Monday, March 26, 2018

14+ Years of Blogging

I was listening to the latest episode of The Talk Show podcast today and was fascinated to hear John Gruber and Jason Kottke talk about their history writing blogs which dated back into the late nineties.

It got me thinking about my experiences and history of blogging.

I went back to check out my first Blogger entry from 14 years ago and ironically it was me reminiscing about the good old days.

It seems fitting that I post that original entry again as I was very enthusiastic about how easy it was in 2004 to make games compared to 1984 :-)

So here is my first Blogger entry from Wednesday, 6th of October 2004.

I wonder how many readers are thinking back to 2004 (or even 2014) and remembering the first game they made?

-Johno

Twenty Years Ago - Oct 6th, 2004

I got a call from the Game Developers Association of Australia (http://www.gdaa.asn.au/) asking me about some of Krome’s major milestones. This was for a display on Australian games they are putting together and they wanted to know stuff like what year Krome was founded (1999 by myself, Steve Stamatiadis and Robert Walsh) and when TY the Tasmanian Tiger was released (2002). 
I asked them how far the Aussie games industry went back and was told the earliest entry they had was for Beam Software, which was founded in 1980.Suddenly, it dawned on me that I’ve been in the Aussie industry since pretty much the beginning. My first published game was called Chilly Willy and was released in 1984 on the Microbee system (http://www.thepcmuseum.com/appliedtechnology/) by a company called Honeysoft. Halloween Harry followed that up a year later. Then I took time out to study at University, where I wrote some more games. I didn’t release these commercially, but made a text adventure freely available on the university computer system. That was followed by a short stint as a programmer at a telecommunications company after graduation, and then I was straight back into it in 1991. 
Back then, the four years between when Beam began and when I was first published seemed like a lifetime, as most things do when you’re a kid. But looking back, I realize that I was there during the heady days of the Aussie industry. It’s weird, even though I’ve been making games for twenty years now it’s still as fresh and exciting as it was back then. 
But the great thing about making games today is that it’s a lot easier than it’s ever been! All you need is a PC (which most kids have access to) some development tools (like Blitz Basic and Pro Motion) and the burning desire to make a game. And the costs are so cheap that there’s no excuse. Blitz Basic costs USD $100, the same price as two Playstation2 games - get it online from http://www.blitzbasic.com/. 
I hope that in 2024 a whole bunch of kids will look back at 2004 and fondly remember their first game they wrote and distributed over the net. Wouldn’t that be cool? 
Well, that’s enough nostalgia for one day. Time to go make games!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Fitbit versus Apple Watch

I'll admit it. I'm a bit of an Apple Watch fan. I've had an Apple Watch since launch and have made a number of Apple Watch apps.

Snappy Word for Apple Watch

Before I had an Apple Watch I was a Fitbit user. I wore theFitbit  Flex everyday and members of my family had Fitbit Zips. The Flex was a great tracking device even though the cheap rubber band kept breaking (Fitbit always sent me replacement ones). I wore my Flex with my analog watch and wished the Flex could tell the time, do heart rate tracking and was waterproof.

When Apple finally announced the Watch and I was ready to jump ship. While the first Watch wasn't waterproof it did offer the ability to make apps for it. So I passed my Flex on to my kids and proudly sported my shiny new Apple Watch.

Since then I've upgraded to the Apple Watch Series 3 LTE. Now the Watch does pretty much everything I need it to do. It's waterproof, has a great battery life, sports improved heart rate tracking and can even make phone calls!

But the Apple Watch isn't without it's failings. To be fair these are failings more on the publishing side than on the hardware side. As a developer, making apps is easy enough, but getting your app out to actual Watch users is incredibly hard. The Apple Watch Store is hidden away in the Apple Watch app and rarely updates (the same apps have been featured in Australia for the last few months). There is no best selling list or new release list to peruse and the curation is pretty much non-existent. The main App Store app occasionally features Watch apps, but this is a rare occurrence.

As an example, my last app, Skip and Save which I released earlier this year for free has had a paltry 141 downloads. The app was designed for Watch and takes advantages of complications and Watch connectivity. I reached out to Apple Watch press sites and sent out press releases - all to no avail. I would have thought that even if the app was appalling (it's not) that surely some small percentage of Watch owners would download it out of curiosity. There just isn't any real way to find Watch apps.

