Thursday, November 13, 2014

Binding your Creativity with the shackles of Reality

Full disclosure: I'm writing this blog for dual reasons - to break my streak of not-blogging, and to pick up a free account for Sensor Tower (free if you write an honest review on your blog). My post is going to be about the importance of basing your work on solid market research, and Sensor Tower, in this case - is a market research tool for mobile games.

Full double disclosure: This isn't a.... proclamation or a commandment. There are thousands of success stories that create their own genres and give the audience something bold and new and ... transcend time and space. The advice I'm going to give below is for the 99.9% of independent developers who are looking to make a dollar. Maybe two dollars. And down the line, maybe enough to become one of those aforementioned developers.

On to the blog post.

You know... there's a danger in being an unchecked independent game developer. There's a danger in being an unchecked anything. There's a tendency - a very strong tendency, to just... gut-check your decisions and launch with wild abandon into making... whatever wild thing your creative mind has latched onto.

And that's fine, right. That's fine. That's probably the real golden benefit of being independent and passionate and such. You can make whatever you like - regardless of market forces or the laws of reason.

But there's something to be said for freedom within boundaries. There's something to be said for narrowing the stream or for... framing that wild creativity in a way that will both satisfy your egocentric desire to create something and potentially, hopefully - satisfy a market need and earn you money.

Because money today means freedom tomorrow. Right?


So I've been thinking about this a lot. I've been that egocentric off-market developer. I've spent a good amount of my life working without regard for market, chasing a tiny niche of... misanthropic philosophy dropouts with residual LSD trauma.

Flash-forward to today.

I've turned a corner, friends. It takes a lot of energy to make a game. It takes an enormous amount of energy to make a game. No matter how marginal or arbitrary or niche the game, it takes a lot from you. Time can't be regained and enthusiasm is a scant resource.

So I figure: Why not spend all of that energy and time and enthusiasm creating something that both satisfies the creative urge, the urge to create things in your own image, and apply it creating something that - at least slightly, serves an existing market. Something that is primed from its inception to actually... maybe... just slightly.... be successful.

Let's talk about Apple's App Store, as a game market. You know it. It's noisy and high-volume and there's a definite player-base but they don't "hang out" in the same places - they're spread out and wide and largely unreachable via direct marketing. 

As a developer with little-to-no marketing spend, no Apple contacts and no PR handling - organic traffic (via App Store search) is your biggest source of traffic. It's responsible for something like... man... 65%+ of App discovery, followed by a mixture of word-of-mouth and myriad marketing streams. No reference, I cannot remember where I read this. But it was like... the day before yesterday, so I'm confident in the thrust of the data.

So App Store Optimisation - the optimization of your keywords and assets (screenshots, icons) is the thing that will get people into your game and... playing.

People don't download games, they buy screenshots - and to get them to see those screenshots, you have to get your icon and game title on their screen.

And, for the sake of discussion - we're going to say that's through search.

To summarize at this point of the long, rambling discussion: Your keywords (including title, description) and your Category (Action, Racing) are the lowest-level mechanism that you can control to get players into your game.

How does this fundamentally change your game design philosophy, and how does a tool like Sensor Tower impact on this?

Genre. You need to stick to a Genre. It sounds restrictive. It sounds... old-fashioned. It sounds like it somehow puts shackles on your amazing creative mind, but I guarantee: Genres have existing markets. They come with an inbuilt audience. I'm talking real fundamental, verb-driven genres - Racing Games, RPGs, Shooting Games.

So step one - your design process has shifted. You pick a genre.

Enter Sensor Tower (or more: "Enter: Market Research") You validate that genre choice with data. 

And for this, I find the most interesting / powerful tool offered by Sensor Tower is the Keyword Research tool.

You type in a keyword, it returns a list of games that match it - and it gives you estimated traffic vs. estimated difficulty in ranking well for both iPad and iPhone and total results for both (thousands and thousands, likely).

I've queried "Zombie Shooting" here, narrowing "Shooting" (a very general genre) with a theme pre-emptively. The really interesting numbers here are Traffic (estimated queries for this term) and difficulty (difficulty ranking for this term).
At this stage I do two things: Run my eye down the list of games and look at defining characteristics. We're talking... icon visual style, titles, themes. But that in the mental bank. Because you'll need this later.

