting, and 4.5 months of production art. The overall development schedule, including programming, design, and art, was about 6 months.

The future of gaming – board games?

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

I started gaming in the late 70s, when my brother taught me hard-core Avalon Hill board games like Third Reich and Panzer Leader. He was 6 years older than me and looking for someone to resoundingly beat at these games, and he found me (and I was well and truly beaten). I played a lot of board games in the 80s, but, even as Trivial Pursuit became a craze that restored the lustre of ‘party games’, the type of game that I played, ‘hard-core’ board games, was overwhelmed by the onslaught of computer games. One-by-one, the giants of the board game industry (Victory Games, SPI, then finally Avalon Hill), slid under the waves, and the industry disappeared.

Sort of.

Even though all the giants of the 70s/80s are gone, there’s a new generation of board game makers out there, making games that have simpler rule sets and less pieces, but still have great strategic depth.

A couple of years ago, I was in talks with Eagle Games about doing a board game version of Railroad Tycoon. That never happened, unfortunately, but Eagle Games has done some solid board games, including both original titles like Attack! and ‘ports’ of computer games like Civilization (i.e. they make board game versions of games that originate on the computer.)

In the last two months, I’ve been addicted to Ticket to Ride, by Days of Wonder. I’m actually playing the computer version of the board game – it plays on the computer but feels like a board game. And the on-line version is free to play, and can be learned quickly. Highly recommended.

Finally, in a slightly different, but still interesting direction, I had lunch yesterday with a local entrepreneur, Stuart Montaldo, who has been producing a line of board games (Cogno) aimed at kids 7-13, that include educational science content, but are designed to camoflage it so well that the kids don’t even know they’re learning as they have fun. His games have won all kinds of toy industry awards, and lo and behold, there’s a lengthy feature about him and his company in this mornings Wall Street Journal (Marketplace section, bottom of the front page). He seems to be on a successful trajectory, too.

More power to the board games. As strategic PC games and educational games fade in the marketplace, perhaps this is just the cyclical return to another proven kind of entertainment. And maybe, just maybe, in 10 or 15 years somebody will write a similar blog piece about the return of PC and educational games.

[edit – So I was checking the various sites mentioned above to grab the right links, and I see that the deal for the Railroad Tycoon board game went forward after all, and the game is now out! Very cool. I will be checking it out and posting my thoughts in the future.]

Wider Bonnie’s Bookstore distribution

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

Bonnie has been added to AOL and Shockwave, among others. I believe Real, Yahoo and Big Fish will add it in January.

Sites carrying Bonnie’s Bookstore:

Bigger Sites
AOL
MSN Games
Pogo
PopCap
Shockwave

Small/Medium Sites
DA Games (UK/Euro friendly)
GameDemo
Games2Download
TryGames

By the way, they’re all charging the same basic price of $19.95 (plus or minus a nickel), so there’s no point, for now, in price shopping. All sites let you try it for 60 minutes for free.

How are the casual game portals doing?

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Following up on yesterday’s post that maybe the casual games biz isn’t growing quite so explosively as some think, I decided to look closer at the one metric that is readily available for gauging performance.

Most portals are either private, or small parts of bigger entities that don’t break out results separately for games. But, since all these portals live or die based on web traffic, we can use publicly available web traffic figures as a proxy for how well the sites are doing.

The best site for researching web traffic patterns is www.alexa.com. However, it only works for sites with their own domain (i.e. www.pogo.com). For casual game portals that are subdomains of larger sites (i.e. http://games.yahoo.com/), Alexa will only give you results for the main domain (www.yahoo.com), so the games results are dwarfed within the larger site’s results, and not useful for us. Also, Alexa measures reach per million web users. If internet use as a whole grows 20%, and a given site matches that growth, then it will appear flat (I think). So, given that internet usage is obviously growing, one must assume that a flat line in Alexa does not imply no absolute growth.

OK, so here’s a bunch of graphs looking at the performance of all the main sites that have their own unique domains. First, a quick calibration – google.com. I know they’re not a games site, but I wanted to show the graph of a very big, fast growing site, for reference:

Google's web traffic

Nice growth – looks like about 30% per year, with even faster growth in 2005 than in 2004.

