Monday, 28 January 2013 0 comments

Indie Dev Insight: MagnetiCat

There are many things I like about being an indie (hobbyist) developer. The community is so incredibly supportive; there is lots of material at your finger tips; great forums and on the whole a lot of like minded people.

I can't put my finger on when I first came across MagnetiCat but we have certainly built up a rapport over the months. This was even more cemented by their first incredibly addictive launch game called Tiny Crosswords which is a prime example of how to do a simple concept well. While of course I would strongly recommend you download immediately please spare some time to have a read of their thorough and incredibly in depth account.

What got you into writing games?
It is one of those 2 or 3 things I always wanted to do. I grew up playing on NES and GameBoy, but before that I "inherited" a Commodore 16 from my cousin and played and experimented with it until it died and I was not able to find repair parts.

When my family could buy a PC, I discovered adventure games, and I think those - the first two Monkey Island games, in particular - are the games that made me think: I would really like to be able to create something like that, one day. Ron Gilbert has been my hero since when I was a kid.

But I was a curious kid and was distracted by many other interests. I was serious about being an astronomer, then I decided to be a punk, then I wanted to be a cinema director, then I wanted to be a painter. And so on.

What's good and bad about what you do?
So far, I love almost everything about making games - from the idea phase to the end of development it is something very demanding, but also extremely rewarding. Like all creative jobs, you are building something that will live on its own, in the hands and minds of the player. Being a person with diverse interests, game development is also something that lets me put everything I love in it. I wish I could do it more.

It is very different from what I normally do, working as a freelancer for others. Even if you have a chance to work with nice people, there the job becomes routine and just a grind for making more money and paying the next rent. You are not building anything for yourself, and in the end your clients rightfully think only about their own interests, not yours. You have no benefits and you are not building a solid future for yourself. While I would never change it for a 9 to 5 job – I need to be as free as possible - it is a stressful life.

How many people are involved in writing games at MagnetiCat. What roles do they take on?
We are two people. I work mostly as game designer, programmer, and on sounds; Rossella does game design and graphic design. But in general, we try to switch roles whenever possible. We work close to each other, so there is a constant exchange. It is something that comes from life as a freelancing team: each of us must be extremely self reliant, if necessary. If there is a problem with the graphics, the person working on them just fixes the issues; the same thing happens for most other things during the development of whatever we are working on.

What would you do differently now given what you know from projects completed and experience from the gaming and app market?
Tiny Crosswords is a small game (but there are similarly small games that are very popular in the Word category), developed and released under unusual circumstances. It is not enough to have a meaningful experience of the market, and many of the things we learnt we knew before releasing the game by following the stories of other developers.

Thinking about it, the only thing I would do differently is to avoid wasting as much time as I did on Twitter. In hindsight it was pretty obvious, but you must not count on Twitter for promotion, unless you know that people are following you out of genuine interest for what you are creating. In our case, Twitter followers were mostly other game developers coming from mutual follow exchange or using automated tools. They could not be interested in what we were doing, since we had no game in the store yet. Some of these followers I know outside of Twitter and I have helped in some web-related projects, but not a single one commented on the game or even congratulated us for our first release. Only a couple of people did.

Of course, if your game is particularly amazing, people will retweet it no matter what. So building something awesome – or better, building something that at least looks or sounds awesome - is still one of the first rules of marketing in the App Store.

Tiny Crosswords is not something that most would consider cool enough for their Twitter followers, I suppose. I would, but I made it, after all. It is a simple app, it's cute, it's elegant, and it is really loved by the few players that play it.

What tools do you use. By this I mean software development kits/engines (Cocos2d, Corona, Unity3D etc), audio packages, art packages.
Photoshop and Illustrator are what we use for the art of our games. Rossella uses most of the CS suite in her freelancing jobs. Tiny Crosswords is a very simple game, and it was designed in Illustrator. We then rasterize the images in Photoshop and use Texture Packer to create the spritesheets. We use Blender as well, but not within games or prototypes, yet.

