Mobile App Stores

I recently picked up a game called “Great Little War Game” from the Android App Store.  I’m always interested to see new turn based tactical strategy games, and this looked a lot like Advance Wars, but hex based.  Sounds amazing!  Sadly, I actually found that the game design itself was pretty lackluster.  Not to go too into detail, I found the game to be really poorly balanced and to have some really dumb rules (for instance, no summoning sickness – you can summon in and fully use not just one, but as many units as you can afford, from one production buidling in a single turn… anyone who’s played Advance Wars or a similar game knows how bad an idea this is).  It’s disheartening, because most games on the Android App store barely even qualify as games to me – most are either puzzles, toys, or farmvilles (which are agreements between the player and the computer that if the player keeps clicking, the computer will keep increasing a number).  I also have a lot of trouble getting into anything real-time with a touch screen;  I’d even go personally as far as to say that I don’t think it’s a good idea to make real-time games on a small touch-screen device.

So anyhow, I went to the app store to write a (bad) review of the game.  First problem is, they give you some ridiculously small amount of space to write your review in – about one paragraph’s worth.  I barely was able to outline even the basic problems of the game in that space.  But that’s not the worst problem.

The real problem with the app stores – and by the way, everything I’m saying here goes for the iOS app store, which is basically exactly the same as far as I’m concerned – is that very few people writing reviews are even reviewing the game.  Here’s a quick screenshot of a random selection of reviews for Great Little War Game.

As you can see, none of these reviews offer any insight into what the gameplay is like, what’s good about the gameplay, what’s bad about the gameplay, etc.  It’s all simply judging how it actually “functions” as an app – does it drain your battery, can you mute sounds, are there bugs.  The best you’ll get is some blanket statement like,  “the gameplay is good”, which helps no one.  Why is this the case?  Partially, this is because of the aforementioned lack of space to write reviews in, which I think needs to change.  Why are we limited to such a small amount of space?  People can write short reviews if they like, and most people will, but if someone has a lot to say about a game, why limit them?  However, I’m not sure this is the only, or even the main reason for this problem.

The problem also stems from the “culture” of App Store games, which hasn’t matured to the point where people are really even thinking about gameplay.  Apps are still sort of seen as “something that I can do while I’m on the toilet”, rather than something anyone would ever actually go seek out in order to play.  We haven’t gotten to the point, with arguably any Android/iOS apps, that we have some “killer apps” – something that you just HAVE TO PLAY, even if it means you have to buy new hardware.  This is because the biggest hits on the platforms – stuff like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja – have the gameplay quality of a flash game, not of a hit PC or console game.  Games are seen as this weird, cheapo commodity – more like getting a toy with your happy meal than the main course.

Further illustrating this is the way that games are treated on the Android Market.  Here’s a list of the “genres” on Android Market currently:

  • Arcade & Action – I’m guessing that any real-time game would fall into this huge, sweeping category that could cover roughly half of all games ever made.
  • Brain & Puzzle – Okay, so this is where puzzles go, and I guess turn based games, trivia games, word games and “brainy” stuff like that.  Again, a massive category that could cover roughly half of all games ever made.
  • Cards & Casino – No problems here.
  • Casual – What?  Honestly, why is there a Casual category?  It’s very, very difficult to find any apps that don’t qualify as casual on these app stores, so if anything I would think there should be a “hardcore” category, not a casual category.
  • Live Wallpaper – Sort of a technical filter, not a genre - these are games that are incorporated into the wallpaper.  Just about any game could have a “live wallpaper version”.
  • Racing – This one kinda comes out of nowhere, eh?  This is actually the first category that I would really, actually call a genre of game.  That it exists makes me think that there will be “First Person Shooters”, “Turn-Based Strategy Games”, “Platformers” and other such actual genres of games.
  • Sports Games – Again, solid – this is a genre of game.
  • Widgets – this is like the Wallpaper one – absolutely NOT a game genre.

So, out of these 8 categories – yes, that’s all there is – I would say only three of them are actually genres of games, and so only three of them would actually help a person find a kind of game that would interest them.  This is a huge problem and it’s causing massive ripple effects in the community.

