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Confidence in Nonsense

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NOV
25
2011

Present This!

By Kyle Kulyk

Presentations are a part of life in the game industry. Occasionally even game developers are called upon to leave the confines of their offices/work dungeons and step into the general public line of fire. There’s no reason these occurrences need should be stressful, anxiety ridden affairs. While this may be common knowledge to some familiar with public speaking, I recently executed two back to back presentations in promotion of our first, mobile phone game, Itzy, which should be launching next week (aaaahhh plug plug plug). I thought I’d give a couple of tips on presentations while they’re fresh in my mind.

Show up early – Nerves might keep you outside until the last-minute. You might want to rehearse your speech in the washroom. You might want to belly up to the local pub for that final shot of liquid courage. Don’t! Get there early and make sure you’re setup. Nothing makes a crowd as restless as watching you sit there, fumbling with a thumb drive, waiting for the projector to heat up, organizing your notes. Be ready to go. In one of my recent presentations, no one knew the login for the PC I was slated to present on. We had to wait for a runner to go find someone in the know and report back to us, and that took some time.

Practice – Run through your presentation in its entirety before. Do it a few times and make sure you’re comfortable with your visual media and the source material. At my first presentation, I forgot my notes sitting beside the computer at home. Thankfully, I knew what I wanted to say without my notes having run over the presentation earlier that afternoon and was able to just wing it with my slides acting as my guide. Which leads to my next point…

Remember to bring your notes – Seems like a no brainer, but hey! I forgot. In fact, why not make a checklist of everything you need? And check your files. Make sure you actually remembered to bring your presentation materials, and don’t forget to bring the appropriate materials. Has anyone seen a presenter prepare to do a PowerPoint presentation, only to find the machine he’s presenting on doesn’t have PowerPoint? They were picking bits of that guy out of the ceiling ventilation system. Save as a PowerPoint Show, or why not bring both file versions, just in case?

Do you like the walls of text? Neither do we – Keep your visual presentations simple. No one likes to sit through a presentation with a never-ending wall of text. Break it up, simplify, add graphics. And for the love of god, try to limit your presentation to about 20 minutes or so…

Don’t Memorize – No one likes to sit back and listen to a scripted speech. Know your material, stick to your key points and have a conversation with the audience. If you know what you’re talking about, keep to the key points and just wing. It’s much less stressful than remembering your lines and helps you connect with your audience.

Have fun – With any luck, you like your job. Bring that enthusiasm to your presentations. Neither of my presentations went perfect this past week, but the experience of talking about a subject I’m passionate about sure as hell beats talking about something I have no interest in. I’ve given many presentations over the years during my decade in the brokerage industry and talking now about my company and the game we’re working on instead of talking about mutual funds or what online brokerage platforms are best for you, that has to be the most fun I’ve ever had doing a presentation. I was nervous at first, I always am and you will be too but don’t let that get to you. Enjoy what you do, and it’ll be enjoyable for your audience.

A lot of these points might seem pretty straight forward, but when you throw in the extra stress of presenting suddenly the straight forward can be elusive no matter if you’re presenting to the public or just a room of your co-workers.

Good luck on your next presentation.

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NOV
10
2011

Teachers open doors

By Kyle Kulyk

We all made it to where we are today through the support of others, be it a loving wife, a caring parent, the understanding of close friends or the encouragement and knowledge passed to us by our mentors and teachers.

I woke up this morning to the sad news that the world had lost just one of those people. In April of this year I graduated with honours from the Digital Media and IT program offered by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, AB Canada and it was there that I had the privilege of being a student of Graham Miller. Last night, on his way home from the school, Graham died in a motorcycle accident.

I consider the impact my teachers have had in my life immeasurable. When I entered into the Game Programming stream at NAIT, the course was in its infancy. Graham was handed a book on Game Development Essentials and asked, “Can you teach this?” Although Graham was a programmer, he took the class on.

The course itself was a useful examination and discussion on what makes games playable, what makes them fun, the importance of story and characters and how to organize these ideas in a way that you could then use to create a development plan. Graham introduced students to the excellent series, Firefly, as a starting point so we all had common ground from which to discuss the theories introduced by the course.

But that’s not what I took home from this course. Any teacher can pick up a text and discuss the general ideas with a class. In fact, a cynic might point out that Graham, having never developed a videogame maybe wasn’t the best choice for the job. That cynic would be wrong.

