Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On Hold For Now

I've recently been hired by a large game developer. As cool as that is, as a condition of my employment I had to agree not to make any products which might compete with my employer. Because of that, all work for anything targetted at XBLIG is on hold for now. The contract is only temporary, and I fully expect to be getting back to work on my current project whenever circumstances allow.

I'm somewhat disappointed about this, because I really enjoy making games. On top of that, the one I'd been working on up until I got hired was starting to shape up in some really interesting ways, and I was really excited about where it was heading. It's definitely had me pretty excited, though it obviously remains to be seen how it would translate for anyone else. It combines music, narrative, and gameplay in some ways that feel really compelling to me. So as I've said, I'll definitely be returning to it, though for the time being it will have to sit on the backburner with all of the other game ideas I've got just waiting for the right time to finish them.

I'll probably still take part in the Experimental Gameplay Project during any month I come up with an interesting idea for, so for now this blog will remain active as a way to describe those. I'll also probably post a post-mortem for my last EGP prototype, because I learned a lot about good game design from it (mostly from its failures).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Too Big To Fail

This is a prototype created for September's Experimental Gameplay Project. The theme this month was "Failure". If you're not familiar with the EGP, I highly recommend that you click the link there and read about it; it really is a fantastic idea.

In accordance with this month's theme of failure, the game that I have created is called "Too Big To Fail", and it's a game that puts you, in an admittedly abstract way, into the shoes of a major investment banker on the eve of the financial collapse that occurred in 2008.

In the game, you are represented by the yellowish circle with the dollar sign in it. You provide loans by moving over top of any of the other icons, which represent people who are looking for money. You can also borrow from another, larger bank yourself, which is represented by the image in the bottom corner of the screen. The goal is to build up a large amount of debt to the bigger bank while remaining financially solvent long enough that you become "too big to fail", at which point the government will bail you out to help save the bigger bank and your connections in the banking industry. The game fits September's theme because the goal is to fail by as huge a margin as possible - remaining financially solvent or failing but not owing much money are both considered to be not good enough.

Download the game here
NOTE: The game was created using Microsoft's XNA, so it will unfortunately only run on Windows computers. It also requires the XNA framework, which the game automatically detects and offers to install if you don't have it.

Movement - arrow keys
Take a loan out from 1st National - press the space bar when next to the bank

The different images represent different types of loans you can make.
Green hedge-y looking thing - represents hedge funds
Black coin-y looking thing - represents shadow bankers
Houses - represent mortgage-backed securities
Smiling face - represents regular people who want to borrow

Lending to regular people is relatively low-risk, while lending to the others leads to higher potential returns, but also higher potential failures. The high risk borrowers also borrow larger amounts of money from you. You'll probably need to borrow from 1st National to fuel your loans to the riskier borrowers.

At regular intervals the people who you've lent out money to will pay it back with interest. This is represented by a black dollar amount displayed above your reserves. Sometimes people you've made loans to will not be able to pay them back, and you'll lose that money. This is represented by a red dollar amount displayed above the loans you've made. 1st National will also call in some of its loans to you at a regular interval. This is displayed as a green dollar amount above the money you owe.

As time goes on, the risk of those who have borrowed from you defaulting on their loans goes up. At the same time, 1st National starts having financial difficulties and starts calling in more of its loans from you, so you need to maintain a higher balance to avoid going out of business before you become too big to fail.

The game lasts about two minutes before the markets completely collapse and the government finally decides whether or not you fit the bill as an institution which is "Too Big To Fail." Have fun!

I hereby release this game and all related assets into the public domain. Do with it what you will.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Great low price! Fantastic value! Bonus exclamation marks!

The price of Time Flows, But Does Not Return has been dropped from 200 MS Points to 80 (approximately $2.50 to $1) in response to the recent pricing changes on the platform. I don't know if anyone would be reading this who hasn't purchased the game, but if the $2.50 price tag seemed a bit steep to you before, now you can buy the game for just 40% of the original price! What a bargain! What a steal! Act now, because supplies are (un)limited!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New things are afoot!

I've finally decided what my next project will be, and begun working on it in earnest. I had a lot of different ideas for things that I could work on, a lot of ideas that I want to try, but I've figured out which one is currently most appealing to me. It's a design that came out of trying to work out a lot of my ideas about what I do and don't currently like in most (mainstream) game design.

I don't think that video games are "murder simulators" like some conservative commentators have suggested, but I do wonder what it does to us as a society when we are increasingly spending our leisure hours learning to virtually kill things in more realistic and efficient manners. I don't think it's the downfall of society; despite the increased amount of violence in the media, there's actually less violence in the real world than at almost any point in human history. But I'm also not so foolish as to believe that human beings exist outside of their context. Our environment does effect us, and often in ways we don't readily recognise.