Please, Android Overlords, please reform this system.  Just to give you a start, here’s what I recommend as genres (bonus points for sub-genres).

  • Massively Multiplayer Games
  • Tower Defense Games (this automatically filters out 98% of all apps on the store)
  • Puzzles
  • Role-Playing Games
  • Turn Based Strategy (can have subcategories of wargames, tactics games, 4x games)
  • Real Time Strategy
  • Card & Board Games (Would be ideal if this had subgenres, like trick-taking games, abstracts, deckbuilding games, Eurogames, etc – hire someone who knows their stuff about these things)
  • Sports Games (subcategories for specific sports, as well as an other subcategory)
  • Racing Games
  • Platformers
  • First Person Shooters
  • Shoot-Em-Ups (or Shmups, if you prefer)
  • Simulations
  • Toys
  • Other (for stuff that really just doesn’t fit anywhere else at all – maybe subgenres for some smaller genres like Fighting Games for instance)
  • Misc (this should have the technical filters, like widgets and live wallpapers)

Really, it seems like they don’t have someone who’s an expert on games setting this all up, and that’s a huge mistake.  Android people, I personally know many people who are qualified for this job, hell, I’ll do it myself if you’ll let me.  It can be something that changes when enough people decide it needs to change.  Anyway, what’s there now is not reasonable.  Having a clear, consistent way of organizing games is a really great start in improving the situation on these platforms, which, at this time, feels more like reading my spam folder than my inbox.

Skippin’ out on “Skip Turn”

Today I thought I’d let everyone in on a small development in Auro‘s design.  It may be useful to anyone designing a roguelike!

Firstly, a little knowledge for those of you who don’t regularly play roguelike games.  In these, there is always a “skip turn” button – basically a button that lets you pass your turn and do nothing.  In roguelikes, one of the first things you learn to do is this:  when you and a monster have exactly one space in between you, you should not spend your turn moving closer to him.  If you do this, he will get the first attack on you.  Therefore, it is always the best course of action to skip your turn, and let him come to you, so that you get the first attack.  There are exceptions to this, most obviously a monster with a ranged attack, but in general, this is always what you should do.  The skip turn button also has a couple other common uses in roguelikes – it sometimes doubles as a “search” button, to find hidden doors and such, and it also doubles as a “rest” button, allowing you to heal health and energy.

Here's an example! As you can see, if it's the player's turn, and he can pass in this situation, he should, so that he can get the first attack.

So, I’ve been hammering out the UI details and such for Auro, and it came time to decide how our skip turn will work.  One obvious answer is to allow the player to click on the avatar (on Auro himself) to skip a turn.  Not bad – nothing wrong with that.  But then I started thinking… could this be an opportunity for something a bit more interesting?

Really, there’s few things less interesting about roguelikes than that “monster is a tile away, so skip turn” no-brainer thing.  And that’s the most common use for the skip turn button – that and regenerating health, which is impossible in Auro anyway.  I got to thinking:  would we maybe just have a more interesting game on  our hands without a skip turn button?  This plays directly into my philosophy that sometimes, removing an element of gameplay can open things up even more than adding one.

I talked to the team about it, and we all seem to be in agreement on this.  The game would, it seems, be more interesting without a skip turn button.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to walk into enemies and get attacked.  You can also back up and move in interesting ways – remember, you have six axis of movement on the hex grid.  You can also always choose to use a Skill, which takes up a turn.  Sometimes, you might even want to use a Skill, simply to pass a turn.  Another interesting thing is that the game is really about speed – not real-time speed, but it counts how many turns it takes you to beat a level.  So, if all of this causes you to have to back up a bit once in awhile, I think that that will only make the overall path you take through a level more interesting.

As an added bonus, there’s one less button, one less thing players have to learn.  Also it’s one less kind of mis-click that can happen on the touch screen.

