An open letter to Hill's, manufacturers of Science Diet pet food

Dear Sir or Madam,

For many years I have been trying to feed my cats on a diet solely consisting of science. While I had some brief success utilising herpetology specimens, no other science from geology to astronomy sated them. Eventually their piteous mewling sapped my fortitude and I supplemented their diet with food.

Imagine my delight when I discovered your Science Diet. My cats have gone from total disinterest in science to devouring it greedily. I tip my hat to this remarkable breakthrough.

I am greatly interested in your Hairball Control Science Diet. I hope you can answer some of these questions about its efficacy.

  • What is the heaviest hairball I can expect my cats to lift?
  • Will my cats be able to control the hairballs of other cats?
  • Can wigs and toupees be considered hairballs?
  • Does the hairball control effect diminish with distance?
  • Does the cat need to know the location and/or existence of the hairball, in order to control it?
  • Is there a limit on the number of hairballs my cats can control simultaneously, other than the total number of hairballs in the world?
  • If a man were to ingest the Science Diet, would he gain the power of hairball control?
Please reply swiftly, the minds of ordinary men cannot conceive the stakes we are dealing with.

Your benevolent overlord, Craig Timpany

Share Comment Forum

The dangers of paper prototyping

I’ve been an enthusiastic proponent of paper prototyping, but I’m starting to see its limitations.

I’ve been playing The Void by Ice Pick Lodge. Ice Pick Lodge are the closest thing the game industry has to David Lynch. Aesthetically the game is remarkable, but I’m not going to address any of that.

In spite of an exhaustive tutorial, it’s actually even less accessible than their début game, Pathologic. It’s shorter and easier, but the gameplay is more difficult to grasp. I restarted the game four times after screwing the pooch so badly that the game became unwinnable. The game is just so abstract that it takes a while to understand the strategy.

The game establishes a jargon of it’s own from the beginning. Hearts, Colour, Nerva, Lympha are all abstract quantities or containers for abstract quantities. The colours crimson, amber, gold, emerald, azure, violet and silver all have special properties and uses. Before long, you start to feel like you’re playing Settlers of Catan.

If a game design is built wholly on paper, it’ll continue to reflect the limitations of board games even in its final form. The Void has all the hallmarks of being prototyped as a board game, then shoe-horned into a third person adventure game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has drawbacks:

  • Board games can get away with game mechanics that are less intuitive than videogames. The fact that the player is carrying out rules manually guarantees that the mechanics will be tactically transparent. A videogame will need lots and lots of cumbersome UI to compensate.
  • When designing a board game, it’s really tempting to leave the theme until later. You’ll tell yourself that if the game mechanics are fun, everything else will fall into place. Usually this results in a game that’s fun, but completely impossible to fit into a theme. A game without a theme is a very dry learning experience.
  • One of the biggest differences between Pathologic and The Void is that Pathologic started with familiar concepts (sickness, medicine, exhaustion, hunger), and then exposed the player to unfamiliar ones. The Void drops the unfamiliar concepts on the player all at once.
  • If you’re designing a real-time game, there will be a distinct seam between the nitty gritty details of your simulated world and the strategy layer. It’s very difficult to integrate the two after designing the pieces in isolation.
  • Board games tend to be a lot shorter than story driven videogames. To progress in The Void, you must plan at least 5 turns ahead. With the minutes-long turns of a board game, this forward planning gives a pleasant level of strategic depth. With the hour-long turns of this action-strategy hybrid, you’ll find yourself taking pages and pages of notes just to make sure you don’t spend something you were intending to save.
The sad thing is that I think the strategy layer would’ve made a fun board game, but it detracts from inhabiting the world and interacting with the characters. There’s no synergy between the two halves of the design.

I don’t know how much the awkward game mechanics are a deliberate part of the game’s message. The resource management aspect seems intended to provide irreversibility, so that the player’s decisions have weight and poignancy. Making these weighty decisions without understanding the consequences is part of the game’s theme. For less ambitious folks like myself, who are only shooting for an enjoyable game, it remains a counter example.

Share Comment Forum

Game budgets, a powers of 10 overview

Realtime Worlds’ high profile MMO All Points Bulletin was shut down recently, after a mere 80 days in operation. There’s been a lot of disbelief regarding the $100 million of venture capital that Realtime Worlds burned through on their way to bankruptcy. Let’s take a look at that number in the context of game budgets, to get a better idea of what $100 million buys you.

