June 10, 2018

Game development articles roundup

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This is a collection of all game development articles I've written on this blog. I believe some of them are hidden behind all new content so it's difficult to find them.

General game development:

Specific game development:

June 6, 2018

Lessons learned from the Paradox podcast

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I've found a podcast made by Paradox Interactive, which is a company that's both making and publishing games. They talk about the business of video games, and if you want to listen to it on your own, you should search for The Paradox Podcast on iTunes or wherever you can find popular podcasts. Their games may not be my favorite type of games, even though I've played some Cities: Skylines which was published by Paradox. But the games are so successful that if they release a new game it often ends up as one of the top selling games on Steam, so it can be a good idea to listen to what they have to say:

S01E01
  • As said, Paradox is also publishing games, but they say no to 99 percent of the games pitched to them (they get about 1000 pitches per year). But this is a small amount since a publisher like EA gets 1000 pitches per month. Paradox is also only interested in games that fits their portfolio of games, which is mostly management/strategy/rpg games. So they don't want to publish action games. 
  • Two popular games are Prison Architect and RimWorld, and in the podcast they mentioned the clever idea that some people want to pay a little extra to have their content in the game. In the RimWorld case you can pay $15 to buy a DLC that "gives you the right to enter a name into the game so it shows up in all players' games. Players will recruit, command, and fight you for all time!"
  • It's important to be able to explain your game idea in a simple way. For example, Cities: Skylines said their game is "A modern take on the classic city builder." 
  • Paradox is interested in publishing game that are infinite replayable, hard-core (which I think means you have to use your brain), allows you to create something, and easy to get into. Examples of these games are Kerbal Space Program and Dont Starve, which Paradox wanted to publish but were denied to. 
  • Paradox actually declined to publish World of Tanks, Rocket League, and Psychonauts 2, so if your game is rejected by them, don't feel bad. 
S01E02
  • Ign (a company writing game reviews) bought Humble Bundle (a company selling games). In this podcast they argued that it might be problematic because when Ign write reviews of games they are also selling the games they are reviewing. How can the public reading the review think the review is honest when Ign will make more money by writing good reviews of the games they are selling?
  • Worldwide, steam is just 12-17 percent of the total PC market, even tough this percentage is higher if you look at Europe and America. So if you are an indie developer, it makes sense to focus on the PC market on Steam because you have limited resources, but if you are more popular you should also focus on other publishing platforms and consoles. Paradox has their own publishing platform called Paradox Plaza. 
  • When working with games, it's important to think long-term. For example, when Steam added the refund policy saying that users can get their money back if they played the game for less than 2 hours, the return rates increased. But Paradox were lucky because their games lasts more than 2 hours. So you need to ask yourself, what happens if Steam is changing a policy? Will it kill my game?
S01E03
  • Single-player is dead! No it's not, but it becomes more and more difficult for big game companies to make money from single-player games.
  • To decrease the risk of making a single-player game that's not popular, big game companies have begun to follow the movie industry and produce games similar to the games that have been released before. So not much innovation is happening. 
  • The best game experience is when you have an emergent game experience where anything can happen and the game reacts to you in unexpected ways. Cities: Skylines is included here because you can create you own story. This is also why multiplayer games are popular because if you play against a real human it's impossible to know what will happen. This is also cheaper because the player is creating the content for you. 
  • The PC market is declining slowly. 
  • Paradox has always been trying to go in the opposite direction of the market: they stayed away from consoles, massive multiplayer games like WoW, free-to-play, mobile, and VR. Or as they said in the podcast "We look at what everyone else is doing and then don't do anything."
  • When pitching games to publishers, don't forget to first figure out what will happen after you've launched the game. A game is a marathon and doesn't always end when you have launched the game!
S01E04
  • Loot boxes is a sensitive topic and Paradox has developers saying that they would quit if Paradox forced them to implement loot boxes in their games. 
  • Loot boxes is all about implementation and there is a right way and there's a wrong way to implement them. So the discussion should be how to best implement loot boxes. In one way, a game itself is a loot box because you spend money on it but you don't know if the game will be fun, so it's a gamble. 
  • The problem is that companies have realized that they are making money from micro-transactions (where loot boxes are included) so it's an unstoppable trend because a company needs to make money to satisfy the shareholders and be able to keep making games because the cost of making games has increased.  
  • The majority of growth in the game industry comes from Asia and free-2-play models with micro-transactions. 
  • Most "older" gamers are used to buy a game and get 100 percent of the content which is how the game industry was working. This is why they get upset when new games expects them to buy a game and then spend more money to get the full game. 
