Link Updates

October 10th, 2006

Some interesting sites:

Casual Review – New reviews every couple of days of various casual games. The reviews are noticeably better than your typical user reviews posted on portals. Also note that Gamezebo continues to publish casual game reviews, news. etc. If anyone knows of other non-blog sites operating at a professional, or near professional level, that are focused on casual game news, reviews, etc, and are NOT part of a portal (i.e. selling the games), please let me know.

James Smith of Reflexive has updated his excellent Game Sales Chart site with a whole list of different presentations of top 5-10 sites processed in different ways. I especially like the ‘World Map‘, which presents 17 different ‘top’ lists in a way such that you can quickly see how a given game is doing on any/all of them (just mouse hover at different spots on the grid).

I’ve been interested in so-called ‘serious games’ for a while (games used for educational, social policy or other purposes). There’s an interesting new one in beta (sign up here) about the daily life and struggles of a family in Haiti. Attractive presentation of a difficult subject.

Beta Updated

October 10th, 2006

For those in the Banana Bay beta program, there is a new version of the beta posted. Same location, user-ids, passwords, etc. as the last few betas.

How Much Do The Top Casual Games Generate?

October 9th, 2006

James C. Smith, of Reflexive Entertainment, posted some great data on the IndieGamer forums.

Click on the link for the full summary, but the nutshell is:

On Reflexive Arcade, the top 5 and top 20 games for the last 12 month period generate 19.6% and 42.6% respectively, of gross revenue. That’s a lot, but there’s still room to generate revenue outside of the top 20.

For a single month period, the numbers are a bit more skewed towards the top (since a handful of games are more likely to dominate a single month than a whole year), but still, not too bad. The top 20 games generated 54.0% of the revenue for September 2006.

Casual Game Post-Mortem/Design Doc (Congo Cube)

September 22nd, 2006

John Romero posted some interesting stuff about a casual game his old company (MonkeyStone) made about three years ago – Congo Cube.

Congo Cube Post-Mortem
Congo Cube Design Doc
Congo Cube Playable Demo/Purchase Page (on Real)

I really like the music and the art style of the game. It definitely feels a bit dated, but that’s to be expected. The gameplay is innovative, but not quite there, IMO (a bit simple/repetitive, but then again, that was more typical 3 years ago). Still, it’s cool to be able to see a bit into someone else’s development process.

BTW, I do not do detailed design docs for my casual games. I just start coding and have a rolling to-do list…

Beta Update

September 21st, 2006

If you’re in the Banana Bay beta program (and have gotten a user id and password previously), there is a new version out today. Download it from the same location, with the same user id and password as last time.

At this point, MOST of the people who asked to be in the beta program have been invited to test the game, but not quite everyone (a few potential competitors I’m leery of including, at least until the game is closer to shipping, and a few unlucky folks I just haven’t gotten to yet).

But the point is, I’m running low on fresh beta testers (those who can look at the game with fresh eyes), so drop me a line at psteinmeyer A T newcrayon D 0 T com if you’re interested in beta testing. Please indicate if you work in the software/games industry in some capacity (again, it doesn’t rule you out, but may affect the timing of when you get to see the beta.)

And many thanks to the beta testers who’ve already sent feedback. The game is better because of it – most of the changes in the last couple weeks are the result of beta feedback.

Slowly but surely

September 12th, 2006

Just a quick progress update. I am slowly but surely making progress on my next casual game. I’ve seeded it out to a couple of beta groups, but not yet to everyone who asked to be in the beta. I plan to use most of the folks who asked to be in the beta, but I want to break it into stages, so that there’s ‘fresh eyes’ looking at the game every week or two.

I’m definitely taking longer on this game than I did on my last one (Bonnie’s Bookstore). Perhaps I have the second system problem going on – I really want this one to be as perfect as possible. We’ll see. The beta testers so far have been quite positive, and that’s encouraging.

Web Hosts

September 11th, 2006

The last few days the web host (Dreamhost) for my company site (www.newcrayon.com) has been, to put it charitably, inconsistent. The main site was up and down, and when it was up, was often very slow.

I also run my blog aggregator (www.casualgameblogs.com) on the site, and noticed this weekend that it was down. Whereas the rest of my sites were solid by this morning, this site was still down. I went to check it out in an ftp program and discovered that all the permissions had been set such end users couldn’t see the content on the pages, and that I (the admin) couldn’t change anything, including the permissions themselves. I’m guessing this was a hangover from a server rebuild or something on Dreamhost’s side. It was frustrating, though after an e-mail to Dreamhost’s tech support, things were fixed within a few hours.

I’m not the only one experiencing problems with Dreamhost lately.

My company site isn’t really mission critical at this point. I’m only generating a small amount of sales through it (most sales are through portals, not directly from my site). But my next game has a global high score feature that must access the server, and the server has been spotty ever since I implemented the feature several months ago.

