Archive for February, 2006

A Lull in Development…

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006

So I’ve picked the game concept that I’m going to fully develop. It’s a very close approximation of one of the game concepts I posted publicly last week, though I’m sure it’ll evolve somewhat as it develops.

Having firmly made this decision, and also decided on an art theme for the game, I’m now twiddling my thumbs a bit waiting for my artist to finish the first robust set of art. There are, I suppose, things I could be doing, game-wise, at the moment. But really, once you’ve found a game mechanic for a casual game, it’s mostly about art implementation (with corresponding special effects), UI implementation, and gameplay tweaking. The latter is kind of hard to do until you get the main game working with reasonably polished art.

So I’m probably sidelined for a week or so. Which I suppose is ok – I’m taking a 4-day weekend this weekend, and I’ll fill in some of the rest of the time by doing my taxes and other odds and ends. Still, I always feel a bit odd when I’ve got nothing productive to work on, biz-wise.

I think this game will go very fast – I’m hoping to be out the door in 3 months or less from now (after spending the last 1.5-2 months concepting and goofing off a bit). Bonnie’s Bookstore took 6.5-7 months to go out the door, with a shorter concepting stage – about 2 weeks. But I was also doing my first casual game, working with and enhancing a very rough framework.

Bonnie’s Bookstore Codebase (.c files only, excluding utilities)
Framework: 345KB
Game: 400KB

I’m reusing all the framework, and will probably only add another ~50KB of new code to it. The game itself will obviously have a lot of new code, but also some re-used code, and I’ve already got the prototype working (though a lot of that code is slapdash and needs a re-write). But anyways, I’m already at 167KB for the game prototype, and will probably only hit about 400KB again, meaning I have perhaps 250-300KB of code left to write.

When I was in full-on crunch mode at PopTop, I could produce 100-120KB of code per week, but 60KB was a more normal output (and that’s counting spending some time tending to managerial/design tasks). I doubt I’ll be even that productive on my next game, as I work fewer hours and perhaps spend a greater portion of my time doing design and graphics tinkering. Maybe I’ll do 45KB of code/week, which means that this new game could be done (at least to late-beta stage), in about 6 weeks of work, from the point that the art is ready to work with.

We shall see…

My own little Fat Tuesday

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006

OK, the advent of kids (up to 3 now), precludes me from any of the more raucous Fat Tuesday activities. That said, I’m planning to give up soda for Lent. So I’ll be hoisting my last Diet Dr. Pepper for quite a while tonight.

Surveys predict a 23.8% drop in programming productivity…

Best new studio?

Monday, February 27th, 2006

New Crayon Games (my one-man company) was nominated by the IGDA, along with four other studios, for best new studio of 2005.

Which is pretty cool, but a bit odd. It doesn’t really feel like a ‘studio’ yet – I’m the only employee, though I did work with a couple of great contractors on Bonnie’s Bookstore and am working with the artist for my next project. (Musician choice is more dependent on the style of music I need)

If Microsoft marketed the iPod…

Monday, February 27th, 2006

Cute video

Bonnie’s Bookstore in Wired

Friday, February 24th, 2006

There’s a brief blurb/review of Bonnie’s Bookstore in the current (March 06) Wired magazine, on page 70. It gets a 4 out of 5, and they call it ‘trance-inducing’.

Game Prototypes – Tell Me What You Think

Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

[EDIT – the prototypes in question are no longer being distributed. You can still find some information, and a link to supplemental license information, at the link at the bottom of this article]

It’s fairly rare for game developers to show the world their early prototypes, but I’ve decided to take a chance and do so here.

I’d really like to get solid feedback from a variety of folks, so I’m going public with these prototypes very early. They are crude prototypes, but hopefully show either the germ of something fun, or reveal an idea that frankly just doesn’t work.

You can download the prototypes from here (5.1 MB) [EDIT – not anymore]. What I’d like you to do is send me your ratings, from 1 to 10, on the different game concepts. There are 10 main concepts that I’m mainly interested in feedback on, and 6 others (variants, mainly), that are prefixed ‘Weak’ that you can skip unless you’re really interested.

