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February 26, 2009

Anticipation 1

A couple of indie games that have been in development for some time are nearing completion. I'm jealous. I've also really been looking forward to both, so I'm also very happy.

I'll talk about one of them later, but one I'd like to mention now is The Path, a game by Tale of Tales. I've discussed this title briefly in the past, but I've been following it for quite a while. These are the folks that made The Graveyard, the art title about an old woman in a cemetery that generated a lot of discussion on the tubes about games as art, and challenged people's assumptions about what technically constitutes a "game."

From what I've seen so far it appears likely that The Path will again stimulate conversations about games as an artistic and storytelling medium. See for yourself.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 1 - the hall from Tale of Tales.


The Path has a unique and stunning visual style that comes across as more of an artistic rather than a technical accomplishment; a style that flaunts the creative talents of the designers more than the advanced computational abilities of the graphics engine.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 2 - the kitchen from Tale of Tales.


The game is a short horror game based on the old Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, although set in modern times. Will it again challenge assumptions of what qualifies as a game? Possibly so. As they describe it, The Path emphasizes "exploration, discovery and introspection through a unique form of gameplay," where "every interaction in the game expresses an aspect of the narrative." It is a slow game, giving players the freedom to explore as they wish. I'm intrigued by the possibilities.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 3 - the stairs from Tale of Tales.


Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the main duo behind Tale of Tales and The Path, recently announced that the game is at last out of beta and the plan is to release it on March 18th. It looks like it will be Windows-only (rats, not sure if there are any plans on a Mac release) and available for download from their site, as well as from Steam and Direct2Drive.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 4 - the library from Tale of Tales.


They also recently started up a new web site for the game, at http://grandmothers-house.net/, where you can check out more screenshots, movie clips, and eventually more material. I really like the style of that site. It reminds me of a few others I've seen in the past, and it has a quiet creepiness that appears to fit the game genre well.

If you can't tell, I'm really looking forward to this release. I hope it does well for them.

February 24, 2009

(Indie) Business is Business

Generally speaking, this is a good time to be an indie game developer. There are scores of inexpensive development tools and environments to choose from, many potential opportunities and channels for marketing and sales, and a number of great online communities for discussion and support. It's tough to make it as a full-time job, though. A few individuals or groups have done consistently well over the years, and of course there are the recent stories like Braid making everyone drool over the possibility of big-time success even for small developer groups. But for the most part, it's incredibly tough to find that sweet spot of just enough critical and financial success.

Take the story of Mousechief's Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, for instance.

Mousechief has been at it for some time, with a pretty nice track record -- a finalist at the first IGF in 1999 (Flagship Champion), and another finalist at the 2006 IGF (The Witch's Yarn). Then, last year, they released DHSGiT, a casual game set in the 1920's from the "teen romantic comedy" genre. I've only played the demo, and briefly at that, but clearly they did a nice job with the game and they've received a great deal of attention and acclaim for it: it was GameTunnel's 2008 Innovation and Adventure Game of the Year (loosely defining "adventure"); it was on GameTunnel's Top 10 Games of 2008 and a finalist at IndieCade 2008; and it was recently nominated for the 2009 Writers Guild Awards for videogame writing. That's the kind of recognition an indie developer would slobber over.

However, an interview with lead writer Keith Nemitz popped up recently on GameTopius.com, in which I noticed this little nugget:

TC: Has the success of Dangerous High School Girls (critically and financially) changed the way Mousechief plans on approaching games? Does it give you more leeway and confidence going into your next project?

KN: I'd say is been pretty successful since people are still talking about it, eight months after its release. Metacritic-style of the eight reviews so far it's holding a > 80% average. Only two are recognized as official Metacritic reviews. (both at 80%) More are on the way. Financially, especially after catching an arrow from BFG, it has yet to recoup its measly $30,000 budget. But it's still being release on new portals. I'll just have to tighten my belt a couple more notches. I'm not yet at the point where I'll have to cut new notches. However, if it doesn't make a profit this year I won't be able to fund a new game.


A few interesting points to note here.

First, you don't often hear about how much it costs to develop a game, so it's nice to see some actual numbers. $30 grand is a tiny amount of money as far as the games industry is concerned, but for small indie developers, of course, that can be a prohibitive (and perhaps scary) amount as Nemitz suggests -- especially if you're trying to develop more than one game at a time as part of your business plan.

