Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ocean Marketing and Don't Do This 101

So just like the rest of the internet today, I read with slack-jawed amazement about the trainwreck that is Ocean Marketing.  For those of you who don't feel like clicking over to read, here's the story in a nutshell:

A customer ordered a product (an Avenger's themed PS3 controller) from a web-based company called Ocean Marketing. The product was delayed, with very little communication from the provider.  The customer voiced an understandable complaint. So the rep from the company responded with a childish and patronizing attitude ("put on your big boy hat and wait it out like everyone else"), insulting the customer with horrible grammar and bad spelling ("You just got told bitch … welcome to the real internet").  This went back and forth for awhile, and then Penny Arcade got wind of it and the internet exploded.

I've written about stupid PR before and I admit that I'm no expert, but yeesh.  But I have to say, something about the rep's replies did resonate with me.  His reoccurring theme seems to be "Crap happens."  This I can get behind.  Crap, without a doubt, happens to me on a regular basis. Some of it is beyond my control and some it is undoubtedly my fault.  But no matter what, it is the customers who have to deal with it and they will share very little sympathy for your plight.  It is up to you to handle it properly.

So in honor of this internet train wreck, I thought I'd share three of these "crap happens" incidents with you and tell you how I dealt with them.

Incident #1: What, none of your downloads work?!

July of 2009.  I just finished coding Blackwell Convergence.  It was tried, tested, and true.  After a year and a half of work (with a break to make Emerald City Confidential), it was finished.  I uploaded it to Plimus, my store provider at the time.  I tested it to make sure it worked (Ha!), gave it a day to mature, and made the announcement that it was available.  Now I could sit back, relax, and watch the orders pour in.

Not quite.

Due to some technical snafu, half the download links were completely broken.  The affected customers would either receive an email with the mysterious message "download link" with no URL, or they'd receive a link that would disconnect after downloading only ten megabytes or so.  I tried uploading the game, but this didn't seem to fix the problem.  I frantically called Plimus, but they wouldn't answer.  I'd stay on hold for 40 minutes only to be told to leave a message.

The problem was sorted the next day, when I finally got in touch with Plimus and they got it working again.  It took 24 hours to sort out, from start to finish. During that time I hurled countless curses at my computer screen, but not a one at my customers.  Yes, it was a frustrating, hair-pulling experience but I knew not to take this out on the players who gave me money.  This is PR 101 stuff. 

(Incidentally, you can read about how the whole drama played out on our forum)

Incident #2: Dave is an idiot.

In February of 2010, I received a worrying Google Alert about Puzzle Bots.  One of my beta testers had taken the current build (a very incomplete, very buggy build) and uploaded it to a pirate site.  I'm not naive. I know leaks and things happen, but I was very upset to see it happen to me.

There was no way I could discover who actually did it, so I took some precautions.  I dropped all the testers who were on my beta list but hadn't sent me any bug reports yet (figuring that such a person wouldn't be submitting bug reports if they are so morally reprehensible as to pirate a game before it's done).  The second thing I did was add a time stamp to the game.  I knew I was going to release it in early April, so I added a bit of code that would prevent the game from playing after a certain date in late April.  If the game was pirated again, then the game wouldn't be playable.

And wouldn't you know it, I frigging forgot about it.  I woke up that fateful morning in late April to a bunch of emails telling me that their game wouldn't work anymore.

There was no excuse for this.  There was no way to put a PR spin on this.  This was my fault, pure and simple.  All I could do was re-upload a working version of the game, send out an email to apologize, and give everyone a discount code for a future game. I waited for a big mass of angry emails, but they never came.  The customers that did write appreciated my honesty.

Incident #3: Savegames go kablooee

This happened just last week, so it's fresh on my mind.  From the day we launched Gemini Rue, we were faced with a severe compatibility problem that we couldn't seem to fix.  On some Windows 7 laptops, the game would just freeze up on the start screen.  After months and months of banging our heads together, we finally came up with a solution that seemed to work perfectly, but it had one side effect.

One issue with the Adventure Game Studio engine (which we use to make our games) is that when you compile a new version of a game, all your old savefiles stop working.  There was no way around this, especially for the Steam version of the game which applies all their updates automatically.  We knew that uploading this fix would break everybody's game, but we were still receiving complaints from Win 7 laptop users who couldn't play it at all.  We were damned if we did, damned if we didn't.  So I gritted my teeth, applied the update, and braced myself.

Sure enough, people who were in the midst of playing the game were annoyed. Fortunately, there was less than I thought there would be.  I created a bunch of compatible savefiles that they could use instead, and that seemed to do the trick. 

The lesson?

The one thing all of these incidents have in common is that I kept the customers in the loop.  I've learned that game customers (especially customers of indie games) are very quick to forgive if they know you are on top of any problem that arises. With my Twitter feed, Facebook page, and forums, I am always accessible.  These tools are available to everybody, so there's no excuse for keeping your customers in the dark.