What Graham brought to that class was an enthusiasm for the subject matter that was infectious. It filled the room each class and that’s what made this course stand out for me. Not the subject material, the man presenting it. Graham as an instructor made me want to push myself. I wanted to hand in assignments just to see his excitement at the new ideas presented in front of him. Graham’s confidence in us mixed with his exuberance made me feel that I could make videogames that people wanted to play. He pushed me to do what I’m doing now in his belief that I could do it and he probably didn’t even realize it.

I didn’t really know Graham as well as I would have liked personally. Even as an older student at the school, I’d stand just as transfixed as the teens and twenty-somethings when Graham was taken off track and started sharing stories of his English rugby days, or his tales of drinking with Australian field medics in seedy African cities while there as a chopper pilot. I often came to him for advice or help in other classes and his no-nonsense attitude and candour was always appreciated. When my son was born prematurely and I needed to spend a great deal of time at the NICU, Graham was always making inquiries as to his wellbeing, and my own, while probing to make sure no instructors were giving me a hard time or working me too hard. And now, he’s gone.

We’re all so indebted to the people like Graham who support us as we each make our way. It’s said that teachers open the doors and we walk through. Let’s make sure we don’t forget to give them our thanks.I wish I had thanked Graham for his belief in me, and the support he showed when I hit him with the idea of starting my own game development company. I’d like to think that he knew that his encouragement helped me take the chances that I did, but I wish I had said it. I’ll fondly remember that last day of classes, hoisting a pint with him after it was all said and done and discussing the new company and where we felt gaming was going and how I needed to start watching “Game of Thrones”. He gave me his card with the offer that if I was ever stuck with a programming issue to not hesitate to use him as a resource. I didn’t know him long, but that was just such a Graham thing to do. I wish he’d seen our first game completed because I know he would have been proud.

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OCT
26
2011

Along came a spider…

By Kyle Kulyk

Like that title? I came up with it myself. It was either that or something about a tangled web. I think I made the right decision.

My last blog entry on #AltDevBlogADay was concerning my road to becoming a game developer (although, according to my wife, I shouldn’t be calling myself that until I at least make a dollar off a game we create). I thought I would take this opportunity to share a bit of the history behind what will be Itzy Interactive’s first release. It’s a mobile game titled Itzy, and we’re excitedly working toward an early November launch.

School Daze

After my breakup with the brokerage industry, I ended up back in school fulltime at 35, studying programming and enduring the chatter of a class full of 18-20 year olds (apparently, manga isn’t that new thing the kids are into. Oh, they’re into it, they’ve just been into it for a while). As part of the new program I was enrolled in, after the first semester we were able to specialize our course selection. I rolled the dice, crossed myself and chose game programming against my better judgement, knowing I’d hate myself if I didn’t at least try.

During the summer break after that first year our instructors asked us to give some thought to game ideas we could put into practice for the next year. Being an older gamer, I thought back to the games that had resonated with me growing up and decided to take inspiration from the games of my youth. I created a proposal for a spider themed game based loosely off the Taito arcade title, Qix.

For those not familiar with Qix, the objective of the game was to fill a rectangular playing area by drawing a line with your player across the screen until you finished, at which time the enclosed area would automatically fill in with a solid color. Drawing the line left the player exposed. If an enemy touched the line or player while drawing, it would kill the player character and abort the line. As a kid, I loved this game and I’m not quite sure why. There was something strangely rewarding about something as simple as drawing a line across the screen and seeing a huge area fill in.

My idea was to take the same principle, but apply it to a spider and create environments to fill that fit that theme. A spider isn’t going to spin webs across a blank rectangle; it’s going to spin across tree branches or over your garden shed. And if we’re going to follow a spider across multiple environments, would it kill us to tell a bit of a story along the way?h Qix, the objective of the game was to fill a rectangular playing area by drawing a line with your player across the screen until you finished, at which time the enclosed area would automatically fill in with a solid color. Drawing the line left the player exposed. If an enemy touched the line or player while drawing, it would kill the player character and abort the line. As a kid, I loved this game and I’m not quite sure why. There was something strangely rewarding about something as simple as drawing a line across the screen and seeing a huge area fill in.

Artistically I wanted to keep the color’s limited – using dark colors and shades of greys as we’d seen in such games as Limbo or Pixeljunk Eden. The web fuel that keeps Itzy spinning would be collected by eating a multitude of brightly coloured, alien fireflies that would also influence the color of his webbing, and using these two ideas, the fireflies and the webs, we would bring color to a bleak landscape. As it turned out, rainbow webbing looked terrible, but my core ideas had found root.

What’s in a name?

