Archive for category blog

Fun with the Plastic Welder: Sunglass Repair

Grant (now 2.5 years old) LOVES sunglasses, but he’s always breaking them. I have some Sugru lying around, but I just purchased a plastic welder off of Amazon to fix a hole in my hard-shell kayak. I’m still waiting on the exact HDPE  (high density polyethylene) from the kayak company to repair my boat, but Grant provided a pair of broken glasses to practice on today.

I taped the glasses together to keep tension and did my best to work some of the melted plastic onto the break. You jam the plastic onto the tip of the welder to get it melty/bubbly, but how you get it off the tip and into a seam is a bit tricky. The weld isn’t the prettiest thing on earth, but it looks like it’ll hold and it kept Grant entertained for half an hour while we fixed them. I went over it with a dremel sanding wheel after to smooth out some of the rough edges.

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Futile Hello World Cheat Sheet

I’ve been playing around with Futile (a 2D framework for Unity) — including my last Ludum Dare entry. There’s not a ton of documentation and examples out there on the web (other than the source, which has most of what you need), and one thing I’ve run into a couple of times now is just setting up a new project. There are videos on the main futile site, but I personally can’t stand video tutorials (no way to search, usually go to slow, etc, etc). There’s also a great multi-part tutorial someone wrote about making Pong using Futile, but that one is a bit wordy and hand-holding (as it’s also explaining Futile as it goes). What I want is a really dead-simple cheat sheet for starting a new project, so here it is:

  1. Open up Unity and choose File -> New Project.
  2. Right click on “Main Camera” and delete it (you don’t need it).
  3. Either download the Futile zip, check it out from github, or copy it over from another project and put the entire Futile folder in your Assets folder.
  4. Make Resources and Scripts folders in your Assets folder (not strictly required but seems like a good convention) and copy any boilerplate code into your scripts folder (I re-use my base screen class and my asset loader)
  5. Switch back over to Unity and let it import all your scripts. Choose Game Object -> Create Empty from the menu. Change the name of this object to something more descriptive (not required, but helpful. i usually do “Futile” or the name of the game).
  6. Select the new game object and add the Futile Script as a component.
  7. Create a new MonoBehavior called YourApp.cs and attach it to the same node.
  8. Within the Start function of your app, paste in the Futile boilerplate setup code:
FutileParams fparams = new FutileParams(true,true,true,true);  //landscape left, right, portrait, portraitUpsideDown
fparams.AddResolutionLevel(480.0f, 1.0f, 1.0f, ""); //max height, displayScale, resourceScale, resourceSuffix
fparams.origin = new Vector2(0.5f,0.5f);
Futile.instance.Init (fparams); 
Debug.Log("HELLO WORLD"); //just so we know it worked!

That’s it! Now you should be able to build (and get a blank screen). You may also need to muck with your build settings  a bit depending on what platforms you’re targeting, but at this point your project is set up and ready to go.


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Adobe Generator Game Workflow

So I guess Adobe announced this yesterday:

Along with tight integration with the Loom Game Engine. Pretty sweet! This is actually the first compelling reason I’ve seen to upgrade from my Photoshop 5.1. In my current pipeline, I use a similar (manual) script written using Photoshop’s javascript api to export all my layers (which I talked about a little bit here). The reveal mentions that make up Generator are all open source and available for tinkering, so it could be possible to merge the two at some point.

Things that are awesome:

  • Generator runs all the time, no need to manually hit export
  • Added script access for things like layer bounds (currently hide all other layers, trim, take that size, then muck with the history to revert)
  • Generator assumes that no layers/groups will be exported — layers/groups must be tagged with a file extension to get the export treatment.  (This is the opposite of my less-flexible system, where I export all layers except those named “guide” — also I don’t do any group-exporting, which is a nice idea).
  • The only metadata Generator supports is image/export/size options. I sort of do the same thing with file sizes (assume I’m working retina and also export the non-retina shrunken versions). But I also support things like buttons with up/down states.
  • It’s all based on Node.js and has a plugin system to do other stuff besides asset generation…

Now I’m going to have to think hard about upgrading to the CC subscription (at least for Photoshop).


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4,000 Mile Brainstorm

My wife’s new job at CCP in Atlanta came with a relocation package for all of our stuff, but not our cars. I drove my car out in July (via Tombstone, White Sands, and Carlsbad Caverns) to scout for housing and daycare, and we decided to turn her car into a family road trip. To spare the baby long-haul hours on the road, I drove her car from Redwood City to Kalispell, MT. After picking the family up at the airport, we started a slow crawl across Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota–Glacier National Park for three days, the Rimrocks, Bighorn Canyon, Devil’s Tower, Mt. Rushmore, and the Badlands. At that point I dropped them off at an airport and long-hauled it down to Atlanta.

I love long road trips because your mind can really wander, and on this trip I decided to keep a road journal of sorts–all the wacky business/digital/game things that I came up with.

(1) AirBnB for Tour Guides

This one was actually a little older (thought of it on road trip #1). My friend and co-pilot on the first road trip is under-employed in L.A. (aka making a go of acting), and we were trying to think up things that would make him money. He often takes friends around L.A. and regales them with his encyclopedic movie knowledge, and it occurred to me that someone could make a marketplace for such tours. Allow anyone to sign up for “J.R.’s tour of Hollywood”, take 10%, and call it a business.

Like AirBnB (at least when they started, not sure if they still do), send a professional photographer on every “trip” and vet them for quality along with adding some slick photos. The biggest cost would be finding and creating the initial offering catalogue, so it might make sense to stick to a few destination cities before opening it up to anywhere (why not a tour through the middle of nowhere in Montana?).

Someone later pointed me to Vayable, which is pretty much the same thing but limited to only a few cities… and seemingly focused on exotic destinations for now.

(2) Geared, a surrealish iPhone game

The one liner in my notes: “You are a Blade Runner style forensic robot detective who puts dismembered robots back together enough to ask what ‘killed’ them.”

I sketched out a really rough mechanics diagram for robot repair.

The basic idea is that you’d be looking at something like a clock face, with 2-4 different arms on it. There would be a different gearing ratio between each of the arms, such that when you grab and spin one of them all the others would also rotate (at different rates).

After sketching it out, though, it occurred to me that if the gearing ratios are fixed you’d basically be able to just grab one arm and spin it until the puzzle was solved. It would take some prototyping and testing to see if this is even something that would work as a puzzle mechanic.

If not, another puzzle mechanic could work–the game is really about content more than it’s about a specific puzzle mechanic. I’d probably have to create 10-20 different models of robots in various states of disrepair. Each “case” would basically have a picture of a dismembered robot and 1-3 “clues”, where each clue is one of the mechanical puzzles above. Solving all of the clues would reveal what finally happened to the robot, in a sort of dialogue-story mode.

Would there be a story arc? Not sure. Most likely the “cases” would be seeded with a ton of content and then procedurally assembled so that you get a sort of existential game where you do your job and that’s it. There are always more robot crimes to solve!

I like the “world” of this idea a lot, but ultimately it’s probably a little too content-intensive for me to take on right now. It’s mostly a writing exercise, along with a crapton of robot sketches and UI work. I may take a crack at prototyping some little clockwork puzzles at some point, but I can’t see it making back the $5-$10k or so worth of art that the game would require.

(3) One Rec – One Recommendation at a Time

This is kind of a re-visit of an idea I had a few years back, another way for my actor friend to make some cash. The recommendation engine for things like Amazon and Netflix are pretty good, but never as good as actual human recommendations from your friends. “Oh, you liked XYZ movie? The actor who played this minor bit character in it was in this other movie that’s awesome…” — and sometimes not even a friend. Think about when you used to actually have to go to a store to rent movies. The guys and gals who worked behind the counters at places like Blockbuster were treasure troves of movie recommendations. Now that digital is taking over, we’ve lost those personal recommendations.

The idea came back to me because I’m seeing a lot of those same problems with app discovery and other content verticals. What do I watch next? What do I play next? What do I read next?

I think it would be cool to build a recommendation service that offers one high-quality (i.e. human-generated) recommendation at a time, with the assumption that the user is going to trust the recommendation and go give it a shot. Instead of listing ten or twenty shotgun-style recommendations based on digital filters and hoping the cover art grabs someone’s attention on one of them, speak to the customer like a human being. “You like a lot of James Cameron movies, but you haven’t seen the Abyss? Go watch that. Right now. Report back when you do.”

Customers would report back with four options:

  • (+3) GREAT recommendation (I enjoyed it greatly)

  • (+2) Good Recommendation (I can see why you recommended it and it was pretty good, but I didn’t LOVE it)

  • (+1) Bad Recommendation (I didn’t enjoy it, but I can see why you recommended it)

  • (-3) WTF (Why the hell did you recommend Terminator 2 after I said I liked Sideways?)