And above all, don't do what Ocean Marketing did and treat your customers like an irritating child.


Too long didn't read version: Crap happens.  Stay classy when it does.  Don't mess with Penny Arcade.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

Graphics and budget

There's an interesting thread over on the Adventure Gamers forum about Blackwell Deception, mostly regarding the graphics. I figured it was a good time to address the issue of the graphics in my games and my thoughts on them.

It's no secret that my games are all over the map in terms of style.  Every game boasts a new set of artists, and its rare that the same artists work on two projects in a row.  This is due to a number of reasons, but the core reason is that the artists I work with are all freelancers.  When I have a new project ready to go, I have to go with whoever is available at the time.  They all have varying schedules and are not always available exactly when I need them.  They might have gotten a full time job, taking a break from art, or are swamped with other projects.  So each new game often means searching for new artists, which often means a new art style for each game.

It also depends on something else: budget.  When I made Blackwell Convergence, I had a lot of money coming in from my work on Emerald City Confidential.  Since I had money to burn, I thought it would be a good idea to invest it in nicer graphics for Convergence. I hired a professional art studio to do the backgrounds, and the results spoke for themselves:


It was still low-res (creating and animating high-res characters was an impossibility, even with the money I was getting) but the game was definitely gorgeous to look at. When the game was released, the responses were interesting to say the least.  The hardcore point-and-click fans loved it. They called it some of the nicest graphics they've ever seen.  Other sites?  Well, not so much.  Here are some quotes taken from various forums on the internet:

"Wow - are the graphics really as bad as those screenshots depict?"

"I couldn't stand playing this for even 10 minutes ... the graphics are terrible! Looks like it was written over 20 years ago."

"It is like giving yourself crossed eyes for the fun of it. HORRID. My eye sight is still blurry."

"I can't see a game developer releasing a game that looks this bad and is so hard on the eyes"

"HORRIBLE!!!! I wouldn't take this game if it were FREE."

So, yeah. Talk about conflicting reports. Even still, it shouldn't have mattered, right?  The better graphics meant that more adventure game fans were buying it, right?  Well, not so much. Convergence's budget was easily triple that of anything I'd ever done before, and while it did earn a profit it took significantly longer to get there.  In terms of money made, I pocketed the same amount of money as my previous games.

Think about that for a second.

I was spending more money, working much harder, and yet my bottom line remained exactly the same. 

This was dumb.

There was a lesson I learned here. As far as low-res graphics are concerned, there is only so far you can go. You can make it as beautiful as you like, throw as much money at it as you can, and painstakingly place every pixel, but the majority of the gaming audience will still think it's ugly.

This posed the question: would the people who bought Convergence have bought it anyway, pretty graphics or not?  After a lot of thinking and fan feedback, I decided yes.  The people who buy my games weren't buying them for the graphics, so why not focus my efforts to where they'll do the most good?  So when the time came to make Blackwell Deception, I made the conscious decision to spend less time and money on the graphics and more on the actual game. The art was cheaper, but there's a heck of a lot more of it. 

The graphics might be simpler, but the lights
change color and the characters dance!

I was able to take more risks. I wasn't breaking the bank, so I wasn't worried about it failing as much. I implemented, tested, and redesigned the ending of the game three times before I was satisfied. I never would have conceived of doing that with Convergence, since so much money was going out the door.  With Deception I could test more often, scrap ideas that didn't work and try new ones.  It was very liberating. 

The result? The highest selling and most critically acclaimed Blackwell game so far.  And yes, there are people who hate the graphics, but those detractors would still be there even if I tripled the production budget.  Did I lose a few customers by downgrading the graphics? Perhaps, and I'm sorry to have disappointed them. Did I gain many more customers by improving the game play? Undoubtedly yes. 

With every game I change my production methods, and inevitably I get something wrong or wish I did something differently.  This time, I seem to have gotten it right. I guess after five years and eight games, it was bound to happen eventually.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Doodles while designing

Over the last couple of days, I've been reading my old design notebooks for inspiration.  Apparently I tend to doodle a lot...

Sooo, yeah.  I'll leave the psychoanalysis of my past self up to you guys.


Monday, October 17, 2011


That sound is me blowing one of these things:

So, five years ago I incorporated Wadjet Eye Games.  I was so wrapped up in the recent launch that it almost passed unnoticed.  Not a day goes by that I am not floored by the fact that I am making a living doing something that I love, and all I can wish for is to do it for another five years.  And if it's not too much to ask... another five after that, and another five after that.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to bake us a cake, we wouldn't say no.



Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On giving away stuff for free

Today I wanted to address another infrequent question I'm getting about the pre-order offer.  The DVD (which is only available for one more day, incidentally)  contains all the previous Blackwell games burned onto the disc, and buying it gives you immediate access to Blackwell Convergence, the third game in the series.