Keep running keywords through there. Example: Racing game, Driving game, Zombie driving, Car game, Driving car - you know what I mean - be the consumer - the person who will be playing your game. What would they type?

That's a big thing: Don't think about how you want to describe your game. Think about how the player that you want will actually find it. 

So you've picked a genre. And now you've taken note of how busy the genre is and how difficult it may or may not be to penetrate.

Let's assume you're happy with that.

Great. Genre. Now you need a theme

This will impact your visual style, your gameplay and your general presentation. This is drilling down on your genre. Sure - big general games like "Where's My Water" and "Angry Birds" and "Flappy Bird" do well and make huge numbers, but there are any number of unheard-of strongly-genred strongly-themed games pulling respectable numbers on predictable, genre-hungry traffic.

Think back to the styles and themes you saw coming back while searching your genre keywords. This is going to be a gut-meets-creativity-meets-market decision.

What will stand out in the market you've just seen, what will be happily-consumed by the market you've just seen - and most importantly - what can you create that will compete well against the market you've seen.

Now - take that theme and run it through the keyword research tool again.

I've gone with "apocalypse" for a theme here. The word is too long, in my opinion, to be typed on a phone, but the traffic is good and the number of apps returned is low (for the app store).

Check the traffic, check the results - and most importantly, drill down on the games that are returned (click on them, easy) and see how they perform. You want to see games that are Grossing nicely and idling at a good position in the overall charts.

At this point I drill down on games - particularly those I haven't heard of, and look at their monetization model (note: Free with IAP), their worth (a super interesting little estimate) and their ranks in the grossing charts. Note - it's all right there on screen. That's beautiful.

Is the theme something that people would search?

An obvious, cynical one: Zombie Car Driving Game

But the market is wide and there are many, many non-cynical, hungry markets.

RPGs are a super interesting market, currently the RPG charts are dominated by non-RPGs (bleed over from games with large audiences with very very small RPG elements that only just qualify them for the category). Beneath this is a rich cluster of small but rabid markets.

Explore them. That's what the tools are for. What is being searched for a lot but has not had fresh blood for months? Maybe years?

There's a home, there.

So that's my little... I don't know, semi-rant semi-overview of using Sensor Tower to validate and reinforce your game design at the very early stages. Build on solid foundations.

Sensor Tower has a bunch of other things - tracking and keyword optimization for your games that are live, research into your competitors and such - but to me, the most interesting point is the seed point.

I've used almost all of the tools for this sort of thing (App Store Optimization and tracking) - SearchmanAppAnnieMobileDevHQ (the latter I believe scared me off with a "Choose your Plan" screen).

Sensor Tower is a nice all-encompassing tool. Searchman is a close second in terms of keyword research, I would say. I'd say if you combined it with some solid eye-to-App Store time and a less exploratory tool like App Annie you would have a really good grasp on the market and its mood.

It's... that weird schizophrenia - the desire to make money, to live truly independent, and the (mostly contrary) desire to have unfettered creativity and create anything.

And somewhere in the middle... I guess that's where the reality lies.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Crushing your Dreams

I've spent the last month or so casually working with Joshua on a little mobile game idea I had.

I wanted to make something small and concise that still had plenty of space to create a rich world through the art.

And so Temple Crush was born.

So here's the rundown of what Temple Crush is:
Temple Crush is an infinite "thwomp-er" where you must use split-second timing to avoid being crushed, satisfy your lust for gold, and liberate the souls of long lost animals.You slip between angry crush blocks, wait for your window of opportunity, avoid certain death, accumulate masses of golden owls, and - should the worst occur - commune with the spirits of the temple's long-dead pets and liberate them from purgatory.
There were a bunch of things that inspired Temple Crush: Flappy Bird; Super Mario Brothers; Castle Crashers. 

We were discussing Swing Copters and Flappy Bird - trying to pinpoint the appeal of the games. Flappy Bird is notoriously hard but the player always feels like its their fault when they fail.

They both use one mechanic as the focus of the game, making the game easy to pickup and play.  

Brainstorming ideas I thought it would be interesting to create a game based around dodging falling blocks, like the Thwomps from Super Mario Bros.

It would be one simple mechanic - based on the player's pure reflexes rather than chance, easy to pick up and understand.