  • Skip / Already Watched (these would have to be rate limited to not take up too much recommender time)

Those numbers on the side would be a rating scale, allowing the recommender to earn points in that content vertical (movies, apps, books). At the end of each pay cycle a certain chunk of the revenue would be split up based on how many points each of your reviewers racked up. Great reviews (+3) would create affinities between customers and reviewers so that reviewers who’ve given great recommendations in the past are more likely to be paired up with the same customer. Different verticals would pay differently (people consume movies faster than books, I assume).

This would have to be a subscription business model — probably something on the order of $2/mo. per category or $5-$10/mo. for all categories. The platform (thinking Apple here) would take 30%, leaving 35% to split between operations/customer-acquisition and 35% to pay out to your “Taste Agents.”

The technical part of this site wouldn’t be too difficult (making it subscription will limit the number of customers). The hard part would be customer acquisition and making the economics work. Assuming a very low goal of paying out a “full time” Taste Agent $30k (a low, but not awful, salary for recommending movies), you need to be able to pay them $2500/month. If the “agent pool” is only 35% of revenue, that means you need about $7200 in revenue per full time agent… 3,600 subscribers. Can one person handle the requests of 3,600 individuals? Assuming they don’t all get a recommendation every day (maybe one a week on average), that’s around 500 recommendations a day, or roughly one per minute for eight hours straight. If we hike the price up to $10 a month (too high in my mind), the numbers get a little better: 720 customers per agent, roughly 100/day, roughly one every five minutes. Five minutes is certainly enough time (maybe too much) to browse someone’s history, read their response to the last recommendation, and formulate a new one. I’m just not sure you could convince enough people to pay $10/mo. for such a service.

(4) Travel Beacon

I actually like this idea a lot. Organizing trips is a giant pain in the ass. My wife and I are typically the organizers for our friends, and we try to do a multi-day national park trip once a year. Even with just the two of us, though, the amount of details involved can get pretty crazy — planned driving routes, where we’re sleeping, which hikes we’re doing.

I would love it if there was a tool for organizing this type of information all in one place instead of scattering it across multiple email threads, chat logs, verification emails, google docs, and text files.

The general idea is that you’d set up a Beacon for a specific trip, which would have a private URL. Instead of keeping a marathon email chain going, you’d just send everyone the URL. When they visit, there would be a self-contained discussion thread and a calendar/wiki for entering in trip details. A calendar (in the sense of Google Calendar) is too limited–you only get a tiny box. A full on wiki is a nightmare organizationally… instead picture index cards (trip details) which could be arranged vertically as an itinerary. Each trip detail could have its own discussion section, metadata such as how much that activity costs or how long you think it would take or even things like addresses. A map widget could pull out all the addresses and show them on a map, filling in driving times between activities…. Tools like Trello could do a lot of this stuff, but it would kind of feel like ramming a square peg into a round hole.

It was at this point that I realized I was basically describing Google Wave. I still think it could be awesome, but I haven’t really thought about how you’d turn it into a business. People would probably only use it once or twice a year, so making it subscription based probably wouldn’t work. I like the model of useful desktop software like TextMate or The Hit List where it’s a one-time $50 fee, but the app really needs to live in the cloud (no one will collaborate if they have to install something).

Planning a vacation is basically taking a giant possibility space and whittling it down into a specific itinerary. There might be other sectors that would find that useful (syllabus planning? conference itineraries?), and maybe it would make sense to white-label it for other sites… but it’s a pretty far reach from planning trips.

(5) PartyBeacon / SocialBeacon

This is just a riff on the idea of TravelBeacon. I built an app in my grad school PHP/mySQL class that was basically google+. You added friends to it, and arranged your friends into subgroups. It was all built around the idea of going to pub trivia–I couldn’t very well invite my friends in Athens to a night out in Atlanta, so I wanted a way to just put all my usual drinking buddies into one group. I wanted to be able to send them all a message at once with a time and a place and get a head count for who was down for it. It was ugly as sin and I never actually tried to use it for evening planning, but thinking through TravelBeacon reminded me of it and I wonder if a lot of the same metaphors could be extended to more low key gatherings.

Facebook Events could fill that need, but I have a lot of friends who don’t use Facebook, who rarely get on a chat client, and who only check email at work. The ideal night-out planning tool would have per-user settings for how to contact people (email/fb/chat/sms) and allow people to respond via that channel with a yes/no and maybe a short message. The value here wouldn’t be in the app itself (I imagine lots have tried this idea), but in building the plumbing to get the word out via whatever channel users prefer.

There’s no obvious business model for this idea either, but the chat/sms apps on mobile are growing like crazy, so probably just study how the Asian ones are making money and duplicate that.

(6) The Arcade Girl

This isn’t an idea for a product so much as an idea for a script or a story. It would actually fit quite well with the world of Geared, so maybe I should just combine the two into one story. Words are a lot cheaper in that I don’t have to pay someone for art, but also a lot harder in that I have to sit down and write a bunch.

The crux of the idea is an extension of current skeezy ad models. If you take the phishing schemes and viagra ads of today and extend them into the future, what might they look like? I thought of a guy meeting the perfect girl (manic pixie dream girl) and going on a first date. The date goes very well, with an emotional connection forming. At some point, a waiter pulls him aside. The girl is not real. If he wants the date to go any further, he’ll have to pay. Packages start at one night stand and extend through a one year relationship (best deal!). Also, if he’d prefer a different girl they have a catalogue and can switch out her looks (but keep the same personality) for an extra fee.

There’s a lot of ways you could go with the girl as well. Is she real? Just a con artist? A robot? An AI? What if the body is real but she’s being piloted by someone else? Maybe in the future we can remote-pilot other bodies, so maybe good looking people hard-up for cash rent out their bodies for a few hours each night. Maybe he runs into his girl later, and she’s an embarrassed waitress with no memory of him. She was only being piloted by the equivalent of a futuristic phone sex operator.

I’ve mostly got my wife on board with working part time while I tinker with some video games, but she gave me the “crazy person” look when I pitched her this idea. I don’t see myself working on any sort of straight-fiction any time soon, but it’s fun to think about this kind of stuff on long drives!

(7) Safespeed / Smartspeed

I may have gotten a ticket for going 86 in a 75 somewhere outside of Sheridan, Wyoming.

I remember in college driving up to New Jersey (the good part) to visit a friend. He warned me, something to the effect of: “Once you get to New Jersey, stop speeding. Don’t go ten over like everyone does at a minimum in Georgia.” It would be great if you had a friend like that for every state.

It would be trivial to build a mobile client and backend for people to report the city, speed limit, and speed whenever they got a speeding ticket (getting them to do it would be the hard part). If there were a way to scrape this data from court filings it would be even better.

However you get the data, you could then put that data back on the map (filtering for maybe six months or maybe just the last 20-30 data points per region). Take the lowest ticketed speed, subtract one or two, and BAM! That’s your “safe speed” or “smart speed” that you can reasonably travel without getting a speeding ticket.

It obviously wouldn’t be foolproof and would have to come with disclaimers a mile long, but this is an example of an app that would be pretty easy to build that I would use all the time.

(8) Programming for Housewives (and Plumbers. and Accountants. and Teachers)

One thing I think a lot about while driving through middle-of-nowhere America is how useless computers and technology are for the vast majority of people who don’t live near major population hubs. Somehow that train of thought got me thinking about how cool it would be if programming was an on-call job like plumbing. Like, each town has a few programmers that get routinely called out to solve programming problems. That got me thinking about what that on-call programmer might do on a single call. I couldn’t think of any. As much as it seems like it sometimes in Silicon Valley, most of the U.S. is not very digital.

I turned the idea on it’s head and started thinking about how I could bring about this future programmer-as-plumber scenario. How could a little bit of scripting make the life of a housewife better? A plumber? An accountant? A teacher? When my wife and I were shopping around for an investment property, I used a heavy dose of scripting to automate data collection. Our agent gave us a massive listing of properties–I like to visualize them in a spreadsheet, so I wrote a script that uses the MLS numbers to pull the address, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, rent zestimate, and a few other properties… all into a format I could easily toss onto a Google doc. This saved me hours of data entry, and had my agent jokingly begging me to teach her how to program. (She shouldn’t joke! I’m sure a little ruby would make her job way easier!)

I would bet that there are tons of other professions that a little bit of scripting could help tremendously. I’d love to spend some time shadowing people in random professions and figuring out how scripting could help them automate some of the drudgier tasks. Throw in a couple of basic intro chapters suitable for anyone, then have a different chapter on useful scripts for each profession and call it a book!