I've gotten a few emails from customers asking why I didn't give them access to Blackwell Legacy instead, since it is the first game in the series.  It technically makes the most sense, but in practice... not so much.  When a company gives a product away for free, it's not just to be nice (well, maybe a bit nice). The free product is being used - primarily - as a promotional tool.  So why not lead with your best product?  Telltale did this with Sam and Max a few years ago.  The fourth game in the series - Abe Lincoln Must Die! - is now freeware, and it is widely considered by fans and critics alike as the best of the season.  This is no coincidence.

Blackwell Legacy is a solid game, but it was also my first game, and I've improved my skills significantly since it was released five years ago.  Convergence is a much better showcase for the series, so it made more sense to give the customers immediate access to it.  Had I given them Legacy instead (or given them all three, in which case they would play Legacy first), I ran the risk of them not seeing me at my best. 

Maybe this was the right decision, maybe it wasn't.  Some of you might feel slighted.  Heck, you bought the DVD which contains the games, so why can't you play them now?  To you I say: I understand.  So, here's what I'll do.  If you bought the DVD and don't want to wait for it to arrive before playing the first three games, I will give you a voucher so you can nab the downloads free of charge.  Email me your DVD order receipt and I'll hook you up. 


Monday, October 3, 2011

CD or not CD

One of our pre-order deals involves a DVD version of Blackwell Deception that you can nab for a limited amount of time.  This "limited time" thing has led to a lot of you asking the same question:  Why, dear Dave, did you decide to do it this way?  And didn't you used to sell the hard copies as a regular part of your store?

You'd be right.  When I started Wadjet Eye, there was a small but eager demand for CD copies, and it seemed self-defeating to not supply that demand.  There weren't enough orders for me to use a CD duplication service, so I constructed and shipped all the hard copies myself.

With some moral support from my friend here, of course.

It was a pretty good system.  I only got a few of those orders a week, so I could easily keep up with them.  The customers got something they wanted, and I got a bit of extra cash. Sometimes I would even sign the CD if the customer asked for it.  It worked well, but... not for long.

Time went on and things got busier, and I began to dread getting those CD orders.  Even though I only got a few of them a week, I found myself with less and less time to deal with them.  Sometimes I would be so busy and harried that I'd almost resent having to fill a CD order. I'd rush through the process, copying a file incorrectly or smudging the ink into something ugly, forcing me to start over and get even more frustrated.  I knew it couldn't last, and round about the time I was working on Emerald City Confidential and Blackwell Convergence at the same time, I bit the bullet and discontinued the CDs altogether.

I hated to do it, but I also had to face a hard truth. In the year they were available, I sold only 30 CD copies of each game.  With so little demand, and as time-consuming as they were, the choice was obvious.  I had to stop selling them.

But as a gamer from forever ago, I remember the sheer joy of holding a physical game in your hands.  One that was actually in a box, with a proper manual (that you actually were expected to read).  I hated that hard copies of my games didn't exist anymore.  So I decided to try another tactic.  If there wasn't a high enough demand for them, why not try and create a demand?

And lo, the "limited edition pre-order CD" offer was forged.  You couldn't just buy the CD whenever you gosh darned pleased.  No sir.  You had to buy it NOW.  Or else it was GONE.  FOREVER.  And it worked. The CD of Gemini Rue became a hot item.  We had to hire a duplication service to handle it all.  Our little apartment began to fill up substantially with all the packages we assembled.

If you ordered a CD of Gemini Rue, your copy is in this pile somewhere.

It worked so well before, that we are doing it again. We are even going all out and throwing more stuff into the package to make it a more attractive deal.  So much that we had to upgrade to a DVD instead of a CD to accommodate it all.  But I'll shut up about it before this turns into a sales pitch (but you should totally buy it anyway).

Anyway, that's why I do it this way.  It seems to work for us, at least for now.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Blackwell Deception: Official announcement!

Wadjet Eye Games’ Haunting Mystery Series Continues October 12 with Blackwell Deception
Free demo and limited-time preorder deal at www.rosablackwell.com

NEW YORK – September 14, 2011 – Wadjet Eye Games, an independent developer and publisher of retro-styled games, is officially unveiling the long-awaited fourth installment of its celebrated Blackwell adventure series. Blackwell Deception will release for PC on October 12 from http://www.rosablackwell.com. A free demo is available today to give eager fans a taste of the haunting mystery that awaits.

Starring reluctant spirit medium Rosa Blackwell and her ghostly partner Joey Mallone, the Blackwell games are supernatural adventures in the style of the “golden age” point-and-click adventures of Sierra and LucasArts. Working together, Rosa and Joey investigate suspicious deaths and help restless spirits cross over into the afterlife. The series features retro 2D graphics, compelling interactive storytelling, and unique puzzle-solving scenarios that require switching between the mortal Rosa and otherworldly Joey to make the best use of each character’s unique abilities.

