Bucaramanga GameQuest 2019 #BGAGameQuest

Organized by Below the Game, at the Chamber of Commerce of Santander in Bucaramanga, Colombia, May 2nd and 3rd 2019. This was the speakers’ line-up (from the official website).

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Following are some personal takeaways from the talks and panels.

Day 1

Rami Ismail kicked off the event with a “Talk Jam”, having the public decide the contents of his talk after giving a short introduction of his story with Vlambeer.

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  • You are likely going to make a lot of games until you make your first hit game.
  • That game will still not make you money but will serve as a great presentation card.
  • People spend a lot of money on merchandise, if you are developing a game, sell some merchandise
  • Funding
    • Gather funds yourself by working for companies that need games made. Emerging countries have a huge advantage of a lower cost of living thus being able to offer very competitive prices.
    • Find a publisher, in which case the second step is pitching your game to them.
    • A good pitch makes the publisher care about your project and lets them know you are the right person to do it.
    • Having a “vertical slice” of your game ready is a nice (but expensive) way to achieve both things. A vertical slice provides 5 minutes of gameplay for almost the full quality you are aiming to have for your game.
  • Exposure
    • You will need always exposure, even if you are “famous” already.
    • Look for medium size streamers of the same genre or content you are creating and send them a build.
    • Don’t ask them if they want a build of your game, just send it to them to reduce friction.
  • Challenges
    • Getting the game out there timely, while still having it be interesting for the market.
    • A game dev studio works better if there are two people fulfilling two different roles: A creative director and a producer, with each having the last word in their specifics.
    • There need to be a certain conflict between them in order for the games to be released instead of being in-dev forever, while keeping an end product that is still relevant in the market
    • Getting funding: Your goal for your first game is to survive and get funds for your second game.
  • Inspiration
    • Inspiration comes from the less likely places. Radical Fishing emerged from a National Geographic documentary.
    • Whenever an idea comes, take notes, prototype, discuss with the team.
    • Brainstorming is not a good time for criticism, it is better to add to ideas instead of trying to rebut them.
  • Good networking works sideways, not upward. Don’t try to “climb” to a higher level of contacts, instead work to lift up everybody who is at your level. Try and help each other, share knowledge and contacts.
  • Our job as game devs is to make the players think that the game is fair, even if it takes some liberties and cheats on the side of the player in order to be fun. In Nuclear Throne’s first levels, enemies don’t even aim at the player.
  • Working the “Game feel” includes “juicing” critical actions, punishments, and rewards by adding an exaggerated amount of feedback (Sound, Particle effects, rumble.), and make them work well with kinesthetics.
  • For Nuclear Throne, we wanted to make a game we enjoyed playing. We decided to do a roguelike because we couldn’t predict the content and we would enjoy it ourselves. From the business perspective, we wanted to experiment how well it would work with streaming platforms like Twitch.

Latin America GameDev Panel with Carlos Rocha from Below the Game, Gerson Da Silva from Ironhide, Luis Zambrano from Teravision Games and Antonio Uribe from HyperBeard Games.

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  • Good game design is a process that connects all the disciplines required to generate an experience.
  • Game ideas come from everywhere, even dreams. The challenge of game dev is turning these ideas into a fun experience, implementing interesting mechanics around them.
  • Every country has a unique culture, as Latin American game devs we have the opportunity to include unique details of our culture in our games, which can be done in a subtle way without having to adopt a complete theme.
  • Game design pillars can help remove unneeded “cool” features that don’t really add to a fun game.
  • Playtesting
    • Should be a freeform exercise, and free from external influence. Relying on forms and structured interviews will only give you the answers you want to hear.
    • Playtesting with people different than your main target may lead to widening your audience.
    • Leaders from different roles should be present to analyze the experience from their perspectives.
    • Playtesting works better with critical audiences, people ready and willing to tell you your game is bad. Open game events might not be very effective in this sense. Seek the reality instead of an echo chamber.

