It’s been a crazy year. My time in the serious games industry ended in January of 2012 and I returned to developing mobile games under Midnight Status/Alessi Games LLC. Things started off really well. I moved Skyline Blade, one of my most successful titles from a paid $4.99 app to a freebie with ads. This worked out really well financially (especially in the wake of losing my full time position in serious games) and gave me a lot of confidence coming out of the gate again as an independent developer.
All was not well though. With my move to a free/ad driven Skyline Blade I traded karma for money and angered fans of the game who paid $4.99. To compensate I attempted to spin off an HD version of Skyline Blade that would allow me to switch the original back to paid but the HD version never generated the same revenue and so I was forced to keep Skyline Blade free with ads against my better judgement because I needed the money.
So, financially I dodged a bullet but I had damaged (perhaps irreparably) Skyline Blade’s reputation. This began my confusion as a developer. Do I build quality or do I just do whatever I can for money in this time of need? It always seems easy to make decisions like this when your ass isn’t on the line. As soon as your ass is on the line though it becomes exponentially more difficult to make clear decisions.
I struggled for a bit of time juggling Midnight Status and Friendly Dots. Midnight Status was generating revenue while Friendly Dots was just eating it. I also struggled with the notion of updating older games like Disco Pool to work with the newer retina displays and iPads. I ended up doing so but nothing really came out of it. Sales did not increase.
I also spent time experimenting with business models. The free ad/ad remover model was working well for Skyline Blade so I began thinking that would be the model I used for every game. In retrospect, it only works well if your game is getting downloaded 40k times a day. When the numbers shrink back down it’s better to just charge for the game.
A lot of my experiments ended up dead ends but the technology used for many of them ended up serving in c.AR, an experiment in and of itself. This was the first new app released under the Midnight Status/Alessi Games label in 2 years. Luckily, it was pretty darn successful. This was much needed as my confidence from the Skyline Blade download spree was beginning to wane. It was also really nice that the app coincidentally launched on March 23rd, 2012, the 3rd anniversary of my mother’s passing. March 23rd is always a somber day but the instant success of c.AR made it a little easier to bare.
April began with us mostly preparing for Charlotte’s (my daughter) first birthday party. It was a nice month. In terms of development I was also working on my next game, Airspin. This was an important project for me because it represented redemption from Tropical Tailspin, the example game from iPhone 3D Game Programming All in One. Basically, I decided it would be a good idea to create an entire game and document its development for the book and then use said game as a marketing tool for the book. This did work to a degree, but there were plenty of people who thought the game sucked and so the book must suck. Making a game requires a lot of iteration, which in some ways is bad for a book. If you spend hours writing 10 pages documenting your development and then realize at the end of that development sprint you made a mistake it’s really painful to go back and redo it all. Two things do make me happy though with regard to this experience. First of all Airspin ended up awesome, which proved to me that I could execute a really nice flying game that people enjoyed. Second, a game called “Flight Unlimited” for the iPhone was released based on the project in my book and it has been highly successful. Now if only I could get them to give a nod to the book!
I also attended the East Coast Games Conference in April and as I spoke with people I realized that my confusion as to what direction to go was readily apparent to others. One person even commented on the fact that I wasn’t quite sure how to brand myself. Was I a studio head, a designer, a programmer, a contractor, a writer? Such is life when you know you can do anything you choose. The problem was choosing.
I always hated the idea of being typecast. I’m a firm believer that I can accomplish any task. As such, my attitude is more like: What do you need done? I’m a problem solver and I can help. Unfortunately, this tends to freak people out. Most folks want to categorize other people. As such, it confuses the hell out of them when you don’t identify yourself as one type of worker.
The East Coast Games conference was all about finding a place that wasn’t too far for my wife to move and yet contained a decent amount of game industry activity. Living in Norfolk, VA is great for her family life but terrible for my career. After the conference we decided that we liked Raleigh enough to move there. I also decided I wasn’t quite ready to give up in Norfolk for some reason.
In May I decided to begin transitioning my business from being called Alessi Games LLC to Midnight Status LLC officially. This was part of my strategy to simplify things. I also decided to axe the consumer facing side of Friendly Dots. It was apparent that gamers did not want games featuring little smiley faces. This freed me somewhat to just focus on Midnight Status and now Airspin, the next game.