So, Itzy, as a concept, was born. I wanted to keep the game casual and light-hearted and I wanted to keep the controls and gameplay straight forward so the player could easily sit back and enjoy spinning giant webs across multiple environments. For the life of me though, I couldn’t think up a name for my spider hero. I had intended from the start to name the game simply after its title character, but what to name it? I also wanted the character gender neutral if possible – but Pat the Spider? Drew the Spider?

Frustrated, and a little hungry, I turned to Facebook. I asked my friends and family to come up with a name for a cute spider. The wife of an old, university friend suggested Itzy, and I felt it was perfect. It was cute, easy to remember, played off the whole “Itsy, bitsy spider” nursery rhyme. I had my character’s name. Later on, it also stuck with us as a company name after our initial, Canadian themed studio names such as Angry Beaver Studios were ruined by Urban Dictionary (thanks for nothing, Urban Dictionary). Itzy, again, seemed catchy, cute and memorable and memorable and Itzy Interactive came into being.

To breathe life into my character, I enlisted the help of my six-year-old niece who graciously agreed to give up an afternoon to spend with her uncle saying “Ok, again. Now again. A little higher. Not that high. Ok, that’s great. …and once more.”

I’m still happy with the results and I’m especially fond of the sound she came up with when asked “What sound does a happy spider make?”

Apparently, it’s “Weew!”

Growing Pains

My team at school were able to start on the first level for a little over a month as part of a school project and Itzy started to take shape. After graduation, Itzy Interactive began working on Itzy in earnest and we faced down a myriad of problems. Our game was slated for the phones so Itzy needed pathfinding to move to where the player pointed on the screen. With our limited understanding of game programming, our pathfinding didn’t seem able to search for paths “up”, only on the ground. We overcame this problem by rotating the entire level when Itzy approached the base of a climbable object so the climbable object was now the “ground” we were scanning. That opened up a world of physics related and performance issues, not to mention the transition between ground and tree while the world rotated was, to put it mildly, awkward. Also, we struggled with making the webs and creating the meshes to fill the webs dynamically to correspond to Itzy’s created web shapes. Then there were the terrible performance issues initially on both mobile platforms. No one likes to see a game tested run at 0.7 fps.

All these problems were overcome in the following 6 months and as we tightened up the mechanics of the game we were then able to switch focus to the gameplay itself. Building webs didn’t pose as much of a challenge as we hoped, so we introduced enemies and big fireflies that, when stuck, can ruin existing webs if not eaten in a timely manner. Itzy’s enemies force Itzy to use powers of cam

The game, Itzy, hardly resembles the game that ended up on that proposal document during the summer of 2010, but that’s a good thing. Through the efforts of talented artists and programmers, many of whom worked as volunteers, Itzy has changed and I’m proud of the product we’ve created. That pride I feel is more rewarding than anything I accomplished in my decade slinging mutual funds and placing trades. I just hope it adds up to monetary compensation as well as a feeling of pride (pride, while great, doesn’t pay our mortgages very well) so we can continue to do this, and I can meet my wife’s criteria for being able to call myself a “game developer”.ouflage to continue web building after the danger has passed. This led one programmer’s father-in-law to exclaim while playing “Give me a way to kill these buggers!” and a power-up system was born.

I invite you all to try an early, online beta of Itzy that we created to encourage feedback on the project in our demo section. We’ve taken much of that feedback to heart and we look forward to releasing the full game soon in the coming weeks. Also, head on over to our Facebook page and give us a like.

 

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SEP
26
2011

Should we be worried about Nintendo?

By Kyle Kulyk

As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire and lately there seems a lot of smoke centered over Nintendo, with good reason. Recently, Nintendo revised their annual forecast, predicting profits to plunge to 27 year lows on the news of losses related to the 3DS, waning Wii sales and foreign exchange concerns. It’s difficult to discuss Nintendo’s future without having die-hard fans descend on you like a pack of furious monkeys, but I feel the games industry and gamers alike should be concerned about what this could mean for the iconic company and the impact on the industry.

There’s no denying that the Wii was a runaway hit, however with Wii sales beginning to fade Nintendo has readied its replacement in the Wii-U. The Wii-U looks to match other current gen consoles graphically, but it will use both Wii controllers and a giant, expensive looking iPad like controller. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but does anyone else see this as an issue? Growing up with three other siblings, I can only imagine the chaos in presenting us with the choice of one giant, special controller with everyone else receiving regular controllers. I’m all for teaching children the value of sharing, but let’s be realistic here. Analysts have also expressed their concerns and investors began to dump Nintendo shares en masse after the Wii-U’s reveal. Does the Wii-U even have a shot at the Wii’s level of success, or will it be passed up as being nothing more than the Wii HD with an ipad attachment?

