Why Are You Making Games?

This is a written version of my 5-minute talk from the Indie Soapbox session at this year’s GDC.

Why are you making games? No, I don’t mean “why are you making games?”. Also, I don’t mean “why are you making games?”. And I certainly don’t mean “why (on earth) are you making games?”. I mean the question in the purest, most abstract sense. Just “why are you making games?”.

This was a key question for me last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I thought other people might benefit from asking themselves the same question. To see where I’m coming from, let’s do a quick flash back.

It’s late 2011. Miguel and I finished working on Casey’s Contraptions and my daughter was born. I took a couple months completely off from work (new dads will understand why), and then, right at the turn of the new year, I decided to start working again. The plan was to prototype a few of the juiciest ideas, pick one that really stood out, and make a new game in a few months. How hard could it be, right?

Right?

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One Price Does Not Fit All

A few days ago I gave a talk at Evolve 2011 (part of the Develop Conference in Brighton, England) titled “One Price Does Not Fit All”.

The main idea of the talk was the importance of “flexible pricing”: Letting players spend as much money as they want to get more enjoyment out of the game and customize their play experience. Flexible pricing can result in revenues much higher than the traditional fixed price approach (derived from manufactured goods). It’s also orthogonal to the concepts of freemium and social games, and we’re only scratching the surface in ways to effectively implement it in games.

Here’s the official conference abstract:

Did the biggest fans of your game spend more money on it than someone who played it just a few times? If not, you’re leaving a huge percentage of money on the table. This session will talk about how digital distribution has made fixed prices obsolete and how you can take advantage of flexible pricing through in-app purchases in your games. We’ll also talk about the consequences (good and bad) of making a game free to play. The session will present hard data from iOS platforms, but applies to all digital distribution platforms. Continue reading

Sleep-Deprived Reflections On The 360iDev Game Jam

About 48 hours ago, I participated in the 360iDev Game Jam. I’m still recovering from the sleep deprivation and caffeine excesses, but here are some random thoughts about the game jam and why I highly recommend the experience to all developers.

This was my third 360iDev Game Jam, and it gets better all the time. It’s great to see that it has become a 360iDev tradition, and that the number of people participating is going up every time. The last couple of times we had one invited guest to participate remotely (and preside over everybody else in the big video screen), but this time we opened it up so anybody, anywhere in the world could join us and participate in the updates and discussions through the web site (big thanks for Mike Berg for all the excellent work on the web site!).

What’s The Point

Some people don’t understand what the point of the game jam is. Other people see the value in it, but disagree with what other people see. The point of a game jam is the same as a jamming music session: To create something while surrounded by other developers and feed off each other’s energy and enthusiasm.

In addition to the jamming aspect of it, different people have different goals, and they’re all just as good and valuable:

  • Trying a new game idea
  • Learning a new API or technique
  • Making a finished product
  • Starting something new
  • Being totally experimental
  • Stretching their comfort zone

There were even people using the game jam as a means to make progress in their own game or app they had already started. It’s a bit far from the original intent, but why not? It’s the jamming part that is the most important.

I was glad to see that most people decided to work the theme (“changing the world”) in the game somehow. I definitely find that having some constraints helps me focus and be more creative at the same time.

One of the most attractive aspects of a game jam for me is that it’s a very focused, but very short effort. Yes, it sounds epic: “A full night of pizza, coffee, and coding…” but it’s only 8-10 hours. That means the cost of “failure” is minimal. It’s about a work day. That’s it. So that means it’s possible to try new, risky, experimental things, and, most importantly, be OK if they don’t work out. You don’t learn by succeeding at everything.

Swapping Roles

The last two game jams, I experimented with different kinds of game designs (heavy use of multi touch and limited visibility). This time around I’m in the middle of a new project (Casey’s Contraptions), and Miguel and I did about 5-6 prototypes earlier this year, so I wasn’t itching to do another experimental gameplay prototype.

So instead, Miguel and I paired up again, but with a twist: He would do all the programming and I would do all the art. How’s that for crazy? Actually, he’s in a lot better shape because he’s a good programmer in addition to being a great artist. Me, on the other hand, I can barely find my way around in Photoshop to copy and paste images from Google Images, so this was definitely going to be way out of my comfort zone.

