Robert

Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games. Designer, programmer, writer, and friend.

Jun 022011
 

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Review
for the PSP

In the early 90s, Working Designs localized an RPG series called Lunar for the Sega CD. These games took advantage of the latest (at the time) in CD technology to provide a high quality soundtrack and fully animated cutscenes, but what these games are most remembered for these days are their endearing characters and amusing scripts.

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky comes the closest to capturing the feel of a Lunar game of any game I’ve played since the Sega CD era.

Trails in the Sky does this by featuring a fantastic localization with a ton of dialogue. Many reviews have likened Trails in the Sky to a novel and that’s an apt comparison. The game isn’t afraid to take its time to fully develop the game’s world and memorable characters. Even skipping much of the bonus content and non-essential dialogue, it still took me about 35 hours to complete the game and I daresay that story and dialogue took up at least half of that time. You’d be hard pressed to find another RPG so focused on story.

That’s not to say that the non-story elements in Trails in the Sky are lacking. Combat plays out like a streamlined Strategy/RPG offering more planning than most traditional turn-based RPGs while not being as slow paced as your typical Strategy/RPG. Stat and ability development offer a nice mix between allowing customization (a Materia-esque magic & accessory system) and making each character unique. Secondary characters join and leave the party on a regular basis, keeping things fresh. To go along with the heavy emphasis on story, most non-boss fights can be avoided without much difficulty. And despite being a port from the Japanese-only PC original, the UI works well, graphics look good, and load times are negligible.

Trails in the Sky’s methodical pace and focus on characters and world building isn’t for everyone, but for gamers looking to lose themselves in an RPG, it’s a rare treat. Ending on an especially exciting cliffhanger, the sequel can’t come out soon enough.

 Posted by at 4:44 pm
May 192011
 

Some of you already know this, but just to make it official – the PC version of Cthulhu Saves the World will actually be a combo pack that also includes Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. Oh and there will be a few minor improvements to Breath of Death VII since we’re using the Cthulhu Saves the World engine for it (stuff like being able to save anywhere). All this for $3. Yes, we’re insane to offer so much RPG goodness for such a low price, but I think Cthulhu would have wanted it this way..

Porting BoDVII to the PC has been much easier and faster than I expected so it’ll probably be done this week. If you’ve already signed up for the CSTW beta testing, I’ll probably send you an email offering access to the BoDVII PC beta testing as well. The actual CSTW PC beta testing will probably begin next week. Oh and I’m sorry, but we don’t need any more beta testers – we’ve already got plenty.

I’ve added two new documents to the Free Stuff section of the website, along with a link on the right to make the Free Stuff section easier to find. The first of these is the original design document for Cthulhu Saves the World with notes talking about how the design changed from its origin to the finished game. Since there are a lot of spoilers in there, I highly recommend not reading it until you’ve finished the game. The second document is the text file that I used to keep track of enemy stats & abilities in Breath of Death VII. Hopefully, you find these two documents interesting.

The stuff in our free stuff section is, well, free, but if you’ve especially enjoyed any of the things there, please consider making a donation to Zeboyd Games via the nifty Paypal donate button that we’ve just installed on the right side of the blog. 🙂

 Posted by at 8:20 am
May 062011
 

As I was playing two very different indie games over the course of this week, I was reminded of just how important expectations are in determining whether or not people enjoy a particular game.

Exhibit One, the PC indie title, Capsized. Gorgeous graphics, but I didn’t particularly care for the gameplay. However, I have to wonder how much of my dislike for the game from the game itself and how much of it came from me expecting to get a Metroid style action/exploration game and instead getting a run & gun shooter with a complex control scheme.

Exhibit Two, the PC indie title, Dwarfs!? I’ve put in a couple hours into this game and so far, I’m really enjoying it. However, going online, I discovered that many people hated it because it’s not a complex simulation like Dwarf Fortress. Instead, it’s a fast-paced, score-focused arcade game that’s kind of like an out of control top-down Lemmings. Oh and it’s got a well done tower defense game as one of its bonus modes.

