Friday 28 December 2012

Dynamically melting snow

The most complex graphics effect in Snowball Earth is without a doubt the snow. As the player walks around and heats up the area around him, the snow melts, forms puddles and finally becomes grass. This is completely dynamic: the player can turn his heating on and off at any point, and the snow reacts correctly to that. The snow even has little piles around trees and rock walls, and these piles lower and disappear when the snow melts. So how did we make this?

A slow motion video of how the snow melts around the player.

Before I continue, I would like to mention once more that Snowball Earth is Ronimo's cancelled game from 2008, and that the complete prototype can be downloaded here:

Download Snowball Earth prototype

So how did I implement this melting effect? The basic trick is that for every vertex, I store the 'meltness': to what extend the ground at that vertex has already been melted. A value of 0 means snow, 0.5 means water and 1 means grass. The pixel shader then takes this value and uses it to simply choose between three textures, for grass, water and snow.

To store the correct value in each vertex, the code simply updates all vertices for which the value has been changed. This is done every frame. This would not be very efficient if the vertex count were very high, but it works well enough here. Especially since this is only a prototype and performance isn't as much of an issue as it would be in a released game.

A nice property of storing this value at the vertex, is that the value gets interpolated before it gets to the pixel shader. So if two vertices are next to each other, and one has value 1 (grass) and the other 0 (snow), then a pixel in the middle would get value 0.5 (water). This means that if I smoothly increase the value at the snow vertex during the melting, then the edge of the snow in between the two vertices smoothly moves towards the snow vertex, which looks like the snow is melting at the edges.

The water automatically always becomes a thin edge of water in between snow and grass, because vertices usually rather quickly go from 0 (snow) to 1 (grass).

So far the edges between snow and water and between water and grass would still be straight lines, since they are simply based on interpolated vertex values. This looks kind of okay, but it is still too geometrical to be really convincing. I would like to break up the border and add patterns to it, so I have a special greyscale texture that contains puddle-like patters. This texture is used to offset the 'meltness' value: I simply add the texture's value to it. The effect this has, is that wherever the offset-texture contains white, the water will disappear into grass earlier, while wherever the offset-texture contains black, the water will remain longer.

Our artist Ralph jumped on this and created two offset-textures: one for the water and one for the snow. He made the offset-texture for the water so that it contains roundish, puddle-like patterns, while the offset-texture for the snow contains long curves. This works really well in the actual game.

In practice, the grass, water and snow are all a little bit more complex than simply 'a texture'. The snow has noisy specular reflections, the water reflects the sky a bit, etc. So instead of choosing which texture I use, I choose which material to use: snow, water or grass.

I wanted this to run on shader model 2 videocards (pretty ancient these days), so I couldn't use an if/else statement to choose the material, since if/else is not supported in shader model 2. Instead, I used the step(a, b) function, which returns 0 if a is larger and 1 otherwise. With some puzzling, most math that needs if/else-statements can be replaced by step-functions, allowing quite complex things to be done on ancient shader model 2 videocards. This is also how I got the snow/water/grass choice working. Just look at this tiny bit of shader code for how that could be done (note that the final line could be replaced by a lerp(a, b, c) call instead):

float4 grassColour = tex2D(grassTexture, uv);
float4 snowColour = tex2D(snowTexture, uv);
float choice = step(0.5f, meltness);
float4 final = (1 - choice) * grassColour + choice * snowColour;

For a complete look at the shaders described above, you can check them out in the file Data\Assets\Shaders\ in the Snowball Earth prototype.

The final element to the snow effect is that the snow has little piles around trees and such, and when it melts, it lowers and the piles disappear. This was done with a simple morph: our artists made two versions of the ground meshes: one low one for the grass, and a slightly higher one for the snow. As the ground melts, the two positions for each vertex are simply interpolated to get the final position. Every snow-pile in the game was made by hand by our art-team, who raised the vertices around trees and next to walls.

Only one of the two meshes for the ground is used to handle physics and collisions. This is the lower grass-mesh. A nice added benefit of that is that all characters walk in the snow and on the grass/sand, giving the snow just that little bit extra.

To add to the atmosphere, there are also two different sets of lightmaps in Snowball Earth, each with different colours. This way I was able to give the snowy world a colder, more blueish lighting than the unfrozen world.

Having two sets of lightmaps also has an added benefit. There are no real-time shadows in Snowball Earth, so normally there would be the problem that objects that appear dynamically (like leafs and smaller plants) cannot cast shadows. Having separate shadow maps for the frozen and melted versions makes it possible to calculate these shadows into the melted world only.

This solution is not completely correct, though. If you look closely, you can sometimes see that if an area near a big plant is already melted while the plant itself is still frozen, it already contains the shadow of that plant, even though the plant itself has not appeared yet. However, this visual error only happens at the transition from frozen to unfrozen and is hardly visible (unless you look for it), so I never really considered that a problem.

That's it for Snowball Earth for the moment! Let me know if there are any further topics about Snowball Earth you would want to read more about! In the coming weeks I'll be getting back to posting about Awesomenauts, Cello Fortress, and hopefully also about some exciting graphics experiments I have been doing!

Friday 21 December 2012

Snowball Earth's melting effects

The part that I find most interesting and am most proud of in Snowball Earth (our cancelled game from 2008), is the melting effects. Every piece of the world is frozen and covered in snow, and by walking around with the heating turned on, the player can melt it all. In the prototype this had very few gameplay mechanics attached to it, but just seeing and hearing everything come to life is already so much fun that it could carry half the game on its own. Today, I would like to dissect this effect and give an overview of what went into it. (Spoiler: a lot of custom art by our artists Gijs, Ralph, Olivier and Martijn, and a lot of coding by me).

The melting effects in Snowball Earth

For those who haven't tried it yet: a couple of months ago (in this blogpost) we released the entire prototype we made at the time, so you can download and play it yourself. Note that this is a Torrent file, so you will need something like BitTorrent to download the game. Here is the download link:

Download Snowball Earth prototype

To manage the melting, the game has a big 2D map of the level (a grid, really) and for each point on the map, it stores how much it has melted yet. By walking around, the player turns the parts of the map from frozen to green. This map is then used by all elements in the level to determine to what extend they should show up melted.

A rather simple effect is the smaller plants: they are just scaled to size 0 until they are unfrozen, at which point they grow to full scale with a nice popping animation. For variation, our artists made a couple of different popping animations, but that's about it.

Key to the joyful feeling while melting things, is that every time such a plant pops up, a little bell is heard. These bells have a number of different tones, which form a happy harmony together. When several plants are unfrozen shortly after each other, their popping creates little melodies. Thanks to Aline Bruijns for the sound design on this.

Larger plants, with which the player can have collision, are already there in frozen state. As the player melts them, their texture goes from a frozen version to an unfrozen version. Leafs and such can be made to appear during the melting by setting their alpha to black in the frozen texture, and to white in the melted texture.