  • The easiest way to argue with a game company is to not buy the game. 
  • Paradox's solution to micro-transactions is to release a full game that is fully playable and is priced as a full game ($30-50). But then they also release several dlc updates to the game that people have to pay for (and some free updates). They also say it's important to not experiment too much with your core fans by implementing micro-transactions in different ways. It is after all more difficult to get a new customer than to keep an existing customer. 
S01E05
  • How much does it cost to make a game? It's true that the software used when making games is not expensive. An indie developer doesn't have to spend a single dollar on the software needed to make a game because Unity, Visual Studio, Blender, and Krita are free to use (Unity will cost money if you have a profitable game but it's not expensive). It's also not expensive to publish a game. Several years ago you had to manufacture cds in boxes to be able to sell the game, but today you can just sell it over the Internet. An indie developer can also work from home or from a public space like a café. 
  • But big companies need to make their own game engine so they can customize the engine to better fit their game, so they have to invest in research. Because of the research, big companies need to sell more games than the indie developer so they have to invest in marketing the games. Big companies also need big expensive offices. 
  • A Paradox game costs between 2-15 million Euro (both development and marketing costs are included). And it takes 2-3 years to make their games.
  • A Paradox game is not announced until it has reached an "approved alpha." This means that all the features and content is in the game, but the game still has bugs. You should be able to play the game from start to finish.  
  • You could argue that all of the expenses these big companies have are a waste of money. How could Minecraft become one of the best selling games if Minecraft didn't invest millions in research and marketing? The answer according to Paradox is that Minecraft's success wasn't sustainable and if you are a big company that wants to release several successful games you need a bigger budget.
S01E06
  • As said before, Paradox's model is to release a playable game for a full price and then release free updates and dlcs. But it's difficult to achieve this balance between free updates and dlcs because if too much is free people will not buy the dlc, and if too much is dlc people will be upset because they bought the original game. 
  • Paradox employees are allowed to speak (on like Twitter) about their work, as long as they are not "di*ks." This makes it clear that all employees are actually humans and it makes everyone responsible for their work. It's common that gamers argue that game developers are only doing it for the money, but by communicating with individuals in the company, the games become more transparent. 
  • Paradox have actually explored a city-builder (like Cities: Skylines) but in 3d and in space. So while the roads are usually in 2d-space even though tunnels are possible, the "roads" in this game would be in 3d, so you can build these vertical roads. But they couldn't implement it because it became confusing for the player because you have to go into the model and see where you are. Another game they dreamed about was logistics on a larger scale. 
  • Paradox argues it's important to own the intellectual property belonging to your game. 
S02E01
  • What many people forget is that game companies want everyone to be happy because then people will buy their game. 
  • As said before, Paradox is trying to find a balance between free updates and dlc you have to pay for. Free updates includes stuff like tech-systems, improved AI, and new UI that makes it easier to play. Paradox actually made some research to discover what people wanted to pay for: new UI features, things that gives you more power to control things, and "flavor" that makes something unique so you can go to another area in the game you haven't been able to see before. 
  • You can't look 12 years into the future when trying to predict where the game industry will be. 
  • Limited time and money is actually good when making games because it forces you to actually release a game. More time and money will not necessarily make a better game. 
  • Paradox has failed making games. For example, when they realized that the game Runemaster wasn't fun, they stopped developing it. 
S02E02
  • Paradox is trying to release a Linux version of their games. The Linux version is not making money because it costs money to also support Linux and not that many Linux users are buying the game. But they argue it's good to always have your "doors open." By saying that I think they mean that if Linux becomes a big gaming platform in the future, the know how to make games for Linux.  
  • The CEO of Paradox argued that one of the reasons Paradox is successful is because of their relationship with the players. 
  • Paradox will soon get a new CEO who has experience from the gambling industry, but no experience from the game industry. The current CEO argues that Paradox will still make the same games but they will try to reorganize the company to make it more efficient to develop those games.   
  • Don't interfere with people in creative industries. When Paradox is buying a game company, they stay away from those companies and let them do their special thing. 
  • Don't forget that you also need to sell your game to someone. Everyone in the organization should understand where the money should come from to be able to make better decisions.
S02E03
  • GDC is more about the meetings and less about the talks. 
