Creating Worlds

By now, if you read my blog with any regularity, you know that I made a game for the iPhone called Terrella that we released a couple weeks back. And you also know this was my first real attempt to make a game. I learned a bunch of stuff creating Terrella and one of the first things I learned was that designing and testing levels was going to take forever if I had to rebuild the app every time I made a change. The solution was to create a “world description” file and add support for opening these files from within the app itself. So I’d work on a level, save it to Dropbox, open it in Terrella, play test, repeat.

This functionality is still in the game. This means you could create your own levels if you knew the format of the world description files. It just so happens that you can find that information in this repo on github. User created levels are not in any way a first class feature of the app at this point. They are completely experimental and just a possible direction I left open to myself for future development. To make it really easy I’d need to make a level editor available (the one I made for myself is an embarrassment and also contains some features that I can’t make public), and I’d probably need to add some sort of level validation to the app. And maybe some central location where people can submit their levels and a way to rate them? That could be cool.

Whether or not I push forward with a level editor and work to make user levels a first class feature is dependent on time and interest. I’m pretty low on the former, especially given the response to the game so far. We’ll see what happens. If you have any thoughts, please let me know.

Gaming the App Store

I just finished up another 360|iDev, which was fantastic as always. One of the topics that came up several times, as it has since the App Store has been a thing, was discoverability on the App Store. Or more specifically the lack thereof. There seemed to also be some disagreement whether Apple could or should address the problem. Many people seemed to be of the opinion that the App Store’s purpose is simply a means to install / update apps which is does pretty well, and the app discovery problem should be solved elsewhere. Not sure I agree entirely, but everyone seems to agree that discoverability is hard and it would be great if someone somewhere made this better.

Well I have an idea. Actually I had this idea some time ago and started to put pieces of it together before realizing that I’m out of my element and set it aside. But hey maybe somewhere has the resources to do something like what I had imagined so I’ll leave it here for your consideration.

What if there were a site that created a sort of stock trading game where the “stock” represented shares in an app? Each app would receive some ticker symbol and the price would be determined by a combination of the same principles of supply and demand that drive the real stock market, plus the app’s actual performance in the app store. I’m thinking the price would actually be heavily weighed towards store performance in hopes that it would make it a little harder to game the system. There are a ton of details to work out, but that’s the basic gist. Personally I think it could be fun, but more importantly make it easier to discover apps based on merit and not necessarily on the size of their marketing budget.

A couple ways you could discover new apps would be:

Biggest gainers

Actually I might be helpful if Apple added this. I’m not talking about the overall top paid/free charts but those that have seen the biggest jumps (or declines) recently. This and the ability to filter by category, time period, etc. Would be handy.

Top traders

Those that are consistently able to spot those diamonds in the rough should also end up with the most valuable portfolios. By following these traders you should be able to more quickly discover those apps that are likely to be worthwhile. The only worry would be a sort of Warren Buffet effect where one trader’s influence effects everyone else’s and their predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies. But assuming that they continue to pick quality apps I can’t really say that’s a horrible thing.

Would this be fun? And could you prevent the gamers from gaming the game? I think it could be just as fun to explore and watch as it would be to play. It’s probably a site that I could waste ridiculous amounts of time on if done well. As for abuse, anyone with enough determination could surely figure out how to do that. To counter that, in addition to weighting the store performance most heavily when calculating the price, there could also be reputation system in place that would allow visitors to filter cheaters out of the Top traders list.

Okay so like I said, there’s a lot of hand waving over the details here, but it’s a starting point. As always, I’d love to get your thoughts on this. Or maybe something like this exists or has been tried and I missed it? Let me know!

NewsWatch

For a minute there I thought we were going to catch a break. Susie emailed me yesterday that she’s been contacted by NewsWatch about featuring Terrella on their show which airs on the ION Network, History Channel and FYI Channel. They claim to reach 100 million households, and, I don’t know, like a brazillian people. So this sounded like an amazing opportunity, right?

