Posts Tagged web tinkering

Filler for the iPhone, ScoreCaching, and Filler 2

Filler for the iPhone

Filler for iPhoneAt long last, Filler is now available on iTunes (you can see my little splash page + iTunes link here) for $1.99. I’ve never outsourced anything before, so it was a bit of a learning experience. I ended up working very closely with the team at ChaYoWo–they’re probably happier to be rid of my long bug reports than they are to actually launch the game (I kid). I’m very satisfied with the final product–even if it doesn’t sell a single copy, there’s a certain joy in being able to play my game wherever I go now. There are a couple of interesting things that happened during the development of the iPhone version.

The first thing I usually hear when people see I’m working on an iPhone version is that I should make it tilt-enabled so you can move the balls around. The problem is… that makes the game stupid easy. It’s not really that hard of a game to begin with (but man is it good to kill 5 minutes while you’re waiting for a bus…), so adding in more mechanics to simplify things just seemed like the wrong direction. Another idea I had was to use the tilt to move around the cursor, and have a button for making filler balls. We actually coded this one up, but… uh… it was terrible. In the end we decided not to use tilt and to keep the gameplay closer to the original Flash version.

One thing I noticed while playing early builds (which I also noticed while playing various clones that are already on sale) is that your fingers really do get in the way of dragging the Filler balls around while they inflate. Most of the strategies for the Flash version involve creating balls near the top of the screen and then using them as shields while they fall. “Finger-blockage” is at its worst when your finger is at the top of the screen, though, greatly diminishing the usefulness of those strategies. While playing those early builds, I did something radical: turned my iPhone upside down. Success! Sure, the balls are floating up instead of falling down–but man it was great to see the whole screen. Asking players to flip their phones upside down is just silly, though, so I did the sensible thing and reversed gravity.

ScoreCaching

While the ChaYoWo guys were coding the app to my demanding specs, I got to work on another integral piece: ScoreCaching (Update: ScoreCaching has been killed). Most of the iPhone games I’ve played with online leaderboards do just that–global online leaderboards. I wanted a little more than that, so I figured I might as well build it myself. ScoreCaching combines the idea of online leaderboards with geographic location (think Geocaching). Instead of comparing your scores to everyone in the world, why not compare your scores against everyone nearby? Even better, why not leave your scores behind as a mark of your achievement? Just as people used to line up at arcade boxes with the hopes of leaving their initials in the number one spot, ScoreCaching will (eventually) allow players to mark specific places. What’s your high score for the Golden Gate Bridge? What about Times Square? How about the pub down the street? Those features are a little ways out still, but for now you can compare your scores with your friends and those around you.

Filler 2 (Flash)

Kongregate!When Shockwave offered to sponsor Filler 2 as a three-month exclusive, it seemd as if the stars were aligning perfectly. That would give me extra time to finish up the iPhone version, ScoreCaching, and the XBox Community Games version (whoops!). I didn’t quite finish the XBox version (though I did write a hell of a lot of reviews over at Worth the Points), but Shockwave’s exclusive is up and now the rest of the internet can finally enjoy Filler 2. Kongregate, the totally-kick-ass sponsor of the original Filler, is reprising its role for the second go-around. You can play it over on Kongregate here or play it on my site with the link on the sidebar–I’ll start spreading it around the rest of the net sometime next week. If you run a flash portal, feel free to snag the SWF off my site (the one on Kong is site-locked until I verify it’s totally bug-free). If you’d like to license the game for your site (ad-free), drop me a line at learnyourabcs@gmail.com.

What’s Next?

On top of everything else, I’m also one of the developers in Mochi’s Brave and the Bold Contest. A $4k (minimum) payout is okay, but let’s get something straight–it’s freakin Batman. I watched the original Batman cartoon every day for years as a kid (I was a Marvel kid when it came to comics, but the Batman cartoon was awesome). Getting to develop an original game concept with one of my favorite characters–that’s a sweet deal.  I’ve also got a handful of other finished prototypes in the pipe that are currently on hold until I can clear some of this development logjam.

As always, stay tuned to this space for interesting facts and figures on how everything is doing.