In Blackwell Deception, an unexpected tragedy leads Rosa and Joey to a shady ring of street psychics who are preying on the gullible and milking them dry. When people begin dying, only a genuine psychic (and her wayward spirit guide) can help the victims’ confused spirits find peace. From a seedy downtown nightclub to a penthouse apartment to a luxury yacht on the Hudson River, Rosa and Joey will traverse the New York City streets to unearth the truth about this underground world—including some secrets Joey would prefer to keep buried.

Starting October 12, Blackwell Deception will be available as a PC download for $14.99. For customers who preorder the game between now and launch day, Wadjet Eye is extending two limited-time special offers:

  • Downloadable preorder offer: For $14.99, preorder customers get convenient download access to Blackwell Deception on launch day, as well as a free downloadable copy of the series’ acclaimed third installment, Blackwell Convergence, to enjoy right away.

  • Limited edition DVD preorder offer: For $24.99, preorder customers can reserve a limited edition DVD that includes all four Blackwell games, an exclusive MP3 soundtrack, animated Blackwell shorts, and other bonus materials. These customers also get a free downloadable copy of Blackwell Convergence to play now and convenient download access to Blackwell Deception on launch day. Limited edition DVDs are expected to ship in late October and free worldwide shipping is included in the price.

To view the Blackwell Deception screenshots and trailer, download the free demo, or place a preorder, visit the official website at http://www.rosablackwell.com.

About Wadjet Eye Games
Founded in 2006, Wadjet Eye Games has developed a reputation for producing award winning and critically acclaimed adventure games for the PC. Committed to creating unique character-driven game experiences around recognizable brands, Wadjet Eye has recently expanded to support and publish games by other independent developers. The company’s award-winning portfolio includes The Shivah and the Blackwell series, both of which have garnered Game Developers Choice nominations, Puzzle Bots, which was selected for the Penny Arcade Expo’s PAX 10 showcase, and IGF Student Showcase winner Gemini Rue. For more information, visit http://www.wadjeteyegames.com.

Wadjet Eye Games Public Relations

Friday, August 26, 2011

Emerald City Commentary (part 5)

Hola!  Another day another episode:

Most everything in this episode I've covered in some way or another on this blog, mostly how the VO got processed a little too much.  I also address another concern that a lot of reviewers had - the lack of save slots!  I did try and lobby for them, but I was successfully convinced that they would be "too confusing" for the casual audience.

In retrospect, I still wonder about this.  Would they have been as daunting as the market research led everyone to believe?  It's hard to say.  When you think about it, not many games use multiple save slots anymore.  It's just gaming dinosaurs like me who enjoy the security of having them.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Emerald City Commentary (part 3)

What a great excuse to update my blog every day.  Here is part three:

A bit of a followup. As you can see from the thumbnail, one of the characters looks like a certain former Alaskan politician that I'm sure you all are aware of.  It was a total coincidence.  The character had been designed six months before Sarah Palin came on the scene.

In August of 2008, I was visiting my parents in Virginia.  Since I had a deadline and I'm a stupid nerd, I brought my laptop along to get some work done.  They were watching the television when John McCain's running mate was announced.  I brought up Glinda's image in the game, turned my laptop so my parents could see, and said "Check it out.  The game has political commentary now."

I'm also still quite proud that the whole Betsy Bobbins thing didn't get nixed.  Perhaps I was too subtle.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Let's Play My Own Game: Part 2

I've gotten some nice feedback from various sources, so I've decided to make this a daily thing!  I'll be posting these LPMYG vids until I finish the game. And I think I'm going to call this "Emerald City Commentary" from now on.

A bit of a followup.  I have NO IDEA how the whole missing textbox thing happened.  Every version I played on my computer had the textbox, but somehow the game shipped without it.  I vaguely remember PlayFirst QA telling me that a lot of the description text wasn't voiced, and I vaguely remember replying that PlayFirst had told me to do it that way.  They didn't mention that the textbox was missing, but if they never saw it in the first place, maybe they never knew it was supposed to be there? 

Oh well.  It'll remain a mystery.  It happened, and it's a bit too late to fix it now.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Let's Play My Own Game

For awhile now, I have become fascinated with the whole "Let's Play" phenomenon on YouTube.  For the uninitiated,, here's the gist: someone plays a game and records themselves doing it.  While they play the game, they give a running commentary on what they see and do.

When I first came across one of these videos, I couldn't believe it was for real.  But yes.  Apparently it is, indeed, a "thing."  There's thousands of them.  There are even several Let's Plays of my own games out there (and a special shout out must go to Resulka, who I think has Let's Played my entire catalog), which pleases me to no end.

Eventually it got into my head to try doing a Let's Play of my own, but instead of playing any random game I decided to play a game that I developed myself.

I chose Emerald City Confidential because, of all my games, I probably have the most to say about it.  It has an interesting genesis.  PlayFirst (a casual game developer) approached me (a old school point-and-click developer) to make a game for them.  Their goal?  To make a point-and-click style game for the casual audience.  We came from two totally different mindsets, and the road to finishing this game was an interesting one to say the least. 