It’s hard for non-experts to determine who to use as a web host. There are hundreds of providers, all offering virtually the same service, at very similar prices. But the important variables you can’t readily determine from looking at their sales pages are those relating to reliability and speed. Web hosts offer cheap packages because they put many customers on the same server. A bad host might put 3X as many customers on a server as a good host, but customers can’t readily tell who will be good or bad until you go through the pain of signing up and getting all set up.

I finally found a useful, objective site for comparing quality of web hosts. This site does an effective job of using user reviews to separate the wheat from the chaff. The first host I used, Host Excellence, gets lousy reviews that match my lousy experience with them. Dreamhost is more middle-of-the-pack. And the host I use for this blog, Lunarpages, gets a very good score, in line with the very good experience I’ve had with them.

Since I have a personal account with Lunarpages and a biz account with Dreamhost, I was able to do a comparison. I put up a simple PHP script on both servers, then tested time for it to execute and appear on my browser (using the excellent firefox plug-in Fasterfox).

The script was really short and simple, and didn’t access a database at all. On Lunarpages, in 10 tries, the average time was 244 ms (milliseconds). On Dreamhost, the average was 449. That includes some time shuttling back and forth across the net and for Firefox to render the page, which should be the same for either one. If you subtract 150 ms for THAT, then the host-side time difference is even more dramatic.

I then reran the test 50 more times on each server, only counting the times the query took abnormally long (over 500 ms). On Lunarpages, that number was 0 – even in the worst case it was under 500 ms. On Dreamhost, it took > 500 ms (i.e. half a second) 7 times, with a worst case of over 6 SECONDS.

So I set up a second account on Lunarpages for my biz stuff, and should be migrating shortly.

[edit – I just set up the mySQL databases on Lunarpages, and can now do a more complete test, including database access. The results are even more strongly in favor of Lunarpages now. The SQL queries (isolated from all the other stuff) consistently take < 10 ms on Lunarpages, versus 50-100 ms on Dreamhost] [edit 2 – fixed an error – I set up the new account on Lunarpages, of course (earlier version I said I’d set it up on Dreamhost)]

External Articles

August 28th, 2006

A couple of external articles:

An article about game development careers, on Monster.com, that includes a quote from yours truly.

Elsewhere, this blog was chosen as ‘Small Business Blog of the Day‘ sometime last week. If you’re interested in the intersection of blogging and small business, you might find the site interesting.

Dicewars

July 31st, 2006

The last few days I’ve been addicted to Dicewars.

It’s a very simple browser-based game, superficially similar to Risk. Try the link, but only when you’ve got a few hours to blow off. The games themselves take only about 15 minutes, but you won’t be able to stop with just one.

The site does not explain the rules. The basic mechanics are obvious, but one thing I did not figure out at first were the rules for generating new armies/dice. You get one extra unit for each contiguous territory you control.

So the most important strategy is to unify your empire. Five separated territories will only add one unit to your forces, but three unified territories will add three units.

And, as in Risk, try to get yourself into a defendable corner.

Vista Delayed Again?

July 28th, 2006

Almost exactly 4 months ago, Microsoft announced the (then) latest delay to Microsoft Vista, from fall ’06 to January ’07.

Yesterday:

Today, Microsoft co-president Kevin Johnson would not even entirely confirm that second half date. Sources quote Johnson as saying, while Vista remains “on track” for 2H 2007, it will only ship “when the product is ready.” Later during the meeting, Reuters quoted Johnson as slipping that commitment even further, stating, “We will ship Windows Vista when it is available.”

Wow, 2H 2007 would likely mean October, 2007. In four months time, they’ve slipped nine months.

Interestingly, yesterday morning (prior to reading this), my wife’s 3.5 year old computer was having problems and getting slow. I told her, “Hold out another 6 months and we’ll get you a new PC with Vista on it.”, which shows that even tech goobers like me still get suckered into believing Microsoft’s release dates…

[Update 8/23/06]
I haven’t seen anything else to indicate an official delay beyond January ’07, and I think that this statement was probably referring to fiscal calendar, rather than actual calendar (see the first poster in the comments section). So the official date is still probably January ’07, although at least one analyst (George Shiffler – Gartner Group) in an article I read today does not expect MS to make the January date.

[Update 8/28/06]
Well, it seems that at least Amazon is indicating Vista will be available on January 30, 2007. The prices on the linked page are Canadian dollars I believe…

Beta Testers Wanted

July 27th, 2006

**Edit – I’m not seeking any more beta testers at this time**

My next casual game is coming along nicely, and I’m looking for some beta testers.

The game introduces a significant twist on the basic match-3 mechanic. I think it’s pretty fun, but I want to see what you think.