And what if the Wii-U doesn’t match the Wii’s success? Nintendo has faced struggles with home consoles before and pulled through. Many considered the Gamecube a blunder with complaints of it being too “toy-ish” and for not offering the technical advantages available from their competition, but Nintendo pulled through. What’s different this time?

I think the main difference this time, and the real reason we need be concerned for one of the industry giants is due to changes in the portable gaming market. Portable games have been Nintendo’s bread and butter for some time. Even back when the GameCube was attempting to wrestle out a corner of the market, Nintendo leaned on excellent sales from their GameBoy and GameBoy Advance platforms, both for hardware and software sales. The GameBoy Advance didn’t even begin to decline until its replacement, the Nintendo DS, became available and the DS picked up the Nintendo revenue torch and ran with it despite what many considered a lacklustre launch.

Unlike the GameBoy Advance, however, the DS has begun its sales descent well ahead of the launch of the 3DS, which is a large part of why Nintendo found themselves forced to slash their forecasts. The DS’s sales decline coincidentally (or not) coincided with a surge in another device. The Apple iPhone. That’s why as a long-term industry watcher I think Nintendo is in trouble. The DS’s replacement, the 3DS, has already received a massive price drop to spur sales while agencies like Reuters are describing the device as a “flop” amidst complaints of a lacklustre software line-up and confusion regarding the safety of 3D displays and children’s eye development. Industry analysts are already predicting far fewer 3DS units sold compared to the DS’s accomplishments, so where does that leave Nintendo? If the 3DS is unable to find a foothold in a new market where casual gamers can find their gaming fix via their cell phones and if Nintendo is hit with a double whammy if the Wii-U fails to capture consumers – where does that leave Nintendo?

It was heresy in the past to even suggest that Sega might be forced to withdraw from the console market, but we all know what happened there. Could we see Nintendo become a software only company with Mario and Link making appearances on Sony’s Playstation? Might a partnership with another company to create a unified console take some of the burden off Nintendo when it comes to the enormous costs associated with new hardware development? Might we see Nintendo apply their portable gaming expertise to the Android and iPhone markets or will Nintendo merely weather this storm? No matter what happens, my gut tells me we may witness a shift within the games industry sooner rather than later.

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SEP
10
2011

Performance Anxiety 2: You are doing it wrong

By Kyle Kulyk

So rather than simply walking by us wretched souls, shielding the eyes of your children and whispering harshly “Don’t look at the poor developers,” I advise those just starting to develop for the phones using Unity3d to heed this cautionary advice lest you find yourself well into development asking “0.7 frames a second? Bu-bu-but…our polys are low!”Well, it turns out I was right to be afraid. Despite erring on the side of caution, dumbing down models and textures, limiting sound size and being cautious resource wise, it wasn’t enough. In the ways of Unity3d on mobile phones it turns out we were trying to drop a jet engine inside a soap box racer.

Tip number the first: Keep your polys low, but your enemies lower

Ok, the last bit makes no sense, but keep your polys down. I’ve read before that for the older iPhones you should keep your poly count limited to around 10k-15k. I’ve heard the iPhone 4 can handle 40k, but what use is that unless you’re only releasing on the iPhone 4? Also, keep in mind that the more memory you use for graphics, the less you have for physics and gameplay.

Tip two: Draw Calls

Try to keep your draw calls between 20-30 if targeting the phone market. For us, a problem we didn’t realize we had until later was our meshes for our character, enemies, etc were not combined. Our main character used 16 draw calls, slapping a material on each piece of geometry individually. Combine your meshes whenever possible, reuse materials for better batching and be mindful of your overall draw count.

Tip three: That damned, dirty GUI

The Unity GUI is not your friend. Full stop. I understand they are aware of this and are working on it, but in the meantime the GUI is going to slow things down like a fat man riding a pony. For our little game, two progress bars, score text and a pause and mute button ate up 13 draw calls and would often use 40-50% of our processing power according to the profiler. Turning off GUI elements would sometimes boost us up by 10-15 fps. The research we’ve done suggest a simple alternative; don’t use Unity’s GUI functions. Instead, try some middleware, like EZgui. We recently added EZgui to our arsenal. As of the time of writing I’m unable to say if it’s made a real difference to our overhead, but EZGui bills itself as being a more efficient means of implementing your GUI on mobile platforms, so we’ll see if our $200 spent will give us one less thing to worry about.

