Confidence in Nonsense


Indies don’t hate artists

artist-as-joke-600x450Contrary to what some believe, I don’t hate artists nor do I undervalue their contributions to our game projects.

Recently, I placed a posting on E-lance and ODesk looking to hire an artist for an upcoming game project my team is currently working on.  It’s a great little isometric shooter titled “Mad Devils” concerning a squad of WWII GI’s, killed and transformed into devils who continue their fight against evil from the afterlife and we can’t wait to see this in gamer’s hands.  I’m more excited about making this project a reality than anything else I’ve worked on in my entire career.  Now, we’re a small, self funded indie trying to leave our mark on the gaming world and like many indies we simply can’t afford to pay for a full time staff of artists, modelers, audio guys, etc..  When we have a new project on the go we often contract out the work on a project by project basis and we work within very tight budgetary constraints as everything is coming out of our own pockets.

The budgets that many indies have to work with shouldn’t be seen as an insult to artists, or IT contractors in general.  They’re simply a reality that needs to be worked with for us, yet increasingly when I’m posting for work that needs to be completed I’ve been met by open hostility for daring to ask so much for so little.  I get it.  I was trained as a programmer and I’ve looked at contract work before and asked “Really?  Do you have any idea how much work that entails?”  I’ve been on that side.

When I post a job looking to hire an artist, I’m not ignorant of what I’m asking in terms of time, talent and resources when I attach a dollar amount to that figure.  It’s simply the money I have available and if you’re offended by what I’m offering instead of taking it out on me how about you simply pass on the job offer?  Our inability to offer the type of wages you expect to be paid is not meant as a comment on your worth as an artist.  It may be insulting to you but it’s not meant to be.

The work that some indies do with little to no money amazes me on a regular basis and they do it with the support of the developer community, the support of gamers and the understanding of those who choose to work with them.  We wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the volunteer efforts of artists and students in the past who were paid nothing for their previous work and even though they weren’t given any form of monetary compensation it certainly wasn’t a reflection of their value and contribution to the overall, finished game.  Many artists out there are just as eager to make their mark on the industry and they realize they need to start somewhere, just as we’re doing.  We need to be able to find each other.

If you see an independent developer offering an amount for a job that you would be uncomfortable working for, please pass on the offer and move along.  There’s no need to berate us for daring to attempt to make a game with a limited budget.



“App Of The Day” type apps can help indies with app discovery

App discovery has to be one of the biggest hurdles that independent developers will face in the mobile marketplace. When limited marketing budgets butt up against a crowded app space, it’s difficult for small devs to attract attention to their work. This is one of our primary obstacles we’re facing with our new release, Vex Blocks for Android. We’ve made the game, people seem to like the game, how do we get people to notice the game with our marketing budget as constrained as it is? I’d had a successful mobile developer recommend to me in the past that when you launch a new game, all you need to do is to pay the Russians $5,000-10,000 to get you to the top of the app charts and then see if you stay there. If your app doesn’t stay there, move on. That wasn’t the particular answer we were looking for with this game release and that’s where App Turbo helped out.

About a week and a half after we launched the paid version of Vex Blocks on Google Play, Yuhao Zeng of the Paris based App Turbo contacted me to ask if we’d be interested in promoting Vex Blocks with their “App of the Day” app. They expressed interest in our game and thought their users would too. The idea was simple enough. We make a full copy of our paid game available for 24 hours, free, and they’d promote it. As we had our hands full with free version of Vex Blocks, our app marketing had at that point consisted of a few press releases (where we could afford them) and emails to review sites who had historically ignored us. We received the details, talked them over among ourselves and ultimately decided on “What the hell?”

I don’t want to sound like an advertisement for their service, but I like when others share their indie development experiences and if I can help another dev in our shoes, I’m going to pass it along. Yuhao was fantastic throughout the process, quickly answering any and all questions I threw his way. The “App of the Day” app is regional, covering a good chunk of Europe as well as Russia, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Brazil and Japan. Prior to the promotion, the free version of Vex Blocks was managing roughly 100 downloads a day in the 2 weeks since it’s release. We were hoping that perhaps this promotion might give us a boost of a couple of thousand users and help us get the ball rolling a bit.

When all was said and done, over 90,000 users downloaded and played our game in the 24 hours the promotion ran this week, of which roughly 80% have so far stayed as active users. I’m sure that’s nothing to some developers, but for an indie team like ours this is a huge step forward. The next day, the free version of Vex Blocks jumped from it’s regular 100 a day to roughly 6000 where it’s stayed so far. The paid version of Vex Blocks is also experiencing a nice spike. For an English only game, I’m pleasantly surprised that so many decided to give us a try in non-English speaking countries and the feedback from users has been fantastic. The goal was to help Vex Blocks find it’s way into the hands of gamers and raise awareness, and in that this exercise was a complete success. It also served as an excellent opportunity to help narrow the list of the 2000 some Android devices that the game was available on and weed out a few devices that were incapable of playing our game.

There are a number of “Free App” type applications like “App of the Day” ( out there but in our inexperience we didn’t even consider reaching out to them. Although I haven’t used a similar service to promote our titles, I’ll certainly contact the App Turbo team again for this type of service. If you’re a developer with a mobile app to promote, it certainly couldn’t hurt to send a quick email to Yuhao ( and see what they can do for you. I know I’ll be partnering up with them again for the iOS release of Vex Blocks and hopefully for future releases after that.