To make these plants look more lively, a vertex shader animates them with a simple waving motion. We have a couple of different shaders for different types of plants. Of course, this waving should not happen in frozen form, so this effect fades in smoothly as the plant is unfrozen.

If you have played the prototype, then you might have noticed that it takes a long time to load, and performance isn't quite that good. Current PCs can handle it fine, but in 2008 only the fastest PCs could run the prototype at a high framerate. The main reason for this is that there are a lot of plants in the level, and they are all separate objects that need to be loaded and updated. If the game had not been cancelled, getting this to work smoothly on the Wii would have been a huge challenge...

Performance wasn't only a problem in the game itself: the version of 3D Studio Max we used at the time wasn't up for the challenge either. To make sure our artists could re-use the same plant in several parts of the level without needing to copy-paste the entire plant, I had made a little plug-in script object for 3D Studio. This object would automatically handle an XRef object: a reference to a plant model in another file.

However, the combination of lots of scripted plugins and lots of XRefs totally broke 3D Studio. Near the end of the project, our artists had to restart 3D Studio every hour or so, and had to constantly monitor its memory usage. At some point the memory usage would suddenly go crazy, leaving about 20 seconds to save the work... This made me a little bit afraid to use existing tools in the future again, and I am much happier with our own in-game tools for Awesomenauts now. In our own code we can actually solve brutal bugs like this...

We also wanted grass, and because of the performance trouble, I immediately built that using something similar to a particle system. All the grass in an area is rendered as a single object, despite that pieces of grass can grow individually based on what part of the grass area had already been melted. I even made a nice little brush plug-in for 3D Studio to allow our artists to quickly draw the grass where they wanted it. Programming 3D brushes is immensely fun, it is a pity I haven't needed custom 3D brushes for something since!

Ice walls in the Snowball Earth prototype may look like they were made using physics, but to reduce coding time, their destruction animation was animated by hand by an artist. As a cute little extra, we also have smaller blocks of ice with frozen animals in them. When they are broken, the little rabbit inside starts walking around and makes rubber ducky noises when the player stands on it.

A more subtle element is the sound effects. The game has two tracks of ambience: one with sounds of birds and jungle, the other with chilly winds. These are subtly faded in and out depending on how much of the area around the player has already been melted. Few players will have actively noticed this, but this is incredibly important for the mood of the game. As the player walks from the happy jungle in an area he just finished, to the chilly winds of a new area, he cannot help but feel even more like it is time to melt it all and bring back the happiness!

So far I haven't mentioned the thing that is most noticeable in the melting effects of Snowball Earth: the ground. This is because the ground is my pride and joy in this topic and I find it interesting enough that it deserves its own blogpost! See you next week!

Friday 7 December 2012

Wacky marketing thingies

In last week's blog post, I mentioned several times that doing marketing as an indie requires creativity. It is easy to buy advertisement space, but it is a lot more challenging to come up with things that are so interesting that press will write about them for free.

At Ronimo we greatly enjoy coming up with such weird marketing stuff, so here are some of the most fun/creative/weird things we have done so far, and also some that I did myself for Proun. Some only cost us time to do them, while others did require small amounts of money to produce. Note that not all of these actually worked as well as we hoped, but they are hopefully still fun to see! ^_^

Swords & Soldiers hot sauce! The game's story is all about barbeque sauce, so giving press special branded hot sauce seemed fitting. Of course having these made would be very expensive, so we simply bought standard hot sauce, removed the labels, and put our own stickers on them. All of this was done in a hotel in San Francisco, since importing large amounts of food is probably not allowed. I suppose the hotel still remembers Ronimo fondly for clogging the bathtub drain with soaked labels...

For Awesomenauts we had a little bit more budget for marketing, so we had these special bags of Awesomenuts made to hand out at Gamescom 2011. The naming pun is so good it was just impossible not to!

I still consider this one of our best marketing tricks. For players who got all the achievements in the WiiWare version of Swords & Soldiers, a special code was generated that they could e-mail to us. We promised the first people to do so a bag of Swords & Soldiers swag, which amongst other things included the special poster above (autographs of the entire team are on the back). We announced this before the game launched, and we actually saw quite a few people online discuss how fanatically they were going to play on launch day to win one of the prizes. The buzz was nice, and as a bonus it turned out that one of the winners was a game journalist, who posted the contents of what he won as a news article on a big WiiWare site.

A friendly marketeer was nice enough to help us with some press releases, and he came up with the term "Morefun (tm)", which is something we had apparently come up with in our game laboratory. It made no sense at all, but it was funny and quite a few websites picked up on it. This is a nice example of how something as small as the way you word a press release can already have an impact on how well your game is covered!

For Awesomenauts we had an intro made with a real theme song, for which this great singer was hired. The song turned out to be a great central piece for our marketing efforts. All our trailers end spectacularly on a high note by Jeffrey, and the cheesiness of it all got a lot of buzz going when we first announced Awesomenauts!

Since Sonic Picnic made such a remarkable soundtrack, we figured it would be a good idea to have it printed on vinyl as a gift for press and friends, and as a reward for competitions and such. Having a real vinyl copy of your soundtrack is indeed amazing, and everyone who receives it, seems to love it. Even those who don't even have a record player...

When we learned it was possible to order special shoes themed to your own game, we just couldn't not order them for Awesomenauts. These shoes were recently given away as the main prize in a competition that some website ran.

A lot cheaper to do were these custom Swords & Soldiers Move controllers, since we customised them ourselves. These were given away at a contest on IGN. We had hoped to reach front page with this, but in the end IGN didn't post it that big, so the actual reach of this was limited. Still, fun swag to make!

This is an example from a totally different category. Making more than one or two trailers require that you look at your game creatively. You need to think about how it can be something new and interesting in every video. For Proun I made a video in extreme slow-motion, which differs greatly from the speed of the real game, but is pretty mesmerizing to watch.

I did not choose Pay What You Want for Proun as a marketing gimmick, but it turned out to be a great trick for that indeed! As far as I know, Proun was at that point the biggest game to ever be Pay What You Want right from launch day. The Pay What You Want model was also still quite new to games at the time, so press picked up on this massively and it drove tons of extra attention and sympathy to the game.

Another example of something that was not intended as marketing, but turned out to be great for it: a couple of months after Proun's launch, I released the complete sales data for Proun, plus an analysis of what I thought it all meant. Revealing sales data like this is extremely rare in the games industry and was thus picked up as news by lots of sites. The result was a lot of extra sales, and I think in the end around 10% of the total sales of Proun happened because of that one blogpost.

