Musings

News, announcements, random thoughts and writings – musings covers them all.

An Accessibility Guide For Game Designers

Have you ever felt the punch in the gut when someone tells you they would love to play your game, it’s their favorite genre after all, but they are color blind and couldn’t get past the first level?  Maybe you  saw a tweet from a fan who wanted to try your game, but feared the bright flashing might trigger an epileptic seizure.  And in that moment, you knew a simple code change could make the game playable for them but it never occurred to you before now.

Sound has always been an issue for me.  I’m deaf in one ear, and using sound to locate an object in game, or even react to a sudden event is hard.  My deaf ear has tinnitus so I don’t hear all frequencies the same.  Yea, deaf with tinnitus – I’m like some hearing impaired lottery winner.  I once had my PC sitting on my desk next to my deaf ear, with a fan squealing for the sweet release death.  I never noticed it until someone asked how I could stand it.  I’m really bad at knowing when my truck’s brakes need replacing too.

I’ve never met a game designer who, upon learning of the impact a disability had on their game didn’t want to fix it.  I’m sure there is one, I’ve just never met them.  Even the highest “games are art” designers want to include everyone in their design.  And pro tip – inclusive game design is always better than exclusive.  Saying “well, the game isn’t for them” is just being lazy when “them” means a group of players based on gender, race, or disabilities.  Just because someone is deaf doesn’t mean they don’t want to play rhythm games.

The problem is knowing these things in advance.  It’s no easy task to understand a wide array of disabilities let alone how you can handle them in your design.  Some are obvious, such as a toggle to disable flashing graphics for light sensitive gamers.  Others less so, like re-mappable joystick and keyboard control to support specialized input devices for gamers with limited hand movement.

With the launch of the Game accessibility guidelines website however, things just got a lot simpler.  This site not only describes several areas of disability, but also offers suggestions for solutions.  The site is broken down into levels as well, from basic to advanced.  This gives the game designer a way of ranking in priority which issues should be handled first.  Ideally everything would be covered, but this this may not be possible for all games and sometimes deadlines force features to be cut.

I encourage everyone reading this to go and read over the full site at least once.  Just having the info in your subconscious will help during the design process.  I also want to say thanks to Cathy of IndieGamerChick.  Talking publicly about her disabilities cannot be easy, but her courage in doing so has directly lead to sites like the accessibility guidelines and educating game designers who have added support to their games for gamers with epilepsy.

Now go forth and make better games.  They still may not be fun, but they can not be fun to a wider audience of gamers!


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The Mass Effect Problem

No, this isn’t about the Mass Effect 3 ending.

I have a friend who just started playing the Mass Effect trilogy, my favorite games of the last console generation.  I’ve played all three games multiple times on the Xbox 360, and earned all the achievements.  I’ve played all the DLC for Mass Effect 1 and 2, and collected their achievements.  As a father of three about to hit 38, this is no small feat – it’s not easy to dedicate so much time to one game.  I do not have the DLC for Mass Effect 3, and that’s the start of the problem.

I didn’t play the DLC for 1 and 2 at release.  Instead I saved them until just before the next game came out and used them as an excuse to play through the prior game again.  DLC is best like chili, get your fill at release then put some in the fridge because when you grab it a few days later it’s still awesome.  Right about now, I really want some Mass Effect 3 Chili DLC.

But things have changed.

The DLC for Mass Effect 3 on Xbox 360 totals $45, which I would normally complain about on twitter but ultimately purchase anyway.  What will happen though in a year or two when the servers for the Xbox 360 go dark?  How much longer can I expect to be able to download DLC for all three games? Microsoft has been aggressive at killing products lately, and the end of Xbox 360 may come sooner (in some skewed Microsoft Marketing logic) to boost sales of the Xbox One.  Even if Microsoft signed a blood pledge that all Xbox 360 features and services would remain operational for the next 5 years, it wouldn’t be wise to invest more in the platform.  I want to keep my 2019 Mass Effect options open.