We work with Cocos2D, Corona SDK, and recently with Haxe. We have been playing with Unity3D as well recently.

What made you choose these tools over others?
Adobe products are just the standard for professional graphic design. Not perfect, by any means - switching from one product to the other in the Adobe suite is often source of nightmares - but they are products that deserve the reputation they have. The new subscription system makes the CS suite relatively affordable, as well, if you can deduct monthly expenses.

The programming side of things is much more complicated. I think I tried a bit of everything over the years. When I started coding on iOS, I first learnt Objective-C and then moved to Cocos2D. I really like Cocos2D, and while I did not release any game made with it, I used it for most of our prototypes, including the early version of Tiny Crosswords.

Then I started looking into multi-platform frameworks; I picked up CoronaSDK for 2D games, and the version of Tiny Crossword in the store is made with it. I did not pick CoronaSDK for ease of development: with all the resources you have, I think it is difficult to beat the friendliness of Cocos2D and even better, Kobold2D (now KoboldTouch). Lack of proper debug and profiling for Corona SDK apps (same issue I have with Unity Basic) is also unnerving. But the good, awesome thing about Corona SDK is that it works on multiple devices and platforms very well. It is very reliable, and there are not that many commercially supported frameworks focusing exclusively on 2D. The build size is very small, and performance is great.

And yes, I have been toying with Unity for a while, even though I started studying it more in the past 3 months. It is a great engine, but for simple 2D games, it is overkill. Unity Basic lacks proper debugging tools and build optimization, features that are necessary to develop more complex games – and 3D games tend to be more complex than 2D ones.

While Corona and Unity are targeted to different needs, they actually have very similar advantages and shortcomings. Both are closed source; both come with only their community as a free form of support. Combination of closed source and paid support is something that I will never like. Both offer a more expensive license that unlocks the full potential of the framework – prices are not crazy, but completely out of the pockets of most indie game developers.

A language and framework I am really enjoying recently is Haxe with NME. It is plagued by sparse documentation, but working with it just feels right. Performance is terrific, since apps are translated into native code, and you can target most modern platforms with it. FlashDevelop fully supports it, so if you are on Windows or you have Parallels on a Mac you can have one of the best IDEs in existence for your game development. I am interested in releasing smaller web games, and Haxe is perfect for that, even though it is regularly used to build huge apps.

I had considered also Unity's Flash target, but it is expensive and generates very heavy code as it basically includes all the code for the Unity engine in addition to your game code: it makes no sense to develop Flash games with Unity unless you need to develop 3D titles.

What marketing tactics do you employ? Forums, twitter, paid PR etc
We did not do any marketing for Tiny Crosswords, as version 1.0.0 was a soft release. Anyhow, we plan on sending out press releases, a trailer, and send out e-mails to review websites for version 1.1.0.

The best marketing strategy, right now, is obviously to start advertising your game many months before its release, but only if the game is particularly unique, big, or memorable: otherwise people will forget about it.

The best long term marketing strategy is to keep on building good games and create followers among your players. Do not target only a platform, especially if your games do not require extensive optimization to run on different devices. You won't become rich, but you could be making a decent salary doing something you love.

What effect do you think free to play has had upon your game design?
From the beginning, before IAPs were introduces in iOS, I had many ideas that I knew would have worked well with a free to play setup, while being perfectly enjoyable to non paying users. I could never make them, because I just did not have the time and money to work on the development.

This said, I have a big moral problem in building apps that make money by encouraging a compulsive behavior in gamers; it is something I would be unable to do. I like some free to play titles, though – NimbleBit's games, for example, are fun to play even if you do not pay a cent. Same for Imangi's Temple Run. Purchase of in-app items like in RocketCat Games' Mage Gauntlet is great as well. But I suppose that all these developers might be making even more money if they wanted to and tried to build a more vicious cycle within their games that forced players to buy, sooner or later.

