Archive for February, 2009

Aspects of Smiles

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

The first step with Smiles was to up the art resolution. That way, I could cleanly resize to any resolution below 4x the iPhone (1920×1280).

Unfortunately, double and quadruple iPhone res are not practical resolutions. Double iPhone will work windowed on most desktop LCD and 720p screens (960×640), and quadruple in a window fits on a 30″ Dell or Apple Cinema display, but we could do better.

Also, not all screens are the same shape, but the solution isn’t too difficult. If we maintain a consistent aspect ratio, it can be fit without distortion to virtually any screen.

Dividing the width by the height gives us a scalar we can compare against the same scalar from other resolutions to know which axis we’ll have to align to.  If the scalar is larger, then we align to the top/bottom.  Otherwise, we align to the sides. If equal, both work.

The following picture shows Smiles at it’s original size (480x320), pushed up as large as the height (1080x720) can fin in a 720p screen (1280x720).  Note: the “1080” here is not the same thing as 1080p. Just an amusing coincidence.

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This fits, but shows a good 200 pixels of empty space on the sides.

We could cop out at this stage, fill them in with black.  That’s what TV does.  Or if we care, we could do something about it.

One of the design niceties of Smiles is that the game has both a foreground and a background. The foreground is all our game stuff, fixed to the resolution and aspect ratio of the iPhone. The background is a tiled moving pattern or starburst. Both are easy to grow or size.

So instead of “black baring” it, I can grow the background to fit the screen.

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At the moment I am cheating. I simply made sure I draw enough extra boxes over the sides to fill the width of the screen. Eventually I’ll have to make the backgrounds a little smarter, but GDC is coming up fast so time is short.

This looks better than filling in the sides with a solid color, but we’re not done yet. There’s still 2 things related to resolution and layout I’d like tackle before I move on. The first, overscan.

Road to the IGF (Mobile) Video – Part 1

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Yet another series, but video.

Part 1 of hopefully a few videos of me showing off my IGF preparations. Sinage, computers, etc.

3 weeks left and counting.

A bit roughly put together, but that’s half the point. I didn’t want it to eat up that much time, though it did take me some time to remember how to edit and encode a video (without my software crashing).

It’s no Goo Road to the IGF, but hey.

Enjoy. 🙂

Evolving Smiles

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Alright, I don’t see a reason not to talk about this publicly. So if I’m a good boy, I’ll be walking through my process of up-scaling, converting, and porting Smiles as it happens. Ideally, I’d like to have the game available for all 3 desktop platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux).

Quickly, Smiles is an IGF Mobile nominated collection of puzzle games for iPhone. You can learn more about the game at smiles-game.com, or try it for free by grabbing “Free Smiles” from the App Store.

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The irony of an HD matching game amuses me, so that’s something I really would like to push with Smiles. At this stage, it’s not really much more work going straight to HD, so why not?

This new product tentatively called “Smiles HD” I’d like to be completely true to the original. That might sound like nothing special if all you’ve seen is the screenshot above. But what should be noted is that Smiles uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to follow gravity. In other words, as you tilt an iPhone, things now fall the direction the system is oriented. For some games it’s a gimmick, but a very real part of advanced play involves rock breaking. Sometimes, an easier falling/breaking scenario is 90 degrees away.

There’s certain much more to say on the subject, but I’ll save that for later.

The first step as I saw it was to up the resolution of the game art. When I started Smiles back in June 2008, I was sure to make my original art large enough that I could fit it in to textures suitable for HD. The first demonstration of this in action was a screenshot I posted over the weekend.

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This involved rebuilding the texture atlas’ the game uses, as the original iPhone one was a fraction of the size.

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This actually works out quite nice. The iPhone version fit enough detail nicely in to a 512×512 texture. Doubling that to 1024×1024 gives enough for SD and HD 720p.  Doubling again to 2048×2048 gives enough for HD 1080p displays, and a little extra for those running a monstrous 2560×1600 30″ display. Weather there is a market or not, I have no idea. But you just know there will be that 1 guy or gal who wants to brag. 😀

In actuality, the game board of Smiles doesn’t need this high resolution of art. However, there are a few places in game where the art is scaled (clicking, or on the side bar). I’ve been running a PC development version of Smiles at 2x iPhone since the beginning, and well, the low-res side bar art bothered me. ;).  So I want what’s considered the HD version of the game to be entirely of the resolution, or better.

