Monday, 23 March 2015

Tiny Red Riding Hood: Dev Diary 01.

So here we go, a dev diary!  I'm going to try and document my first bash at creating a game myself.  Obviously I will have help along the way, I've already had help up to this point, but for the most part I will be flying solo on this.  So episode one of the dev diary - what I intend to do.


The major force driving this project is that I make something Willow enjoys interacting with, and can learn from.  Also I want to try and make an interactive book app that improves on what's already available.  What this app won't do is replace parent and child time.  There will be no narration, mommy or daddy will still have to read along with Willow and give praise when she gets interactions correct.

Things that I will be keeping in mind throughout the project:

  • Short and simple
    • As my first run at this, it needs to be short enough and simple enough for me to finish it before getting distracted or disheartened! 
  • Fun for Willow!
    • This is important as what I think might be fun is probably not entirely in line with what is actually fun for a toddler!
  • That it's a learning project
    • As much as I would love for this to be my first solo released game, this is my first go!  This is for me to learn and to try and make something fun for Willow, if ultimately I need to throw this one in the trash and start over, that's what I'll do. 

Vertical Slice

Looking forest-y! 
Normally I don't like this approach but there's a couple of reasons why I'm going this route:
  • Show and tell.  Brighton Indies meet up is in a week and a bit, I want something to show off!  It's really important to get a broader opinion on what I'm making and I know there are a few parents who attend so hopefully they might have some insight, or if their wee ones are of the right age they might help with some user testing!
  • Proof of concept.  Mostly to myself over anyone else, show that I can do this.
  • Test the waters with Willow.  I don't think there's such a thing as too young to try and teach Willow, but there may well be too young to get any meaningful feedback!  Will she engage with it?  Will it seem like she likes it?
The section of the game I will be making is what I'm dubbing a 'forest section'.  Story wise Little Red is pretty simple.  Mom sends you off to Grans, you meet the woodcutter or wolf (depending on the version) along the way, you get to Grandma's and the wolf has taken her place, you stop the wolf.  That's it.  Just the 4 beats.  As with the other Little Red Story apps I've played the meat of the 'game play' is in the walk from Little Red's to Grandma's house, or the 'forest sections', and there can be as many of these as I like.

For this vertical slice I will be making a game where you need to collect apples.

Where I am so far  

So far I've started on making the art assets having decided to go for the low poly look.  This means getting back into 3D, and how I wish I was using Maya!  Now Blender is pretty good, and considering it's free, it's actually very comprehensive.  I just wish it was more intuitive!  It took me such a long time to make a simple tree, but once I got my head around Blenders many hotkeys the following tree took a mere hour and a rock no time at all!

Perhaps foolishly this has encouraged me to attempt a 3D character for the game.  Now I know it's going to take me some time to make, rig and animate, but I've gotten much faster with Blender after only a couple of days so I hope that in a weeks time I can have a rudimentary character up and skipping.  As I've said before, this is a learning curve, I'll probably re-do all of the art as I get better.

By this time next week

  • A skipping Tiny Red Character
  • Forest section, apple tree and apples modeled
  • Sample level of picking either red or green apples
  • Some basic UI in place    

Wish me luck!


Monday, 16 March 2015

The Mother I Never Knew I'd Become

I've said before that one thing about becoming a mother that really excited me was the idea of making games for and with Willow.  I decided that the game I would start developing as part of the Unity and Cake meet ups would be my first attempt at an interactive book for Willow.  Obviously I'm really excited about this, it's something I've had in mind since before I was showing, but now that I'm doing it I'm finding it's not nearly as simple as I thought it would be.

Willow's already a gamer.

Little Red Riding Hood

When I was thinking about what games I would make for Willow, I had a grand idea of a woven fairy tale land where classic characters from different stories, fables and nursery rhymes would all live together in a big fantasy world.  But this would be a huge undertaking!  Firstly it needs a lot of writing, and not just taking the old stories and modernizing them or adapting them but also linking all the characters and weaving their stories together.  Secondly it would require a massive amount of art, far to much for just little old me at the moment.  And finally it would need skills to produce that I just don't have yet.  I still want to make this game, but not yet.  For my first solo project I need to start much smaller.

I don't know why but when I think of children's stories the first one that comes to mind is Little Red Riding Hood, so I'm going to start with this one and work up to the big world.  I thought I knew the story pretty well but wanted to do some research, so I brought Willow some fairy tale books (thanks again to everyone who gave us gift cards for her birthday) and downloaded a bunch of Little Red story apps.

Turns out Little Red Riding Hood isn't nearly as warm and fuzzy as I remembered...

