Saturday, February 17, 2018

Australian Themed Games

I’m Australian and I reckon Australians make great games. 

Many of our games hold their own against the best from around the world. We’ve also produced some of the most downloaded games, Fruit Ninja for example, has been a global phenomenon.
Fruit Ninja has had over a billion downloads

Right now, in 2018, Australia is home to a thriving indie scene producing some extraordinary games. The recently released Florence by Mountains is a fresh and exciting example of what the games medium can produce and it's set in Melbourne.

Florence by Mountains

But what I want to talk about is the lack of games set in Australia and/or featuring Australian characters made by Australians. This is more of a discussion out loud with myself than an essay offering any real answers. If you, dear reader, have some insight into why Aussie game developers prefer to set their games in sci-fi or fantasy worlds or in countries other than Australia then please let me know in the comments below.

I’ve thought about this lack of Aussiness for quite a while. Back in 2000 I started work on a brand new game called Ty the Tasmanian Tiger. We shipped it on Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube in 2004 to worldwide success. In fact, the recent re-release on Steam is one of Steam’s highest rated games. Ty is an unadulterated Aussie game set in Australia starring Aussie animals and featuring true blue Strine. It’s fairly over the top in it’s Australianess - I wrote the script and co-designed it so feel free to blame me - but most of the language I used is based on real life language I heard growing up or spoken by people around me while making the game.

I co-created Ty to be 100% Aussie!

The creation of Ty was in part a reaction to American and Japanese companies using Aussie characters in their games. Crash Bandicoot and Sonic the Hedgehog have Australian animals in them. It was hearing Crash’s sister, Coco, speaking for the first time in an America accent that pushed me over the edge and made me want to make a game that was a true Aussie game.

It is ironic that non-Australian developers have made more of an effort to create Australian characters and use Australian settings than the local development community. Notable examples include Beneath a Steel Sky (made by UK Revolution Software), Saxton Hale from Team Fortress (which was co-developed by Aussie Robin Walker), Junkrat from Overwatch (by US based Blizzard), Mad Max (developed by Sweden’s Avalanche Studios), Uncharted’s Chloe Frazer (by US based Naughty Dog) and Chips Dubbo from Halo (by US Microsoft) to name just a few.

Saxton Hale from Team Fortress

Beneath a Steel Sky

Junkrat from Overwatch

Here’s a list of games that use Australia as a setting:

And Kotaku has this article on Australians in games:

I did some research into the number of Aussie made games featuring Australian characters or locations and my list came up a little thin, which is surprising given the large number of indie games that have been made in recent times. 

Locally made games with Australian settings and/or characters include the previously mentioned Ty the Tasmanian Tiger games (four of them!) and Florence, the wonderful golfing RPG Golf Story,  Bioshock which was partially developed in Australia, a bunch of AFL and Cricket games, Down Under Dan, Escape from Woomera, Melbourne Cup Challenge, Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze… and that’s all I could find.

Escape from Woomera

Golf Story from Sidebar Games

What have I missed? There must be more than just the handful of games I’ve found.

So, why don’t Australians make games that celebrate their country, culture and people? We definitely have a “voice” that is uniquely Australian. You can experience it in games like Fruit Ninja, Florence, Crossy Road, Ski Safari and other games that aren’t overtly about Australia but still manage to exude a sense of Aussie charm.

I’ll throw out a few ideas.

Fantasy and Sci Fi Rule

Game developers have a penchant for fantastical works and these tend to be set in made up places. And traditionally the origins of video games are steeped in scifi/fantasy so it only makes sense for the current generation of developers to follow in these footsteps.

Movies have a Big Impact

Game developers take a lot of inspiration from movies and the majority of blockbusters are set outside of Australia. By constantly reinforcing New York and LA as important cities it makes sense for a developer to set their game there. It's much faster for a player to get a sense of place with New York than Adelaide.

Cultural Cringe

Australians tend to suffer from cultural cringe and find hearing their own “voice” in any medium to be, well, cringeworthy. Interestingly the term cultural cringed was coined here in Australia :-)

As I mentioned earlier I’ve made Aussie games with the Ty series . These are over-the-top examples of Australia but I believe there is so much more that can be be done to explore the uniqueness of our country. There’s an untapped well of stories and characters  that are perfect to explore in the games medium. I would love to see indigenous developers draw from their rich history to create something like Cleverman for games.

I definitely want to include more Australian characters, themes and locations in my future games. They’re probably going to be more in the style of Ty the Tasmanian Tiger than a work of art like Florence - but you gotta start somewhere. 