Maureen Berho, from Niebla Games, discussed their experience running a business that produces both video games and board games.

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  • One way to approach game dev is creating an Intellectual Property and then build both videogames and board games within it.
  • Some advantages:
    • It can help strengthen the franchise, providing a greater reach.
    • Diversify market risk.
    • Generate additional income.
    • Make your pitch more interesting to publishers.
    • Have one real of gaming influence the other, keeping the design of the videogames more focused, while making the board games deeper.
  • Handling multiple project lines requires
    • Discipline, sticking to the plans and finishing the projects instead of leaving things in progress.
    • Collaborating with other companies and the community
    • Study the target markets
    • Researching funding sources, consider private investors or the government as an alternative to publishers as a funding source. Build a company, not just a game.

Randy Greenback from GUN talks about Innovation and how to create a successful game in today’s market.

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  • You need to make sure players LOVE your game, not just like it. You need them to get attached to something that makes it unique.
  • Innovation is not a choice if your game studio relies on your game to be successful commercially. If you don’t innovate your game will just not be noticed.
  • There are many ways to approach innovation, for instance: Technology, Design, Art, Social, UX, Audio, Narrative, Game Structure, Monetization.
  • If your game innovates in one or more of these areas, stacking them, they will very likely add up to be a success.
  • The biggest risk in innovation may be biting more than you can chew. Check how far can your team go. Maybe you can do it in steps or iterations, and make that growing innovation a staple of your franchise, instead of trying to do it all at once.

Martín Cao from NGD Studios (Argentina) shared some tips on how to make videogames and not die trying.

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  • Asia now surpasses North America on videogame consumption, Latin America remains extremely small.
  • Most of the income on the videogames industry (>80%, probably >90%) is concentrated in 25 game dev companies.
  • Unlike these big companies, indie game devs have a better opportunity to rock the board, challenge the status quo, and capture a player base that is enough to keep them afloat.
  • Having a list of “verticals”, genres or type of projects your company wants to work in, helps keep focus while meeting the varying demands of the market. Strive to be the best on these verticals.
  • Produce ideas constantly in brainstorming sessions. One idea is to produce “Player Fantasy” outlines, what does our game allow the player to imagine he is?
  • Player Fantasies and ideas are validated and evolve to a proof of concept, to the game pitch, demo and finally a vertical slice. (Or they may die at any point along the way)
  • Work hard, but smart: practice a lot and learn from your mistakes.
  • Know your target audience and make a game for them, not for yourself.
  • Think hard on the several facets of marketing for your game.

Rami, Randy and Luis Villegas discussed game dev for a global audience.

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  • Modern communication channels like discord or other social media
    • Can be used to educate the players on how hard and complex game dev can be, keeping their expectations on what the dev team can do reasonable.
    • While it’s great to obtain and respond to player’s feedback, feel free to ignore the trolls, you don’t have to deal with them.
  • Game Dev Happiness
    • Connecting with friends by making games together.
    • Making hardcore fans happy after working hard on a release
    • Making your family proud when they understand what you do.
  • Game Dev Hardships
    • Watching promising projects fall apart and dreams are crushed.
    • Realizing the impact your work has on people’s lives and not knowing how to handle it properly.
    • Seeing the game you worked hard on being shamelessly cloned.
  • Future of Game Dev
    • There’s still lots of space to imagine new mechanics, narrative structures and ludo-narrative consistency.
    • The industry must continue evolving by trying, failing and learning.
    • The possibilities to merge narrative and interactive technologies are limitless. Discovering how to achieve this thru creativity and technology adoption is what makes working on this industry interesting.

Day 2

Eivar Rojas, from Efecto Studios, shared his experiences on AAA Work for Hire from Colombia.