(Joshua: But deceptively hard to implement. Seriously. A game of chains of falling blocks that is hard but still beatable, with scaling difficulty. No randomisation)

The animal spirits were a later addition to the game - an opportunity to add a bit of extra cute to the game.

I loved the Animal Orbs from Castle Crashers, they were a big influence but I didn't want the animal spirits to have any abilities, I just wanted them to add a bit of flavour. 

It's been a while since I've done any game art - the last finished game I worked on was Ball of Woe.

I've done plenty of mockups since then and started many projects that haven't seen the light of day. But this project is the closest I've come to finishing a game.

I hadn't looked at my old work for a long time, but for Temple Crush I thought I would make life easy for myself and create my environments based on a tile pack I made way back before Ball of Woe - these tiles were actually the basis for the levels in Ball of Woe as well.

(Joshua: The colors were already nicely matched, the themes were there. Seriously. Balancing colors between progressive environments is hard. It's a sort of... gradient proposition)

So I got my old files out and started going over them, adding detail and making them more in line with my current style.

I was really amazed at how much my art has developed and changed - comparing the old tiles with the new versions was pretty eye-opening.

Even though I felt like I've been running around in circles, my art style and skill level has leveled up a lot.

It makes me glad that I've kept working and trying new things even when the ideas prove too ambitious or not ambitious enough to finish.

I feel like I'm finally getting to a point with my art where what I'm putting down on the page matches what's in my head. I'm really excited to finish this game and get it out into the world.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Human form of Potato Battery

It's July 22nd, from where I sit. It's been three months since I blogged last.

A grim scenario.

Usually productivity and blog frequency are inversely proportional.

Not in this situation, friends. Not in this situation.

I've been working, you see. At a job. And that in itself is a fine thing. It pays the rent. It gets you out of the house. It goes part of the way to limiting the amount you can twist your brain diving deep on Reddit.

But it has to be balanced. Like everything in life. You can't just eat pigs-in-a-blanket all day long.

You've got to build something. Otherwise - what are you sustaining through your office work?

Nothing. It's that sick cycle of:


Echoes of "A Wild Sheep Chase", right?

But I've done, some things, I guess. Between the gesture and the motion fell some sort of work. Twisted literary references.

So let's take a look at what I've done. 

Cube & Star. Mac App Store. It's .... full coverage.
I went ahead and released Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love to the Mac App Store.

It's an interesting ecosystem that I've never really looked at before.

Time will tell if it ... amounts to anything.

Or if it was all sound and furious typing, signifying nothing.

Man. What is with the references today?

A slightly flatter, slightly closer Cube & Star for iOS.
And then I went ahead... wait... this came before the Mac App Store.

Well, in any case.

I went ahead and released Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love for iPad.

And that... was just a whole thing of optimization and compromises and such.

But it works!

And it looks nice on those screens, man.

Let's leave on a sort of joyful little image, right?
And then the world just sort of....

Got away from me.

In between the last blog post and now I turned 30. And it had all the pomp and meaning and significance that every number I've ever read has carried with it.

And I just... worked at my office-job. Just working. You know... carrying the slabs of sandstone for somebody-else's pyramid.

Man.. that metaphor makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

If you create a society in which people encourage and respect you for being that sandstone-carrying (read: steady-career-occupant) - then... you're creating a self-sustaining pool of people from which to build your pyramids.

Man. That's a clever system.


Annnyway. I'm bracing for a comeback, man.

Stay tuned.

Something will happen.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Postmortem Part 4.

The Story Thus Far.

Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three

Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love had evolved from Cube & Star: A Love Story.

It had been in development since March 2013.

The release date was set for Valentine’s Day, 2014

It was early February, 2014.

The core of the game was there. The early, mid and late game were relatively solid.

Explore the world, collect the colors, resurrect the tiny things and reunite the Ancient Cube with the Ancient Star. It was ... however vaguely, a narrative.

The game, as it stood on release week.

Coming Soon to Steam.

I uploaded to Steam and set the release date a week in advance of Valentine's Day.

The icon appeared on the "Coming Soon" list.

It was a thrill to see it in the Steam UI. I'd seen the demo on Steam, but somehow being on the front page felt real.

At this stage an amazing thing happened.

You see... I'm not media-savvy. I don't read too much gaming news, I don't watch too many Youtube gaming channels.