Android piracy still sucks

you_are_a_pirateI don’t consider myself naive. I understand piracy is rampant; I’ve known this for years and when I decided that I’d form an indie studio two years ago I like to think that I did so with my eyes open. Deciding to switch careers and go indie wasn’t a decision that was made lightly and my family and I knew beforehand that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. The reward of creating even a modestly successful business would be worth it. I still believe that. Still, with the release of our new mobile puzzler, Vex Blocks, there’s an emotional, open-handed slap across the ear to be had when you realize that your release is being pirated at a rate of 20:1. On the Android market, a developer’s hard work is so devalued that 95% of gamers would rather pirate your game by the thousands than pay a dollar to help support what you’re doing and enable you to feed your family. Even though I was aware that piracy on Android was bad, it’s a soul shaking realization when it hits in relation to your own product and it left me to question if it’s even possible to make a living as an independent developer. All piracy sucks and the Android market isn’t alone in fighting this scourge, but what can be done and how has it impacted the games we make? 

We launched the paid, full version of Vex Blocks on Google Play first for the simple fact that it was finished first. We knew the market for paid apps on Android was limited compared to others, but I don’t think we were really conscious of just how big a role piracy played. Our first release, Itzy3d, marked our first steps into the world of mobile game development. When we released Itzy3d, our plan was to have a full, paid version and then a free, lite version. The paid version of Itzy3d was all but ignored on the Android marketplace, as we suspected it would be while the lite version was downloaded considerably more than its iOS counterpart, by roughly 5:1. There was at least an appetite for our products on Android so skipping out on a Google Play release didn’t even occur to us with our follow-up title. 


What we didn’t know with Itzy3d was actual numbers on how many copies of the game were installed on devices compared to how many we sold via Google Play. With Vex Blocks, we’re able to see how many copies are out in the wild compared to how many copies we’ve sold. These statistics don’t change our approach to Android releases. The impact is more of an emotional toll when you realize the bulk of gamers out there on Android you’re trying to reach with your product don’t have any interest in supporting that product, even if they use it. 

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of arguments trying to justify why piracy isn’t really an issue for developers. The main one you always hear is, “Those people would have never bought the game in the first place. No money is lost.”

The idea that certain people just never buy games is ridiculous. Arguing that pirate gamers would just cease gaming if they couldn’t pirate is utter nonsense. Add to that the cost barrier for mobile gaming is generally so low, and it just boils down to pirates are cheap. Full stop. Pirates who can’t spend half the price of a large cup of coffee to support a game they want to play shouldn’t make excuses or try to rationalise their actions. They’re cheap and they’d rather open themselves up to malware infected copies found in the gutters of the internet than compensate developers for their work. Now I’m sympathetic to the fact that in some countries, due to government restrictions, the only way you can access television shows, music and, yes, mobile games is through illegal sites, but the bulk of pirated copies we’re seeing of our game aren’t coming from these countries.

Pirates will argue that nothing is stolen as the product is only copied, so it’s not even a crime, but of course the reality is every pirated copy of a game removes that person from the pool of potential customers and with 95% of your customers not willing to pay for your product, that doesn’t leave developers much room to work with on Android. So, the piracy ship has sailed and aside from becoming bitter old men who rant on blogs and shake their fist at kids who walk in front of their house too slowly, what can be done? Price competition isn’t a factor. The race to the bottom is already over and, surprisingly, no one came out the victor. Daring to even charge a dollar your game is in itself an invitation to pirate now. The ease with which pirates can copy a developers work has fundamentally changed the way developers cope and the end result is a diminished product for all.


There are numerous ways a developer can attempt to limit the impact of piracy issues. You could simply avoid developing for Android, but there is still a market consisting of legitimate Android users out there and it’s not that other platforms are immune to piracy. I love creating games for Android devices and I’m humbled by the support we’ve received from our players. I wouldn’t ignore the gamers who do support our products. Many of the other methods to deal with piracy involve lessening the experience for legitimate gamers on mobile (and on other platforms). DRM is one route. The general thinking is, the harder you make it to pirate your work, the more chance that some pirates might actually pay to play your game due to the effort involved in cracking or finding a pirated version. There’s certainly some validity to that approach but as we’ve witnessed with a few recent, high profile examples of digital rights management such as launch issues surrounding Diablo 3 and SimCity, this has the potential to backfire and hurt your paying users.

You can require mandatory sign-up as well, but this has a tendency to alienate those who simply want to buy a game and play, hassle free. That leaves the freemium method of releasing your game filled with upgrades, advertisements or both. It’s certainly the route that more mobile developers are choosing, including ourselves, but again this can lead to a lesser experience as advertisements throughout a game become tiresome quickly, and an over reliance of micro-transactions can also turn gamers away.

Alternately developers can choose to embrace piracy. There’s the chance that a happy pirate may promote your game simply through word of mouth. For indie developers, creating a great product is job one, but getting noticed is by far the real battle. The next great novel could be sitting in a pile of thousands of books but if no one picks it up to read it in the first place the author could very likely die in obscurity. Similarly, great games need to be played in the first place for anyone to discover them and if they’re played as a result of piracy and discovered in that fashion, the argument can be made that the pirates did the developer a service. Of course it’s only a service if the pirates tell enough gamers from the 5-10% of Android gamers who legitimately support developers – ideally before those developers are forced to close their doors.