What resources do you swear by for learning new techniques, getting more from the packages you mentioned above, news etc. e.g Books (specific titles would be appreciated), forums / websites, social media
If you want to learn something, I think the best way is to find some learning material that has some sort of internal organization. Random tutorials are cool to solve specific problems, but if you want to be self reliant, you need to have a bit of order in your mind. Not too much, just a little bit.

For Objective-C, I would recommend:

  • Stephen G. Kochan – Programming in Objective C: the best introduction to the language and all you need to understand Cocos2D books. It's being constantly updated, so grab the latest edition if possible.
  • Steffen Itterheim – Learn Cocos 2D: Steffen makes you build many small games instead of a big one, which is something I prefer while learning.
  •, which offers also some introductory stuff for Unity3D.

For Corona SDK, the documentation (even though a bit messy), examples, and experimenting were all I needed. But even if you are familiar with other programming languages, I recommend you skim through to learn the basics of the language. Lua is fun, but it has some quirks compared to other languages you have been exposed to.

But once you have studied a little bit, the only thing that works is to make games on your own. Small prototypes, built from scratch, just for you and your friends. Remake classic games like Space Invaders, if you are short on ideas or if your ideas are too ambitious. Just learn to make things, like an artisan. And after a few experiments, even though you think you are not good enough yet, try to complete a small game and release it. Leave that awesome adventure game for later.

There has been a lot in the press recently that app development is going through a gold rush and that the bubble will burst soon. Do you see it like this?
Absolutely. I think the gold rush stopped in 2011. After that, huge successes from unknown developers are more and more rare. We have seen many in 2012 and in 2013 from Indie developers – Temple Run, Hundreds, the Blockheads, just to name a few – and while it is amazing these great games were built by tiny teams or solo developers, these are guys and gals that have been releasing solid titles from the beginning of the iOS app store. They have built a reputation for themselves over the years, even risking a lot in the process – Imangi's Max Adventure nearly killed them, and Temple Run was not successful, at first – and thus they have loyal gamers, followers, and they are well known and respected by Apple and the press in general.

These are things you cannot build with a single game – it can happen, but it is like winning a lottery where you can control just one or two of the numbers.

This said, I believe there are many niches were you can still be successful. Some swear by the educational game app market, for example, but then again I think it is unacceptable to force yourself to develop something you are not interested into; unless you approach game development only as a businessman, of course.

Do you think app games will eventually kill off AAA titles as we know them?
No, I think the opposite is already happening. Most of the names you see on top grossing lists are either the usual big companies that existed before the App Store – EA, Warner, Activision, Disney, and so on – or ex-indie developers that have made enough money to support their games with decent marketing campaigns.

Many developers accept to sell their games through game publishers. This is dangerous ground and you risk on losing your freedom and sanity going in that direction. I would not do it. Sponsorships like it happens for Flash games are fine, as long as you keep full IR on your work.

What does 2013 have in store for MagnetiCat?
We will release Tiny Crosswords in the Amazon store soon.

It is difficult to make precise plans when you do not have funds or cache money. We will work on more prototypes, and thus collect more ideas, so that when we have some moment of respite from our freelancing work, we can jump on one of these ideas and develop it.

I would like to focus on releasing some games on the web, and release those I think would fit touch devices also on iOS. I would love to do a Ludum Dare or two, but I doubt I will have the time to.

Any additional advice you would give for up and coming indie developers?
Just start doing stuff. Do not obsess over platforms, programming languages, softwares you are using to make your games. Programming skills transfer without problems from one language to the other. Pick the tools that let you complete the game in the shortest amount of time; do not fill your mind with useless keywords and syntax, autocompletion is there to help you in most IDEs, and chances are that any specific library you learn today will change completely in a couple of years. Pick the tools you can afford: there is plenty of free stuff you can use to build great games.

Build small things for yourself; when you feel you have something good in your hands, it is time to look for a bigger room to display it. Polish that thing, then unleash it to the wild and let it be played. Treasure feedback. Do not be an asshole to your fellow developers and gamers.

Once again, build small things that you love making and playing. If you can afford this luxury, do not obsess over money. The best things we make are those we make out passion, because they are the purest.

