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Mike Rose

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The Ludum Dare jams are splendid occasions, bringing designers together in person and across the strands of this electronic web. Every event throws out at least a handful of games (I can reliably carry seven games in one hand) that are either brilliant proofs of concept or miniature masterpieces in their own right. Now that the voting results for the Ludum Dare 28 are in, I’ve been playing through the crop’s creamier portions. The league tables are sorted into categories – Overall, Innovation, Fun, Theme, Graphics, Audio, Humour and Mood – and I’ve included the winning entry in each. There is a well of free gaming goodness below.

A quick runthrough of the Ludum Dare rules first of all. Every

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prison architect long.jpgAt a time when Kickstarter is the way for developers to bypass publishers and pull in investments directly from fans, one indie studio has decided to cut out the middleman -- to great effect.

UK-based Introversion, best known for Uplink, Defcon, and Darwinia, recently launched a crowd-funding effort on its own website. It looks incredibly similar to Kickstarter, with the obvious bonus that there's no other company taking a chunk of the intake.

It appears that the more direct Kickstarter/Minecraft approach is working wonders for Prison Architect too -- as is notable from the sales figures image below, the game has made over $270,000 in two weeks, with nearly 8,000 sales total.

"Kickstarter is for getting projects off the ground, and we were already two years into Prison Architect's development so it just didn't sit well for us," explains Introversion co-founder Mark Morris.

"By doing it ourselves, we don't have to time limit the alpha, and we hope that we'll get more and more gamers interested as we progress and start releasing the updates."

alpha sales.jpgClick to enlarge
Morris also notes that his studio simply had no idea what target to aim for, making a Kickstarter campaign even more difficult -- says the Introversion man, "By controlling the process ourselves, we can shape our development to the success of the alpha.

"We don't have to pay the Kickstarter fees which is nice, but I guess Kickstarter may have added value if they had listed us as a featured project," he adds. "We also had to take the time to set up our own technology to implement the tiering. We used a service called Digital Delivery App, which I can really recommend, but it did take effort on our part."

One of the most interesting parts of the current sales figures is that the $50 tier (in which backers can put their own name and persona into the final product as a prisoner) is the second best-selling tier, after the base $30 tier. Is it simply the idea of injecting your own name into the game that is causing people to grab this tier in spades?

"I think they're actually buying something much more than that," reasons Morris. "They're paying to help Introversion finish the game and assist in molding the direction the game takes and the features and gameplay that we create."

"There's a huge amount of generosity out there and I think the people who go for the 'Name in the Game' tier are proud of what they've done and want to be able to point to their prisoner and say -- I helped make that!"

Off the back of this success, and with Kickstarter successes happening regularly, does Morris think there's any space for publishers anymore?

"I think publishers add value for triple-A titles, but that's it," he tells us. "At the small and medium level, there is absolutely no benefit from working with a publisher."

He adds, "I firmly believe that developers are best place to form the relationship with Steam and control the marketing and PR for a game launch. Publishers are completely redundant in the indie world."

[Mike Rose wrote this article, which originally appeared on Gamasutra.]

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There's a certain game trailer doing the rounds at the moment, and few are really very sure where it has come from.

Quite out of the blue, a new start-up called Theory Interactive has posted a teaser trailer for Reset online, and it is quite spectacular, both in visuals and in cinematic direction.

Gamasutra delved deeper, and found that Theory Interactive consists of writer and artist Alpo Oksaharju and musician Mikko Kallinen. The duo has previously worked at Futuremark on first-person shooter Shattered Horizon, and both share the game design work on Reset.

The studio's first game focuses on story and atmosphere, with the main goal to travel back in time and co-operatively help yourself out -- a "single player co-op" title, as it is described.

Oksaharju told Gamasutra exactly how he aims to deliver atmosphere through Reset's expansive world.

"The game world has dynamic day and night and weather cycles that create unique moods for every player," he said. "Player movement in the game is fully proactive, so one must read the world to understand what has happened and will happen."