  • It's easier to sell a game based on a known intellectual property, like Star Wars, than to invent a new IP. Included in IP are also brands, themes, and code like the Unity game engine. Example of a theme is World War 2, which is not a protected IP so Paradox can use it to help people understand what to expect from a game. It's common in the game industry to license an IP, like using Unreal game engine when making the game or making a game based on the Mad Max movies.
  • It's a challenge to create your own IP. Cities: Skylines is a successful game where you build your own city. But what defines CS? You can argue that the blue bird telling people what's going on in the game is an IP. One test you can use to see if you have an IP is to ask yourself: Can I cosplay my game? You can cosplay as the bird, but you can't really cosplay as a building or a road. 
  • Paradox is generally not licensing IPs because they want to focus on the long-term, and using someones IP is short-term because the other guy might stop you from using the IP. But they published Battletech which is a licensed game based on the MechWarrior universe. 
  • When you have an IP it's important to manage the IP to not destroy it. Each time a bad Star Wars movie is released, the value of the IP is diluted. If you release different games based on an IP where each game is doing its own interpretation of what the IP is, the IP is also diluted. This is also why free fan-games are generally not allowed. The value of the IP might be diluted if you make a Star Wars game even though no money is involved. 
S02E04
  • Even though Paradox has made many games they haven't really figured out how to teach the players how to play the games. For example, the older generation who has played SimCity will think it's easy to play Cities:Skylines, but the younger generation will find it harder because CS doesn't have a real tutorial - only small boxes with text appearing above the buttons you should press when you have just started the game. Also the new game Surviving Mars got criticism for being too hard to learn. 
  • To make sure the game is easy to play you can release it as an "early access" at a lower price so people can buy it and give you feedback before the final release. But Paradox is instead releasing their games with a full price and then give you free updates based on the feedback, which is similar to "early access" because no-one knows what "early access" actually is. 
  • Users who review your game are sometimes doing it for political reasons. So a game can sell well even though it has a low score. 
S02E05
  • Paradox has its own convention called Pdxcon. The con is nearly profitable because you have to pay a ticket to be able to attend, but Paradox has seen that they get a boost to the announcements they are making at the con compared to if they had had the show at E3 where many other games are announced and what you announce is lost in the noise. 
  • Because many games are updated over time, it becomes harder and harder to judge them by looking at reviews. 
  • Good reviews generate more sales if the game is new, but good reviews don't matter if the game is a part of an established series of games. 
  • Newly released games should get a score above 80 to sell well. 
  • Some are giving reviews for political reasons and some are giving "odd" reviews. For example, I read a review where someone gave Pubg a bad review despite having played it for hundreds of hours. If you've played something for hundreds of hours and just paid $30 for it, was that game really bad? Paradox argues that a good idea is to give trusted members a larger part of the final review score. This is not a new idea because many people have earlier trusted larger magazines, but now these magazines have been replaced by individuals like you and me.  
S02E06
  • As said before, intellectual properties are important, and now Paradox has decided to make more money by licensing their ips to physical board game publishers. According to their research, they realized that their fans wanted to give them more money and you can only add so and so much to a computer game, so they needed to come up with something else.  
  • Let your players create the game they want because they will do it for free and you can spend your time doing something else. You accomplish this by giving them the ability to mod the game. Out of the top 5 games on steam, 4 started out as mods. Counter-strike is one of them! 
  • Paradox doesn't encourage people to pirate their games, but they will not chase them. They argue that if people play their games, it will strengthen the eco-system around their games so more people might in the end buy their games.
  • Other medias Paradox might be interested in are movies and television series. But their previous idea to extend their games into books failed.   
S02E07
  • Paradox is not only developing games, they are also publishing games. One of the games they published is BattleTech, and now Paradox has decided to acquire the studio behind the game: Harebrained Schemes. 
  • This was not the first game company Paradox bought. Other recent acquisitions/investments include White Wolf, Triumph Studios, and Hardsuit Labs.
  • Today you not only need to be able to make a game, you also need to be able to market the game because so many games are released each day. Yes, most games are not worth playing but it's still difficult to show the players that your game is worth playing. This is why Harebrained Schemes decided to sell the company so they can focus on making games and Paradox can focus on marketing their games. 
  • Acquisitions in the game industry have a bad reputation. One of my favorite games was Command & Conquer developed by Westwood Studios. When Electronic Arts acquired Westwood Studios the game series went downhill and now Westwood Studios doesn't exist anymore. 
  • Paradox is acquiring companies to grow and they want to grow by adding more IPs, which has been discussed before. Since it's difficult to come up with your own IP, it's easier to acquire someone else's IP. Harebrained Schemes's IPs are the BattleTech universe and Shadowrun. 