Well, then we arranged to chat with a representative who proceeded to ask us lots of questions about Quiet Spark, Terrella, our other apps, what sorts of promotion we’ve been doing, all this so he can deliver this information to a producer who will then make a determination about whether or not to feature Terrella on the show. I answered all of these questions quite well I might add. But, as we get to the end he begins explaining how all this works, telling us how many people we’ll reach, how they push the segment to their various social networks, how we’l own the video afterwards, etc. It didn’t take long to realize that I was hearing a sales pitch and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was a $3,500 shoe. Actually, after I started backing away it was explained that they work with lots of indie developers and they can knock as much as $500 off of that. Woo.

Look, as I explained to NewsWatch guy before he even got to the pitch, Quiet Spark operates on a shoestring budget. Our “budget” for promotion is extremely limited. Approaching nonexistent. We do what we can to try and generate visibility, but we rely almost exclusively on word of mouth, and the hope that those who come to know us and our apps, also know the amount of care and polish we put into them.

For a minute there I thought that maybe someone had recognized our efforts and was more than a little bummed when I realized the truth. I also learned from Twitter that I’m not the first to have been offered this opportunity, so if they contact you, and apparently they will if you make a press release, just know that this is what it’s really all about.

Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the day I’ve been working towards for the last 15 months. The day Terrella will finally be released on the App Store. I’m nervous of course. For the usual reasons, but also because of the decisions we made with regards to trying to monetize this thing.

I first had the idea for Terrella back in May of last year. Actually it was called Fours back then, but before I could finish, this little game called Threes came along. You may have heard of it. Anyway, it wasn’t long after we had a proof of concept that we started talking about pricing. For a while some of the gameplay was even being driven towards making a buck instead of a great game. We talked about expansion packs, consumable power-ups, features that you could unlock, advertising, all of it. It wasn’t long before we decided, look, let’s just focus on creating the kind of game and experience that we want, and worry about how (if) we can make money with it once we’re done. This is almost certainly contrary to the way the big name game studios go about designing games these days. Many big name studios employ psychologists to help craft compulsion loops designed to extract the maximum amount of money possible from their players. It seems to be working, but it’s not the way I wanted to do things.

Instead we ended up with a game that makes the majority of the content free, has no advertising at all, and charges $0.99 for a single expansion set that includes 12 additional levels. The other 18 single player levels are free. The multiplayer levels are free. The only power-up we have, Boost: also free. The levels can also be played in any order. No need to bother completing the prior level or making another IAP for this privilege as some games do.

Even with the name, we could have stuck with Fours and maybe gained some exposure from people looking for more games like Threes, but it didn’t feel right especially having read this. Although the game is nothing like Threes I felt we needed to change the name, though I really truly hated to let Fours go. We kicked around a series of uninspired names until one day, while reading up on magnetism, I stumbled across the wikipedia entry for Terrella and it seemed perfect. Little Earth. Now you know how Terrella got her name.

But back to the whole money thing. Not going to lie, I wouldn’t mind having a big pile of money to roll around in, but my expectations have always been tempered when it comes to my independent work, even before some of the posts that went around last month. However I hope that there are some gamers out there who, even if they don’t believe Terrella is a great game (bias alert: it is), might consider plunking down their $0.99 for the single IAP just on principle alone. That is, a vote for more games that take this approach. And who knows, maybe Terrella does take off and others can look towards it as an example that maybe you don’t have to nickel and dime your customers to death to have a successful game/app.

Anyway, I just wanted to toss those thoughts out there this evening as I wait for the countdown to reach zero. And, whatever happens, this has been an amazing journey and I’m anxious to finally have a chance to show you all how Terrella turned out.

Soon

A couple days back I posted a message to Twitter and Facebook that was just the word “Soon” followed by a link. If you didn’t follow the link, and maybe even if you did, you might not have understood the significance.

(this next bit is pretty close to what I posted earlier this morning on Facebook)

I was talking to my sister about Terrella this morning and she had no idea what I was talking about. If my sister doesn’t know then it’s a good bet the rest of you don’t either. I’d like to think I’m a pretty good software developer, but P.T. Barnum I’m not. So here’s the deal, for well over a year I, with a lot of help from my wife (Susie), my cousin (Bill), and so many other awesome people, have been working on a game for iPhone and we’re going to release it next week! Wednesday to be exact. If you have an iPhone we would love for you to check it out. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser I made.