The main reason De Blob managed to take off and get enough interest that THQ decided to buy the rights and make two console reimaginings, is that we put out entire version of the game online for free. Looking back, our version of De Blob can be considered to have been a prototype for the final version, which we released online as a marketing trick to increase interest in the game, and to see whether the concepts were good enough for a bigger game. Apparently sometimes just throwing your early stuff on forums can be a great marketing trick!

Most of these marketing ideas generated a decent amount of buzz for our games, but of course not all of them turned out successful. However, at the very least we ourselves greatly enjoyed each and every one of them! ^_^

Thursday 29 November 2012

The indie marketing plan

Okay, maybe more like an indie marketing plan than the plan, since every game and every company comes with its own approach to marketing. Nevertheless, at Ronimo we have gathered a ton of experience with marketing through Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers, and I have also done quite a bit of marketing for my hobby project Proun. Today, I would like to share this knowledge in the form of a rather complete plan that other indies hopefully find useful to help guide their marketing.

Traditionally marketing is the field of the large companies and the large budgets, who buy advertisement space on television, magazines and websites. However, today a small indie studio with hardly any marketing budget can still get a lot of attention going. In fact, I think indie studios can potentially market downloadable games better than big companies! When we launched Swords & Soldiers, we were a pretty much unknown company with no marketing budget, and yet we managed to get enough attention going that when it launched, one review started with this sentence: "Has this much-hyped title been worth the wait?" I hope today's blogpost will help others hype their games as much, and more!

This is a very long blogpost, since there is a lot to it and I feel it is worthwhile to write something comprehensive. This means a big wall of text, so just this once I am going to start this post with a step-by-step summary. To compensate for today's wall of text, next week's blogpost will be almost exclusively images, giving fun examples of creative marketing things we have done.

  • Marketing is one third of your chance at success
  • Your biggest enemy is not being known
  • Spend a lot of time on marketing
  • Don't expect your publisher to do all the marketing
  • Do not focus on buying advertisement space
  • Send out press releases
  • Find your own voice
  • Create a press list
  • Find big foreign sites
  • Build a relation with game journalists
  • Give exclusives to specific press
  • Create news
  • Create a marketing plan early on
  • Use your indieness!
  • Visit trade shows
  • Start your marketing early
  • Don't show crap
  • Create trailers
  • Send out review copies
  • Send out preview copies
  • Engage your community
  • Social media are about replies
  • Contact big Youtube channels
  • Launch on additional platforms
  • Keep adding features after launch
  • Have a marketing concept for every patch
  • Measure the success of your marketing by tracking metrics
  • Be super enthusiastic about your game
  • Be creative about your marketing
  • Talk about your game, all the time
  • Get Steam/PSN/XBLA/Apple/etc to feature you
  • Get into bundles
  • Do contests and give-aways with press

(I considered putting this image here, but it is really too lame...)

Marketing is one third of your chance at success
I think getting high sales is for only 33% determined by the game itself. The rest is one third marketing, and one third luck. Sometimes you make the best game in the world and it still doesn't sell. You cannot control luck, but you can definitely control your marketing. Lots of beginning developers seem to forget about that: they focus on making a great game, and don't do anything else.

Your biggest enemy is not being known
If you want your game to sell well, then making a good game is not enough. In the end, if no one knows about it, then no one is going to buy it, no matter how good it is. If your game happens to be the most incredible game ever, it might spread like wildfire (like Minecraft did), but any normal game will need a lot of marketing to reach an audience. Your problem is not that people might get the wrong opinion about your game. Your problem is that they have no opinion about it, because they don't know it!

Spend a lot of time on marketing
Doing marketing well takes a lot of time, as the number of items in this blogpost exemplifies. Spending this time is totally worth it and necessary. Take a couple of days to make a good trailer, then a couple of days more to contact press, then do some more. Marketing is often left out of the development planning, but if you are a small indie studio and need to do everything yourself, then you will need to schedule a lot of time for marketing to get the most out of it. Remember that you spend so much time making an awesome game, it would be a waste to not do the best you can to promote it!

Don't expect your publisher to do all the marketing
Some indies manage to get publishing deals, and they often expect that their publisher will do good marketing for them. However, it is wise not to count on anything, even if the publisher promises great marketing. Some publishers can indeed do great marketing, but I have heard enough stories from fellow indies in which the publisher did horrible marketing. There can be all kinds of reasons for this. For example, the bigger publishers might have signed a dozen games for release in that month and only focus their marketing effort on the ones that turned out best, totally ignoring the other games they signed. Some other publishers might just be specialised in something else and might have no idea how to market a downloadable game properly. In the end, publishers can do great marketing, but you should never count on it. Always plan a lot of your own time for marketing, and try to work together with the publisher to make the most out of it.

Do not focus on buying advertisement space
Buying banners on websites or pages in magazines is incredibly expensive. An indie game that sells 100,000 copies does quite well (big successes are of course way above that). At the same time, there are hundreds of millions of gamers. This makes getting to your niche target audience with advertisements incredibly difficult, and in practice the price of the advertisement rarely lives up to the amount of extra copies you might sell. Instead, there are tons of other ways to reach your audience. Ways that are often completely free and even more effective than advertisements.

Send out press releases
This is the most basic form of marketing. To get attention, you need press to write about your game. A press release is simply an email with some news about your game, usually including links to screenshots and maybe a trailer. If the news is interesting enough, press will write about it. You can send your press release to hundreds of gaming websites and magazines, and hopefully enough will pick up on it.

Find your own voice
If you have never written a press release before, you will probably look for some examples online, and are likely to see what kinds of texts most big companies send out. Don't copy their style: they suck. Big company press releases are often incredibly boring and contain a combination of marketing buzzwords and corporate language. There really is no need to do anything like that! When we saw an early press release about Super Meat Boy (might have been this one), we realised that you can do anything you want in a press release, and there is absolutely no requirement for boring stuff! Figure out what fits your studio and your game. And if you and your game are boring, then feel free to go for boring press releases after all... Find your own voice!

Create a press list
To send out press releases, you need to know who to send them to. So start collecting the email-addresses of as many websites and magazines that write about games as you can. Many websites show their email-address for news somewhere, or you might even be able to find the email-address of the journalist who writes about your type of game.

Find big foreign sites
Every game developer knows about big websites like IGN, Gamespot, Eurogamer, Kotaku, Joystiq and Destructoid. Finding such international websites is not very difficult, while it is easy to overlook local, non-English websites. Some of these are really big, though, and could get a lot of eyeballs on your game! One way to find such sites is to look which have a high Alexa rating. Alexa rates how many visitors a site gets, and although the precision of their estimates might be in dispute, Alexa is still a good way to get a quick overview of what gaming sites are big in, say, Italy.

Build a relation with game journalists
Game journalists are human beings (really!) and it is a good thing to treat them like that. They are more likely to write about your game if they know you and know what your game is about. If you met someone before, then it might be a good idea to mail them personally, instead of just adding them in your generic press release.