As soon as the game was on the Coming Soon list - the Youtube channel hosts began to email. Dozens and dozens of emails. All personalized, all well-researched, all totally human and genuine.

I have the utmost respect for their initiative. It's real media. It's proper media. It's not wait like Jabba the Hutt for the press releases to roll in media - like some networks. It's investigative.

God bless the Youtubers, friends. They will be the salvation of our news networks.

Steam Release.

We scheduled the release on Steam for Valentine's Day, 10am - California time.

At 9.56am on Valentine's Day, I was standing on a parking space divider outside my office job, smoking. @TheDopplerDuck messaged me to tell me the game was live.

I don't know what I felt. I felt cold. Not really... relieved or happy. Just... weird. I felt at a loss. I'd been so intensely focused on the game for so long and I wasn't sure what to do with myself now that the game was out of my hands.

@TheDopplerDuck was handling the press. She had a fantastic press-list and set about emailing journalists and such.

The Reception.

Here's a confession. It's something I've kept to myself. It's not a great thing to admit. If anything, it's insulting for the people who spend the time playing games and writing articles about them.

I hate... hate reading articles about my own work.

It fills me with dread and anxiety. What if somebody isolates the fundamental flaw in my personality, via my work, that will ultimate drive me into nervous breakdown?

What if I am, in fact - an enormous and pretentious poser with zero tangible skills?

This is the inner monologue I have when I receive a super-friendly "Here is the link to my article" email.

I delay. I procrastinate. I turn into a nervous wreck.

It's an amazing division in my personality.

@TheDopplerDuck summarized the press coverage on our website - here are a few for the convenience of your eyes and hands.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun 
Life Finds A Way – Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love
"It appears to involve transforming a monochrome world into one of colour and life, like a clown visiting a local government office."
Critical Indie Gamer
One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
"Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love is a strange entity, but it makes a compelling case for games as high-art."
Rami Ismail 
Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love - This is a recommendation
"Cube & Star: An Arbitrary love is a wonderful weird little game ... There's some magic here."
Regret Zero 
"It’s incredibly difficult to explain an experience like Cube & Star, to explain something that’s touched your heart of hearts… and that’s what this game did for me."

It was amazing. I was... surprised. The game had a lot of flaws, but a lot of them had been overlooked. People seemed to get the thrust of the game. They seemed to like the pointed aimlessness.

It feels weird to say I'm thankful. You can't really thank somebody for speaking their mind. It seems to trivialize their objectivity.

But you can be grateful that they took the time to play something you made.

And I am certainly grateful for that.

Post-Launch Bugs

I've developed for Android. I lamented fragmentation.

But developing for PC and Mac was by far the most bizarre and fragmented experience.

Issues occurring on one breed of Macbook but not another. Strange timing bugs.

Issues (as yet unresolved) with the Steam API on certain systems.

I was left to sit on my balcony, smoking endless cigarettes, attempting to imagine what possible differences could explain the issues on certain systems.

At this stage, @TheDopplerDuck and I were planning our wedding. I was still on deadline with my office-job. The Nintendo Wii port was coming due. Things were busy.

It's exceptionally hard to maintain focus on a shipped product. I know rationally that post-release support is of the utmost importance. I know that. But it's a heavy burden to lift: being burnt out on a product, the desire to move onto something new, the desire to rest and forget.

I attempted to push through it. I still am. It's difficult. That's all I can say about it.

But slowly and surely, as time permits, we will reach near-perfect stability and functionality. Slowly - but surely.


It feels strangely negative to tag work with a number. I felt that way when attempting to price the game.

Boiling a year worth of work and immeasurable stress into a number seems... reductive. Or something.

Something... bad.

I can tell you this:

I worked on Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love for almost a year. Maybe... 700 hours of work time. I traveled to Seattle to demonstrate it at PAX.

Factoring these costs in, I can confidently say: Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love will likely never break even.

It sounds like a grim assessment, but I never really considered the time I spent developing it as a deficit. I created it without the expectation of earning any money. I was... driven to create it.

You can't really break that down into a dollar value, I guess. It's just... what you do.

I don't think we could do anything else. Call it art, to be controversial. Artists create art. Sometimes they make money. But the two concepts aren't connected.

Unless you're Salvador Dali. That's the ideal.