More than that, though, I've just never been especially interested in games about shooting things, though there are rare exceptions like Bioshock, which I enjoyed primarily for its setting and visual design and not for its shooting mechanics. I find it unusual that we have a medium which could be incredibly expressive in so many ways, and tell so many stories, and yet most of what it's used for is games about killing things.

I also find game narratives to be highly problematic a lot of the time. Part of that is simply a quality issue; game writing is quite often bad. Part of that is inherent in the kinds of games we're making. Could anyone fit a large quantity of intelligent dialogue into Gears of War?

A bigger problem, though, is that the narrative in games is often heavily divorced from what the player is doing. Lost Odyssey has an interesting story about immortality and the role that death plays in human societies. But the gameplay is mostly about throwing fireballs at giant insects. What if the gameplay was itself about the role that death plays in human societies, though?

So, those are some of the thoughts I have leading into the game that I'm working on now. I'm currently describing it as a verbal puzzle game. It's definitely very narrative heavy, which is no surprise given my background in history (which I will have two degrees in as of next month). It probably won't play very much like most games, since most of the "action" will be in the player's head and not on the controller, but we'll see how it goes. I've never made anything like this before, so it's both daunting and very exciting at the same time.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why would anyone pay for this game?

I didn't want to raise this issue while the game was still new and relatively visible on the XBLCG service, but it's something I'll discuss now that the game has been out for a while and I've had a good chance to analyse the results.

One of the questions I've been asked about Time Flows, But Does Not Return is why anyone would pay for a game that could be completed in under 10 minutes, especially since there was no difference between the trial version and the purchased version. Part of it was simply that the game felt "done" in the form it's currently in. There was more content at one point while I was working on it, but ultimately it felt like anything beyond what's in the game now was superfluous. The game takes 6-8 minutes to play because the experience that I was going for took me 6-8 minutes to communicate. I was concerned with getting my ideas across as well as I could, and I wasn't really thinking about the trial time limit while I was creating it.

Towards the end of the process, though, I had to decide if I wanted to deliberately limit the demo in some way, knowing that I could release the full thing essentially as a free trial. I chose not to primarily because I never viewed this as a commercial product; it has always been about communication and experimentation for me.

So the question then becomes, why should anyone pay for it, since a paid version is available. The main reason is because I was hoping that players would question what exactly it is that they pay for when they buy a game. Why do you pay $2, $20, or $60 for a game? Is it because that's how you unlock "additional content", or is it because you gain something valuable out of someone else's work and you want to support what they do? This was my way of seeing if people were in fact willing to pay for something entirely to show their appreciation for it.

The result of this experiment was pretty positive - more than enough people have bought the game to cover the meagre costs I incurred making it. The conversion rate (how many people buy a game v.s. how many people download a trial) has also actually been pretty good - a bit below 2%. That might not sound very good, but 2% is considered to be pretty decent for most downloadable titles. I think it's even better given that - unlike other downloadable games - a purchase provided no additional content, and I made no attempt to "upsell" or advertise within the game, aside from providing a menu option to buy the game (the screen that appears after the 8-minute demo timer expires comes from Microsoft, not me).

As for people who didn't pay for the game, the most common thing I heard was that people didn't buy it precisely because they expected to get something extra in return for paying. That might not be so good for me and this particular game, but I think it bodes well for the service as a whole. Xbox Live is known primarily as a place where bigoted, immature young men gather, but I've learned that there's actually a pretty sizeable portion of the market made up of people who are looking for more risky, thoughtful works. And I think that's fantastic, even if I'm not the one who benefits from it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Explaining the Name

I've seen a couple of comments now about the name that I release games under, which is The Shape of Games to Come. Some people seem to think that I'm trying to assert that I'm the future of the games industry or something equally pompous, but it's much simpler than that.

The short explanation is that it's an homage to one of my favourite albums, The Shape of Punk to Come by Swedish hardcore band Refused. If you've never heard them, head on over to their Myspace page, and listen to "Summerholidays vs Punkroutine".

The long explanation goes something like this: I originally wanted to release games under the name Curmudgeon Games, but a quick Google search turned up far too many similar names, meaning there would be no good way for people to determine what was and wasn't actually released by me. I came up with probably about a dozen other names that I thought sounded interesting, but they were all already taken.

At that point I stopped and thought to myself "What is an unusual but easily remembered combination of words that probably isn't in use?" You've probably had similar thoughts yourself if you've ever tried to sign up for an e-mail address with a well established service, since pretty much anything remotely common is already taken. Because I'm a huge music geek, I just started thinking about the names of albums that I really like, and trying to figure out if I could make any of them sound like a game development studio. The Shape of Punk to Come was the first one I hit on that I could find a way to "game-ify", so that's what I went with.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Comment moderation is now on

I was hoping that people would remain civil in the comments, but that's probably too much to ask on the Internet. Ah well . . .