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August 31, 2008

Orange River Studio, LLC

Many indie game projects start out as fun side pursuits among a small group of friends. Often at the start there is an idea, a concept, some talent, and motivation. A lot of projects, along the way, fall short in one or more of those areas -- the idea isn't as cool as it first sounded; the concept doesn't work as well as expected; the talent to achieve the goal is lacking; or some folks just lose their motivation and the project fizzles out.

If things work out and you have a reasonably good mix of those elements, you reach something of a milestone: that point when you're convinced that you can really do it. With Vespers, that occurred sometime after the first year or so of development.

That milestone is usually followed by a period of laboring away at the many tasks and details of the game. Coding, modeling, animating, testing, squashing bugs, coming up with solutions and workarounds to various problems that arise. Slowly and steadily plodding away at all of the different chores. If things continue to work out, you soon come to another understanding: Not only can you do it, but you really are doing it. But with that awareness comes a realization: if you're truly intent on finishing the job, you're gonna have to start getting serious about the business side of things.

Therein lies the next milestone: you're committed enough and far enough along to take the first steps toward creating a business entity.

It's seems a little silly to me when I think about forming a company, maybe even a little conceited. I mean, really, the truth for most small indie games is that they won't sell more than a few hundred copies at most. Do you really need to spend time and money forming a company for that? And without a long-term plan for additional games beyond this one, doesn't that seem a bit excessive?

The answer, actually, is that it does make a lot of sense. Even for a group as small as ours, even for a single game, and even at this (relatively) early stage of development.

Our situation is not unlike that of many small indie groups, and one person with a lot of experience with these groups is Tom Buscaglia, an attorney from Washington known as "The Game Attorney". Over the years, he's developed a certain expertise in the legal side of indie game companies, and he's done a lot to help small groups take the necessary steps to make sure everything they do is in order and legit.

Often, small hobbyist groups like ours make enough progress on their projects to reach a point where they can put a demo together to show interested parties, like a publisher. But as Tom has said, these scenarios are usually full of potential problems that could make it impossible to get the game to the public. Questions raised include things like:


  • What legal entity will interested parties deal with?

  • Who on the team gets what if the team succeeds?

  • Who owns the assets in the game?

  • Are there any problems with the assets that would prevent the game from being taken to market?


As Tom says:

"To a publisher (or a lawyer or businessman) how you address these basic questions at the beginning of your project reflects on whether this team is "together" enough to come through with the finished product. The failure to have dealt with the more mundane legal issues of forming a company, deciding shares first and securing Intellectual Property rights to the game assets may be just a lack of business experience. But to business heads like publishers there will be little sympathy."


A lot of groups don't want to deal with those things -- at least, not until they have to, and by then it's usually late enough to cause big headaches. So Tom's advice, of course, is to take care of these things sooner rather than later. Granted, he's a lawyer with a bias, but it's pretty sound advice -- at least when you've reached that second milestone when you're reasonably certain you're going to have a product ready in the (relatively) near future.

Forming a company like an LLC has a number of distinct advantages, even at this point in time for our group. It defines who other companies deal with, who owns the assets, and how any royalties are split up. And even if we decide down the road that Vespers is to be released for free, it still helps to ensure that the project and all of its components are in order, and helps to define how we might proceed in the future on any additional projects.

There are also a few other reasons for doing this. For one, it's much easier (and more professional) to designate the company as the primary, central entity that deals with outside parties -- other artists or contributors, publishers, and so on. In many of these cases we would be dealing with things like NDAs and contributor agreements, and it's a lot better to specify that these agreements are with the company rather than with me personally.

Then there is also the liability issue. By forming a company like an LLC, liability becomes less of an issue for me (or anyone else associated with the company). For instance, if we release the game and later we get sued by someone for copyright infringement, then in the absence of a company then all of my assets are at risk, including my property, house, car, and so on. By forming an LLC, my personal and professional liability are separated, so none of my personal assets would be at risk as a result of some legal action against the company or one of its games.