When people’s expectations don’t match the reality of a product, disappointment almost inevitably sets in regardless of the quality therein. You could have the best orange in the world – it still makes for a crummy apple.

With both Capsized and Dwarfs!?, much of the confusion came because of the setting. Capsized is a 2D platformer with a setting similar to Metroid so I expected similar gameplay as well. Dwarfs!? and Dwarf Fortress both feature dwarf colonies digging out tunnels as their basic premise so some players expected they would play similarly as well.

However, there are other ways that player expectations can become misguided. Consider Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Dragon Quarter is one of the most brilliant RPGs of all time, a true piece of gaming art. However, it did horribly at retail. Why? Because the fans were expecting another Breath of Fire III, a fun, colorful, and fairly stereotypical fantasy RPG, and instead got a very dark sci-fi/fantasy blend with several experimental gameplay systems.

Shadow of the Colossus is considered one of the finest games ever created. And yet, I bet you if you had taken the exact same game and all you did was change the name to The Legend of Zelda: Shadow of the Colossus and replaced the two leads with Link and Zelda that the game’s reception would have been drastically worse due to failed expectations.

Or take pricing. Players have different expectations for $60 games than they do for $15 games than they do for $1 games. This can be either advantageous (great value!) or disadvantageous (overpriced!) to the developer. To use a personal example, I purchased Bioshock 2 for $5 in a recent Steam sale and so far, I’ve been loving it. Would I have had the same reaction if I had paid $60 for it? Maybe not.

Or consider Mirror’s Edge. It’s a great and unique game, but had underwhelming sales. Had the game been designed & marketed first and foremost as a unique take on the racing genre, I daresay it would have sold drastically better than it did. As it is, people played it expecting a FPS/platformer, finished the short story mode, were unimpressed and set the game aside, not realizing that the story mode was basically just an extended tutorial for the really fun stuff – becoming totally awesome while doing time trials & speed runs.

With expectations being so critical to a game’s success, both critically and commercially, what are some things that can be done to help gamers to have the proper expectations for our games?

1. Price your game appropriately. My simple rule for game pricing is “What is the highest price we can charge for this game while still making the game an incredible deal?”

2. If your game has superficial similarities to a popular game but the gameplay is very different, you need to make these differences very obvious in any and all marketing you do for the game.

3. If your game is a sequel to a highly respected franchise but features major differences from previous titles, consider releasing it as a spin-off instead of a main game entry. This advice is less applicable if the series is widely considered past its prime and in need of a reboot.

4. Long held expectations can take time to change so start your marketing early. If I’ve been hearing details about your game for months, then I’m probably going to have a good idea of what to expect when I finally get to play it. If the first I hear of it is when it shows up on Steam’s New Arrival list, I have much less to base my expectations on and so there’s a much higher chance of inaccurate expectations forming.

5. Take care when describing your game that you don’t inadvertently overemphasize less important aspects. For example, with Capsized, one of the features listed in their Steam description was “massive non-linear environments” which combined with the sci-fi setting, naturally made me think of Metroid.

6. Name your games with care. I feel this is something we did successfully with our first RPG, Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. Just from reading the title, the average fan of RPGs should be able to correctly guess that our game is 1) an RPG. 2) a parody, and 3) undead-themed.

7. Make sure that the player knows how hard your game is. Some people love hard games and others prefer easy games so you want to make sure your game gets matched up with its correct audience. Super Meat Boy did a great job of this. Its Steam description contains phrases like “tough as nails”, “old school difficulty of classic NES titles,” and “difficulty from hard to soul crushing.” Its difficulty is a selling point, not a surprise. Conversely, the excellent PS2 horror game, Siren, failed to emphasize its extremely high level of difficulty (seriously, it’s one of the hardest story-based games of all time) in its marketing and so much of the backlash towards game was a result of people finding it frustrating.

Too many great games have underperformed because of misguided expectations. By keeping gamer expectations in mind when we design and market our games, we can help our games to be appreciated for what they actually are and avoid being disliked for what they are not.

 Posted by at 11:52 am
Mar 242011
 

Just thought I’d let you all know that we started up an official Zeboyd Games page on Facebook a few days ago, perfect for keeping track of the latest news, viewing images, asking questions, and recommending our games to your friends. You can find it here.