The obvious answer here is the PC.  Whether supported by the publisher and developers, or by the community I’ve been able to go back and play the vast majority of games I’ve purchased on PC.  All three Mass Effect games have PC editions, so I began a hunt for the “Ultimate Edition”.  I want all Mass Effect content too, not just DLC, but the various pre-order bonuses and cross title promotional content as well.  This doesn’t exist however, and to get the content that does exist requires traversing a maze more complicated than any Bioware puzzle (pro tip: the solution is probably based on Tower of Hanoi).   Think I’m kidding?  Take a look at the wiki or this StackExchange question on completing the Mass Effect Trilogy edition.  Using the wiki, the games on PC are $40 for the Trilogy collection, plus another $105 for missing DLC, and is incomplete.

(You might suggest only getting Mass Effect 3 on the PC, but any fan of the games will tell you this is not an option.  Each game builds upon the choices you made in the prior games, from world changing big decisions to small pointless NPC conversation trees.  Seeing how even a single comment by Shepard can change a character’s story is one of my main reasons for replaying the game).

There is a third option.  It has everything – all DLC, all preorder bonuses, soundtracks, comics, and… well everything.  46.6 Gigabytes of everything.  It’s free too.  Yes, I’m talking about piracy.  But maybe I can put the savings toward this sweet N7 Leather Jacket (I’m a M if anyone is feeling generous).

So here I stand at the end of the Mass Effect trilogy with three choices and all of them suck.  $45 and it lasts a year or two at most, $145 to rebuy most the content, but still come up short, or pirate it all and tell myself a few lies to absolve guilt.  Though Mass Effect is the game I mention, it is not the only game with this problem, and this leads to the bigger issue…

This problem casts a dark shadow over the current generation of consoles.  Do I want to be fooled again?  I can still play my Atari 2600 but there was no online service behind the device granting access to games and content.  Starting with the last generation and going strong in this one, deep ties to online services put an expiration date on your games.  I can’t justify getting a PS4 or Xbox One.  Not unless the system is usable for game development and supports an open publishing model (which neither do).  That’s probably a niche market and not going to sell too many units.  Maybe the games created by this niche would, but that’s speculation for another day.

Is this the end for the console?  Is there a bubble about to pop? I have no idea, but for me, I cannot see how buying a title on a console is a good idea.  Willing to wait and see where the SteamBox thing goes.  That can’t be good news for the console manufactures to read.  Units must sell, so $100 Million game budgets can be justified. If not AAA publishers will have to pull support and… Wii U happens.

Sorry, I don’t have the uplifting ending here you wanted here.  Just like Mass Effect 3, which I still don’t have DLC for…


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Unity 4.3 2D Physics Bug affecting Tile Based Games

Update 2/20: The issue was closed as “by design” with no explanation.  I’ve reached out to Unity for more information and will update if I hear anything.

Update 2/19: The Unity QA team was able to reproduce the bud, and the issue is now listed on the Unity Issue Tracker – go vote for it!

I just sent in a bug report to Unity on a rather nasty physics bug affecting 2D games – notably tile based games, though any game using 2D physics could be affected.  The problem is how Unity maps pixels to units (it’s still a 3D world no matter what you do to your camera!), and how those units are passed into the 2D physics engine (Unity’s 2D physics engine is the open source project Box2D, helpful to know when searching about issues).

It’s my guess that there is a rounding call or float to int cast causing the trouble.  This is based on the test project I did (and sent to Unity with the bug report).

Test Setup

To create a test, I simulated a 32×32 tile based game world.  I added 3 objects to the world, each representing a 32×32 sprite.  The first sprite is named “player” and has a 2D Box Collider and 2D Rigid Body attached.  The other two sprites are “walls” and were given 2D Box Colliders and placed under the player 32 pixels apart.  When run, gravity should cause the player to fall and rest on the corners of the wall exactly.