So what do you think? Is there a reason for the lack of Australian made Aussie themed games?

- Johnno

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Billy Carts Track Manager

I'm working on the game part-time so progress has been a little slow.

I've also been switching between Swift and C# which I find slows me down. There's enough difference between developing in Xcode with Swift and Unity with C# that I often find myself having to google how to do things. With Skip and Save done and dusted I am now focusing 100% on just Unity and C# so hopefully my brain will be able to store Unity/C# and not have to swap it out with Xcode/Swift :-)

I've recently been working on the track manager which lets the player race around an endless world in any direction. Previously the game was a single road down hill runner. While that was fun, it didn't offer enough of a point of difference to other games out in the market - and as a designer the idea of an endless world to explore offers so many more possibilities.

Currently the track uses a 3x3 grid of prefabs which rearrange themselves around the player so there is always an adjacent track.

Here is how it works from up high:
Endless Track Generator

Here's how it looks in game:

Endless driving (still with pop in)

At the moment the new track pieces are randomly placed so the scenery can suddenly change to a different track layout which is disconcerting - and there's also noticeable pop in when new tracks appear out front. The idea was to get something in fast to test the concept.

Now that it works, the next step is to make sure that the "infinite" track layout is generated procedurally but in a way that the tracks connect logically so the scenery flows from outback to forest to townships.

At the moment I'm using 3 track tiles that Pete has provided for testing:

Track 1

Track 2

Track 3

There will be different themed pieces and of course content that fits on each piece like houses, dunnies (Aussie outdoor toilets), old car wrecks, animals, fences and all manner of obstacle and collectable.

This is an Australian themed game and I'm really excited about the assets Pete will be creating to make this a truly Aussie experience. One of the things I'm keen on doing is injecting humour into the game through the characters, animals and landscape. Pete and I both worked on TY the Tasmanian Tiger (I co-created TY) and we also did an Aussie comic strip together called Dingo Boy - so we're no strangers to creating Aussie content.

I look forward to sharing more soon!

- Johnno

Friday, February 02, 2018

Apps versus Games

At the end of last year I took some time out from making games to try my hand at developing my first app. The app is Skip and Save and was designed with the Apple Watch in mind, but also works on the iPhone and iPad.

I designed Skip and Save with the Watch in mind

Creating this app was a new experience for me. And for the most part it was an enjoyable one.

I completed the app at the start of December 2017 and submitted it to Apple with a release date of 24th of January - roughly 8 weeks before launch so I had the best possible chance of being considered for Apple featuring. Apple recommends giving them 6-8 weeks notice and if you’re a developer I highly recommend you do this too - more details here:

I built Skip and Save, which is a saving app, primarily for my use. As I mentioned in a previous "making of" blog post, I often skip a treat and “bank” the money putting it toward buying something else later on - like a book or game. Regardless of the financial success of the app this was something I wanted to use and I figured I could also release it for others to enjoy.

So how does making and releasing an app compare to making and releasing a game?

Making the App

I enjoyed building the app just as much as building a game. It was a challenge to learn new stuff like how the UI system works and how the Watch handles complications. It was also a challenge to use storyboard in Xcode to make my app responsive to  different layouts and device sizes. I’ve used XAML before and found it much easier to create UI layouts. This is something I hope Apple can improve on in the future. For any Unity developers I can tell you it's easier to create responsive UI in Unity than Xcode!

Building the Watch component of the app was also much easier than the iPhone component. I figure this is due to the maturity of the WatchOS side of things. The Watch app took 25% of the total development time.

Marketing the App

Where apps depart dramatically from games is in the release/marketing phase. I had to find out which sites cover apps and the best app press release services. I did a lot of research and consumed a lot of App developer podcasts for best practices.

I reached out to sites that featured Watch and iOS apps with press info and pre-release promo codes. I also promoted the app leading up to it’s launch using the new Pre Order scheme on the App Store.

Sadly, on launch day, I got zero press interest and no featuring. Brian Mueller, the developer of Carrot, recently tweeted this:
"CARROT To-Do got 26 downloads and zero press coverage on launch day."
So I guess a lot hasn't changed in the last five years.

In my experience the App news sites are a lot tougher to crack then the game sites. My press release did seem to reach the far corners of the web though, as I received many emails from marketing folks offering to “promote” my app for a fee!

Apps are Different to Games

Here is where I think apps diverge in a BIG way from games.