All dollar amounts are in US dollars. Let’s start at the comprehensible scales and work upward:

$1000 (or 1 person-week)

A week’s worth of labour is enough for a tiny prototype with a single game mechanic, like the ones I’ve been posting here. With the simplest concept and the smallest scope, you can still create something delightful. Petri Purho created the Crayon Physics prototype in under a week.

A typical week might involve a day for brainstorming/mock-ups, a couple of days to code it and fix the (worst) bugs, a day to test it and tweak the details and a couple more days to slap some rudimentary art and sounds into it.

$10,000 (or 3 person-months)

(Assuming an indie author subsisting on $40K annually)

Everyone has heard the proverb that the last 20% of a project takes 80% of the time. If you’re looking to achieve commercial-quality polish, that may actually be an underestimate. On Flick Kick Football*, getting a fun prototype with mostly final controls and some rudimentary obstacles to kick around was only the first 10% of my work on the project. The other 90% was spent addressing the multitude of details that kept that basic prototype from fulfilling its full potential. Menu systems, tutorials, title music, animated flourishes to draw the eye, leaderboard integration and so forth.

If the game has to be polished, advance one power of ten, do not pass go.

  • I don’t know what Flick Kick Football’s precise budget was, but it had 5 digits.

$100,000 (or 18 person-months)

(Assuming a $70,000 average salary, as reported by the Gamasutra salary survey)

OK, so we’ve accounted for the 10-fold increase that comes from polish. What if the game isn’t a simple single-mechanic game? What if there’s an element of exploration? There’s a gulf between games that take place in a few reusable arenas, and games where the player progresses through a game world. With the latter, you need to develop tools like level editors, and you need to build environments with them. You develop more variations on the core gameplay to keep the player occupied throughout their journey.

Back in the good old days, you could make an Xbox Live Arcade game for this much. Jonathan Blow has stated that Braid cost $200,000 in living costs and art contracting, so it’s a touch large to be the example here. In terms of pure labour, there are also some large open source games that are at this scale.

$1,000,000 (or 15 person-years)

This was big-budget, back in the early ‘90s. At this scale you have teams of specialists. Take Doom for example, a year-long development with 3 coders, 2 artists, 3 level designers, a composer and a couple of admin folks.

Projects in the millions can spend more on technology, building/buying rendering, physics, sound and scripting engines, tackling tricky features like network multiplayer and streaming levels. Art teams start to benefit from specialisation into modellers, animators, texture and concept artists.

You can still put out a minor retail game for this much, though people will bitch about the graphics incessantly.

$10,000,000 (or 150 person-years)

If you’re making a blockbuster console game for the core gamers, you’ll be spending tens of millions.

In first person shooters and action adventure games, it’s striking how quickly the player moves through the environment. They’ll typically spend under a minute in each room. Nobody likes to see the same room, cut ‘n’ pasted over and over, so it’s typical to produce hundreds of rooms worth of environment geometry and texturing, all lushly detailed.

With this sort of production effort, you want to be very sure that the design is going to be work, and you have the right content creation tools. To achieve this, there’s a long preproduction phase - sometimes more than a year - to really explore the possibilities. After producing a promising looking vertical slice, dozens and dozens of staff pile on to the project. There’s lots of outsourcing to achieve this. Where there is outsourcing, there’s the associated bureaucracy of managers and producers.

Take Killzone 2. There was a presentation at GDC ‘09, KILLZONE’s Art Tools and Techniques, that went into a lot of detail about their team composition and schedule. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 50 Testers
  • 48 Artists
  • 27 Coders
  • Approximately 25 modellers (they said they outsourced, so there was some guesswork here)
  • 17 Level designers
  • 14 Environment artists
  • 13 Producers
  • 10 Other technical (whatever that means)
  • 8 Visual design
  • 7 Animators
  • 6 Special effects (making particle systems and the like)
  • 5 Audio
  • 4 Human Resources
  • 4 IT support
  • 3 Lighting
  • 2 Cinematics
  • 2 Tech art
  • And a partridge in a pear tree
  • 245 staff total
There’s no information about how long each of these people were on the project, but we can make some educated guesses based on the length of time they spent in each production phase.

They spent a year in preproduction putting the art pipeline together and producing a trial level. Let’s say the code team and a third of the art team were there for that year, at a cost of about $2 million.

Then they spent 18 months in full production. That would’ve cost more like $16 million.

Then I assume there was a 6 month beta test, which the code and test team would’ve remained for. That’d cost $2.5 million.

And that’s how you spend $20 million.