The page is pretty barebones at the moment, but we’ll be adding more stuff to it over the coming weeks so stay tuned!

 Posted by at 1:54 pm
Mar 092011
 

At the GDC XBLIG meet-and-greet, someone suggested that I write a marketing guide for XBLIG so here goes.

If you’re just making an XBox Live Indie Game for fun or as a learning process and don’t care whether or not it sells or makes any money, you can safely ignore all of this and just do whatever you feel like. However, if you’d like your games to not just be cool, but also to make money, read on!

#1 – Game design is marketing.

Marketing for your game begins before you’ve even started creating the game. Depending on the game you decide to make, effectively marketing could be relatively easy or impossibly difficult. Now in saying this, I don’t mean that you need to cater to the lowest common denominator. Rather, each game designer probably has ideas for a number of games that they’d like to make. Likewise, there are a number of game ideas for which there is a market for. Find a game idea that fits in both categories and you’ve got yourself a game that A) you’d like to make and B) has a good chance of selling well once it’s made.

So what sells well on XBLIG? Unique experiences. Quality is important, but let’s be honest here – most of us lack the skill and resources to go head-to-head with the big game development companies. Since you can’t compete on their terms, you need to compete on your own terms. Either make something that nobody else is making or put your own unique spin and personality into a popular genre.

#2 – Marketing is an ongoing effort.

If you’ve got a couple million dollars, you can afford to start a marketing campaign when your game comes out. Since most of us don’t have those kinds of funds, we need to start marketing early and continue marketing even after the game releases.

For starters, get yourself a website for your company. Besides hopefully attracting potential customers, a website gives your company legitimacy and makes the media more likely to take you seriously. Talk about your game development progress and talk about whatever you think is interesting. One of the reasons why people like indie games is because of the connection they feel with the creators – give them a reason to view you as an actual human being and you’ll gain many fans.

After a website, videos are the next most important thing you can do to promote your game. A teaser trailer a few weeks or months before the game is released, a launch trailer when the game comes out, and gameplay trailers after release can all be very useful marketing tools. Be sure to post them on youtube and don’t forget to send them to gametrailers.com.

And just because your game is already out doesn’t mean that you can’t still market it. After Breath of Death VII had been out for several months, I decided to do a post-mortem which I then posted on Gamasutra and sent to a few places. Lo and behold, several other big sites picked up the story and we saw a big increase in sales for several days .

#3 – GamesPress.com is nifty.

GamesPress.com is a site that many game sites use to gather information. Make sure to send all of your press releases and media kits to them – with just a single email, you’re likely to be covered by several small sites and maybe a couple bigger sites as well.

Gamerankings.com is also very nifty. Take a look at which sites have reviews there and then go onto those sites and look for contact information. Sure, most big sites won’t give new indie groups the time of day, but you never know which ones will cover you unless you try.

Don’t overlook social sites like Facebook and Twitter either. Not only are they useful for marketing, but sites like Twitter can be very useful for development questions, playtesting, and peer review if you can get a bunch of other XBLIG developers following you.

 #4 – Be active on forums

Now, obviously you don’t want to overdo this and waste all of your time on forums when you should be doing productive work, but being an active presence on several popular gaming forums can be very beneficial. Most forums frown upon developers signing up just to market their stuff, but if you’re a frequent poster, then you’re one of them and most people like to support their own.

And of course, being active on the XNA forums is invaluable when you have questions or need help with playtesting or peer review.

#5 – Paid advertising doesn’t really work.

When you’re selling a dirt cheap game, it doesn’t make much sense to pay for advertising. When you’ve got a $60 game, your paid advertising doesn’t need to be very efficient to make a profit since you’re getting a good amount of money from each copy sold, but with a $1 game, your paid advertising would have to be unrealistically efficient.

#6 – Pricing

In the vast majority of cases, you’re best off selling your XBLIGs for $1. The only possible exceptions would be for highly niche stuff without real competition on any platform or if you’ve already built a reputation for high quality, best selling games.