Nerfing the Brothers Grimm

So I always thought I wouldn't be the type of mother who won't let their child fall over, eat dirt or grow up with the same stories that I did (yes Willow is going to know all about the Thundercats).  And whilst she will happily eat floor fluff (as hard as we try to stop her), and has had more than a few tumbles leaning to walk, we get to Little Red Riding Hood and suddenly I'm reaching for the bubble wrap and thinking about how I can make the ending less horrid.

For those of you who don't remember how it all ends (spoilers) the hunts man hears the wolf snoring (after a heavy meal of Grandma and Little Red he needs a power nap), so he cuts open his big belly to retrieve Nan and Red.  They then decide to stuff the wolf with rocks and sew him back up so in the future they'll hear him rattling before they see him.  Lovely.  

Not what we want...
 Now as a story at bed time I an see that this is totally fine.  We can make all the noises and rumble Willow's tummy, and when it comes to all the bits that are a bit nasty, well that's left to Willow's cute and adorable imagination.  My problem, and why I feel I need to nice it up a bit, is that when you're putting this into a game, and asking the player to interact with the story points, suddenly you've got a cross between Surgeon Simulator and Cooking Mama World: Hobbies and Fun.  Which isn't exactly what I want.

I'm not saying that it's all as bad as say the original story (before the Grimm's lightened it up a bit), or Todd McFarlane's vision of Little Red, but it still doesn't sit well with me.  I'd rather not have both Grandma and Little Red cut out of the wolf.  There must be a better way of telling the story.   

And A Better Way to Play

Whilst doing research into story apps I came across a lot of criticism for interactive story books.  One article in particular quotes author and critic Nicolette Jones as saying "I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better" and having looked at 6 different Little Red Riding Hood story apps on iOS I would have to say she might have a point.

On the one hand I'm really disappointed with the apps available.  The interaction really doesn't add anything.  If all you're doing is moving the character across the screen or selecting a fork in the road you might as well be reading a 'chose your own adventure' version of the story.  But there is opportunity here.

Of the apps I played, the Nosy Crow version was by miles the best.
I always had it in mind that the interaction in the story would be more involved and teaching areas such as numbers, colours and letters.  Like when your little one is watching kids TV and the cartoon character on screen asks if they can see the white sock?  It doesn't matter if Willow interacts or not, the cartoon will continue by congratulating the audience on finding the sock.  This is where an app has the advantage, not only will the story wait until the child has located the sock but next time we read the story it could be a shoe or a flower that needs to be found, or this time a red sock not a white one.

Making the App

So here's the tricky bit.  Not only do I need to figure out a 'better' way of ending the story that doesn't involve cutting up the wolf, but I need to come up with interactive learning games within the story and decide how it all will look.  The games I think will be the easiest part, and the most fun to test with Willow.  How the game will look is proving to be the hardest part.

First Red doodle

A part of me knows that I'm doing this for Willow, well and for me, so how it looks needs to only appeal to us.  And she doesn't care.  She's fascinated by anything on our mini magical colour boxes, but I am my worst critic and I'm finding this part really challenging.  I can't make my mind up if it should be magical like the setting of a Ghibli film, or clean and contemporary like the Toca Boca games, or crafty and homemade like Lumino City.

At least I know Red is going to look like Willow.  

I have no idea what the forest should look like.
Right now I've a bunch of ideas for endings and lots of interactive games so I can start getting the mechanics and interface up and running (least I'll have something to show at the next Unity and Cake meet up!).  For now I'll keep hitting my head against my artistic block and hopefully something will fall out that I can use.

Next I suppose I should start worrying about Kings who murder princes and Children pushing witches into stoves...


Monday, 23 February 2015

Women in Games

I've been taking part in a few Women in Games type things recently, and there's been one major theme throughout; if we're going to have a positive impact on diversity in the games industry we need to talk about it.  So here's me talking about it.

But before we get started on all the good and positive stuff, there's a not so quiet elephant in the room that I'm going to address now.  This post is not about GamerGate.  Maybe that will be a post for another time, but all you need to know from me right now is that I do not support GamerGate and if you have genuine concerns with ethics in journalism, I implore you to adopt a different hash tag.   


Recently Next Gen Skills Academy conducted a survey, of which 40% of the women employed in the UK games industry took part in.  The results from that survey show that 45% of women have experienced barriers to their career due to gender and 16% of the women who took part had experienced bullying from a superior.  

