Friday, October 8, 2010

Making Complex Animations with Cocos2D

Cocos2D for iPhone is an excellent game engine for 2D game development on the iPhone platform. One of the strengths of the device is it's many built in actions and node types, as well as it's scheduling system, which allow one to create complex visual effects - be they animations or otherwise. In this post, I will talk about some techniques I have discovered for creating animations and effects in Cocos2D. A companion youtube video was also created as I used some of these techniques to create a first pass on an animation for a real iPhone game in development, currently code named "Furious Tactical". I was working on converting this flash animation into code.


  • Scheduler

  • Color Layer

  • Actions

The Scheduler

In any Cocos2D node that is currently added to a scene, you may schedule and unschedule events. For my animation, I created a separate attack overlay layer that holds the animation, and sits above the game layer. As such, I could schedule and unschedule events right into the layer to control it.

Looking at the flash animation, you can see that there are several steps that must be followed:
1) Attacking unit slides in
2) Attacking unit name appears above it
3) Defending unit slides in
4) Defending unit name appears above it
5) Units able to attack pull back
6) Units able to attack charge at enemy unit
7) An animation/effect plays in front of attack unit
8) Screen shakes and flashes
9) Dead units fly off the screen
10) Surviving units grow and fade out

If I were to rough this out in my layer, I might have code that looks something like this:

-(id) init
if((self = [super init]))
[self schedule:@selector(slideInAttackingUnit:)];
//Store any parameters, create objects, etc.

-(void) slideInAttackingUnit:(ccTime) elapsedTime
[self unschedule:@selector(slideInAttackingUnit:)];

//Do slide code

[self schedule:@selector(attackingUnitNameAppears:) interval:0.5f];


When Cocos2D schedules an event on a node, it will call that event whenever the interval passes. (If no interval is supplied, it will instead call that event every frame). In the case of this animation, we only want each event to happen once, so we unschedule the current method as soon as it is entered and then schedule the following one.

I'm sure that the scheduler is familiar to most Cocos2D developers so I'll move on to the next section.

Color Layer

If you pay close attention to the flash animation, you will see that there is actually a very short white flash when the units collide. You will also notice that there is a bit of a blueish overlay when it first starts running. Both of these can easily be accomplished using a CCColorLayer.

Placing a Color Layer is incredibly simple; you simply initialise it with the colour you want it to be, and add it to your scene, as below:

CCColorLayer *backgroundLayer = [[CCColorLayer alloc] initWithColor:ccc4(128, 128, 255, 100)];
[self addChild:backgroundLayer];
[backgroundLayer release];

I typically use alloc/init instead of the convenience methods where available, just to have a little more control over memory. It's a stylistic choice and except in very tight memory situations, not entirely necessary. By setting the alpha to something less than a full GLByte of 255, it can function is a nice barrier between your current layer and what's behind.

For the white flash, using a ColorLayer in conjunction with the scheduler is quite effective. Consider the following:

-(void) addFlash
flashLayer = [[CCColorLayer alloc] initWithColor:ccc4(255, 255, 255, 255)]; //flashLayer is an instance variable
[self addChild:flashLayer];
[flashChild release];

[self schedule:@selector(removeFlash:) interval:0.05f];

-(void) removeFlash:(ccTime) elapsedTime
[self unschedule:@selector(removeFlash:)];

[self removeChild:flashLayer];
flashLayer = nil; //will be removed from memory - we don't want dangling pointers!

This simply adds and removes a white color layer very quickly to simulate a flash. Simple!


Cocos2D comes with a variety of actions. Ignoring animations, the ones I find myself using most are CCMoveTo/By, CCScaleTo/By, CCRotateTo/By, and CCFadeIn/Out.

The difference in the transform actions, for example CCMoveTo/By, is absolute versus relative. CCMoveTo moves an object to an absolute position; CCMoveBy to a relative position. For those who don't know what that means, the names help make sense of it, but here's a quick example: Imagine that you have an object at position 200, 200. If You were to apply CCMoveTo(100, 100) to it, it would move to 100, 100. Whereas, if you were to apply CCMoveBy(100, 100) to it, it would move to 300, 300.

It is often useful to sequence many actions together to save code; for example, in order to give the unit portriats a bit of a jump back, I use the following code:

leftSprite.position = ccp(-leftSprite.contentSize.width / 2,
leftSprite.contentSize.height / 2);

CCDelayTime *delay = [CCDelayTime actionWithDuration:leftDelay];
CCMoveTo *move1 = [CCMoveTo actionWithDuration:0.23f position:ccp(leftSprite.contentSize.width / 2, leftSprite.contentSize.height / 2)];
CCMoveTo *move2 = [CCMoveTo actionWithDuration:0.02f position:ccp(leftSprite.contentSize.width / 2 - 5, leftSprite.contentSize.height / 2)];
[leftSprite runAction:[CCSequence actions:delay, move1, move2, nil]];

(leftDelay is a value I use to control which of the sprites appears first).