Second, I think it's notable that a game that has received so much critical acclaim has yet to break even. It's been only eight months since its release, yes, but given all of that recognition I would have thought its earnings had surpassed the $30,000 level. There are many potential reasons for this, of course, the most probable of which is the fact that the game got yanked from Big Fish Games just as it was kicking in, due to some content that was deemed "questionable" by a few vocal opponents. And yes, we all know that critical success does not necessarily guarantee financial success, but still. At $20 a pop, they would need 1500 unit sales to break even. If someone had asked me, I would've guessed that they sold that many some time ago, BFG snub notwithstanding.

But that's the thing; 1500 unit sales doesn't sound like a lot, but almost any amount can be a lot for small developers. It's easy to look at that number and think it should be simple to achieve, certainly not too much to ask for a game with as much critical success as they had. But without a dedicated marketing department it is far from an easy task, and in a case like Mousechief's it might mean all the difference between one project and multiple projects. I think it highlights what a lot of small indie developers are up against, whether they know it yet or not.

This is not a criticism of Mousechief, mind you, nor am I trying to implicate that they somehow failed to do everything they could have done to sell more copies. It's a complicated business and this is certainly how it goes sometimes, despite best efforts. Plus, it's still an ongoing process, and more recognition and exposure is likely to come. I admire them for the work they've done, and their recognition is well-deserved.

I do think that DHSGiT will surpass the break even point and be financially successful, eventually. But it's still a battle, even when you've got a solid, innovative game on your hands.

February 17, 2009

Targeting Older Systems

Way back when, when the Vespers project was first starting out, I had to decide which game engine to use. Initially, the choice was between the Torque Game Engine and the Unity engine. I eventually chose TGE for a few reasons -- at the time, the engine had been around longer than Unity, the community was larger, and it was less expensive and more straightforward to develop cross-platform games (specifically, Mac and PC).

Once that decision was made, then there was the choice of which Torque engine to use: the basic TGE engine, or the higher-end TGEA (TGE-Advanced) engine, which back then was called TSE (for "Torque Shader Engine"). TGEA offered a number of more advanced features, the most obvious of which was higher-quality graphic rendering. That came at a price, though; at the time, the engine would only run on Windows machines, and it required machines with graphics cards that could handle the bigger load. Also, although TGEA does now support OpenGL and Macs, back then it was not so clear if that would ever actually come to pass. Since I was more interested in developing simultaneously for Windows and Macs, TGEA didn't seem like the best option at the time. TGE had been around longer and was more stable, even though its graphics performance was not at the same level as TGEA.

For me, though, stunning shaders and slick water rendering were trumped by the desire to create a game that would run on a wide range of machines, especially machines that are older or without the top of the line video card. The problem there is that, given the length of time for development, it's hard to put (or perhaps keep) a finger on what constitutes an appropriately "old" machine. When I started development of Vespers, my main desktop dev machine was still fairly new and probably middle of the line. Now, however, the machine is going on six years old. That doesn't seem very old, and it still runs most of my applications nicely enough, but in computer years that's almost geriatric and at this point it's naturally much slower than the machines from the past couple of years.

This is not a big deal for day-to-day activities, but as we add more and more content to the game, we're seeing some serious performance issues on my now old machine, despite a few rounds of optimization. But that makes me start to question what I should be targeting for a minimum system requirement. I had always thought that my machine would still be somewhere in the middle by the time we finished development, but now I'm beginning to feel like it's toward the bottom end.

(In case the four of you reading this are interested, my dev machine is a Mac G5 Dual 2 GHz model, circa 2003, with an ATI Radeon x800 video card, but it also runs well enough on the same setup with an ATI Radeon 9600 card. My wife still uses a Mac G4 laptop, so there are certainly G4 computers still perfectly usable. But Macs have evolved over the years to faster G5 chips and now a couple of rounds of Intel chips, as well as more modern video cards.)

I've generally been going on the assumption that if the game runs well enough on my dev machine, by the time it's released that should be a fairly reasonable minimum system requirement. But it will be progressively more difficult to ensure it runs well enough on machines that are even just a little bit older. Still, my goal is to try and include as many older machines as possible. The more the merrier -- but within a still to-be-determined limit.