Personally my experience working in the games industry has been amazingly positive in terms of my co-workers and employers.  However, at both Game when I was a manager and at conferences such as Develop Brighton I have had to more than once defend my validity in that space.  At Game I can remember very vividly being asked on more than one occasion if there was a man around who knew about a certain game/console/accessory.  The absolute shock that caused one customer to not only double take but also completely spin on the spot when told I was the resident PS3 expert will stay with me for a long time.  And the number of people at Develop who would assume I worked in HR or PR and would be genuinely shocked that I am in fact a Designer.  One gentleman (who worked for Konami but i don't believe his actions represent his company) told me I was 'far too pretty to be in games development'.  I later found out he made one of the students there feel so uncomfortable that she had to leave.  So there are still dinosaurs in the industry and indeed in the consumer space who feel girls aren't welcome in the tree house, but thankfully this is happening less and less and soon I'm sure we'll only remember when it was an issue.

Yes I'm a gamer, no not a fake one!

Based on the information collected by Next Gen Skills Academy a series of workshops were set up, the first of which was an Empowerment workshop with speakers covering 'Finding Your Voice & Understanding Your Personal Branding' and 'Cultivating your Capacity for Creative Leadership'.

My takeaway from the work shop is that I'm already a fairly empowered individual.  I've been fighting against the boys' tree house rules since SEGA vs NINTENDO was the playground banter, I spent most of my first pay as you go top ups helping male friends complete Soul Reaver and Metal Gear Solid and yes I am buying XCOM for myself not my boyfriend, and no I don't think it'll be harder than Dark Souls so are we done here?  It's not that I would say I'm a confrontational person but I won't let people think I'm less capable at (then) playing and (now) making games.  

The second talk was really useful to me in terms of learning skills for delivering talks to groups of people.  As I said, a theme running through these past few weeks has been we need to talk about this more, especially to encourage the next generation of game makers.  When I was at school I was told that making games wasn't a real job (!), if I can make a difference to any young girls playing games who want to make games in the future I will happily go to schools and show them that they can absolutely do that and it's not just for the boys.  I agree we need more female speakers to step up and get involved by being positive influences, it's why I was happy to talk at the Eurogamer careers surgery, why I wanted to talk at Animex and why I'm putting myself forward to speak at Develop.  So to pick up a few tips on how to do that was very useful indeed.  

Eurogamer, Konsoll and Animex

Unity and Cake

Kerry Turner is an experienced developer and coder who decided to start a meet up to teach a group of her female friends how to make games in Unity.  Kind of like a knitting circle but with laptops instead of knitting needles, retaining the tea and cakes of course. 
 This is a perfect example of how to influence and change the industry (for the better) from the inside by helping empower a group of women to be able to create their own games.  

Aside anything else it's an amazing evening spent with wonderful women, and on top of this we are learning invaluable skills and will (eventually) have a game at the end of it!  I can't thank Kerry enough for setting it up and inviting me to be one of the 'guinea pigs' for the courses content.  I do need to decide what my game will be, so far I'm making a Myst like but I'm not sure that's what I want at the end of this.  What's also very cool is that I get to come home and teach Alex some tricks he didn't know, he's already very upset that my code best practice is better than his.

MCV Top 100 Women in Games

Awesome networking.

So this is the big one.  Making the top 100 women in the UK games industry list!  I was very shocked!  Especially when you read some of the other women on this list.  Putting me up there with Dr. Jo Twist, Gabrielle Kent, Roberta Lucca, Siobhan Reddy and many more industry veterans, studio founders and women who have a profound influence on our industry.

Attending the awards was another really positive event with lots of talk about being strong role models for other women in and coming up in the industry.

So when I told my mom I made the list she asked 'what for, you haven't done anything?' (thanks mom), but it did get em thinking about why I should be on the list, or rather if I should be (impostor guilt).  And you know what, I should be.  I don't think anyone should underestimate just how hard it is to make video games, or rather make successful video games as it is, never mind the fact we completed and released two games within a year AND had a baby at the same time!

I hope my story is inspiring to women in and choosing to be in the games industry.  Yes you do belong here and no having a baby does not end your career if you don't want it to.  I worked on Glyph Quest full time until two weeks before the baby arrived, and even then I was still doing press and community management.  And we continued to work even with Willow crawling around, sitting on our laps and otherwise bothering us for attention.  Full time mum and full time game developer.  

It's not easy, but then anything worth doing never is.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Animex 2015

Since the first Animex I attended back in 2009 I've had a real soft spot for the festival.  Amazing speakers, inspiring talks and workshops, and a fantastic networking opportunity for students/grads to get some advice, tips and feedback on portfolios.  Back in 2009 I attended as a graduate looking for help and a break into the industry, this year was my fourth Animex, and my first as a speaker.

