Archive for August, 2014

Workers, Workers II, Workers III

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

I had the pleasure of attending United Geeks of Gaming’s Game Designer Sessions event last night, and play testing the latest (third) iteration of a game whose working title has always been “workers”. I realized after a couple of games that the rules were a little “fuzzy”, seeing as how they’ve never been formally written down, and decided that some kind of documentation was in order… Hence this blog post. (Half rules formalization, half designer diary.)

Workers was initially conceived as a “born digital” board game with the central mechanic that there are a variable number of “resource pools” in the game, and every round each pool’s count of available resources is incremented by one. The name stems from it being a very light “worker placement” game, with the initial version allowing for only one action taken (worker placed) per turn. I’ll get into the various specific actions available when I go into details about each version of the game below.

The only other shared mechanic for all the versions of the game has been the turn / round mechanism. Each round a starting player is indicated, every player takes an action (or two) for their turn in clockwise order, and then the starting player indicator is passed to the next player (also in clockwise order).

Workers “One”
Workers Screen Shot - game startThe initial version of this game remains the only one for which there is a (completed) digital prototype. I completed a very quick and dirty app to “prove out” the game mechanics in an evening or two of work and subsequently sent it to some of my TestFlight users for feedback and testing. The prototype was “successful” in that it convinced me more work was needed, but ultimately had quite a few design flaws, which I’ll detail in a minute.

As you may or may not be able to understand from the screenshot, there are 5 available pools of resource (yes, a hard-coded number, even though I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be variable), as well as hard-coded two-players (with their resource counts on either side of the screen). In the center are all the available actions, and under the main resource pools (which double as buttons for taking the corresponding collection actions) are action buttons for selling each combination of two resource. This version has a selling mechanic whereby you can sell pairs of different-colored resources for the value shown on each pair. Between rounds, not only do the number of resources in each “pool” increment, but the point values for selling each combination are also incremented every round. When a player took a selling action they automatically sold all possible combinations of the two resources for the point value shown. (So if they had 3 green and 2 blue, and took the green/blue selling action when it was worth 5 points, the would end up with 10 points and 1 remaining green resource.) After a sale action, the value for that combination is reset to zero.

Available actions (one per turn):

  • collect all of one resource pool
  • sell a combination of resources

The game lasted a set number of rounds. (15 here, although I experimented with different values.)

Reasons this version is a failure:

  • Replayability: essentially this game played the same no matter how many times you played it. This was pretty boring and led to an…
  • Optimal strategy: it turns out, the best way to play this game is to keep collecting resources, whatever pool has the most, until the last two or three rounds of the game, then sell for the highest possible point combination. Boring and stupid. I could possibly mitigate this by capping either point values for selling, or total number of resources, either per player or per pool. Ultimately I never implemented either, and instead moved on to working on…

Workers II
The next version of the game was conceived to “solve” some of the design problems in the fist game by adding variability (via a game board), as well as removing the complex in-game scoring (the entire “selling” mechanic). I don’t remember whether removing in-game scoring was a goal in and of itself, or whether it was primarily meant to facilitate paper prototyping. I took this version to my first Game Designer Sessions meetup, (quite a number of months ago). The game was played at that time with decks of cards with different colored backs for each resource pool.

The “game board” consists of an empty grid at the beginning of the game. Grid dimensions (as well as “number of resource pools”, “starting player resources”, and “starting resources in each pool”) are meant to be variable for each game.

Scores weren’t known/calculated until the end of the game, when all the spots in the grid were filled with resources. I played with a couple of formulas for scoring (see below), but in general, I wanted the more groups and the larger the groups to have higher point values at the end.

Available actions (again, choose one):

  • take a pool of resources
  • play a single resource from your resources into the game board

Problem:

  • One issue became evident right away, and that was lack of incentive to be the player who plays onto the game grid. After one play test, the player who sat back and hoarded resources was the clear victor. If I remember right, I believe we played a second game after the first and changed the “play on the board” action to take the resource from the pool rather than from your hand. Additionally, you got to take one resource from the pool into your hand as part of that action. I came up with another possible solution on the fly last night.

Workers III
The version I brought last night had basically one new mechanic: Every player started with a “x2” (times two) card face-up in front of them. There were two ways you could use this card, but when you did, you turned it face-down, and those actions were no longer available to you. I also play tested this version of the game with colored cubes for resources, which I felt was more visible (at a glance) than had been the case with using decks of cards, and had the added benefit of keeping the game board size considerably smaller. (I drew the game board out as well as “spots” for 4 resource pools on a single sheet of graph paper.)