Free-roaming and exploration are essential, noted Oksaharju, and the puzzles in the game can be tackled and completed in a non-linear order.

As part of the game's development, the team created its own proprietary technology called Praxis, which is rather stunningly shown off in the aforementioned trailer.

"The trailer is made entirely of in-game material," Oksaharju said, "and I mean all assets, effects, everything, period."

"We would be poorly allocating resources if we'd make huge amounts of extra stuff just for a trailer," he continued. "So in a sense the trailer is a byproduct of the development. We wanted to have full control over the visuals and gameplay elements and Mikko is quite the guru when it comes to tech."

"We knew that we couldn't achieve the right kind of atmosphere using third party engines. And of course DIY stuff is cheap when working with a bootstrap budget," he said.

The team is not yet ready to speculate on when Reset will be ready for public consumption, instead telling us that it'll be ready when it's ready.

[This article originally appeared on Gamasutra, written by Mike Rose.]

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trailers.jpgAsk IndieGames is a new monthly feature that takes a range of topics relating to indie gaming and development and poses them as a question to the editorial staff.

Whereas our sister site Gamasutra explored last month (in)effective press releases, we narrow our focus on what makes an effective game trailer.

We understand indies generally do not have big budgets for internal press teams, outsourced public relations or marketing outlets. That's why, as we curate the finest indie news for our readers, we view practically every trailer (at least in part) and appreciate when it's not embedded in a lot of marketing-speak.

What would compel us to watch a trailer in its entirety? When can a dubstep actually help a game? We attempt to address all this and more in this month's topic: what makes an effective indie game trailer?

mike rose.jpgMike Rose: I have a very specific formula that I've devised over the last several years for what makes an effective game trailer. While I'd say it's my own personal preference, whenever I've discussed it with other journalists they always seem to agree, so I must be on to something of a winner. So here it is: how to make the perfect indie game trailer:

Length: Preferably nothing longer than 90 seconds, and definitely not longer than two minutes, or else you risk losing the attention of the viewer and, in turn, their interest in your game. If you can't convey how great your game is in 90 seconds, you're doing it wrong! Which leads me to...

Show the gameplay: Game trailers are not movie trailers. We don't want to see the words "IN A WORLD..." appear against a black background, nor do we want to spend the first 20 seconds of your trailer viewing the various logos of your game and development team. Fill the trailer with what you're trying to sell - your gameplay! Find lots of interesting parts of your game, set a video recording program like Fraps running, and then bang them all together.

Music: If you're about to add heavy metal, techno or dubstep music to your game trailer, stop and think: does this even match my content? The answer is most likely going to be no. The music in your trailer is far more important than you believe, and in some cases, is one of the main draws - I mean, check this trailer for Fez to see what I mean. Give it huge consideration, and maybe explore free samples and tracks that you can use from the old interwebs.

KD.pngKonstantinos Dimopoulos (Gnome): I'll have to be brutally honest here and admit that even the very best trailer for an indie FPS or another tower defense variant would have to be more than exceptional to actually intrigue me. Other than that, I will also have to admit that screenshots and a game's description are usually more than important, but, well, let's focus on the subject at hand here: trailers.

On a rather more technical yet very important level developers should first of all make sure their trailers are readily available both on an easily embedded form (YouTube should do fine) and as downloadable files. More than a few journalists and bloggers do after all seem to prefer uploading videos themselves, most sites demand specific widths for their media and, admittedly, more options never hurt anyone.

Another important point, one that does actually determine whether I at least actually go on to watch a trailer or not, is its running time. Anything over four or five minutes, unless it's something I've been waiting for since the early 90s or has been designed by Tim Shafer, will most probably remain unwatched.

Assuming the above criteria have been met, I'd say that an effective and thus memorable trailer is a rare and difficult to analyze beast.

Yes, aesthetics are definitely important, as is a great soundtrack and enough information to actually describe the game on offer, but I'm pretty much convinced a good trailer needs to tell some sort of story. You know, have a beginning, middle and an ending; feel coherent and informative. Check out the latest Star Command trailer: one of the few recent ones I actually fondly remember and a trailer that provides enough gameplay footage to intrigue (but not answer everything), looks stunning and is akin to a very short movie.

