About Smart (Kat) Game Design

So, Smart Kat is out, and we’ve got fantastic feedback about it, such as “I’m not sure what to think about this!” Given the game’s setup, that is actually the kind of feedback we were expecting – we’ve made it clear throughout the trailers that the game should not be taken too seriously. It’s simple and silly, but good fun. And definitely child friendly!

However, it’s seriously a game, and even if it started out as a silly idea, it’s grown to be quite a long-lived game, compared to other “minigames”. This thanks to the, logically completely detached I might add, combination of gameplay modes.

A quick roundup about the game:

  • The goal is to “make your cat as smart as possible”, i.e. earn a score as high as possible.
  • You do this by simply tapping the screen, and holding down your finger for as long as you dare.
  • The closer to the “maximum smartness” of the cat you get, the higher your score – but if you overrun it, the cat becomes “too smart”, and – game over.
  • Once you’ve done this, you can – here the game takes a surprising turn – put on various, hilarious, STICKERS on your cat! Because, why not?
  • You can save and share these creations of art, and return to them in the “My Cats” list.

If you think about it, most of the good-old computer games, like C64-old ones, were about one single, simple game mechanic. The sports game where you whacked the heck out of your joystick in the hope of a new world record for 110 metres dash. There wasn’t more than some graphics and sound FX on top of that, and the full game was essentially a collection of sports, each of them based on a similar one-function game mechanic.

With that perspective, I don’t feel like Smart Kat is “too small” to be an actual game. At the same time I don’t try to convince people that it’s a big game, either. The game mechanic is not ground breaking, but it’s one of those very smart ones. Kudos here to a friend of mine – he told me about the mechanic, I didn’t invent it. It lingered in my mind for some weeks, until an opportunity to quickly make a minigame arose, and I went for it. At that point, mainly to just release something, and to increase my source code repository.

I’m not sure when we, I and Nico the Graphic Designer, came up with the “Slap stickers on the cat” idea, but when we did some prototyping it quickly became evident that the idea is too hilarious not to be included in the game. Furthermore, being a father of two < 8 y girls, I always investigate and keep in mind what would be suitable for kids as well. I’m especially proud of this part of the game – it seems to engage kids, not to mention kid-minded adults, to create wildly diverse pictures of cats in hilarious costumes. Especially kids are extremely good in using the stickers in most surprising ways!

The game’s longevity comes from this Sticker Mode. We will be releasing updates with additional features and, of course, MORE STICKERS, and we’re hoping this will make players return to the game.

And yes – the next update will be a Xmas Season update, and it will contain, on top of awesome Xmas stickers, the feature we’ve all been waiting for: to be able to put stickers on your own photos! We’re looking forward for some hilarious facebook profile pictures…! 😀

 

Announcing “Smart Kat”

logo-ipad

If you seen silly cat images from us on Twitter or in Facebook, it’s not that we’ve gone totally bonkers and pivoted to a cat meme company – we’re really releasing a game called “Smart Kat”!

Categorized by many as sillier-than-silly, this game has it all: an nerve-wrecking skill session, and a slap-stickers-on-cute-cats part where you and your kids can express your inner talent of dressing up kittens.

The best part is that it’s scheduled to be released already now in November – you can check out the teaser trailer until then!

Fast Forward

Either I have become a lot better at game dev, or then Cocos2D v3.3 is awesome.

To be fair, I’ll give the biggest kudos to the Cocos2D team. Compared with version 2, the version 3 line, currently stable at 3.3 with beta of 3.4 coming out any time now, the engine has become excellent. I’ve had some epiphanies about game dev lately, but those come so much easier when working with a clean code base – and Cocos2D lets you have a clean code base now.

Being an old man, I rather do my games in good old code, meaning, I’m not much for drag & drop IDEs like SpriteBuilder, which is the vessel Cocos2D comes nowadays in. Not that those are bad in any way, I’m just used to hack at actual code. And also here: when the engine is as easy as Cocos2D, I don’t think using an IDE is much faster. Any real coder knows anyway, that it’s not the writing of the code which is the big part in the project, but the time between coding, when you’re brainstorming, testing, and planning what’s next to code.

I’ve been doing various tests on the basic game play of Pixelem, and once I got that to a certain point, I got stuck, so my brain decided to “take a quick look on Jungled Baron“. ADD, anyone? To cut a short story even shorter, I got a working prototype of it made in mere three days. It’s actually playable! And seems like fun, even if there are major parts still to be prototyped (such as the power ups).