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Worth the Points: XBox Live Arcade Community Game Reviews

WTP Logo

I was hard at work on the Flash version of Filler 2 when the XBox Live Community Games initiative launched, so I didn’t have time to get the XBox version out as a launch title. I was very impressed by the whole idea, but I found Microsoft’s game store to be less then helpful in finding out which games were good and which games were crap. For the regular Arcade titles, there’s an expectation of quality. If it’s a type of game you’d normally be interested in, they’re at least worth a demo download to give them a shot. There’s no expectation of quality on the community games (at least, not yet), so I found myself downloading crap demo after crap demo and thinking there must be a better way. I’d heard about CommunityEngine, which was more blog oriented and less “purely” social than something like Insoshi–and the license was a heck of a lot more favorable. I also had no experience with Amazon EC2, which was something I wanted to fix. A community games review site seemed like a perfect opportunity to test both out, so I went for it.

Without further adieu (or just click the banner above), feel free to check out Worth the Points: XBox Live Arcade Community Game Reviews. The site’s actually been “live” since around Christmas time. I’ve been slowly funneling traffic (both through a test of the MochiAds self-serve ads and from the ads in front of the original Filler, which is still being played ~10k times a day) towards it to make sure it didn’t break and fixing bugs as I spot them, but I think most of the major kinks have been worked out. We play a lot of games in my house, so I figured it was our civic responsibility to wade through the mountain of crap and try to find a few gems–and there are definitely some out there.

A lot of my crazy side projects don’t make it this far, but I saw this one as a good excuse to get some friends involved on something, so my twin brother, an old high school friend, and my roommate are all “featured writers” for the site (for the time beings). I once thought I’d open it up so anyone could write community game reviews (after all, there are more games being released than we can even keep up with)–but ultimately decided a tighter focus on just the four of us would work better in the long run.

There are already sixteen reviews posted, and I’ll try to prod everyone to do one or two a week. You can go directly to the games which got the thumbs up or which games didn’t make the cut, browse games by overall rating (users can rate games from 0-10), genre, or tags. Hopefully giving credit where credit is due (or at least finding a few games that don’t totally suck) will help legitimize the community games as a viable platform.

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Microsites as Ad Filters: Meet Stockmoose 2.0

(Image lost in the Great Update of 2009)

When I originally tossed the Stockmoose up a couple of months ago, it was mostly a prototype–one that had taken a single evening to produce, and one that was based on a single request to my artist girlfriend: “Can you draw me a moose with a tie?” Well, now it’s finally back with a new coat of paint, some basic anti-gaming measures, and a few other things to spice it up. The “borrowed” Yahoo stock charts have been replaced with our own proprietary charts, and each stock now has a sort of miniature info card so the choice isn’t based solely on name-recognition. We also created a list of 25 Silicon Valley stocks that most people around here have probably heard of–just to make it a little more engaging. Some of the early results are actually a little surprising. In our SV25, TiVo is actually pretty close to the bottom while Netflix is near the top. Based on what I know of the two, I would’ve actually assumed this to be the opposite of what would happen.

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Notes from Interplay

I went up to the little Interplay conference yesterday, so I thought I’d post a few notes.

The Future of Social Gaming
This panel had guys from Kongregate and Meebo (two companies I actually like) and guys from SGN and Xynga (companies I’m not sold on yet).  Of the last two, they get a fair amount of Facebook traffic (some of which is organic and some of which they’ve merely bought).  From what I heard, the two hate each other… but both of them had their diplomatic hats on and mentioned that creating a genre (social games) was more important than any one company.

I found one thing the Xynga guy said pretty funny: “Every couple of months, the networks ratchet it up and make it harder to be viral.”  In my mind, what he’s basically saying is that every couple of months the networks make it harder to spam users.  If the content is good, and it really stands on its own, you don’t need spam for it to go viral.  That he’s bemoaning the anti-spam filters lead me to believe that they’re a little lacking in substance.  By building a single, large game channel, though, they’re essentially cutting Facebook out of the regulation picture.  Once their install base is high enough, they can actually just spam within their current users to drive eyeballs to their new apps.