Possible actions:

  • take all of one pool of resources
  • place a cube from your resources onto the game board
  • use your “x2” action to increase the subsequent pool increment by one additional cube per turn (this could stack if multiple players did it)
  • use your “x2” action to place a cube on top of a cube already on the game grid (increasing the size of that group by one without taking up a spot on the board)

We played a relatively quick game with 4 players, 4 resources, and a 4×4 grid, but less than halfway into the game I remembered the problem discovered in the playtesting of Workers II. I let the game play out, but suggested we play another game where you take two actions per turn, but your second action has to be a placement on the game board. One player left, so we played 3-players, 4-resources, on a 4×4 grid, but everyone started with one of each resource. I feel like this went pretty well, but still “needed something”.

Possible scoring mechanisms for multiple variable-sized groups:

  • group-size times group-size added together
  • group size added together times number of groups
  • Fibonacci values for each group totaled, times number of groups

I have lots of ideas for Workers IV. I’ll post back here when I get a chance to try any of them out!

Catchup v.0.9.1 & v.0.9.3 – release notes

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 2.46.50 PMCatchup version 0.9.1 hit the app store earlier this week. Here are the notes that shipped with that version:

v.0.9.1
* russian localization
* german localization
* settings screen: delete local saved game when changing manual AI level
* fixed a bug with tutorial step 3 not getting displayed
* made popover text scrollable if necessary
* translated a few more strings for all localizations

new in 0.8.x
* traditional chinese localization
* added HSB sliders to color screen, cleaned up UI
* fixed crash in iOS 6

I have been learning a lot with this release, namely about how much extra work localization entails, but Game Center async code stuff also. In fixing a bug at the last minute related to determining whether a Game Center game was still valid (specifically, it goes through and checks all the players to make sure their “match outcome” isn’t set), I introduced another bug, this one making Game Center invitations completely fail, as the match outcome is in an “unknown” state for those, since the invited player hasn’t accepted it yet at that point. Apologies to all the folks who ran into this!

A few minutes ago I submitted build v.0.9.3 to fix this issue. The complete release notes are as follows:

This build fixes a really horrible bug with Game Center “invite” games ending as soon as they began. My apologies!!!

Thank you very much for playing Catchup!

v.0.9.3 details
* fixed “invite” games ending as soon as they are created
* number of “your turn” games is sometimes incorrect, (I need to reset all helper arrays when the UI opens)
* crashing bug when you delete an async game in which it is your turn, start a new one, then click next game after taking your turn (need to re-create all the arrays in the async helper)
* swapped positions of share and close on the game over screen.
* added a new “use english instead of XXX” button for non-english localizations
* lots of fixes for Dutch translation text, some english ones
* credit for Dutch translator in English localization

v.0.9.2
* dutch (nl) translation
* minor change to make one of the tutorial steps a bit more consistently worded

I did use the official form to request an “expedited review”. I have had good results with that in the past, but also know someone who had it “not work” recently, so we shall see.

Catchup Postmortem – after one weekend

Monday, August 11th, 2014

iOS Simulator Screen shot Jul 29, 2014, 6.16.46 PMMy latest game release, Catchup came out for iOS last Thursday, and I thought I’d write a bit about my experience developing it.

Stats

First up, how’s it doing? Well, despite a surprise conversation with Apple the Friday before launch, we didn’t get an app store feature. I could show you the typical “long tail” graph, but if you’ve seen any of them before, you know exactly what it looks like. We started with a day of 88 sales, (this at $2.99), followed it up with 34, 26, and 16 sales yesterday. I’m hoping we have a boost again today because it’s no longer the weekend, but essentially, I do not have high hopes. The game’s designer, Nick Bentley, did a great job writing about the game, and making a lot of noise about it in the weeks/days before launch. I definitely credit his efforts for the downloads we did get.

The app ended up climbing to #51 in the “top paid board games” category of the app store.

Reactions / Responses

I think partly because only folks who really care about Abstract Strategy games for iOS have even heard about it, Catchup has had a really great response so far. We’ve got about 12 ratings in the app store, and all but 1 are 5-star. Here are some quotes from the handful of reviews:

“Great implementation of an indie boardgame. The controls are very easy and there are many customization options. The AI has a wide range of levels so it is nice to play at low or high levels of skill.”

“This is definitely one of those games you learn something new every time you play. App is well designed for it and runs really smoothly.”