Anyway, here's the first episode. In this first episode, we learn how to pick up and use a crowbar, why dialog options can be intimidating, and the story behind the quest gems.

(If the video is too small, click the "YouTube" button on the lower right to zap yourself to YouTube")

Please let me know in the comments if you find these interesting! I'll probably do more.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Placeholder art: The big reveal!

Wow.  Has it been almost a year since I posted this placeholder art image from Blackwell Deception?

How awful of me to leave you hanging for so long.  You all must have been tearing your hair out trying to figure out what it was.  This could be a wedge of cheese, or a network of tunnels, or a box of bagels, or even...

A knotty pine wall! Can't you feel the excitement and pulse-pounding gameplay leaping off the image? Aren't you PSYCHED?  I know I am.

On another note, remember when I said on this blog that the game would come out in April?  Ha ha ho.  This is why I don't officially announce release dates anymore.  But, the game is almost finished and I can safely say that the game is coming very, very soon.  On September 14th, we will be making our official announcement, with a PR campaign and trailer and website and everything.  So set your calendars.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Your game sucks! (and how to respond)

So did you hear about Duke Nukem Forever?  After twelve years of development hell, it finally arrived on store shelves to the fanfare of almost universally negative reviews.  And how did the PR firm behind the game spin this development?  By throwing a childish, angry hissy-fit.  Suffice to say, this was bad news for PR firm Redner Group, who was dropped like a hot potato by game publisher 2K Games.

It was a facepalm moment, but one that made me think about all the times I've been tempted to do the very same thing.  This might be shocking to hear, but there are people out there who don't like my games and will eagerly declare their feelings on reviews and public forums.  The desire to leap into the fray and defend your work is great, but is it a good thing to do so?  Well, it depends.

Keep your dignity

As an indie game developer, the best weapon in your arsenal is your reputation.  If you get the reputation of being a prima donna who can't take criticism, then you will never be taken seriously.  So if there's a nasty message on an internet forum (or negative review about your game) and you wonder if you should respond, think carefully about how it will effect your reputation.  Remember, once it's out there, you can't take it back. You don't want to be this guy.

You won't change their mind

Seriously.  Don't even try.  I know it's tempting.  Maybe they are playing it wrong, or they are approaching it with the wrong mindset, or they just don't "get it."  It doesn't matter.  Nobody likes being told what to do or what to think, and your customers are no exception.  Don't believe me?  Try debating politics sometime.  No matter how logical your response, no matter how well thought-out and persuasive you might be, it is not going to matter.  You're not going to make a person "see the light" and magically love your game.  It just won't happen.  If anything, it will just cement their belief further and make you look defensive and insecure.  And on a public forum, that is magnified tenfold.  So don't do it.

Reply when it benefits you

Here's a hypothetical example.  A customer buys your game, installs it, and gets an error.  Pissed off, the customer goes to their favorite game forum and rants about how your game doesn't work.  They call your game cheap and you a rip-off artist.  You, the developer, see this post.  The customer's problem is a very common one and you know exactly how to fix it.  So what should you do?

This is the only situation where I'd advocate responding publicly.  There is no better opportunity to show potential customers that you can remain dignified under pressure and give great customer service at the same time.  Keep cool, respond politely, and explain how to fix the problem.  Congratulations, you've kept a customer, and probably made a few more to boot.

As for reviews, the only time I'd advocate responding is when they get something factual wrong.  For me, this usually happens when they spell my company name wrong! (it's spelled with a J, darn it)

Remember, it's the internet

People who are otherwise normal, functional adults will say hurtful and stupid things simply because they can.  Folks who enjoy something aren't as inclined to jump on the internet and rave about it as those who hate something.  Remember that you can't please everybody, and you'll be fine.


P.S. I know I said I'd write more about demos in this post, but with the whole Duke Nukem thing happening I wanted to remain topical!  Next time.  Promise.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Game Demos and How I've gotten them wrong

So when developers get together to make a game, their first priority is usually to get a demo out.  After several games and several demos, I have come to my own conclusions about demos and how most of them get it wrong.  I can say this with certainty, because I've gotten it wrong many many times. 

For Blackwell Legacy, I didn't even consider creating a demo.  I just wanted to make a game, and surely the game would be so awesome that people were going to buy it sight unseen, yes?  Well, duh.  Of course not.  People wanted to try it before they bought it.  Perfectly understandable, but I was faced with a problem.  The draw of the game was the emerging relationship between Rosa and Joey, but Joey doesn't actually show up until you've played through a decent chunk of the game.  I could have started the demo there, but the events that followed wouldn't have made any sense. 

So, I hemmed and hawed and I patched together a demo that that was a heavily edited version of the first fourth of the game. It did the job, barely, but many people have told me that it doesn't sell the game terribly well.  I have to agree.  So from then on, I always planned my demos alongside the actual design of the game.  And for Blackwell Convergence, I thought I got it nailed.

From the Blackwell Convergence demo.