(9) Filthbot / Inappropriate Simile Bot

This one is pretty random. I was thinking about how things like Louis C.K.’s standup and Cards Against Humanity have basically made it more acceptable to be  vile. I think you could adopt that same mentality and build a really inappropriate Twitter bot. I would just make a giant spreadsheet of horrible similes (starting with Like), such as: “like a rape victim crying in the shower on a Lifetime original movie.”  (making fun of actors, not actual rape victims! but still horrible) Then make a simple node or sinatra server to spew these out once or twice a day.

Because twitter displays timelines sequentially, these similes would be randomly jammed up against other peoples’ real and presumably-not-horrible tweets, creating humorous mish-mashes. People could take screenshots of the compositions and respond to the original simile with the two-tweet combination. This would allow people to click on the original tweet and view all the responses (useful, thanks Twitter!). Either me or a friend could browse through the responses and pick favorites to retweet–or automate it. Make it so any response to one of the Filthbot’s tweets that gets above N tweets automatically gets retweeted. Robot humor!

(10) Film Sequence

After pretty much deciding that the economics of OneRec were too rough, I was thinking about other ways to solve content discovery in a streaming world. Another issue that I think about with Netflix is the loss of synchronous viewing. People don’t watch the same things at the same time any more. There’s no concept of channel browsing, and that means every time you turn it on you have to make a decision about what to watch. Sometimes this is hard. Sometimes I spend fifteen minutes trying to figure out what to watch, get frustrated, and then don’t watch anything at all.

What if there was a daily recommendation for what to watch? Programming of a different sort! What if it had some commentary on why that specific movie was chosen? The Discovery Channel does this marvelously with Shark Week–everyone talks about sharks during Shark Week! What if you could do that every week? Just pick a theme, pick seven movies, do a little bit of research and writing, then film a little micro-show about that week’s picks, split into each day’s pick.

People wouldn’t have to watch them in order or at all, of course, but knowing that a lot of other people are watching and talking about a movie makes “keeping up” a little more appealing. How awesome would it be if every time you logged into Netflix, there was a little video playing explaining the theme and the pick of the day? This “show” would cost nearly nothing to produce (an ESPN style set, maybe? a couple of hosts? a couple of writers? cameraperson and director for half a day?), but could probably do quite well selling sponsorships (whatever movie is opening that week, maybe?). I think it would be a fun project.

And that’s it!

That was my 4,000 mile brainstorm. I don’t know if any of these have enough legs to make me run out and start working on them (maybe TravelBeacon), but it’s fun to think through some of the logistics of each project. Until some megacorp offers to bankroll me to just make interesting things, I’ll keep working (slightly) and tinkering on my games that might make some money some day!

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form vs content in books/movies/games

I watched Holy Motors last night on Netflix instant, which was sort of weird an wonderful. I watched it with some other film-type-people, but none of them really liked it (“what’s going on?”). I had no idea what was going on either, but I still found it enjoyable. It seems to me that the problem with the film is that we don’t have a way to describe it.

If you think about books, a book is just the delivery method. We have descriptive words for the form of content contained within the book: a book can be a novel, a book of poetry, a book of essays, a textbook, a manifesto… there are probably many more. Books have been around long enough that we’ve developed a vocabulary for describing their form.

Film, on the other hand, has only a few: “movie” on its own connotes something like  a novel–it’s assumed to be a narrative film.  Whereas books CAN be novels, we don’t have a word for a narrative film. We can conflate “movie” with “narrative film” because in 99% of situations they are the same thing. IMDB provides a link to a random film – how many would we have to step through to find one that wasn’t a narrative film? I don’t think there have been enough films like Holy Motors to develop the proper vocabulary to describe them. Maybe Lynchian? Experimental? I don’t like “experimental” because it does more to describe what it’s not than what it is (like if we called a sunny day “not raining”). We do have genres for both books and film, but genre is a description of the content and not the form. A genre describes what type of narrative tropes you can expect, but it’s still assumed that it’s some sort of narrative.

“Video game” as a term is almost useless, because the shape that can take is so varied.

We have tons of descriptions for the form, but very few descriptions for the content. Pretty much all video game genres describe the way you interact with them with no real indication of the content. We know that an RPG will probably be story driven with ways to customize your character, but in terms of content we have things ranging from Elder Scrolls (fantasy) to Mass Effect (space opera) to It Girl (fashion). A first-person-shooter tells us that there will probably be guns, but it’s more about how we interact with the space than the content (which could be WW2 to modern to sci-fi). An adventure game isn’t so much about adventure (in the sense of Indiana Jones), but that we’ll be solving puzzles without the need for fast-twitch reactions. The latest hot genre, MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) says nothing at all about the types of content contained within (though fantasy seems to be the norm, owing to its Warcraft roots). Survival-horror is probably the closest thing we have to a description of content and not form… (even though most survival horror games are 3rd-person games with claustrophobic cameras, some sort of resource/ammo constraints, and labyrinth-like level design…).

These point of having genres is mostly for us consumers to be able to differentiate and pick out things we might like based on things we’ve liked in the past. If I really enjoy first-person shooters like Halo, I’m probably more likely to enjoy something like Battlefield (another FPS) than I am Starcraft (a realtime strategy game). It’s not useful to say “i like sci-fi games,” because that would imply an affinity between things like StarCraft and Halo.

I don’t have a bigger point (yet), but it was an interesting thought. I wonder what a video-game equivalent of Holy Motors would be… maybe jumping into different types of interaction? Something like WarioWare, but with a little more care and detail in each interaction?

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on workflows, flash, photoshop, and rubymotion for games

First, a little background on how I’ve learned to make games.

Phase 1. I tinkered with some games with Macromedia Director as an undergrad, but I literally remember nothing about Lingo or the Director environment. Whatever I was doing, I was probably doing it wrong. I switched to Processing in grad school and loved it. Processing is very powerful (once you take off the training wheels, it’s really just Java), but bare-bones in terms of a display tree. There’s essentially a single canvas and you issue drawing commands to it. The simplest way to build games with Processing is to just keep your game state in various data structures (arrays for everyone! you get an array, and you get an array, and you get an array…). Every frame you clear the screen and draw everything brand new from your data objects. I ended up with lots of helper functions for each screen, things like “drawTimer,” “drawButtons,” “drawGameBoard.” Everything was vector-based using primitive drawing commands, so tweaking your UI layout meant changing some magic numbers in the code and re-running the app. Cumbersome, but not so bad (there’s only one screen, after all).

Phase 2. Some time around 2007 or so, I got an alpha invite to Whirled, a Flash-based game/world/thing by Three Rings. I figured I’d better learn Flash so I could make stuff, so I got to work making weird things using pure AS3 and the free flex compiler (student me: “$800 for Flash Builder? Ain’t nobody got time for that!”). My workflow was essentially unchanged from the Processing days (I was still drawing everything in code), but AS3 has a fricking amazing display tree. A DisplayObjectContainer seems like a “no shit” construct in retrospect, but it sped up development a ton. Even so, tweaking anything UI-based still required changing magic numbers and recompiling. I made a couple of games using embedded bitmaps, but even those were placed by code. After the success of Filler, I picked up a copy of Flash (the program) and used it to make the UI for Filler 2. Again, I did everything wrong. Filler 2 has all the different screens on the main timeline, with the main class a document class. I was using Flash (the program) as my compiler instead of the flex compiler, and it was an absolutely terrible workflow–even worse than laying everything out by hand.

Phase 3. Starting with Color Tangle, I used Flash (the program) the “right” way. Flash (the program) is used to create art, and all the various screens and art pieces are exported in art SWCs. Holy crap-on-a-stick is that faster and more awesome than laying out your games by hand. Instead of focusing your effort on where thing go, almost all of your development time is spent focusing on what things do. This seems like a subtle distinction, but it makes a huge difference. Want to move your HUD from the top to the bottom? Change the position of two text fields? Make a button smaller or larger? No problem! All of your interaction logic accesses things by name (i.e. set the text of “hud.scoreLabel” to be “12345″), without a thought or care to where that thing is on screen.

When people jump through hoops to try to get Flash working on mobile, this is the thing they’re trying to preserve. Don’t get me wrong–I like vector graphics and even prefer them in most situations…  but ultimately how the graphics are stored is much less important to me than how I interact with them in code.

So what are some other things about Flash (the program) that makes it so great for game development?