This article will be updated as they release new episodes!

May 20, 2018

How to make stylized "The Witness" trees in Blender

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I've spent some time studying how to make trees for games. Trees are important because they often take up a large part of the screen so you need to be friends with them. As usual there are many different art styles you can chose from, but the trees I wanted to make were the trees from the game The Witness. They look like this:


Their trees have an art style called stylized, so they are obviously not 100 percent realistic looking. While The Witness developers have written three blog posts about the trees in their game, none of them described how the trees were made, so I had to guess. One article I found on how to make similar-looking trees is this one: Airborn - Trees. It argues stylized trees can be created by using a blob with a tree shape and then add random quads with a leaf texture to the surface of the blob:


This was the first tree I made in Blender: The mighty elm tree:


First I added an "Ico Sphere" blob and then I added a "Plane" which I unwrapped. To add the leaves I added a particle system to the blob. If you don't know how to randomly spread out a mesh on another mesh with a particle system, you can look at this tutorial: Blender Beginner Tutorial - Part 7: Particles.

But you can't currently export the leaves to a game engine like Unity because they are not their own object. To make them their own object, you can follow this process:
  1. Select the blob and press Shift + Ctrl + A. The leaves are now their own objects
  2. But the leaves still share the original mesh, so it may be difficult to combine them into one object. To solve this problem you select all leaves and press U and select "Object & Data & Material + Tex"
  3. To join them into one mesh you just select one leaf and then the other leaves and press Ctrl + J

To make it all more tree like you need to modify the normals to make them more spherical. This will make the leaves face outwards and upwards from the center of the tree - to emulate the effect that light has on the growth of the tree. You do this by enabling "auto smooth" in the tab next to "modifiers." And then in the "modifiers" tab you add a modifier to the leaves called "Normal Edit" and select the blob as "Target object used to affect normals." The leaves with the blob should now look like this:


And if you export it all to Unity, the result will look like this:


The leaf texture is just random leaves painted with a transparent background:


You can see that the elm is kinda round. To get a less round tree shape you can instead of adding random leaf-planes to the faces of the blob (a setting in the particle system), you can add them to the volume of the blob and then not display the blob at all in the game. You can also add more blobs to get other tree shapes, but the process for each individual blob is still the same.