But hey, why should developers going under matter to pirates? By that point they’ve already moved on to helping themselves to the next game.


Launch Day 2.0

Rocket LaunchI didn’t sleep well the night before our Sunday launch of Vex Blocks. Despite the weeks we’ve had the game in the hands of testers, a new bug had come to light late Saturday evening. While not game breaking it still needed to be addressed. I stayed up working on the problem until solved. Chat messages, frantic on my part, went back and forth between myself and my partner until between the two of us we were able smooth things out. I then prepped the build for the next morning’s launch and finally after a long day allowed myself to push back away from my desk just after 1am. I tried and failed to sleep after that.

The late night adrenalin rush of fixing a bug on the eve of our self imposed deadline had fired up my brain and my thoughts erratically leap from point to point like popcorn popping while anxiety knotted up in my stomach and settled in for a winter’s nap. I stared at my bedside table for an undetermined length of time before I eventually drifted off into a fitful sleep.

At some point during the night my wife woke up to comfort our baby girl, Hanna and had fallen asleep in her room. My day started when my wife came back to bed and informed me that our 3 year old, Jake, was awake and calling for Daddy. I squinted, noticed the sun was up so there was no chance at another hour of sleep and rolled out of bed just as Jake hit the living room and started honking the horn of an obnoxiously noisy pink riding car meant for his sister. I settled him down with a cup of a fruit/veggie juice I have yet the had the courage to taste and turned on “The Cat in the Hat knows a lot about that” before heading to my office to launch our second title.

Launch day this time was different. With our first title, our core group hunkered down in my home office in a marathon of testing the ultimately cumulated with “Well. That’s it. Let’s launch.” Someone suggested we should have a drink so we did toasting each other and then that was it. Game launched. The next day I sat, staring at my computer screen knowing I needed to “market” somehow but not having a clue even where to start. This time out there was no empty void of “What the hell do I do now” waiting for me after launch. There’s no one else in the room. No one to raise a toast to. The artwork was finished months ago by very talented student artists. The testers I haven’t actually seen face to face in who knows how long. People complete their assigned tasks and then scatter leaving only us, the two founders of our indie studio, each waking up with their respective families on a cold, Canadian Sunday morning. There was still a long list of of objectives that needed to be completed to launch Vex on other platforms, in other app stores. There’s another team working on our third title that needs checking in on. There’s communications that have been piling up, unanswered while we pushed to complete. The gaping maw of uncertainty that greeted me after the first game released didn’t exist this time out. I know what needs to be done and we can’t afford to slow down.

So while the Cat in the Hat explains to my 3 year old the benefits to singing underwater with a whale I sat down to release our new game. The sun tries to poke through the clouds outside my office window but it just can’t decide whether it wants to clear up or add to the snow on my back deck. I noticed the time and remembered that Daylight Savings had struck again. I could almost feel that hour suddenly sucked away from me like a voodoo spell setting in as I lamented the time shift. I shook the sudden tiredness off and a quick check of my emails included a brief message from our other developer, my brother-in-law Will. No doubt he had a late night as well. If he wasn’t awake due to work, I’m sure his sleep would have been interrupted by their first child only weeks old, waking and bellowing his displeasure. I took the few cosmetic changes to Vex Blocks that Will had pushed up to our server, installed the new build and then uploaded the apk file to Google Play. Then I hit “Publish”.

That was it. I leaned back in my chair and despite being told by an online message that it could take hours to populate to Google’s servers, I punched in the url just to see if it was visible. It wasn’t. I went through my email and then checked a few links to press releases that were scheduled to go live that morning to herald the Vex Blocks release. I clicked refresh on the Google Play site again. Still nothing. I flipped back and forth between press releases, finding the announcements somehow comforting and real, like the launch of the game after ten months wasn’t just a dream. I’d then refresh the Google Play link. I don’t know how many times I did this before the baby monitor in the living room announced that Hanna was awake. I fired off a message to Will for whenever his sleep deprived old bones made his way into his office that morning, informing him that the deed was done.

The links to the game on our Facebook and web pages were live. The press releases were out. The game was published. I went to rescue my daughter from the confines of her crib. She smiled her huge, baby smile when I entered her room, just like she always does and I took her into the living room where she proceeded to make short work of some Cheerios I placed out on the coffee table for her to keep her occupied. My son jumped up on the couch beside me and we talked and watched TV, letting my wife sleep in a bit. Little Einsteins was on now. The rocket ship apparently runs off leg pats, so we patted our laps faster and faster to rev up Rocket as we were instructed, raised our hands as high as we could and announced together “Blast off!” Hanna turned from where she was standing, leaning against our ottoman, swaying a bit on her unsteady little legs. She giggled at us.

It was a good day.


Vexing puzzle design

PuzzleI enjoy a good puzzle.  At my core, I look for patterns in pretty much everything around me and I think we all do to some extent.  Looking for order in chaos is just something that we all do from the time we’re toddlers.  That’s when toddlers aren’t creating chaos, as I’m sure other new parents can attest to.  It’s no surprise that puzzle games are among the most popular games available for mobile devices.  A good puzzle game will keep us captivated for as long as we find it challenging.  I thought I’d take a moment and share my design process as a new game designer working on the puzzle mode for our imminent title, Vex Blocks.