That said, creating a company also raises more questions. To this point we haven't really considered ourselves as a "game development company" per se, only as a "Vespers development company" -- that is, is there an expectation that we will really function as a company that makes not just one, but perhaps many, games? And if so, how will the company operate? Who's in charge? Who makes decisions? Who handles different responsibilities? Are there any employees, or just partners? How are those partnerships defined?

Tough questions to answer. I'll be spending a lot of time in the upcoming months trying my best to answer them. For now, however, I'll be working on everything necessary to make Orange River Studio, LLC, a real entity.

August 27, 2008

Playing the Protagonist Part, Partly

A blog entry and discussion over at Corvus Elrod's Man Bytes Blog about character and plot got me thinking about that tricky relationship between the player and protagonist, and the expectations (and allowances) game authors often place on their players.

In some games -- typically non-first person games -- the player is asked to play the role of a particular character. In Dreamfall, the player starts out playing the role of Zoe; in Tomb Raider, Lara Croft; in Deus Ex, J.C. Denton. In many interactive fiction games, the same applies, such as the Abbot in Vespers. In many instances, the protagonist has a history, and in some cases a personality, but inserting the player into that role can produce a frustrating conflict when player behavior does not necessarily match what might be expected from the established character.

To a certain extent, authors expect players to perform at least a minimal amount of role-playing with the game's protagonist. In some cases, more than the minimum is expected. As Jimmy Maher once said in a comment on this blog, "I don't think it's too much to ask my player to accept the premise and situation of the story she is in, and to behave in a reasonable manner." Which means that it's generally okay to discourage unreasonable play that extends beyond the border of acceptable behavior--acceptable in general (no, you can't eat your sword), or for the context of the story (no, you can't start punching your friends just for fun).

The problem is that gamers enjoy pushing limits. As Corvus said, "I too often enjoy subverting a game's intended design." It's fun to do, I'll admit it. I've often played games and at times tested the system to see how it would respond to unexpected or inappropriate behavior. It's something of a reward to see a game respond to a particular action that is otherwise inappropriate.

What's funny is that game designers invite that sort of behavior by implementing responses to it. For instance, how many interactive fiction games implement a witty response to the XYZZY command, even though there is naturally no place or reason for using it? If no game other than Colossal Cave had a response to that command, nobody would be tempted to give it a try. And if there is a response implemented for that command, how many other interesting goodies like that might there be to discover? How many of us who played the original Warcraft sat there clicking repeatedly on their individual units to see how many different annoyed responses it would elicit? It's a form of exploration, I suppose.

Granted, this is a bit different than the topic of role-playing, but I think the same principle applies. Still, in the situation of role-playing, accounting for different types of behavior, even bizarre behavior, can actually work to the game's advantage. Take Façade, for instance. Wasn't it at least as interesting to play the game while trying inappropriate or unacceptable actions, just to see how the characters would respond? And in many cases, they did respond -- by being shocked and surprised. That type of behavior was anticipated, even though it did not fit at all with the protagonist's character, and it altered the relationship between the protagonist and the other characters in ways that might be expected, providing a sort of internal validity to the game.

This would seem to support what Corvus said in his blog comments the other day:

"The problem, as I see it, is that the story itself is still widely considered to be a separate layer of the game from the game mechanics. The end result is a severe disconnect between what NPCs are saying to you and your behavior. Until such time as player actions, all player actions, are directly interpreted as components of the story...it’s not going to be solved, either."


In other words, all player actions, not just critical ones, need to be interpreted by the game within the context of the character performing the action (his or her personality and relationships) and the situation within the narrative. So it's okay if a player, who is playing the part of a character not known for violence, really does want to perform a violent act on another character, as long as the game and its story account for it. As Corvus says:

"How much more exciting will that become when your actions have immediate and direct consequences? When the targets of your inanity say, 'Well if you're going to hit me with a bicycle, I'm not going to tell you where the meeting is being held!'"