Take note of two things; first, the CCDelayTime at the beginning. This is useful if you want to add a delay to your animation. Next, check out the CCSequence; this allows you to string a bunch of actions together, and they will then happen one after another. CCDelayTime is pretty much only useful when used in conjunction with CCSequence, as it literally does nothing. When you have listed all of your objects, you must ad nil (the sentinel) so that the action knows to expect no more. If you don't do so, you will get the warning, "Missing sentinel in function call".

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A love of strategy

I love strategy games. If there is one genre of games that my enjoyment of has not diminished at all despite the fact that I play much less games than I used to, that genre is strategy. (The other is Legend of Zelda. That counts as a genre, right?)

My favorite type of strategy games are Tactical games. This is partially born from the fact that I loved RPG's when younger and Tactical RPGs were perfect, combining my love of strategy with my favorite genre. I remember spending hours playing Shining Force and Shining Force 2 - to this day, their formula, despite being very simple, is still my ideal format for how a tactical RPG should be done.

Each tactical game I play inspires me to make one. There are always changes I would make - for example, as "realistic" as it is, I hate character death in Fire Emblem, it's the one factor that ruins the game for me. While I appreciate how carefully it requires you to plan and play, one mistake can cause a healer or mage to be vulnerable in a way you missed - and they often die in one hit, resulting in me resetting game even if I didn't lose.

So when I received the opportunity to make a tactical game for the iPhone, in collaboration with Big Stack Studios with Bella Machina being brought on for the art side of things, I jumped. And, bringing with me the lessons brought forward from Castle Conflict, I designed what I think will be an ideal battle experience for the iPhone.

Due to the way the project is structured, the first release will not feature any campaign - just a bunch of Skirmish Maps (think Red Alert) so that we can test the viability of the game in the market. But it has been designed for the iPhone - to be picked up and played while waiting for the bus, etc. So the gameplay has been streamlined, the interactions made simpler, so that you can have a fast and furious battle in a short period of time. For example, like in Castle Conflict, there are no health bars - in Castle Defense games, I found that they caused the game to result in big messes in the middle with very little tension because they were so slow, and given the short time frame we expect Furious to be played in, we want it to emphasize fast combat.

We're going to be keeping fans updated through forums, youtube, blog posts and facebook as the game develops, so stay tuned for all the details as we work on this bad boy.

In the meantime, Apple has had our update in hand since September 3rd and so I'm hoping will be approving it any day - so keep your eyes peeled for that :)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Castle Conflict, a bumpy road

This current release of Castle Conflict has been something of a frustrating one.

To be quite frank, when we released Castle Conflict for the first time last year, it was as if something magical happened. We came up with a game idea based off of a game that we had both played before in the past. In a week, we polished it off - like it was nothing - despite the fact that I had never developed anything for the iPhone prior to that point. It just, worked. And it seems that the world knew it - it was featured by Apple and made nearly $20k before sales petered out to about $5 a day, tops.

It took us six months to release an update. It was a surprisingly long time, due to friction in the interim and the idea that we could make another 1-week game in between while our brains sifted through ideas on what to do with Castle Conflict next. That 1-week game took 3 months to make and, to date, has earned us approximately $200. Josiah got a full time job, making it difficult for us to find a period of time to develop the app. But at the end of November, we found the time, and at the beginning of December we submitted something that was closer to our vision of what Castle Conflict could be - the game with campaign mode.

Sales bumped up to about $20 a day, and when Christmas hit, they bumped up to near $50 a day. We still couldn't quit our day jobs (although technically, I had). We had agreed to take some time off from the project before the next update. I spent December doing client work so that I had some money in the bank.

January rolled around and we went for the second most requested feature of Castle Conflict, multiplayer, with a planned second campaign to be released right after. Multiplayer took a long time to develop, and came mostly on my end. It is a largely unused feature in the game compared to campaign and we could have released a campaign map or two in the time it took me to make it, had we known how little use it would get. People still complain that they can never find people online to play with them, despite the fact that it is local-only multiplayer, meaning you can only challenge people via bluetooth or on the same wifi network as you.

As soon as the dust had cleared and that update was submitted, we geared it up a notch, making our Egypt campaign. This was expected to take a week, due to the fact that we had our campaign code all written in November, but it ended up taking two. During these two weeks, I literally got up at 8 or 9 every day and worked from then until I went to bed at 11 or 12. The addition of new units and new unit skins basically broke the game and I learned more about memory fixing it than I ever expected to know. Since then, however, I have been much smarter with understanding memory on the iPhone and how it works.