OK, now on to the casual game sites. Note that the scale on the left side is different for each of these graphs. I’ve tried to group pairs of sites that are roughly similar in size. Alexa won’t let me graph more than two at a time.

Pogo and Shockwave's web traffic

Big Fish and RealArcade's web traffic

Gamehouse and PopCap's web traffic

Some notes:
RealArcade uses a custom browser for many (most? all?) of their customers, and I’m not sure if Alexa measures that browser well, so the overall size of RealArcade’s traffic may be underestimated.

PopCap is a hybrid developer/publisher, with a portal-like site. But more so than the others, their traffic is driven by one or two big hits that they develop. Zuma and Bejeweled 2 both came out in 2004, causing the spike then, and they haven’t had as many games this year, partly explaining the decline.

Gamehouse is also a hybrid developer/publisher, but with less hit-driven results, thus their numbers are more steady. It’s also possible that, as casual gamers become more sophisticated, they may be shifting from publisher sites, like PopCap and Gamehouse, with a 20-40 titles on offer, to full-blown portals with 150+ titles on offer, and more frequent new titles.

Conclusions:
Unfortunately, there is little here to indicate explosive growth for this industry. Several sites saw nice growth in the second half of 2004, but from the beginning of 2005 to the present, most are flat to down.

It’s possible that this reflects a bit of a shift from users playing browser versions of the game, in which case they would revisit the sites every time they play them rather than just when they’re initially downloaded. I don’t know – I don’t have data on browser-play versus download play.

Also, it’s possible that other sites (i.e. smaller sites) are growing faster, at the expense of these sites. Again, I have no data to confirm or refute that. BigFish was supposed to be an ‘up and coming’ smaller site, and clearly they grew a tremendous amount in 2004, but, according to Alexa’s numbers anyways, that growth has stalled in 2005.

Anyways, don’t read too much into these graphs. I can’t confirm how closely Alexa traffic numbers match up to site revenues. If you know of any better (public) data sources, please let me know.

Update:
I was sent a link to this article about BigFish, which quotes non-public Media Metrix data stating that BigFish was the second fastest growing internet site in the United States in October 2005. The fact that Angel investors just put $5 million into the company would also indicate that their financials look good.

That same article also has the quote from an IDC analyst that the industry will double in size in the next two years. That one I have more doubts about – I’d like to see more evidence that the biggest portals are actually growing before I’d buy into that. Even if BigFish is growing, they are still probably #5 or #6, and likely taking share away from the other portals.

How big is the casual games industry?

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

Various people have asked me how big the casual games industry is, and for my own purposes, I’m also trying to determine how fast it’s really growing.

Unfortunately, because most/all transactions go direct via the web, it’s very hard to get real data. Moreover, there are all kinds of definitions of casual games/on-line games, and the nature of your definition affects your guesstimate, too.

Greg Costikyan, in the one-pager he’s using to raise money, cites a figure of $80 million. Unfortunately, he doesn’t disclose his source.

I’ve heard from other sources that casual gaming was at $200 million in 2004, and doubled to $400 million in 2005.

I’ve got an extract of an 8-month old report from Screen Digest (a research company), citing various figures for sub-sectors of online gaming:

(in $millions)
................................2004..2005
Advertising.....................$248..$285
Pay-per-play....................$217..$311
Casual game subscriptions........$55...$85
Casual game downloads...........$174..$189
Games-on-demand..................$38...$65

I have difficulty believing pay-per-play is so big and growing so fast. There just isn’t that much buzz about it, no VC money pouring in, and the sites that focus on it (i.e. www.skilljam.com) don’t seem all that big or growing that fast. Skilljam’s Alexa ranking has barely budged in the last 2 years.

If you look at just the two specific casual game categories, they show projected growth from $229 million in ’04 to $274 million in ’05 – 19.6% YoY growth. Good, but not quite as explosive as 100% annual growth.

Compared to the traditional, moribund PC games market, casual games look good. But I tend to think the boom times, if they were ever real, are slowing down for casual games.

The Death of Children’s Software

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

I subscribe to a publication called “Children’s Technology Review”. In the latest issue, there’s a chart at the back showing the number of children’s media titles (i.e. edutainment) released on various platforms from 1993 to 2005.