The Future

And here we are. It's the 16th of April, 2014 (at the time of publishing this post).

Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love has been live for two months. A little over two months.
It feels like a year. Time is bizarre.

I'm currently burnt-out. It's the usual post-project hangover.

Cube & Star went live on Desura a few weeks ago (5th April, 2014).

I put together a little knee-jerk 3-hour "Special Edition" for the IndieRoyale bundle and we had a sale on IndieGameStand.

These smaller, more focussed markets are really nice for a quasi-basement developer to begin building a following.

The Wii U port will get completed... at some stage. I will catch the flu and be grounded for a solid week. And during that week, in a fever-haze, I will port Cube & Star for Wii U.

It will be a wonderful, bacterial sprint.

In the meantime, we are attempting to create a new game. Something a bit more dynamic and action-packed.

@TheDopplerDuck and I got married at the beginning of the month. I feel like that is a good conclusion for this post-mortem.

She was the inspiration for the game.

I took almost a year to come to terms with the gameplay thrust of the systems I had created.
And now that I have finished - we are married.

It's almost an analogy.



Game development is hard. Sometimes it is profitable, sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes it is spiritually profitable but financially unprofitable. This was one of those times.

I am too close to the development to judge whether I enjoyed it.

I certainly enjoyed implementing the systems.

I would never undo the work I did on Cube & Star. I would never lament it.

Every piece of work we create is the preface for a larger work.

I doubt we ever execute our masterpiece. It is the dragon that we chase endlessly.

I watch @TheDopplerDuck play Cube & Star on that big, over-saturated iMac screen - while I sit on the balcony, smoking.

And I am happy.

I think that is the best thing we can aspire to.

-Joshua McGrath

Friday, April 18, 2014

Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Postmortem Part 3.

The Story Thus Far

Read Part One and Part Two

Cube & Star: A Love Story began development in March 2013.

It was currently December 2013. The game was still in a weak alpha state.

It had fluctuated wildly since showing at PAX Prime and IndieCade.

The demo was available on Steam, but I didn’t feel great about it.

I had just emerged from a development lull and was energized to complete the game.

Moving Goalposts

I set a lot of release dates for Cube & Star over its development.

Some were vague: "The end of the year..."

Some were specific: "January 30th"

But up until this point my heart hadn't really been fixed to those dates.

I set a date that felt both realistic and a little intense - something that was real and would push me to ship the game.
Valentine's Day, 2014.

I Gave My Pain a Name

The game had been named: "Cube & Star: A Love Story" up until this point. It was a name that was intended to be facetious, but which missed the mark given its colorful graphics and simplistic visual style.

The title failed on many levels - it failed to convey the deeper tone of the game, it failed to imply humor or joy, and it failed to hold the attention of the casual observer.

It also sounded a lot like "Cuban Star" - which would admittedly be a more interesting title.

I couldn't drastically change the title of the game - we had a domain name, we had established (but extremely limited) branding, so I changed the post-script.

And thus "Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love" superseded "Cube & Star: A Love Story".
It's wasn't great. But it was better. Slightly.

The Final Evolution.

A name change and a gimmicky visual style wasn't enough to make Cube & Star feel like a new game.

I needed a set of new features that were in line with the existing gameplay without breaking the tone.

I felt like the early game was completed, but the mid and end-games were lacking.

And so…

Narrative #3

I reverted to simplicity. I thought: Don't force the story.

Just.... make everything analogous to things in everyday life.

A kind of... abstract and interactive representation of my worldview.

You cannot do good. You cannot do evil. You can only do things.

Sometimes people will like you, and sometimes they won't.

Sometimes things happen, and sometimes they don't.

You are adrift in a sea of systems over which you have limited control.

The world is beautiful, but you have no purpose.

You must create your own goals. You must set your own standards of victory or failure.

You must... live.

That was a concept I was happy with. It wasn't strictly a linear narrative. It was a cumulative social commentary.

Mid-game: World Map and Mood

A world map is a really obvious addition in retrospect. The whole game takes place on a single texture, so it's the feature that kind of... creates itself.

To make color selection a little less random and a little more directed, I added a set of dominant colors and mapped them to world "moods".

So a player who painted the entire world red would earn a "passionate" world.

Arbitrary, self-directed goals. If Cube & Star had both an extreme positive and a negative point - it would be this reliance on self-direction.

