Zen of Sudoku!

In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the past couple months, I have an explanation. I’ve had my head down, working on a casual game that is now ready for sale! It’s called the Zen of Sudoku (yes, that’s Cory’s artwork there!).

Until recently, I never understood why developers would ever leave the “regular” games for casual games. I never saw the appeal of these simple games that generally had cutesy graphics and didn’t push design or technology. When faced with the proposition of trying to become solvent though, I could think of no better way to get some income than to make a small game with mass-appeal. The royalties involve with making casual games is so high that each copy of a casual game sold will tend to make the developer far more money than each game of a “AAA” hard-core game! With ActiveMark, developers can even make good money without relying on a publisher or distributor.

Of course, coming up with something interesting to work on when all you’ve got is 2D graphics (you can’t bank on any 3D acceleration for this market) and about 2 minutes worth of attention span. That’s when I came across the glory of Sudoku.

Sudoku has been quite a phenomenon in the United Kingdom, and is really taking off here in the States as well. So why aren’t there any decent “gamey” versions of Sudoku? I have no idea, which is where the Zen of Sudoku comes in.

I feel like there is latent demand that can be tapped by really lowering the barrier to entry (in true Blue Ocean style). Playing in a newspaper doesn’t require a computer of course, but going from that to actually enjoying the game is a different matter. All you get is the cryptic “Ensure the numbers 1-9 go in every row, column and box” and from there you have to get to the fun. Even the other computer versions of Sudoku out there have cruddy or no tutorials, which is something an electronic version is uniquely suited to do. Add in a peaceful, yet “gamey” interface (no more “spreadsheet” feel) and I think a lot of people will be interested.

The trick here for me is to position the game not for “casual” gamers, but for people who have probably never played a videogame in their life. They have a PC, they go online for e-mail and searching, but they really haven’t seen nice graphics or sound on their machines before. I think that for someone like this (which is a huge huge market), a game that has essentially no system requirements, is a quick download, has a guided tutorial and is non-violent might be just the thing to get them interested in videogames. If they already know the paper version, all the better. This improves upon that by removing the tedium and reworking and focusing on the fun part: perception and logic.

Nearly every game on the big portals sells for $19.95. But because of this positioning for the “real” mass market (so I hope), I’m selling the game for $12.95. This makes the game more competitive with other casual games and Sudoku programs, but more importantly, makes it more comparable to buying a book of Sudoku puzzles or a movie ticket.

So this journey into casual games has been a great learning experience. It’s been wonderful to immerse myself in blue oceans thinking and making games for every day people, as well as having the technology be so simple as to be completely tertiary. What’s been even more exciting to me though is being able to tell people that I meet about what I’m working on and getting a positive reaction. They love the fact that it’s non-violent and I love the fact that I can just give them the website and there’s a good chance they’ll be enjoying it within five minutes. The qualities of the game I’ve worked to acheive are readily apparent shortly after playing. For people that don’t play games, that means they are just a little bit closer to viewing games as positive experiences and as art.

So to Natural Selection players reading this, please realize that I don’t expect to give up developing first-person shooters or real-time strategy games any time soon! I fully expect the next project will be a very kick-ass version of Natural Selection for Source. However, I do expect to create games for bigger audiences when appropriate, and to hopefully innovate in the casual arena. I’d love to make games that aren’t called “casual” but instead “accessible”. Games that are every bit as compelling, rich and artistic as our current generation of games, but with a very low barrier to entry.

In the meantime, if you wanted to directly support my work, please give Zen of Sudoku a try and help spread the word. Thanks,

Want to make a game? Here’s how.

I get a lot of e-mail from people who want to get started in games but don’t know where to start. My usual response has been to make a mod. The problem with making mods these days though is that engine technology has gotten so good that it takes a lot more work and a lot more expertise to make something on a current engine. Making a mod for Doom took a lot less technical and artistic work than it does for Half-life II, and the next-gen will start to force mod authors to make programming-only mods. So what’s a great way to get started on your first game, so that it doesn’t take years and a team of 10+ to accomplish anything?

I think one great answer right now is the Popcap Games model. They’ve made some very fun “casual” games with a very tiny amount of technology. I’ve never gotten excited about casual games but the games Popcap are reaching a very wide audience and are genuinely fun. What gets me even more excited is that they’ve released their technology. For free. Just go to http://developer.popcap.com and you can download their framework and along with Visual Studio Express, you’ll be up in running in minutes with no money down. I’ve done a lot of game development over the past 10 years or so but I haven’t gotten this excited in a long time. You can open up Photoshop, scrawl an image, and 10 seconds later have it drawing on screen. Playing music and sound effects are a snap. Loading bars, options screens, animated sprites, it’s all as easy as possible and it will work on every damned computer out there with no extra downloads. This is game development at its simplest and purest and you will be spending almost all your time on actual creative work, that is, your gameplay, your aesthetic, your art, etc. Suddenly, making a complete game could take you days or weeks, not months or years. It’s a great way and fun way to learn, just make sure not to download Zuma or you’ll get nothing done…

Another great option is the Torque engine. The Torque engine is big step up from the Popcap development framework technology-wise (most notably adding cross-platform support and full-featured 3D and networking technology), but that means more work as a developer before you can get your first product done. It also costs $100 to download. One great aspect of the Torque engine is that much of your game can be written in their scripting language, which reduces the barrier to entry and makes it easier to debug and port your game for release.

One vital feature that both of these engines are missing is some sort of digital rights management (DRM) and/or e-commerce system. If you are making your game for the Windows platform only, the best DRM right now seems to be ActiveMark, though getting them to give you their tools can be quite a feat. There is also RegSoft and Paypal, though integration with your game is a little more difficult.

If you want to make your first game, I would recommend making some sort of puzzle or 2D action game using the Popcap technology. If you’ve done some game development before and want to make a more sophisticated 2D or 3D game, the Torque engine will not do you wrong.

So if you’ve been wanting to make a game, you have no more excuses. Get started today, you won’t regret it!

Orson Scott Card and Dani Bunten Berry

I just saw this article linked from Slashdot. It is a column written by the great science-fiction writer, Orson Scott Card. It was written for the venerable Compute! magazine, 23 years ago. What’s interesting is that back then, EA was known as an innovative game company. This was largely due to one reason: Dani Bunten Berry.

Dani Bunten Berry has always been my game design idol. Her rare GDC writings, lectures and assorted pieces of wisdom I’ve been able to find on the net have astounded me with their vision and relevance. If games today successfully accomplished some or any of her desired game attributes, gaming would be a much more vibrant and social space, and one that appealed to a much wider variety of people. For instance, she talks about multiplayer games with the “Norm effect”, which describes what happens when Normy walked into the Cheers bar. The regular yell “Norm!” when they see him, welcoming him back to their small bar community. A game that facilitates this would long keep its players coming back for more, as the social aspects of the game outlive the game mechanics (which can ultimately be mastered).

Dani invented the real-time strategy genre with Command HQ. She wowed us with her games and was the first famous transgender game designer. This was over 15 years ago, in a time where gays and transgenders had even more stigma than they do today. Between her amazing work at Ozark software and her tumultuous and ultimately satisfying personal life, she was a fearless master of life in every respect.

I’ll leave you with her famous GDC quote, on why she designs multiplayer online games:

“Art, animation, sound, music and people playing together! Who could ask for more in a medium! No one on their death bed ever said “I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!” (Duh… it’s people!)”

I couldn’t agree more. We’re still trying to catch up with you, Dani. R.I.P.