JungledBaron-ipadProto002

Well, to be fair here also, big kudos to my intern Elma, who is working more or less constantly in the background on the art. This week we’ve been drafting some animations, and there’s a lot of those to be done in the coming weeks. First two animation drafts are already in the prototype, as I was able to whip the character workflows into a fully working shape already.

Furthermore, I had a few hours to think about the scope of Jungled Baron. Came up with some awesome ideas, in my own humble opinion. I need to think about these things all the time, because Elma is on a fixed contract, so I need to scope the artwork so that the time she spends at Sneeweis makes sense. The master plan is to try to finish as much as possible of the actual game (i.e. start scene + playfield scene), and separate out the “additional” stuff for later. This way we will end up with a fully demonstrable version of the game, and think about the implementation of the monetization strategy, additional fun stuff, etc., at a separate step.

The Global Game Jam is on the coming weekend. There will be the Finnish Game Jam version of it at the school which Elma attends. Gonna check it out as a hang-around (…no time to attend the actual game jam…)!

Late Night with Jungled Baron

Nothing good on TV equals good stuff on the computer. Rushed in some concept art into a freshly pressed Cocos2D v3.3 project, just out of curiosity, and naturally to help the artist along. She’ll probably look into color things and such. I’m just pretending the game works already on my iPhone. Beep beep, pew pew, pow! Tee hee, awesome, got a power-up…

First-screenshot-JungedBaron
The sprites don’t actually move, but my imagination doesn’t care.

 

Monkey Business

I’m going forward with a broad front, business-wise. I’ve piled up a bout 5 – 6 projects, not only game dev related, quite the contrary. Entrepreneurship is interesting generally, and though Sneeweis is the main part of my company, it is not the only one – Sneeweis is the trade name I do game development with, while the rest of the company is still running a full schedule of subcontracting and small projects within the IT world. Yeah, I’ve piled on a bit too much, one could say, but hey, it’s great fun.

I’ve always wanted to grow Sneeweis to a “real” game studio with 4 – 5 employees, but it’s hard to do when you’re revenue based. Simply put, it takes a while before your account contains enough sweet, cold cash to be able to employ someone.

I had an opportunity to take a step forward with Sneeweis a few months back, when I was invited to discuss about game development to the local school, which has a study line for game design. To cut the story short, I ended up signing a student on board for a 6-month learning-at-work period. We’ve been drafting concept art for a game, Jungled Baron, which I had to dig up quickly from the big box of game ideas. Glad I did, as it got a real boost to become the next game for Sneeweis!

The student, Elma Lähteenmäki, is a 2D artist/animator, she’s 18 years of age, and given what I’ve seen in our few weeks of concept work and Skype calls, she’s got a nice career in game design in front of her! You can check out her portfolio right here. While I get actual art for a game which is supposed to be released, I’m hoping I’ll give Elma an insight to both the game devlopment process, as well as to how small game studios operate.

But hey, let’s not stop there. Take a look at some of the concept art Elma’s been pushing into my Dropbox folder!

Baron-concept-web Enemy-ape-concept-web.png

Greatest enemies. The baron and an ape.

Once we’ve got a bit more finalized work, I’ll start dropping some Jungled Baron gems to this blog. But for now it suffices to say that the game is an homage to the 1980’s electronic games (Donkey Kong, and those, you surely remember…) and the theme is, as the name implies, the jungle. A baron crash landed on a desert island, went a bit nutty for the coconuts on the island, and I think what made him snap completely was when he noticed there are apes on the island, vicious, dirty, thieving apes, about to steal his precious coconuts! He defends his coconuts fiercely, and he’ll need a lot of help from you for that.

Palm-light-concept-web
Palm tree, colour tests.

 

 

Palm-dark-concept-web
 Palm tree, colour tests.

 

We’re hoping to whip up enough of the basic art to start creating a real “screenshot test” on a real device in the coming two weeks. I’ve really started looking forward for the development phase of this game!

Things Happen Even In Silence

Long time no action, or that’s the impression one would get just by following this blog. Well, I’m glad to tell you otherwise – there’s been a lot happening in the background even if it ain’t visible here for the past months!

Being a small company things change quite fast, so it’s not unusual that some parts get less attention during some periods of time. This is especially true for bootstrapped companies where the revenue stream needs to exist and be somewhat constant, and to do this, I’ve been busy on the business development side as well as in some side projects. One of these is particularly good and hopefully it’ll serve the opportunity to focus even more on the game development in the first half of 2015.