The world map. Paint it.
Chaos is born so readily from order. Without systemic rules... both ugliness and beauty are born.

Mid-game: Critters

At this stage Cube & Star had only three critters - a bee, a squirrel and a frog.

All of which should be read in inverted commas.

I felt that they were one of the more charming aspects of the game. They were obnoxious, they wrecked your palette, and they looked cute - in a geometric way.

So I added a huge amount of new critters - bound to time of day and ground color.

Critters and Buildings.
Striders and slugs, squirrels a skitterer and a butterfly way in the back.

When a critter walked over a new tile, it would check the ground color. If a new critter was bound to that color for that time of day, it would leap into the ground, and a new critter would emerge.

Seeing new, strange critters emerge was kind of a thrill - and they helped make different color palettes feel like unique ecosystems.

The new critter system would also enforce a kind of... "highway" model into the pathing system.

Route Strider
Striders cut highways across the world.

Critters would prefer colors closest to their own, which gave a nice visual history of where critters had been - and where they would go.

Late-game: Flood Fill and Fire

I like the concept of creating and destroying. You know... building a wonderful tower of blocks, and then knocking it down with the back of your hand

Fire was an obvious choice, but it didn't really... fit with the relaxed nature of the game. In retrospect, it makes sense that fire is required to clear grass - but the appeal was purely chaotic.

I decided to pursue the painting metaphor and add floor fill, with a musical twist.

I added four pillars (three for color, one for fire) to the world.

When you nudge the color pillars and collect the item they drop, it adds an ability to your UI - which will play a musical note correlated to the color.

Burn it to the ground
Fire. Passion. Destruction.

I'm pretty proud of the mechanic: Color impacts on hue, the speed with which you play impacts on brightness, and the accuracy of your note timing impacts on saturation.

Using this system, a player could create any color and fill broad areas of earth with color.


A side effect of this: Color storms. An unintended "feature" that would create an infinitely-propagating floodfill of competing colors when the player triggers two floodfills in a short period of time.

I tried a few times to remove them - but they seemed interesting enough to negate the effort required to remove them. A little curio. A side effect of emergence, I guess.

Late-game: Buildings and the Tiny Things

The Tiny Things were a late development addition - a weird kind of meta-entity. If the Ancient Cube was your elder, then you were elder to the Tiny Things.

Tiny Things are spawned by Buildings - which replace Trees when they are replaced using the flood fill ability.

Buildings were a controversial issue. I was really hesitant to bring the game too close to reality. Best to leave Bees as cubes with stripes.

But in the end... I like it. It gave the late-game world a little bit of a metro feel; vaguely surreal and industrial but with few direct analogues to real life.

Each building set is mapped to a world mood, to tie the whole affair together.

Buildings! Civilization!
I loved Simcity 2000. Who didn't?

Tiny Things behave as a more advanced form of Critter - they path to other buildings, and they path to other Tiny Things and flatten grass as they go. Over time, I hoped that this would create a system of "roads" between buildings.

Late-game: Decryption

The language of the Tiny Things was an eleventh-hour addition, inspired by the Vorticon alphabet from Commander Keen. Originally, all Critters spoke in regular English - but after adding the language of the Tiny Things, they were replaced with symbols.

The critter language.
The critters speak in their critter-y manner.
Over time, as more volumes of the Tiny Things history are collected, the player can use a (very primitive) decryption function to attempt to unlock the alphabet.

I really didn't anticipate anybody in the world to use the decryption function. It was a knee-jerk development for a little bit of systems-fun.

Post-release, I was super-excited to find that somebody has uploaded a fully decrypted alphabet to the Steam community within half-a-day.

The Soundscape

It's an interesting thing... the common chorus of the game developer:

"This time I won't leave sound until last".
And inevitably... it is left until last.

Obviously I can't speak for every development team, but it seems to be the common thread.

I had create a vaguely-complete sound design for the initial Cube & Star demo: five soundtracks (day, night, morning, twilight, greyscale) and a collection of instrumental sound effects.

The soundtrack had met with some surprisingly positive feedback. I am a little sensitive about my composition skills - as it's probably the weakest aspect of my development skillset.

The demo sound design had a fundamental flaw: the soundtrack was consistently spread across the entire game. It never yielded - it was ever-present.