I had a brilliant idea.  I would start the game off with a stand-alone story - a ghost in an abandoned office that you had to save.  It had nothing to do with the rest of the game, but it would serve as an introduction to the Blackwell world for newcomers and a refresher for everybody else.  And the bonus?  I could break it off and release it for free as a demo.  Win-win.

But no.  I realize in retrospect that it was a mistake.  I'd forgotten the purpose of a demo, which is to encourage people to buy my game.  By releasing a demo with a stand alone story -  with a definite beginning, middle, and end - I utterly failed to leave you wanting more.  There was no reason for you to come back.  You had already left perfectly satisfied, and got it for free to boot.

So what's my plan for the Deception demo?  To leave you hanging as much as possible.  You're welcome, everybody.


Friday, May 27, 2011

On headset microphones and my own damn stubbornness

I mentioned in my last post that, until recently, I have been using a headset mic to record all the voice acting for my games.

Rebecca Whittaker, as "Astrid" from Puzzle Bots.

It's always surprised me that I've gotten away with this setup as long as I have.  Back in the dark ages of 2006, when I was making The Shivah, I decided to give the voice acting thing a whirl.  I only had one problem - I knew nothing about audio or voice over production.  Not knowing any better, I downloaded a free audio recording program called Audacity, clipped a headset mic to the actors' heads, then handed them the script and let them go to town. I didn't even adjust the levels, which is obvious when you get to the scenes with Joe DeMarco.

When the game came out and reviews started popping up, there were ranging opinions about the voice actors but nobody seemed to notice or care that it wasn't recorded in a full-fledged studio.  So since the system seemed to work, I didn't bother fixing it and used the headset mic again in Blackwell Legacy.

Abe Goldfarb as "Joey" in Blackwell Legacy

As time went on, I learned a bit more about audio editing and voice directing in general - a common complaint was the constant breath pops, which I eventually I got the hang of removing - but the core method remained unchanged. I was still using a freeware audio program and a $20 headset mic from Radio Shack. 

A few games later and I got a publishing deal with PlayFirst for Emerald City Confidential.  Suddenly, I was flown out to San Francisco to direct voice actors in a real, high-end studio.  An audio engineer sat behind a complicated piece of equipment while the actor sat in a separate room behind sound-proof glass.  We'd press a button to speak to them directly and direct them as we needed.  It was all very slick.  The studio was bigger than my apartment and the cost of the whole thing was higher than the budget of all my games combined, but it was worth it.  For a week we recorded, and I admit - the sound quality was awesome. 

But there was a snag.  PlayFirst guidelines stated that the filesize of the game had to be under 80MB. The only way to do that?  Compress the VO files as far as they would go, and then compress them some more.  The end result of all that money and high-end equipment was VO footage that sounded like it was underwater. 

Suffice to say, this experience embittered me just a tad. After ECC wrapped up, I went back to Blackwell Convergence and back to my headset mic.  This setup - ghetto though it was - became a badge of pride.  Sure it was cheap, but I could create VO footage that sounded infinitely better than what ended up in ECC.  So I kept using it.  Blackwell Convergence used it, then Puzzle Bots, and most recently Gemini Rue.  The only ones who noticed were professional audio people who already have an ear for that kind of thing.  But most people? Nobody cared.

Then, finally, my headset mic decided enough was enough.  The sound quality became staticky and finally crapped out altogether.  I went to Radio Shack to buy another one, but they no longer carried the same brand in stock.  Deciding it was time to bite the bullet, I bought a Blue Yeti microphone at the recommendation of an audio buddy of mine who was extremely vocal in getting me to make the switch.

After spending some time figuring out how to put the thing together (and after being told that I had positioned the microphone the wrong way around), it was ready to go.  I scheduled Abe Goldfarb and Rebecca Whittaker (the actors behind Joey and Rosa) to come over.  After they were done, I had a listen.

And... well, it sounded good.  Damn good.  In fact, I'd go far as to say it was much better than the headset mic.  It sounded cleaner, fuller.  The actors also preferred standing up to deliver their lines into a microphone that wasn't an inch away from their mouths.  Plus, I could plug my headphones into the microphone itself and get a much clearer representation of what was being recorded.  I could listen more closely for breath pops and mouth clicks.  The quality of both the sound and the performances were much improved. Here, compare for yourself:

Joey from Convergence

Joey from the upcoming Deception

The difference is subtle, but it's definitely there.  Once the audio gets mastered, it will sound even better.  So... I guess I feel kinda silly.  It took me almost five years to make the switch to a "real" microphone.  But now I'm never going back.  I am extremely microphone proud.  VO wise, I think Blackwell Deception will have the highest quality of anything we've done.  I can't wait for you to hear the results.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Oh right, this is here.

Hello wayward web wanderers!