#7 – Don’t neglect playtesting

You’ve spent months working on your dream game and now it’s ready to launch, right? Not quite so fast. Make sure to put it in playtesting for at least a week before trying to release. As developers, we are often too close to our own projects to notice obvious flaws. Taking some time to get other people’s opinions and add that extra layer of polish can spell the difference between a pretty good game that nobody buys and an awesome game that sells tons.

 #8 – The initial experience

Given all of the work involved in making a game, I am constantly shocked at how little attention many developers put into the customer’s initial experience. If you have a lame name or bad box art, most people won’t even bother clicking on your game. If you have a poor game description or weak screenshots, most people won’t even bother downloading the trial. And if your trial experience is boring, most people won’t buy the game.

Spend some time making sure that your name, box art, screenshots, and trial experience are all of the highest quality. These are your greatest selling tools so take advantage of them. I can’t speak for everyone, but we generally go through about a dozen different versions and variations of box art before ending up with the one that we decide to use in the final game. And it generally takes me a few weeks of periodic brainstorming and consideration before I finally decide on a game name.

#9 – The Top Lists are important

If you want to have lasting success on the service, the best thing you can do is get onto either the Top Downloads or the Top Rated. Of the two, the Top Rated is by far the safer option since it’s more consistent, whereas Top Downloads tends to fluctuate. Not only that, but the Top Downloads list is sometimes hit with errors that causes it to freeze or put the wrong games up.

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Hopefully, some of these suggestions will help other XBLIG developers find the success they deserve. Feel free to reply with your own marketing tips and experiences if you think I forgot or overlooked something important.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Mar 072011
 

The final day! The whole reason I’m here awaits – the XBLIG Success Stories panel that I’m speaking at. However, that’s not until 2:00 so there’s a bit to go through before that.

My day started out with a meeting with someone at THQ (name withheld to protect the innocent) about the possibility of collaborating on a game in the future. The meeting place was a Starbucks near the conference center. The old joke about every other building being a Starbucks came and bit us because it turns out that there were multiple Starbucks on this particular street near the conference center. Luckily, I was able to call him up and get things straightened out.

The actual meeting went well – we talked about GDC, about indie games, about Titan Quest (one of my favorite games of all time and published by THQ), about I Don’t Know Jack, about the THQ publicity stunts here (he’s not sure who was responsible for the whole balloons in the bay mess), and more. We didn’t make any definite plans for the future (we couldn’t even if I wanted – most of the rest of my development year is already set), but he said to keep in touch. Very nice guy and it was fun chatting with him.

After the meeting, I had enough time to catch part of the 15 Games in 15 Years panel. This panel had quite the interesting concept – a designer was going to talk about the different card/board/other games that he had made for his children over the years and the different lessons he had learned from each one. The panel was one of the most entertaining I had been to all week. The only downside was that since these were custom made games, I couldn’t go on to Amazon the next day and order them – I really wanted to play several of the games he talked about.

After that panel, I had a dilemma – Cave Story or Maniac Mansion? Truly one of the hardest decisions I had to make this conference. In the end, I decided to go with Maniac Mansion simply because nothing would be lost via translation (the Cave Story creator is Japanese). Although I hear the Cave Story panel was great, I don’t regret my decision as the Maniac Mansion post-mortem was both interesting (I love how he worked at LucasArts and didn’t have the rights to make a Star Wars game) and educational. I’ve been doing the vast majority of my work directly in code so I daresay I could save a lot of time by implementing a scripting system ala SCUMM in my next game.

After that, it was time for lunch and then time to prepare for my panel. I got to the room about an hour early and talked some GDC volunteers into letting me in. Once I got onto the stand, I was surprised at just how bright the lights blazing down on the speakers are. Quite annoying, although understandable (gotta have the speakers easy to see for the audience and the camera). Some of the technical support staff came by and asked me about our panel and someone brought us a bunch of water. While I was waiting for the panel to begin, I went over the questions that Brandon Sheffield had sent us, browsed the Internet, and did some IM (with someone I’m working with on our secret next project – woo!) and twitter.