If money is a problem for you as it is for us, try to optimize your time. I feel your pain, I understand it is difficult to do, sometimes almost impossible. But you can do it. Say goodbye to that TV show. Play less games. Maybe take a shorter bath. Forget about Twitter. Forget about Facebook.

Risk a little. You won't be around forever, and the best thing to start doing something you love is doing it today.

Tiny Crosswords is available to download on App Store for free. Also keep up to date with MagnetiCat's progress on their website.

Friday, 25 January 2013 0 comments

Indie Dev Insight: RocketCat Games

To quote RocketCat Games their design philosophy is to have huge amounts of replay value; create deep and varied gameplay; while having unlockable Upgrades and Hats. This philosophy has served them well with Punch Quest being very well received by the industry but important lessons learnt on the way.

This is the second in the series of discussions with indie developers of all shapes and sizes who share their experiences and thoughts on the indie scene.

What got you into writing games?
I just felt like doing it one day. I was a big fan of free independent games for a long time. They made the process of making a game seem attainable. The App Store meant there was no barrier to entry to trying to make a commercial game, so I got a couple of friends to try it with me.

What's good and bad about what you do?
The best thing is probably the huge amount of freedom in being able to make a living off making games. The worst thing is maybe that it's a very solitary sort of thing. I still have never seen any of the people working with me.

How many people are involved in writing games at RocketCat Games. What roles do they take on?
3 people. I design the games, make the levels and tweak everything, and handle the business stuff. Jeremy Orlando does the programming. Brandon Rhodes does the art.

What would you do differently now given what you know from projects completed and experience from the gaming and app market?
It's really hard to say what I'd do differently. We learned a lot about how free game pricing works, so if I had to do Punch Quest over I'd tweak that for the release of the game. Otherwise I don't think I'd change too much.

What tools do you use. By this I mean software development kits/engines (Cocos2d, Corona, Unity3D etc), audio packages, art packages.
We make all of our own stuff, except for some audio packages. Mostly from cheap/free sound sites. I'd like to check out Unity.

What marketing tactics do you employ? Forums, twitter, paid PR etc
I post to a couple forums and run a twitter account. I have a press list of people that like my games, so when a new one comes out I make sure the list gets codes for review. That list is always expanding. Also, with Punch Quest we started to get into cross-promotion with other developers again, which is really important.

What effect do you think free to play has had upon your game design?
It definitely affects the design. Or at least it did eventually. When Punch Quest was first released, free to play didn't affect the design much. We had higher end money sinks, but didn't make the game grindier than it was intended to be. As a result, the game didn't make much money at all. After awhile, we gave in and raised the price of in-game upgrades/equipment by 5 times the amount. This made profits surge. We'd like to see if there's a way to do free to play without it messing with the design.

There has been a lot in the press recently that app development is going through a gold rush and that the bubble will burst soon. Do you see it like this?
Gold rush ended in 2009, didn't it? I have noticed that it's been getting steadily harder to break in and make a name for yourself. Still seems possible, though, like with the recent success of 10000000. It just seems to get more difficult.

Do you think app games will eventually kill off AAA titles as we know them?
They don't seem to be. They're very different markets. Especially since app games seem to be solidifying into certain preferred genres. Big AAA companies seem to mostly be avoiding the App Store, still, after all these years. I wonder if it's because they see the App Store as a casual-dominated market, where with a couple notable exceptions it's probably a mistake to do a big AAA title. So I don't see why app games would kill off AAA titles, because there's very clear divider between the two audiences.

What does 2013 have in store for RocketCat Games?
We're doing a free hack and slash game, with random dungeons. It will be similar to Mage Gauntlet. You'll pay to buy new character classes to play as. In that way, we're hoping we can keep the game design untouched by it being free. We'd also like to try making some no-IAP $5 games.

Any additional advice you would give for up and coming indie developers?
Here's some pricing thoughts. $3's still a nice price point if you can make a game fairly quickly, are a very small team, or a solo developer. Making a free-to-play game is unlikely to make you money as your first game, but it may be worth it just to get the exposure and a bunch of possible fans that you can show your next game to. $2 seems like a waste, most would just be willing to pay $3. I hate the 99 cent price point, seems like even more of a gamble than making a game free. May as well just charge $0, for the significant extra downloads.