With all the twittering and facebooking I do, it's very easy to neglect this little chunk of cyberspace.  Here's what we've been up to in the last few months since I updated:
  • Gemini Rue was released, and is still selling very well (at least 3x higher than was predicted in the last post).
  • The next game in the Blackwell series (Deception) has hit alpha, and we're beta testing.
  • We've also started recording the voiceovers for Deception.  Abe and Rebecca are back as Rosa and Joey.
Speaking of VO, I got a fancy new microphone!

Rebecca Whittaker voicing Rosa at the mic

For years I've been using a Radio Shack headset microphone, which has always done the job and - oddly enough - very few people noticed that it wasn't a professional setup.  But recently an audio buddy of mine recommended this Blue Yeti microphone and I finally made the plunge.  I have to say, I love the thing.  I'll write more about that - among other things! - soonish.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Seeing the future - with charts!

Here is where I pretend to actually know what I am doing and look like a real businessman.

So you might have noticed that I announced a new game a few weeks ago.  It's called Gemini Rue and it's a neo-noir, sci-fi adventure game set in a dystopian future with lots of rain and gangsters and moody jazz music.  There's more to it than that, but you don't come to my blog for my marketing spiels.

(Or DO you?!  Hey, this *is* my blog, so I will just say that if you pre-order the game you'll get a nicely printed disc edition with DVD-style case and everything  It won't be available after the game launches, so be sure and nab it before February 24th.  There's a reason why I'm doing this, but that's a subject for another blog.)


This is the first game that I've thrown a lot of PR muscle behind, and it seems to be really working. As I wrote in an earlier post, I hired someone to do that for me because, well, I suck at it.  As a result, lots more gaming press than usual has picked up on the story.  So it's been quite exciting.  However, if I've learned anything it's that great press doesn't always translate into great sales, so I decided to take a look at my previous games and see how well Gemini Rue is measuring up.

Lots of indie devs are stat hounds, keeping track of every spike and valley of traffic.  I do have software in place that does that, but I never really studied it until now.  I decided to take some numbers and stack them up in certain ways and see if I could come to any interesting conclusions.  What I'm about to show you seems very logical and straightforward to me, although I'm sure you accounting types will probably laugh.

The bad news is that I no longer have the original sales information for Shivah and Blackwell Legacy.  I sold those games through a small service back in 2006 which went bust, taking all my sales information with it.  I now use a mainstream service called Plimus which everybody uses and doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  So I had all the information for Unbound, Convergence and Puzzle Bots.  I would have preferred to take data from all my games, but it was good enough.

Anyway, what I wanted to do was track how well each game did at specific points in the sales cycle.  Each game had a pre-order period before they launched, so checking the stats for both pre-order and launch seemed like good places to start.  Some games have been out much longer than others, so I figured the first month of sales for each was a good sample to take.

I divided up the sales cycles up like this:

1 day of pre-order
1 week of pre-order
Day before release
1 day after launch
1 week after launch
1 month after launch

I plugged in the numbers for the three games and I came up with this graph.  I am not comfortable with giving exact sales numbers so I removed those, but I see no problem with showing how the games sold when compared to each other:

Looking at this graph was an interesting trip down memory lane.  Unbound undoubtedly did the worst in its first month, but I was very green at the time with only one other game to my credit.  I barely did any marketing or PR at all and that obviously shows in this graph.  Puzzle Bots had very strong pre-order sales, but tapered off quickly after launch day.  Convergence is the most interesting, as it had very weak pre-order sales but then shot up like a rocket once it launched. 

What might account for Puzzle Bots' strong pre-order sales is that it had a very strong pre-order incentive - a limited-edition CD-ROM that you could only buy during the pre-order period.  Convergence didn't have that.  Convergence didn't have any pre-order incentives at all, which might account for the pre-order sales being kinda weak.

Anyway, I had three games worth of data over various points so I averaged them all out.  Then I calculated the average percentage increase of sales from one point to the next.   So based on the "Day 1" and "Week 1" pre-order sales figures of Gemini Rue, I was able to plug them into the graph and come up with this projection:

So, hey!  Check out that purple line.  Not bad. Using the sales figures of my previous games, I was able to create a reasonable projection of how I think Gemini Rue will perform, and it's looking pretty good. Of course, this is all theoretical and could end up being completely wrong, but it's a nice barometer.  Once the game has been out for a month, I'll be able to say for sure whether it sold above or below expectations. 


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fan stuff

Even though I've been doing this for quite awhile, it still surprises me that I have actual fans.  Fans who follow my work and are eager for what's coming next, fans who post on my forum (which you should totally do) or are in general just awesome.  But what I love best is the fan art.

The sheer level of creativity that some of the fans put into recreating the characters from my games is mind-boggling.  One fan even molded Joey and Rosa out of clay (and I gave the guy a cameo in Convergence as a reward).

But today I think I have seen the coolest thing a fan has done to date.  A new MMO recently came out called DC Universe Online.  In the game, you create your own superhero or supervillian and then it lets you go to town.  One player has created a supervillian based on the Countess from the Blackwell series:

According to the player (who's name is Resulka), her powers include flight, psychic powers, and choking.