Oh, and do keep in mind that any trailer mentioning the words ground-breaking, unique and innovative more than once doesn't make itself any favors. And, no, pre-rendered videos showing off cutscenes aren't a great idea either. Not unless you're preparing the next Starcraft of Dishonored.

Danny Cowan.pngDanny Cowan: Here's how I typically view a trailer:

1. Before it even starts, I skip to the middle, bypassing the company logos and that storyline you've put so much work into (sorry).
2. If it starts to drag, I skip toward the end (sorry again).
3. If I haven't seen any gameplay footage after about 30 seconds of
skipping around, I close the tab (super sorry about this).

Basically, I'm a jerk, and I'm sorry. Trailers are key to attracting interest in your game, though, and you should focus on making them concise and impactful, regardless of how dumb I am.

In skimming a trailer, I'm looking for a brief explanation of the game's mechanics and an idea of why your game is fun, interesting, or unique. Everything else is secondary. A length of one minute is ideal; thirty seconds is even better. Sound doesn't matter at all -- I reflexively mute most videos before they start playing.

Good stuff to include for people who want to talk about your game: a link to your site, a release date, and a list of supported platforms.

If your trailer is for a mobile or tablet game, I consider whether the genre is underrepresented on the platform and whether its controls are a good fit for touch screens. If I so much as catch a whiff of Angry Birds, I'm out.

steve cook.jpgSteve Cook: An effective trailer for me isn't too long; around 1 - 2 minutes length is perfect. If it is longer, I tend to lose interest after the 2nd minute, unless the game is complex enough to really justify it.

I prefer to watch snippets of gameplay footage cut together with a soundtrack that matches the mood from the game rather than explanatory voice-overs or bits of writing. I don't want so much footage as to show me every single mechanic in the game (I enjoy discovering some things on my own) but enough so that I understand how the basics will work.

A title or 'introductory' screen is a good way to begin so that I know the name of the project I am looking at. A fade out to an 'ending' screen is also acceptable - possibly announcing when the game will be released and for what platforms.

Humor can be a good thing to, if injected into the trailer properly. Making me genuinely laugh out loud definitely makes it that little bit more likely that I'll stick with a trailer to the end.

cass_colour.pngCassandra Khaw: I'm embarrassingly easy when it comes to game trailers. If it shows gameplay for something that I'm interested, I'll sit down and watch it, regardless of how crappy the music/sub-titles/introduction/video quality is.

That said, I'm probably not going to watch it till the end. Once I've assessed the game, I'm going to shut it down and move on to my next piece of work. OF course, that's only applicable if you're operating without a sense of humor. If you want an example of what works wonderfully, you should check out Magicka. Seriously. Check out the trailers for Magicka. They're one of the few that I would rewatch just for the pleasure of it.

As for what doesn't work, well, that's also pretty simple. Trailers that don't show anything. Those don't work for me. I'm talking about the ones that don't do anything but show two pieces of concept art for two minutes. I'm talking about the ones that linger lovingly on the logo. I understand there is a need to do teasers from time to time but there's a reason they're called 'teasers'. They're supposed to titillate, to entice, to make me desperately curious as to what is going to happen next.

johnpolson2.jpgJohn Polson: A trailer is effective for me if it educates and entertains.

I want to learn about the gameplay. Edited, short bursts of the game can be effective, but sometimes clips need a few extra frames to complete a certain mechanic. Words and transitions aren't cop outs if needed to explain what makes certain clips so special. At the very least, an educational trailer teaches me a game's pitch or message. A more educational, and effective, trailer demonstrates this game pitch to the point that I can explain paraphrase it to my readers.

I wouldn't mind learning about the game more, too. Aside from gameplay mechanics, inject the game's narrative, music, sound effects and even its personality. Learning if a game will be fun, sad, serious, fictional, dense, intense, or methodical helps me frame the game in a context as both an editor and a gamer. Release and platform information should either be in the trailer or in an accompanied website; otherwise, we can't help couple the game with its target audience.