Ian (Soulcaster I & II) showed up next about half an hour before game time. James (Z0MB1ES, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai) came next, followed by Nathan (Explosionade, Shoot 1Up). Brandon, our moderator, came last, just a few minutes before we were supposed to start, but still on time since we didn’t need to set up any audio visual equipment.

The room was of moderate size for the convention center and could probably fit four or five hundred people. To my great surprise, the room was mostly full by the time we started. Were these people mistaken as to who was speaking? Didn’t they realize that David Crane was speaking elsewhere? I briefly considered going to David Crane’s Pitfall! post-mortem myself, but since I’d like to get invited back next year, I decided against it.

I’m probably not the best person to ask about what exactly happened during the panel since I was busy trying to give good responses to the questions and trying to not make a fool of myself and had no time for note taking. Here are a couple of articles you can check out for more details about what we actually said. I did think we did a pretty good job of making sure that all four of us got about the same amount of screen time and no single individual dominated the conversation. Ian probably had the funniest bit in the whole panel with his Mega Man for game developers metaphor. I made a joke about XBLIG being plagued with too many mediocre dual-stick shmups and I half expected to read a headline the next day “Robert Boyd hates shmups and freedom! News at 11!” but I guess my comment wasn’t as interesting as Nintendo and duct-tape and generally not worth the effort to take out of context.

After the panel finished, I was swamped by several people who wanted to ask questions and compliment us on our panel, including someone at Joystiq who thanked me for the shout-out (Joystiq started doing a feature focusing on XBLIG gems in response to our Indie Games Winter Uprising promotion). When we finally got off of the podium, I hung around for a few minutes and talked to some of the other panelists before deciding to head back to my motel. Sure, there were a couple cool panels left in the day, but it would have felt anti-climactic to have gone to another panel right after finishing our own. Besides, after a whole week of GDC and countless panels, talks, and meetings, I was done. In my motel room, I helped my wife get her phone working and then relaxed with some more Xenogears. The next day, I drove back to my home in southern California.

And that’s it for GDC. Time for some recap!

I don’t think I attended a single bad panel. Even my least liked panel (the depression one) had a few good points. Everything ranged from pretty good to downright amazing.

Although it looks like it’s going to be at least 6-12 months before there are any games that I’d be willing to spend $40 on, the 3DS hardware is very cool and if I thought I could convince my wife, I’d buy one at launch. If the 3D can work even on my strange eyes, I daresay it can work on pretty much anybody’s. And unlike all other forms of 3D that I’ve experience so far, the 3DS’s graphics are sharp and clear, even in movement.

Most famous developers are surprising humble.

It’s a big investment in time and money to speak at GDC. If you don’t get a chance at the panel itself, make sure to take some time to thank your favorite panelists via email, twitter, facebook, etc.

Making good tools beforehand can make game development and polishing drastically easier.

There are a lot of very intelligent and talented individuals working in this business.

With nearly 20,000 people attending this year’s conference, you can’t really rely on chance meetings. Setting up meetings before the conference begins is best.

I never want to live in San Francisco. The traffic was nightmarish.

And there you have it! I hope you have enjoyed this little excursion into the world of GDC!

 Posted by at 2:10 pm

GDC – Day 4

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Mar 072011
 

Day 4 began in a truly legendary way – the classic post-mortem for the game Out of this World (or Another World depending on your location). This was yet another landmark game in my childhood so I had been looking forward to the talk all week. It did not disappoint. This was the most technical of all of the post-mortems I had attended so far with a lot of nitty-gritty details about just how exactly he built the engine & code. One thing I thought was very impressive was how the entire game was able to look so good using a mere 16-colors at a time. Oh and thanks to the power of polygons, he was able to get very cinematic looking scenes using a minimal of space. The opening cinematic, for example, was done with only 84kb. As for design tips, his talk about varying the pacing was very interesting and useful. Oh and for the iPad owners out there, he announced that to commemorate the game’s 20th anniversary, he’s making an iPad version.