10 Ways to Monetize Social Applications
I didn’t notice on the agenda that this was a “sponsored panel.”  It could’ve been called “10 Ways to integrate OfferPal into your Facebook Application.”  They quoted some pretty obscene eCPMs (>$200), before later revealing that was only from the actual “complete an offer” page that 5% of the users visited.  I have no doubt that this sort of thing works for teenagers (or anyone without a credit card), but these things are the sleeziest types of offers in my opinion.  Unless I was designing an application purely to make a buck, I don’t think I could stomach their system from a user-experience point of view (and I’ve actually got a couple of ideas that would work perfectly for it).  The funniest thing about their presentation was how many people got up and left right in the middle of it (as soon as it became apparent that it was a sales pitch)–it was really like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

The State of Social Games
This was one of the more interesting talks, in that at least Developer Analytics had some data to share.  After crunching a number of applications, they boiled pageviews per daily active user into some pretty interesting numbers:

  • Messaging Apps (Wall, Poke, etc) generate 3 page views per DAU
  • Dating Apps generate 20 page views per DAU
  • Social Gaming Apps generate 50 page views per DA

They basically saw only a handful of monetization channels for social games: digital goods, virtual currency, microtransactions, and CPA type offers.  They estimated that a successful app in today’s market generates around $40 per 1,000 DAU per month.

Funding the Social Gaming Sphere
This was a panel of three venture capitalists (Accel, Lightspeed, Hit Forge).  The moderator was a bit of a pain, but there was some interesting info.  One of them mentioned that current apps are seeing about $0.50 per DAU per month (right in line with Developer Analytics’ estimates).  The biggest way to make money, they suggested, was to let the guys who can spend $1000/month spend that much and let the guys who can’t afford $0.25/month play for free.  In America, though, gamers have been VERY resistant to letting players pay for a competitive advantage–essentially limiting the market to purely cosmetic items (i.e. Pimp My Avatar).  They also made a noteworthy distinction that Social Games are not just multiplayer games.  With multiplayer games, you are willing to play with anyone.  With social games, part of the fun is derived from playing with people you actually have relationships with.

Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed mentioned that they look at applications that see a total of around 100 million minutes of engagement per month.  I don’t have any actual stats on Filler’s average playtime, but I’d peg it conservatively at 5 minutes.  It’s well into its long tail by now, and averaging around 10,000 views a day.  Doing some basic math, 10k views/day * 30 days * 5 minutes per user… that’s about 1.5 million minutes of engagement per month.  Flash games and social games are different in that flash doesn’t serve up multiple page views (or create meaningful interactions between friends… yet), but I think it’s worthwhile to compare the two.  There has been huge inflation in sponsorship costs over the last year or so (basically since MochiAds hit), but the money tossed around for flash games is still nowhere near what some of these social apps are getting.  I see the difference in the two, but I don’t see the difference as being THAT huge–both are essentially diversions.  I think the money for flash games will continue to rise while the money paid for social apps will decline over the next year or two.

They also mentioned a few criteria for apps (or really, the developers behind the apps) who might get venture funding:

  1. Applications that are user content-driven (and therefore inherently more viral)
  2. Applications developed by someone with a portfolio of hits
  3. Applications which hit a stable niche (i.e. Poker) and own that niche

The question that they didn’t really answer, though, is why any of these applications need venture capital at all.  Most of the apps have next-to-nil production budgets, and those that become hits are likely profitable already.  Without any sort of cash burn to deal with, I don’t really see the need to give up part of your company for VC money–unless, perhaps, you want to quit your day job and do app development full time (I doubt a VC would invest in someone who wanted to keep doing development on nights & weekends).

Building a Successful Business
The founder of PlayFish gave a great talk on how they’ve been so successful so far.  I hadn’t heard of them, but after seeing their apps and hearing about their processes, I think these guys are going to make a mint.  Essentially their core value proposition is that they want to elevate the overall quality of Social Games to a level on par with a Nintendo DS or Wii title.  He gave five bullet points on how to build a successful business:

  1. Think Like a CFO (i.e. you should plan with the bottom line in mind, not what’s necessarily the most “creative”).  This will allow you to manage risk and learn how to manufacture hits over time.
  2. Create Great Product.  By this, he meant be the #1 or #2 in your competitive field, as this will create exponentially higher value in the long run.  I agree with his sentiment, but I’m not entirely sure it works for Flash Games (where there’s a new #1 or #2 every week).
  3. Kill Product.  Learn to pull the plug when something isn’t going the right way, and never look at that as a failure.  Make bold decisions if necessary and don’t look back.
  4. Build Platform.  Develop and document your tools and processes.  Not only will this improve efficiency, you’ll actually have an artifact repository that creates “enterprise value” (i.e. something that can be sold to someone else).
  5. Budgets Increase.  Plan ahead that the budgets will always increase.