In the first scene I used a pixel to unit ration of 1:1 – that is 1 3D unity equals 1 sprite pixel.  You can see from the screenshot below the test passed:

Screenshot 2014-02-08 14.23.07

In the second scene I used the Unity default pixel to units mapping of 100:1 – that is 1 3D unit equals 100 sprite pixels.  In the test scene, the player “floats” on top of the walls:

Screenshot 2014-02-08 14.22.22

So why not just use 1:1 pixels per unit and call it a day? Honestly, I would love to use 1:1 mapping, but as I found out while working on UTiled (shameless plug for my Unity Tiled map importer) there is a limitation of Box2D that comes into play.  Box2D has a max velocity of 100 m/s – of course what a “meter” is can be defined by the game.  In Unity however, 1 3D unit is always 1 meter.  This means the 2D physics system is not scaled according to the pixels per unit mapping, and the result is at a 1:1 mapping everything move very slowly.

Hopefully this gets fix in the next update of Unity.  In the mean time its something you’ll have to be aware of if you’re using Unity’s physics engine for movement of objects.


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What effect do the Tim Shafers have on Kickstarter?

The question: Do large video game projects on Kickstarter influence the success rate of other projects running at the same time?  That is, when Tim Shafer, Brian Fargo, or Obsidian run massively  successful campaigns do they “suck up” the available gamer dollars or do they increase the traffic and backers to all projects?

I’ve been thinking of a way to answer this question, and I’ve come up with the following.  The chart below shows the rolling three week average success rate by Video Game and Game projects launched on Kickstarter (all dates are the dates the projects launched).  The red dotted line is the average success rate of these projects.  When the blue line is above the red, you’re beating the average and when it’s below you’re doing worse.

The grey shaded area is the number of projects in the three week rolling average.  The purple lines are projects that asked for $100,000 or more, and reached 2x or more of their goal.  In this chart I scaled the purple lines so that the top would be 10x the goal.

image

Here is the list of big projects:

StartDate Title Goal Pledged Funding
2/8/2012 Double Fine Adventure $ 400,000.00 $ 3,336,371.00 834%
3/13/2012 Wasteland 2 $ 900,000.00 $ 2,933,252.00 326%
3/18/2012 The Banner Saga $ 100,000.00 $ 723,886.00 724%
4/4/2012 Shadowrun Returns $ 400,000.00 $ 1,836,447.00 459%
4/6/2012 Yogventures! $ 250,000.00 $ 567,665.00 227%
6/5/2012 Dead State: The Zombie Survival RPG $ 150,000.00 $ 332,635.00 222%
7/10/2012 OUYA: A New Kind of Video Game Console $ 950,000.00 $ 8,596,474.00 905%
8/15/2012 Planetary Annihilation – A Next Generation RTS $ 900,000.00 $ 2,229,344.00 248%
9/4/2012 Homestuck Adventure Game $ 700,000.00 $ 2,485,506.00 355%
9/14/2012 Project Eternity $ 1,100,000.00 $ 3,986,929.00 362%

I’ve spent a good deal of time looking at the chart, and my conclusion is that there is no effect.  It does look like post Double Fine Adventure there was a spike in the number of projects, but to check this I made a chart going back to May of 2010:

image

You can see that the number of projects on Kickstarter in these categories was already on a sharp increase before Tim Shafer and Double Fine Adventure.  Tim might have boosted the number some, but I wouldn’t say he was the cause.

While the large projects on Kickstarter are not influencing overall success rates, something is.  There is a clear pattern of peaks and valleys in success rate and there is a good time and a bad time to launch a project.  What is influencing this cycle?  No idea yet, that’s another post!


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New Video Series: Mike Plays

I just post a few gameplay videos on YouTube.  I’m kicking around a few idea for video content on the and rather than spend a whole lot of effort figuring out what that should be I’m just going to post things and see what sticks.

The first was really a test of live streaming gameplay.  I used Minecraft and to be honest, there is not much value in watching this video.  Think of it more like eating ramen noodles – not great, but not bad and no real nutritional value.

Next are some video where I play older games I feel have some value to game developers today.  These are not Extra Credits multi-vitamin  supplements packed full of rainbows and puppies, but more like small packets of trail mix with some M&Ms mixed in – mostly good for you.