Indie Game Day

This year's Animex saw the first Indie Game Day.  Speakers included Georg Baker, Michael and James Brown, Richard Franke, Barry Meade, Ian McClellen, Alex and myself.  There was a huge range of experiences and advice on offer.  

Georg (A Brave Plan Ltd) gave 110 (!) slides of invaluable advice to budding independent developers with so much gusto it was a hard opening talk to beat!  The Gang Beast's (Boneloaf) were next up showing an insight into the process that has lead up to one of the most exciting indie games coming. Basically; prototype, play, iterate and once you have something to show, show it and use that feedback.  We followed after a short break giving advice on what we did, and why you should do what we say and not what we did (another blog post methinks).  After lunch we were treated to the musings of Barry (Fireproof) giving an inspiring talk on why you should make the games you want to play.  Up next was the fabulous Richard Franke (Magic Notion) talking about Kitty Powers' Matchmaker, a perfect example of a personal project driven by passion.  Then we had a very quick talk from Ian (Plug and Play) about marketing your games core message (your 'X') before the almighty panel session come game show for all the speakers and hosted by Alex.

If you thought a panel couldn't be gamified you clearly don't know Alex... (Also my team won thanks to my brilliant team mates Georg and Rich!).

Wow, what a day. Every Animex gives you a surge of inspiration, and Indie Day was no exception, we went to the bar that night buzzing with ideas and creativity, and this was just my first day of talks (we missed the start of the week and the VFX/Animation talks) there was so much more to come.

The Game Bridge in the student bar was the evenings entertainment.  Loads of local (and not so local) developers showing of their games and the incredible Ms Powers came along to spice up the evening.

Animex Game

The later half of the week was all things game industry and again, amazing speakers giving inspiring talks.  I wish I had made it to all of the talks as the ones I did catch had me enthralled.

Ken Wong (Ustwo) was the first talk I caught, encouraging this new age of developers to shake the shackles of what we've let ourselves believe makes a game, a 'game'.  Instead make experiences, channel emotions, produce works of art, think outside the (x)box.  Following the pink haired hipster force was Nicole Stark (Disparity Games) who gave one of the best openings to a talk I've ever seen.  Stating that she is a self confessed 'fake' mountain biker.  Nicole has the gear, knows the lingo but cycles faster uphill than down.  And despite getting horribly in the way of  'genuine' mountain bikers she has never been made to feel that she does not belong on that trail and as a part of that community.  Something that our gaming community could really learn from.  Nicole's talk was another personal journey in game development and the battle of balancing work and life.

I then skipped tracks to catch Jenifer Clixby (Lionhead) talking about her role as a cat herder (producer).  Some really useful advice in this talk especially her personal tip to always leave the 'TO' field empty when writing an email.  That way you can't accidentally send it unfinished, without attachments and/or full of errors, also you have to really think if you want to send that message.  Useful if you're in a bad/angry mood.  Following up this super useful talk was another amazingly helpful session from Wyeth Johnson (Epic) on how to give and ask for usable feedback.  Ask for specific feedback, and don't rush your reply, give yourself time.  It's a skill and it takes work to get good at so don't shy from it.  Closing the day was Nathan Stapley (Double Fine) showing us some of the beautiful art behind Broken Age.  I loved this talk and had to start making notes on things I want to try for our next Glyph Quest game (more on that another time).

Nathan gearing up for awesomeness and the doodle I stole after his talk. Haha!

Players' Lounge

Another of the networking events this week (and another evening with the irrepressible Ms. Powers!) held at the student bar is the Players' Lounge, the evening where you get to meet the speakers.  This evening also held a charity auction for Special Effect, speakers bring along game merchandise, usually unique, limited and/or signed, and this year auctioned by special guest Kitty Powers.  My contribution to the action was an original Cthuttlefish drawing (Sharpie and water colour on canvas, signed), we were also giving away the opportunity to be a character/enemy/monster in our next Glyph Quest title.  This was auctioned for a whopping £260 making it the joint highest win of the evening (matching the signed Monumnet Valey print).  

Wrap Party

The advantage of being a speaker at Animex is attending the wrap party.  Every year there's an evening of saying thanks to all those behind the festival and the speakers for making it what it is.  What was really special about this years party was Alex taking home the Animex Honorary Award!  Now of course I have to work on getting one for myself so we can have matching bookends! 


And this is really whats so special about Animex, the networking.  This year I was blessed to also meet Phil Co (Valve), Gary Napper (Creative Assembly), Andrew Walsh, Allesandro Taini (Ninja Theoy), Zach Parish (Disney) and Michael Molcher (2000AD) and catch up with some old friends and Animex regulars.  Played some excellent Mafia games and was introduced to the fantastic Escape and Super Fight games (thanks Jim!).