The Bejewelled post-mortem that immediately followed was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t bad, but it was easily the least interesting and least useful of the classic post-mortems I had attended. Some of the stories about the early days of PopCap were interesting, but the actual Bejewelled message seemed to be mostly “We made a fun game and got lucky.” After the panel, there was a lack of questions so I got up and asked why the sequels took so much longer to develop, hoping both to spark a discussion on Popcap’s design philosophy (which is very Nintendo-esque) and give other people time to ask questions.

After the Bejewelled post-mortem, I had a brief meeting with someone from Gamersgate. We talked a bit about the service and how they would like us to put our upcoming PC version of Cthulhu Saves the World on their service. He mentioned some of the ideas that they have for improving sales for indie titles like bundles and an indie-focused section of the site. I was rather surprised to learn that Gamersgate is run by a very small team of only 7 people and that they’re located in Sweden. Between Gamersgate, Minecraft, and Amnesia, Sweden is really emerging as a country to watch in the indie gaming scene. I agreed that we’d be happy to put our games up on Gamersgate  – ideally, we’d like to have our games available on all of the major digital distribution services.

After lunch, I sat down for Cliffy B’s panel. It originally had a rather generic title, but he decided to change the topic to talk about the Rise of the Power Creative in Gaming. He defined the power creative as someone who is visible, calls the shots, unique, and valuable. As someone who designs games and runs a small indie studio, I found this talk incredibly fascinating. I have found as an indie developer that you almost need to market yourself as much as your actual games – one of the reasons that people like indie games is because they feel closer to the individual developers. I’ve tried to make our development process as open and personal as possible with frequent interviews, updates on our site, and constant twitter updates, but there was much to be learned at this panel. If you’re a designer or would-be-designer, I highly recommend that you get a copy of the transcript for this talk and read it carefully. Don’t settle for a mere summary – this talk was DENSE and a summary would not do it credit.

And now, it’s time for a change of pace. The vast majority of the talks I have attended this year at GDC have been design focused, but the next panel I went to was all about the business aspects of games. Specifically, it discussed the realities of working with a publisher. As someone who had looked into becoming a writer before deciding on game development, some of this stuff was familiar to me, but a lot was new. One thing I thought was especially interesting was how they said that if you’re presenting a demo, it should either have highly polished visuals or it should consist of a bunch of single color boxes (proof of concept). If you do something in between (placeholder art, for example), publisher will feel like you can’t really do good art, but boxes makes it obvious that this isn’t the finished product. Other points that I thought were especially good were researching the publisher, be concise with your pitch, sell your group not just the game, build a relationship, don’t be defensive against criticism, and get an actual industry lawyer when it comes time to start signing things.

The Q&A for the publisher panel was quite amusing – naivety after naivety.

Q: What about publishers stealing your great idea? A: That doesn’t happen. Well, outside of Zynga. Me: Of course, it doesn’t happen. A great game isn’t a great idea. A great game is a host of great ideas, combined with hard work, talent, and passion. Publishers don’t pay for great ideas – they pay for great studios who can deliver on great ideas.

Q: Can I get a publisher to fund my AAA game and still get to keep the IP rights? A: No. The only way a publisher might possible agree to something along these lines is if you self-funded the game and they were just covering marketing and distribution. However, you can negotiate other things involving the IP – for example, having some say in the IP or having the IP revert back to you if the publisher doesn’t do anything with it after X years have passed. Me: Well, duh. You’re basically asking the publisher to give you free money here, instead of asking them to invest money.

On another note, am I the only developer who doesn’t care that much about IP ownership? I mean, it’s nice to be able to do cameos from my older games in my more recent stuff and I’m glad that nobody is out there making Breath of Death porn games, but as a designer, I have FAR more ideas for games than I have time to actually make games. Even if there was a big financial reason to do so, I’d rather be working on new ideas and not just sequels and remakes.

After the panel, I talked briefly to one of the speakers – Chris Charla, the portfolio manager of XBLA. I introduced myself as a speaker at the XBLIG Success Stories and he seemed pleased to meet me. He talked about how they’re going to try to make it easier for the cream of the XBLIG crop to progress to doing full blown XBLA titles in the future. I mentioned briefly the possibility that we might collaborate with Microsoft Game Studios after we finish our next game and then let him go since I’m sure he was extremely busy.