Give exclusives to specific press
Sometimes you need to bribe press into giving your game more attention. (Nothing wrong with a good bribe once in a while...) Websites and magazines like to beat the competition and be the first to bring the news. So offering an exclusive scoop makes it more likely that they put your game on their front page. Small exclusives can be specific screenshots you only give to one site, or you can offer some real news.

Create news
Some things are quite obviously news: the announcement of the game, the announcement of the release date, the actual release. Beyond that, it is all about creativity and what parts of your game are interesting. What you might not realise, is that you can create news yourself by being smart about it. The simplest way is to keep most details about your game secret and gradually release more info. Every bit you reveal can be a news item. This works best for titles to which everyone is looking forward, though: for Grand Theft Auto V, even the announcement of the date on which a new trailer would be released was news. For a small indie, it takes a bit more creativity and persistence to create news. How you formulate things is also important. With one wording something might be more newsworthy than with another, so you really need to think about this.

A great example is the reveal of the Chinese faction in Swords & Soldiers. In our first trailers, screenshots and press releases, we always showed two factions, plus a big question mark in the spot of the third faction. By continuously telling people that we were not telling them what the third faction was, we spiked their curiosity, making it a serious press moment when we finally revealed the Chinese. Had we shown the Chinese in the first trailer, this would not have been news!

Create a marketing plan early on
To create news and keep yourself from revealing everything at once, you need to plan your marketing ahead of time. Be creative, come up with a ton of ways to get press attention, and then put the whole into a planning. This also greatly helps to see what is needed for marketing. Making trailers costs time (our trailer magician Ralph often spends a couple of days on his best trailers), and to reveal something, it needs to be finished enough to show it in the first place. So make a big marketing plan with tons of moments to reach out to the world!

Use your indieness!
A good way to make press enthusiastic about your game, is to talk to them directly. Journalists often love talking to indies because they get to talk to the actual developers: real people instead of some random marketing puppet! Also, as an indie you are free to do as you please, giving you a lot of freedom in your marketing. You can make bold statements and even create a controversy, if you think that is going to help your marketing. I know one studio where the two members always pretend to be fighting in public, just to get more attention.

Visit trade shows
There are three ways to meet press: visit them, pay their ticket to let them visit you, or visit a trade show. All the big websites, tons of blogs and even hobby-journalists visit trade shows, and it is much cheaper to talk to a dozen of them a day at Gamescom, than to fly all over the world to visit each and every one of them. When doing this, it helps to make appointments ahead of time, since it might be difficult to find the right person in the crowd, and since some journalists cram their entire visit with meetings and don't have any time left in their agenda. If you happen to have some marketing budget, you can also rent a small booth to show off your game. This is a great way to reach the public and attract extra press. The amount of press coverage Awesomenauts got from our booths at Eurogamer and PAX East was definitely worth it!

Start your marketing early
This item is hotly debated, even internally at Ronimo. What is the ideal moment to start your marketing? Let me quote Spy Party developer Chris Hecker on this one: "Every AAA Indie Game has A Long-term Slow-burn Grass-roots Awareness-building Campaign" If you start early, people will see your game once in a while over a longer period of time, building a stronger sense of awareness that this might be something special.

I personally feel the ideal moment to start talking about an indie game of decent size is around 6-12 months before release, but big titles like Braid and Fez have shown that it can work great to start showing things years before release. The reason I prefer this timing is that the game is probably already looking good at that point, and that it avoids running out of news way before release.

Don't show crap
I think an important note to starting marketing early is never to release crap. Only show screenshots and trailers if they actually communicate the awesomeness of your game. Players and press are usually hardly able to fill in the gaps of an unfinished product, and are incredibly fast at drawing negative conclusions. This does not make it impossible to show things early one, though: often small pieces of the game are already looking good, while the whole still needs a lot of work.

Create trailers
This one is quite obvious, of course: trailers are the most flashy way to show your game in action to people who have not bought it yet, so be sure to make fantastic trailers! This is an art in itself, and if you have no idea how to do it, then check for example this presentation on making trailers. And please don't think one or two trailers is enough: the more the merrier, and I think a dozen or so is a good opportunity to get the press to show your game to their audience again and again and again!

Send out review copies
Unless you make the most anticipated game in human history, press are not going to buy your game themselves. You need to give them the game, preferably a bit before launch so that they can have the review ready on launch day. The press list mentioned earlier helps to find a ton of press to give the game to. And don't be shy about this: in case of doubt, just send a key. These gifted games are not going to hurt your sales, unless you expect to sell only a couple of hundred copies, which usually means you are doing it wrong in the first place.

Send out preview copies
Giving press early access to your game is an extra chance at media attention. So when you feel the game is good enough, send out preview copies. Make sure the preview still gives an enjoyable representation of the final game and watch out to not give away too much too early if you still need to keep some news for later!

Note that if you are making a console game, you will have to find out which press actually has a console testkit to run your preview on. The bigger websites and magazines own these, but most of the smaller ones do not.

Engage your community
So far most of this post has been about press, but press is not the only place to market your game! In fact, once the ball is rolling, there are other spots where marketing might be much more efficient. Facebook, Twitter, a blog, a forum, a blog (maybe even one as technical as the one you are reading now): all of these are possibilities to get into contact with your fans. For word of mouth to work, it really helps to have a fanatical core audience that talks about your game all day, and engaging them is a good way to keep them interested. Give them something to talk about!

Social media are about replies
On Facebook and Twitter, a reply is worth much more than someone simply seeing your post. If they reply to you, their friends might also see this, causing your post to reach a much larger audience than simply your own followers. Keep this in mind and try to post in such a way that it triggers reactions! Good examples of this are polls, and asking questions in which repliers can show how incredibly funny/creative they are. This is easier than it may sound and requires only a little bit of creativity. For example, one of our most successful Facebook posts was a poll that my colleague Olivier put online when the new Muppets movie launched: “Which Muppet would you want to see in Awesomenauts?” Of course we are not going to put the Muppets into Awesomenauts, but it is a fun question to think about and reply to, and tons of people did!

Contact big Youtube channels
On Steam we can see our sales statistics per hour, allowing us to track closely what works and what does not. The one thing that we have seen causing our biggest sales boosts, is big Youtube channels featuring our games. Contact channels like the Yogscast and the Cynical Brit and get them to feature your game. There are tons of Youtube channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and a list of the 100 biggest ones concerning games can be found here.

Launch on additional platforms
This is not really a marketing concept by itself, but it does work great for marketing. We have seen with both Swords & Soldiers and Awesomenauts that each platform the game is released on, is a new roll of the dice. A new chance at getting a breakthrough and selling tons of copies. The first platform does not necessarily sell the most, and one platform selling horribly does not mean the game could not be a success on another. Somehow reaching your audience starts all over again when you launch on a new platform.