Simultaneously to this very stressful, yet creatively charged two week period, I was putting the full financial force of Broken Kings behind the project, believing that with the new campaigns and multiplayer, the game was poised to take off the way it had when featured by Apple the year before. That we had found a game that could be a sustainable business and could continue to develop for in the future. A week or two a month could yield a new update every month, our fan base would grow, the game would allow us to develop games full time.

I spent over $7k on an advertising campaign. By this point, this was almost all that was left in the Broken Kings bank account. But so sure were we of the game that we did it anyways.

February 22nd, our ad campaign went live, on all the large websites for iPhone games and large websites for iPhone apps we could find and afford. We had paid for ads from a well known artist, knowing that Josiah's pixel-art style wouldn't draw in as many customers and that we didn't know advertising that well, so having a pro help us out couldn't help.

It boosted our sales by about $15 a day the day it went live. We can't even be sure how much of that was the ad campaign because our sales tended to fluctuate within at $20 range on a per-day basis. A few days later, Apple featured us, but only in the "What We're Playing" section. This free publicity boosted our sales by $30 a day. We never cracked the top 200. We were emotionally, physically, creatively, and financially exhausted when I was approached by Free App A Day and given the chance to put Castle Conflict up for a discounted price. I agreed, and this worked - we made about $3000 in the next two months after the app went free. This went to paying 2009's taxes.

Agreeing to take a break from the project for a while, Josiah continued working and got involved in some musical projects. I started taking on consulting work, working on various projects including an iPad port of a game by a local company (The funds from that also went to taxes), an iPhone app that has yet to be released and I have yet to be paid for, then some consulting for a UK-based company that took up the end of April, all of May, and first few weeks of June. It put money in the bank, but I had made a commitment to a game studio in town that I would make a game for them this summer, for money and a small percentage. So as soon as the UK app was finished, I has to immediately put time into this new project (which is still ongoing).

Josiah and I did plan and start the new update in April, however, with the intention of working on it on a weekly basis. That didn't last through the UK app, due to the client having a very intense deadline that we worked like mad to reach. Various other dramas and events in my personal life made it difficult for me to want to work on code after work hours. But the original plan (which has since been reshaped) was that the game I was working on locally would be complete July 31st. I even paid my roommate (who made Shiftmaze last year) to help me out that month. For a variety of reasons, the app has not yet been released and is still in development, partially due to my own over-ambition, partially due to some differences in the way that the company I am working for operates versus the way I operate on Castle Conflict. Josiah is only available full time for two days every other week, due to commitments both to his full-time job and his band. So we've never quite found the magical, creatively-charged week or two week period that we had in the previous updates. A lot of the work, we don't even do at the same time. I work when he's at work and he works on weekends.

Yet pressure continued to mount, with reviews coming in every day from fans wanting the update, which escalated eventually to fans demanding an update, so we have been putting this update together every chance we get. But it has been nearly 4 months that we have been working on it on and off now, when before we were able to work on it for two weeks and be good. And we've ended up cutting out a fair amount of what we planned in order to get this update out faster - our original plan involved having about 50 new levels and 23 new unit types this update, but we've cut it down to a typical campaign of 20 levels and 10 new unit types, simply to get it out on time, and because we're finding it hard to find the time we'd need to put in in order to pull off a lot of the wizardry we were hoping to pull off.

Yet, despite all this work in the past year, Castle Conflict has only made about another $9K. Of that $9K, $8K went towards advertising and about $2K went towards paying Josiah. In short, despite the bulk of the game having been created since Apple featured us hardcore last year, we haven't been able to capitalise on the promise of our initial launch. As much as we both would love this game to make us enough money that we could put more time into it, would love to release a new update on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, the need to eat makes this tricky.

I have a decent amount of money in the bank account, enough for me to live for a few months, although that lessens if I try to pay an artist full time. Nonetheless, after this release and the release of the game I'm making for the local company, I will be looking into a plan for how to develop better in the future. Because I truly believe that communication with our audience, and a stream of new content, can lead to a successful iPhone app business. I have ideas I've talked with a few people that we want to get out there in the app store, and I'd love to bring the audience along, be able to bring these ideas to fruition faster and be more open with the audience. The past few months, I have failed on this front due to the stress related to money and client work - whereas, earlier this year I was able to put a lot into it. (Look at the Multiplayer update of Castle Conflict - it added the "next update" preview feature and the survey, and I was constantly posting youtube videos about the current progress of the app). I'd like to get back there.