I also wouldn't mind learning about developers in the trailer. Developers are vulnerable in exposing their work to judgment in under two minutes (a sensible length for trailers), so this is no time to feel shy. That said, not every person performs well in front of a camera or microphone, so I consider this an added bonus. If a trailer becomes slightly viral, though, the developer also becomes more widely known and has effectively already broken the ice at events like conventions and conferences.

Entertainment is entwined with a lot of what I feel should educate the viewer. While not revealing everything that makes a game special, clever snippets of dialogue, menus, cut scenes, in-game action, world maps, boss fights, or even customize or option screens can add flavor to a trailer. Stringing these elements together carefully in two minutes conveys that there's not just a bunch ideas, but a game, behind the trailer.

Audio and visual stimulation add to effectively entertaining. Unlike screen shots, I am looking at something in motion, hopefully with sound. I won't stop watching a trailer if the sound is poorly orchestrated, but rich audio (be it chiptune, 16- or 32-bit synth, or other instruments) adds heavily to my entertainment. Since the game is in motion, the importance of a cohesive art direction-- foreground, background, and everything between-- can't be understated, either.

Once developers cut a trailer, they should show it to someone who's never played or heard of the game before. If this new person can't describe the key mechanics or quirks, then the trailer needs to do a better job at educating the viewer. If this person is part of some targeted audience and doesn't want to play the game after watching, the trailer (or the game) may need to be made more entertaining.

I've spent too many words already, but I'd suggest checking out Kert Gartner's epic trailers or Tim Rogers's fourth-wall-breaking ZiGGURAT trailer. Gartner's also posted a lot of helpful, technical tips on making trailers, which were taken from his Indie Game Summit talk during GDC 2012.

Do you have a question that you'd like the IndieGames editors to tackle? Email EIC John Polson at johnpolsonfl at gmail dot com. Feel free to also check out our sister site's Ask Gamasutra, which inspired this new feature. [image source]

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dlc quest.jpg[Written by Mike Rose on Gamasutra.]

A couple of Xbox Live Indie Games developers have seen notable increases in sales of their games, due to two separate forms of cross-platform and cross-game advertising.

Going Loud Studios founder Ben Kane revealed that, since being a part of Gamasutra sister website Indie Royale over the weekend, with a PC version of his games DLC Quest and Lair of the Evildoer available via the latest bundle, sales of the Xbox version of DLC Quest have quadrupled.

DLC Quest had sold 134 copies on XBLIG the weekend before the Indie Royale bundle -- however, during the bundle this past weekend, the XBLIG version saw 506 sales in total. The game has been available via XBLIG for around four months.

"To move over 500 copies this past weekend on Xbox is nuts," he said. "It also has a pretty big implication -- you can do cross-platform advertising or word of mouth and have an effect on 360 sales."

He continued, "There's sort of been this age old wisdom that you can't really successfully advertise for XBLIG on PC or mobile, because there's just too much of a gap between looking at something on your PC, and then going and playing it on your Xbox."

However, he says that this past weekend has shown him that "at least to a certain extent, it can be done."

Elsewhere, the developer behind Minecraft-inspired XBLIG hit FortressCraft revealed via Twitter that another of its XBLIG games, Steam Heroes, has sold more than 10 times as many copies as it had previously, simply by offering an unlockable item for FortressCraft when you buy it.

Back in October, the company added a special in-game item for FortressCraft, that is unlocked by purchasing Steam Heroes. Sales of the game immediately rocketed following the inclusion, with 10 times as many people buying the game over the next couple of months than had purchased it over the 12 months prior to that.

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gunpoint gama.jpg[As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, developer Tom Francis explains the concept behind Gunpoint and how his game journalist background has helped mold the game's shape.]

It's always interesting to watch games journalists forging a path into the world of game development. You have to wonder whether their knowledge of what makes games entertaining and enjoyable can give them an edge over your average developer.