The difficulty with this approach, at least for the game designer, is that it's a ridiculous amount of work to try and account for every possible action in every situation of the game, and the effect of those actions on all of the different characters in the game. And it's also somewhat different for turn-based games with discrete actions, such as interactive fiction, and real-time 3D games that allow players to run around, jump up and down, pick up and throw objects, and so on, all while an NPC is trying to talk to you about something; the options for inane behavior are exponential. The complexity of a system designed to handle and interpret these actions in all different game situations would be staggering.

I'm mostly rambling here, and I'm not entirely certain what the point of all of this is or where it's going. I guess I'm just interested in hearing what others think about the relationships between designer, player, and protagonist, and the expectations that each brings to the table.

August 26, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Full Throttle

If you're anything like me (and really, you know you are), then the classic LucasArts adventure game "Full Throttle" holds a special place in your gaming heart. It was a great combination of artwork, gameplay, writing, and design that few games have been able to match since its initial release for DOS in 1995. Some didn't like the fact that it was a very short game (able to be completed in a few hours), but personally I think that probably led to the game being more polished, well-designed, and memorable.

Over on Adventure Classic Gaming, Marshall Ratliff and Philip Jong have posted a nice summary of the history of Full Throttle, particularly of the time following the game's success and during the planning and development of its sequels. I didn't really know anything about that history, but as the authors state, "behind the success of Full Throttle was a detracted story of developer heartbreak." The story is quite interesting to read, filled with fascinating bits of information about the original game and its proposed sequels.

In a whole mess of awesome, they were able to score an interview with Bill Tiller, who worked at LucasArts from 1993 to 2001 and was Art Director for the sequel Full Throttle: Payback. Tiller is now the founder and creative director of Autumn Moon Entertainment, the developer of A Vampyre Story -- a sweet-looking adventure game that is also one of the most anticipated releases of the year (with a release date of Halloween 2008).

In addition to the interview, Tiller even gave them access to some of the concept art from the sequel, which is up on the web site alongside the story. Some really nice pieces are available, and it's a shame they were never able to see the light of day.

Tiller provides some interesting insider scoops, including what seems like typical feedback from management-types:

"One bummer thing that happened was that one of the big mucky mucks in management was reviewing the game design and said they didn’t like it. When pressed for more specific criticism, this person pointed out the Cave Fish gang, saying that the "Cone fish" - which is what this person called them - didn’t belong in the Full Throttle franchise. This person was criticizing the game design without clearly having played the first game! That was a bummer."


Not surprisingly, it sounds like a similar type of situation led to the demise of the project:

"My opinion is that there existed some major difference of opinion between the team and a particularly influential person, who didn’t like the direction we were going. And in the end those differences could not be resolved."


There is also some information about the better-known sequel, Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels, which Tiller did not work on. It was to be a 3D action adventure game, and even got as far as having a trailer and demo available at E3 in 2003. However, only a few months afterward, the project was abruptly cancelled without much explanation.

As Ratliff and Jong state, now that LucasArts has turned away from the adventure genre and most of the original development team are no longer at the company, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a sequel to Full Throttle ever released. But in the current world of entertainment, where sequels dominate but almost inevitably disappoint, perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

Props to the AGC crew for a nice article.

August 21, 2008

Vespers on the iPhone...for real?

My last blog was mostly tongue-in-cheek, referring more to the IF version of Vespers on the iPhone running in Frotz. Still, there has been speculation over on the GarageGames forums that the Torque engine was being ported to the iPhone platform. I didn't give it much consideration, though, since I figured (a) it would be a long way away, (b) licensing would be more than it's worth, and (c) they'd be far more likely to port their 2D engine rather than the 3D engine. Plus, I can't imagine Vespers truly running on the iPhone in 3D -- surely there's no way the phone could handle the load. It would beg for mercy, maybe even spontaneously ignite.

Well, so much for (a), (b), and (c) at least.

Yesterday, GarageGames officially announced the licensing and availability of the iPhone version of Torque. (It's actually called iTorque, but really, it's almost too painful to type that. Seriously. I'll just call it iPVT or something until they correct that gaffe.)

By the way, what is that iTGE guy doing? Digging a hole? Farming? Shooting pool?