As you can expect, we didn’t make as much progress as we had hoped. On the other hand, I never had more fun or learned more new things at a game jam before! It helped a lot that I wasn’t just flailing around with Photoshop, but that Miguel was there giving me pointers and showing me what the right way of doing things was. I went from not knowing that there was such a thing as a path tool, to becoming relatively proficient with it over the course of the night. It was like drinking a potion of +5 to Photoshop skills.

Apart from learning a lot, I also developed an even deeper appreciation and admiration of game artists. I knew it wasn’t easy stuff and that you needed a lot of talent. What I wasn’t quite fully appreciating is how technically involved art creation is! It’s very different from traditional painting and drawing, and it’s very highly technical. In a way, it’s almost like 3D modeling in how it requires mastery of a very complex tool and you need to work on very small parts for a long time.

Here’s a screenshot of the game showing all the assets I created during the jam:

DuelingPlanets_test.jpg

Lessons Learned

Some random, unsorted, lessons learned from this jam:

  • Come ready with an empty project you can start working on. The jam is not the time when you want to start stripping out old code. I learned that one in my first game jam, but didn’t come prepared with an iPad project (Hint: the iPhone -> iPad automatic conversion sucks–does anything automatic not suck?).
  • Everything takes longer than you think. If you think you’ll just finish the game by morning, it’s probably too big. Choose something smaller.
  • Learning stuff during the jam is great. Just adjust expectations about what you’ll create (we knew this going in, but still caught us by surprise).
  • Take a moment to interact with the people around you. We’re all in a hurry to make something awesome, but take some time to talk to other developers. It’s well worth it, and makes the long night more bearable (and energizes you more).
  • Pizza and coffee is a killer combination. I suspect I might never have to go to sleep if I keep the two in balance ;-b
  • When wifi sucks, it’s hard to take the time to post updates or read other people’s updates.
  • Hotel wifi always sucks.
  • The jam is not a popularity contest. Sure, it’s great to show it off the next day, but make sure you create what you want for yourself and not based on what will demo best the next day.


If you haven’t done a game jam, you should. I strongly suggest collaborating with at least one other person, and doing it live with a bunch of other developers. The energy is incredible and it will be an experience you’ll learn a lot from and will remember for a long time.


This post is part of iDevBlogADay, a group of indie iPhone development blogs featuring two posts per day. You can keep up with iDevBlogADay through the web site, RSS feed, or Twitter. This will be my last post for iDevBlogADay for a while (need to give those people in the massive waiting list a chance!), but I’ll definitely continue posting regularly.

The Power Of In-App Purchases

I finally managed to get through the hotel wifi and upload the slides for this morning’s 360iDev talk: The Power Of In-App Purchases. Thanks everybody who attended for the great questions and feedback!

Session description

The common-sense approach to make money on the App Store used to be to do anything to get on the top charts. In-app purchases changed all of that. Good in-app purchases can make your app profitable without being anywhere on the charts, and are the best hope for the independent developer. Come to this session to learn why IAPs can be so effective and how to leverage them effectively: what makes a good IAP, how to increase your user involvement, how to present IAPs in an attractive way, what things attract users, and what things turn them away. We’ll go through lots of detailed real-world data from Flower Garden and other games with strong IAPs.

purchases_vs_users.png

Presentation slides: [Slideshare] [pdf]

360iDev: The Conference You Can’t Miss

360idev.pngIt’s no secret that I like a good conference. Actually, I’m sure I can find something to enjoy even at a so-so conference. Each field has it’s big, ultimate conference: For games it’s GDC, for graphics SIGGRAPH, and for iPhone development WWDC. Those big conferences have the big announcements, the big crowds, and the big players. But the smaller conferences always have something a unique to them that the big ones can’t compete against.

I’m going to say this very clearly so it doesn’t get lost in the middle of a paragraph.

360iDev is the best conference you can go to if you’re doing any kind of iOS development.

There. I’ve said it. And no, they’re not paying me any to say that.

I’m clearly not the only one who feels that way either. Just earlier this week Mike Berg wrote a post about how awesome 360iDev is, and we didn’t even compare notes. Great minds think alike apparently.