So that leads me to wonder: how long do you all typically own a computer before replacing it with a new machine? Adding memory or upgrading the video card extends the life of a computer, of course, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm interested to know how long people generally keep their rigs before replacing them with a new box. Some people of course keep their old rigs around for different tasks, but I'm interested in knowing how old some of the systems are out there that people still use for gaming (particularly 3D games, like Vespers), and what kind of system people would be interested in seeing this game run on -- Mac or PC/Windows. If you would, let me know in the comments below.

February 5, 2009

Making the Rounds: Machinarium

This game has topped my list for Most Anticipated Seriously Beautiful Game for some time now. Amanita Design is a small group of indie game developers responsible for some very cool, short point-and-click Flash games in the past: Samorost1, Samorost2, and Questionaut, which was nominated for a British Academy Award. Hell, they've even made a short little adventure for a band I've enjoyed listening to in the past, The Polyphonic Spree, which includes some previously unreleased music. In each case, the recognizable artwork is beautiful, the gameplay is light and engaging, and the accompanying music and sound effects are charming.

For a while now they've been bringing this same style to a full-length adventure, Machinarium, which is an IGF finalist this year for Excellence in Visual Art. I've been following along from afar, and every small snippet I've caught has been raising my expectations. Now some new preview footage is available, and it offers a juicy look into more of the artwork and gameplay.


Machinarium Preview 02 from Amanita Design on Vimeo.


For those interested in reading more, there was an interview with the developers about a week back on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Or, just visit the Machinarium website for more vids and screenshots. I wish them great success with this game, and I'd like to see it win the Visual Art award at this years IGF competition. If you can't tell, I'm looking forward to playing.

February 4, 2009

An Aging Brew

So as it turns out, I'm looking through my older blog posts and I realize that today marks one year since beginning The Monk's Brew.

Although I had written a number of blogs about the development of Vespers over on GarageGames.com prior to starting this blog, I remember feeling apprehensive about doing this given the extra commitment it would require. Time is valuable these days, and I'm not a fast writer. Ideas abound, but I often find I lack the clarity of thought to put them into meaningful words. The last thing I wanted was to start a blog, and then let it die out because I couldn't keep up.

There have definitely been times when it was hard to keep up, and times when I've blogged when I should have been doing other things. But I've enjoyed it throughout, and I like having a place to toss out ideas about game design once in a while or to provide an update or some thoughts on the development of Vespers. I'm amazed that a year has gone by already.

The one thing I've gained above all from doing this, though, is a tremendous amount of respect for those who do this really well.

Writing well is hard. Writing something truly engaging is altogether different, and harder still. Whereas I often struggle to find thoughts and words and occasionally spew gibberish that utterly fails in its communication, some blogs just seem to do it right, consistently, and those are the real gems. You know each time something new pops up in the feed there's going to be a tasty morsel waiting there. I imagine that takes a good deal of practice, but there's a talent there, too; some folks just have a knack for spinning a good tale out of anything. That's a nice skill to have.

Jay over at The Rampant Coyote is someone I admire for this, and I honestly don't know how he can do it while averaging over a post per day on top of everything else in his life. Shamus at Twenty-Sided is a machine, sometimes posting a couple of times each day and never disappointing, especially when he's tearing apart the writing for some new console game. Corvus over at Man Bytes Blog is posting less frequently these days, but still has an amazing ability to stimulate intense discussion on story and game design, and maybe even one day I'll finally grasp whatever that is he's dishing out. Emily Short seems to have that clarity of thought and an ease with words that is rare and special, and she has an inspiring gift for critically assessing interactive fiction (and games in general). And then there's Jason Scott over at ASCII, who I swear could talk about practically any topic and weave something mesmerizing; he has a combination of skill and style that is uniquely his own and it's just damn good stuff, every time. There are many more as well, too many to cover.

I admire these folks for doing this right. They've all been blogging for a few years, and I'm glad they have. We'll see where this blog ends up; I'm hoping this year will be a big year for Vespers, and that should mean some interesting experiences ahead. Should be plenty to write about.

Thanks for coming along, and raise a brew with me to another year.

February 1, 2009

The End of January Vespers Thing

January was a very busy month for the game, and I feel like we've made some great progress on a number of fronts. I think part of the reason is that we had set a goal for ourselves: try as hard as we could to get most of the work for Act I finished by January 29th, the date of the first Utah Indie Gamers night of 2009, so we could show it off in public. Setting goals can be useful for getting people focused on particular tasks, and it's probably a good way to work even when those goals aren't met.