  • All of your layout and creation tools are in one program. This saves a ton of time. With a bitmap-based workflow, you typically need to export your bitmaps/textures at all the right resolutions, import them into a separate  layout tool, lay them out, and then export that layout. There are lots of tools for this (Spriter for animation, Interface Builder for iOS UIs, etc). Or, worse, take your raw bitmaps and place them via code (which is going to take several iterations of compiling and checking to get right). Basically, every extra step you need to take from asset-creation to running-in-game is going to add workflow delays.
  • Symbol-based workflows more closely match UI paradigms. When using raw Photoshop, there is no concept of a re-usable symbol. You can kind of fake it with layers and groups, but it’s a rough approximation. Having the notion of “this is a progress bar” which you can place on multiple screens is great. Edit the symbol and your changes propagate to everywhere that symbol is used. In a bitmap-based workflow, you need to edit every instance. This can be somewhat mitigated by using an external tool to do your layouts (maybe Spriter?), but I don’t know of any custom-built UI layout tools (other than Interface Builder, which I don’t like).
  • The text engine in Flash (the program) is the same as in Flash (the runtime). I kind of hate bitmap fonts, mostly because of how much of a pain in the ass it is to do text layouts with any accuracy.

There are probably others, but those are my big four (including the name-based access in code). There’s probably a big market opportunity to for someone to write a symbol-based graphics editor, but that’s more than I’m willing to take on. How am I solving those issues?

After bailing on Adobe AIR for RubyMotion (see my last post for why), I was pretty much stuck with a bitmap-based workflow. All of my UI assets were already implemented in Flash, so I mostly just needed to rasterize them. There are a couple of ways to do that–I’ve been following the development of Flump (also by the Three Rings guys), but it doesn’t support text and UI layouts probably benefit the least from things like texture atlases (how do you atlas a 2048×1536 background?). I decided to write a Photoshop script to emulate a lot of what Flash does with SWCs, along with a helper class in RubyMotion to help load and manipulate the graphics.

On the asset exporter side, I found a script on the web that exported every layer to its own image and modified it to:

  • exports metadata for every layer in the photoshop file (depending on naming conventions) — usually just the bounds is enough
  • for images, export the full resolution image as an @2x version, then downsize and export the non-@2x version
  • if I find a matched pair of “btn something up” and “btn something down”, note in the metadata that this is a button
  • if I find a text layer named “text something”, export the font size, color, alignment, and textfield bounds… but not the text
  • if a text layer is not named “text …”, rasterize it and export as static text

On the RubyMotion side, I built a GameObjectView class which is essentially an extension UIView with a bunch of helper methods for standard game variables (x,y,rotation,scale) as well as methods to load from metadata. When loading from metadata, the class automatically turns buttons into UIButtons and text fields into UILabels. What used to be a lot of boilerplate asset loading is now basically the same workflow as in AS3. Whereas before I might type something like:

var bg:BackgroundClip = new BackgroundClip();
bg.someButton.addEventListener(MouseEvent.CLICKED, mouseHandler);
bg.someLabel.text = “hello world”;

In my GameObjectView, it goes something more like this:

#some_game_screen.rb      (actually probably something like some_game_screen_controller.rb)
@bg = GameObjectView.alloc.initWithFrame(view.frame)
@bg.load_from_metadata(“some_game_screen”, self)    #self is a tap delegate
@bg.labels["some_label"].text = “hello world”

#later on in code land, our tap delegate
def tap(button)
tap_handler if == “some_button”

So, in other words, pretty much my same Flash workflow. It’s not all aces, though–there are a couple of downsides to this workflow. Photoshop has no notion of an empty textfield, so in order to export the bounds of a text field there must be actual text in it… but even then, it exports the bounds of the TEXT and not the text field. The text engines for Flash and iOS are close, but not quite close enough–I find that text gets clipped without a little extra padding (and especially so if your default text is smaller than any dynamic text you shove in later). So I end up “filling” all my text fields in photoshops with ones and lowercase p’s–something like this:


It’s certainly in the “I can live with it” category of annoyance. Another annoyance is that the exporter isn’t as solid as Flash’s publish (obviously). Weird things happen sometimes when layers are in groups and it takes a little while to run. If you interrupt it mid-export, your layers could be in a weird state (say, downsized by 50%) which could cause headaches if you don’t catch them (why is my game suddenly rendering at 1/4 the size it was before!!!!!).

Secondly, this is NOT a performant way to store and load images. Ideally these assets would all be texture packed into nice power-of-two images… but my goal was “fast enough for my purposes” and not “best possible solution.” Because assets get re-used in multiple screens (I have different folders for iPad, iPhone, iPhone4, and for landscape variants of each screen), it’s possible that the same image could be used by different screens or devices but bundled multiple times in different folders. Banana Breakers, for instance, has over 2000 images exported using this method. I use a ruby script as part of my build process to compare the bytes of each image and build a lookup table to match duplicate filenames to the kept copy. For Banana Breakers, this de-duping removes 1200 files (~22 megabytes worth).

Likewise, I have to be at least a little careful about how I create my images. Large empty/alpha spaces between assets get exported just the same as filled in spaces, so it’s a balance between having lots of images to load vs minimizing file size.

To re-use assets and closer approximate a SWC library workflow, I usually put multiple assets into each PSD. The only piece of metadata I have to work with is the layer name, though, so I end up using it for a lot of stuff:

  • tagging whether a layer is a button, an image, or a textfield
  • tagging whether this is a button’s down state or up state
  • tagging what “view” this belongs to — I do this with selectors in my load_from_metadata function, something like {:include => “menu”, :exclude => “content”}. So, say I have a popups PSD that includes pieces for a confirm and an alert. A confirm and an alert are pretty much identical (one has an “ok” button, the other has two buttons for “confirm” and “cancel”). All of the shared pieces end up with names like “btn confirm alert down” and “text confirm alert title”. When creating one, I can do things like

    alert = GameObjectView.alloc.initWithFrame(view.frame)
    alert.load_from_metadata(“popups”, self, {:include => “confirm”})

So how does it do overall?

It solves my two biggest needs — asset-name based workflow and and content/layout in a single program. I don’t think there’s a way to make Photoshop suck less when it comes to symbol-based workflows, but I can live with that. The text parts are not perfect, but work well enough that it’s not a huge slowdown. I can write my game screens with code that is essentially blind to differences between devices, and just have a different image folder for each supported resolution.

A couple of people have asked me why I use native views and not Cocos2D, which now has an excellent ruby motion wrapper in Joybox… mostly I never saw the point! Cocos2D has some great features (easy physics integration, node-based display tree, tweens, sound manager), but for simple games the native display tree is more than adequate. Unless you’re blitting hundreds of bitmaps onscreen, the native views are plenty fast for even fairly complex layouts. A sound manager is trivial to write. CoreAnimation is surprisingly good. So, basically, I didn’t see anything in Cocos2D that I wasn’t already getting with native views. Learning and mastering the native view architecture would make integrating third party code easier (as well as writing non-game apps), and I would never run into any weird “how do I make X work with Cocos2d” issues.

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Banana Breakers: Indie Dev Learnings

Before trying a more ambitious game on mobile, I wanted to do a series of smaller experiments to learn a little more about the app submission / marketing process. I’ve got a few apps out already, but those were mostly hobby-fun-tinkering projects and not built with *serious face* revenue in mind. Experiment is probably the wrong word, since good little children who paid attention in science class know that a good experiment is designed to test a specific hypothesis, whereas with these first few games I’m mostly taking stabs in the dark to see what I can learn. What I’m hoping to learn, though:

  1. What tech should I build my games with?
  2. What platforms should I support?
  3. How can I get some exposure without spending too much?
  4. Which third-party ad/analytics providers should I use?
My first game, Banana Breakers, has been pretty helpful so far.

1. What Tech Should I Build My Games With?

I’ve been working on Banana Breakers (link to game site) on and off for probably four years, but in terms of actual complexity it’s a really simple game. I originally prototyped it in Flash a few years back (just the core mechanic of 4/5/6 words hidden in a grid), but it was Too Damn Hard. It was such an easy prototype, though, that any time some shiny new technology came out I would re-implement it to test out that tech. I have a Haxe version. I built an Enyo (javascript) version a few years back when I got a Touch Pad. I built a native iOS version using RubyMotion when that came out last year. When my friends at needed beta testers, I re-built it once again in Flash–but this time thinking of it as a mobile app. Eventually I ran into technical problems with Spaceport (they didn’t have 3rd-party code support yet), so I switched over to Adobe Air. When I heard about Futile (a 2d plug-in for Unity) and Loom, I almost built new versions… I may have a problem.