Beta testers who provide useful feedback will receive a free copy of the full version when it’s done.

Windows only at this time (A mac version is possible, but would happen later).

If interested, e-mail me at psteinmeyer A T newcrayon d0t com.

Please let me know if you or your significant other work for another developer, a portal, or are in some other way employed within the industry.

I may not respond immediately, as I’m not sure exactly when I’ll do the first beta, and I may do it in waves, gradually rolling the game out to larger groups of beta testers…

**Edit – I’m not seeking any more beta testers at this time**

Quick Hits

July 14th, 2006

Beyond Conversion Rate – Interesting Gamasutra article looking at other statistics that contribute to total game sales – i.e. ways to quantify numbers of web visitors, downloaders, etc…

Cashing in on casual games – CNN article on this biz…

Browser and OS Statistics – Not an article, but a web page tracking market share of different browsers and OS’s. Beware of reading the data too literally – they’re user base is not necessarily a perfect match for the universe of all computer and web users. Still, the trends are interesting. Firefox/Mozilla growth (June or July figures for each year):

2003: 5.7%
2004: 12.2%
2005: 23.6%
2006: 27.1%

Also, further down on the page, you can see a big upswing in Mac usage – nearly a doubling of market share in 3 years.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that among Windows users, Windows XP did not cross the 50% threshold until early 2004, about 2.5 years after the OS was originally released (October 2001). For developers, keep in mind that Vista will likely be similar – most of your users will be on XP (and in some cases 2000 or even 98/ME) for about 2 years after Vista’s launch. And even 4 years after launch, there will still be a fairly sizeable audience of non-Vista users.

The Limits of Mobile Phone Gaming

July 5th, 2006

There’s been a pretty good follow-up to my post criticizing quality of some mobile phone games I’d bought. Some of the comments came from mobile phone developers, generally agreeing that current quality is poor, but pointing out that the phone I’m using is mediocre, and that given time for Moore’s Law to kick in, quality will improve.

I generally agree with that, but still see mobile phone gaming as being pretty limited for the foreseeable future.

Sure, processors will get faster and screens sharper, which will at least mean the games will show prettier pictures and animations. But that’s only part of the problem.

I see several remaining issues where the primary purpose of a cell phone (for the user – making calls, for the carriers and publishers – making money), conflicts with the goal of making good games.

Physical

1) Small screens. Physically small screens are not much fun for games, even if the resolution gets better than it is now. This is not only true for cell phones – the GBA lite (the little keychain-sized GameBoy) is a failure, I think, largely because those of us over the age of 9 have thumbs too large and eyes too old to work a device so small.

2) Poor buttons/controls. To play any but the most limited games, you really need some kind of D-Pad, that’s raised up at least 1 and preferably 2-3 millimeters from the underlying surface, plus 1-4 secondary buttons, also raised and easy to locate with your thumbs. But this conflicts in a major way with the numeric keypad layout, and also with the best-case form factor for a cell-phone (flat, tightly spaced buttons, allowing for a thin, small phone).

Yes, there may very well be “gamer’s phones” (like the current Nokia N-Gage), willing to sacrifice cell-phone mobility and utility for a better gaming experience. But these will likely remain niche products. The other 98% of the audience, who want a good small cell phone, and if it plays good games, maybe they’ll try them too. But these consumers won’t buy an inferior phone just for those gaming capabilities, and as a result, their gaming experience will be poor.

Business Model

There are too many people taking a bite of the revenue stream, resulting in too little money actually reaching the developers making the games. (Warning, I’m no expert on mobile gaming standard royalty rates, so somebody can comment and fill in my fuzzy/erroneous details)

Start with the low price for cell phone games – $5.99 seems to be standard. That’s the smallest standard price, by far, in any area of gaming. There’s not much money for anybody in the value chain unless the volumes are huge, and because of the poor game quality, that seems ulikely.

Now you’ve got the carriers taking their bite at the apple. Because the carriers have nearly complete control over what games the user can see, they have complete negotiating power with the publishers, and presumably take the lion’s share of the revenue. I’m gonna guess that a standard deal is something like 60/40 (carriers get the 60).

Of that remaining 40% (i.e. ~$2.40), publishers need to pay a developer and a licensor. Cell phone games are small, well suited for entrepreneurial small teams to make, but again, with a limited number of major publishers, I suspect the developers get hosed and only get a fraction of the money.

But the publishers are not the only ones taking a cut of that $2.40 before the develop sees it. The market for mobile games is VERY heavily driven by games coming in from other sources – either PC casual games, console games, or movie licenses and such. Here’s a top 10 list from this past November (source):

1 TETRIS ® – JAMDAT

2 EA SPORTS TM TIGER WOODS PGA TOUR ® GOLF 2005 – IPLAY

3 DOOM RPG – JAMDAT

4 PACMAN – NAMCO

5 BLOCK BREAKER DELUXE – GAMELOFT

6 3D POOL – IPLAY

7 MONOPOLY – IFONE

8 EA SPORTS TM FIFA FOOTBALL 2005 MIE – IPLAY

9 THE WEAKEST LINK – IPLAY

10 MIDNIGHT BOWLING – GAMELOFT

Seven of the ten appear to be licensed. The licensor will certainly want a significant cut, too.