Tip four: What’s that sound? It’s the sound of your game bogging down under your audio

Holy mother of Cthulhu, but sound seems to slow down the mobile phone build of our game. Our PC build of the game featured a musical track, sounds for each firefly, sounds for each enemy, environmental sounds and the main effects for the player character. Add that all up and on our test phones it sounds like suck.

Deleting each of these sounds seemed to increase performance by nearly 5fps despite the tiny size of each sound clip. At this point we do not have a workaround. So this one is more of a cry for help than it is a tip. The tip is, “Watch your sounds.” The cry for help is, “How on earth does anyone implement sounds on the Iphone, period? Are we really limited to only 2 audio sources per game if we want the game playable?”

Testing on the iPhone

Those are the main performance issues that we experienced as new Unity developers. Hopefully this will help someone become aware of the dangers of mobile phone development.

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AUG
26
2011

My top 5 games of childhood

By Kyle Kulyk

I started gaming when I was about 7 receiving my first computer for Christmas, a Commodore Vic-20. Most of my childhood in the 80’s was spent on acreages and although I had no shortage of friends from school, most of them lived some distance away. My siblings and I on rainy days and long winters spent a lot of time gaming together on our C64 and later on our Amiga. While I did have the opportunity to spend time with The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario and the like while visiting friends there are dozens of games you never hear about that left their mark on my childhood and I just thought I’d share a few with you. I’m far from a retro gamer but I think as a game developer it never hurts to look back at the games you found magical. So marvel as I completely date myself and take a brief look at some of my childhood favourites. Click each image for game play videos!

You’ll never look at hexagons the same way.

It feels like I spent a lifetime playing Elite on the C-64. Elite was the first space fighter/trading game I played using glorious 3D wireframe graphics and viewed from the cockpit of your own spacecraft. This space trading game came out in 1984 with its own novella to set the backdrop and it included somewhat of a moral system that I hadn’t experienced in games before. Trade in illegal goods in some systems and you’ll become a wanted man! Is it worth the hassle? I remember playing with an eye occasional cast over my shoulder so my mother wouldn’t stumble in and exclaim “You’re trading narcotics to that poor planet? The authorities are right to hunt you from system to system. I have no son!”

Given choices and consequences in a game left a mark on me as a gamer. I hadn’t experienced this before. Usually I played as the good little trader, occasionally saving others from pirates myself, but sometimes you just have to walk the line. Surprisingly, I didn’t grow up to become an arms dealer.

 

Raid on Bungeling Bay

Get to the choppa!

I was surprised this morning to learn that one of my early favourites was the first game designed by SimCity’s creator, Will Wright. Raid was also available on the C-64 about 1984. Raid was a top down helicopter shooter which had you taking out radar stations to avoid detection in an attempt to bomb one of six factories. What I loved about this shooter is that things happened off-screen. Many arcade shooters at the time centered only on the player and the rest of the world simply didn’t exist until the player stepped into the screen. With Raid, supply boats made their way to factories and if left to their own devices the factories would build themselves up and be that much harder to take out. It reminded me of one of my arcade favourites Sinistar. If you left Sinistar alone for too long while you were off mining asteroids, he’d later become a huge threat. Raid seemed to have much more depth. If that weren’t enough of a challenge, your aircraft carrier would often come under attack and you’d have to rush back and switch to defensive mode. I remember that almost sick desperation of limping my damaged chopper back to my ship. I really hadn’t experienced this level of challenge before. Also, it’s fun to blow things up. Later games like “Desert Strike – Return to the gulf” provided a satisfying ratio of shots fired to things blowing up, but few shooters provided the challenge of Raid on Bungeling Bay.

Castle Wolfenstein/Beyond Castle Wolfenstein

Why did the guards want Allspice? Were they baking?

Forever will I think of these titles when I see the word “Achtung!”

The first and second title came out between 1981 – 1984 and had two features that have become videogame staples today. Stealth play and Nazis. You wouldn’t get too far in Castle Wolfenstein to approach the game with guns blazing. You had to bide your time, hide around corners and then, when the time was right, blow a hole in a wall with a grenade and burst out with pistol a’blazing! Beyond continued the same gameplay, but this time the game focused on a plot to bomb Hitler. The stealth tactics ramped up. Guards were more easily alerted to your presence. Gunshots brought the entire bunker down on top of you. Bodies needed to be hidden out of sight. Playing games like Metal Gear Solid over a decade later reminded me of just how much the stealth and survival horror games owed to games like Wolfenstein. Nothing quite ratchets up the tension to a 10 year old like limited ammo and the sudden appearance of a nigh unstoppable foe. I can hear the audio cue of the SS’s arrival in the back of my head to this day when I’m playing a game and a difficult enemy makes a sudden appearance.