Seriously epic Mafia game.

There's always so many excellent speakers at Animex, hand picked by the wonderful Gabrielle Kent.  Getting to meet people in the industry that I have nothing but respect for is a treat year on year. 

Thanks Animex!  Please have me back next time!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Finishing Super Glyph Quest (for now)

OK, I'm really very bad at blogging on a regular basis.  But that's not because I don't want to, it's just I'm really busy!  This said I have managed to tick a big task off my to-do list:  Release Super Glyph Quest!

epic battles await!

YAY!  After what has seemed like far too long in development (by comparison to Glyph Quest which only took us 4 months) we pushed the button and let our pretty fly.  The reviews have been tricking in and so far it's all good:

'bigger and better than before, simply put... you're going to love Super Glyph Quest' - Touch Arcade
‘Super Glyph Quest will have you entertained for a lengthy spell’ - Arcade Sushi
'Super Glyph Quest really does offer that ‘just one more go’ factor' - 148 Apps

And after a week of not knowing if we would make a Feature, we got the Feature!  US store to start with and then the UK!  All good news, thanks Apple App Store overlords!  

So that's it now right? Time for a very well deserved and much needed break?  Well sort of.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing. 

there are pigeons in our game!

There is no such thing as 'stick it in a box and ship it' when you are an indie developer.  Well I guess there could be if you have a budget that stretches to outsourcing your marketing.  We don't.  So it is down to us to reach out to the press, keep on top of social media and generally harass as many people to start talking about Super Glyph Quest as possible.  Oh, so if you are reading this and you are from a company that can help us grow our target market and guarantee us downloads and chart positions please don't waste both of our time by sending me a link to your premium service for a one off payment of $5000.  If however you are a reviewer and would like a review code feel free to get in contact just please link me to your site/blog/Youtube channel because if I Google you and find nothing then I'm probably not going to give you a free copy of my game (that only costs 2 quid) no matter how abruptly you ask...  Rant over.

Truth be told I don't enjoy marketing.  And we have really picked a really bad time to try an get noticed.  

Right now we are fighting for attention against every existing games Halloween/Thanksgiving/Xmas update news, the new releases for the Holiday season - especially from the big names, all he iOS8 updates for games, the new games for iOS8 and iPhone6 and the noise being created online by a collection of angry gamers rallying against the press.

I'm not ready to comment on this 'movement' just yet, what I will say is; all their efforts are doing is the very best to give the small independent game makers a hard time of it.

Konsole 2014

In the middle of all this we did get to fly over to Bergen, Norway and give a little talk on making Super Glyph Quest at the wonderful Konsole conference.

Konsole had an amazing line up of speakers and we we're really excited to be a part of it!  Aside our making of talk we also took part in an impromptu AMA (ask me anything) panel with the other speakers and Alex was a dragon on their Dragons Den.

It was really awesome to hang out with the all the speakers and the guys from Henchman and Goon.  So many passionate gamers.  And of course to speak to the attending indies and students.  It still baffles me how many students on game design courses discount mobile games as 'not real games'.  When asked if they think Candy Crush or Farmville are 'real' games they will say no, but ask them if Tetris or Animal Crossing are real and they will agree that they sure are!  I hope at the very least we encourage some people to stop looking down on mobile games as not worth their time, and that there's plenty of opportunity to develop cool, interesting and new games in this space.  
Not only was this my first trip to Norway but also Willow's first trip abroad!  She handled it all remarkably well, apart from one little scream off with her new friend Brage (we're not sure that there was a winner here).

Too soon our 'break' was over and we had to leave rainy Bergen for rainy Blighty and get ready to get neck deep in more marketing.  While we were away Super Glyph Quest made it through review and we had the power to 'push the button'.  We sent out another wave of emails announcing our launch date and then another round with review codes.  With us one review away from a metacritic score (again) it's all about finding and reaching out to the sites that review mobile games.  

Oh, and merchandise;

Siren vs Sphinx - place your bets now!

And as if we aren't busy enough we have opened up a store on Society6 and Redbubble to sell T-shirts and the like with adorable Glyph Quest motifs.     

Next Steps

First things first we have a couple of updates coming for Super Glyph Quest.  A Super 'Gift' Quest coming for Christmas (do you see what we did there?) and another quest pack in the new year.  Once these are out in the word and we've finished picking up any wee bugs that slipped the net we can take a well earned rest from Glyph Quest.


Or maybe we'll make more Glyph Quest games.  Glyph Quest Battles, Ultimate Super Glyph Quest HD, Glyph Quest Zero, World of Glyph Quest...