$100,000,000 (or 1500 person years)

I’m not sure if anyone has actually ever spent $100 million on developing a single project. Realtime Worlds had another project called MyWorld eating into that aforementioned $100 million. It’s not hard to see why there’s a lack of examples: you have to be among the highest selling retail games of all time just to break even. Some projects have come close though:
  • GTA4 is said to have cost $100 million, but that figure includes marketing, so the actual development budget could be as low (!) as $50 million.
  • Half Life 2 spent over 5 years in development, but it cost a piffling $40 million.
  • The 3D Realms incarnation of Duke Nukem Forever was cheaper still, burning through $20 million. While absurdly late, at least their team size was restrained.
  • The notorious Shenmue cost $70 million. What a bargain.
  • Tabula Rasa is rumoured to have cost $100M, but the details never got aired in public, so we can’t be sure.
  • Lum has inferred from some comments made by an EA exec that Star Wars: The Old Republic might break the $100 million barrier. Once again, we can’t be sure.
Only MMOs tend to get anywhere near $100M. Instead of being just a mere software development, MMOs combine some of the most expensive aspects of building a theme park, running a large online service, and policing a city. You also don’t want people cancelling their subscriptions, so there’s an incentive to make the game as long and as large as possible.

Let’s take World of Warcraft. We’re told it cost less than $100M, but its success ($800M annual revenue) is the most frequent justification offered for spending $100 million. (Not that it’s not a wise justification)

In Warren Spector’s master class videos, Blizzard co-founder Michael Morhaime says “We started working on WOW in ‘99, and we released it in ‘04”. As for the team size, Blizzard did a presentation at Austin GDC ‘09 with some excellent statistics.

  • 32 coders maintaining 5.5 million lines of code.
  • 51 artists with 1.5 million assets.
  • 10 producers.
  • 135 people in total on the development team, not including sound, testing or cinematics, which are shared between project teams.
This was the live team as of 2009, not the development team prior to launch. Let’s make a wild unsubstantiated guess that getting WOW to launch was 200 people working for 5 years, or 1000 person-years.

But hang on, you point out, that’s only $70 million. The really shocking part comes from the on-going costs of their operations team:

  • 2056 game masters / customer service reps
  • 340 in billing
  • 149 in network administration
  • 121 in technical support
  • 67 in quality control
  • 66 community managers
I’ll grant that this team is so huge because WOW has so many customers. Nevertheless, you need at least somebody on this team for launch. Realtime Worlds were swinging for the fences, so they could well have had a sizeable operations department anticipating an influx of players.

So there you have it. $100 million. Enough for a truly, truly gigantic game.

Share Comment Forum

Flick Kick Football is #1 in the UK

Flick Kick Football is #1Some weeks ago I was the code lead working on a little soccer game for iPhone called Flick Kick Football. To my great satisfaction, it’s currently the top selling iPhone application in the UK.

Updated, 17 July 2010:

…Aaand Angry Birds is back on top again. 16 consecutive days in the top spot - we’re pretty happy with that!

Share Comment Forum

I made a random number god!

Any Nethack player will tell you that RNG doesn’t stand for Random Number Generator, it stands for Random Number God! The RNG’s divine providence influences every aspect of Nethack.

I’ve built a Random Number God of my own (ably assisted by Jeremy Lai). It procedurally generates levels for Bird Strike, PikPok’s latest iPhone game. Level generators are close to my heart, so I’m thrilled to have worked on it!

I’m inordinately proud of Bird Strike. It’s not the most high-tech project I’ve ever worked on, and not the most ambitious, but it more than makes up for it with quality. The rest of the team have put together a game that’s pure, fun and charming. I really hope the fans enjoy my contribution to it.

Here’s the iTunes link.

Share Comment Forum

Orbital Billiards v0.04

I’ve been tinkering with Orbital Billiards yet again. I’ve tweaked a lot of little things in an attempt to give the UI more precision. It’s an inherently difficult game, so I want to give the player every advantage I can think of.

The changes are:

  • The prediction line now shows the extent of the cue ball, rather than just its centreline. Now it’s much easier to judge the angle of a shot that isn’t straight.
  • The globe surface is now marked with lines that indicate the direction of the nearest hole.
  • Scoring has been revamped to reward runs where several balls of the same colour are sunk. Each colour has a score multiplier which is raised by sinking balls of that colour.
  • The shot power meter has markings that indicate how many degrees around the globe the cue ball will travel before coasting to a stop.
  • The camera FOV is much narrower. This should make it easier to judge angles on the reverse side of the globe.
  • I’ve capped the fullscreen frame rate to 60FPS. This should prevent laptop owners scorching their laps!
  • When you sink a ball, you’ll see it fall to the centre of the globe. It’s cosmetic, but satisfying.
  • I’ve modelled the pockets instead of using a plain sphere with pitch black triggers attached. I’ve violated my design constraint of only using perfect spheres!
Play it on the web here.