Regrettably this “side track” has lead to Pixelem being late, but that did not come as a big surprise. The game has grown a lot also, there’s plans to make it quite large in terms of content, which itself means another few months of “delay” to the original plan. I seem to have taken a liking to games with more content in them, as opposed to simple one-action games like Oggipital, so none of this additional work I have paved for myself comes as a surprise to me. Quite the contrary, it was the plan all along. But fear not, I’ve been able to throw in a few gamedev days for Pixelem, and the current plan is to have a prototype working at the end of the year, and fill in the content during spring time!

And there is more. Trying to be a bit active in the local [non-existent] game dev scene, I had an opportunity to get a gamedev student on board for a Learning-at-Work period of six months. With some rushed planning for a game which would suit such a collaboration, the pieces fell together and I signed a contract with a 2D/animation artist. This actually means the third game of Sneeweis is on its way! I’ll definitely do a proper introduction of the artist, Elma, and start posting some of the great concept art she’s been whipping up so far.

Away, Post-Release Hangover!

Bruce Lee

While the summer in Finland is short and usually contains more sun and warm weather than the other seasons [sic], other stuff than entrepreneurial mongering within closed walls is bound to happen. There’s a lot of sunlight during June, July, and August, which makes socializing outside much more fun.

finnish-summer-night
Finland, 19th of July, 01:44 AM. Actual light balance.

My first game release, Oggipital, was on June 6th, right in the beginning of the summer. After that it’s been quite slow on the blogging side, well, mostly because it’s been slow on the game development side. There’s something cooking, don’t worry, but the progress hasn’t been as fast as I would’ve hoped. There’s two contributing factors to the slowness:

  1. Post-Release Hangover. Not particular to game development, it’s a common thing for any project you finish – you get that “finally it’s finished, I have no energy nor interest left to push any related issues forward right now”. Perhaps the best example is graduation from school: the month following the graduation is seldom a high-energy one.
  2.  A little known fact outside the game development community, but releasing a game does certainly not mean that the work on the game is done. Quite the contrary – you need to do marketing and sales follow ups, fix bugs real users might have reported, you want to start implementing those new awesome features, plan that next update. So, starting another game development project means that you now have TWO projects going on at the same thing. Which essentially halves your throughput.

I’ve overcome the first point already, I’ve kicked off Pixelem, the next game. Coding notwithstanding, it progresses quite good on the art and audio side, thanks to my awesome subcontractors. But I’m still struggling with point 2 – I have not only two, but three projects going on a the same time, on top of the general entrepreneurial stuff one needs to do to keep things rolling.

Well, my good old 1200-step life improvement plan to the rescue! There’s one point on it I had neglected – the “staying fit” part. It’s funny how quickly one forgets how much good one gets from getting out of the office and do some sports. So I threw my jogging shoes on and went out in the awesome weather. Bam, back in business!

Game Conference Virgin Tales

Game Conference Virgin Tales

Being a fairly recent add to the game developer scene, I went to my first game conferences in begin June. Every newbie is excited about those, right?

There were two conferences quite conveniently in Helsinki within two weeks, Games First 2014, hosted by Reaktor and Supercell, and PG Connects, hosted by PocketGamer. GF14 was for free, so I though why not check it out, if nothing else, for the Hello World Open finals. And they treated everyone with lunch, dinner, and beer. Not a bad deal. PG Connects was not free, but the early bird ticket of $150 or so for a two-day conference was certainly not expensive, if you compare it to GDC or E3, or something like that.

GF14 was, as the name implies, more geared towards the game developers, while PG Connects was much more about the media, the stories behind already well established game studios, and services to game studios by third parties. The PG Connects setup felt very balanced.

A quick executive summary for the impatient

As a newbie, don’t attend game conferences. Unless you’re pitching your game there.

What gives? Let me elaborate on that a bit.

The talks

Well, let me immediately break that summary and add one more reason to attend the conference: if the tracks they provide are really interesting, you should go listen to them, especially if the tickets are as cheap as these were. GF14 was more about the networking – I suppose – as the talks were limited to one panel talk and one F2P evangely by Supercell. PG Connects, however, had really interesting tracks, and to sit there in the dark rooms sipping Angry Birds lemonade made it already worthwhile to attend.

bild 1
Slides, slides, slides. But they can be good, as well.