The process to make the spruce tree is similar. The difference is that you add the branches (which is now a mesh and not just a plane) not to a blob, but to the to the spruce trunk with a particle system. To make the shape more spruce like, you need to use the "Vertex Groups" settings in the particle system by changing the density (no branches at the bottom) and the length (shorter branches on the top). The vertex weight is a value between 0 and 1 and 1 means the longest branch.


You might argue this method of making trees is inefficient. How long will it take to make an entire forest of trees? The answer comes from the game Firewatch. They said in a GDC talk that they only used 14 tree models to build a forest with 4600 trees.



April 24, 2018

The plein air challenge - or how to not make a game in 48 hours

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Ludum Dare, which is a competition where you make a game in 48 hours, was on this weekend. I'm usually participating in this competition but this time I couldn't find a good idea. Instead I decided to do the plein air challenge where you do a landscape painting. But I'm not really into physical painting so luckily there's a digital version of the challenge where you find a landscape by using MapCrunch and make a digital painting of the landscape. After looking at a few photos I found this photo:


These fishes are very colorful so I thought it was good practice to learn a technique called texture painting. The idea behind this technique is to simplify the texture and not try to make it as realistic as possible. A game that's using texture painting is the newly released Sea of Thieves. One of the developers of the game gave a GDC talk where he explained how they did it: they simplified and this can best be explained by showing one of the slides from the talk:


I also watched a GDC talk by a developer from the game The Witness, which has a similar style. So I made the models in Blender and then I used Blender's built-in paint tool to paint the fish textures. The first fish I made was the Yellowtail Surgeonfish, and it ended up like this:


The other fish in the reference photo is called King Angelfish, and it ended up like this:


But the reference photo also include some reef rocks, which I thought would take a lot of time to make. But then I recalled a GDC talk by one of the developers of the game Firewatch, which is by the way also using painted textures. She said that you can make a few assets, like a few rocks, and then you can use them several times in the same scene. If you place them differently no-one will notice that they are the same rocks. So I decided to make one rock and then use only that rock. It ended up like this:


To make the texture for the rock I decided to test a technique called gradient mapping. It's easy to get a black-and-white image by baking the ambient occlusion to the rock texture. To color it you can use a gradient with the color range you want the rock to have, and you will automatically get a basic colored rock by using gradient mapping. Then you can paint the details you want the rock to have.

With two fishes and a rock, I put the scene together in Unity, and the final scene ended up like this:



February 17, 2018

How to create your own billion dollar cryptocurrency

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Everyone can create their own cryptocurrency - but not everyone can create their own cryptocurrency that's also worth billions of dollars, like bitcoin, which has a market value of USD 180 billion. A cryptocurrency closely related to bitcoin is bitcoin cash with a market value of USD 25 billion.

While researching the difference between bitcoin and bitcoin cash I discovered that one of the guys behind bitcoin cash is Rick Falkvinge. I'm Swedish, so I recognized him because a few years ago he created a political party called Piratpartiet (The Pirate Party), which used to be a big part of the Swedish political scene but has since then disappeared. What has he been doing since then?

It turned out that Rick Falkvinge has been buying bitcoin and then he created bitcoin cash because he disagreed with the developers of bitcoin. The main difference between his views and the views of bitcoin is that a cryptocurrency should be more decentralized. If you research bitcoin and bitcoin cash you realize that there's a small war going on between the believers in each cryptocurrency, so I'm not going to argue which one is the best because only time can answer that question.