Banana Breakers was also a departure from my earlier games in that it would be free, but with ads and the ability to buy more coins. I also wanted to support incentivized video as a way to get more coins without paying, as those always converted fairly well back in my Facebook days. Finding a tech that supports all of those (well) turned out to be more challenging than I thought.

Adobe Air and Unity both support native extensions, but Air’s implementation is god awful. I lost an entire week just trying to get the “Hello World” of native extensions to compile with my setup before saying “screw it” and just going with off-the-shelf ANEs (some of which I had to buy). Because I needed so much 3rd-party support, I crossed Unity off my list pretty early in the development process. They have even fewer native extensions than Adobe Air, and at the time they were still charging for the iOS and Android plugins. Even now, the free indie license requires you to use a Unity splash screen and doesn’t come with access to native extensions. I could probably get over the splash screen, but the lack of extensions would probably limit Unity to only paid-download games for me.

So what tech did I end up going with? For Android and Kindle Fire, I used Adobe AIR (since I already had an AS3 version ready to go). I could have re-written using Starling to get better performance, but at that point I was ready to release something and get some data. I wasn’t happy with the performance of AIR on iOS, so I converted everything to bitmaps and build a native iOS version using RubyMotion. I’ll do another post later about how I’m using RM to build games, but for now my tech stack is pretty much RubyMotion and Photoshop (with some custom scripts to help speed up UI development). And it’s a lot of fun. I don’t know if it’s the right choice (iOS only), but so far I’m really happy with it.

2. What Platforms Should I Target?

There’s two ways to think about this:

1) Supporting multiple platforms is expensive and only worth it for a successful game.
2) It’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond–targeting less successful platforms might be a way to get traction/cheaper users/less competition.

My original thought was pretty much #2, assuming I could settle on a tech that was cross platform. In practice, Banana Breakers has pretty much made me change course entirely back to #1. Even though I originally built the game to be cross-platform, the amount of work needed to set up in-app-purchases, ads, and other native “touches” turned out to be pretty nontrivial (especially when you throw in device testing). At least for me, building a game cross-platform means it will take probably twice as long to build… and at this point I’d rather make more games.

I’ve also been disappointed with download numbers on both Kindle and Android. For Kindle, it seems as though free games don’t even appear in the “new games” section of the app store. That makes sense in hindsight (their marketing engine is designed entirely around promoting things that cost money), but it was still a bit of a shock. Android was slightly better (3-4 downloads a day), but nowhere near the 500-1000 downloads I got while on the “new games” sections of iTunes. Having a game out on multiple platforms would also mean (theoretically) that my marketing efforts would need to be split between the platforms. Realistically, though, I’ve been focusing all my efforts on the iOS version and completely ignoring the Android versions.

If I have a game that is a monster success, I’ll consider looking at other platforms. For now, though, the decision to go iOS-only for future games is an easy one. If anything, I’d consider doing desktop-PC on top of iOS before I would consider doing android or kindle. If I were to do a native version for any other platform (Windows Phone 8 is tempting, since I’m one of the few users), I would just do a native build for each platform.

3. How Can I Get Some Exposure Without Spending Too Much?

Distribution is probably the single biggest hurdle to making a living as an indie developer right now. I’m nowhere near figuring out, but I can run through what I’ve tried so far:

1) Release the game. Free. I got ~500 downloads just for releasing the game on iOS.

2) Review site blitz. Free (ish). ??? downloads. I sent out ( slash-filled-out-contact forms) somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 emails to various mobile review sites. The vast majority of them did not respond, and those that did were offering paid reviews. I got a nice write-up from JayIsGames (they’ve written up some of my flash games in the past as well), but nothing else. So far this seems like a giant waste of time, though I’m sure bigger sites do create a nice download bump. I think it’s worth to build relationships with sites that aren’t too scuzzy, but at this point I think efforts spent on this type of PR would be better spent doing blog posts and engaging on twitter / forums.

3) Gnome Escape. $250, ~200 downloads? I’ve read a lot about how shady pay-for-review sites. Gnome Escape was on one of the giant lists of publishers to contact for reviews, though, so I gave them a look. They say all the right words–authentic reviews, etc… but ultimately it’s just incentivized installs (with incentivized reviews on top of the incentivized install). I got a nice bump of 50-60 people a day for a few days (along with several who monetized) and some good reviews, but most of the reviews were spam-bot level in quality (just regurgitating my app description). My thinking was that 200-250 users for $250 is about $1 a user and not too bad… They delivered what they offered, but I don’t think I would use the service again.

4) AppFlood. $250 each, cancelled. Just to get a sense for how they worked, I dropped $250 into my AppFlood account and set about driving some paid installs. To get any sort of volume in the US, I would’ve had to up my bid to the $3-$4 range, and there’s absolutely no way Banana Breakers could recoup that. I want to try ChartBoost later (they have a lot more volume), but so far these seem pretty overpriced.

5) Free App Magic. $1000, ~8000 installs. The last thing I wanted to try was some way to get burst downloads (and hopefully make it onto the charts). There are tons of free-app-a-day apps that promote an app or two a day, but most of the big US ones cost thousands for a feature. I set out to find a slightly smaller one with a more reasonable intro rate, and FAM definitely fit the bill. The intro rate I got is probably not repeatable (I took the place of a game that cancelled at the last minute), but the results were great. They estimated that they drove ~4k installs, while the other 4k were organics from hitting the top ten in word games in the UK (most of their traffic is UK). The game stayed on the charts for a few days, but is now slowly dropping out. The 25-30 installs per day I’m getting now (a week+ after the promotion) is slightly better than the 5-10 I was getting before the promotion, but I’m not sure how permanent that will be. I consider this to be the only successful bit of marketing I’ve done (twelve and a half cents-per-user would be a phenomenal rate for a better-performing game, and if I could get similar CPIs at other daily download sites they’d be worth the higher fees).

6)  My Chartboost campaign was finally approved and I was able to run $250 through it very quickly, even at bids of $0.50 for US installs. I’m not sure how many installs are available at this price (I would guess that as you start trying to drive more volume the price would have to go up), but as an initial test Chartboost is another promising way to get users at a good price.

My original goal was to only spend $1k on marketing Banana Breakers, so at this point I’m $300-$400 over. It doesn’t perform well enough to keep spending, but hopefully I can take some of that knowledge on to better-performing games.

4. Which third-party ad/analytics providers should I use?

This has probably been the biggest shock with releasing a game. At Crowdstar we had an entire dedicated Business Intelligence department, a massive Vertica database to warehouse game event data, and dedicated analysts to help sift through the data. I’d always heard good things about Flurry’s event tracking, but from my point of view the data is sorely lacking. The install, retention, and session charts are pretty good… but there’s no easy way to hook it up to purchase data. And it’s not realtime. The data they provide seem like an okay way to track your installs and active users, but I don’t see how anyone could take specific in-game actions based on this granularity of data. I wanted to go entirely server-free for Banana Breakers (mostly because I’m cheap, and nothing wipes out meager indie game profits like server fees), but for future games I’m thinking I’ll roll my own. Helios (by the Heroku guys) looks strong, but doesn’t do exaaactly what I want. I’m leaning towards a super-simple redis-backed logging system with built in a/b testing, but it’s also tempting to abstract a little more and see if I can come up with a generic service for the things I want to do.

Chartboost > All Others

Ads have been a little better. Banana Breakers has interstitials (AppFlood & ChartBoost), banners (Flurry and AdMob), and incentivized videos (HyprMX and AdColony). So far ChartBoost is the clear winner–interstitials are blowing all the other formats out of the water. Banners are probably not worth having in the game. While their annoyance might drive players to upgrade, the game would have to be a total smash hit for the ad banners to pay for the extra time it took to make home screen layouts that support banners. I’ve been really surprised at how poorly the incentivized videos have done. I’m guessing that means either (a) most users don’t know they’re there or (b) the word puzzles aren’t hard enough to warrant users needing extra coins (which would also lead to low coin sales). Once I throw in in-app-purchases, the graph looks more like this:

So ads are actually outperforming coin sales by about 3:1. The numbers here aren’t huge (~$51 so far for coin sales, ~$136 for ads), but I think the trends are still pretty useful. If I’d had a back-end server set up, I would be able to tweak what portion of each type of ads go to each provider (home brew mediation). I’ll hopefully get that set up for future games.

Overall the budget for Banana Breakers was about $2600 + dev time, so it’s unlikely at that point I’ll make back the development costs, but it’s been a fun game to work on.

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Speed up Flash Builder’s global search when using git

I’ve been working on a few new games lately and the speed of Flash Builder’s global search has been getting worse and worse and worse. You can restrict the search to only .as files, but every now and then I mix in xml or json or even txt files and this seems like something that would only frustrate me in the future.