Skip and Save was made for Apple Watch
Despite these failings I still love my Watch.

Now it looks like the first real challenger to Apple Watch is about to arrive.

The Fitbit Versa.
Fitbit Versa
While it lacks LTE and the ability to reply to messages on Apple devices, the Versa is waterproof, sports a 4 day battery life, has GPS (on the Special Edition) and all day heart rate monitoring. And it also has the ability to run 3rd party apps. Oh, and it's cheaper. It's AUD $299.95 compared to Apple Watch AUD $459.

3rd party apps is the thing I'm most interested in.

Fitbit Versa uses Fitbit OS. Fitbit bought Pebble a while back and I'm not sure how much of the Pebble tool chain and OS is in Fitbit OS, but what they do offer is pretty cool. The development IDE is completely web based allowing you to write an App or a Watch Face in the browser and deploy to a simulator for testing.

Oh yeah, the Versa lets you make watch faces, something Apple does not. It may be that watch faces could be the killer app for the Versa. Checking out the success of watch faces on Garmin devices (the download numbers are public) it seems that even in a small ecosystem relative to Apple Watch, Garmin users are downloading watch faces by the tens of thousands.

Sadly it looks like there is no easy way for Fitbit developers to charge users for their apps - so any work done on this system will be a labor of love. Hopefully this is something they address when the Versa launches.

You can check out the Fitbit development site here.

The development language is JavaScript which is a very accessible language.

Now, the one thing I am not sure about is how Fitbit will solve the app discovery problem. I've looked at their site and can't work out where they keep the storefront for the current batch of Ionic apps (their first Fitbit OS device). Maybe it's only available from the Fitbit App when you connect an Ionic device? Either way, it doesn't look promising at the moment. But then it couldn't be any worse than Apple. I guess for both platforms they can only improve their discovery.

I'll be watching the launch closely and will be very keen to see how Fitbit deals with developers and how they promote their apps.

I hope Fitbit does well and is enough of an annoyance to Apple that Apple open up Watch faces to developers and pull their finger out to fix app discoverability.

Good luck with launch Fitbit. Here's to your success and growing a viable platform for developers to make apps for!

- Johnno

Monday, February 26, 2018

Adventure Games in 3D with Stereo Jack

While cleaning up my hard drive I came across all the files for Stereo Jack, a graphic adventure follow up to Flight of the Amazon Queen that Steve Stamatiadis and I were developing.

Black Hole (the villain) and Stereo Jack (the hero)

We had designed the entire game down to every single location, character, item and puzzle (I have 2 full ring binders of design docs) - including entire room layouts that Steve had made for every location.

I had even adapted the JOKER game editor we used for Amazon Queen to work in 3D.
JOKER3D - our graphic adventure editor

Ans we had the game playable with some early test locations.

We were very close to having it signed but things didn't work out in the end.

What I found interesting was that we wanted to make the game in 3D and we had to actively pitch the publisher as to why 3D was better than 2D. I thought I'd include the pitch we made in May 1997 to GT Interactive in this blog - as well as the outline of what the game was all about.

Enjoy!

Our 3D adventure that never was.

STEREO JACK - THE GRAPHIC ADVENTURE

Copyright Steve Stamatiadis and John Passfield © 1996

Stereo Jack is the world’s greatest cyber-hacker. He specializes in data retrieval and no computer is safe from his digital prowess. His home is Silicon City, a sprawling futuristic metropolis where high-technology and computers are a way of life. Free of pollution and covered in lush green parkland it’s the perfect place to live. 

So perfect in fact, that it’s a magnet for the world’s nastiest cyber-villains.

In his latest adventure Jack is pitted against his evil arch nemesis Black Hole. Dedicated to destroying all computer information, Black Hole has hatched a plan so cunning that it could result in the downfall of Silicon City.

Black has discovered a super secret backbone network that links all of Silicon City’s major computer systems. The network was created during the Core Wars to allow Silicon City officials access to their computers in the event of a foreign body taking over the city. After the Core Wars the backbone was left in place but forgotten about. 

The only thing stopping Black Hole becoming the most powerful force in the city is that he is missing the master access key - and only one person stands in his way of obtaining it. Stereo Jack.

Playing Jack, it’s up to you to put a stop to Black Hole’s evil plans!