 

Archon I and II

Ah, the Juggernaut…

More from around 1984, the Archon games combined strategy and action and successfully kept myself and my younger brother at each other’s throats for at least a couple of years. You moved various player pieces around a game board, but instead of one piece taking another piece automatically, player pieces would be transported into an arena where they would engage in often lopsided battles. There were a number of two player games available that would pit brother against brother. Spy vs Spy, GI Joe, Front Line, but none had the variety that Archon offered at the time. None offered the same type of strategy. I can think of no other two player games from my childhood that brought my younger brother and I together while simultaneously driving us apart like these two titles.

 

Eye of the Beholder

The city’s paying us for this, right?

Eye of the Beholder is the most recent game on this list (1990) but it is one that sticks with me as it was my first, real role playing game. I was never really into D&D as a kid. It wasn’t something that my parents approved of as they were sure, like many parents of the time, that D&D would turn their children into sword wielding maniacs with a lust to consume human flesh, or devil worshipping blasphemers with a lust to consume human flesh, or some such thing involving cannibalism.

Eye of the Beholder offered a world to explore, multiple party members, better visuals and at a time when I was just discovering books like Lord of the Rings and the Shannara, a chance to really get my geek on in a way that previous games had fallen short of. Huge dungeons hid a plethora of mystical artefacts and mythical creatures and I spent days plumbing the depths beneath Waterdeep. Unlike many role playing games of the time, Eye of the Beholder also offered that first person perspective, even though all enemies seemed to conveniently fit into your field of view. Dungeon crawls today like Dragon Age or Oblivion take me right back to those pixelated corridors.

There are many more games that shaped my love of videogames over the years, from Monkey Island to Black Tiger, Doom to HalfLife – but there`s something undeniably powerful and influential about those games you discovered as a child. My hope is the games I develop will, for someone, resonate like these games have with me, or will on some level connect with those feelings I still have when I look back on my favourites.

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AUG
12
2011

What this Indie Developer needs

By Kyle Kulyk

Recently a question was posed on the Facebook page of my local game industry special interest group, GameCampEdmonton.

“If you were to list what you need to help grow your indie game studio here in Edmonton in regards to talent levels, assistance, business options and so forth, what would you want to see and why?”

I’ve had a couple of days to ponder this notion and it certainly got the ole noggin a churnin’. As we near completion of our first title, in terms of resources – what is it that would have made our lives that much easier? What resources do we still need?

Talent isn’t really the problem. The pool of artists and programmers who can dedicate their time without any idea of how much or even if they’ll be paid may be a bit shallow as we start up but for talent we’ve been able to manage. I find what we are really lacking is a voice of experience.

The internet is home to not just porn, funny cat pictures and tales of Xbox hardware issues, it’s also a place where people can share their thoughts and experiences on numerous other topics as well. The problem is, in relation to starting up an indie studio, the thoughts and experiences shared are often from people who haven’t actually achieved the feat of starting up a successful, indie game studio, let alone turning it into a viable business. Combing through online blogs and articles on the subject, I’m often left feeling like I’m a runner taking advice in marathon running from a writer who watched half a marathon on tv once, or from a writer who created the laces for a popular running shoe. Genuine advice from people who have run my particular marathon seems to be a bit hard to come by.

Soft advice is another problem. It seems I’ve come across countless articles with advice to indie studios like “Don’t lose sight of your goals!” or “Focus on your passion” or helpful nuggets like “if you fail it will not only affect your family, but your team member’s families too.” Wow. How did these pearls of wisdom never occur to me? /s

Attending a developers conference in Vancouver a few months ago, I was also left frustrated by the lack of information I could use. While there a couple of useful talks, most talks seemed geared towards helping established developers land the funding required to keep their teams of 20-50 employed and working on their next PSN/XBL release in a dynamically changing marketplace. Not much thought seemed to be given to those that dare try to start up their own companies.

Why is it that finding specific, useful information on the internet is like trying to find sunlight by digging a hole? How hard is it for indie bloggers to share specific information regarding their wins and losses?