And some more quotes from around the web:

“Wow. This is beautiful! I thought the ai was crap until i found the manual setting for it… I got pommelled at level 20. The whole ap experience is really very impressive. Nicely minimal and functional… The way i like my abstracts.” – Facebook user

“I like the minimal but pleasantly functional interface.” – BGG user

And I saved my favorite public quotes for last, from Touch Arcade forum user Nachtfischer:

“This is simply brilliant. Just as clean and efficient as the implementation of For The Win was, but even better, with asynchronous online play, dynamically adjusting (and very good!) AI and all kinds of stats you could ever want (it even has a stat for “times you checked the stats screen”, I felt a little caught there, haha).

The game itself is a beloved board game. It has incredibly simple rules, but a ton of emergent complexity, which makes it very elegant – easy to learn, hard to master indeed. There’s a lot of depth beneath the surface here.

It might not look like something special, but if you really love games (and not just semi-related crafts such as audiovisual spectacle, storytelling, Skinner Box mechanisms or whatever), depth and challenge, then you should definitely buy this without a doubt.”

…later, he posted:

“After playing some more, it looks like this is probably going to be my favorite app release of the year so far!”

What could I have done better?

These post-mortems typically have a section for “things I could have done better”, right? But as far as I’m concerned I could have done everything better, so consider all the rest of the headings below a minor subset of bullet points in that overwhelmingly long list.

Beta Testing & Bug fixing

When I decided we should definitely do a beta test, I think I had the right idea. This is a multiplayer application, and I wanted to get people using that multiplayer code ASAP, both to find bugs, but also to gauge the user experience and figure out what I could be doing better. I seriously under-estimated the time needed to run a beta test, (both to find people, and get them playing it, as well as respond / record / react to their suggestions). And then I ended up starting it about two weeks later than intended.

Here’s what I did: I put up a quick google form to collect interested people, then sat on that list for about three weeks. (I’d meant to let it accumulate for maybe a week, but I was still fixing stuff!) When I finally picked users, I basically just sent promo codes to all the ones in the US (because I have evidence that the promo codes only work for US app store users), and who also indicated they would give feedback even if they didn’t like the game. Along with the promo codes, I also sent them a link to a form to collect feedback. The responses were okay, but nothing super revelatory. They definitely helped me find bugs, but the bulk of good UX feedback came from a single individual who would probably have tested the app without our running a beta test at all. (More about that below.)

In short, I still feel like it was extremely useful. It was more useful in terms of finding async bugs, but I could probably have played more games with my handful of friends who had it to get that kind of feedback. If I’d had about two or three more weeks, I think it would have been great to have run more organized play sessions with the beta testers, and perhaps that would have led to more valuable feedback.

Never enough time (or, Things I Never Got Around To Doing)

I really wish I’d spent another week or two polishing the app. In particular, there are some async features I really meant to write in the last month or so of development and just never got around to doing. The main one (which is definitely still on my plate) is opening each individual game when the user opens the app from a notification. I might still get to sneak that into the next release, which is primarily a bug fix release meant to fix Game Center invitations, which I broke in the current app store build (while fixing another bug, of course).

I also wish I’d spent more time working with Nick on promoting the game. I basically let him run with it, and didn’t even hold up my end of the deal by writing a blog post every week until release. (Although this was more a promise to myself rather than a promise to him.) I actually brainstormed a HUGE list of posts I could write, and then only ended up writing a single blog post four weeks before launch, and then finally writing a “release notes” post the day of launch.

Metagame Progression

I’m a big fan of games giving you a solid reason to keep playing. Just about the only thing Catchup does in that regard is show you the level of the AI player, and how that increases/decreases after each game you win or lose. There are also a bunch of Game Center Achievements. While I was implementing the achievements, it occurred to me to space them out so you wouldn’t get a bunch of them after winning one game. So a lot of the achievements are actually dependent on reaching a certain level of AI player. It only occurred to me belatedly (maybe a week before launch) that it would have been really cool to point out that achievement progression in some kind of “campaign screen”, or at the very least in popover messaging after you reach a level where that achievement is available. I have really given this almost no thought, but it feels like something that’s lacking to me.

Programmer UI / UX

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 3.26.20 PMI’ve written a bunch about how long it took me to make Catchup… and talked about some of the reasons, but there is maybe one reason that I don’t think I’ve talked about yet. Mainly, it didn’t even occur to me until today, but essentially, the UI changed quite a bit in various iterations of Catchup. And each one of those iterations took some time. To the right you can see the first (totally playable!) version. Obviously, I knew this was going to change, but if I’d known by how much, and how well the app was going to do on release, I might have been more okay with just releasing that version. (OK, probably not really.)