My last panel for the day was the SWERY panel (creator of Deadly Premonition). Very entertaining and lots of interesting ideas for making stories more involving. One thing he mentioned was that they tried to stick a lot of everyday situations in the game so that the player would remember the game during their daily life. The use of mind-mapping for character creation is something I plan on using in my own games. Oh and the talk about cliffhangers was great. I think that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t finished Mass Effect 2 yet – the individual episodes are a little too self-contained so it’s easy to get distracted by other games between play sessions.

After the SWERY panel, I grabbed a quick dinner and headed over to the Microsoft bar for the XBLIG meet-and-greet. I didn’t see anyone at first and was about to head off and do something else, but then I saw Ian (Soulcaster series) and a group of other people. I met Brandon Vaughan and Christin Evans (they both helped a ton with spreading the word on our Indie Games Winter Uprising promotion), the ZMan (one of the big MVPs on the XNA forums), and a bunch of Microsoft staff members and XBLIG developers. I didn’t stay long, but it was quite fun meeting so many people that I had previously only known through email, forums, and twitter. And I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one who used a drink ticket for a bottled water (I don’t drink).

There was a Speaker-only party later that night, but I was feeling tired and I was having trouble contacting my wife so I decided to skip the party and head back to my motel room. Turns out that when my wife tried to transfer over our phone number to her new phone, there had been an error and now she had no phone at all. I talked to her via IM and used my own phone to try to talk to customer support and get the problem fixed, but unfortunately, the customer support line hours closed soon after I started talking and we didn’t get her phone up and running until after my panel the next day.

And that’s it for day 4! Since I was late posting this day’s events, you can expect the grand finale filled with my own panel in a couple hours!

 Posted by at 11:45 am
Jan 272011
 

Bonded Realities
XBox Live Indie Games
80 MS points

It’s very obvious that the developer of Bonded Realities is a big fan of Earthbound. From the cartoony visual style and silly enemies to the menu and font styles to even using PP instead of MP, everything about Bonded Realities screams Earthbound. So is this the fan-made Earthbound sequel we’ve all been waiting for? Sadly, no.

That’s not to say that Bonded Realities is horrible or anything. The music is good and there’s a number of amusing lines of description and dialogue. The monsters are generally based on bad puns which I’m all in favor of and each enemy has a good number of unique lines of description for attacks and the like. A save anywhere feature and the ability to turn off encounters increase accessibility. And at 80 MS points for about 3-4 hours of content, it offers a decent value.

Where the game falls down is in the gameplay. My strategy for most random battles consisted of mashing the A button (selecting Fight) while surfing the Internet. Later on (after buying a bunch of PP restoration items), I would occasionally throw a Group Attack technique in to make it go a little faster, but otherwise the Fight-Fight-Fight-Fight strategy served me well. Monster groups cap at 3 monsters per battle and generally monsters in a single location all have similar HP & offensive capabilities. Unless you’re severely underleveled or start a fight in critical condition, you’re never in any danger from a random encounter. Moreover, your characters don’t have very many abilities to begin with so even if I wanted to be more strategic with the combat, it’s not really an option (even at the end of the game, I only had 4-5 spells per character). Boss fights require a little more strategy and the final boss fight changes things up some, but overall the combat is very shallow.

There’s next to no character customization. LV-Ups bonuses and abilities are all predetermined and most equipment falls under a strict Sword 2 is better than Sword 1 line of progression. There are also a few minor annoyances like the Menu button being Start (instead of Y like pretty much every other RPG) or the fact that the game doesn’t tell you how much damage enemy attacks deal (you just see your HP drop). On the plus side, LV-Ups come at a relatively fast pace, and there are a few puzzles and mazes to add variety to dungeon exploration.

Overall, I had mixed feelings upon finishing Bonded Realities. Although I enjoyed the game’s quirky style, I found the gameplay generic and boring. I’d love to see a sequel that builds on the first game’s strengths while offering more sophisticated and better balanced gameplay, but in the meantime, I can only recommend Bonded Realities to novice RPG players and those who can overlook poor gameplay.