Keep adding features after launch
It is possible to get hype going after a game's release, but this is much more difficult then before, since the news, reviews and previews have already been spent. Creating patches that add new content is a great way to bring back attention to your game. We have been doing this a lot with Awesomenauts and every time we patch with something awesome, some press will write about, despite the game having been released months before.

Have a marketing concept for every patch
It greatly helps if you think about how new features added after launch might actually improve your sales. Try to come up with a marketing concept for each big patch. A great example of this from Awesomenauts is SkĂžlldir The Terribly Overweight Space Viking. We asked Simon from The Yogscast to voice this new character for Awesomenauts, and he did a great job on the voice. Not only did our existing user base love that we added a new character, but it also gave the Yogscast a good excuse to talk about the game a lot, and many other Youtubers mentioned him because of Simon's voice acting. Just this one video got over 750,000 views on Youtube, and that wasn't even the only video they did that day! This is an excellent example of how, with the right marketing concept behind it, content you add in a patch can generate massive media coverage!

Measure the success of your marketing by tracking metrics
It is not always possible to directly see whether a specific marketing thing has a real effect, but in many cases, it is possible to measure response in some way. For example, maybe one press release is featured on all big websites, while another is not. And once the game is live you can probably see your sales per day, and thus see directly whether something had an effect. Be sure to learn from what works and what does not!

Be super enthusiastic about your game
Obviously. Radiate enthusiasm whenever you speak or write about your game!

Be creative about your marketing
This marketing blogpost may mention tons of things to do, but a lot of them require genuine creativity to really make them work. Coming up with things that could be news about your game requires thinking out of the box, so real brainstorming is in order here. Do not just apply your creativity to your game, but also to your marketing! In next week's blogpost, I will give a bunch of examples of creative marketing shenanigans we did to promote Swords & Soldiers, Awesomenauts and Proun.

Talk about your game, all the time
Chris Hecker excellently explained this one: "Most indies come up with tons of reasons not to talk about their game every day, and I include myself in this criticism (no one will care about this, it's not big enough news, I should save up for a big splash, I don't want to rock the boat with an existing or potential partner, it takes so much time to write a blot post, I want to wait until I've got this part totally figured out, this is too detailed and technical, etc). As far as I can tell, this is basically always a mistake, and erring on the side of talking about the game and updating fans is always worth it. There is so much to talk about in making a game that you can always avoid certain sensitive topics for a while if need be, and still keep up regular updates. And fans eat this stuff up, they love the tiniest details..."

Get Steam/PSN/XBLA/Apple/etc to feature you
This is the number one, this is the motherload. Nothing can push your sales as much as a feature by the platform holder. A front page banner on their store is the biggest push there is. This is very much up to their own decision, though, but you can help this by regularly telling them you want to join in big sales and keeping in contact. If you want to be featured well after launch, you often have to do a serious discount, and this is almost always worth it. To improve your chances you can even make banners on the right resolutions for their store and just send those over, to make it easier for them to feature your games.

Get into bundles
Like the platform holders above, this is not really a marketing topic by itself, but it is a great way to get tons of extra exposure. Especially the Humble Indie Bundle drives crazy amounts of eyeballs towards your game, if you can get your game into it.

Do contests and give-aways with press
If your game has been out for a while already, it might be difficult to get press to still talk about it. However, a lot of websites like to do contests where they give away cool merchandise and free copies of your game. Offering contest prizes to media is a nice way to get a little bit of extra press coverage, even long after release.

This may be the last point in my long list, but it is nevertheless the most important one. If there is nothing special about your game, then getting any kind of attention to it is going to be a lot more difficult. You need at least one thing that really stands out, preferably more. This can be anything: your game can be really original, it can be better/prettier than the competition, it can have some unique angle, or it can go back to a genre that has been abandoned for ages. For Awesomenauts, we had several angles: the crazy eighties cartoon vibe (complete with a real eighties hair metal theme song!), how it innovates on the MOBA/DOTA genre by going platformer, the really detailed and lively graphics, and the completely crazy characters (including a Russian laser jetpack monkey and a pimp frog). Having all of these unique features makes marketing a lot easier. It all starts with a game that is worth noticing!

This brings me to the end of this blogpost. There are tons of other things one can think off (did I already mention targeting live game streamers, or traditional non-gaming press?), but I think the list above is quite complete as it is.

After this incredibly long wall of text, you might wonder: “Which item is most important, what should I focus on?” I honestly don't know, and I don't think this is a question you should even ask in the first place. Marketing determines your sales for a large part, so you should spend a lot of time on it and do it really well. Just imagine the pain if you have spent years on making a great game, and then no one notices it because you forgot about marketing... If you can, do all of these things! And then think up some more, and do those too! (And be sure to let me know if you come up with something good. We always want to learn more about marketing!)

Sunday 11 November 2012

Introducing the editors of the Ronitech

If you don't feel like reading through this entire blogpost, be sure to scroll down to the video in the middle for a demonstration!

Those who read my blog from the very beginning, might remember a blogpost that went by the illustrious title Designing Levels Without Tools. When we made Swords & Soldiers, I was the only programmer at Ronimo, so I had to resort to drastic measures to be able to develop a complete console game in one year. The result was that our designers had a rather odd level design tool: Notepad... So much has changed since then! Awesomenauts was made with a larger team over a longer period of time and in this time we managed to make top-notch tools. So today, I would like to introduce the editors of the Ronitech!

We have three in-game editors, plus an in-game AI debugger, which can step through our AI trees. The in-game editors are a Level editor, a Particle editor and an Animation editor. Next to that, we also have an AI editor and a Settings editor. The latter is not in-game, but edits can be reloaded in-game at any time, thus still allowing for interactive gameplay settings editing. Note that the animation editor is not used for actual frame-by-frame animation (our artists use After Effects for that), but for adding particles, effects, sounds and game-triggers to animations.

At Ronimo we are firm believers in iteration. We think it is impossible to make final designs of any elements beforehand. Everything needs to be tried in the actual game, and then tweaked to make it work best in the game. Of course, if you make a clone of an existing game, it is possible to design everything on paper, but if you want to do any kind of innovation, then iteration is extremely important.

For this reason, one of the core principals of our tech team is that our designers and artist must be able to tweak everything as easily and quickly as possible. Now what is easier than tweaking during gameplay? With this in mind, most of our editors were implemented inside the game, instead of externally as is common for most editors.

When an editor is opened by simply pressing F1, F2, F3 or F4 while in a game, the game pauses and the editor overlays come up. Artists and designers can switch between our editors and the gameplay at any point, and can even continue playing while in the level editor. (This is of course disabled in the released game. We almost forgot about that: the editors were turned off in release versions only one or two days before we launched the beta of Awesomenauts on Steam...)