Go and see what all the fuss is about and download Punch Quest for free.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013 0 comments

Indie Dev Insight: Christer Kaitila

When I first started writing this blog as a reflective tool to chart my progress through 10,000 hours, I got in touch with those more experienced than myself to see what insight they could give me on my journey.

Over the last year I have become obsessed by reading as much as I can about other devs experiences and advice, to the point that I thought I would reach out again to some for their wisdom to help me and you alike.

This is the first in a series of indie dev insight that in some way the individuals involved have had an impact on my journey to date.

First up is Christer Kaitila, a name that you may not be familiar with but one that I first came across when reading an article on gamasutra and subsequently signing up for his initiative of 12 games in 12 months. In fact as I write this I have just completed my first month effort which I commented on here. I put the following questions to Christer and found his responses to be very enlightening so I hope you find this of some use. I certainly have.

What got you into writing games?
The movie TRON. My dad. Pacman, Dragon's Lair, Gauntlet and 1942. My TRS80 coco. The warez BBS scene of the eighties. The demoscene that continues to be at the forefront of gamedev tech. The knowledge that the act of PLAY is what people do when their lower needs in Maslow's hierarchy are fulfilled. You only PLAY games when you aren't starving or being shot at. Therefore, play is a state of pure bliss, of innocence, of prosperity.

What's good and bad about what you do?
What's good? The inspiration. Waking up excited. The creativity. Coming up with new ideas and stories. The learning. Honing my skills on an infinite stream of new tools. The challenge: easy things are boring. Gamedev is not easy. That's what is fun about it! The sheer triumphant pride when you hit the finish line on a game.

What's bad? Seeing my own limitations. The lack of time to take some ideas to fruition. Monetization woes. Starving artists still have better jobs than rich folks with boring jobs, but sometimes we imagine what it would be link to sit around and collect paychecks for something mundane. Must be relaxing.

What would you do differently now given what you know from projects completed and experience from the gaming and app market?
Aim lower. Make simpler things. Collaborate more often. Release sooner. Market better.

What tools do you use. By this I mean software development kits/engines (Cocos2d, Corona, Unity3D etc), audio packages, art packages.
Javascript, html5, c++, openGL, AS3, Stage3d. Notepad++, FlashDevelop, Chrome, 3dsmax, Photoshop, Acid, FileZilla, CoolEditPro.

What made you choose these tools over others?
Ease of use. The best tool, to me, has the least number of features. I don't want a swiss army knife, I want a single blade of infinite sharpness.

What marketing tactics do you employ? Forums, twitter, paid PR etc
In order of success found: Twitter, Google+, My blog, Forums aplenty.

What effect do you think free to play has had upon your game design?
I'm 100% certain that $0 is the future average price for all games in all genres and all platforms. FTP means hit players hard with your BEST content in the first five seconds. Reduce barriers to entry. LOWER FRICTION.

What resources do you swear by for learning new techniques, getting more from the packages you mentioned above, news etc. e.g Books (specific titles would be appreciated), forums / websites, social media.
I never learn using books and videos are way too slow for my taste. Wish I could watch tutorial videos at 2x speed. I *love* tutorial blog posts. The best way to learn to make games is to rip apart and hack an existing open source game. Tinker with the internals of something that already functions. Learn from the masters. Stand on the shoulders of giants.

There has been a lot in the press recently that app development is going through a gold rush and that the bubble will burst soon. Do you see it like this?
The bubble has already burst. It did halfway through 2012. The gold rush is long over. Everyone calls the new economy of apps: the appstore lottery. This means that 99.9% of all apps make no profit and 0.1% are a HIT. There's more money in Windows/Mac/Linux games now on places like Steam. Apps, while popular, are a terrible way to make a living: the sales stats are everywhere if you google long enough. The average fulltime indie app dev makes less than the average McDonald's employee. Planning to make a HIT on the app store is as likely as a musician planning to become a rock star or a kid planning to play basketball in the NBA. The vast majority will never get there, despite hard work and natural talent. If you're just getting into app dev now, you missed the bandwagon. There are certainly lots of opportunities out there and there will always be a new exception to these rules, some dev who gets a big hit. Success in apps is still possible, but only for the luck (or very well funded) few.