Check them out and send your feedback to me at psteinmeyer A T newcrayon.com.

If you don’t mind, please also tell me your age, gender, and a few casual games, if any, that you’ve played/particularly enjoyed in the last 3 months.

More details/description here.

Nintendo DS is a hit. PSP? Not so much…

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

From http://news.yahoo.com/s/cmp/20060217/tc_cmp/180203138

At the current fiscal year started last April, Nintendo projected that global sales of NintendoDS would be 12 million. But at the end of December, Nintendo had already sold 14.4 million units globally—5.7 million in Japan, 4.63 million in North America and 4.1 million in other areas.

14.4 million units sounds pretty good to me for a launch year.

The upcoming DS Lite has a much better form factor than the current DS, and should make the DS an even bigger hit. It’s 39% smaller and 21% lighter than the current DS.
Nintendo DS Lite

According to this other article (which puts DS sales at 13 million through early January), Sony PSP sales are only 7 million. Most sources indicate that while the PSP launched strong, it’s sales soon lagged due to it’s high price and lack of games. If it’s losing the sales war now, even with hardware that is much sleeker than the current, clunky DS, then things will only get worse when the DS gets it’s new, iPod-esque form factor.

The PSP needs better software and a lower price fast, or Sony will be faced with it’s first ever loss in the video game wars. Foreshadowing of PS3 vs XBox 360? We’ll see…

Apple switching to MS Windows? Not likely

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

John Dvorak discusses the possibility of Apple dumping OS-X and switching to Windows.

The idea that Apple would ditch its own OS for Microsoft Windows came to me from Yakov Epstein, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, who wrote to me convinced that the process had already begun. I was amused, but after mulling over various coincidences, I’m convinced he may be right. This would be the most phenomenal turnabout in the history of desktop computing.
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Epstein made four observations. The first was that the Apple Switch ad campaign was over, and nobody switched. The second was that the iPod lost its FireWire connector because the PC world was the new target audience. Also, although the iPod was designed to get people to move to the Mac, this didn’t happen. And, of course, that Apple had switched to the Intel microprocessor.

Bleh – where to begin…

First, I’m not a Mac fanboy. I have a couple here I use for porting purposes, but I find them less-than-ideal for development. If I was a college student just using a word processor, web browser, and iTunes, perhaps I’d be more enthusiastic. Still…

Ignoring the firewire on iPod thing (I don’t understand how this ties in at all), he really has two points:

1) People aren’t switching from Windows to Mac – the ad campaign and the success of the iPod both failed to sway users.
2) The Apple switch to Intel microprocessor will lead to an OS switch.

Re: 1) Apple doesn’t have to get people to switch from Windows to Mac to stick with Mac OS-X. All they have to do is
A) Make money off the mac.
B) Hold on to their market share, so it doesn’t go into long-term decline.

Apple is making a lot of money. While they don’t break out iPod profitibality from Mac profitability, overall, their revenues for their most recent quarter were $5.7 billion, a 65% jump from the same quarter, previous year. They earned $565 million – a very fat 10% net margin. They have net current assets (surplus of cash and receivables over payables) of $7 billion. They are financially stronger than they’ve ever been.

As for market share, while they still only have around 2% of the worldwide market, their Mac unit sales grew in 2005 by 34%, more than twice the growth rate of the overall industry. And that’s with the looming shadow of a processor switch, which normally would have held down sales as users wait for the new Intel models. I suspect that the latter half of 2006 and early 2007 will be banner times for Mac sales, as the Intel transition completes and software is fully ported to the Intel variant.

Re: 2) The Intel Switch. Mac switched to Intel to get a better lineup of processors, presumably at a better price. While it does leave the door open to two strategic options – Dvorak’s mused switch to Windows, and also an opposite tack – selling OS-X to run on conventional PCs, I see neither as likely barring a major shift in Apple’s fortunes. They’re doing very well with their current business plan. The could NOT maintain 10% net margins competing as a commodity player in the Windows marketplace (and they’d probably lose market share to boot). And there’s little reason for them to give up the halo effect of the all-in-one Mac experience to chase a trickle of sales to PC users who also want to run OS-X. Remember, Steve Jobs is the guy who pulled the plug on Mac clone sales about a decade ago.