So it turns out they're porting both 2D and 3D engines, which is pretty cool. And the SDK is apparently available now, although at first only to commercial licensees, which I'm not. The indie version is supposed to be available soon, after they've worked out some of the kinks. The nice part is that their licensing model is really not that bad: $500 for the 2D or 3D SDK (for current owners) with the right to publish one title; future titles are only $100 each. And no royalties for GarageGames, ever. That's a pretty nice deal, all things considered.

The Unity engine will also be available for the iPhone at some point, which means that there will be a whole lot of goodness coming to the iPhone. I really know nothing about the iPhone and its memory or graphics, but I imagine since both Unity and TGE will allow for iPhone development, it must be at least somewhat capable.

My guess, however, is that 3D gaming will still be limited, at least for a while. I really can't imagine that we'll be seeing complex 3D graphical games running at acceptable speeds on that platform, although the smaller screen would presumably dictate (and allow) simpler, less intensive models. Maybe as the platform evolves we'll see more powerful 3D chips able to handle large models and textures with detailed lighting. Who knows.

As for Vespers, I still have serious doubts.

Graphically, it's a pretty intense game -- even though that really hasn't been the objective. The monastery is a fairly huge set of models with a lot of polys and some large textures, and it's still makes my desktop cough and wheeze. There's a lot we could do to simplify and optimize, but that would take a lot of extra work.

Then, there's the whole interface thing. I think it probably wouldn't be too hard to come up with an interface design to allow for simple movement similar to the typical W-A-S-D/mouse combination, but there's still the accompanying text input and output. I don't know. It might be possible, but it would require a whole lot of redesign.

Still, it's nice to see the possibility there, however distant. But we still have a long way to go with the desktop version.

August 15, 2008

Vespers on the iPhone


Now that would be cool. But not this Vespers, the original text game.

So I hear Frotz, a popular Z-machine implementation used for playing interactive fiction, is now available for free on Apple's iPhone App Store. Apparently there was some question about whether Apple would allow it in the store, probably because it is an interpreter used for playing separately downloaded game files. But it looks as if, for now at least, it is approved for downloading.

The software comes pre-packaged with a number of good IF games, and it looks like Jason's original text version of Vespers is one of the ones included. Very sweet. Even better, the program can connect directly to the IFDB, allowing users to easily download and play any of the hundreds of games in the collection. From the screenshots, the interface looks nice and clear, and appears to be quite customizable.


Combined with the potentially vast user base for the iPhone/iPod Touch, this package might very well prove to be a great way of expanding the IF audience. I think a lot will depend on the speed, implementation, and interface. As soon as I can get my paws on a Touch, I'll be trying this right out. For now, though, it looks very promising.

In the meantime, I'll have to start daydreaming about how I'd do movement on this thing...

August 13, 2008

Pirate Adventure

Indie Developer Cliff Harris ('cliffski') of Positech Games has been running an interesting experiment of late. In his search to answer the question, "Why do people pirate my games?", he decided to take the question directly to the pirates themselves. A public, genuine request for opinions, posted on his blog. The request was also submitted to slashdot and the Penny Arcade forums, and made its way to other sites like ars technica, digg, and bnet. The response, as it turned out, was huge -- hundreds of comments on the blog, hundreds of e-mails, and many more responses at the other sites. And, interestingly, it seemed as though people really did have something they needed to get off their chests.

cliffski's summary of the results is posted here.

As expected, a number of people pirate because of a serious dislike of DRM. As cliffski says: "If you wanted to change ONE thing to get more pirates to buy games, scrapping DRM is it." No argument there. As a result, he removed all DRM from his games, and will not use it on any future projects. Cheers.

Money, of course, was cited as one of the big reasons. I didn't find that to be a huge surprise, since pirating is (among other things) a way to avoid paying money for something. What I did find interesting is what people seem to think of as a reasonable price for a game. Sure, there was plenty of ire directed at the $60 games, but people even seemed to think that $20, roughly what he charges for his games, was far too high. I had always thought of $20 as a "cheap" price for games.