The editors were made over the course of four years, mostly by interns. I made the core components of the in-game editors myself, but from there our interns Ted, Niels, Bart, Thijs, Eric and Rick worked on them to really turn them into a useful and rich toolset. They did a great job, and Thijs and Ted actually now work at Ronimo.

Our editors have a ton of features, including:
  • Game can be played while editing
  • Several artists/designers can edit the same level at the same time over the network, seeing each other's edits in real-time
  • Complete undo/redo
  • Everything is animateable
  • Edits to animations or particles are immediately reflected during actual gameplay
  • Graphics look exactly the same on all platforms, so artists can comfortably work on their PC and don't need to use the more laborious console devkits
  • AI debugger

Of course, none of this is as interesting as actually seeing the editors in motion, so here is a video that demonstrates the core features:

One of the funniest features is in the editing over the network. During a six-player match of Awesomenauts in our office, our designers can open the level editor at any given time and tweak some stuff. This is great to fix a misplaced platform or something like that, but it can also be abused nicely. At one point, one of our designers got bored and started to slowly rotate the entire level while the rest was still playing in it. Chaos and hilarity ensued...

Having the editors in the game does have its downsides. Gameplay code is more complex because editor and game are so intertwined. Another issue is that everything needs to be able to be updated at any time, which makes some optimisations impossible. Building our editors this way definitely cost us some performance, but with a lot of optimisation work I did manage to get proper framerate: Awesomenauts now mostly runs on 60fps on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and rather old PCs can still run it fluently.

I expect some Awesomenauts players who read this will wonder why these tools are not available to them to make mods with. The main reason for this is that modding doesn't really work without a proper modding infrastructure. You need to be able to share your levels online, and play with others online. Getting this exactly right is a lot of work, because we need to take care of things like people having different versions of the same level and such. So turning our in-house tools into a functional modding toolset would be an enormous amount of work...

In future blogposts, I will dive into some of the specifics of our editors, explaining the most interesting aspects of how these tools were made and how our artists use them to make animations and such.

As you might have guessed from the text in this post, I am incredibly proud of the tools we have today. I think in the world of 2D games, few companies have better tools than this (of course, the Rayman folks probably easily beat us there...).

Friday 2 November 2012

Shining a light on how pitching to publishers works

When at Ronimo we released the prototype for our cancelled project Snowball Earth last week, I mentioned that we pitched it to tons of publishers. So what is that like, pitching to publishers?

In the past five years we did a lot of pitching for a lot of different projects. Despite that the pitches for Snowball Earth were not successful enough to land us a deal, we did get the hang of it enough to get some good deals going: we managed to sign Swords & Soldiers HD for PS3 with Sony, and we managed to sign Awesomenauts for XBLA and PS3 with DTP. We learned a lot from our contacts at publishers on how the process works, and today I would like to share that.

Before I start this story, please note that pitching can have many forms. For small distribution-only deals, things can be a lot simpler than this, and each publisher will have his own way of handling things. This text is my impression of how it works when you want to sign a larger title and want not just distribution, but also a serious development budget to be part of the deal.

The first step is what most people think of when they think of "pitching": a meeting with someone from a publisher, where you show your project and hope to get their interest. Most of these meetings happen at big events, like Gamescom and GDC. They usually last exactly half an hour, as the publisher is having meetings all day, every 30 minutes. The person at the publisher you talk to, is often called the "acquisition manager". Events like GDC are very exhaustive for him/her: seeing a new pitch every 30 minutes for three days, easily means listening to fifty pitches!

Getting an appointment for such a pitch is not very difficult. For our first pitches of Snowball Earth we just emailed a ton of publishers about a month before the event, and quite a few were willing to see what we got. If you want to meet one specific publisher, it can be difficult to get to the right person, but if you just mail a ton of publishers, then getting 10 to 20 different appointments at an event like Gamescom is quite doable. When we did our first pitches we hardly had any track record and we still managed to do around 15 pitches in only three days.

Note that arranging an appointment at the event itself is a lot more difficult, since most agendas will be full already. It is always possible to arrange a couple of extra meetings on the spot, though.

Many people claim that it is important to first check whether a publisher is doing stuff in your field, and of course it is, but this shouldn't be a restriction. Publishers are often shifting from one market to another and it is not always possible to know they are doing this. For example, when we pitched to DTP, they hardly had any presence in the console downloadable market, but they were apparently shifting in that direction and launched several such games in the years after we signed with them.

At a first pitch, you don't need a lot of details yet. You need to show the game and communicate why it is going to be awesome. Details are not important. A rough ballpark figure for the development budget and when the game would launch is enough at this point: details will be discussed later, and only if the publisher turns out to actually be interested in the game.

A common remark from publishers is that a pitch does not require a fancy playable prototypes. They claim to be interested in awesome concepts in their early stages as well. In our experience, this is only true for experienced studios. If you don't have a proven track record yet, then you need to compensate for that and having anything less than a really cool, playable demo makes it impossible to get a deal with anyone.

As I said, the publisher-person you pitch to is usually called an "acquisition manager". This person's role is a bit more complex than I realised beforehand. Of course, at first you just need to make him (since I never met a female acquisition manager, I will use "him" here instead of "her") enthusiastic about your game and interested in signing it. The acquisition manager is the gatekeeper: if you can't get him to like your game, then he won't show it internally to his colleagues and you definitely won't sign a deal.

However, the acquisition manager is not the person who can actually greenlight a project. For that, the game needs to be approved by several departments inside the publisher:
  • The marketing department needs to see how they could reach an audience with this game.
  • The sales department will want to calculate how much sales the game is likely to make. Of course, this is impossible to know beforehand, but they can for example look at how similar games did in the past and base an estimate on that. The expected sales should of course be higher than the budget. The budget does not only contain the development fee that the developer might be asking, but also things like marketing, localisation and QA.
  • The content specialists (I don't know whether there is an official name for these) need to agree that this is going to be a good enough game and that the mechanics will work in a full game.
  • The producers need to check the studio to see whether the team is good enough to actually finish this game and get it through all technical checks.
  • Due diligence: the publisher is going to check whether the developer's company and team are stable enough that the developer is, for example, not going to go bankrupt in the middle of development.

To sign a game, each of these departments need to agree that it is a good idea to do so. So just having a good game is not good enough. You really need to raise enthusiasm on a lot of fields outside the game itself to make it work.

Now where does the acquisition manager stand in all this? If he likes the game enough that he wants to take the next step, then he is going to show the game to all the other departments to try to get a greenlight from each of them. This brings the acquisition manager into a wholly different position than one might expect. Suddenly he is not the person you need to persuade, but the person who is going to persuade others on your behalf! If you can make him love your game, the acquisition manager is your most important friend inside the publisher!