They had several tracks each day at PG Connects; in day 1, “The Finnside Track”, “Trends, Investments, and More”, and “The Very Big Indie Pitch”. Day 2 continued with “East Meets West”, and “The Indie Rockstars”. The trends & investments and east meets west caught my eye the most, as the rest of the talks seemed to be about reminiscing Finnish game studio success stories. Those are naturally fun to listen to, but they give you
squat if you’re attending for the same reasons I did – looking for pointers that can help my small game studio take the next steps. Listening how awesome everyone else is, and how awesome everything else was ten years ago, can’t really be applied to today. Plus, it makes a newbie feel outside. And poor. Poor me. But fun and entertaining, as I said, perfect if you want to take a day off from your game developing.

The quality of the talks varied, but overall the quality was high. The 10 – 15 minute keynote-style presentation format was very audience-friendly, it kept the pace high, and the classroom narcolepsy I’ve suffered from my whole adult life, was nowhere to be seen.

bild 2
Hilarious coincidence – a talk about IP rights and compare that slide background to Oggipital’s Game Over screen background… 😀

Some of the talks were by service providers to the game industry, and those sucked the most, because when the talk suddenly morphs into a disguised sales pitch for your service, my annoyance level goes up. I’m not there to buy anything. That stuff I could get from a company video on a web site on my spare time, if I’d be interested. “This API provides…has 50 million users…hot right now…everybody should sign up now…” blah blah blah, yeah yeah yeah. Boring, next! There were naturally also good talks from service providers – you can fit many 15 minute talks into one day. The talks by game studios, and market researchers (especially for the Asian market), were the most interesting ones, generally.

OK, good talks is a good reason. Would I’ve attended if I knew how everything else was at the conferences, the talks notwithstanding? Nope. What? Still not?

The Stands

The stands at a conference can be anything, I guess it depends a lot on the conference type and style. GF14 had essentially no stands, except for a few bigger companies which probably supported or sponsored the event. A tip for these (I’m looking at you, Ericsson): trying to recruit developers to a boring communications technology firm at a game development venue is probably not going to be very successful. But your table soccer was great. 🙂

The stands at PG Connects were without exception by service providers to game studios, either of business- or networking kinds. I had no expectations about the stands, so they weren’t neither a positive or a negative surprise to me. A few were interesting to me, had a chat with a service provider for a fan products store which is integratable to your games, and with a couple of guys at Unity, as well as with some Finnish networking thingies.

Most of the stands were by various “app discovery” service providers. Zero interest for me right now to pour money into something like that, but this could change when my game studio is running in a bigger gear.

The networking

“How do you recognize an extrovert Finn? -He’s staring at your feet, not his own.” This chapter might seem a bit harsh to a non-Finn, but hey, we Finns are straight-shooters. And being a Finn myself, I know Finnish people.

Twitter is not used in Finland very much, a thing very noticeable especially during GF14. You could more or less count the tweets about the evening on two hands. Some of them were praising what an awesome evening it was, wow, what networking! Well, I have to say that if that was good networking happening at GF14, I don’t want to know what bad networking is like. To me, the place felt quite closed up, actually. People mingled with friends only – that’s not networking, as far as I know. I didn’t stay for the late evening, when the Finns have had their networking-skills-enhancing amount of beer, so perhaps I missed the best part (I’m willing to bet I didn’t. I’m not in this for the parties, I got that out of my system around 1999-2000 during the internet bubble).

I did meet the guys from Skillpixels, a edutainment game studio focusing on kids apps, also here from Pori. The game scene here is minimal so this short discussion with them already made my evening. The Hello World Open finals were another gem. GF14 was, for me, some gems found in a otherwise big, dark, fairly boring pudding.

PG Connects was a lot more international, as you could immediately tell on the amount of smiles and polite greetings once in the door. However, most of the networking outside of the talks were around the stands, and those have that annoying he’s-trying-to-sell-me-something feel. Once again it felt like you should have already known someone to engage in an interesting discussion that hadn’t a commercial tough to it.

PG Connects was, to my liking, a bit too much about the already established game studios, with one exception, which needs a chapter on its own – the pitching.

I gotta save my future career in the game industry and say that half of the “failed networking” I experienced was due to me and myself in the end. I’m one of those somewhere-between-intro-and-extrovert Finns myself, after all.

The pitching

Both venues had pitching sessions. GF14 had 30 3-minute pitches, where you just entered the stage, hooked up your device to the beamer (if you needed to), and gave a precisely 180 second long pitch about your company or your game. PG Connects had a complete track, “The Very Big Indie Pitch”, for this, where you got either a table where you showcased your game, or then you walked around to media/investor tables to do a short pitch. Everything in a big room, lots of fun hassle, as it seemed. With hot dogs and Angry Birds lemonade. I think I saw some beer, also.