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  • Efecto worked in the ARK franchise for over three years, increasing their artistic and technical capabilities, and figuring out better workflows.
  • The first part of their workflow involves doing very elaborate concept art for the environments. While the finished game never reaches their level of graphical detail, this is a critical tool to validate the vision of the game and guide the team during development.
  • The second part of their workflow is conceptualizing props and scene elements, it normally requires a lot of iteration and creating several variations for each item until a style reflects the vision of the client.
  • Even with a process of concept validation, there will be moments when the client won’t have a clear idea of what will be better for the project. Your company must generate lots of empathy and trust with your clients so they entrust you with critical design choices.
  • Concept Art
    • Traditionally made using illustration tools, however there are some specialized tools (such as 3D Coat) that can be used to reduce its cost, generating 3D concepts closer to the final output, and allowing to iterate on the design based on the client’s feedback without having to go through all the work of modeling and skinning.
    • Can sometimes take longer than actual modeling and animation due to cultural differences with clients. The concept of a “dragon”, for instance, is very different in the east and the west.
    • Is critical throughout all the development process. It’s not efficient to iterate towards what the client will approve using a full-fledged production workflow.
  • In the office, the physical location of the members of the development team is critical in order to keep communication flowing and ensuring consistency thru the process.
  • Keep clients engaged through all the production process so that they get to see how the assets evolve from the concept art. This helps keep expectations clear and respond to changes in a more timely manner.
  • The game dev process changes constantly. It’s important to keep up to date on new tools and processes to remain competitive.
  • In order to reduce the impact of crunch and for team members to have healthy work habits, their company has a backup team that covers the main team on challenging situations. This is costly but it’s the only way they have found to address the issue.
  • We have detected a lot of talent in Colombia. We have also found the people from technical institutions to respond better to feedback and fit more into our processes when compared to people coming from prestigious universities.

Luis Zambrano, Martín Cao, Eivar Rojas, and Nitae Uribe (Cofounder of Below The Game, and teacher at Bucaramanga’s University UNAB), discussed the current dynamics between the academy and the game dev industry, and ways to make it work better.

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  • What does the Industry expect from the academy?
    • Have students be exposed to more hands-on work so they have more mileage when they enter the workforce.
    • Have teachers with real industry experience that can prepare them adequately.
    • Prepare students to roles where they have to adapt to change and do a lot of different things depending on the project.
    • Induce empathy as a soft skill required to interact with both the client and the team.
  • What does the academy expect from the industry?
    • Have companies open their doors to students, for them to see the realities of game dev.
    • Have companies send their senior people to spaces in the academy and let them share their experiences
  • For the companies, to find good people from the academy, art and engineering are two different worlds. For art, they find potential artists and train them remotely for six months to a year. Engineering is much more complex given the academy is preparing them for higher level, managerial roles so it might take longer.
  • Academy moves at a slower pace, sometimes teachers have to “hack” into the existing program, teaching more valuable skills than the ones originally planned.

Luis Daniel Zambrano, Jose Joel and Edgar Blanco from Teravision Games discussed the development of Neon Fury, the Tower Defense VR game.

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  • Challenges of UI design in VR
    • Traditional elements used in displays don’t feel natural, are lost in the scene or are not legible.
    • UI components must have depth (3d models affected by lighting) and/or be presented as “curved” element in a kind of fish-eye perspective, else they may feel like “stickers”, with a jarring effect.
    • UI elements must also keep some distance from the player to give him some room to breathe.
  • Challenges of moving around in a #VR environment.
    • Some elements required by current equipment like cables and sensors often get on the way of the experience.
    • Having your eyes perceiving movement while your body doesn’t, often makes the player dizzy. Some creative solutions include teleportation, but it can be disorienting.
  • Technical limitations are still steering heavily the design and development of VR games, especially when trying to aim multiple devices. Requirements of constant FPSs and lower resolution of VR headsets require using creative tricks or old methods for SFX.
  • Neon Fury art had to step down from photorealism to a more comic style, but they took this a chance for the game to have a more defined personality.
  • Keep a smooth player experience in higher priority than mind-blowing visuals.

Christian Andorade, an evangelist from Epic Games, talked about the state of Unreal Engine.