Therefore, if the game is good enough that you can get beyond the first pitch, then it is key to provide the acquisition manager with all the info and material he needs to pitch the game internally. If you showed him a trailer during the pitch, then he will also need that trailer to show the game to his colleagues. Schedules, budgets, track record, prototypes, design documents, concept art, trailers: the acquisition manager is going to need all the good stuff to pitch the game internally, and as a developer you need to provide it to him.

We got deeply into this stage with Snowball Earth with a couple of publishers, and the first part of this trailer (which I posted two weeks ago) was made specifically to show their marketing departments what kind of vibe their advertisements could have.

Having explained what departments need to greenlight the game, where did Snowball Earth fail? I think almost everywhere. Successful 3D platformers are a rare genre, so the sales department might not think the game is going to make enough money. Since the game had some innovative mechanics, it was even more difficult for them to estimate how it would sell. (This is a general trend we see in publishers: our games always have unique, innovative elements and publishers don't really understand those until the game is quite far along in production.) Marketing didn't know how to sell a game that was so split between more serious and more kiddy mechanics and graphics. And above all, the producers will have noted that at that point, no one in our team had ever released a full commercial game or touched a console devkit...

If all the steps above go right, the result is "greenlight": the publisher decides they want to sign the game! After this come negotiations for the rough deal, followed by the draft contract and negotiations about contract details. And then, finally: a signed deal, which will hopefully result in a good game and budget!

Friday 26 October 2012

Drooling dogs and weird boys for Snowball Earth

When I revealed our cancelled project Snowball Earth from 2008 in my blogpost earlier this week, I said that one of the problems that publishers had with the game and that kept them from wanting to fund it, was that the main characters were robots. Apparently it is difficult to reach a large audience with robots, and the fantastic Wall-E is a rare exception to that rule.

Although we had a clear vision for the game ourselves, we did not ignore this critique, and our art team (Martijn Thieme, Ralph Rademakers, Olivier Thijssen and Gijs Hermans) started making new concept art for the main characters. This was made after the main prototype was already finished, and was intended purely to show to publishers how the game could change to fit their marketing department's requirements better.

Especially the dogs came out pretty hilarious. They were replaced with real dogs, but those still needed to be able to roll around. Our artists came up with a (for the dogs) quite dizzying solution...

Click for high resolution

We didn't think it was necessary to make both the dogs and the player non-robots, so a number of alternative robot-dog designs were also made, to see if our art team could come up with something else that might appeal to publishers better. I personally especially like the bulldogs, which add a lot of cool and I imagine could have made for a nice upgrade later in the game. :)

Click for high resolution

Speaking of robot dogs, this is the concept art of the original Robodogs, which are playable in the actual prototype:

Now to the main character. A lot of redesigns were made. The common element here is that they all needed to have the magnet for pulling the dogs back, and some kind of heating device for melting the frozen world. May I especially draw you attention to the one with the teapot on top of his huge hat? The Ronimo art team seems to have a certain tendency towards that kind of awesome craziness... :)

What I find particularly interesting here is the lesson that our lead artist Gijs mentioned a while after drawing these. They all come in groups and they share a lot of common elements, like the suit or the shape of the head. Many are variations to the same ideas. This might be a fast way of working, but Gijs concluded afterwards that in a sense it also cripples creativity: working from a previous design limits the imagination to things close to that previous design. The better way of doing concept art, is to make most designs really different, and just start from scratch every time. This results in a much more diverse set of designs and ideas. It also doesn't even necessarily take more time: not all designs need to be shaded as detailed as these.

The final image I would like to share today, I was particularly delighted to come across in our archive. Publishers were unsure about how 'cool' the project was, exactly. Was this a kids game, or was this for teens and older? We felt it was a pretty 'cool' game and not particularly for small kids, so one of our artists made a number of alternative skins for the main character, which could be unlocked. Zombie Robot! Hot Rod Robot! Bumlebee even! Yeah! I really like the attitude in the skins and poses in this one!

Click for a bit higher resolution

At the end of this concepting period, we chose the two below as the new characters. This was just before we cancelled the game, so they never made it into the prototype. The bulldogs because they were cooler ('more MTV'). The boy because we wanted to get rid of the giant head of our original robot hero. The big head was a problem with a relatively high camera, because the body was hardly visible beneath it.

Which makes me curious: which do you like better? Our original two robots, or these two?

So these shots were made after pitching to publishers, which leads me to next week's topic: how does pitching to publishers actually work? Before we did our first pitches, I was incredibly curious to know, so I hope that will make for an interesting blogpost. See you next week! ^_^

Tuesday 23 October 2012

The history of Snowball Earth - now playable!

Today we release the complete playable prototype of our cancelled game Snowball Earth! This is the game that we worked on at Ronimo for a full year before we made Swords & Soldiers. Since Snowball Earth was never finished, we never really talked about it either and kept the prototype hidden. Such a waste! The prototype contains over an hour of gameplay and some really cool ideas, so it is awesome to finally show it to the world!

Snowball Earth is a really interesting game, both in how it failed and in the things it did well, so it provides tons of material for future blogposts. Today: what it is, and why it was cancelled!

Snowball Earth Prototype

Note that because this is an early prototype, this is all pretty unpolished! No tutorial, ridiculously long loading times, quite a few bugs and it only plays well with an Xbox 360 controller. However, the concepts of the game are really interesting and work well, so give it a try!

The trailer that we made early 2008 to pitch the game to publishers. Showing the player in the trailer was all the hype in Wii commercials at the time, so we tried a bit of that here.

Snowball Earth was our first official game as Ronimo Games. De Blob was not entirely made with the same team, and for Snowball Earth we had decided to really start our own company and make a commercial game. We were still students at the time, and this was our group-graduation-project. After we graduated, we kept working on it, but mainly on extra stuff, like the puzzles prototype that is also in the Torrent. The main game that we are releasing today was basically our graduation project at the Utrecht School of the Arts, and it was also our official start as a company.

Snowball Earth was to be a console game for the Wii or the Xbox 360. A 3D adventure in the style of Ratchet & Clank, although for our first game we wanted to keep things a bit simpler and more doable than the fantastic Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools Of Destruction, which launched around that time, and was a big inspiration for us.

After the colouring gameplay of De Blob, we wanted to find some new innovative mechanics, and went all out on that. So much so, that we ended up with not one, but two really interesting mechanics. These two mechanics are not just what makes Snowball Earth shine, but also its downfall...

The first and most striking mechanic is the melting. The entire world is frozen, and the player melts the snow by simply moving through it. This is a pretty spectecular effect: snow turns into puddles and then into grass, plants pop up everywhere and the ice disappears from the rocks. It is quite a sight to behold, and simply walking around while transforming the world around you is already a lot of fun.

When melting is enabled, everything around the player comes to life. I consider this completely dynamic system one of the most impressive things we have made so far. It was also an enormous amount of handwork to create, though...