The pitching of your game is the stuff you want to do at a game conference, if you’re a newbie.

I hadn’t signed up for any pitching sessions. My excuse is that a) I didn’t know what it was like, and b) I didn’t have a version of Oggipital which would have suited well for pitching. Both of these are quite bad excuses.

Alright, hold your hat, here goes. Even if some tweets gave the impression the pitches at GF14 were awesome, I won’t hesitate to say that about 70% of them were crap. Finns are, in general, crap on the stage, and not rehearsing your pitch won’t make it any better, I’ll tell you that. The rest of the pitches were either alright, some even great, mostly due to the fact that the pitched game was great. There’s a strong relation between the game quality and the pitch quality, but with work and practise you can make a good pitch even if the game is not appealing to everyone right there, right now.

This is where I had that Homer Simpson “d’oh”-moment, when I realized I could have done a better pitch with no preparation, just get on the stage there and then, and showcase my game. This is why I recommend for newbies to attend to game conferences just for the pitching. There’s a great opportunity to do a great job. Everything else at the conference is bonus, even the talks.

Because the pitching at PG Connects was more closed, in the meaning that you had your reserved spot and/or the short meetings, I didn’t eavesdrop the pitches too much. I recon there were also good and bad pitches in that room, but doesn’t matter. Probably better ones than at GF14, as everyone had prepared themselves better due to the format of the pitching. Just my guess.

The conclusions

I still stand by my first impression – don’t attend to game conferences as a newbie, unless

  1. You want a day off from game development. Only valid if the talks are good at the conference. Usually small indies can’t afford to have a day off, so leave it.
  2. You prepare a good pitch for your game and go there just for pitching.

Actually, I should turn the point of view around. Instead of “don’t attend unless”, do make a great game, do prepare a great pitch, and do go to a game conference, and pitch your game. It’s a part of the game business. A fun, learning, interesting, rewarding part. The pitching is the dogs bollocks.

Why? Because as a newbie, you want to get exposure. For you, for your game studio, and primarly for your game. That’s the only thing that matters. Otherwise you’ll get that sub-$100 sales curve for your game for sure. And pitching is a great format for exposure – a direct contact to a highly engaged audience (i.e. the 3-minute on-stage pitch), or personal contacts to media and investors (i.e. the PG Connects format of sitting down and having a mano-a-mano discussion).

If I wouldn’t have been such a chicken, and would’ve known a bit more how the pitches usually are, I would’ve gone in with a totally different mindset and agenda. Pitch first, all that matters. It wasn’t a complete waste now, either – many talks were good. Tickets were cheap. And now I know how those things go. This suits my personality, I’m usually the silent fly in the roof when something’s going down for the first time. Then I have no excuses for doing a crappy job when I do it myself for the first time.

Now I know what to do for the next game conference. But I’m not hurrying to the next one, neither should you. Need to polish a game first.

Announcing “Pixelem”

OK, it’s out there. Our next game will be called “Pixelem” and is a science-themed word puzzle game with, naturally, some unique twists, just as any other mobile game out there.

Chemists, physicists, and anthroponomastics will certainly get a extra kick out of the game, but casual games all over will definitely love this. I think. Well, it’s my best bet. So far.

But more on the game in later posts. I’m packing a secret which will most likely catch your eye – stay tuned for more stuff on the game as the prototype is being built!

Here’s the game’s page.

Oggipital Hit the Top Chart

Still in release hangover mode. It’s hard to concentrate on any new stuff. Turns out, releasing a game is quite some work. 🙂

Oggipital did quite nicely in Finland: it topped the overall charts with positions  11. and 16. on the iPhone and iPad, respectively. On Games it topped 4th, and on Puzzle game category it was actually no. 1 for a day!

Oggipital-puzzle-top1

While this is fantastic, the downside is that the peak is hard to sustain, and the market is small in Finland. So from a monetary perspective, it’s not a great success. But for what I was looking for with this first release – to enter the market and gain some media attention – it was certainly successful! Very happy with the whole release weekend.

The plan is to update Oggipital with a few new features and some score balancing, as well as a couple of bug fixes, in the coming weeks. Parallel to that, I’ll try to drum up some international media attention to it. Next week I’ll attend Pocket Gamer Connects game conference in Helsinki, and hoping to meet some press and fellow game developers there.