 Posted by at 6:28 pm
Jan 172011
 

We have started a fundraising effort to raise money to bring Cthulhu Saves the World to the PC & to add back some of the features that we had to cut due to lack of time. You can check out the fundraising project, how much we’ve raised, and what rewards are offered for various pledges by clicking here.

And now for a frank Q&A about the state of Zeboyd Games at the moment:

Q. Why do you nead to raise funds? Can’t you just use the money that you’re getting from Cthulhu Saves the World & Breath of Death VII?
A. Unfortunately, Microsoft only pays out royalties to XBLIG developers quarterly. Since Cthulhu Saves the World came out at the end of the year, we’re going to have to wait until May to get most of the early royalties for it (outside of the first 2 days which we’ll get in February). In the meantime, we lack the funds to do much serious development in the first quarter of 2011.

Q. How is Cthluhu Saves the World selling?
A. It’s selling slightly slower than Breath of Death VII did when it was first released. Of course, it’s more expensive than Breath of Death VII, so that’s not as bad as it sounds. We’ve sold a little over 7,000 copies so far (around 2,000 in December, the rest in January). Last week, we sold an average of about 240 copies a day. It looks like this week, we’ll sell noticeably fewer a day – yesterday, we sold under 200 copies and that was a weekend (which usually have noticeably better sales than the rest of the week).

Now these kinds of sales for a $3 game on XBox Live Indie Games are really good, but that just illustrates the problem – XBLIG is quickly proving itself to be a less than ideal platform for our kind of games. If we want to become a full time development studio, then just making games for XBLIG is not going to work.

Q. Will you be able to do full time development based on sales of Cthulhu Saves the World on the XBox Live Indie Games channel?
A. Probably, but not for long. If our current sales trends continue, we’ll probably make enough money in the first quarter of 2011 to cover full time expenses for the second quarter. However, Cthulhu Saves the World took about 8 months to develop – it doesn’t look like we’ll get 8 months worth of development expenses out of Cthulhu Saves the World off of just XBLIG sales (or if we do, it’ll take a couple years of gradual sales to get it). This is why it is critical for us to expand to other platforms ASAP.

Q. Why the PC? Why not another popular platform like the iPhone?
A. Since our games are made using XNA, the PC is by far the easiest platform for us to port to. Not only that, but many indie developers have seen great success on the PC, so why not us? We may support other platforms in the future, but we’ll decide that when the time comes.

Q. Will you still support XBox Live Indie Games?
A. Yes. Once we’ve expanded our game engine to support PC development, it should be relatively simple to release our games on both the PC & XBLIG platforms simultaneously (or as cloes to simultaneously as the peer review process allows). Although XBLIG sales in general aren’t amazing, it’s still an extra platform for us to sell and distribute our games. Plus, I just like making XBox 360 games.

Q. Will the new features that you’re adding to the PC version also be added to the XBLIG version?
A. Yes. The new features that we’re adding to the PC version will also be added to the XBLIG version via a free patch.

Q. How about XBLA development?
A. That’s a possibility for the future, but that requires much more time and money than we have at the present. After finishing the enhanced PC version of Cthulhu Saves the World, we have a project that should take us about half a year and will probably sell for $3 when we’re finished. After we’re done with that, we’ll see how Zeboyd Games is doing and make plans accordingly. To be honest, I’m not sure that XBLA is a good goal at this point, given the high level of competition and the possibility that a successor to the 360 could show up before too long – it might be better to just stick with less regulated platforms like the PC or to try to support a newer platform.

So there you have it. If we manage to raise enough money to go ahead with the PC version & enhancements and release the PC version early this year, then I think our money problems this year will be solved – the PC version will probably sell at least as well as the XBLIG version, if not better, and between the two of them, we would have enough money to go all out with our next new game (which I think will be even better and more successful than our first two). Every little bit helps – even if you can only afford to donate a dollar or two, it adds up.

Once again, you can find the page for our fundraising project here.

 Posted by at 2:42 pm