Friday, March 09, 2012

Ideas, iPads and Thieving Bastards

Ask any game designer and/or developer and they will tell you that ideas are cheap and plentiful. Pretty much anyone can have an idea for a game or application and most people have more than one that they are only too happy to tell you about ("I'll come up with the ideas and you do the coding. It'll make a fortune and we'll split the profit 50/50").

Well, no. Ideas are easy and are only 1% of the effort involved in making a game. In fact, until I worked closely with my artist, Ian Maclean, who hails from the Frozen North, I had assumed that programming takes up the bulk of a game. Not so; depending on the game type, the graphics can involve as much - if not more - effort than the game engine itself!

Anyway; enough of that whining from me. My initial plan with this blog post was to talk about some of the new game designs I have planned for hiive. Being essentially a one-man outfit with a full-time commitment to non-game work, I only have limited time to work on my games. This, of course, means that I generate far more ideas than I can possibly work on. And my artist is no slouch in that area either.

Now, some of these game ideas are ruled out immediately (for now!) due to complexity and lack of development funds. In other cases (and this has just happened) I'll have a nice idea fleshed out only to see a very similar game appear in the app store a couple of weeks later.

But there's a more specific reason I won't be going into any details of upcoming games, and that is Zynga.  Zynga's entire business model appears to be to watch for a popular game in the app store and then brazenly clone it. And to be fair, it's a very successful business model. However, I hope the people responsible meet their karmic fate sooner rather than later. It's disgusting; it's cynical; and it makes me want to get all stabby with the people concerned. I used to have a lot of respect for Brian Reynolds (Zynga's chief "game designer") who designed the superlative Alpha Centauri and Alien Crossfire for Firaxis. But no longer. And I'm sure he'll be crying himself to sleep on his bed of shredded $100 bills tonight over that.

Still, in itself, that may not be much of a problem for much longer. Indie games, by definition, are generally fairly low budget. Low budget games tend to be far more suitable for feature-constrained platforms such as the iPhone and iPad. Low budget can also mean a greater tendency to take risks, leading to some brilliant gameplay innovations (at least, until Zynga steal them).

With the new iPad (it's the iPad 3, dammit), the graphical and processing power has greatly increased. This is not good for indie developers. More power correlates to more cost, and that leads to two things. The first is that some indie developers will no longer be able to afford to compete (at least on the iPad platform). The second is that with increased budget comes more risk averseness. Simply put, if you are spending more to develop your game, you're not likely to want to take many risks with the gameplay. Witness the glut of first-person shooters on the PC for prima facia evidence of this. (I'm looking at you, XCOM and Syndicate).

I'm hoping this will not necessarily affect me too much. I deliberately design simple games that would have been at home on the Amiga or Atari ST, and try to focus more on gameplay than graphical effects. I don't always get this right, and in fact with Creatures & Castles I almost certainly didn't. However, the principle still applies. Gameplay is King.

In this spirit, I've been slowly working on some major upgrades to Creatures & Castles. There is a new gameplay mode (Time Attack) that relies more on twitch reflexes than careful pre-planning of a path. Along with that is a bunch of additional graphical polish (that probably should have been in there from the start) as well as a new control method that should fix some of the flaws in the previous implementation. On top of this, I'm planning to put the Egyptian levels into the game as an in-app purchase.

Now, due to the way Apple's app store works this will go largely unnoticed as an upgrade for an existing app, so I intend to take advantage of the coverage provided for new apps. Creatures & Castles will be rebranded as Creatures & Castles DX and released for free. If I can think of any logical (and optional) in-app purchases that will improve the game without affecting those who choose not to purchase them, I will probably include those too.

Once Creatures & Castles DX is out of the way, the next three projects (not in any particular order) are the sequel and as yet unannounced games (thanks Zynga) involving cheese, cats and chewing gum (each in their own game), as well as some others that, at this stage, are little more than a couple of jotted notes in a Google Document.

I hope to be able to blog about these new projects soon, at least as soon as I've finished the Creatures & Castles DX updates and got some way into them (and figured out how to get the anti-Zynga plugin to work!)


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