This update, we still believe will be good, if not everything we hoped it to be. But I'm going to look at it as a launching point. Besides, we already have ideas for the next update.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quiet does not mean dead

So, the original CC plans of having the next update done by the end of the May never quite went to fruition. Back to back projects had lead to my having very little development time free for the project. The project I am on now is scheduled to end July 31st, and it is another game I am being paid to make for a company in my town of Calgary. The games current name is Furious Tactics and it basically takes my love of tactical games and lessons I've learned from Castle Conflict (both design wise and code wise) and merges the two into what will be one amazing tactical game. I am working with the talented Sean Dunkley on art; he may be better known to anyone who has played Sally's Spa, although he has worked on many other projects (check out his webpage to see some of what he has done). So if you are missing out on CC battles, watch out for Furious Tactics (working name) which should be out soon!

I have no projects scheduled in August as of yet and am in a financial situation where I should actually be able to keep it that way. So while it is a bit delayed from what I would have liked, as soon as the client work is done and I'm not concerned with deadlines on other projects, CC is my first priority. Josiah and I have already spoken and are planning to be able to get the game done as quickly as possible come August.

After that, my roommate, Lopi, and I have been talking about spending some time working on a couple app ideas he and I have been batting around for some time. My goal, building a company, is to be able to work on client projects less and games/apps released under my own company more often. Financial realities don't always allow this to be the case, and I love the act of doing the work, for clients or for myself, so I'm not unhappy doing client work. But in terms of going where I want to go in life, I'm hoping to be able to take projects like Castle Conflict and build on them more often :)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Castle Conflict Update

Unfortunately, the current Castle Conflict update its taking longer than expected. There is one reason for this: Castle Conflict does not make us enough money to live off of. For this reason, we are unable to make it priority over things that actually make us money.

The original intent had been to work on it all this month and release it at the end. And we're still aiming for that deadline, but it may be more difficult to reach. Most of the art assets have already been created, but almost none of the code for the new campaign has been implemented. This is because I, the programmer, have been doing client work, and the current client work has taken up almost literally all of my available time. Things there have just wound down, so after a day or two to recover, the update will be making forward progress again.

The new update will feature a 3rd campaign, in what we dub the "Endless Forest".

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The value of experiences

I don't like "distractions" or "time killers".

We all get one life, of variable length. I'm going to ignore religion, rebirth, and all those other theories and say that the only thing that is universally accepted by all humans is that we are born, and eventually we die, and what happens after that is mysterious.

The thing is that we are born into this amazing, wonderful world. I don't have to believe in some higher deity to realise that the world out there is full of wonder and miraculous things. In the natural world alone, there is so much to be experienced, and mankind has been quite prolific in their own right.

I find the concept of free time hard to understand, and the same of boredom. There are so many things to do in life that are so fulfilling, that I can't understand being bored and looking for something to do to kill time. When I'm not working, there are a ton of other things I like to do - learn guitar, go for bike rides, cook, spend time with my household. And when I actually "relax", even that is as a break from all the other things I want to do, and there are so many wonderful books, so much wonderful music, and even a good movie or tv show here or there.

In short, there are so many wonderful things to do in life that most days I don't even get to do everything I want. Or even close. And I'm constantly getting ideas for new things I would like to add to my busy schedule. Like, boy, I would love to make such and such game. I would love to read such and such book. I would love to bike to such and such location. I would love to learn how to play such and such instrument. I get ideas for things to do faster than I can do them.

So to me, any hold on my attention is precious. There are so many amazing things that I could be doing, why would I do something mediocre, just to kill time? I'd rather be expanding time!

I like to think that I bring this philosophy into my creative output. I never want to make something that just keeps you occupied. I never want to make something that doesn't challenge. I view everything I work on as competing with all of the amazing things that people could be doing instead, and I don't want to disappoint.

Yet strangely, these types of experiences, these "just floating by" experiences are more numerous than they've ever been. Facebook and Twitter makes it easier for us to believe that all of our friends are interested in all the mundane aspects of our lives. TV not only forces us to make do with "whatever is on", but it attempts to brainwash us into wanting more and more of these mundane experiences. The iPhone app store is awash with people making an app with the first idea that came into their head and pumping it out as quickly as possible, in the hopes that something serendipitous will happen and they will get rich.

Everybody has a voice, but most people don't seem to have anything interesting to say.

Society, especially the whole "Western" society, has reached a point where less and less time is dedicated to staying alive. We have this amazing world to experience, where we can create things that really challenge people, make them think, and have lasting impacts. We have the time to do and experience the world like we never have before in history. But we seem to have this force called "boredom" imposing on our life, that drives us to seek the easiest source of minor entertainment.

Every moment someone spends inside of a game I make is a moment that they could have been doing something else with their life. I want to make sure that it is worth the tradeoff.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Stortelling in games: likes/dislikes

I'm going to take a break from Castle Conflict related stuff to talk a bit more about storytelling in games, something that I had hoped to have more time to do but haven't in quite some time.