It's an interesting observation in light of the recent discussions of money and game pricing I brought up earlier. There's a fascinating interplay between cost and perceived value, particularly when placed in the context of a game developer seeking to achieve a certain level of return to stay afloat. If the game is cheaper, will more people buy it? Maybe more pirates will — and maybe not — but then factor in the number of people who might pass on it based on the perceived value of a cheaper game, who knows what the final tally would be. And of course, it's much more complicated than that.

August 11, 2008

The Money Factor

Seems that money is on people's minds lately.

Jay at The Rampant Coyote recently published an article on The Escapist about mainstream developers going indie. It's a good read that involves a number of interesting folks from around the indie scene, including Steven Peeler from Soldak Entertainment, Steve Taylor from NinjaBee, and one of my Torque heroes, Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games, among others. The article nicely summarizes many of the issues driving and confronting indie game developers -- creative freedom, independence, marketing and publicity, piracy, and distribution. Of course, underlying most of these issues is the money factor. It is, of course, the focus of the main question ("Why give up a steady paycheck in order to labor in relative obscurity?"), and from the article you get a good appreciation of how money impacts so many different aspects of development on the indie side. One particular insight, made by Taylor, is that the reality of maintaining a business often overshadows the dream of creative freedom:

"If you want your game to make money, you have to consider what will sell, and this means adapting your pure creative vision to match the real world. Besides, do you really have the resources to achieve your ultimate creative vision?"


Nevertheless, for most it's still about the freedom to succeed or fail on their own terms.

How much does it cost to make an indie game? It's one of those questions (along with "How much can you make on an indie game?") that always seems to be on the minds of indie wannabees. Jonathan Blow, the developer of one impressive indie game that appears headed toward big success (Braid), hinted at his development cost in the Wall Street Journal online. Although it may not be reflective of the game's total costs, he estimated his own personal investment to be around $180,000 over the three years of development.

It's interesting to see that number, and I wonder what kind of responses it might produce. My own personal reaction is that it's a pretty big number -- not the millions that most big studios budget for their games, of course, but that's a lot of coin for an individual to pony up for their big chance. Still, it certainly looks like the money was well spent -- I want to play it for the awesome stylish 2D visuals more than anything else -- and Blow stands to make a good return on that investment, having received excellent reviews (including "highest rated XBLA game ever"). It's aso already the 10th highest rated Xbox 360 game of all time -- and that includes many of those AAA high-budget games like GTA4 and Bioshock -- and sales appear to be very good so far, with 28,500 units sold, making it the second-fastest selling XBLA game in its debut week. As Blow says, "an indie game made by a very small team can compete with giant games that had huge budgets at their disposal."

As for profitability, Blow has been quiet so far, stating it would have to sell "a lot more than it has so far." But as with many indie developers, he knows it has to keep selling in order to afford making the next game.

With Vespers, I've invested only a small fraction of what Blow invested, but up until now I thought even that was an extraordinary amount. In the world of game development, $180,000 is small change, but my eyes grow big when I think of all the progress I could make with that kind of investment. Then again, I'm not targeting the potentially large market of XBLA, and on top of that, I'm not even sure yet if selling it is the best approach, so the expected return is still very questionable. But then again, I didn't initiate this project to make money; I'm not a full-time indie developer, so I don't need a certain number of sales to stay in business. I don't have to make money off of it, although it would be helpful in order to potentially finance a future project.

Along those lines is a blog discussion that started a little while ago with another article in the same issue of The Escapist by Anna Anthropy, on "The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters." I hadn't previously heard of the term "zinester", which in the context of videogame developers refers to individual non-professionals who make creative, artistically risky games and give them away for free simply to make their voices heard. As she says:

"These are people for whom game development is not a primary profession; whose background is not in computer science or 3-D modeling; who build games in their spare time out of a curiosity and love for the medium and a desire to make the games that no one else will. Hobbyist game developers, self-published authors. Videogame zinesters."