First is a look at Bosconian and Kobo Deluxe, the two games behind one of my current game projects Draco Wing.

Next is a look at Dig Dug and Mr. Do!, two games that came out almost at the same time and Dig Dug being a warm fuzzy memory of my childhood.

Last I take a look at Galaxian and Galaga.  Galaxian started life as a Space Invaders clone but then evolved into it’s sequel Galaga one of the best early arcade games ever released.

Going forward I already have an idea of some of the games I want to feature. Not all will be games I’ve played before, some I will play for the first time and give my thoughts "live".  If you have any comments please share!


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Words of Wisdom for New Indie Game Developers

In our local game design meetup group, member Levi D. Smith crossed the threshold of hobbyist to indie by releasing for sale his first game, Resistor.  The group as a whole encourage him to release the game for the learning experience.  After his release, Josh Ferguson of Chaosoft Games shared this wisdom, which I’ve adapted to share with any developer after the release of their first commercial game.

26499410Sweet. See, now you’ve arrived at the part where shit gets real. You’re dealing with sales & marketing & reviews, which to a large extent is the most important phase of game development. It’s the part you can’t even imagine until your first game is actually out – the part where you have to quickly develop a thick skin and watch all your hopes and dreams of becoming the next indie sensation die on the vine. I really hope that you’ll get enough sales to see a payout. But even more, I hope you’ll use as a way to lay the groundwork for an even bigger project. 

                      — Josh Ferguson, Chaosoft Games


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Kickstarter Stats: Video Game Edition

Earlier this week I posted some stats on Kickstarter breaking down common attributes of successful projects.  This is a follow up to the original post detailing only projects in the Video Games subcategory.  If you haven’t, please read through the original post first as I’m going to just update the numbers hear and skip much of the explanation.

Kickstarter’s Hidden Data

As I pointed out in the original post, Kickstarter hides failed projects making it hard to get a complete picture.  The result is my dataset that includes 58K of the 64K total projects is skewed toward successful projects.  In  the overall stats, my dataset shows 48% of projects are successful while the true number is 44%.

In the Games category, my dataset shows 38% of projects are successful while Kickstarter reports 34%.  For the Video Games subcategory, my dataset shows 27%.  Kickstarter does not report stats on subcategories, but we can assume the true number is around 23-24% based on the overall trend. 

TL;DR – It’s hard out here for a game developer.

Okay, here are the charts updated for the Video Games subcategory.  Once again, for the detailed explanations of these charts see the original post.

videolengthgoallevelsdescfaqidealideal_pledge

There are not many Video Game projects to work with – a total of 1,103 in my dataset.  Because of this, the data is a little more scattered and harder to feel confident in drawing a conclusion.  Still, I think there is some value to gain, and here is my take:

  • Video – While projects with video are only 29% successful verse the baseline of 27%, only 14% of projects without video are successful.  Have a video.
  • Length – The data here is all over the place; I’m going to say there isn’t a clear pattern to how long a project takes pledges and success rate.  This is different from the overall analysis, where 8 to 34 day projects were very successful.
  • Goal – Again, not a great chart but I’m going to say it’s best to ask for less than $9,000.  The overall goal sweet spot was $5,000 or less, so it looks like backers tend to support higher target projects in Video Games.  Small win for us!
  • Reward Levels – People love options on Kickstarter.  In the overall set I said at least 7 tiers, but it looks like more than 10 is ideal for video games.
  • Description Length – 2,000 HTML characters was the overall sweet spot, but 4,000 is the magic number for Video Games.  Once again, longer isn’t better once past the minimum.
  • F.A.Q. – Video Games differed greatly from the overall stats in which most projects don’t have an FAQ section.   70% of Video Game project don’t have an FAQ, but those that did saw a sharp benefit.  I’d say this is because many backer questions on a Video Game fit the FAQ format such as “What Platforms Will It Run On?” and “Will IT Have DRM?”.
  • Ideal – My “ideal” Video Game criteria is: has video, goal less than $9,000, more than 10 reward levels, 4,000 or more HTML characters in description, have at least 500 HTML and characters in the FAQ.   Only 39 projects matched this criteria, but of those 69% were successful.
  • Ideal Total Pledged – The last chart shows of these ideal, what the final funded level was.  Video Games hang out in the 200% level, while the overall ideal project in my original post centered on 150%.  Another small win for us!