If you research bitcoin cash, you will find a text written by Rick Falkvinge called Official Statement from the CEO of Bitcoin Cash. In it, he tells why a cryptocurrency should be developed like a swarm. A swarm? What is he talking about? Luckily, Rick Falkvinge has written a free book on the subject called Swarmwise: The tactical manual to changing the world. In it he tells the story of how he created Piratpartiet and why the political party disappeared and how you can create you own decentralized organization. These are the key concepts from the book:
  1. You need an idea that you know can work from a theoretically point-of-view. Be provocative. If you are not making somebody angry, you're probably not doing anything useful. 
  2. The idea has to generate enthusiasm on its own - no advertising campaign is needed. It should be enough to mention it to someone, but it needs to have a realistic, understandable goal that energize people to change the world for the better. It also need subgoals and you need to be able to measure the progress towards the goal and the subgoals.   
  3. People have short attention span, so you need to keep them interested by having a signup page or a forum where people can collaborate. This will make a structure so people can self-organize by doing tasks without first asking for permission, which is good because you can't control all parts of the swarm on your own. 
  4. As the swarm is organizing itself into different groups, you notice that each group gets a leader. Make sure to form a relationship with each leader. But remember that this leader is not a boss and can't thus give orders. What they should do is to communicate what should happen and start doing it and the people interested will follow automatically. If someone sees something they don't like, they should contribute with something they like, and not complain about what they don't like. You should celebrate if someone takes a risk but failed, and not criticize, because it will prevent people from trying new things.   
  5. To kickoff the swarm, all members should do some task, such as collecting signatures. This task has to be realistic and has to be a step closer to the goal. It will also get people to know each other. 
  6. The swarm will copy the behaviors of the leader, and yes the swarm needs a leader to inspire each other to greatness. The only way to have the swarm behave well is to behave well yourself by leading by example. To be able to lead by example you need to take care of yourself by sleeping and exercising. You also need to be honest, if the swarm is encountering trouble, be honest about it and suggest a solution to the problem.   
  7. As the swarm grows, you have to make sure that no self-organized group gets more than 150 people. If so, you need to create subgroups. The core group should consist of no-more than seven people, which is the optimal group size or the group will become too inefficient.
  8. Members of the swarm will translate your goal to their own goal. For example, the idea behind bitcoin is to create a decentralized currency, but some believe in bitcoin because they don't trust banks and others believe in bitcoin because a bitcoin transaction is less easier to track than a regular currency. This will make it easier to market the goal because the friends of the members of the swarm will listen more to their own friends than to you and your personal goal. 
  9. You need to make sure that the swarm is visible in the real world and not just online. For example, when you walk around you see shops that have put up stickers that they accept bitcoin. 
  10. Conflicts within the swarm will happen as the swarm develops. But you need to be aware that a small amount of conflict is a step of progress and it's a phase all groups have to go through before they become efficient. Also mistakes will happen, but even big companies make mistakes, and mistakes should be expected because you need these crazy ideas that often end up as mistakes as long as you learn from them. You should reward good behavior, such as initiatives or helping others, with attention and ignore bad behavior.  Also remember to have fun because people enjoy having fun and will join your swarm to have more fun.
  11. You need help of your swarm to recruit new people to the swarm. Members of the swarm have to talk with people they know. To make it easier you need a weekly newsletter to let people know what's going on. Make sure it's written so someone who's new to the swarm understand everything in it. When measuring new people you should not measure Twitter follower or Facebook likes, but people themselves. Many people on Twitter are not really interested in you, but in promoting themselves by following you.  
  12. You need to be able to activate the swarm when needed. The addition of 25 people from your swarm to a discussion on the Internet will convince someone who's just reading the discussion that your swarm's goal is something to follow. If you control the perception of who's the winning team, you become the winning team. It's important to note that the swarm should discuss the goal and not promote it - people don't need to see more ads. Neither should you forget the long-tail: even the smallest blogger is important and reward all people for their interest in your swarm and answer all comments, even if the comment is rude you need to be nice and polite.  
  13. Use old media like newspapers to your advantage. Make it as easy as possible for journalists to write articles by providing detailed press releases and photos. The long-term goal is that when journalists are writing an article about your goal, then they should write an article about you and not someone else. If the media starts to ridicule you then it's a good sign and a step forward from not being mentioned at all.
  14. Never take success for granted. When the swarm is successful, don't forget that success doesn't last. Just because you are popular today doesn't mean you have to be popular tomorrow. 

I think the ideas from the book are interesting and they are at least a starting point if you have your own currently worthless cryptocurrency. The ideas behind cryptocurrencies and decentralized organizations are new, so I guess we will see many more ideas on how to best grow such organizations.