Tom Francis is one such developer -- a British journalist who currently writes for PC Gamer magazine, and is developing one of the most talked-about upcoming indie titles of 2011.

Gunpoint is "a stealth puzzle game", in which players are invited to break into various buildings by rewiring anything and everything to trick the NPC characters who are guarding the valuables.

The game has now been nominated for the Excellence In Design award at this year's Independent Games Festival. As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Francis explains the concept behind Gunpoint and how his journalist background has helped mold the game's shape.

What is your background in making games?

I don't have one! As a journalist and an asshole, I'd sometimes catch myself wasting review space with ideas for how to improve a game, which isn't that much use to the reader. So I'd cut that out, but wonder if I was right or just, as I say, an asshole.

The smartest designers I've interviewed are also the humblest, so guys like Robin Walker at Valve are the first to tell you that you don't know anything about an idea until players have tried it. So I decided to try it.

What development tools are you using to develop Gunpoint?

I didn't actually start making a game until I discovered my favourite platformer ever, Spelunky, was made in Game Maker, which I'd heard was noob-friendly. It is, and in less than a month I had a movement prototype I could send to testers.

That feedback loop has been going ever since, and the public interest in it has been enough that I've been able to bring on some collaborators: John Roberts and Fabian van Dommelen to handle the art, and Ryan Ike, Francisco Cerda and John Robert Matz doing the music. I believe they're using paint brushes and bongos respectively.

How did you come up with the concept?

I feel like a lot of games are designed on the assumption that the player is stupid: a tester doesn't have the intended experience, so I guess we've gotta force him to look at that spaceship crash, lock him in the room until the enemies are dead.

I wanted to make a game with the idea that the player might be smarter than me. Let him think of solutions that never occurred to me in hours of playtesting, and give him the tools to be more creative than I was when I designed this level.

I don't think that testers are being stupid, I think they're being defiant. And they're defiant because the game isn't letting them be creative or smart or funny, it's trying to make them have a packaged experience.

So the Crosslink gadget, which lets you rewire any of the electrical things in a level, is my way of giving you some of the designer's power. It's almost like a level editor: I restrict some things to make sure it's a challenge to complete, then I let you design how you want the level to work to achieve your objective. You can be clever, efficient, complicated, funny or cruel.

You're developing Gunpoint in your spare time while writing full-time for PC Gamer magazine. Have you found that your background in games journalism has helped or hindered your ideas of what a game should be?

Definitely helped. But the really helpful stuff is stuff anyone could do. The job just forces you to, which saves you the trouble of having any common sense.

The big one is having an overview of what's out there, and what's notable amongst that. Keeping up to date with everything interesting that comes out, and having a few gaming friends who get you into stuff you might not have tried otherwise.

It's useful for judging whether your idea is unusual enough to be interesting. I didn't know if Gunpoint's main mechanic would work in practice, but I knew if it did, it would at least be unusual.

That's led to a lot of interest in it, which let me put out a call for artists, which made it look better, which led to more interest, which let me put out a call for musicians, and here we are.

The game has a very sandbox approach, in that you can wire any electrical item to any other electrical item. Has it been difficult balancing this with the stealth element, or do these go hand-in-hand?

I didn't think about it like that ahead of time, but they seem to be a natural fit. Stealth is just a cool word for 'maybe don't get shot in the face?' It means avoiding enemies and getting into position to ambush them, and rewiring stuff gives you a wide set of options to manipulate the environment to do that.

Since the guards also interact with the environment and move around it, the ability to change the way it works lets you set up traps for them. Often you don't even need to be in the same room to arrange their death, which is among the best ways to not get shot in the face.

What are the next steps in the development of the game? What is your vision of the final product?

I have a vision of all the awesome art John and Fabian have sent me being in the game, instead of in a series of zip files in my Downloads folder. There's more to be done on both the art and music sides, but at the moment I'm usually the bottleneck, because I'm doing so many things at once. That should be my job title: Bottleneck.

I'm writing the between-mission branching dialogue at the moment, which is really fun. There are also more levels to design, and I want to redesign a lot of the ones that are done to include the more interesting puzzles and possibilities the mechanics now allow.