Specifically, I am going to look at two games, one that I think did storytelling amazingly well, and one that demonstrates how, in some way, story and related paraphernalia can hinder gameplay as much as help.

The first game I want to talk about is HalfLife 2. As far as stories go, the story here is actually not too far from the fare of most video games. There is some evil force that threatens to overtake the human race, and you are set against it to destroy it. It is a bit more interesting than just that; the human race itself seems out to get you, with police men wearing what looks like gas masks out to get you at every turn. But there are people on your side to, and they refer to you as "the free man" and even fight alongside you during gameplay.

Okay, so the story is, really, decent at best. But the actual telling of the story in Half Life is brilliant. First of all, nothing is forced on you, and I think this is a very important point about what Half Life did successfully. Yes, the game is linear; no, there aren't really any branches in the story; and yet, I felt more a part of the story in Half Life 2 than I did in games like Tales of Symphonia, where the game is -about- the story, has story scenes all the time, and allows me to make choices that effect the story. Why? Because, when story stuff was going on, I could run around, jump on things, shoot people, ignore it entirely, pay complete attention to it. In short, I was still playing the game while the story was going on, so it was still me who was experiencing the story. It quickly became something I appreciated a lot about the game.

The other aspect was the lack of detail. As you play the game, there is no moment where someone comes up to you and says, "Okay, this is what is going on." There are some light explanations here and there, but really, you're never really told specifically what the Citadel is. who "our Benefactors" really are, or how they came to be here. (note: I have never played the original Half Life, which I am sure explains some of this). The player is forced to infer what is going on based on the snippets he does here; the situation that people are living in, and the environment around him. As a storytelling technique, this makes the game much more enjoyable. And for those who don't like story, and just want to shoot things with the Gravity Gun, they can outright ignore it.

The next game is actually a series; specifically, Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is pretty successful in the tactical RPG realm, having been releasing games since the SNES days. But there is one specific detail about it that bothers me, which I will get to in a moment.

One discussion I remember having when I was taking Game Design courses was about consequences. About how, in many games, there were no consequences to the players' actions in a lot of games. The teacher talked about how he felt that consequences could be used to greater effect in a lot of games.

I think one thing to remember with games, even games that are heavily based on storytelling, is that they are still games. They are supposed to be fun. On the one hand, I'm a fan of the idea of consequences, and I think if implemented well, they can add a lot of depth and strategy to your game.

In Fire Emblem, they added consequences. If one of your character dies in the midst of battle, he dies forever. This might not be so bad, if there weren't a lot of weaker units (healers/mages) that suddenly seem much more useless, because you never want them close enough to the front line to be used effectively. If you do this, they will be killed. And while, in this type of games, you generally don't want your units killed, in Fire Emblem having them killed basically forces you to restart the battle or move forward for the rest of the game with a gimped army. Either option kind of sucks. And unfortunately, it is easy to have a healer off by a single square, and then have an enemy unit, out of the blue, attack it an kill it in a single hit. While this does promote awareness of careful planning, which are strong aspects of this type of game. I feel that it nonetheless is a bit too harsh.

For this specific case, I think Rondo of Swords found a much better mid ground. There is still punishment if your unit dies in battle, but instead, it's just weaker in the following fight while it recovers. A much more balanced, enjoyable feature.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Learning from your fanbase

In my last blog entry, I made the mistake about complaining about a bad review. Typically, I avoid complaining because it rarely accomplishes things, and I don't like being a whiner. But something happened as a result of my complaining - a fan of Castle Conflict went and wrote a great review. Since then, the game has got many more and with the new Egypt update out, it is doing pretty decent.Nonetheless, my last blog entry taught me two things:

1) Fans are awesome!!
2) Whining works. (Don't worry, I'm not going to start whining all the time =P)

I have a couple Castle Conflict related blogs on my plate, things that I've learned, and this will be the first of those. I was hoping to do this one about a month ago, actually, but I've been sidetracked... now that I have some time, here it is!

One of the things that we added to the Multiplayer update of Castle Conflict was a survey. The survey basically allows us to ask the users directly what they think about Castle Conflict. I set up the survey such that I could update it live, although I haven't done so as of yet, as I haven't had a chance to collate the results of the last survey.

To make the survey work, I'm using PinchMedia. It's no secret that I think Pinch is amazing and have learned a lot using it. There is some fear mongering going on about the service, but I think it's a bit too much. Especially given that Castle Conflict does not use Core Location or Facebook Connect; so some of the things that people are frightened of don't even apply to our game.