As of right now, many of the assets are converted. All the buttons and fonts are vector art, so they were a simple matter of setting the new resolution and exporting. There’s still a few little things that were raster, or snapped from vector. I don’t unload textures, since there was enough memory to store them all. Amusingly, a fresh start of the game currently uses about 160 MB of video RAM. If I change the theme, we hit 210 MB.  By the time I finish, I’d estimate the uncompressed textures to take between 260 MB and 300 MB.  Wow! 😀

That’s… a lot.  All assets are uncompressed 32bit textures, so an easy fix would be to start using DXT/S3TC texture compression. That’s something I’ll probably try out today.  If I was to port this to an Xbox 360 or PS3, I’d pretty much have no choice (well, some choice).  The last thing anyone wants is to constantly have to decompress (not crazy enough to ship raw), push in and out huge 2048×2048 uncompressed textures between RAM and VRAM every frame.  Ideally, put ’em in, and let the system perform like the monsters they are.

Still, for PC’s, I’m thinking it may be worth having 2 sets of assets around.  DXT/S3TC compressed ones, and uncompressed.  That way if you do have a 512 MB+ video card around, and a huge 30″ Dell or Apple Cinema display, you can flaunt your computer envy in glorious uncompressed full resolution… with a matching game. 😉

An under served niche? 🙂

Next on the on the agenda, dealing with aspect ratios.

Smiles in HD?

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Totally a tease.  Click it if you dare! 🙂

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(400k JPEG Version, 1 MB Lossless PNG Version)

Rebuilt the texture atlas’ for the weather and vegetables tilesets, and resized the majority of the in game assets. 3x’d the iPhone res instead of 4x’d, as that would be far too huge.

Art is large enough for 1080p, but the game needs numerous changes to properly support the new aspect ratio(s).

Ahem… not to mention the numerous art fixes I’ll have to make now that you can see all the detail… heh.

A Cheerfully Blunt Road Map

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Alright, so the clock says it’s Friday now. According to my whiteboard, that’s 29 days before I leave for the Game Developers Conference. Between now and then, I have a few commitments to take care of. Possibly a 2nd draft for my writing engagement, jury (selection?) duty, in addition to IGF preparations. It’s also an important turning point for Smiles as a product and a brand.  Lets talk about that.

Smiles has been a reasonable success.

Financially it’s no iShoot, but it’s done decently. If I hadn’t already left my cozy mainstream game industry job, I’d be seriously considering it. Long term scribblings and business plans would have filled my notebooks

Game industry notoriety wise, it’s an IGF Mobile finalist (for best game no less). An IGF nod is exactly what I aimed for as I stepped out of the usual 9-6 game industry day job.

And the game has been praised by every site that has reviewed it.

It’s everything you shoot for as a independent developer.

The problem is the exposure and sustainability.

Smiles thus far has lived entirely outside every top 100 list in the App Store. If you check mobclix, you’ll note that the highest it’s been able to achieve is #146 on the free arcade games chart (Free Smiles). As a result, it survives entirely on word of mouth.

I’ve since put some banner advertisements on a few of the larger iPhone sites, but real traffic seems to come only from distinct news posts about your game. Living outside the charts, every post is a lifeline. I can hope for that day Apple decides to feature me, but I shouldn’t hold my breath.

At the moment, and with GDC on the horizon, I have a good block of pre and post conference publicity available to me. That’s maybe a good 2 months of spotlight. But after that, it’s back to being lost in the vast Sea of iPhone apps.

So what’s next?

One option is to continue supporting the game, new updates, features, and so on.  The problem is that Smiles as a product already contains arguably well over $5 worth of content and extras, and asking for more as an unknown would be murder. Asking for $5 is already far too much in the eyes of the majority. I had to split the game in half (Smiles Zen, Smiles Drop) to show the value of the product. There’s always room for minor updates, but you should always be moving forward.

The other option, start game #2. Good in the long term, as multiple products tend to help sell each other. But in the short term, sales would die down to a crawl if I didn’t keep the exposure up. That wont kill me, but why let that happen?

Alright, so the 3rd option (or rather, what are you doing)?