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  • Epic has allowed players to create content from their onset with ZZT and others.
  • The Epic way for game developers: a collection of products and services targetting multiple stores and technologies.
  • They launched the store to take advantage of 75 millions of existing installs, however, it’s still in dev, they are still adding features to it.
  • The store won’t be restricted to Unreal Engine games, will be more open soon.
  • Services such as player identities, profiles, chats, matchmaking developed for Fornite will be available later this year for free for developers.

Gerson da Silva from Ironhide Studios shared his experiences for taking games from Concept to Production.

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  • Maintain a high-level vision of the game design on the initial phases of development, explore options prior to detailing, even before prototyping. This helps foresee problems and “seed” mechanics to be properly detailed later.
  • A paper prototype seeks to abstract the experience of the game, change things quickly and evaluate. You can also create a digital version of the paper prototype simplifying the abstractions into cleaner systems (Note that this is different than a prototype for the game itself). Each iteration of prototyping grows the game model.
  • During preproduction, loose ideas from previous phases can become an obstacle to come up with a final concept and a scope. They should be transformed into design choices, or be discarded, using the development and market pillars as criteria.
  • It’s impossible to know if an idea is good or bad. The best you can do is transform it into a low-cost game experience and test it. Don’t spend time detailing or integrating it before validating it as an abstraction.

Luis Villegas, Director of Services and Infrastructure at Bungie, shared his experience working with global Intellectual Properties.

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  • Bungie has always obsessed with FPSs. With Destiny, the idea was to promote friendships, coordination, and cooperation inside the game.
  • Destiny was planned as a 10 years long project and ended up making the foundations for GaaS (Gaming as a Service).
  • Barriers for a brand to become global
    • Nationalism: Players supporting local development companies or hardware makers.
    • Language, although some countries preferring a foreign language due to cultural influence.
    • Cultural differences like jokes or context of the content.
    • Incompatible fantasies: For instance, “American supersoldier saving the world” not very popular in some countries in Asia.
  • Tools for a brand to be global:
    • Localized web forums and blogs.
    • Making characters more human and with features people can identify with on different demographics.
    • Using local publishers.
    • Tailored marketing and features based on the target culture.

Arturo Nereu, spoke about starting a Gamedev business locally using Unity.

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  • Unity provides multiple business opportunities within a single tech stack including Mobile, Console, Instant Games (with Project Tiny), AR/VR.
  • Alternative businesses such as projects for ATM (Automotive, Transportation, Manufacturing) can bring income and help learn skills, especially for local markets.
  • Help local companies grow: animation studios, architecture, car sellers, data visualization, interactive installations, museums. Use these opportunities to get resources and grow in skills.
  • Leverage on the new capabilities of Unity to create outstanding scenes efficiently, such as the Data-Oriented Tech Stack.

The closing panel, Moderated by Maureen,  featured Carlos Rocha, Luis Wong, Antonio Uribe, and Martin Cao, talking about creating Game Dev companies in Latin America.

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  • Making game development your work as opposed to a hobby helps focus and grow, but brings risks. It is your call to decide when to do it but it helps a lot to have several projects under your name already.
  • Appear to be what you want to be, projecting your company to one year in the future, but work actively to achieve it and persevere.
  • Believe in yourself while being humble and honest, and your chances to succeed will increase automatically.
  • Asking for help when you need it is vital to surviving. Build a group of mentors and experts to consult when needed, connect well and you are likely to find people willing to help just for the good of the industry.
  • Getting a partner helps in many ways, do your homework and research about him, and always be ready to break things apart when it doesn’t work.
  • Team building is a constant challenge, a good team is able to understand choices are made for the good of the game and are not personal.
  • If someone is ruining your team, get rid of him quickly. Hire or partner with people you would feel comfortable talking with for hours.
  • It’s impossible to start a company without facing risks: partner, break partnerships, hire people, fire people, don’t be afraid to get things rolling.