There was no space for the sound effects; no space for silence.

For the final release - I created an overarching volume curve. The curve ran over around six minutes, and brought the music up and down to give a little room for the soundscape created by the in-game entities moving about and nudging things.

In lieu of an ambient, environmental track (wind and such) I stripped the soundtracks down to their minimum and lowered the volume to create a super subtle world backing track.

Never pure silence, just a subtle reminder of the soundtrack.

I think it worked in the end. I think.

Up Next.

Finality! The release. The end of days. All of our best-laid and randomly-laid plans come to fruition.

And we learn, once and for all - that we never reach the top of the ladder.

We merely begin anew on the lowest rung of a new ladder.

-Joshua McGrath

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Postmortem Part 2.

The Story Thus Far

Read Part One here.

Cube & Star: A Love Story began development in March 2013.

It was currently May 2013. The game was in a weak alpha state.


I'm a confident guy. I'm headstrong. I border on being obnoxious, by some translations.

But when it comes to going public with my games - particularly games that are so experimental, I'm extremely hesitant.

By this stage - Cube & Star had been in casual development for around two months.

It was April, 2013. Game contests were open for submission.

@TheDopplerDuck pushed me to enter a few contests. I was hesitant, but she was persistent.

This was the turning point. A cascade of things happened after this moment.

The Big Move

I was living in Sydney, Australia at this time; working from home in relative poverty.

It was a weekday afternoon - treading figurative water in that classic Australian heat and silence and depression.

At this stage I received the first call that would trigger a fundamental shift in our lives.

I had won the QANTAS "Spirit of Youth" award for "Interactive and Gaming".

The "youth" aspect was funny - I felt like I was twenty-nine years-old going on sixty. But I was excited. I had never really won anything before.

The winner was publicly announced, I was happy - and I received a message from the Los Angeles wing of an Australian company - SOAP Creative.

They liked my style, they liked my work - and they wanted me to move to Los Angeles.

And so... we relocated to sunny California.

Cube & Star: A Love Story - the trailer that was the source of so much contention.

Serving Two Masters

There is a distinct danger in having a day-job that you enjoy. There's a tendency toward contentment. And I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

But I was attempting to live the dream - working a day-job I loved and working on my own projects at home.

Cube & Star had stalled at a weak alpha state, having been submitted to a few contests and having been interrupted by the move.

And again - a call came through. I had won the Intel LevelUp Contest for Best "Other" Game.

The "Other" aspect was hilarious. I really enjoyed that tag. Cube & Star was an obscure little thing. It could be argued that it was (and remains) barely a game at all.

And so - we went to PAX Prime to show Cube & Star at the Intel booth.

Real people playing a real game.
It blows my mind and causes me intense spiritual consternation to see people playing my game in real life. So flattered. So ... anxious.

Intel LevelUp

Intel LevelUp deserves its own subheading.

It was a massively valuable experience.

I can't emphasise it enough.

Showing at PAX Prime was a huge opportunity for bedroom-developers like ourselves.

Watching people play the game was intense. It wasn't a game I was 100% confident with. It hadn't yet bloomed and fully hit that resonant note. It was still very much a prototype.

Still - the response was largely positive. It was a hard game to show; slow-paced, relaxing and mellow.

But the trance-like nature seemed to resonate with a few people, and it was nice to have a theory validated in person.

We got the opportunity to meet representatives from the big consoles, and signed up to their respective developer programs.

And then - on the back of this, we were offered Steam distribution.

Our weak alpha was labelled a "demo" and uploaded to Steam as part of the contest guidelines.
At the time this was huge.

Greenlight was still the ever-present guardian of the platform.

The Demo Conundrum

And thus we were presented with a problem:

Cube & Star was functionally complete, in line with my original vision. It was simple, it was colorful, you collected things and explored.

The Cube & Star Demo as at PAX Prime
A flat land in a flat world. Cube & Star: A Love Story as a "demo" on Steam. 
Worlds away from its final manifestation.

But it was labelled a "demo" on Steam.

We needed to somehow force it to grow beyond the original vision - enough to classify it as a full game.

Freedom Paralysis

There's a real danger to having too much freedom. The scope of possibilities is too broad to be able to rationally visualize.

Cube & Star entered a four month period of stasis, nothing changed. Things were added, they were removed - nothing really worked.