I did one bonus chart for Video Games – Reward Levels by Popularity (% of backers who chose that level) and Reward Levels by Funding (% of total amount pledged).  The data is obvious – many people choose the lower levels but a good chuck of money will come from higher tiers:

reward_pop

All the disclaimers of my prior post still stand, and if you would like a copy of the dataset to analyze further contact me.  The data format is an MS SQL database (works with the free Express edition) and no I’m not going to convert it for you.

Each week on the GameMarx podcast I discuss new Video Game Kickstarter projects, and I have a few more recommendations based on my personal observation.  I don’t have data to back them up, but after months of watching project I feel pretty good in these:

  • Open With Gameplay – If you can’t put together a 30-90 second clip of what the game will look like you aren’t inspiring confidence in your ability to complete the game.  I would also discourage using “programmer art” – find an artist to get enough assets for the demo.  They don’t need to be final, but most people are probably not able to understand “programmer art” and will assume this final game will look similar even if you put up a big disclaimer.
  • Tell Me About You – Don’t go into a long family history, but follow the gameplay with a quick bit about you and your indie studio.  Why are you passionate about this game?  What else have you done?  Your story is what goes viral, not the game (more people talk about Notch’s story than Minecraft mechanics).
  • Don’t Talk Money Use – Almost all money behind an indie game goes to someone’s food and rent.  This is the truth, but it is not a selling point.  People know games cost money so you don’t need to break it down.  However, if the money is going specifically to contract outside talent (art, music, etc.) that will enhance the game, it’s okay to mention this.  The message is “with your help, this game gets better”.
  • Clear Description Up Front – In the first two sentences state what kind of game it is and what platforms it will run on.  Speaking of platforms:
  • Include Windows PC – Mobile only games do not do well on Kickstarter, and it’s not clear how you will deliver mobile versions to backers.
  • $10 – Game / $25 – Collectors Edition – Give a copy of the game away at the $10 level and upsell backers to $25 with a (digital) bonus like a soundtrack, make of video, etc.  I also recommend to price all physical reward level items at the $75 level or more.  Physical items cost quite a bit and distract from your time on the game, but they are popular so price them appropriately.
  • Avoid Free / Free-to-play – It’s hard to give backers a copy of a free game and make them feel like they got something special.  Promising “10,000 Space Bucks” in a free-to-play game is worthless and the backer has no way to know what the value is of a Space Buck is in your system.
  • You Are Not Tim Shaffer And You Are Not Funny – This is the one thing I see time and time again kill a project.  You might be funny in your circle of friends, but probably not on camera to a wide audience.  When your routine bombs it is not only painful to see but makes the backer wonder if you are legit or not.  Related to this is having a token girl/model explain your game who clearly has nothing to do with the project.  Nothing says scam like “I hired this pretty face to get your money.”
  • No Boobs – I have seen backlashes against projects that feature scantly clad CG “women” in their games and pitch video.  These may work for the AAA studios (or the studios think it works), but the Kickstarter community is not likely to fund a DOA clone.  Worse, it doesn’t take much for a few blog posts to cite your project as what’s wrong with games and have backers pull their pledges (remember, the backers list is public).  I’m not saying you cannot have cute or sexy in your game, but to keep it within reason (i.e. 20 year old male vs. 13 year old male) and don’t push the sexy angle of the game over the actual game itself.

In general, my advice is the same as it was on the original post.  Consider the data above, but before you launch a project do you own research by finding similar projects as what worked for them.  The numbers may look low, but Kickstarter is not curated and there is a lot of junk in the system (not that different from XBLIG).  Finally, a good social media campaign before and during your project probably trumps everything here.  Don’t expect a “launch it and they will come” – that only works in the movies, and for Tim Shaffer.


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