Interactive fiction is the prime example used in the article, specifically Victor Gijsbers's piece The Baron. In response, on his blog, Gijsbers makes the observation that not having to earn money is important, but that "people could still actually make money out of their games, and that wouldn't hurt their artistic value." But perhaps more importantly, mirroring Taylor's comment above:

"It's just that when you know you have to earn at least X with this game (or otherwise your company will go bankrupt, or you yourself will not be able to pay the rent) that art must be compromised and that it may seem a much better idea to make a game about shooting space aliens than about the moral options left to someone who recognises the monstrous within himself."


But as Gijsbers notes, it also brings up the issue of money as validation within the gaming culture, and the pervasive idea that free games are not worth the effort, that a game can only be taken seriously once it is for sale, as indicated by the comments for the Escapist article. Although I think that's a fair summation of the culture, there are certainly games, like Galatea, The Baron, and Façade, that prove that this is not altogether true. Yet this cultural perspective persists.

In "Money and Ambition", Emily Short adds her compelling thoughts on the subject, commenting on "that curious phenomenon that some players want the games they play to be commercial." The reasons for this have to do with things like perceived value and invested resources, but Short also notes a less-discussed reason: the perceived contract between player and game designer, and that some players "want to know that the game’s creators are making a living by their efforts, as a sign of good faith." Compounding this, at least for interactive fiction games, is the lack of enough insightful game reviews to give new high-quality games the reception they deserve. As a result, as Short observes:

"In the absence of money, or even a guarantee of reviews — without either the market forces or the critical cadre — it can be difficult to maintain serious ambitions in creating a freeware project. Especially a large one."


I can tell you that what Short says extends beyond the boundary of freeware game development, and I think her words ring true for many indie developers, myself included, particularly in describing so perfectly (elsewhere):

"...the sense that I had long since passed every conceivable *sane* reason to be doing what I was doing. The creeping fear that what I was doing could not possibly be worth the time and energy I was putting into it. The sense of being reduced, as a person, to a single purpose, since normal hobbies and enjoyments and work had all been set aside."


I can certainly relate to that, but I can only imagine how it feels for the individuals in Jay's article, the ones who gave up the steady paycheck for a shot at making it as an indie developer pushing the boundaries of game design. But I guess it's all about pushing boundaries, I suppose. New creative territories. Making your voice heard, like the zinesters, whether it's purely for expressive purposes or for earning a living.

Fascinating, though, the way money is so pervasive and influential in gaming, even when discussing freeware.

August 4, 2008

One Step Forward, One Step Back

Such is the life of an indie developer, or at least it seems to be when it comes to character animation.

So far, the experiment with our student animators has gone...well, slowly. With five students on board, things were bound to take extra time. It's tough to move forward while making sure everyone is on the same page, setting up their model skeletons the same way, making sure their model heirarchy is consistent for exporting to Torque format, and so on. There was also the added delay in moving our models from 3DS Max to Maya, which introduced a whole variety of issues. As I've learned, there is a long lead-in period when starting with a new modeling program making sure your models play nice with Torque. Add to that a group of students who are new to the models and new to Torque, not to mention the fact that it's summertime, and you've got a recipe better suited to a slow cooker than a short-order grill.

Still, this week we reached a small milestone, when we finally got our first character set up properly in Maya with the right skeleton, the right textures, and the right object heirarchy for proper Torque export. The character is set in his correct "root" pose, and the exported model imports properly into the game engine. Now all we need to do is set up a facial skeleton for expressions and lip sync, and the model should be ready for animation.

The nice part about that is that we can easily apply these advances to our other models, so a few more character models should be animation-ready within a short time, I expect.

Nevertheless, as these things go, it's not all sunshine and butterflies.

One of the student animators never really made any progress with his character, and something always came up preventing him from attending any of our weekly meetings. As his communications became fewer and fewer, I recognized the telltale signs of yet another animator silently heading for the exit doors. After bringing it up with him, he did finally admit to being overcommitted, so now we're back down to four animators.

Which is still good, of course. Four is a good number to have, and right now most are working together nicely as a team. We're still in the slow stages, but I think we've reached the point where things will start picking up again.