In June I continued working on Airspin but I did take a week out to develop Swap Fire for the 7 Day FPS Challenge. I don’t know why but I had an epiphany about first person shooters as soon as I saw the call for innovation in the space on the 7DFPS website. I just came to me in an imaginary slide show. I saw myself playing Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, Modern Combat, Shadow Gun, and every other FPS. Each and every title has the same goal, find cover, get line of sight on an opponent, shoot, kill. I instantly thought; wouldn’t it be cool if you had to put yourself in danger before shooting instead of putting yourself in safety? That was the impetus for Swap Fire. So I came up with a swap mechanic so that instead of killing an opponent when you shoot them, they just trade places with you. Thus in order to frag or kill an opponent you had to jump at a spinning blade and then shoot your opponent. Upon success the opponent would hit the blade, not you. Of course if your aim is lousy, you’ll hit the blade and die. With only 7 days to develop the game I think it came out remarkably well especially since it is a networked multiplayer title over the Internet.
The week after developing Swap Fire I taught a game development class to middle schoolers. This was an amazing if exhausting experience. Kids have so many questions about games and indeed the world. With games we can literally explore any question they have whether it be to create a terrain or to explain the mechanics of black holes and gravity. I found myself literally running from kid to kid answering questions every day for 4 hours straight. It was exhausting but also motivational, after all the kids really thought Swap Fire was cool and they played it on their breaks, though there was certainly much more to my motivation than just that.
Moving into July it was time to get Airspin done. I hunkered down and delivered the game, which had sort of plagued me. A part of me did not want to deliver the title because I had spent more time on it than any other Midnight Status game. If it failed then it would prove that I really had no clue what I was doing and that I had wasted approximately 4 months of development time. In the end though the game released and was pretty successful. It launched selling a number of copies on day 1 somewhere between Skyline Blade and Crash for Cash. Crash sold remarkably well with its initial paid run though because I put it out during the Christmas lockup of 2009.
As for Airspin though, all was not rosy. Even though I had worked on the title for 4 months, I engaged in a lot of context switching between projects, Swap Fire, Friendly Dots, c.AR, Skyline Blade updates, etc. As such, I ended up making some mistakes like not properly optimizing the title. Some people gave Airspin spectacular reviews up front (those with iPad 3’s or iPhone 4’s) but people with iPods (or any other device with less than 512 MB of RAM) complained of crashes. I immediately got a fix out but the damage was done. Sales began to drop off from the initially stellar levels due to an influx of 1-star “avoid until update” reviews. The fix worked for the most part though and the game currently holds a 4.5 star rating and continues to sell consistently.
Getting Airspin off my chest was a huge relief and its development gave me some new insights. One thing I am proud of is that I finally released a tool on the Unity Asset Store, which came out of Airspin’s development. The tool is called Unity Draw and I developed it in order to quickly place light probes. I spent an entire full time week (or 2) placing light probes and way points (something else the tool handles) with Unity’s default placement tools and it just took forever. The great thing is that the tool has sold pretty well, adding further revenue which stemmed directly from Airspin’s development. The other good thing was that suffering through the original light probe process caused me to come up with a neat saying: “It’s better to give players a feature they don’t notice than for them to notice a feature you didn’t give them.”
As I’m writing this blog there are so many details I’m skipping from the year. Someday I hope I can more fully divulge my experiences from 2012. It’s been a pretty crazy year, filled with a lot of fear but also a lot of fun and hope. Currently, I’m working on fully delivering upon Airspin’s potential and I’m looking at developing a full version of Swap Fire. There are also two secret projects I’m working on. One is non-game related but I am actively working on it and the other is game related but it’s mostly a mental exercise right now. If Airspin can fully meet its potential then I feel that things will begin to really take off. I can only hope and pray.
The best part of this year is that I have gotten to do what I love for work and I’ve gotten to be there everyday for my little girl and my wife. I’d love to be more successful with my work but I really can’t complain, there are far worse things in life than not living up to your full creative potential. At least I get to pursue the possibility of achieving it!