When we started development of Vex Blocks, we set out to create a falling block style arcade game in the vein of Tetris that utilised a device’s rotation ability while offering more than just the standard “tap” interface to controlling the gameplay.  The job of the player was to chain together blocks on the screen by matching colors, symbols or both and tracing out patterns with their fingers to connect the blocks.  Random blocks would fall into the play area and the job was to clear as many as possible, rotating the device as necessary so blocks would fall into different arrangements.  Once we had created the basic gameplay mechanics, we set about trying to think of how we could change the rules of the game to create different gameplay modes and a “nice to have feature if we have the time” was puzzle mode.

So, as development moved along I ultimately found myself faced with the job of creating various puzzles for our puzzle mode.  I had never set out to create a puzzle before, but how hard could it be?  Start simple, right?

PuzzleWorking1I started by recreating my playing area in Photoshop and went about duplicating the various game pieces so I could simply drag and drop to create the puzzles before coding them into our game.  My next step was to create something aesthetically pleasing before I even thought of how the puzzle would play.  I’d drop in blocks to create geometric shapes and patterns, often drawing inspiration from simple icons as I only had a 5×8 grid to work with.  Once I had a pattern on the screen that I was relatively happy with, I’d start thinking about how it would play.

Here’s where it really started to get fun.  The point of the puzzle mode was to solve the puzzle, clearing all playing blocks from the screen in as few chains as possible, with an upper limit on the amount of chains you could use before the puzzle would reset.  I’d have a look at the blocks in front of me and start tracing out the various options for chains.  If it was too straightforward, then I’d start to throw in obstacles by swapping out blocks that couldn’t be readily chained together, or could only be part of a chain coming from one particular direction.  Or, I’d start with a puzzle and then mimic a few phone rotations to see what I’d end up with.  It was a bit like messing up a Rubik’s cube.  As challenging as a Rubik’s cube is to solve, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in taking a solved cube and mixing it up for another to solve.  For a few puzzles, that’s exactly what it was like.  Starting with a solved puzzle that was easy to chain together, then scrambling it.  Mmmm…satisfying.

PuzzleWorking2From a design perspective, starting simple was really the only way for this project to evolve.  As I started to become comfortable designing simple puzzles, I’d gradually add in new game mechanics.  What if I add a block that can’t be chained and has to be surrounded?  What if I introduce blocks that stay fixed in one spot despite device orientation?  What if we throw in blocks that explode if you don’t clear them quickly enough?  What about using specific power-ups?  Adding one new gameplay mechanic at a time and exploring that mechanic fully before moving onto the next, then adding them together provided a nice progression in terms of variety and difficulty.  As I became more familiar with process, design started to shift away from the look of the puzzle and instead started with a particular challenge, and then I moulded the look around the puzzle.

Puzzle7Next up I assembled the puzzles in-game and turned them loose on our testers.  I quickly discovered that what seems easy to me after working on the game full-time for nine months isn’t necessarily as easy for gamers who haven’t spent that type of time with the product.  Test, test test.  Who knew?  There’s a fine line between challenging and “Nuts to this” with gamers.  Thankfully, I’ve received some excellent feedback and what was originally a “nice to have feature if we have the time” has become a challenging addition to the title that extends the gameplay options while offering us the opportunity to release additional content if gamers like what they see.


Playing with my kids helps me make better games

Playing with my kids helps me make better games


By Kyle Kulyk

Nov 12, 2012

A funny thing happened to me smack in the middle of my transition from the brokerage industry to the games industry. People tell you how everything changes when you become a parent. Friends of mine tried to explain the feeling, their eyes taking on a bit of a faraway look as if they were describing an unnatural love of unicorns or some sort of mythical being while I smiled and said “Oh yeah. Oh yeah.” I often joked that agents would slip into parent’s houses at night and pump them full of endorphins while they slept because it was the only way to describe the wonder I saw in those faces at the arrival of those little, pooping, screaming, sleep deprivation units. “Everything changes,” they’d tell me and I’d nod without a shred of comprehension. Then after years of difficulties it finally happened to my wife and I and I got it. I understood why so many I knew couldn’t really put the experience into words aside from the fact that everything changes and that it’s wonderful. I don’t even bother to describe the experience to people without children now, other than to offer a genuine smile and say “Hopefully, you’ll understand one day.”

I was never around children from the time I left home until nearly 20 years later when I had kids of my own. When I was faced with other people’s children, I often found the experience awkward and a bit uncomfortable. I had no idea how to relate to kids of any age or how to interact with them. Now with children of my own I can hardly remember a time where I didn’t know how to play with children, and in return my kids have opened my eyes to why we find certain things “fun”. I hope I can describe this idea in a way that could prove useful to aspiring developers.

Playing video games in my twenties and thirties I think I lost some of the understanding of why I found games fun to play when I was a kid. Video games to me were about roleplaying or they were about competition and if you had asked me why video games were fun even three years ago, I probably would have described some combination of those two factors but over the years I’d forgotten something. Perhaps not forgotten so much as overlooked. While role-play and competition can be factors in why games are appealing long term I think what makes video games fun is much more fundamental to the way we learn. Watching my children grow and play has helped me remember what drew me to games as a child and what still keeps me coming back now. It has to do with learning and the feeling of accomplishment when you finally master a challenging game.