Missed Talks

  • Luis Wong from LEAP Game Studios (Perú)- Launching a successful Kickstarter
  • Antonio Uribe from Hyperbeard Games (México) – Creating a successful transmedia IP

 

 

The history of “Ultimate Collector”, Garriott’s stab at social gaming

In 2018, Portalarium is mostly associated with Shroud of the Avatar, the controversial multi-million dollars crowdfunded MMO / Single Player computer RPG. With all the noise it has caused, it’s easy to assume this game was Garriott’s comeback project after his long post-Tabula-Rasa hiatus.

However, before diving into the first new millennium iteration of his “Ultimate RPG” dream, Richard was strong on taking his newly founded company, “Portalarium“, into something completely different: games in social networks, and their efforts ultimately led them to partner with one of the biggest names on the scene: Zynga.

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As you might have guessed, the game is now long gone. It actually never managed to have a broad public launch (although a couple of videos in youtube about hacking the game indicate it might have been shortly available to the public). Portalarium removed all information about the game from their website and killed all of its presence in social media, and it seemingly never made it past the threshold to be included on Zynga’s social games portfolio.

Still, the history of the development of this game is intertwined with Richard plans for the “Ultimate RPG”, which makes it interesting to imagine what Shroud of the Avatar could have been.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE!

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Ananias introspection: Content Creation and Balance

This new series of blog posts will be based on /r/roguelikedev FAQ Fridays, a long standing series of discussions where roguelike developers share their techniques and experiences around a single topic.

FAQ Fridays Revisited # 6 Content Creation and Balance (original)

How do you decide what mobs/items/abilities/terrain/etc to add to your game? In any good roguelike content creation is inseparable from the concept of balance, so your methods of balancing content are certainly within the scope of this discussion.

Ananias has a fairly static collections of monster races. They were first added based on the original rogue monsters and with a single criteria on mind: each race should have an unique feature or ability.

Sometimes implementing an ability is costly and there’s the temptation of parameterizing it so it can be reused with slight variations, but I think it gives more character to the monsters having their distinctive skills. This means Ananias doesn’t have Ice, Fire, Water, Earth and Thunder dragons whose only distinction is the “type” of their attacks, I’d rather have a single Dragon monster distinguished by a strong ranged attack.

The uniqueness of an enemy race is not defined only by their active skills, their stats are also put in consideration. In this case they are assigned relative values first (i.e. orcs have high attack and medium hp, Lizardmen have extreme high attack and low hp). This is balanced so that races without cool active skills get some advantage stats-wise.

The dungeon is then split into 5 areas with increasing difficulty. Mob races are grouped thematically on these areas and then assigned final values for their stats by scaling their relative values to the difficulty level of the group they are in. In order to do this, I do a projection of the average stats for the player on each one of these areas and then I apply some simple general rules (for example, a strong monster may kill the player in 5 hits, a monster with low HP should be killed by the player in a single attack). These define ranges within which the stats of the final monster will be placed.

Items follow a similar model. For weapons and armor I started with a list of preexisting graphics (the artist made them on advance for a different game using his own creative criteria) then based on they appearance I assigned them relative values (high/mid/low) for damage and integrity (how likely they are to break), and then I grouped them on power tiers to define their final stats. They also get assigned a generation weight representing how likely they are to be added to the levels, this value is used in level generation along with the power tier to select the items to be added.

Player abilities are guided by the same principles of uniqueness. Ananias is strongly classed, and each class has unique passive skills that guide players into adapting different playstyles for each one. The process for player classes is similar as with the monster races, they are balanced based on their skills and relative values for their stats. (Except for the shepherd ;)).

On a final note, I’d like to say that while seeking to balance the different stats is worthwhile (to prevent your game from being utterly broken), it’s also to some point a futile exercise, since the variability of the game and the player’s choices create a lot of unpredictability, specially as journeys progress in games which provide long and open experiences. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and a little bit of unbalance is not always harmless since it allows the players to find strategies and challenges within the game.