Today I finally noticed what was slowing it down: scanning the .git folder. It doesn’t actually find any matches in there except for what’s in your commit messages, but there are hundreds and hundreds of resources that it spends time scanning. There are two possible solutions to this:

1) When creating your flash builder project, do it one directory down from your git repo (i.e. if your .git folder is a level above your Flash Builder project, it’ll never see it).

2) Flash Builder (and Eclipse, I guess, by extension) allows you to mark folders as “derived”, which it will then exclude from the global search. The only hiccup is that Flash Builder doesn’t show you hidden folders in the Package Explorer. You can trick it, though–do a global search that will find something in one of your commit messages. Right click on the .git folder in the search results window and you can select properties (and mark .git as a derived folder).

Search is fast again! Woohoo.


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How to Fix Rejection From Amazon App Store for Wrong AIR Download URL

I just got a fairly form-letterish rejection from the Amazon App Store:

When pointing to other apps or websites from within your app, including up-sells, ratings, version updates, or upgrades, our published policy calls for the completion of purchase to be from Amazon.

Steps to reproduce this issue as it appears in this app:

1. Install and launch the app.
2. A pop-up appears stating “This application requires Adobe AIR”.
3. Tap on “Install”.
4. It links to Google play.

To point to a specific app, the Download URL must be[packagename] (where [package name] is your package name). The link will become active when the app is live in our store. If you want to link to the list of all your applications on Amazon use the URL[packagename]&showAll=1.

Please correct the issue(s) we found with your app submission.

After Googling around for a half hour or so, I ended up finding a lot of forum posts complaining about this issue… but mostly dating from when the Amazon App Store was brand new and everyone was building their AIR apps on the command line. As this postmentions, there’s actually an ADT flag called “airDownloadURL” which specifies where the Install link will take users.

Seeing as I use Flash Builder and not the command line compiler, this is of no help whatsoever. I did manage to find a reference in my .actionscriptProperties to “airDownloadURL” — but had no idea if that would actually fix it in the final build. Re-submitting an app to see if a bug is fixed is a pretty slow update loop… but luckily I noticed this screen while exporting this time around:

derp derp derp

Yep, doesn’t get more derpy than that. To be fair, almost all of the Flash Builder Chrome says “Google Android”, so the alternative download URL on the Play store doesn’t seem anomalous in the least until you get a rejection letter. I did read Amazon’s native extension documentation fairly closely–you’d think they might mention this in big bold letters somewhere if this is a common rejection reason.

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Farewell Crowdstar

I recently left Crowdstar just shy of my three year anniversary. Before the memory of those three years fades into the crunch of trying to make my own games, I thought I’d look back at the best and worst parts of those three years. Before I get into that, though, it might be worth a little bit of background.

After Piqqem (my first job out of school) folded in January of 2010, I resolved not to get another job and to dive full time into indie game development. I’d only been a half-time employee for the last year anyway, spending the rest of the time focusing other random pursuits (iphone and xbox indie versions of Filler, a review site for other indie games, a couple of new Flash games, a movie showtime search engine that got a nice write-up on TechCrunch but was too expensive to run). One month into “going indie,” a recruiter emailed me pitching three different companies: AuroraFeint, Sibblingz, and Crowdstar. The story was the same on all three–game related, YouWeb funded, growing like a weed, desperately in need of engineering bodies. Instead of getting back to the recruiter, I looked up Peter Relan (the founder of YouWeb) and shot him an email asking how you get into the program.

We chatted on the phone and he thought I should have a chat Suren and Jeff, the two founders of Crowdstar. What actually happened ended up being more of a 3-4 hour “interview” of sorts. I talked with a couple of their Flash guys for awhile about what they were working on and games I’d made–one of them later told me that it wasn’t a real interview, but a “push-on” (their attempt to recruit me). After chatting SQL and ruby awhile with the guys at Sibblingz, I finally went into a big glass office with Jeff and Suren. Jeff immediately asked for a resume (which I hadn’t brought) and ended up settling for a LinkedIn profile chock full of all the bullshit made up websites and companies I’d been tinkering on for the last year or two.

We talked a bit about my background, but the thing that stands out the most was one question Jeff asked me: “Would you rather make a game that a million people play and like or 100,000 people play and love?” Crowdstar was clearly already in the business of the former, but up until that point I hadn’t really considered it. Only one month into my “make games to support myself” experiment, I was still making games that I wanted to play (and not really considering games as an economic vehicle). I gave him the 100K answer, which is clearly what he wasn’t looking for. Then again, I hadn’t signed up for an interview–I thought I was coming up to Burlingame for a chat about social games in general.

Peter invited me over to his house a day or two later and offered me the job of lead dev on Happy Island. His pitch was simple–working alone or even starting a new game company would put me way behind where Crowdstar was already, and he was willing to make me “CEO” of a game and let me run it like my own startup. It was a tempting pitch, but at first I was mostly in it for the money–I told him I wanted half a percent. Playfish had recently sold to EA for $300 million dollars and social games were exploding, so I figured if Crowdstar could grow to that scale and exit within a year or two I could clear $500k-$1mm over the life of a 4-year vest. I’m not sure he heard me right, because he said yes and asked if I could start the next day. I said yes.

As it turns out, Happy Island was in flux. Originally developed by Sibblingz, it was a flash game with a Rails backend. My first day was a Wednesday. Sibblingz was due to roll off the game on Friday, and Crowdstar had not a single rails engineer. As you might guess, that first week or two was crazy as hell–setting a good tone for what would follow. A rough timeline:

  • Happy Island (Feb 2010 to May 2010)
  • It Girl (May 2010 to April 2011) — also, I got married!
  • Cancelled FB Game (April 2011 to November 2011)
  • Closet Wars (Nov 2011 to Oct 2012) — also, had my first kid!
  • ??? (Nov 2012 to Feb 2013)

Rather than go through it all chronologically, I’m just going to ramble a bit about the ups and downs–mostly ups!

The Good: Working at Scale (and Scale Technology)

Before joining Crowdstar, I had experience with all the relevant technology–Ruby on Rails, MySQL, Memcached, Flash… but never at scale (well, maybe a little on the Flash side). The day I joined, Happy Island had 2.5 million DAU (still climbing on it’s way up to 3 million peak). The other web apps I’d worked on maybe peaked at around 100-200 DAU. When Filler launched and hit #1 on Digg back in 2008 (when Digg was cool!), it peaked at around 200k players per day. Not even 10% of what Happy Island was doing in normal day. On the web side, the biggest I’d done was a single cache server, a single app server, and a single MySQL box. Island was running multiple memcached boxes, a bunch of sharded, replicated MySQL instances, and a boatload of app servers (each running still more rails processes through Unicorn).

The first few months were crazy–coming up to speed on a new codebase (both client and server), writing sharded database code, adding new features, fixing bugs… and all the while monitoring the live deployment and waiting for things to go wrong. Operating a game at that scale basically requires you to think like web-dev MacGuyver. Something is always breaking or going down or getting hot, and hotfixes deployed in the heat of the moment are more like duct tape than carefully engineered responses. Crowdstar had (and still has) a great ops team, and I probably learned as much in my first two months at Crowdstar as any other time in my life.

Most of the hard work (architecting and scaling up) had already been done on Happy Island, though–I was mostly a caretaker. When I later rolled off and started up the It Girl team, we were building from scratch. I was lucky to work again with the guys at Sibblingz (now Spaceport), who are much better engineers than I am. For It Girl we ditched MySQL and Memcached entirely, instead building the entire backend on top of Redis (including an in-house ORM instead of ActiveRecord). Redis has since gone in a slightly different direction (everything in memory instead of just the keys), but for our purposes it was fantastic.

It Girl never got to the scale of Happy Island and we had a few quirks pop up with Redis, but all in all it was a mostly smooth ride from 0 to tens of millions of users. Not having to think about which shard your data is on, along with not having to worry about caching, simplified development tremendously (and is one of the reasons we switched to Membase for future games).

The Bad: Not Working at Scale

After It Girl, I jumped on to another Facebook project that eventually got cancelled. By that time the company had shifted to mobile, and that shift brought a lot of changes to how we architected our games. Because it’s harder to rely on an internet connection and harder to mess with the in-memory data of a cell phone, mobile games tend to be a lot more client-authoritative.  With simpler back-ends, there’s much less demand for server-side engineering.