From a very early age, babies love patterns. Nothing quite locks an infant’s gaze like faces and patterns. As they get older it doesn’t stop. We find patterns all around us all the time even when confronted with something that doesn’t seemingly have a pattern. We see shapes in clouds and we instantly look for some sort of familiar arrangement in a jumble of letters or numbers. I watched my son stare at a wooden puzzle, then progress to dumping the pieces and creating chaos only to then restore order. He would continue to play in this manner until eventually it’s no longer challenging to solve that particular puzzle and suddenly that toy is forgotten for good (or until his little sister picks up a piece). He moves onto the next challenge and that’s his day with the exception of naps and meal time.

To me, right there I see two fundamental pieces of what keeps us coming back to a good video game. One factor is some sort of pattern recognition mechanic and the other is a challenge. When I started looking at the video games I enjoyed as a kid and that I enjoyed now they all have, at their core, some sort of pattern recognition element and they all had increasing levels of difficulty. I’d play until I either mastered the game and it became too easy or until the difficulty became such that I grew frustrated and no longer found the experience entertaining. I see the same behaviours in the way my toddler plays. It’s fun unless the task is too difficult, and it’s fun until the task becomes too easy.


When I was a kid I remember spending quite a bit of time on Space Ace, among others games at my local arcade. Space Ace was a cartoon, laser disk based game along the lines of Dragon Slayer. A series of events would play out on the screen and a visual cue would signal the move to make with the timing becoming more challenging as the game progressed. Mastering a game like this in a time before strategy guides and the internet took trial and error, a good memory and a pocketful of quarters and I loved that game. That was, until I beat it. Shortly after I memorized the patterns, I moved onto the next game only occasionally popping in a quarter to feel important when throngs of kids who would gather when they’d see “that kid who can beat Space Ace” start a new game.

Whether it’s timing involved in arcade fighting games or if it’s strategy in an on-line shooter, when you break it down video games are all about recognizing patterns and using them within the confines of the game’s rules.  It’s an understanding of game development that in retrospect I feel I poorly implemented in the first game my team released in our efforts to appeal to a wider audience. Each level of the game was unique, but the challenge of the game, the pattern required to win didn’t vary enough and looking back at the testing, our players enjoyed the game but the question we didn’t ask was “for how long will they enjoy it?” It’s a choice we made in the interest of appealing to a broader base, but I think this choice didn’t do us any favours and by the time we realized this and updated the title with different ways to play our window of opportunity had already closed. It’s something that seems so basic a notion in hindsight but hopefully by bringing this up I can encourage other new developers to take a look at their product differently.

Playing games with a two and a half year old also helped me rethink control schemes as well. My son loves to pick up a controller and ask “Sack-boy, Daddy?” but a Playstation 3 controller and LittleBigPlanet is a bit beyond him currently. However, I sat him down with Angry Birds – Star Wars and within seconds he was flinging birds at piggies and loving it. The same goes playing “Digit Chase” on the Playstation Vita, a quick demo that has users tap numbers on the screen in sequence. There’s something undeniably intuitive about touch screen input as illustrated by how quickly children take to them, but often mobile developers try to shoehorn controller type controls into their mobile games. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with modern game controllers, but controls needs to be intuitive. That doesn’t mean they have to be toddler approved simple, I just think the basic controls should be straightforward. This was a lesson we learned developing our first game and reaffirmed by watching my son play. Just because you have variety of ways to control your game doesn’t mean you should just throw everything in because you can. It’s tempting to do. I know because I did it.

I can thank the time I spend playing with my little guy for bringing me back to the basics and helping understand why we find games fun. It’s not about simplifying the games themselves, but it’s recognizing that under everything we’re always searching for patterns and looking to challenge ourselves, because that’s how we learn. It’s not about making controls dead simple, but it couldn’t hurt to imagine a scenario where your game is being played by a gamer who’s never gamed before. Will your controls confuse or will they help the player become comfortable before becoming challenging? It’s easy to lose focus on basic game-play mechanics underneath everything else that makes up modern gaming, especially for experienced gamers. Watching children play and learn helped me realize this and I look forward to gaming with both my kids for years to come, and I look forward to what they have to teach me.


Would you pay to have your app reviewed?

By Kyle Kulyk

I’ve been gaming about 30 years now, ever since that Commodore Vic-20 made it’s appearance under our Christmas tree back in 1981-82. Video games have been a passion of mine since well before I decided to try my hand at creating them as a profession and during these past 30 years, video game reviews have evolved just as the games they reviewed. Back then, if a game shipped broken, it shipped broken. There was no patching, no do-overs so I relied on print reviews to help me save my money and time from busted games. Not to say I still wasn’t duped into buying a broken game from time to time (I’m looking at you, Atari ET. How many hours of my childhood were spent in those stupid pits?) but generally I trusted game reviews to help set me on the right path when it came to spending my gaming dollars. Today the internet is awash in review sites.

Now as an innocent kid sneaking a peek at the latest review scores from a magazine at a rural pharmacy, it never occurred to me that companies could be paid for these review scores. Certainly, over the years and with the rise of the internet there’s been much more talk of review sites and publications taking money in exchange for their reviews. It’s hard not to look at a review score on a site that’s pretty much one giant advertisement for this game or another and wonder how much money has exchanged hands prior to the review being written, and how could that not on some level influence the review in question. The internet seems to be in general agreement. Accepting money from game makers for reviews could potentially compromise that review and is, to put it bluntly, a bad thing. Then there’s app review sites.