The adventure spans a number of exciting locations, including:
    • the core zones of Silicon City, information capital of the world
    • marine.com, tomorrow’s marine community today
    • derelict tunnels below the illustrious Hawkins University
    • and finally Black Hole’s secret trap ridden base high in the Rocky mountains 
The game also features dozens of highly detailed, futuristic vehicles, all rendered in real time 3D. These include sports cars, police pursuit vehicles, limos, hover trucks and even a gigantic smog sucker.

Full-screen graphics make Stereo Jack leap off the monitor. The cinematic adventure uses a variety of camera angles to create dramatic effects, and seamlessly blends 3D animation to impose a sense of realism in an animated, futuristic setting.

Players are immersed in an incredibly rich and detailed 3D world - they can explore exotic locations looking for clues and interact with the many exciting characters.  Some of these characters however are on Black Hole’s payroll and will do anything to stop you. 

If Jack encounters an adversary he can try and use his brain to find a way around them or use his brawn and confront them. If the player chooses to fight then a combat mode is initiated and the player gets control of Jack's fighting moves.

And here is what we wrote for GTI back in May 1997 to convince them 3D was the way to go.

=== START PITCH DOC ===

3D Adventures versus 2D Adventures
Although the new demo is in real time 3D - the game is still an adventure game - not a simple 3D shooter (although we do have action as part of the game play). You still solve puzzles, interact with other characters, carry out conversations with our enhanced dialog system and explore exciting new locations. The story driven aspects of a traditional graphic adventure still exist. The main difference is that the game is now in 3D.

Some Things To Remember
- The demo that you saw used an unoptimised 3D engine with no 3D card support and ran between 10 and 15 frames per second with every thing turned on (multiple characters, transparencies, multiple rooms being drawn simultaneously for the cameras, etc).
- The 3D engine will only get faster and more impressive

The 3D Advantage

Players LOVE 3D games
And more importantly PC Magazines love 3D games.
Take a look at the most successful games (that aren’t Real Time Strategy Games) and you’ll find they’re mostly 3D. In fact, the next generation of strategy games are shaping up to use 3D as well. Tomb Raider, Mario 64, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, etc, are all 3D games. 

As Dave Perry of Shiny Entertainment said “You can do good 2D games in 3D, but you can’t do 3D games in 2D”. As a testament to the future of games - all of Shiny Entertainment’s new titles are full 3D - including the much anticipated Earth Worm Jim 3.

Game worlds are much, much larger
For the same amount of work required to create a single static 2D screen we can create large and completely immersive 3D locations. We can view these locations from a number of different views, we can walk around these locations in real time, and when necessary we can zoom in to show off new parts of these locations. To do this in 2D would require the same location to be re-drawn from a number of different angles - requiring a lot of extra work and time. 

Scaleable Graphics Resolution
Unlike 2D, the graphics resolution of 3D games is scaleable. Imagine nearing the completion of a hires 2D adventure when all of a sudden everyone wants 800x600 in high color. Uh oh - that means the developers have to either bite the bullet and release a graphically outdated game and face the wrath of the PC Game press or discard a whole lot of work and money and begin redoing the graphics. 

3D graphics card support
Using 3D we can take advantage of Direct3D and support 3D graphic cards. This not only ensures that the game has a longer shelf life - but gives the games a level graphical detail that would be hard to achieve in 2D.

Easy to port to next generation consoles
A 3D game is easier to port due to the scaleable attributes of 3D as well as the fact that many of the next generation consoles are designed with real time 3D development in mind.

Models are less complex then pre-rendered graphics
Real time models may be less complex - but they look far more impressive than their 2D counterparts when they are being moved about in 3D space. However, their are two big advantage to using less complex real time 3D models: Building 3D real time models take less time and do not require ultra powerful SG workstations. The result is a saving of time, money and manpower.

Ability to create new and innovative puzzles
Please refer to the New Paradigm section.

Allows us to create cinematic sequences
With a real time 3D game engine we can control the placement of “cameras” to view the action with. This means we can zoom, dolly, pan and push in on characters as the action unfolds. We can cut to a closeup for dramatic effect or move to a long shot to give sense of epic scope to a scene.

All the cool developers are doing 3D only
Sierra are currently doing 3D adventures. It won’t be long before LucasArts jumps on to the bandwagon. To have a competitive edge we need to set the standard now. And 3D is an integral part of that standard.