With games you are solving a specific problem.

Players want to be entertained.

With a game, regardless of its genre, art style, team pedigree or core mechanic, your title has the potential to solve that problem. Your game simply has to entertain people!

With an app you’re solving a specific problem. This means you’re only appealing to those people that have that problem.

Skip and Save's market is people who are interested in saving money, and in a very specific way. So the potential market is a niche audience.

People don’t think “I need a new app, here’s a free one I’ll download it and give it a try!”

They think, “I need a better photo sharing app, let’s see what’s available.”

From my own experience with games, I tend to download a lot each week in different genres and from different developers because I want to have fun. And any game has the potential to scratch that itch.

This is obvious in hindsight, and as I mentioned I was making this app regardless as it’s an app that I wanted to use. But I do feel for my fellow non-game developers. They have it tough!

Will I make another app? I think I will. I have some problems that are specific to me that I want to solve. Only this time I'll focus on the Watch and not worry about the iPhone/iPad version - so this will drastically reduce development time. The Watch is how I use Skip and Save and the Watch is probably how I will use my future apps.

But for now I have a game to make :-)

- Johnno

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Skip and Save launch

Today my first non-game app, Skip and Save, launched on the App Store.
You can download it from the App Store here.

To be honest, I have no idea how it will fair, or if anyone will be able to find it. I did a lot of research into app marketing - I followed sites that review apps, listened to app developer and app marketing podcasts and tried to understand the app market place. But it's still a new world for me and quite different to games.

Making the app was a lot of fun, so I would love for it to have some success to give me encouragement to make more apps. We'll have to wait and see how it goes. Expect a blog post on how the market perceived it in a month or two :-)

In the meantime, Pete and I are making progress on Billy Carts. I've been reworking the Track Manager code that builds the world around the player as they travel in whatever direction they choose. Will post some more screen shots soon!

- Johnno

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Billy Carts (Back on Track Part 2)

Last year I wrote that I had finally wrapped development on my Ultra Dash game and was diving back into Billy Carts.

Well, a few other things popped up and in the time between then and now I made a new iPhone/Apple Watch app and put together a major update for Ultra Dash while Billy Carts languished...

Skip and Save is my Apple Watch app and will be coming out the 24th of January. It's an app that lets you track skipping treats to help you save for something special. You can pre-order it now by clicking this link. You can also read my blog post about making the app here.

Ultra Dash is an arcade endless runner I wrote in Swift. The game didn't set the world on fire, but I felt like there's something fun in the game so I wanted to do one last update to see if it can find it's audience. The update will be out in February.

Now, with all that out of the way, I can honestly say that Pete and I are back on track with Billy Carts!

So, what is Billy Carts you ask?

Well, it started out well over a year ago as a down hill endless racer, inspired by Faily Brakes. It's our first Unity game together (though not our first game as Pete and I had previously worked on TY the Tasmanian Tiger, Flight of the Amazon Queen and other games in the past) and we wanted to make something fun and distinctly Australian.

But now that we've had some time away from it (and with an improvement in my Unity skills and confidence) we've decided to change the game play a bit while still retaining the unique Aussie theme and racing elements.

So with the start of the new year Pete and I have ripped the game apart and reset it to make it something a bit more unique. My goal is to share our process of building the game and to do more frequent and smaller blog posts to show off our progress.

The first thing we've done is to change the environment from an endless down hill runner into an endless open world explorer. Previously the game created a series end to end tracks that appeared in front of the player - now we're using a 3x3 grid of square titles to create an open space that reforms around you as you race around the world.

First pass of 3x3 grid that is built around the player.
And this is how it looks in game. There are no props yet - I took out the trees, rocks, etc. to focus on the track generation.

Open world with new skybox.
One thing I want to do is to try out new stuff as we build the game, so the design is fairly light on. It's procedural and you collect stuff while avoiding obstacles and rack up a score - but what else can be done to make it feel great? This is what I aim to find out. I'm sure there will be a lot of missteps and travelling down the wrong path, but that's the fun of making games, right?

As well as the development work-in-progress updates I'd also like to talk about some of the decisions we've made in developing the game. In particular the Australian aspect of the game. As I mentioned both Pete and I worked on the TY series (I co-created, designed and wrote the script) and I have an affinity for making Aussie games. I feel like there is so much richness to explore, but I've only made two Aussie games and want to make more. This is something I'd love to talk more about.

I hope you'll join Pete and I as we try and make a fun game!

- Johnno