After launching our first mobile game, Itzy3d, on Android and Iphone in Jan this year, I next set about the daunting task of trying to get our little game noticed. I wrote up a press release, sent this to various PR sites and then set about contacting as many review sites as I could find in the hopes that someone would have a look at our game and, for better or worse, inform their readers of their opinion of the title while the rest of our team started work on our next title. Over 200 emails went out with a short blurb about who we were, what our game was about, a few screen shots and our desire to have our game reviewed.

Almost immediately I started receiving replies from sites, and the average reply would go something like this. “We have a lot of submissions and may not get a chance to review your game. Send us money and we’ll be able to do something for you.”

Now at first I was dead set against this. Paying for reviews? The entire notion just struck me as wrong. I thought reviewers had a lot of testicular fortitude to even suggest I spend money on their opinions. But then more emails came, with more offers for “expedited review services” for a fee. Some offered up advertising as well as a review to add value, but when questioned about click rates, monthly visits and the like, the information I would require in order to make an informed decision on where to spend my advertising dollars was almost never forthcoming. Just send us money. At some point I realized that this wasn’t just a few sites looking to cash in on desperate app developers, asking for money in exchange for app reviews seemed to be the norm. After waiting for weeks for someone, anyone to review our title, reluctantly I opened my wallet and paid for a few reviews. Obviously, I had to pay if I wanted to play their game. The reviews from users on the Apple and Android app store had been very positive, but what we were hoping for was a detailed, well thought out review that could give us some feedback and maybe boost our visibility. I paid for 4 reviews. Two were helpful, one was ok, one just took our blurb from the press release, put it up on their site and slapped 3 stars on it. Of the $100 out of my own pocket spent for reviews, the 200+ initial emails sent out, the follow-up emails and the odd correspondence between myself and review sites, we ended up with 6 reviews, 7 if you count the site that simply slapped a score on our press release.

I resigned myself to the new fact that app sites generally existed to fleece ignorant indies out of their money and given my experience vowed that I would not waste my hard-earned dollars on review sites ever again. Last month, I happened across AppyNation’s: Hall of Infamy. It was a list of sites that engaged in the practice of accepting money in exchange for reviews and encouraged developers to add to the list as they came across sites doing the same. All I could think was, “But don’t most app review sites do this?” Certainly based on my experience with the hundreds I contacted, sites taking money for reviews seemed rather the rule than the exception. Pay or we’ll ignore you completely.

App review sites. Like headcrabs for your wallet!

In a months time (fingers crossed) when we’re ready to launch our next title, Vex Blocks, I’ll still put out a press release, I’ll still attempt to raise awareness of our title anyway I can but you can be sure I’m not about to hold my nose and shell out for any more “expedited” reviews ever again. It didn’t improve my game’s visibility, it didn’t push more downloads – it was simply a waste of money. It shouldn’t be the norm for review sites to ask for money for their reviews. As the indie development community grows, these sites will continue their parasitic ways by preying off developers desperate enough to throw what limited funds they have away in the hopes of giving their game a better chance of success. If a site is reputable and getting decent traffic in the first place, they don’t need your money from reviews. I was fooled by thinking this was the norm simply by the sheer amount of sites doing this. Don’t prove another willing host as I did.


The Home Stretch

By Kyle Kulyk

I swear I can see the finish line up ahead.  If you squint, you can just make it out.  It’s there, I assure you.  As we approach the launch of our second mobile title, Vex Blocks, I can’t help but get excited at the prospect of putting our finished product in front of people.  Now I know…I know – there’s still a never-ending amount of work to be done from testing to marketing, to more testing, continued marketing, then the tweaking followed by testing, then some testing…but my point is we’re nearing that final stage before our launch.  There’s light at the end of the tunnel and I swear

the faintest scent of cinnamon buns.  The burndown chart and the task list is at the point where you can at least realistically imagine the launch day, even if it’s still a few weeks away, instead of just dreaming about it happening at some point in the future like flying cars or super-intelligent, faithful monkey servants.  It feels good, like an imaged back rub from said imaginary monkey servants.Our first title, Itzy3d was and still is well received by gamers even if it didn’t exactly race up the charts.  However, our inexperience developing games led to a bit of a rollercoaster ride creating the title.  Initial performance hurdles, an over complicated control scheme and simply learning the pitfalls of Unity3d/IOS/Android development made the experience of working on Itzy3d a rocky one.  Still, despite it’s shortcomings I can to this day sit back, fire it up and lose myself in the game and take pride in our first outing as an indie game developer.

Vex Blocks’ development wasn’t nearly as up and down and even though I still thoroughly enjoyed working on Itzy3d I find I’ve had much more fun working on our upcoming action/puzzler.  If I’m going to lock myself in my office and gamble mine and my family’s future working on videogames full time, at least I know I’m doing it with a smile on my face.  The anxiety filled nights haven’t entirely gone away, but I’m far more confident in what we can accomplish this time out, and there’s a few reasons for that.

The first is a matter of scope.  When we started Itzy3d we had no idea how long tasks would take us to complete and as such, creating Itzy the spider’s world became a much more ambitious project than we had anticipated.  When planning Vex Blocks we were able to estimate what we could accomplish in our given time frame with far more accuracy than we had with Itzy3d.  We started with a simpler concept so the development schedule didn’t become like Crawmerax the Invincible….lobster-like, purple, one-eyed and nearly impossible to beat at our current skill level.  Feeling that our goals were attainable within our time frame from the start did wonders for the ole confidence level.