Do you think app games will eventually kill off AAA titles as we know them?
No, I predict that these two things will merge into one. AAA will be the new norm for apps. I predict a massive quantity of free-to-play games with multimillion dollar user acquisition budgets for you to compete with if you're still on the app store. In the near future, installs will COST you money (this is how almost every game in the top 100 does it already: they don't sell games, they BUY users at a buck a head and hope to find a few "whales" to support their efforts via IAP).

What does 2013 have in store for you?
12 games in 12 months via the happy phenomenon that is

Additionally, all the joy that comes with releasing more commercial games (strategy/puzzle/tactics mostly), being a loving dad for my 2 year old, writing another book, a bunch of new articles, and spending lots of time outside or making music. I'm transitioning from being a starving game developer to being a wealthy gamedev TEACHER. For me, there's more money to be made teaching newbie gamedevs how to make games via articles, books, tutorials, courses and the like than there is actually selling games. I think I'll focus on producing many small freeware games as a means to attract more and more people interested in learning how.

Any additional advice you would give for up and coming indie developers?
If you yearn to make a clone of your favourite game, first add up the number of people who made it x the number of fulltime years of labour they put into it. If you want to make an AAA console game or MMO, remember that they have 300-600 years of human effort inside. Longer than your lifetime. Therefore, be wise and aim smaller: something you can make in a single month. Release early and often, iterate a lot, and see which games "stick" or resonate with others. Make a dozen games next year, get lots of people to play them, and then iterate and improve the ONE game from the dozen that people liked the most. Polish it, add more to it, and then sell it.

My #1 piece of advice for game developers of the future: make games for the fun of creation. Like art, your success shouldn't be measured in dollars but something more meaningful, like the number of people who got some joy and happiness from your hard work, or number of lives improved in some small way, or quality of new things you learned, or satisfaction your obtained from making something you're proud of.


I would strongly encourage that you check out Christer's books of The Game Jam Survival Guide and Adobe Flash 11 Stage3D (Molehill) Game Programming Beginner’s Guide.

You can also find Christer on twitter, google+ and his insightful blog.


Game #1: Astavoid

Back in December I uncovered an article by Christer Kaitilia about his challenge of writing and producing 12 games in 12 months in 2012.

I found the article to be very motivational and a great idea. I watched with interest as his idea evolved into a challenge to indie devs to follow suit in 2013 and from which was born.

From previous blog entries you will have seen my angst at not producing any new games since the launch of Astavoid in April 2012 for iOS and Android. I thought this was a perfect way to refine my design skills by making something that could be produced from start to finish in a month to keep my ambition in check. The way I thought I could bolster my utility belt of expertise and knowledge was to design games in a way that each one although different added new features and concepts.

This also coincided with my porting of Astavoid from Corona SDK to Unity which I had written a diary on of part one and part two. I can now finalise part three given that I have delivered on the project.

What I liked about this whole approach is that I started off too big and was getting demotivated by the challenges I was facing. So I started off with a cross platform port of Astavoid and in the end resulted in just a port to be played in a web browser. But thats the point right, redesign but ensure you finish a game?!? No point spend no time and not finishing it.

So my January game is Astavoid ported from Corona SDK and Lua to Unity and C#. This has meant I have learnt the challenges around physics, atlases, refactored all the code, increased frames per second from 30 to 60 as well as have a template for February's game.

Why not check out Astavoid now as its free to play via a web browser here and as a means of comparison you can still download the original Corona / Lua version on iOS and Android.

I also encourage you to sign up for one game a month as I have found now in my second year of game development that this really focuses the mind.