In 1993, there were 108 Windows children’s titles released.

By 1996, the introduction of a multimedia friendly OS (Windows 95) and widespread technology adoption of CD-ROMS, sound cards, etc had led to a soaring children’s software market – 757 titles released. (i.e. almost a seven-fold increase in 3 years).

The market was more or less flat through about 1999, then began a sharp decline, down to 107 titles in 2005. i.e. The market is smaller now than it was 12 years ago, when nobody had CD-ROM drives or sound cards in their computers. In fact, the market decline has been accelerating – the number of titles released fell 53% from 2004 to 2005 alone.

Note that this is only the number of titles released, not dollar sales, but I’ve seen dollar figures in the past, and they track this data in a similar fashion.

The Macintosh market loosely shadowed the Windows market, with about 70% as many titles in the mid 90s, down to about 40% as many titles in the last couple years. So the Mac saw the same boom and bust, with the bust coming a bit harder as it coincided with a relative decline of the Mac vs. Windows.

Of note: To a limited extent, the Windows and Mac childrens’ software market has shifted to handheld devices like Leapster, V.Smile, Game Boy, and the new Fly pen. But even here, while there have been many new devices introduced, including several this year, the overall market is noticeably smaller than it was 3 or 4 years ago.

It’s a shame, because my kids are now getting old enough (6 and 4), that I’d like to introduce them to some great children’s software. But I can’t find it – there’s little on the shelf, and what’s there is poor quality licensed Dora the Explorer and Spongebob stuff. The great original franchises of the 90s (Pajama Sam, Freddi Fish, Reader Rabbit, etc) are pretty much gone. At best, you’ll find a 5-year old re-issue of one of these games, that barely runs on a modern Win XP machine.

Links o’ the day

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

Casual Game Sales Charts

Search Engine Comparisons

Book-A-Minute reviews the classics

More Audiophile Stupidity – A $23,000 CD-Player. Since a $20 OEM CD player can read data flawlessly for a PC, what does the extra $22,980 get you?

Bonnie’s Bookstore Press Release

Friday, December 9th, 2005

Here’s the press release for Bonnie’s Bookstore.

It’s now available on MSN Games, Pogo and TryGames.

New computer

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

I got my new computer from GamePC late yesterday, and have been playing with it today.

Went from:
Compaq AMD 3000+, 1GB RAM, 160GB HD to
GamePC AMD 4600+, 2GB RAM, Raid 0 240GB HD setup

The new rig is a lot faster. Part of that is just the fact of having a clean install versus the two years of built-up cruft on the old PC.

Benchmarks:
Bonnie’s Bookstore full compile – dropped from 41 seconds to 23 seconds
Boot up PC and launch Firefox (displaying Yahoo home page) – dropped from 163 seconds to 48 seconds.

The only downside (so far), is that the NForce 4 motherboard in the new system doesn’t like my Aten 1764 KVM switch, so for now I’m having to plug everything directly into the PC. I’ve read that if I use a USB hub (between the KVM and the PC) things will work better, but we had 3 inches of snow this morning, so I’m holding off on a~8 mile drive to CompUSA til later.

Bonnie’s Bookstore released

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

Bonnie’s Bookstore has been officially released.

It’s been in a ‘members-only’ limited release for the last week, and PopCap and I have been pleased that it’s had a high conversion rate. Conversion rate is the percentage of the people who download the game who actually go on to buy it. In general, conversion rates are very low across the industry – people love the free 60 minute trials for games but are loathe to pay for them (surprise, surprise…) One percent is considered the ‘standard’ conversion rate for these types of games, and if you’re at two percent you’re doing very well. So far, Bonnie’s Bookstore has been converting noticeably above two percent. If it can hold that ratio as it goes into wide release, then the portals will promote it heavily (they decide promotions efforts for a game primarily based on how well it converts).

Aside from it being an optimistic business indicator, I’m pleased with the conversion rate as it means consumers who try the game actually like it. Casual Games are not generally reviewed by magazines, and I won’t be able to go to an Amazon page and read dozens of customer reviews. But one of the best metrics of how well the game pleases those who try it is simply whether those consumers are inclined to buy the game. And so far, they are…