Shorter development time
Complex 2D images take quite a while to draw. If they’re being pre-rendered then quite a bit of time is taken to build complex models and render. There’s also the problem of animation. Walk cycles and object animations need to be created from a number of different viewing angles - all of which eats up valuable time. With 3D we can create a single walk cycle for a character and view it in real time from any angle. We can also attach other character models to the skeleton of a predefined walk cycle - thus saving ourselves a lot of time re-animating a new character.

Disadvantages of 2D
- Lots of graphics need to be created to build the game world
- 3D models need to be more complex: as a result need faster, powerful rendering machines, more people and of course, more money and time
- Puzzles tend to be restricted to old hackneyed themes
- Just doesn’t look as impressive
- The cost to deliver graphics and animation to rival Monkey Island 3 and Blizzard’s upcoming 2D adventure would be astronomical. Both games are using animation studios.
- Difficult and time consuming to convert to other platforms


In Summary
We feel that a 3D adventure game can still have all the elements that players love about 2D graphic adventures - except now we can layer even more cool game play elements into the game. The game story is enhanced by the fact that we can direct action in a cinematic way. Players are drawn into the game world even more so because of the 3D immersive nature.

=== END PITCH DOC ===

Congratulations if you made it this far! 

It would be hard for you to be nostalgic about something that didn't exist - but for me and Steve we poured a lot of time and energy into the game and comic so it was nice to rediscover these old documents.

If anything, it's interesting to see that world of game development that was on the precipice of mainstream 3D games. It was rather exciting to imagine the potential of what it would offer back then.

I'm sad we didn't get to make the game. We produced a smaller follow up 3D adventure called Gruesome Castle afterwards, but it also failed to hit the market. But that's a story for another day.

- Johnno

Friday, February 23, 2018

Games Manifesto

I previously blogged about Australian made games that feature Aussie themes, characters and locations. Florence, TY the Tasmanian Tiger, Golf Story and Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze are juts a few examples.  However the majority of games made in Australia are location agnostic or set in other places. Very few include Australian themes or characters.

I made two Aussie themed games back int he early mid 2000's - TY the Tasmanian Tiger and it's sequel Bush Rescue. I did the initial design on the 3rd instalment before leaving Krome in 2005. I've also tried to set up new projects that have a strong Aussie bent.

Steve Stamatiadis and I created a concept called Kat Burglar, staring Aussie Kat Kelly as a free spirited adventurer who specialised in re-acquiring cultural items that had been taken from the original native owners. Her catch phrase was "It doesn't belong in a museum!" and was an anti-Indiana Jones.
Kat Burglar took relics from museums and returned them to the countries of origin


We designed the game and built a prototype but sadly we couldn't find publisher interest.

Like many Aussies, I also wanted to make a Mad Max game, and over time produced many pitches for games inspired by the movie. We even got to pitch EA on doing the official Mad Max game back in 2003 before Fury Road was put on hiatus.
Desert Riggers - a Mad Max inspired game design from 2003


Right now Pete Mullins and I are slowly building out Billy Carts, an Australian themed racing game featuring Aussie animals - it kind of follows in the footsteps of TY with a humorous take on the genre with a larrikin sense of humour.
Billy Carts

So, with a renewed interest in making games that celebrate Australia I thought it could be useful to create a manifesto as a set of guidelines to help myself and others make these games. Then it occurred to me that this just isn't about Australian games - it's about making personal games - and that could apply to anyone, anywhere.

Some of my favourite creators, no matter how otherworldly their content is, have always infused their art with their DNA. George Lucas drew upon his experiences growing up in Modesto, his love of cars and the serials he watched as a kid and put those in Star Wars. The Empire and the Rebellion were also inspired by the Vietnam war which affected him and his generation.

Likewise JK Rowling took her very real life experiences of poverty and depression as inspiration for themes in Harry Potter as well as drawing upon people she knew for characters and places she lived as settings.

Of course these are just two famous examples - so many great writers draw upon their own lives for inspiration.

So, here is my first pass at a manifesto. It's no longer about making Australian games but about making personal games.

Games that can only be made by you.
Games Manifesto 1st Draft


So, what do you think?
Is this a manifesto that you could use?
What would you change?

- Johnno




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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Video_games_set_in_Australia

And Kotaku has this article on Australians in games:
https://www.kotaku.com.au/2011/10/a-visual-of-australians-in-video-games-the-trilogy-is-complete/


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