Anyways, Pinch is great because it tells you what your users do. But it's a bit more difficult to ask them outright what they think, so we added the survey. But, since we already had Pinch Media installed, instead of going through all the effort of writing a web service that would tally the results, and display it, I just made each question have a beacon, and I appended -y/-n at the end of it to mark the users response. This doesn't work perfectly; if a user takes the test more than once, for example, and answers the same question differently, I get both answers and don't know that they changed their answer. Being the optimist, I pretty much ignore all the -n answers, view by unique users instead of clicks, and tally the results that way.

Here are the results:

966 people finished the survey

945 played Campaign
918 wanted more levels
916 enjoyed campaign
909 want more units
844 want unit skins

439 would pay for more content
298 would pay for campaign levels
290 would pay for units
232 would pay for unit skins
199 would pay for multiplayer levels

307 played multiplayer
275 enjoyed multiplayer
218 thought multiplayer was stable
179 thought multiplayer had enough customisation

922 Would recommend the game to their friends

This tells me a few things.
1) Multiplayer could still use some work
2) However, very few people have played multiplayer relative to campaign
3) Despite the fact that multiplayer could use some improvements, if I were to make it more stable, I would please less than 100 people (as 2/3rds of the ~300 who had already played thought it was stable already
4) If I were to sell new campaign maps, I would please almost as many people as have played multiplayer
5) If I were to release a new, free campaign, I would please three times as many people as have played multiplayer

This tells me that, while multiplayer could use some work, the direction that the fans are interested in is campaign.

How does this compare with what I've learned via pinch?

In the month of February (when multiplayer was live):

5236 People played campaign,
972 beat it and kept playing after

1166 people created a multiplayer game
262 people challenged an existing

Result? Not a lot of people playing multiplayer in its current incarnation.

There is one other thing I would like to discuss in this entry, and that is "QuickPlay". Currently, I am thinking of axing it, despite the fact that it goes against some of my instincts. (According to Pinch, 2886 people played QuickPlay in February, so it is still being used). The reason for this is that it ruins the first experience. If the user starts a quickplay match and they haven't yet played, they are presented with 8 units + another button, and little idea what to expect. It can be overwhelming. Campaign is a much more controlled experience - the player gets 3 units to start, and gets to get new units one at a time, as features slowly unroll for them. Campaign also drives the user forward better.

If I download a game for a first time, and I'm trying to figure out how much I like it, I'm more likely to click on "QuickPlay" than "Campaign". Simply because, Campaign sounds like it has a large commitment. Whereas QuickPlay sounds light and easy - "oh yeah, I can try this out, and know if I like the game." I've seen over half the people I pass the game to test it out go to QuickPlay instead of Campaign. So either Quickplay needs some reworking ... or it should be taken away. We want users to have the best first experience possible, so that they like the game more, and are more likely to spread it via word of mouth. I think that, for this to work, we need to drive them to our best experience, which is Campaign. Will this actually happen? Stay tuned for our next update (although no date is yet set for that)

Monday, February 1, 2010

One of the biggest fears I've heard from many of my programmer friends is showing their code to other people. Or coding in front of other people. It's as if, they're so afraid that there's some way they could be coding things better that they don't know about, that if they showed their code to others they'd be ridiculed. Or that they think that they're doing things in a great way and are afraid to be ridiculed and find out that perhaps their way isn't so great after all.

I don't remember having this fear for a long time. I got used to pairs programming in high school, which to a lesser extent involves sharing your code with someone. But it's more recently that my lack of fear has been obvious; I taught iPhone Dev School this weekend and was coding in front of an audience of ten others, not only showing off my coding style in real time, but making the claim that it was good enough that they should listen to me and code this way. (For sure, I was coding nothing particularly difficult in a two day course, but my co-instructor, Michael, came up to me and said, "Man, you're brave. Coding in front of ten other people!"

Truthfully, until he said that, I hadn't even thought about it.

No, when it comes to code, my fear is not showing it to others. My fear is my product. Michael gave a speech this weekend with roughly the following quote: "If you're not embarassed by the first version of your product, then you've shipped too late." I agree with this notion full heartedly. But although I will publish an embarassing product to see if there is any interest in it, once I know there is an interest, I get more concerned with doing things right.

I released Castle Conflict almost a year ago now. It has been a pet project of Josiah's and mine, and we have since released one minor and two major updates for it, with another one that we are currently planning. We have over 20 000 people who have downloaded non-pirated versions of the game at this point. While I am certain that it has been deleted by a number of these people, assuming only half of that audience liked the game enough to keep it, that means that each time we update our game, there's 10k people who might see it.

One of the popular requests for Castle Conflict has been multiplayer. I finally spent the time teaching myself the BlueTooth and WiFi libraries on the iPhone. I finally spent time learning about syncing, time stamps, etc. I expected that I would be done January 7th, but it was not until minutes before midnight on January 21st (after skipping my weekend and spending 4 days working 12 hour shifts, something I did without noticing because I love my job so much) that I finally submitted the multiplayer update. After days of testing, checking stability, reducing crashes, keeping the devices connected as solidly as possible. etc.