Which is a good thing, because we didn't meet that goal.

Which itself is probably a good thing, because I wouldn't have been able to show it off at the Utah Indie Gamers night anyway. This past Tuesday morning, I recall having a slight wispy cough as I left for work; by late Tuesday night, I was begging for mercy. The microbes have barely let up on their stranglehold since. I was pretty sure this was influenza (despite getting my flu shot), although some of my colleagues tell me a similar bug called parainfluenza is making the rounds here these days, and the symptoms are similar. It matters little, they both suck. There are few things more humbling than sleeping on the bathroom floor (because the bedroom garbage can was already full of my heaving) or shaking with chills on the couch despite layer upon layer of clothing and blankets. The Utah Indie Gamers night was Thursday. By then I was only feverish. Now I'm finally not feverish, but I've been reduced to little more than a cough, mucus, and virus factory.

But enough of that. The Vespers engine code is up to version 04k with the addition of a few lines to detect animation triggers. The Torque animation exporter allows you to set keyframes within animation sequences that act as triggers for whatever response you want, which you can specify in the object's onAnimationTrigger method. Like most things that involve the Torque model and animation exporter, it takes a bit of time to figure out precisely how to set this up, but I believe I have it working now with Constantin. I'm now using triggers to specify when to play the scraping sound of the knife skinning the hare, which is nicely timed with the motion of the knife. I'm also using it to more smoothly transition between his idle animations. That should prove to be a very useful tool in the future.


Constantin video. Best viewed in High Quality (bottom right corner).
(Might need to turn up the volume to hear it.)


A lot of the progress in January has been with the animations. Shawn has been working his tail off, and we're now basically finished with the Act I animations for Ignatius, Constantin, and Matteo. The latter two were already animated by our previous guy, but we needed to re-do them for a couple of reasons: first, the animations weren't so great and we wanted to improve them while adding lip sync; and second, we would need re-rigged characters for the first cutscene anyway. Constantin looks tremendously better now than he did before (even my wife noted this), with much smoother and more interesting motions. The same goes for Matteo.

Lem continues to work on Lucca, although it's going slow for him. But that just leaves Drogo and Cecilia, and once those two are finished, we should have ourselves an actual, complete Act I. Add a cutscene on top of that, and we might just have ourselves a working demo. Soon.

Despite having some family issues that demanded his attention for a while, N.R. made some nice progress in January mostly on the 2D front. Most of his efforts were directed at spiffing up the GUI and HUD elements for the game, and I'm very happy with the results. In addition to updated window frames, he designed really nice Options and Help window GUIs, incorporating some of the elements from the church fresco designed by Régis.

Options dialog.

He also incorporated a sweet ribbon design with a medieval image he obtained and utilized in the Main Menu GUI.

Main menu screen.
(Click for larger version)


He's also been working on additional visual goodies such as a more realistic and bloody stone for Lucca to scrape at, and a more interesting and natural appearance to the top of the belltower, exposing the floor boards while mounding snow around the outsides.

The new bloody flagstone.
(Click for larger version)


The updated top of the belltower.
(Click for larger version)


N.R. also spent a crazy amount of time working on a new Orange River Studio logo design for me during January, and I think we're getting close. By next month's update we should have a design finalized. N.R. has been dealing with a lot this month and I'm amazed that he's been able to get as much done as he has, and he continues to do some pretty amazing work. I am a very lucky person.

Despite my bitching about fonts earlier this month, I'm still in negotiations with the P22 foundry for a much more reasonable licensing fee for the Cezanne typeface, which is good news. I really like the font and I appreciate it for what it offers, and it's nice to know the P22 guys are very much open to creative solutions for this and are willing to work with small developers like me. I'm pretty confident it will work out well, and I'm really looking forward to settling on that font once and for all.

Finally, as I reported last month, we decided to try a little something different and utlize Pieter Bruegel's famous painting, The Triumph of Death, as the main background for our opening splash screen. I tried a couple of new things with the splash screen, including some nice closeups and crossfades, and I'm very satisfied with how it turned out. I'd like to go over some of the Torque-specific techniques I used to create it in another blog, hopefully during February.

So despite the bloody, protracted battle with the microbes, January turned out to be a very productive month for Vespers, and I'm looking forward to a good February as well.