Advertising and Marketing on Social Games
This was a panel on in-game advertising featuring DoubleFusion (I think… I was grabbing a Coke when they said the first guy’s name), OfferPal, NeoEdge, EA, and MochiMedia.  Perhaps because I was already so familiar with the space, I didn’t take much away from this panel.  The NeoEdge guy spoke most of the time, but the lady from OfferPal jumped in as often as possible to reiterate her sales pitch (“We have FIVE PhDs working to make you money!”).  Everyone on the panel was fairly subdued, but she looked a little out of place.  Not to sound sexist, but she would’ve fit in better as one of those hosts on QVC or some other home shopping network–just a little too overdressed and just a little too eager to sell you something.

Microtransactions and Virtual Goods
I didn’t really learn anything from this one, but it was interesting to hear the guys from Friends For Sale and Packrat talk about various problems they’ve had to deal with in regards to cheating, inflation, etc…  The panel moderator made very sure to explain the concept of monetary faucets and sinks SEVERAL times (though I’m sure the crowd was probably familiar with the idea already).
All in all, the conference started out kind of slow but ended with a few nuggets of information.  A friend of mine who’s interested in entering the space has been to a few of these things in the last couple of months and said most of the info has already been mentioned at other conferences.  Their was an open bar afterwards, so I at least got to feel like my $100 was well spent.

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SearchMonkey: First Impressions

(Image lost in the Great Update of 2009)

I went to the Yahoo! SearchMonkey (one word apparently) launch party/developer presentation thing tonight (a friend of mine works there and told me that there’d be free t-shirts, food, and beer involved… SOLD!). After I got back, I whipped up the little example above just to test the system out. All it does is scrape the Lottery Button (defunct), figure out how many tickets have been issued today, and supplement the search results with that data. Other than the fact that no one actually searches for it and that no one claims any tickets, the tech works pretty well… for me.

The biggest problem I have with the current SearchMonkey implementation is that it seems to be awesome for large, well-known publishers and utterly useless for small websites. Each SearchMonkey application has to be added manually by the end-user, which means that unless you search across a single website’s pages many many times (and see the “enhanced search results button”), you’re likely never going to feel the need to add that application. Worse, this will actually drive business away from the little guys in favor of the big guys.

Imagine Bob, who sells widgets. Bob was one of the first people to sell widgets, so he comes up first in the search results. A month or two after Bob’s shop started selling these widgets, Amazon also started to sell them. Bob’s page still comes up first in the Yahoo! search results, but now Amazon is second. Bob has almost no traffic (compared to Amazon, anyway), so no one ever bothered to add his SearchMonkey application (assuming the struggling small business Bob operates is even aware that it exists, and that he has enough time to build an application). Amazon, on the other hand, is an early adopter. Their search result, though second in the listings, shows a photo of the widget, used and new prices, a 4-star rating, and a user review–along with links to similar products. Which links is the average consumer going to click on?

Until the distribution model for SearchMonkey applications goes automatic (meaning site owners can verify that they do in fact own the site and automagically make people’s search results add their applications), I’m afraid it’s going to be bad news for the little guys.

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Hello robots, come on in!

I was poking around with Google’s webmaster toolkit today, and I came to the somewhat shocking realization that not a single one of my blog posts is in the Google index.  Whaaaaat?  I’d assumed that WordPress in general would be fairly SEO friendly, but such is not the case.  I’ve done robots.txt files and sitemaps for other little side projects in the last year or so, but this site has been around so long that it never even crossed my mind to get on the search engine bandwagon.  After digging around for approximately half a second, I “found” a pretty sweet plugin to auto-generate a sitemap.  I use Yahoo!’s one-click install of WP (still rocking version 2.0.2), so I had to dig around a little for a legacy version of the plugin.  While I’m a huge fan of the all-online interface for web-hosting (using Y! for 7 or 8-odd years now is one of the things that makes Heroku so appealing to me), but one thing it doesn’t allow you to do is fun stuff like CHMOD (the sitemap generator needs the sitemap.xml file to be at 777).  After looking around a bit further, I found Cyberduck… which also fairly rocks–and made doing the quick CHMOD a cinch.

I’d be a little more excited about my “discoveries” if I wasn’t fairly sure that the rest of the world has known about them for years.  Such is life–but hopefully I should start to see a little more Google traffic (already ~50% of my traffic) to pages other than the blog’s home page.  Next up on the list–create an actual home page.