But there's a problem. I am in no means a network programmer. While I enjoyed that course in school, it was not my strong suit. And I haven't really touched anything network-program-y since 2006 in school. (Technically, I was working on Gwabs, a networked game for about a year, but by the time I was on the project most of the network code had already been written and I never touched the networking code itself). So, in terms of how to structure things, I was learning the entire way.

Then again, the first week when Josiah and I did Castle Conflict, I was teaching myself Cocos2d. But my experience with 2D game engines is much stronger, and it's a lot harder to structure rendering wrong.

On January 21st, I felt fairly certain that I was submitting a game that would be received well, that would give Castle Conflict a much-wanted boost in sales, and that was fairly certain. But I had a fear. I had a fear because I am not a network programmer, and while I tested everything I could think of, my instincts are not as sharp as they would be in searching for bugs in gameplay. I don't know with as much certainty where to look to make sure I haven't made any obvious mistakes. What if I missed a spot?

Nonetheless, surely my audience would appreciate what I had made for them, the weeks I had spent getting it working on their request, the time I had spent learning and implementing? Surely, even if there were bugs, they would understand that they would be ironed out over time, and appreciate the new features that most of them were getting for free?

Not quite so. I've got three reviews since the multiplayer update went live. One is about another game, making me wonder if the reviewer is confused, or a spammer. One was in German, and although google translate tried, it was not able to make the review completely understandable. (I did get that they liked it, though). But one said this:

"Bluetooth and WiFi gameplay always disconnects... Horrible coding and balancing."

It was a one star review, the first review lower than three stars I have gotten since campaign mode was released. And while it's too early to say for sure, my sales took a turn downwards today compared to yesterday (when this review was written). Such an early review discounts all the other stuff in the game that people have already liked, and says that it sucks because this new feature I spent weeks writing and learning for - literally as much time overall as the entire rest of the game combined - is not yet perfect. And I wonder, by spending these weeks trying to give back to my users, have I potentially damaged my sales more than hurt them? (This all being said, I just checked out this guy (NeverEverSatisfied)'s stats and he's written 14 reviews on the app store, of which 12 were 1 star.)

I'm reminded of a quote that refers to rock stars: "You're only as good as your last hit single." Perhaps this is true on the app store? Perhaps you're only as good as your last update?

I wish that the iPhone app store allowed me to e-mail people who reviewed my game. For, certainly, I would love to know what problems this guy ran into. What device he was on (I was able to test on an iPhone 3G, 3Gs, and an iPod Touch 2nd Gen, but not iPhone 2G or iPod Touch First Gen). What disconnect messages he was getting. Then, perhaps, I would be able to learn from this information, update my code, and make things more stable.

Anyways, we will continue to make wireless more and more viable as time passes. And we will continue to add more content. I have learned a couple other things from this update that I hope to blog about soon, including some classes I wrote for it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPhone Dev School Rev 3: This weekend!

Michael Sikorsky and I will be teaching iPhone Dev School again this weekend, at the University of Calgary.

For a sample of what you can expect to learn if you attend, we have "leaked" the following recipe: BlueTooth Recipe, which outlines how to use the GameKit library in iPhone OS 3.0. This is just one of the many things that will be covered this weekend.

No experience is necessary; day one is spent getting everyone up to speed on how iPhone development works, what all the different pieces are, and getting familiar with the tools. In day two, we spend more time giving students quick introductions to various APIs that are available, both from apple and third parties. We also discuss the app store from our own real world experience.

If you are interested, there are more details on Michael's blog.

We hope to see you there!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

iPhones impact in Calgary in 2009

2009 has seen a huge increase in the visibility of apple's iPhone App Store. The app store hit it's billionth download in May, then just before the end of September it doubled that number. Over 100k apps have been developed for the app store since it launched in the summer of 2008. Even in the humble little oil, gas, and cowboy town of Calgary, we've seen a significant pool of developers working on apps for the device.

The biggest category of iPhone app developers in Calgary have been those who are developing games. Companies in Calgary that are involved in this space include:

Broken Kings is a fledgeling Game Design company that so far has two games published on the iPhone. The first, Castle Conflict, was initially developed in 10 days, pirated over 10k times, featured by apple, and hit the top 50 in the US App Store for all apps. Their second app, Ant Attack, took longer to develop and did not sell as well. They released an update version of Castle Conflict before Christmas. The company also has two PC games that is is searching for distribution for, and does some consulting. They have one full time employee, Stephen Gazzard, and hire contractors to aid them on projects.