New Casual Game Blogs

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

I updated my other site www.casualgameblogs.com, with a few new feeds. Of particular note is www.gamezebo.com. The site is still in beta, but it looks promising. AFAIK, its the first commercial site to focus exclusively on writing about/reviewing casual games (i.e. GameSpot for casual games). They even have casual game previews there! Lets hope it survives and prospers.

Form AND Function

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

So as I’ve been playing with game concepts for the last few weeks, I’ve largely ignored form and focused purely on function. i.e. I’ve mocked up my concepts with crude prototypes using flat-colored blocks on a flat blue background.

For many of the concepts, this abstract look was sufficient. But as my focus shifted from ‘progressive fill’ puzzle games (like Lumines/Tetris/Meteos) to ‘always full’ puzzle games (like Bejewelled/Jewel Quest), I found that:

A) It’s too hard to visualize how a game will feel with only colored blocks. Would even a game designer be able to recognize the potential of Chuzzle or Bejewelled if they were just colored blocks?

B) In many cases, there’s a feedback loop. Certain abstract game concepts will work with some themes but not others. Conversely, certain themes suggest gameplay styles. For instance, I thought a puzzle game about matching up shoes or socks would be sort of cute and colorful. But it’s a game about matching off pairs (just as the old game Noah’s Ark was), and trying to jam a match-3 concept into a match-2 theme doesn’t work.

So, I spent last night and today brainstorming on themes that sorta fit the game concept I have now, although I think for each theme, I would tailor the game concept to some extent.

I’m not ready to talk about the themes I like at the moment, but I will list the themes that made my brainstorm list at one point or another but got cut:

Monkeys
Stuffed animals
Easter Eggs
Christmas ornaments
Fall trees
Cooking instruments – pots, pans, spatulas
Shoes / socks
Books
Coffee cups
Train/Boxcars
Marbles
Sailboats
Hot air balloons
American outdoors (different parts of America)
American travel iconography
Guess who’s coming to dinner (royal ball) – Food, china, music, etc
Restaurant
Kites
Plates/China
Tulips/Holland
Birds
Donuts
Toys
Seashells
Hardware Tools
Gardening Tools
Hats – Mad hatter?
Paint factory
Fruit/Tropical setting
Hawaiian Shirts (You open a hawaiian store?)
Beads, which go onto a bracelet?
Candles
Old bottles
Pizza Parlor
Ice Cream (Cones?)
South of the border – Pinatas only, with Cariachi music?
Flags
Trail Ride (American West)
Shipwreck – bottles, coins, jewelry, china
Flowers/Hawaii
Birthday/Christmas Presents
Candy
Cars/Vehicles (Detroit/Motor City)
Butterflies
Caribbean Blooms (Flower Shop)
Desserts (A pastry chef’s career)
Cookbook (Recipe ingredients for real recipes)
Firecrackers

Most of these are fairly weak (again, they were quickie brainstorms).

One idea that I liked, but couldn’t figure out how to turn into a good Match-3 was a variation of “South of the Border” – a sort of tongue-in-cheek romance set in either Mexico or the Caribbean. My wife was initially enthusiastic about it (even though she doesn’t read romance novels), and I even had fairly lengthy conversations with two of my sisters-in-law (who do read romance novels), but eventually, the idea crashed because of three reasons:

1) Really needs a female protagonist to appeal to female romance afficianados. I did a female protagonist in Bonnie’s Bookstore, obviously, but whereas I think it’s fine for a guy to play Bonnie’s Bookstore, I can’t see myself or other guys playing a romanticly themed game in the character of a female.

2) Hard to tie a story that’s fundamentally about two characters to a game that’s fundamentally about manipulating objects.