The sound effects for Snowball Earth were made by Aline Bruijns, and the music by Erik van Woudenberg. They graduated in audio in the same year as we graduated in game development, and they did some great sound work on Snowball Earth! Aline later started the sound studio Audio Rally Sound Design.

Click for high resolution

By now several other games have done kind of similar mechanics, like Prince of Persia 2008's restoration of life after a boss has been killed. The effect there is a lot less dynamic, but it was still kind off odd to see a game release with a similar idea after we had already cancelled our own take on it. (By the way, I absolutely love that Prince of Persia game, definitely my favourite in the series! I think it's a very rare open-world platforming gem!)

The other unique mechanic of Snowball Earth are the Robodogs. These are little robots that run along with the player. When you shoot them with the right stick, they become physics balls and can be used as projectiles in combat, or to get them to spots where the player cannot go. The player can press the right trigger to pull them back. This allowed for some great combat and puzzles. For example, hitting enemies in the back does extra damage, so deliberately shooting your Robodogs past an enemy and then pulling them to hit him in the back is a great tactic, and a lot of fun to do.

The physics gameplay with the Robodogs turning into balls.

In terms of story, the premise was as weird as one would expect of a Ronimo game. In prehistoric times, a little alien robot on an orbiting spaceship accidentally pressed the wrong button and thus froze the entire earth! As punishment, he is sent down to fix his mistake. He goes looking for sources of heat, like volcanoes, to melt the snow. However, during his quest he finds strange fridges everywhere, and discovers that he has been deceived: a fridge manufacturing company has illegally sold all these fridges to the yetis, and this is what really froze the earth! On his epic quest, our little hero must battle the evil polar animals, close all the fridges, and prove his innocence!

With the two unique mechanics and all the hard work that went into Snowball Earth, why was the game cancelled? The answer is quite simple: no publisher was willing to fund the game, and it was too big to make ourselves. We pitched to all the big publishers: dozens of meetings at Gamescom 2007 and GDC 2008. Quite a few liked the game and kept communications with us going, and some even invited us to do internal pitches to the entire team in their offices, but in the end no one wanted to really go with this.

I think there were two main reasons why publishers didn't want to fund us. The most important was properly that we had no track record. Making a big 3D game with a team that has no console experience whatsoever is an extremely risky endeavour, and no publisher would want to fund that until we had proven that we could actually finish a game on console.

At the time I was totally convinced that we could make this game, but right now I am very happy that no one funded us. We wanted to make the game in only 1.5 years, and wanted to grow the team from 7 to 15 developers for that. Just finding 8 experienced developers is already a difficult challenge... Let alone finishing such a big game with such an inexperienced team!

Swords & Soldiers and Awesomenauts were both much more realistic plans than Snowball Earth, and they both took way longer than we expected. If we had actually started making Snowball Earth, it would probably have taken us at least 3 years to make it. In fact, with our current team (13 full-time developers plus a number of interns) and my current experience (two multi-platform console titles), we still wouldn't be able to make this in 1.5 years. Snowball Earth was just way too big for our team size and total lack of experience at the time...

Click for high resolution

The other reason publishers didn't want to fund the game, is that it was a difficult sell to their marketing departments. What similar games were out there, and had been a success? At that point 3D platforming had not been a big market for years (except for Mario Galaxy, of course), and our game also had all these original mechanics that could not be easily compared to other marketing campaigns.

Of course, I know now that making weird stuff is a good way to gain attention and thus great marketing for indie studios like us, so I don't necessarily agree with these marketing arguments. But there is another, deeper problem within Snowball Earth: the mechanics around the Robodogs were all pretty complex, and thus for a slightly more mature audience. The melting mechanics, however, were very kids-friendly, but didn't bring us any gameplay depth besides the simple fun of walking around melting everything. So our two innovative gameplay concepts just didn't mingle all that well. Now add that our main characters were robots, and that robots just don't work for mass audiences. Except in Wall-e, of course, but that's not enough to go by.

We tried addressing these issues by focussing more on the physics gameplay. So after we had graduated and had finished the main prototype, our game designers made a whole bunch of puzzle levels. They bundled those in a prototype level with hardly any graphics, but some really interesting gameplay. This level is much less polished, and the physics are not precise enough for such puzzles, but it does show the great potential of these mechanics. With more time, I think we could have turned that into a great 3rd person physics puzzler. These puzzles are pretty difficult with all their bugs and the lack of a tutorial, but I still think the ideas are great, so they have been included as a second level in the version of the game that we are releasing today.

Some gameplay from the puzzles level of Snowball Earth.

To react to the publisher critique on the robots, we also made tons of designs for non-robot characters. We have some absolutely ridiculous concept art of dogs in round spacesuits, so I will post those soon as well!

After a year of work on the game and no money and no publisher, we finally got access to Wii devkits. This allowed us to start developing Snowball Earth on console, so that we could finally prove to publishers that we could actually make this game. However, what if publishers still didn't want the game at that point? Then we would have wasted even more time on what already seemed like a failed project! So we decided to cancel Snowball Earth altogether, and start working on something smaller, something that we could actually finish ourselves, on those Wii devkits that we got. The became a little game called Swords & Soldiers...

(Of course, the history from then on was paved with a lot more success: Swords & Soldiers came out on Wii, PS3, PC, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android, and got great reviews and won several awards. Awesomenauts was recently released on PS3, 360 and PC, again to great reviews. Seeing Snowball Earth fail because it was too big, was exactly the lesson we needed to learn to keep it smaller and more doable in our next games!)

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Cancelled game Snowball Earth playable at Indigo

In 2007, after we had made De Blob, we worked on a big game that was intended to be the first real commercial game by Ronimo Games. It was called: Snowball Earth. However, we couldn't find a publisher for it and the game was cancelled. After that, we went on to make Swords & Soldiers.

Since the game was cancelled, we never showed it to anyone after that. However, this weekend at Indigo, the prototype we made at the time will be playable! It is a 30 minute completely playable demo that shows the visual style and gameplay we were aiming for.

We will soon release a lot more information on what this game was all about, and even the complete playable prototype! I think it has some great original and unique gameplay ideas, so I am actually looking forward to showing those to the world! However, for the moment, enjoy these two screenshots!

To play Snowball Earth this weekend, visit Indigo! Indigo is a yearly exhibition by Dutch Game Garden that shows the best new work by Dutch game developers. This year it is held in Utrecht's town hall, at Korte Minrebroederstraat 2. On September 28 it is open mainly for press and business people, while on September 29 it is open to the general public. Entrance to Indigo is free, so be sure to visit and give Snowball Earth a try! Awesomenauts and my new project Cello Fortress will also be playable at Indigo!

Visit Indigo if you want to give Snowball Earth a try, or follow this blog for more info soon!