A lot of press has been given to Sally's Spa, which knocked EA's The Sims off of the #1 slot in the iPhone app store to becoming reigning champion. While it is no longer in the top slot, it still made makes large amounts of sales. The game was developed by a Calgary game development company, Games Cafe. The two man team responsible for most of the design, programming, and art then left Games Cafe to start their own iPhone game company, Blue Unit Games, although they were bought by Phoenix New Media shortly afterwards.

WNRS (which stands for We Are Not Rocket Scientists) and is another success story from a Calgary development house. The company includes Boris Cosic, who worked on Flapjack Finder, an app that allowed users to find Calgary Stampede Pancake Breakfasts with their iPhone. Two apps have been released by WNRS so far. The first was HallowCarver, a Halloween themed app where the users carved pumpkins with their fingers. The app was featured by apple and hit the top 50 in Canada. Their second app, a game called SnowRumble, was released in the app store shortly before Christmas.

FPM software is a company run by Lopi Mackenzie. The company is technically incorporated as a BC corporation but its offices are now located in Calgary. Their first app, ShiftMaze, was released shortly before Christmas, and developed in coordination with Vertical Motion.

Big Nerds in Disguise is a hobby developer, meaning that the employees still work full time jobs and makes their apps at night. Their first app, Own This World, went live shortly before Christmas. Is is a location based app where players gain territory using the GPS on their iPhone. In total, BNiD has three employees; two programmers and the graphic designer/marketer. (They also wrote another app, Ask JC, that was rejected by Apple).

Soma Creates is a company run by Josh Heidebrecht, a parent of two. Like many other companies in Calgary, Soma Creates makes games for the iPhone, but where Soma Creates is unique is that their apps are aimed at the children of people who own iPhones. Their first app, I Can Garden went live earlier this year, and is aimed at children 18 months and older. Soma Creates already have several projects planned for 2010, that follow their goal of creating apps that entertain children while at the same time unlocking their potential and inspiring their creativity.

Another young iPhone company in Calgary that develops games and does consulting. Notably, they recently worked on Hootsuite, which won an award on Mashable for best Twitter app.

Mindless Goods is a small Game design company based in Calgary that is near to releasing their first title, Bait, which is like a combination of the hit iPhone app Koi Pond and the hit PopCap game Feeding Frenzy. It is run by Greg Taylor outside of work hours.

The iPhoenix Fund is perhaps the biggest movements in game development in the city. It was started by Phoenix New Media, a Calgary games company that has a hit series, "Curse of the Pharaoh", on Big Fish Games. In 2009, they began iPhone operations, including the purchase of Blue Unit Studios and the start of the iPhoenix Fund, which intends to build a number of iPhone games over the next five years. Development partners that will be working with Big Stack Studios (the company Phoenix New Media is using for iPhone games) include Broken Kings, Robots and Pencils, Chayowo Games, and Phoenix New Media.

Among all the game developers, there are also some companies who dabble in more than just games.

Robots and Pencils is run by Michael J. Sikorsky and his wife, Camille Sikorsky. They consult and work on their own projects. Throughout the year, they were involved in various websites, businesses, and iPhone apps. The four iPhone apps that are live in the app store that Robots and Pencils were involved with include: Crush Factor, iHydrate, Kawi, and an app for iPhoenix Fund investors.

Finally, there have been several movements in Calgary that have not been related directly to the development of iPhone apps, yet have still benefited from the growth of iPhones on the market.

iPhone Dev School and iPhone Dev Camp are initiatives started by Michael J. Sikorsky of Robots and Pencils. He teaches iPhone Dev School with Stephen Gazzard of Broken Kings; so far, they have taught the course twice (once in Calgary and once in Edmonton). It is a weekend course, and students have gone on to write successful apps. Included among the students were Boris Cosic of WNRS, and Randy Troppman, who founded RunningMap Trackometer, an app that tracks users positions over time. (It hit #10 in the Fitness category on the iPhone). The next is being held at the University of Calgary at the end of January.

iPhone Dev Camp is a little more loosely structured than iPhone Dev School, and at the first one (which was hosted in Autumn), the "App Track" began developing an app for the Calgary Science Center.

Appboy is a website for developers to promote their apps, for people to submit app ideas, and for users to look at what apps are available. In short, it's an app-lovers hub.

iPhix is not involved in iPhone Development, but they still make their living off of the iPhone. This mom and pop shop specializes in fixing broken iPhone screens for less money and time than it takes Apple to do so.

From work-at-home entrepreneurs to hobbyists working in their free time, to large funds - the iPhone has definitely made it's presence known among the development community in Calgary. 2010 should see many more exciting advancements.

Every effort has been made to keep the content in this post accurate. If any information seems incorrect, please e-mail stephen at broken kings [dot] com