This morning I read that my friend Steve Stamatiadis's game studio, Krome, is closing.
I met Steve through Livejournal back in maybe 2000. We finally got to meet and hang out A-Kon in Dallas. We immediately shunned everyone else (including my wife) to talk about video games for 3 days straight. Him, the working professional and me, the eager guy who had no idea what he was doing. I had made a couple simple Flash games but I really wanted to go farther in the game industry. He patiently listened to me spew out all the stupid things eager, inexperienced developers say ( "I want to make a video game out of my D&D campaign!") and encouraged my undirected enthusiasm.
He later came and stayed at my house (keep in mind, he lives in Australia) where he showed me directions I could go in the industry. He showed the basic of box modeling in 3Ds Max and scripting in Blitz Basic. He encouraged and shaped my enthusiasm into something directed.
As a result I was spent each day on the train, on the way to my crappy web design job, doing tutorials in 3dS Max or writing game code. When the opportunity arose for a game programmer position at Cartoon Network, I was prepared with a portfolio of games and code. I got the job and have now been with Cartoon Network for 7 years, pretty much the best job a Flash game developer could hope for.
Not only is Steve an inspiration for you to do your best, but he includes those around him in the cool work he is doing. He drew awesome art for me and my wife (even for my D&D campaign), I got to make the website for TY: The Tazmanian Tiger and my wife made a Blade Kitten costume (I helped). I finally got to travel down to Australia and stay with Steve for a couple weeks, which one the best experiences of my life.
Krome is closing and I am very sad for Steve and the other employees of Krome. But I know that if the people working with Steve were half as inspired and enriched by working with him as I was, they were very, very lucky.
Austin GDC was last week and it was great. I haven't been to a conference in 2 years and I have never been to Austin so I was very much looking forward to the trip.
The longer you go to conferences, the less sessions you go to. At least that's how most people approach it but I try to go to sessions as much as I can. Here are the sessions I went to and my biggest takeaways.
Strategies for Acquiring and Retaining Player (Mike Goslin) - This was a great talk. My biggest takeaway was that teasing content can actually be more effective for retaining players during expected drop-offs (back to school, etc.) than just the content. Tease the content at the drop-off time, then release the content a bit later.
Economic Decision Making in Game Design (Nickolaus Davidson) - This was easily the talk of the show for me. The general idea is player make "bad" economic decisions due to emotional drivers. However, these bad decisions are predictable and make your player feel better. If you know how the player makes these decisions, you can design your game around them.
Gaming for Kids: The Evolving Landscape (Richard Weil, Rebecca Newton) - Things are changing, COPPA restrictions are up for review this year so the rules for kids content could change.
Playground Chatter: Getting Kids to Talk about Your Game (Matthew Schwartz) - This was a great roundtable. Cartoon, Nick and Disney were all there sharing stories. My biggest takeway was that when parents drop your content (due to back to school, etc,) they will not respond to financial incentives. You have to be prepared for that loss and make the most of the beginning of Summer and Christmas.
Bears and Snakes! The Wild Frontier of Social Game Design (Brian Reynolds) - This was a keynote from Zynga. While this talk was met with derision by a lot of people, my take was Zynga knows they have been getting away with it. They have been making shallow grinds and it's time to make their game contain real design mechanics. They are hiring real designers (like Mr. Reynolds) to ensure their games mature with the market.
How Online Gaming Has Adopted the Grind (Damion Schubert) - The grind just keeps coming up. Damion's definition was "Making the player do something they don't want to do so they can do something they do want to do." I find definitions of grinds, extrinsic motivators, etc. can be applied to everything in games. If a player just wants to win, is the entire game a grind? The act of playing the game is keeping them from winning right? There are just many gray areas. Damion gave loads of great tips such as avoid "hell levels," avoiding sticker shock (e.g. kill 5000 goblins), staggering grindy content with hand-crafted content, highlighting near-to-completion tasks and overlapping grinds. This was great to hear as a system I am working on now focuses on highlighting nearly completed tasks and numerous concurrent tasks.
Rock-Paper-Scissors on Steroids: Leveraging Game Theory in Games (Dave Mark) - This was exactly what I feared it would be. Starcraft has RPS, guessing games are prisoner's dilemma. This would be a great talk for college students in design programs.
Sporadic-Play Game Update - The Latest Developments in Games for Busy People (Jeremy Gibson, Bryan Cash) - I have been working on a sporadic design for years! It was good to see I am doing some things right. Biggest takeaway? Using "velocity" of player progression for leaderboards instead of straight measurement of progress.
Building Social Flash Games with an Open Source Engine: PushButton Engine 101 (Ben Garney) - For a personal project I am using PBE but the talk was mostly all the videos I have already watched online. It was nice to meet Ben and thank him for all this help on the forums 🙂
I also got to meet a lot of people. I was very fortunate to be able to talk to veteran designers like Damion Schubert, Sam Lewis and others. Austin GDC was great for learning from sessions and networking. I hope I can go next year as well.
Last week there was a huge update for TKO. To support the Ben 10 10/10/10 promotion, we made 4 Ben 10 Ultimate Aliens (Rath, Armadrillo, Ultimate Echo Echo, Ultimate Big Chill) and unlocked Ultimate Humungousaur, who previously required a player to be logged in a have a certain number of wins to play.
TKO has been more successful than we ever hoped, so in addition to new characters, the entire structure of the game was changed to more easily allow for updates. Originally, TKO was supposed to have 9 characters, so we just put all the character data in the main file. As we added more characters to TKO, we saw more and more people fall off during the initial game download. However, now TKO has over 20 characters, way too many for a single file.
Our ninja engineer (ninjaneer?) completely re-factored the game, moving all assets outside of the main game file. This allows for all the character data to be loaded as individual files. It also lets designers and artists to update characters without having to recompile the game.
The art pipeline was completely overhauled. Our 3D artists worked magic to convert files from Blender to 3DS Max. This allowed up to make some nice, new animations for the new characters, like Ultimate Big Chill's fireball. This conversion will allow us to produce characters much faster in the future.
In building the new characters, we had very, very little time. As a result, instead of making all new special moves, we mixed and matched special moves from previous characters. This was an efficient way to build new characters and ended up creating very different play styles.
I collect data on character selections, wins, etc. and make balance tweaks based on these numbers. In a previous build, I nerfed Big Chill a bit because he was far and away the most dominant character. I increased the recovery on his Ice Dash (which was was too safe) and decreased the damage on all his freezing attacks. This resulted in Big Chill going from a break away first to dead last in win percentage. Numbers like this can be tricky to evaluate. Were players still attempting to spam his Ice Dash which is no longer safe? Or did these change really really make him a much worse character? I decided to go back half-way and increase the damage on his freezing attacks. I will have to keep an eye on him for next build. I also increased the hit area for Chowder's Kimchi attack, since his wins were pretty low.
TKO saw a 5x increase in traffic last week, so obviously, the new content was a hit. At last count, there has been over 37 million TKO matches. We will continue to make TKO better with new features, balance tweaks and content. We are also building some exciting promotions and events around TKO so stay tuned for more robot fighting action.