The second major boost to all around enjoyment levels on Vex was having the artwork more or less completed when we started.  Vex Blocks was a concept I dreamt up a couple of years ago and it was initially given to a group of students consisting of three artists and two programmers from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology to build a prototype for us while providing them with a final project for graduation.  Having a willing group of artists working under my instruction provided us the opportunity to start with a completed list of art assets when the prototype was eventually turned back over to our team.  In contrast, Itzy’s artwork hit a wall when our main artist found himself unable to contribute the time necessary to create the assets required for 3 of our 11 huge levels.  It also left us with zero assets for our menus and ultimate left us with menus that looked like they had been designed by programmers.  Starting the project with almost every art asset we could conceive was a huge load off my mind as I knew my Maya and Photoshop skills would not be tested as rigorously as I scrambled to fill in the blanks with my limited artistic ability.

And the biggest difference this time out was experience with Unity3d.  We know what works, what doesn’t, where our graphical ceiling is for mobile, how to implement sounds more efficiently, how to create an asset pool, the GUI bottlenecks, the performance tweaks, the ongoing mobile testing during development to make sure our mobile performance is where it should be and isn’t biting us in the ass, lighting, texturing, shaders…you name it.  Having the ability to predict where we may run into problems and addressing those issues before they became serious instead of charging full ahead into the unknown is a much more relaxed way to develop a game in my opinion.  Who knew?

So this time out it’s all about making the game fun, challenging and having a blast doing it.  As our cycle on this game nears it’s end I can’t wait to see how the game will do in testing and it’s eventual launch.  The thought of others enjoying our work as much as we enjoy building and playing ourselves is all the reward we need.  Well…and monetary compensation.  All the reward we need is seeing others enjoying our work and money.  That sounds about right.


Why we chose Freemium

By Kyle Kulyk

What choice did we have?

When we started Itzy Interactive a little over a year ago, we were already too late. Developers has already undercut each other’s prices on the app store to the point where all games were already in the $1-2 dollar range, and the freemium pricing model of giving away a game for free and earning revenue from in-app purchases had already taken root. It was a bit like pulling up to the starting line after the race had started and you’re informed that everyone had already piled up in a spectacular crash in the middle of the racetrack. Yet there we were, all shiny and new, ready to go and determined to make our mark and hopefully pay our bills in the process. When we launched Itzy3d we knew right from the start that freemium was the direction we would go with this and future releases. Our second title, Vex Blocks, is also planned as a freemium release.  The reasons just made sense to us and still do.

As a small indie team we don’t have many resources to work with. When it comes to marketing our products we simply don’t have a lot of options available to us due to our financial constraints. We’ve spoken to other developers who have been successful in the mobile marketplace and a few of them maintain that paying for ads simply doesn’t pay. Certainly the response we’ve seen to the ads we ran in an attempt to test the waters back this up. The increased visibility and downloads we received when running our mobile ad campaigns simply did not pay for the money spent on those ads. Social marketing through our Facebook, Twitter and Blogging efforts probably put just as many eyes on our products and didn’t cost us anything but our time.

So that leaves really only two other factors that we have any control over as indie developers: the game we’re creating and the price point we choose for that game. Now game quality is an interesting topic. We’re not so arrogant as to assume our games will be of the same calibre as games made by more experienced teams, or by larger teams with millions at their disposal. So we endeavour to make the best games we can possibly make given our talents and the resources available to us and that’s all that can be expected of us.

We’re not operating under any illusion that we’ll create the next runaway hit. Something that always strikes me about people I speak with in the industry and developer interviews I see from successful indies is that they never know if what they’ve created is any good. There’s always that nervousness as they release their product into the wild when you simply don’t know how you’ll be received. You’d like to think that you’ve made a game people will enjoy, that you’ve made something that stands out but what you think and what the reviewers, other developers and ultimately gamers think can be completely different. Opinion is opinion. The notion that if you simply create an excellent title people will flock to it is contingent on something you have no control over.  People’s opinions of what constitutes a great game. So you do what we can.  You set out and make the game you want to make and you make it to the best of your abilities. Then you learn from your mistakes and hopefully don’t go broke in the process.

So the only option left to us, the only other thing we can control is the price, and against the hundreds of thousands of other games out there – what chance do our little, independently made games stand against juggernauts that are already charging nothing right out of the gate? Freemium isn’t the only option for mobile developers, but realistically in today’s marketplace – what choice do indies really have? Convert or die. The notion that your games are super special and people will recognize this fact and line up to throw money at you may work in rare instances where the planets align just so but that’s like putting a video of yourself singing up on youtube in the hopes of being discovered.  Sure it happens, but so do lottery wins.  For us it makes more sense to level the playing field as much as possible to maximize our chances of success. That’s why we went freemium. There’s simply too many free games available in today’s mobile marketplace to risk alienating users by asking the price of a cup of coffee for your hard work. At least, not right off the bat.

Making the decision to go freemium doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve sold your soul to Old Scratch either. Freemium games receive a lot of grief from “core” gamers for some very good reasons. There are companies out there that use freemium and combined with habit forming hooks they keep gamers addicted to games that more than a few gamers would turn their noses up at. There are companies that try to obscure the actual price of in-app purchases. Other companies offer multiplayer games with the option to purchase powerups to gain an advantage over other players. All the above give the freemium model, in my opinion, a bit of a bad reputation but it doesn’t have to be this way.