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Meet the StockMoose

(Image lost in the Great Update of 2009)

Another day, another kooky web idea. This time, it’s the Stock Moose. We’ve had a lot of debate at work on how to gather data, how to present that data, and how to make that collection/presentation process engaging enough that someone might actually enjoy doing it just for the sake of doing it (rather than tying it to some future promise of “Oh, we’ll give you an edge on the trading room floor”). Back when the college football season was in full swing, Yahoo! introduced what they called the Team Ranker. The concept is incredibly simple: pick two teams out of a hat and display them both (with perhaps a few bits of useful info such as a win-loss record or… a stock chart). The user simply has to click on the one they think is better. Period.

Whichever team (or in this case, stock) has the best win percent is rated as #1, and the rest are sorted accordingly. The system was far too simple to game, at least for football. What this usually meant is that earlier in the day (when the East Coast is awake and voting) highly ranked teams in the SEC and other eastern conferences dominated the rankings. When it got later in the afternoon, teams with East Coast fan bases slipped in the rankings while PAC-10 teams rose into the top spots. This is unavoidable for something like football, where fans are fiercely loyal to their own teams over all others–but is the same true for stocks?

Would users on the East coast sway the list towards East-coast stalwarts like Coke and Home Depot while the West coast might favor silicon valley darlings over all others? It’s hard to say–especially considering that I limited the field to the Nasdaq 100, which is primarily dominated by tech stocks. Read the rest of this entry »

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Insoshi, Meet Heroku

(Images lost in the Great Update of 2009)

When I read about insoshi on Mashable and TechCrunch this morning, it got my mind buzzing… and immediately my thoughts turned to another Y Combinator startup–Heroku. I’ve been using Heroku for quite awhile now, and both my fondness for Ruby on Rails and my disdain (so far) for Google’s Big Table make it my prototyping engine of choice for the time being. The integration is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but here’s a quick and dirty way to get an insoshi install running on Heroku (assuming you have an acccount):

First Steps

  1. Download the insoshi tarball
  2. Create a new heroku app
  3. Import the insoshi tarball (how convenient is it that the heroku app importer wants a tarball!)
  4. Run rake db:migrate (this will run a ton of migrations… once complete you can press escape to close the little popup)
  5. Run rake install (this will create the default preferences file and the default forum.

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Google App Engine

Google App Engine LogoInteresting news tonight: it seems as though Google is opening up their massive resource pool to the public at large (well, at least 10,000 of them). I signed up for it and got my invite an hour or so later, and I have to say it looks pretty promising. I’ve been tinkering with Heroku for a month or so now, and that also got me pretty excited. The thing about Heroku, though, is that my application sort of exists only in the cloud. They have access APIs for replicating their specific rails environment in a local setup, but the hassle of setting up that environment is frankly just not worth it. I’ve already got mySQL installed, so installing postgreSQL just for running my Heroku app locally seems a bit excessive. Both products are in beta, but there are a couple of things about Heroku that sort of bug me–namely, there’s currently no way to write your own robots.txt file, which means its practically impossible to “release” an application. If it doesn’t exist in Google’s eyes, it might as well not exist.

Though I’ve only just learned about this new Google Apps Engine, I’m going to assume it won’t have that problem. And if it scales as easily as they’re claiming it will… well I might just have to learn Python. I poked around at Django’s documenation a little bit, and it doesn’t seem so different from Rails. There are a couple of drawbacks, of course–a 500 megabyte storage limit and a one megabyte single-file limit. Sockets are also prohibited, which isn’t all that surprising (though it would be nice of Google to offer something which could be used as a multiplayer game server…).

It’ll be interesting to follow what comes out of it.

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The Paid Search Experiment: Another Reason Why MochiAds Rock

My MochiAd traffic share adRemember that first website you made back in the 90′s? Did you ever join a web ring? I did. I joined lots of them. While I was in middle school, I’m pretty sure at different points I had an Aliens fan page in a sci-fi web ring, a “download movie quotes in wav form” website in a movie ring, a personal page dedicated to my short stories (this was before “blogs” existed) in a writer’s web-ring, and a few others that are even more embarassing. There was no such thing as Google Analytics back then, but if I had to guess the incoming traffic from those web-rings was piddling at best. After using MochiAds service for a couple of months now (ok, well, I’ve been a member since last April… but let’s just say I wasn’t “utilizing” the service until I released Filler back in January) and running a new experiment this week with paid search, I’ve come to the conclusion that the web ring is back in a big way–and it rocks.

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