So, you’ve got 3 parties (publisher, developer, licensor), slicing and dicing $2.40 per game. There’s just not much money in the pot, and therefore not much to develop ambitious, high quality games.

And a lot of that money has to be spent on porting and testing across the myriad handsets.

So, yes, the cell phones may improve in technical capability (as consoles did from PS1 to PS2 to PS3). But I wonder if developers will have the budget to exploit that power.

Limited Incentive For Quality

The current business model does not provide much positive feedback for high quality games.

In console gaming, the developer must create a high quality game to generate buzz and favorable reviews – the primary drivers of sales in that segment.

In casual downloadable PC games, the developer must create a high quality game to ensure a good conversion rate – the primary driver of sales in that segment.

But in mobile gaming, I doubt many users read reviews, and most games right now must be purchased outright (i.e. no ‘try and buy’), so overall, there’s not nearly as much incentive to create a good game. Rather, the emphasis is on a recognizable license of some sort.

So a developer/publisher is not strongly rewarded for any particular game being good, thus encouraging quickie ports and such, that aren’t much fun for the user, thus ‘burning’ the user on the experience and discouraging them from trying further mobile games.

—-

OK, that’s an overly long essay already. I had some further points about the concept of digital convergence being a bit of a fallacy (disproven by the iPod and the strength of dedicated game consoles versus do-everything PCs), but I’ll save those for another post.

I welcome comments from everyone, especially those in the mobile games industry. I am admittedly not well versed in the technology or business models at play, so please correct my analysis above where I’m way off-track.

Mobile Gaming – What Am I Missing?

July 3rd, 2006

I was a bit late to the cell phone party – I only got my first cell phone a couple years ago, and I don’t use it much (I work at home and generally spend little time on the road, so it’s kinda moot).

My phone is, I guess, a reasonable one – a fairly small Samsung X426 with a decent color screen.

As a casual game developer, I have certainly been cognizant that mobile phone gaming (generally featuring casual-style games) is a big and growing industry, but I’d never really played with it much. I tried to, but I could never get my phone to successfully download games, beyond the couple lame pre-installed ones.

I’ve stopped at the Cingular store a couple times over the years to try to get it resolved, and despite the salesman’s puttering with my phone, it wouldn’t work. Today I tried again, and low and behold, in about 30 seconds, a different salesman had it working by changing one setting in my phone’s menu options somewhere (I forget which).

Lesson 1 – mobile phones are unnecessarily complicated – to the extent that some salesmen can’t even make all their features work.

So, I downloaded a couple of games. Neither had free trials, as far as I could tell, so I paid $5.99 for one, and used a free comp. credit I’d gotten at the Casuality show for the other.

I won’t name names, but let’s say that these were both adaptations of well-known casual games – big hits in the PC space that are apparently also successful on mobile. They were from different publishers and different port-shops, so any issues were unlikely to be the result of a single party’s sloppiness. Overall, the games were…

Terrible. Just awful.

Barely any animation, low rez graphics, weak sound, and worst of all, trying to control these games with a cell phone keypad was a mess.

I’m not blaming (for the most part) the publishers, developers, etc. I strongly suspect the problem is just that the phone is not powerful enough for decent games. Even if it had a CPU as powerful as a desktop PC, the small screen and tiny keys would make the experience mediocre at best. But compounded with the slow processor, slow reaction times, and poor animations, it was a terrible experience.

So be it. But what I can’t understand is why this is a growth industry, and who is buying these games (more than once). I can see making a mistake one time, but I can’t see buying a second mobile phone game (unless, like me, you’re a developer trying to understand the phenomenon.)

Is my phone just uniquely unsuited to playing games versus other mobile phones, or are teenagers willing to put up with terrible games, or what? I’m really wondering how this can be a sizeable industry. I definitely understand the speaker at Casuality who said that Try Before You Buy is bad for business in mobile, because the trials are generally so disappointing…

In-Game Upselling Works

July 3rd, 2006

I missed the discussion panel at Casuality, but fortunately, Brian Fisher from ArcadeTown has started a discussion thread on the topic of in-game upselling, and posted their powerpoint slides from the panel. The slides have a lot of meat in them about rationales for doing in-game upsell, and techniques for accomplishing it.

As always, I’m most interested in hard data, and they do not disappoint. Here’s the slide on conversion rates for two casual games using different techniques:
Chart of in-game upsell effectiveness