I prefer to approach freemium games the same way people approached shareware. “Here’s the game to try and if you like the game, please support us by purchasing some of our other options.” No tricks.  Nothing hidden.  If you like it, please support us.  I view the the freemium pricing structure no differently than offering a demo version, but the key to me (and to my conscience) is to not waste gamer’s time with a mere taste but to make it worth their while.  There are a lot of products vying for gamers attention and I always keep that in the back of my mind to make sure our products are offering up enough gameplay that I would be satisfied, as a gamer, with the amount of play I’ve received.  Then, hopefully, gamers will like what they see and respond by opening their wallets.


How not to go insane while working from home


By Kyle Kulyk

There was a time when my life was pretty structured. Up at a certain time every morning, into my suit, into the car and then into my office to manage client’s money. So it went for nearly a decade until the market crash of 08/09 left me without a job in an industry that didn’t seem to be hiring until financial outlooks stabilized.  Funny thing about that…  Now I help make mobile games from home as one of the co-founders of Itzy Interactive. You’d think the transition from a regular, office job to one working out of your home would be an easy one. No boss micromanaging you, no set hours, no dress-code, no phones ringing, etc, however the transition from office peon to home office productivity machine wasn’t a smooth transition for me. I thought I’d take a moment to share a few of the things that help my productivity as an indie developer working from home, and help retain my sanity while doing it. It’s also an exercise for me to reaffirm some of these things I may be slipping on as I fall into unproductive habits while work continues on our newest title, Vex Blocks! 🙂

For the love of god, put on some clothes

You wouldn’t walk into your office dressed in sweats and a t-shirt and even if this was acceptable, you probably still shouldn’t do it. There’s been a few days when I’ve rolled out of bed and stumbled into my office, but I’m never as productive as I am when awake, showered, had a good breakfast and dressed for work.  I’m not talking about dressing up, I’m mainly talking about things like…putting on pants.  It may sound a bit clichéd but feeling good about yourself makes you more productive and until I’ve cleaned myself up and dressed first thing in the morning I just don’t feel like I’m ready somehow. If you’re content to work in your tighty whities all day with the windows open and your retired neighbours aghast, maybe just try cleaning up one day, spraying on some Axe body spray and getting dressed to see how you feel in comparison.

Regular hours

Set yourself regular work hours. The nice thing about working from home is you can usually be flexible with your working hours but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still have set hours. I found that having a schedule was valuable for maintaining my sanity and improving my productivity. For me, it’s like a switch flips on in my head. “Time for business!” If for some reason I find myself off my schedule it’s hard for me to get into my work groove when I do sit down at my desk. I’m sure there’s some behavioural scientist somewhere that can back me up on this one, but I’ve really found keeping a regular, scheduled work day improves the amount I can accomplish compared to days when I just “wing it.”
It’s also nice to have that end time to look forward to as well, and having a family it’s good to have that moment when “Daddy is available for play now!” You’re not a machine and you can’t work all the time. There needs to be a point where you can stop and focus on yourself, your friends and your family. Also, take breaks and take a scheduled lunch. I’m terrible when it comes to this and by the time my day is done my brain feels fuzzy. Taking a break keeps me from burning out, stressing out and helps me gain my bearings.

Office Rules

If you’re working from home, it’s also a good idea that you lay down some ground rules for the other occupants of your home. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re being interrupted by pets, parents, spouse, children, etc. My wife is currently at home on maternity leave and it’s nice to be available if she needs assistance with the new baby or our 2 year old son but I need time to do my work. You wouldn’t be able to work a regular office job with a toddler on your lap, yelling for Elmo videos so it’s understandable that there needs to be generally uninterrupted work time. So far having my family at home has worked out pretty well, with even our headstrong 2 year old grasping the concept that when Daddy’s office door is closed he’s working and he’ll be able to play later. My son even says “Bye!” to me now and waves when I’m going into the office to start my work day.

Separate work environment and minimize distractions

It’s also useful to have a designated work space. A “zone of work” that you can enter and exit. For myself, I’m lucky enough to have an office in my home but even if you don’t it’s not a bad idea to create a separate space that’s specifically setup for work. Even though it should go without saying, make an effort to decrease distractions. If you’re a PC gamer and you don’t have the willpower to not fire WOW up every couple of hours then perhaps you need a work machine that doesn’t have any games installed, or create a unique login that doesn’t have access to programs you may find distracting. I find it useful for my PC to be work only while receiving my gaming fix on the consoles setup in our den. It’s helpful for me to have that separation.

Don’t limit human interactions

After working in a busy office, this is something that I didn’t think would be an issue but it was. I found the transition from always being in communication with others to working primarily by myself to be a bit jarring. By the end of the work week I found I craved human interaction; that I’d even go a little squirrely without it. As I mentioned in previous blogs, regularly scheduled meetings with my team helps to break up the monotony of this lone programmer’s existence while keeping the team on task. It can never hurt to keep up communications with your team, even going so far as to have a voice chat session running in the background while working occasionally. This may hinder productivity in the short term, but in the long run I find it helps keep me from experiencing cabin fever. A change of venue from time to time couldn’t hurt either. If you can, take a laptop down to your local cafe and get some work done. Again, in the long run this will be beneficial to your working well being. At least it was for me.

These methods have all helped me over the past year and a half I’ve been working from home. Hopefully you find some of these useful as well. Cheers!