3) Most romantic books/movies take themselves at least moderately seriously. I can’t see a game striking a serious (or semi-serious) tone about this and pulling it off, and I can’t see the theme having resonance if done tongue-in-cheek/snarky.

The missing Railroad Tycoon 2 map…

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Probably the most successful title in my career was Railroad Tycoon 2. We released it in Fall of 1998, then an expansion pack and a ‘gold edition’ in 1999. We were surprised that the game continued to sell well for months, then years, and I was particularly surprised in 2001 when the publisher (and by that time, owner of PopTop), Take Two, asked for another compendium. So we took everything that we had related to Railroad Tycoon 2, added 50 new maps, and put out RT2 – Platinum Edition that summer.

But we made one (small) mistake when we assembled RT2 – Platinum. Somehow, in assembling the 50 new maps (there were 126 maps total), one file was accidentally copied over another, and so the Alaska map we were supposed to include was displaced by a second version of a fantasy map called “Tanagore Island”.

I’m pretty sure we posted the fixed version of the Alaska map on our web site shortly thereafter, but I can’t find it now. We may have fixed the problem in a later re-mastering of the disk, but at least one old/early version I checked out had the incorrect ’50th map’.

However, that map was one of a handful that we licensed from the RT2 mapmaking community that had sprung up. It was made by Steve Lorenz, and there’s still a copy of it floating around the various RT2 websites, including right here, as well as a mirror on this site.

Anyways, just in case anyone picked up an old copy of RT2 Platinum and saw the “50 new maps” on the cover and was disappointed to find only 49, or saw “over 125 scenarios” on the back (because of the Alaska omission, there were exactly 125, not “over” 125), download the Alaska map. It’s a nicely done scenario :)

Also, if you’re still playing RT2 after all this time, there’s a patch we made in 2003 [2017 EDIT – I had a link here to the 1.56 patch on a site called Fileshack that is no longer valid as of 2017 – it seems Fileshack as a whole is gone] that adjusts screen scrolling speed for today’s fast computers. RT2 was developed on a Pentium-Pro 200 Mhz, and so the effects of today’s 10-20X faster machines weren’t readily foreseeable or testable… The patch also adds support for using the middle mouse wheel for zooming in and out.

While you’re at it, you can check out some of the other 459 RT2 maps on the site, or the mere 49 RT3 maps (RT3 maps were harder to make, and the fan community for making them never got on board RT3 quite the way they had for RT2.)

[Some edits to this post made 5/22/2012 and 2/2/2017]

Nice Bonnie’s Bookstore Review

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

Nice Bonnie’s Bookstore review on GameShark:

All in all Bonnie’s Bookstore is a word search game with a lot of heart – something you don’t see too often in the casual space, no matter what the genre you’re talking about. If you like word games then Bonnie’s Bookstore is a game that the whole family can try their hand at and have fun with. For $20 it’s a B-A-R-G-A-I-N.

And another new review on GameZebo, a new site focused just on casual games reviews and news:

…whether you see yourself as a modern Hans Christian Andersen or The Brothers Grimm, Bonnie’s Bookstore offers an engaging twist on the notion of word play, and it’s sure to be a hit with fans of that genre.

Match-3 Analysis

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

OK, so I thought I had found ‘the one‘ last Friday. But, not surprisingly, it didn’t look so great when I played with it further this week, so I’m still experimenting.

Mostly I’ve been working with what I call ‘progressive fill’ games, where the board starts off empty (or nearly so), and then progressively fills with blocks. Your goal is to make matches so as to prevent the board from filling completely. Tetris was the game that initially popularized this style. Recent examples include Lumines and Meteos on the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, respectively.

The other major alternative, which has been more popular for PC casual games, is what I call ‘always full’ games. The board starts fully populated with objects. You manipulate them to make a match. The matched blocks are removed and rapidly replaced (usually by new blocks falling from above). Examples include Bejewelled and Chuzzle.