Going from such a frenetic scale and pace (multiple deploys per day and constant monitoring) to something that felt almost pedestrian was a radical change. Part of this was due to the way mobile games operate. There’s no such thing as “push it and see what breaks”–mostly because of Apple’s onerous submission process (with 6-7 days being required for any client-side update). From what I know of console development, most mobile studios operate a lot more like our AAA cousins: develop -> QA -> release. It’s certainly a “healthier” way to run a business, but in many ways it felt like the taming of the Wild West.

At Crowdstar I was always the “rails guy” at a company mostly filled with PHP guys. The back-ends have now gotten simple enough that there’s not really a compelling argument for using Rails (actually, Closet Wars is a hybrid of Sinatra and Rails, but still) over PHP. Most of the back-end operations consist of either “get me this key” or “put this data in that key.” Had I stayed on, what was initially pitched as a Rails & Flash job would’ve been PHP & C++ going forward.

Addendum: Scale as a Shipped Game Title

I’ve noticed that my experience with scaling Facebook games has affected how I view other companies outside of Crowdstar. Being an engineer in Silicon Valley, I’m constantly bombarded by recruiters via email and LinkedIn. Before working on scale projects, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the size of a company and instead just looked at what they do. Now I’m a little reticent to even consider joining a company that doesn’t have a crapton of traffic–it’s less fun! (Not that my own projects will have significant traffic any time soon).

Likewise, it seems like there’s a perception of hiring people with scale experience that reminds me a lot of the AAA console industry. Most job reqs at companies like EA will explicitly state that one shipped title is required, but there’s no way to get that one shipped credit without getting hired by someone with no credits. It seems like a lot of companies are looking for people with scale experience and not willing to hire those without it. In that sense I’m incredibly lucky to have been baptized by fire at Crowdstar.

The Good: Doing it All

Once I had a handle on actually running Happy Island at scale, I got to start playing around with the product a little more. None of the Crowdstar games at that time had time travel cheats (i.e. skip ahead 8 hours), which made it difficult to do some gameplay testing. There were serious problems for high level users, so I took it on myself to rebalance the entire game’s economy. After building a “simulator” version of the game where I could play two-to-three sessions “per day” just by pressing a button restart the session, I played dozens and dozens of playthroughs and eventually created a pretty tight escalating economy. It wasn’t perfect, but I think it was pretty fun (and certainly extended the life of that game). Even though my title was “lead dev” at the time, I was in fact more like a producer–coming up with new features, balancing the economy, running the revenue reports… as well as a good bit of code.

When we later added the actual job title of producer (while I was on It Girl), I became the producer for It Girl (and the unshipped title and Closet Wars). Up until recently, though, titles didn’t mean a whole lot at Crowdstar. Being entrepreneurial (read: curious and willing to poke my nose into places I probably shouldn’t), I wore almost every hat possible: client-side engineer, server-side engineer, QA (before we had a “QA Department”), product manager, content manager, producer, game designer, data analyst.

Working at a startup with more tasks than bodies affords someone who likes to get their hands dirty (me!) tons of opportunities to move around and try new stuff. This was probably most true on It Girl–as we “grew up” as a studio and people took on more well defined roles a lot of that flexibility went out the window. Even on my last game, though–Closet Wars–I was putting a lot of time into being producer, doing game design, and engineering. One of the reasons I never really wanted to go into AAA games was the fear of being a cog in a great machine–the fact that I was still able to wear quite a few hats on team sizes approaching 20-25 people has done a little to allay that fear.

The Bad: The Hours (and Commute)

The downside to having more tasks than bodies is that there never seem to be enough hours in a day. This was especially bad when I first joined–we were still in hyper-growth mode and I was new to a lot of the tech. Because I had as much equity as I did (and, to be honest, because I wanted so badly for us to succeed), I always felt like I needed to be the last one out the door. For a long stretch on It Girl, I’d say I was putting in 80-90 hour weeks. I wasn’t the only one doing it, though–I remember many 2-and-3 a.m. nights with the Sibblingz guys. We had this sort of visceral feeling that the future of the company rested on our shoulders–I don’t know how true that is, but we definitely felt it like a force weighing down on us.

Those kinds of hours weren’t sustainable, obviously. After Crowdstar raised a ton of V.C. money and started shifting more into a “stable studio” mindset, the hours definitely calmed down into a more normal 10-to-7:30ish, 50-hour Silicon Valley work week. Even working 10-to-7:30 on most days, though, I had to tack on an extra half hour to each side for my commute. Factoring in 8 hours of sleep and a bit of time to make dinner, I essentially had 1 hour in the morning and 3 hours at night to fit in everything in my life outside of Crowdstar.

It took me most of that first year to “finish” ColorTangle, the game I’d been tinkering with when I started CrowdStar–a game that I’d estimated needing another month to finish. And it probably was about a month’s worth of work–just crammed into a few minutes here and there on the fringes of 8-10 months. With tinker time going out the window, I also cut back on almost all of my leisurely pursuits: exercise, moviegoing (and I’m a film major!), reading books, and playing other video games. I’m a firm believer that game development is a creative pursuit, and when your world narrows to the point that you’re not consuming any media and keeping up with your body, that creativity suffers.

Once the baby came (February 2012), that claustrophobic feeling of never having enough time doubled or tripled (and especially never having time for myself).  I’m sure that happens to all new parents, but I was on the verge of quitting for almost all of 2012 to try to win back some of that time. It certainly doesn’t help that I have an almost-neurotic desire to stay on top of all the current tech trends and try out every new gadget and technology that comes my way. What kept me going (besides my wife telling me not to quit) for most of that year was the fact that I had my own team (Closet Wars), we were making something that I legitimately thought was going to be great, and my team was awesome.

In that sense, I’m really excited to be working from home now–the hours and the commute were my #1 excuse not to exercise (except “i’m tired” or “i’ll start next week” or “slept funky last night”…), so hopefully I’ll be able to repurpose some of those hours into dropping 20 pounds this year (my pre-Crowdstar weight–damn you catered lunches!).

The Good: A/B Testing and Optimization

It’s one thing to read about A/B testing best practices on Hacker News, and quite another to run tests yourself on a massive scale and see what kind of impact they can have. When I joined Crowdstar, they were already A/B testing a little bit of stuff–but usually only running one test a time and modding on the user ID (which, at our scale, was probably random enough but not as statistically rigorous as it could’ve been).

While we were launching It Girl, it became pretty obvious that there were a lot of knobs and levers to tweak. The current mod-on-the-user-ID system would only let us run one or two tests simultaneously, and it was pretty brittle at times (was it user that end in 0-4 or 5-9 that were the control group?). I built a new system for It Girl that was not tied to user ID and was event-based, meaning we could split users into test groups at various steps in the user life-cycle. This was probably my favorite bit of code I wrote at Crowdstar, and now that I’m out I’d like to re-write it some day for my own personal use.

As an example–when we launched the boyfriends feature ,we knew we wanted users to have a minimum number of “clique members” (friends in the game) before they could access the feature… as well as a minimum level in the game. We were able to A/B test:

  • the optimum level to introduce the boyfriend features (testing for # of people who get a boyfriend)
  • the number of friends which should be required to get the first boyfriend (optimizing for k-factor… i.e. at 4 friends less people get a boyfriend, but is it more than ¼ of the people who were willing to invite one friend?)
  • the number of friends required to get each boyfriend from BF #2 all the way through BF #10

Between those tests and dozens of other tests we ran on price points, progression speed, and monetization features, I’d say that the A/B test system doubled or tripled the LTV on It Girl and taught us all a tremendous amount about player behavior. Maybe this goes hand-in-hand with running a product at scale, but it was also a hell of a lot fun to have access to that much data (in near real-time) and that much flexibility to test things.

The Bad: Time Off

When I joined Crowdstar, we were given two weeks of PTO (I think it’s up to 17 days now, which is better but still not great), which is totally standard for a new company. I travel a lot, so I was always scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to PTO… and on several occasions either went way negative or took long stretches of unpaid time off.

Because all of the games we made were games-as-a-service, the usual lulls in the game product cycle just don’t exist. There was always something important going on, so picking a time to skip out for a week or two was always tough. Compounding my lack of time off was the fact that my wife works at EA–where she gets 4 weeks of PTO, the entire week of Christmas, and usually a couple of weeks of under-the-table comp time whenever they finish a game.

I had a bunch of people at work say things like: “how do you have so much time off?” — and I would always answer the same way: “I don’t.” I’m lucky that financially I could take the unpaid time (and was in good enough standing with the company to get away with it), but I always thought it was a downer that the majority of people worked so hard and got so little time off to show for it (though most people probably don’t travel as much as my wife & I).