The game was too abstract, too zen and my original vision was still tainting my decision-making process.

I had toyed with the concept of pursuing the AI aspect and adding genetic algorithms for critters or making their behavior dependent on world color and state.

I considered pushing the "painting" metaphor and adding flood-fill capabilities.

I thought about adding levels and puzzles - impenetrable areas of brambles that required the user to combine colors to summon critters that would eat brambles.

But nothing really tasted coherent. It felt a bit like an add-on.

I was in a weird state of crisis and lack of cohesive vision.

At this stage - I was informed that Cube & Star: A Love Story was nominated as an Indiecade finalist.

Revisiting the Narrative

I had lost my way, narrative-wise.

I was toying with framing the entire world system as the analogy for a human brain. Color sets emotion and action, with a relevant conclusion: "You were angry. You died angry".

I considered a "deconstruct the world" twist. Paint the world beautifully - then deconstruct the entire thing.

Perhaps summon a plague of beneathers. Whatever they might be. Give the world an ancient and dark history in the Hieronymous Bosch style.

I really had no idea. I was thinking too hard. Things had become too complex.


Cube & Star was in a grim state before Indiecade - full of half-finished additions and turmoil.

I rolled back development to the Steam demo build and we set up our table at the festival.

It was an interesting affair. The Indiecade audience is so different from the PAX Prime audience.

At PAX Prime, it seemed like the audience had a target-oriented mindset.
Find that thing that you like, play it, repeat.

At Indiecade, the mood was more exploratory. The audience seemed to be seeking out new experiences.

Both are valid. I understand it - I went straight to the Behemoth booth at PAX, and then swung by Elder Scrolls Online.
Indiecade turned out to be more fruitful for Cube & Star, as a game.

It's odd. It's ... abstract to the point of being obscure.

But the audience seemed to respond positively to it.

One of the more interesting gameplay tendencies we observed: Players would hesitate to leave the opening grassy zone, as if the greyscale tiles were harmful.

I thought that was interesting. A little... color-psychology.

Hearing John and Brenda Romero read out the game's nomination at the Award night was a singular thrill.

The Grind

You know it, I know it, we've heard it a thousand times: The last 10% of a game's development is 90% of the effort.
I cringe writing it - it's almost become cliche.

But there I was.

It was approaching December, 2013.

I was on deadline at my rent-paying job. I was not inspired.

I was fortunate enough to have a few weeks off over the holidays. I allocated that time as the "Finish Cube & Star era".

And I sat there... and stared at the game... and just had absolutely no idea where to take it.

The Invigorator, The Spindle

It's pretty rare for a project to follow a straight trajectory of A-to-B.

Development mostly seems to follow a winding path - taking little side-streets, stopping to engage in distractions.
It's both the greatest perk and greatest danger of being independent.

We have the freedom to explore.

The distraction that re-invigorated Cube & Star was a superficial thing:

@TheDopplerDuck had been working on a side-project of her own, and I proposed that we curve the world in her game, much like Animal Crossing appeared to be.

I really enjoy technical challenges. Much more than design tasks. It's one of my greatest flaws as a game developer.

I will program systems just for the joy of programming systems - potentially to the detriment of the game itself.

I put together an algorithm that would take a 3D object, a pivot point, and a radius, and curve the object (deforming the mesh itself) around that pivot.

The net result is a world spread out over the surface of a sphere or cylinder.

Cube & Star wrapped around a sphere
Life on the spindle is bizarre. The fear of falling is ever-present.

It looked good! It had an almost surreal vibe to it.

So I thought...

Given that I have precious little time left to complete Cube & Star, and how a superficial feature like this would clearly not save the game....

Why not implement it anyway?

Life is short. Chase the thrill.

And so I stretched the Cube & Star world over a sphere.

And the joy of working on the game in-depth again, and the myriad little bugs I fixed or things I tweaked while testing, all combined to pull me back into development.

And thus the final months of development began.

Cube & Star: Life on the spindle
The joy of gifs, the joy of spheres.

Next Up:

What makes a demo a demo? What makes a game a game? Adding those final features to Cube & Star: A Love Story to elevate it from its "weak alpha" roots.

Things get really interesting, in my mind. Maybe they'll be interesting to yours, too?

Stay tuned!

-Joshua McGrath