Beyond this major categorization, there are many other ways in which puzzle games differentiate themselves, but the biggest is the method of object manipulation. Console games, played with a joystick, usually have you maneuver a single falling object – this matches well with the joystick as control device. PC games are usually mouse oriented, and have you swapping tiles or rows anywhere on the board.

Here’s a little table analyzing some of the most popular puzzle games, both PC and console/handheld:

Board style Manipulation Removal Varied levels?
Bejewelled Always Full Swap 2 3-in-a-row No
Jewel Quest Always Full Swap 2 3-in-a-row Yes
Chuzzle Always Full Row Slide 3-in-a-group No
Magic Match Always Full Select group, direction 3-in-a-group Obstacles only?
Tetris Progressive, from top Position/Rotate falling 4-piece object Solid horizontal line No
Sega Dr. Robotnik Progressive, from top Position/Rotate falling 2-piece object 4-in-a-group No
Sega Columns Progressive, from top Position/Cycle falling 3-high object 3-in-a-line (including diagonal) No
Lumines Progressive, from top Position/Rotate falling 4-piece block 4-in-a-block, with delay No
Meteos Progressive, from top Manipulate board – free vertical slide 3-in-a-row (removes above, too) Size only
Collapse Progressive, row at a time bottom Select group of 3 3-in-a-group No
Wonder Lines Progressive, random Free slide 3-in-a-line (including diagonal) Yes
Qbeez 2 Starts full, no refill Select group of 2, rotate/scramble 2-in-a-group Size only?

Eureka! (maybe…)

Friday, February 10th, 2006

I’ve spent roughly the last month trying to come up with a solid concept for my next game. I don’t want a straight clone of some existing game mechanic, but neither do I want to be an extreme pioneer.

Casual gamers have a strong preference for match-3 style gameplay in it’s various forms, and that’s what I’m trying to come up with.

When I started, I thought it would be easy to come up with a fresh variation on the color-matching theme. There are an immense number of ways that one can manipulate and match objects – surely I could come up with a good one…

And yet, I went through many quick prototypes without finding any that really stood out. They all seemed good in theory, but when I implemented them (crudely), they didn’t hold up real well.

Finally, today, I may have hit something. Someone encouraged me to re-think one of my early concepts that I’d discarded. I took some of that concept, and some of my latest concept (which wasn’t working well), did a mash-up, and I think I’ve got a winner. I had my wife try it – I had to hold our baby while she tested it. The baby started crying, then wailing, but my wife kept playing the prototype. Normally I’d be irritated about that (I am not good at pacifying the baby), but this time I was actually kinda glad.

Then again, it’s Friday night, and maybe when I look at it again on Monday morning it’ll seem bland.

Anyways, all I can say for now is that it’s a match-3 game that looks a bit like Collapse, but doesn’t play anything like it (very different mechanics). Will it emerges as a finished game several months from now? Who knows…

Sony PSP

Thursday, February 9th, 2006

I bought a Sony PSP a couple days ago, along with Lumines and Gottlieb Pinball.

The PSP is really sleek and cool looking – makes the Nintendo DS feel like a clunky toy (even though the PSP is bigger and heavier than the DS). The screen is outstanding, though it gets fingerprint smudges almost immediately.

Lumines is pretty cool. Not quite so amazing as some rave reviews have described it, but still quite good. The gameplay itself is decent, but the audio-visual experience is what really sets it apart. If you’ve only played one of the quick-n-dirty clones on the PC, you may have experienced the gameplay, but you haven’t experienced the game.

Gottlieb Pinball I played only briefly – seems ok but not great.

The PSP also includes a Wi-Fi web browser. I had it up on my home ‘net connection pretty easily. It’s very ‘gee-whizzy’ to browse the internet on a handheld device smaller thana standard paperback. BUT, even with a fast ‘net connection, browsing is slow (someone told me this is because of the PSP’s limited system RAM), and the system to enter characters/words (i.e. for web addresses) is absolutely awful.

Overall, Lumines is interesting to me as a game designer, but I think the DS has a wider library of interesting titles in general, and is much cheaper to boot (DS = $129, PSP = $250)