As someone who presented at GDC this year on UX, you’d think I know a thing or two about it. But the not-so-secret truth is that I really don’t. I can probably fake it better than most, but when someone who really does know a lot about UX gives you honest feedback about it, it just becomes super clear that you don’t know jack. That person for me was Nate Weiner (of Pocket / Read it Later fame). When I got his email, it was one of those moments where you realize you’ve been doing something wrong all along. Fortunately, he was kind enough to preface it by saying that none of them were things he would allow to delay launch. Anyway, here’s a list of UX stuff that I could really have done better. (Over half of these points were made originally by Nate in that aforementioned email.)

  • all the popover menus — in particular, I remove the nav bar when I show ’em, and not only does that look weird, but it’s the cause of a number of bugs.
  • replacing the “default” Game Center UI — This is another one that, surprise, surprise, would have fixed a number of bugs. In particular, if someone “swipes to delete” a game from the default Game Center UI, your app is not notified, and (AFAIK) there is really no way (no status change even!) to detect that the delete has happened. Plus, it looks like butt. Would have been a lot of work tho.
  • Onboarding / tutorial — I sorta knew I was doing this the “easy way”. Even though it’s an interactive tutorial, I basically show all my messages on a popover that doesn’t change contextually. I should have been highlighting all the things the tutorial talks about (and just assumes you will be able to find as soon as you close the popover).
  • Game Over Screen — Similar to the tutorial popover, the game over screen could have been made contextually. In particular, it’s been suggested that it should at the very least highlight the group that won the game. (And this should be fairly easy to do, I just wish I’d thought of that before I made the current version of the game over screen!)
  • the Color picker screen — This screen just really blows. I’m happy with how it LOOKS, but it’s not at all obvious how it functions. And there is literally nowhere in the app that explains it. I should probably add a help popover at the very least, but that hasn’t even made the TODO list yet. (OK, now it has.)
  • the Game Settings screen — I really tried to make this screen as flexible as possible, but I think there are probably significantly clearer ways to present and allow you to change the AI level. It gets a little better in one of the updates that hasn’t been approved yet, but it’s definitely still a pain point, I think.
  • the game screen itself — I would love to still include Game Center icons on this screen. I do also feel like it could better (more clearly) indicate whose turn it is.

When I estimate client work, I always emphasize how much less work there will be for me if the graphic designer has already completed their work by the time I begin. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that it would of course take longer for me to do that UX and graphic design myself. Well, if you’d asked, I might have told you it was true, but nobody asked, and I just kept plugging away.

Conclusion

I hope someone finds this useful. Thanks for reading.

EDIT(s): Edited to clarify some points, directly name Nate Weiner, and add references to the “top paid board game” category numbers.

Catchup v.0.8.1 now available in the Apple App Store

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Catchup - Abstract StrategyThe day is finally here, and my latest game, Catchup has been released for iOS. The game is a two-player abstract strategy game, with asynchronous multiplayer via Game Center.

Here is the app store description:

Catchup is a simple game of surprising turnarounds.

Can you have the largest group at the end of the game? Connect your hexes to master this beautiful abstract strategy game.

Features:
– an interactive tutorial to teach you how to play
– a challenging AI opponent whose difficulty changes as you play
– online turn-based multiplayer via Game Center
– two-player pass-and-play on the same device
– beautiful and haunting music by Tori Kamal
– minimalist graphics with customizable colors
– GameCenter Leaderboards & Achievements
– simple and easy to learn rules and gamplay
– difficult to master strategy

Here are all the rules:
1. One player plays all the hexes of one color and the other player plays all the hexes of the other color. The first player begins by claiming 1 empty hex for their color.

2. Starting with the second player, each player must claim 1 or 2 hexes on their turn.

3. If the largest group of hexes at the end of a turn is larger than the largest group of hexes at the beginning of that turn (regardless of color), the next player may claim up to 3 hexes on their turn. (This does not apply after the first player claims a single hex in step 1 above.)

4. The game ends when the board is full. The player with the largest group wins. If the players’ largest groups are the same size, compare their second-largest groups, and so on, until you come to a pair which aren’t the same size. Whoever owns the larger of the two wins.

Catchup is an original Board Game designed by Nick Bentley.

For posterity, here’s the “What’s new in this version” text for the last few versions (because I’ve been submitting all these versions to Apple for approval, these are actually visible in the app store if you dig):

What’s new in Version 0.8.1:
– Spanish, Simplified Chinese, and French localization
– Added a link to the game rules from the game menu
– Lots of bugs fixed in prep for launch!

What’s new in Version 0.7:
– Fixed crippling bug starting Game Center async games.
– Localized Rules text.
– A few other minor formatting and bug fixes.
– …more hexagons!