Are there any elements that you've experimented with that just flat out haven't worked with your vision?

The last thing I cut was a gadget called the Cold Call, which let you spend some energy to remotely activate a device on any circuit you'd tapped into. It basically let you turn resources into trivial solutions to puzzles. I do want players to be able to spend a limited resource to bypass something they don't like or can't do, but I already have more interesting ways to do that, and the Cold Call was undermining them by being so straightforward.

If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?

I wouldn't spend a fucking week on the elevators. For some reason I had it in my head that you needed to see an outline of the lift as you travel between floors, which changed it from a simple afternoon job to one of the most mammoth programming, bug fixing and polishing tasks in the game. I'm usually pretty good at stepping back from what I'm doing and making sure it's not a waste of time, but I always felt like I was on the cusp of finishing the goddamn elevators, and I really wasn't.

They're good elevators though.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

Yep, I've played everything in my category. Predictably, my favourite is Spelunky - though I'm also a big fan of Frozen Synapse.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Those guys? Ugh, can't stand them. Some of those games don't even have unlockable concept art.

[This interview was originally posted on Gamasutra by Mike Rose.]

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[While the new Indie Royale game bundle that we co-created with Desura is running, we'll be profiling each of the five games featured in it, giving our honest opinion on the pluses and minuses of each title.With Christmas drawing near, we take a look at The Oil Blue - an oil drilling simulation of surprisingly satisfying proportions.]

Ever since I first read fellow editor Michael Rose's glowing preview of The Oil Blue, I've been curious about the game. Would it live up to expectations? Was it something of an acquired taste? I wasn't sure. After all, oil drilling simulations are exactly everyone's cup of tea.

Was it mine? Yes and no. The Oil Blue is interesting. It has a little bit of everything you would expect - an assortment of machinery to maintain, resources to acquire, repairs to be done, sales to be made and even a fiesty upgrade system. (When you rank up for the first time, The Oil Blue will inform you in no uncertain terms that you're now a Worthless Peon). But it's a slow-paced experience, the kind that may make FPS junkies fidget in their seats.

Though the subject matter might be offensive to some, the premise behind the game is a fairly intriguing one. The Oil Blue is set some time in the near future. Thanks to certain events, oil is even more crucial than before and as an employee of United Oil of Oceania, it's your responsibility to reclaim islands, drill for oil, sell the oil and then profit. That's the story in a nutshell. And as far as I can tell, that's also the long and short of it. Normally, this would be a bit of a problem but The Oil Blue isn't about the plot, it's about the gameplay.

This is where it's going to be a hit or miss. If your idea of a good time is an afternoon spent tinkering with virtual machines and worrying over dials and meters as you wait patiently for a stroke of good luck, you're in for an excellent time. Otherwise, The Oil Blue will probably make a better present for a chess-loving cousin. At any given time, you'll only ever get a certain amount of hours to man your drills and ensure that they product as much oil as possible. If you screw up, you can expect consequences to follow. You will also have to be savvy about potential oil prices. Do you sell them now or do you wait till they've achieved a higher demand? Much like in real life, it's a gamble. You're also going to have to ensure that your machines are repaired each morning to ensure optimal efficiency. And on top of that, it's also your job to determine what upgrades are the most crucial. It's a lot of work but it beats a 9-5 desk job, right?

Well-made visuals, intuitive controls and decent music tie the package together. Though it will never overwhelm you with its splendor,The Oil Blue doesn't fail to impress. It's kind of like the stalwart, unromantic partner we never think of but subconsciously look to wed. Strangely meditative in its own way, The Oil Blue is the kind of game that won't rock your world but tempt you into spending hours with it.

There's a demo that you can check out if you're interested in a more hands-on look at things. Otherwise, I totally recommend Mike Rose's expansive preview on the matter. As for me, I'm going to see if I can finish this last island before I go to bed..
Official website here, and you can buy it as part of Indie Royale's 'X-Mas Bundle' for the next few days.

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