I have no words.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Hitman: Blood Money and why people think I'm a psychopath

This is my first "game review" on this site.  I might review others.

The other day, while walking the dog with my wife, I said the following words to her:

"So I thought about sneaking up behind the guy and strangling him with garrote wire, but I decided to use the sedative instead."

It took me a few seconds to realize that there were other people on the sidewalk next to us.  I had to grin meekly and stammer out that I was talking about a videogame.

Several years ago, I picked up a copy of "Hitman 2" at a local Gamestop.  I had seen it on sale and thought I'd give it a whirl.  The concept definitely hit me in the right spot.  A stealth/infiltration game where you have to assassinate a high-profile target, using the environment and disguises in order to get close to him.  Your character was Agent 47, a six-foot-six, broad-shouldered bald guy with (for some reason) a barcode dyed into the back of his head.  Apparently he's a clone of some kind.  Since I didn't play the first game, I didn't quite get the backstory, but it didn't matter.  I didn't like the game.  After a few false starts, I gave up.  Years later, I read in several game journals that Hitman #2 was considered the low point of the series, and #4 was a pure work of genius.  

Seriously.  What's up with the barcode? 

So, on a whim, I nabbed #4 last week and popped it in.  Again, I took over the role of Agent 47, who was hired to sneak through an abandoned amusement part full of thugs to take down a criminal kingpin.  Fair enough, only I had to struggle through the worst tutorial ever.  "Hold down the right-trigger to go into sneak mode.  Sneak over to that guy over there and release the right-trigger to garrote him."  Okay, fine.  I'd sneak over and release the trigger, only to have my Agent 47 stand up and do nothing.  I crouched down again and maneouvered him into a different position and tried again.  Nope.  Agent 47 stood up again, and this time my target noticed me.  He whirled around and started shooting at me, and the game basically told me that I screwed up and I'd have to shoot my way through the level.

Here, Agent 47 strangles the gangster properly.  It took me several tries.

The problem was, I *wanted* to play stealthy, but the game wouldn't show me how.  It's not a good sign when the game's tutorial pisses you off.  But, I gave it a few more tries.  And wouldn't you know it, I got the hang of it.  Soon I was sneaking around and silently taking down dudes left and right, hiding bodies in convenient locations and moving closer to my target.  Finally I passed the tutorial section and was on my way to my next target.  I was to take down a Chilean vinyard owner and his son, who were using their wine cellar to mask their drug factory.  They were having a party on the grounds, which was used as a cover to gain access.

Put away that gun, 47!

I entered the grounds and I found myself completely lost.  I saw a bunch of doors, a bunch of people walking around, and a whole area to explore.  There was no map, no "goal" indicator, no nothing.  And I was playing on easy mode.  So, I took a few hesitant steps toward a door.  I opened it and went inside, and a guard nearby yelled at me in Spanish.  I kept walking and the guy shot me.

Restarting, I entered another door, which led to a hallway.  I walked down the hallway and into some kind of guard station, where a bunch of guards were listening to the radio.  Again, they leapt up and began yelling at me, and then attacked me.  Yeesh.

Restarting a third time, I entered the same door but took a look around.  There was a fuse box and a closet.  I disabled the fuse box, which turned off the lights.  One of the guards started coming my way to see what was up, so I hid in the closet before he could see me.  While he was fiddling with the fuse box, I silently crept up behind him and injected him with a sedative.  I stole his uniform and hid his body in the closet.  Now, I could walk around the grounds unmolested by the guards.

What?  I work here.

It was at this point I began to see the point of the game.  You had to explore.  You had to experiment with things and see what effects they would cause, and use them to your advantage.  And you will fail.  A lot.  Once I figured out that the point of the game was to fail and to retry, I began to enjoy myself much more.

Sorry Santa.  I need your suit to sneak into the Playboy mansion.  No, I'm not kidding.

What's my point here?  I guess lately there's been a trend in gaming about not letting the players fail.  That they have to be constantly rewarded or else they'll feel neglected.  This was a lesson that was hammered into my head when working in the casual market, but it effects the hardcore as well.  A hardcore game like Grand Theft Auto (which I love) tells you what to do and where to go at any given moment.  I've gotten spoiled by that, and I often expect it.  Hitman: Blood Money doesn't lead you by the hand at all, and I'm - strangely enough - loving the everlasting crap out of it.

And hey, the disguises are awesome.  What other self-respecting bald assassin would dress up as a clown to infiltrate a child's birthday party in order to get close to a mafia agent in the witness protection program? 

I'm glad I gave this game a chance, even though it's a lesson how how Not To Do A Tutorial.  Maybe I'll give the other games in the series a try, but I'll just pretend #2 never existed.

(Unrelated side note.  I saw only one episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and I didn't like it at all, so I never bothered watching the show again.  It was the one with the robot Buffy, which people tell me now is the worst episode in its entire 7 season run.)