In this day where anyone can self-publish their titles, what do publishers really bring to the table? What are effective social media marketing strategies for indies with a marketing budget of zero? What type of games are the most successful in the mobile marketplace and why? Are free games littered with ads the way to go? Clicks or impressions? Who do you turn to for ads? Or are in-game transactions the cat’s pyjamas? Budget titles? How do the numbers compare? Who’s tried them all?

What indie studios like mine need are mentors. We need someone successful who has gone through this type of process recently and can speak to the specific trials they faced and share that wisdom over a pint of Guinness or through some sort of correspondence. Articles from people who haven’t actually made it in the industry, or articles from people who made it 10 years ago when you had to fight for shelf space in retail stores, while well intentioned, don’t offer up much in the way of useful information that the indie studios of today can wrap a business plan around.

 

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JUL
28
2011

Performance Anxiety

by Kyle Kulyk

My team is currently entering the home stretch, our final month, before completion of our first title, Itzy!

It’s at this point that I was suddenly struck by near crippling performance anxiety. What if the game flat-out doesn’t work? Then what?

Now, I need to step back and explain. I am proud of my team and proud of the work that we’ve done, however, mobile games are something new to us. We each have our personal areas of expertise. I have the pleasure of working with some amazing programmers but in the game space we remain untested. There are certainly some different factors at play here and despite the decade of programming experience we currently possess, moving a 3D spider around, eating glowing, animated alien fireflies and creating web meshes on the fly for our character to traverse is a different task from linking to a database, searching through files and updating information based on specific search criteria while producing user based reports via the internet.

Put simply, we don’t know what we’re doing but like a rhino in a mine field we’re charging forward.

However as I sat at my workstation the other day I was suddenly distracted by the Nattering Elf of Doubt, or Neod as I’ve come to name him. Neod hopped up on my shoulder as I was trying to work and exclaimed “Sure and begorra…”

Neod sounds like a leprechaun. I’m not entirely sure what that’s about.

“Sure and begorra! Do ya not see those verts, lad? Sure it runs fine on your PC – but how can you be sure tis not all arseways when you put it on ya ‘droid? You daft?”

As much as I don’t want to admit it, that little chattering imp sounding strangely like a cross between Bono on helium and my regular voice in my head going on about “Videogames? They’re gonna cut off your power! Go back to selling mutual funds!” had a point. We’re competent programmers and designers, but we really have no idea at this stage if our game will actually run half decent on the Iphone/Android platforms. I’ve read so many conflicting comments about vert budgets, size restraints, texture limits that I really don’t know where we stand in the performance department.

At this stage in development our touch screen controls have not been implemented, so even if I did create a build for the iPhone/Android platforms – my spider character, Itzy, would just sit there – staring at me lazily, waiting for input that will never come and asking “Forget about something there, champ?”

We’re attempting to remain conservative and mindful of the finished platforms but for all our talents we really don’t know how it’ll end up. So I’m left with the option of forging ahead with the rest of the team and hoping that everything will work itself out in the end and we won’t blow past our deadline so quickly I’m left staring out the car window saying “Was that the deadline we just passed? I can’t tell. Shouldn’t there have been a sign? I didn’t see the sign…”

I guess that’s just the fun ride between “no idea” and “ok, we sorta get it now”. It would just be a more pleasant journey without these damn elves.

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JUL
07
2011

For Indies, a demo is a must

by Kyle Kulyk

Obscurity has to be the number one hurdle for Indie developers. Like a lot of Indies, we’ve got our website, we’ve got our blog up, we’re tweeting like hell, but how do you get your audience to care a chicken’s whisker about what you have to say or your small, indie game? My conclusion is you have to show them. Now, bear in mind, I don’t know what I’m doing. I spent the past decade in the brokerage industry before finding myself jobless during the worst economic recession we’ve seen since the 30’s. What the hell do I know about making games?

Well, that’s the fun of it! You all get to gloat when I follow-up this blog in a few months with “Game Demos, what a huge waste of everyone’s time.” Or, choice to release a game demo will end up being the right one and I can wistfully look back on this blog someday and remember when I started every day looking myself in the mirror and asking “Games? Really? What the hell am I doing?”

Now there was a bit of a debate among my team to release a demo or not and I have to admit that initially I was in the “No Demo” category. The reason was fairly simple. Our first game, Itzy, isn’t done yet. Our efforts should be directed towards completing the game, not sending a half finished, drooling monstrosity out into the world (hey, that’s an idea for a game). The focus should be on finishing the game so we can unleash it upon the masses and then bask in the glow of gamer adoration. And money. Which doesn’t glow so much. Because, baby needs a new pair of shoes. No, seriously, my baby needs shoes. He’s outgrowing those things like crazy.