Actually, there’s 2 things I’m going to do.

The first, I need to improve the brand and marketing. Not exactly spam the internet with more banners, but improve what and how I speak to the customer. My iTunes/App Store/all of descriptions are extremely vague. I approached the game marketing originally by pushing the game as mere cheerful and friendly product. Easy to play, and some actual depth to it. But that’s the same angle every other matching/casual game takes.

Smiles is an IGF Mobile finalist. That means there’s something special about the game. Until you sit down and really play it, you’re completely unaware that the game is actually different. That’s one mistake I’ve made.

Many of us gamers have fond memories of puzzle games. Tetris, Dr.Mario, Puzzle Bobble, etc. But not everyone has that same experience with Bejeweled. For many, that’s where our gaming tastes divided. Heck, I don’t care for it myself either. It’s slow. That’s what I changed in Smiles. I can’t be the first one first to have done it, but in my research reviewing games for Game Tunnel I never found one that at least did this. If I am, shame on you casual games industry.

Conventional “gamerized” casual games often hurt the truly casual appeal with timers and clocks. That’s stress. Many casual gamers play to relax and unwind. How can you do that when stressed? So I threw away the clocks and found ways to challenge you at a pace you control.

Also touch screens are intuitive. The control scheme of single touch actions on iPhone really makes it shine. Most people (especially new gamers) can move a finger faster and more accurately than they can with a mouse.

It all ties together in to a great little product, tuned specifically for the iPhone. The user base speaks highly of the game, which is great. But it’s a user base that grows only as new media outlets cover it at a reasonably frequency.

So this is goal number one. I need to improve the image of the game, be clearer what you’re getting as a consumer, give a stronger identity for media to grasp on to. It’s something special truly living in the obscurity in the App Store.  This is in preparation for the second part.

The second part, a cross platform strategy. In other words, make it available everywhere that’s practical.

To start, that mean PC, Mac and Linux. Actually, that’s already well underway. Smiles was actually developed on Windows and Linux, in addition to the Mac.

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I come from a console game development background, so this has become standard stuff for me.

I spent a day this week troubleshooting graphics issues on an Intel GMA 945 graphics chipset. That works now, so the game will run on any reasonably recent PC. It’s hardware accelerated, relying heavily on fill rate. There are a hand full of changes that need to be made to suit the PC platforms, but it’s extremely playable as is.

So PC, Mac, and Linux are the immediate future of the Smiles game and brand. The goal being to expand the potential market before moving on to the next thing. Most the work is done already, it’s just a good couple weeks and some infrastructure away (not that I have that much time between now and GDC).

In addition, I’d like to pursue a console version. The original game assets are HD 1080p ready, though currently sized for the iPhone. The control scheme, while less efficient, could certainly be adapted to a D-Pad/Analogue Stick. And yeah, I realize a mere port to console is often not enough.

The console part may sound a bit “pie in the sky”, but I’m actually quite familiar with the pitch process… nearly an expert at turned down projects. 😉 Being a “home office” developer may work against me (7+1 prior Nintendo and a PlayStation game aside), but hey, I’m serious about this.

I’ll be at GDC in March, where anything can happen. I’m a game industry veteran with 12 very real products in my portfolio, a low burn rate, and I know how to outsource if needed. I don’t need a job or an agent, just an avenue. Come find me at the IGF Mobile pavilion, I’d love to chat. 🙂

And there it is. Certainly a lot more blunt than I’ve been, but it’s “no more Mr. Nice Mike” time.  😀

Biz Cards and Banners

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Sent off my draft over the weekend. Since then, I’ve been up to some biz stuff. Buying ad space on a few iPhone websites. I’m not sure it’s helping just yet, but hey, more exposure is more exposure. 🙂

148 Apps, Slide to Play, and one more site which I wont say because I paid for CPM (number of impressions as opposed to time). 😉

Last night and today I’ve been working at designing some business cards for myself. I’d like to give a shout out to Thomas “Dr.Petter” and the Ludum Dare peeps for telling me my design was shite several times, which ultimately led to this reasonable design.

And the version I’ll have at my IGF pavilion.

Next step will be to find a local printer to produce them for me.

That’s all for now. I’ll probably include a website design somewhere between now and GDC.

Ta ta.