To be fair, though, one mitigating factor for the lack of PTO was the company trips. My first year we went to Italy, renting a villa in Umbria and hacking for a week while surrounded by gorgeous sunflower fields (with day trips to Venice, Rome, Siena). My second year we had a hack week in Maui, and we just recently came back from Puerto Vallarta. These trips were awesome, but ostensibly still “work trips.”

The Good: Running a Team / Teaching

When I joined the company, most people were either flash engineers or server-side engineers. There were certainly other full-stack devs on board (most of the dev leads, in fact), but there wasn’t really anything pushing people to do both. On my teams I tried to push everyone into learning ruby and actionscript (as applicable). Ruby is fun and weird and awesome, and actionscript is easy if you’ve ever done any other dot-syntax-based-language ever. Having a developer who can implement an entire feature end-to-end just saves so much more time and stress over having to have two people agree on a spec and implement in parallel (for small stuff anyway, obviously that doesn’t scale).

There were some exceptions–we had a few truly truly great flash guys where it actually was faster to keep them in Flash and let other people support them. Even those guys, though, probably got more exposure to ruby than they would’ve liked (anyone can use the console, right?). That sort of education and guidance (mostly on the ruby side, but even in Flash) was the most rewarding part of being a dev lead (or even a producer) to me.

Even being a dev lead itself is pretty fun. Once a team gels pretty well, you get a pretty good sense for what each team member is capable of (or capable of being pushed into). I found the whole thing to be kind of like a puzzle–given the following pieces, how could I best match the tasks to the people to play on all of their strengths and push them forward? Maybe it’s because my mom is a teacher, but there’s something really satisfying about developing other people around you.

Once we shifted to mobile, though, I switched more onto product/design/project management and less of a lead developer–not having the really really deep knowledge of C++ and mobile that I had on the Flash side, I never had the confidence to try and be a leader there. That freed me up in some ways to focus more on design and product, but it was also pretty frustrating at times.

The Bad: Running a Team / Not Doing it Yourself / Not Doing Anything

While teaching was fun, there were parts of being a dev lead and product lead that I wasn’t so well suited for. I think I’m probably a horrible micro-manager. I can fit the whole product in my head at once, but I’m not so good at writing all that stuff down into a useful document and delegating. Because there’s no central repository for how things should work, people have to keep asking me how it would work. Some people will just go for it (which is sometimes awesome and sometimes not, but generally preferable). I ended up having a finger in every pie, but not really feeling like I had full control over any of the pies (I mean–I knew what was going on in all of them, but didn’t have enough time to fully understand any one pie).

Because I keep the whole product in my head, I have a pretty good sense of how I want everything to work (both at an experience level and technically). Trusting someone else to do something “right”, where “right” means how I would have done it, is next to impossible. The trick, which I was getting better at but never fully mastered, is to just let your people figure it out and make mistakes as they go. Back in the It Girl days, Pete Hawley (now at Red Robot) told me that the crux of it was basically to hire really good people you could trust and then get the fuck out of their way. I think I could get there eventually, but for now I’m still too close to the development and the architecture side of things. It would grate on me at times when looking at code people had checked in because that’s now how I would’ve done it–but most of the time it would be a perfectly reasonable solution.

At other times on mobile, I felt like I had nothing to do at all. As a producer, though, that’s the state you should strive to be in–if you have nothing to do, that means you’ve got your whole team right where they should be doing what they need to do. As we got closer and closer to launching Closet Wars I was able to jump on bugs and help fix things.  Bug-fixing, which can feel like more of a junior task sometimes, is actually a great thing for a used-to-be-programmer-but-now-manager to help out with. Fixing bugs is much much easier than adding features, as it mostly involves tracing logic errors and correcting them instead of architecting whole systems. Because I might be called away at any time if a fire came up, it wouldn’t be fair to the devs for me to take on a big feature–more often than not they’d end up stuck waiting for me to finish it.

The Good: Talented Artists

I saved this one for last, because it’s probably the most important. My background is mostly in making heavily procedural, art-light games–mainly because I suck at art and work mostly alone. I remember having a conversation on a Flash forum before I joined with an artist who was looking to partner up with a developer and split everything 50/50–my theory at the time was basically that art was a commodity resource and I’d never give up more than 10 or 20% for an artist. I should find that dude and apologize.

The absolute coolest thing about working at Crowdstar was working with the amazing artists there. Our art director had incredibly high standards for artists. It could be frustrating at times when we needed a body in the door for UI or other art positions (I remember interviewing a couple that I was blown away by that he said “meh” to). In the end, though, it definitely shows in the games. It helps that the games we built were essentially content-delivery vehicles (lots of digital goods and weekly releases), but I don’t think I would’ve stayed nearly as long as I did without some of the artists we had.

For nearly three years straight, I’d constantly get blown away by the things they came up with. You’d think after creating 5,000 garments for It Girl there would be absolutely nothing left in the tanks creatively, but I think the artists both on It Girl and Closet Wars (now Top Stylist) got stronger and stronger as they went. The stuff those guys churned out on a regular basis was just fun to watch.

Coming from a place where I wanted to make games but didn’t know any artists, I always remember being frustrated at how I was going to get around it… art was a barrier that prevented me from making what I wanted to make. Now, I have a pretty large network of artist friends who are willing to give me recommendations to their artist friends (or take on contract work themselves). And having worked closely with really really good artists for several years in a row, I feel like I can communicate a lot better with artists when I do bring them on board. Just because of that, I feel like I’m no longer limited in the kinds of games I want to make (which I think is huge!).

The Bad: The Breakup

I debated whether to include this section or not–I’d say my three years at Crowdstar was more or less 33 months of good times and three months of sour grapes. I worked on Closet Wars from November of 2011 through around October of last year, when the decision was made that it wasn’t hitting it’s performance metrics fast enough.

Even before the axe fell, though, cracks were starting to form. There had been a round of layoffs in the summer (which mostly unphased me, because I was having so much fun on Closet Wars), which spooked a lot of our best people into finding new jobs. My team mostly held together through the worst times, but by September or so we’d lost our lead artist, our UI artist, and were about to lose one of our best engineers. Zynga’s stock was in the shitter, which was making the whole industry look bad. I considered leaving then, but Peter and Jeff talked me into staying through the end of the year and seeing Closet Wars through.

A couple of weeks after I agreed to stay on, the decision came down to scrap Closet Wars and repurpose it into Top Stylist. A new game designer was brought on, and I was asked if I was willing to produce the hatchet job (that’s probably too harsh–Top Stylist is a pretty well designed game, it’s just not my baby). I’d only taken two weeks off when my son was born, and in California you can take up to 8 weeks of paid family leave. I thought a better solution would be to take a month off, come back refreshed, and then figure out where I could be helpful.

When I got back in early November, everything seemed different. I’m not sure if it was the month off or not, but it was almost like they didn’t know what to do with me. I was given the vague assignment of researching new tech. Mostly, though, I was just ignored. Not being on a team and not being assigned anything meant that most days I just sat there and did nothing. That’s fun for like a day, but I had just had four weeks off and I was raring to get to work on something. Small things would come up–ruby questions, questions about how we’d built things or how the art pipeline worked–but certainly not a full day’s work. It almost felt like a game of chicken, waiting to see which would happen first: getting fired or quitting.

I was travelling for a lot of December and January, and upon returning let Jeff know I was ready to leave. He asked if I’d stay on and finish one last project, but in the end the pieces for that project didn’t quite come together quickly enough and we kind of synched up and decided to call it a day (or three years!). In the end it’s kind of a silly way to go out, but I was ready to do my own thing and Crowdstar is a much different company than the one I joined three years ago. No longer really a “growth” startup, they’re in full-on game studio mode. They have a clear direction they’re headed and need people to fit into pretty specific roles to get them there. If I’d stayed, I probably would’ve dropped back down to being just a “server dev” or a “client dev.”

The only thing I really regret is that I was never able to do anything with all those stock options (which will just expire in 90 days). I could exercise them, but locking up that much cash in a studio that’s raised a ton of VC, over which I no longer have any influence, and which has no guarantee of an exit seems pretty silly when I could just invest that cash in myself and my own projects. It’s a little crazy to think the thing that acted as such a good carrot during the long hours of the It Girl days will come to nothing, but that’s just part of the startup game.

The last few months were a little strange, but overall I think it was a great decision to jump on when I did. It’s easy to wonder what would’ve happened if I’d stayed the course on doing indie iphone games back in 2010. Comparing what I know now about game design, free-to-play, art, operating a game as a business, even technology–I still love some of those old designs I was working on, but they probably would’ve been disasters. I’m really excited to get a “second chance” at some of those designs, but revisiting them through the lens of my Crowdstar experience. It should be a fun ride!

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