However, a talk at a games conference in Vancouver recently changed my mind. The presenter put forward the notion that Indie developers need to get their games out, in any shape – and they need to get them on Facebook. The idea was that as long as you make players aware that the game is currently in development, and invite their feedback, they’ll be more forgiving of the games flaws and you’ll establish a following of gamers who are connected to the game because they helped shape it.

And it’s brilliant! A problem we didn’t even realize that we had was that we have all played the game to death and we know exactly what we’re supposed to do at any given point. It’s hard to test a game, to break a game and even to objectively look at what’s working and what isn’t when you’ve been married to the game for the past few months and your wife can’t remember what you look like anymore apart from old pictures on your Facebook profile.

So it’s been a week since our “Itzy – Alpha Demo” went live on both our website and Facebook and already the feedback we’ve received has started to shape the game mid-development. I’m already glad that we made the decision to go ahead and release our first level for all to try. And a small following has started and I’d like to pass along the message to them to SHARE THE GAME ON YOUR GODDAMN WALL! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?! IF YOU LIKE IT, CLICK THAT YOU LIKE IT! IT’S ONE BUTTON PRESS. And that we appreciate your support and look forward to getting the completed game into your hands this summer.

 

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JUN
24
2011

He’s dead, Jim

By Kyle Kulyk

Nothing can cut into productivity quite like a suddenly deceased workstation. Trying to develop a game without your workstation is a bit like Britney Spears trying to do a concert without her choreographers, songwriters, musicians, personality coaches, people to record her tracks for her and play them while she lip syncs, etc. In essence, a developer without a computer is a bit like a carpenter without a hammer. Or nails. Or wood.

Our workstations are the conduits of our genius (or what we like to think is genius). They are highly personalized instruments of everything that is cool and productive in our work days and that is why it is maddening that these fragile beasties can up and die if you look at them funny.

For me recently, it was because I dropped something a little heavier than a paperback novel on its side on top of my computer case. Having suddenly lost my connection to the internet, I did what I always do. I reached for my cable modem perched on top of my computer to perform a reset. In doing so, I knocked it over onto its side. At that very moment, my case fan at the rear of the machine lurched to a grinding halt.

“Oh oh,” I said out loud. Fans cool computers. Need fan so computer doesn’t overheat. Overheat bad. As I was at the rear of my machine anyway, I reached for the power switch and flipped it off so I could further diagnose this problem. I imagine this somehow compounded my problem, but when something goes wrong – you turn it off, right?

I checked to make sure there was nothing hitting my fan blades. I poked the blades with the inside of a pen to make sure they could still spin. I fired it back up.

The fan started right back up – the lights came on, but no one home. No happy, start-up beep that always greeted me when I booted up saying “Hi Kyle! Glad you’re back! We’re going to have a great day!” No image on the screen. Not even a white message on a black background to say “System is screwed. What did you do? Don’t expect Windows to start now, buddy.”

It was dead. My Frankenstein’s Monster of a machine, my workstation that I’ve had for over 15 years without a single original part on it other than an old floppy disk drive that hasn’t seen action since aught one was dead. What did I do wrong? Was it negative energy? Did I not treat it well? What are these machines made out of? Political promises?

So, I dragged my out-of-touch old ass down to the local Memory Express to replace the guts of my machine so I could get back to work. It was there that I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing anymore. What do you mean I can’t use my current memory? Just dust those babies off. Who do I have to kill to get a motherboard with a Parallel ATA slot? What do you mean that i3 will run better than that i5? What the hell is an i3? Or i5 for that matter. I7? Are you trying to piss me off now, sonny?

After an epic configuration battle and some tweaks to improve overall system performance my system now lives again. Who knew that in order to have Windows 7 not freak out about memory issues and actually boot, you need to have USB legacy set to “Auto” and not “Enabled”? I certainly didn’t. I’m not even sure what prompted me to think that might be the issue in the first place. It certainly wasn’t the vague error messages I received. “Warning. Windows 7 cannot boot. Probably due to hardware issues. Maybe memory. Wanna run a test of some kind? We’ll warn you now though, the results will be inconclusive.”

I’m back up now, writing codes, collaborating with the team and building worlds to a soundtrack of Glenn Danzig playing as I work. I’ve lost hours of productivity, but I’m back at it again. At least until the next time my Internet goes down.

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