Yes, Apple puts the big show for WWDC. It’s a unique experience: the keynote, the crowds, the unveiling of the latest technologies, the sessions, the labs… But in the end, it’s a big show from Apple to woo its developers. You’re getting the official message through very polished presentations. Which is fine, but it feels a bit… too polished. Too streamlined. Too overproduced.

Talk to developers who’ve been to WWDC multiple times, and you’ll quickly find out that the parts they like best are the labs (access to Apple engineers) and the networking (some with Apple, but mostly with other attendees). That’s why keeping track of the parties during WWDC is almost a full-time job!

For Developers, By Developers

360iDev on the other hand is a conference for developers by developers. You don’t get fed the official party line. Instead, you get to hear how some API really worked (or didn’t) in the trenches, how developers had to work around bugs, or, why not, how some technology was a dream to work with. Nothing like hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth.

Strong Game Development Track

There are usually three simultaneous tracks at 360iDev: Business, Sights and Sounds, and Development Tricks. As you can expect, sights and Sounds is usually entirely devoted to games, and there’s plenty of game-related info in the other tracks as well.

I’m going to be totally honest here: The quality of the sessions varies a lot from one to the other, and they can be somewhat hit or miss. When the presentations are awesome, they’re really awesome. And on the average, I’d say they’re very good. That’s the flip side of not having a super-rehearsed, super-polished presentations like WWDC.

Hacker Vibe

You walk into WWDC, and you get a very strong corporate feeling (trying to be developer friendly). The moment you walk into 360iDev, it has a palpable hacker vibe [1]. The people presenting might not have the most polished slides, but they can do some amazing things on the iPhone. There are even presentations on the internals of the iPhone and what’s going on under the hood, something you’ll never get from Apple!

Game Jam

As a perfect example of the hacker mentality, the Game Jam has become a regular feature at 360iDev. On the last night, developers get together in a big rooms, and either flying solo or grouping into teams, they create a game prototype in a few hours. The next day at lunch, we have a big gathering and get to demo the games created the previous night to everybody. What a perfect (and exhausting!) last day to the conference!

It’s Nimble And Agile

This might not seem like a big deal to some, but it’s very important: 360iDev happens twice a year. Technology conferences that happened once a year might have been fine 10-15 years ago, but as the pace of technological advance continues to accelerate, once a year doesn’t cut it anymore. Especially if you have to submit talk proposals 6-8 months in advance, they’re old news by the time the conference rolls around.

360iDev is much more agile than that. It happens twice a year, and you only need to submit a general overview a few months in advance. Given the content of a lot of the talks, they probably come together just weeks (if not days) before the conference itself. That’s part of the reason for the uneven quality of the talks, but it’s a price worth paying.

Networking

360iDev is a small conference. I don’t know the official numbers, but I think there are usually around 200-300 attendees. You’ll be seeing the same faces all three days, especially the ones that share your same interests and end up going to the same sessions as you do. Even if you’re a total introvert, you’ll end up meeting a bunch of new, very interesting people, and creating lots of new possibilities for your future.

Even better, the speakers are part of that small number of attendees, and they get to hang out with everybody else. There aren’t special VIP parties, or secret off-site invitation-only parties (if they are, they’re so secret I missed them). Everybody hangs out during the sessions, at lunch, and the evening festivities. So if there’s someone in the speaker list you particularly want to meet, this is your chance.

It’s not just other developers either. The iPhone media often comes to the conference as well, so you might get a chance to talk to people from TouchArcade or TUAW.


360iDev three full days of sessions, one day of tutorials, one night of game jam, three evenings or parties, and one conference full of awesome. And that for a fraction of price of the big conferences. How can you go wrong? [2]


[1] I mean hacker in the good sense of the word, not in the “cracker”, malicious one!

[2] If this doesn’t convince Gavin and Craig to come to 360iDev, I don’t know what will. Go buy the awesome Linkoidz so they’ll be forced to attend :-)

linkoidz-blog-banner.jpg


This post is part of iDevBlogADay, a group of indie iPhone development blogs featuring two posts per day. You can keep up with iDevBlogADay through the web site, RSS feed, or Twitter.