Share Comment Forum

Italian Dressing

There’s nothing called Italian Dressing in Italy. That’s no surprise, right? The French call the quarter-pounder a Royale with Cheese, and the Italians would just call their dressing, salad dressing, surely. Imagine our surprise when we couldn’t find salad dressing at the supermarket. Lots of mayonnaise, lots of other sauces, lots of dressing ingredients. No salad dressing by any name we could decipher.

It became clear after we ordered a salad at a restaurant. The waiter gave us a little cannister of olive oil and a little cannister of balsamic vinegar. Aha! It’s mixed at the table. Nobody has ready-made vinaigrette because the ingredients are common table condiments.

I wonder what a table would look like with every culture’s condiments? Salt, pepper, sugar, ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, soy sauce, wasabi, chilli oil, MSG shakers, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, chutney, etc. You could serve the customers a lone raw potato and the rest would take care of itself. ;-)

 

Share Comment Forum

Venice

Venice is a maze of twisty streets, all alike. As with most mazes, the walls are much less interesting than the paths. The shopping is shit: it’s either Gucci, Prada, or street vendors selling plastic bath toys. There’s very little in between. Save for the overpriced restaurants and the occaisional art gallery, there’s little reason to ever set foot indoors.

The maze consists of tiny streets and the famous canals intertwined. Venice is like a bonsai tree among cities. It’s been cramped in the same small space for so long it’s grown stunted and warped. (I’m ignoring Mestre, which we didn’t visit. It’s a suburb on the shore of the lagoon half an hour’s bus ride from old Venice. That’s where the locals eat and sleep. I hear it’s rather normal compared to the theme-park atmosphere of central Venice).

As a city, Venice is disappointing, but as a maze it’s astoundingly intricate and the finest I’ve ever explored. If I ever do a game prototype that demands a maze, I’m going to be tempted to crib from Venetian satellite imagery.

Share Comment Forum

Positano

alleyPositano is the most beautiful least practical place. It’s a steep coastal cliff that’s barely suitable to cut a road into, but the refugee founders managed to build a town there, growing crops on the terraces.

Most of the town is spread along one windy hairpin laden road. If I recall correctly there are two intersections in the whole place. The rest of the buildings are hidden up steep staircased alleyways. Even the alleys have vertigo inducing million dollar views (as you can see at the side).

The linearity of the town means you don’t have to worry much about getting lost. The town is situated at a U-shaped crevice where the cliffs double back and form a kind of canyon sloping down toward the sea. It’s a strange feeling to be able to stand at the top of an outcropping and realise you don’t really need the tourist map anymore, because the opposite face of the town is spread out before you, every building visible.

I thought the likes of Queenstown was a tourist trap, but I think Positano might have it beat in that department. Restaurant prices seem to be the result of market collusion and I got the impression that hotels outnumber private homes.

We got a great deal on a 4-star hotel room and I’m still not sure how it wound up in our price range. It was a pretty swank place, but I think I might’ve been more comfortable in a well run 2-star place. Even if the room rate is cheap, they still feel entitled to try and work in exorbitant fees for every service. Poor Melody came down with bronchitis, and we wound up having to book another night at a ludicrous rate so that she could recover. Oh well, you can’t plan everything.

Share Comment Forum

The Vatican

ceiling

I went to see the Pope’s house. I’m not a big fan of the guy, but I heard it was quite something, and it was.

The tour started with the Vatican art museum, which is submerged in a tide of people. It pushes you along ceaselessly at half walking speed. Even at that hasty speed, it takes 3 hours to see the permanent exhibition. Every wall and ceiling is covered by something impressive. The mosaics on the floors weren’t bad either. It’s like a treadmill of masterworks. After that, you stagger out in front of St. Peter’s Basilica dizzied by sensory overload.

Perhaps the Vatican is trying to corner the art market, or maybe they’re going for a Civilization culture victory. Bet the Italians will wish they had finished the job when Rome gets culture-flipped. ;-)

It’s a fantastically ornate monster’s lair. It’s a little sad to think that this is where all the marble missing from the ancient Roman sights went. I was certainly disappointed when I showed up at the Pantheon, and instead of it being full of awesome Hellenistic gods, it had been retrofitted as a church and was full of saints instead. Bah! Doesn’t Italy have enough churches already?

That said, I was tickled to see one basilica with coin operated machines controlling the lights for the artwork. If you want to see the sights you have to use coin operated enlightenment.

Share Comment Forum