Finally I should mention that this needs to be tested.  It may be that we find, through testing, that we’d be better off having a skip turn button after all.  Sometimes, there’s only one way to find these things out!  I encourage anyone creating their own roguelike to experiment with removing this feature, and see what it does for them.

Auro Starts Today with Ido Yehieli

The path of Auro has already been a long one.  I began designing the game in late 2010, and consequently went through dozens of revisions before coming up with the current concept.  There have been several pre-visualization periods, wherein many different visual approaches were taken.  The story itself even underwent many changes and complete over-hauls.  We’ve also built one functional FLASH prototype and I’ve prototyped out the game out in board game form since then.  However, actual production of the real game hasn’t started.

…Until today!

Today, our new programmer Ido Yehieli joins the team, and Auro’s production is formally starting.  Ido is an experienced independent game developer who’s been active in the roguelike community for a few years now.  He created several 7DRL (7-Day Roguelike) games which you can check out on his page.  His latest game, Cardinal Quest, is a wonderfully pared-down roguelike game for Windows, OSX and Linux  (go check out the free demo!).  It’s very interesting to note that he and I both started at “roguelike”, and then began to move in a similar design direction.  I chatted with him Monday on Roguelike Radio, where he’s a regular along with some other roguelike gurus like John Harris.  We’re really lucky to have him on board for Auro, where his experience will be of great help to us in getting from concept to execution.

Cardinal Quest, Ido's latest game. If you like 100 Rogues, you'll almost certainly like Cardinal Quest. Character classes, skills, and even four-directional movement are just some of the things that the two games have in common.

So!  Auro is under-way as of today.  We’ll be posting updates as they come.  Here’s a few points on the game:

  • Auro will be built in Adobe Air, and will be available on just about every platform that supports that (Android, iOS and PC for sure)
  • We expect development to take between 3 and 4 months (so, early 2012 release, we hope!)
  • We’re also going to be launching a KickStarter for Auro in the next couple weeks – more info on that later

As usual, stay tuned for updates to our Twitter or Facebook pages for updates!

The Art Barn: The Cool Rules of Spriting

Those of you who know about Dinofarm Games might know about its lead designer and columnist Keith Burgun.  Anyone who knows him in person would also know me, because we’re housemates.  I’m willing to bet, though, that there are a few people(maybe on the internet) who know Keith and don’t know me.  First off, you ought to be ashamed of yourself because I’m pretty darn amazing all-around and am especially good with kids (let me hang out with your dumb idiot kids!) But if you want to get right down to it, my name is Blake Reynolds, and I try to make Keith’s games look pretty.

I’ll be general custodian of The Art Barn, the new art column for Dinofarm Games.   Its primary goal is to share some half-baked know-how about pixel art, animation and art in general.  This will mostly benefit non-artists.  Beginners of all types, people new to pixel art and 2D animation, and especially programmers who can’t afford to hire artists.  Programming’s hard enough, chaps, so I hope I can provide fun little tutorials that may give some indy developers with no art team some quick and easy tips for making their games prettier.

For those of you who are already artists, you’re probably way better than me.  This is good – I prefer learning to teaching anyway, so leave me some comments and let me know where I’ve gone horribly wrong.

This first installment is about spriting or, in scientific terms, “makin’ little mans outa ‘puter squares” (there’ll be a lot of oh-ficial lingo so keep up, jerks!)  Spriting is noble work, and by noble I mean an incredibly dumb and inefficient use of your time and life.  But we all know it’s worth it because  pixel art is really special.  It’s challenging, therapeutic and rewarding.  As a practical matter, it’s ideal for small resolutions like mobile devices and hand-held consoles.  As previously stated in an article by Keith about pixel art, an artist chooses which pixel goes where rather than a computer squashing and approximating pixels from a high res-digitized 3d model.  This process of digitizing 3d models, will always, ALWAYS look awful.  I’m not saying there aren’t terrifically talented 3D modelers out there or great looking 3D art, but crushing and blurring a 3D model into a 64×64 sprite?   Who ever actually thought…



The point is, at small resolutions, every pixel counts, so every pixel should be accounted for.  Behold my logics! Continue reading