Postmortem: Our first Rezzed exhibition

•April 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

We were very lucky to get a government grant ($30,000) aimed to help us with development and promotion. It’s surely not a big sum based on your standards but when you consider the base monthly salary (the minimum salary you have to pay, according to the law) is roughly $200 (yes, that’s only two zeroes), things change a little.

Anyway, the entire thing must be executed within a fixed period of time (8 months at the most), and long story short, I decided to take Enola (the psychological horror game we’re making) to Rezzed and PAX (wait for the PAX postmortem in one week). Rezzed was an amazing event and I met a lot of very nice people. Also, people were mostly surprised we had gone from the other side of the world just to present the game at the event, all the way from El Salvador.

On a side note, I’d dare say we were the first team from El Salvador, traveling from El Salvador to England, to exhibit at Rezzed.

What went right:

Asking, asking, asking: While I was in contact with one of the organizers (Matt), I asked a bunch of questions (maybe way too many), so when we were finally there I knew pretty much everything that had to be done.

Renting is the way to go: I decided to rent half a stand, with two computers. All we had to do when we got to the NEC was to install the software and test it. Around 1 hour later, we could freely leave the place. The guys next to us (One Spear Arena) and the ones on the other side (Kenshi) brought their own stuff. Doing that would have been cheaper, but that’s a luxury you don’t have when you have to travel around the world (shipping computers and monitors from ES to the UK would have been expensive and time consuming).

Many female players: We only got a few hundred visitors, and I’m happy that around 40% of those players we got were women. Enola is not your ordinary horror game (or your ordinary game, for that matter). It’s an adventure-ish horror game with a female protagonist that girls consider interesting. It’s also very exploration-oriented and slow-paced (so it’s not an action stravaganza AT ALL). I have to mention we have not done any sort of “Hey, look, it’s a strong, non-sexualized, realistic, believable female character!” marketing campaign.

Getting contacts: More than 1 dude attending the event means one can stay at the stand talking to people and explaining what the game is about, while the other one roams around the event talking to people and getting contacts. It was expensive for us, but definitely worth it.

What went wrong:

Computer problems: When we were testing the game, one of the computers was having graphical glitches and sound problems. Luckily, organizers were extremely helpful so they replaced the computer in no time.

Sometimes 2 guys are not enough: Sometimes we would get so many visitors we would need to split between talking to those waiting to play and those playing (sometimes they would get stuck), so it was weird to go back and forth between two different people, or not being able to pay attention to a third guy at all. Sometimes having an overcrowded stand was not good, specially when your game needs explanation.

Not enough testing: It wasn’t until the event I noticed some of the hints that would let you know where to go, had gone. That made the game extra-difficult because players didn’t know where to go, and we had to spend some time guiding them instead of just letting them figure things out by themselves. For example, you get the “doll face key” at some point, but the “doll face lock” had disappeared so we had to tell them which one it was.

Not using a tutorial: Let me say this straight. I hate in-game tutorials (you know, the ones that appear on the screen and tell you “ok, walk to that switch and press E to interact… now press SHIFT to run…. SPACE to jump…”). In Enola, I added a “controls help” option in the pause menu, but people never checked it so they didn’t know some live-saving commands like the “get the hell off me” button-mashing that helps you escape when bad dudes grab you. I then added a tutorial later, even if I don’t like it.

What we could have done differently:

Difficulties of a story-driven game: Presenting Enola in an event like this is is really hard because people have limited time so they can’t spend too much time on your game. The problem is the demo can run for 20 or even 40 minutes depending on how fast you play, but it’s not a game that you can pick up and “get” in 5 or 10 minutes. We could have used a more efficient way to demo the game, or maybe make the demo a little shorter. Roughly 50% of the players took the time to finish the demo (meaning they would play for at least half an hour), and around 60 – 70% of those were girls.

Promo material was not good enough: We had a big banner above the stand, but then I realized we could have used a little more promo material (for example a couple of roll-up banners on one side, to gain more visibility). Also, the banner above the stand was based on the poster so all it showed was Angelica lying on Enola’s lap, the logo and the tag line (“there was a sweet young girl… one day she met three monsters”). Adding more information about the game, like a brief description and a few screenshots, would have been better.

MOAR time for planning: When we got the money, Rezzed was already very close. I registered on the LAST DAY and we didn’t have enough time to plan many things. For example, it would have been cheaper to find a hostel in Birmingham and then take the train than staying at one of the NEC-connected hotels at Solihull. More time to plan also means more time for testing and more time to design a better and more efficient banner for the stand (as well as more promo material).

 

And that’s it. EGX Rezzed was cool because I got the chance to talk to players, get their input and impressions. I never made Enola a game with a female protagonist in order to appeal the female audience (I did it because I find female characters more interesting), but it was good to see a lot of interest from women. Also, all the things that went wrong or terribly wrong help me prepare better for future events. Lastly, I learned asking way too many questions is the way to go, because it’s better to be safe than sorry and it’s better to sound inexperienced than to pretend to be the know-it-all and then end up ruining the entire event (specially when attending is not cheap).

EGX London takes place in September and I’d love to take Enola there. I’m not sure if that will happen because I don’t know if we will have enough money. I certainly hope we can go.

Next week I will post the PAX East postmortem, and let me tell you the experience was very different…

Games, what are they good for? (AKA, when can games make a change?)

•March 13, 2014 • 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking about writing this post since late Sunday because this has been bothering me since then. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I live outside the entire “game development bubble.” Basically, this means I come from a different culture, I see things differently than most of you and I think of issues that some others don’t think about.

The title of this post is “games, what are they good for?” because I’ve read many things about how games can make a change, help causes, and things like that. There’s even a gaming ambassador who’s helped advance games to a better place. However, what happened on Sunday March 9th, made me ask myself these questions.

So, what happened anyway?

On that date we had presidential elections, and they were what we call a “second round” (not sure if the same term applies to other countries), and basically it means nobody won the elections (they were held on February), so we had to vote again this past Sunday. The left wing guy won for roughly 6000 votes, and the right wing guy was really pissed off.

At around 10 pm the right wing candidate gave an speech, where he said many things including “according to our data, we won the elections so we will defend this victory, even with our lives,” “we, and the 1,300,000 people who voted for us are at the brink of war,” and “our armed forces are ready to take action on this matter.” I need to mention the right wing guys are the ones who usually declare themselves as lovers of peace and democracy.

If you understand Spanish and want to see the speech for yourself, click here.

In our country we had a civil war during the 70’s and 80’s. I am not interested on a history lesson (you can always use Google and Wikipedia to know more) so I will just say that’s where the left wing party started to take shape (they were a guerrilla, and now they are a political party), and the ring wing party (the one participating on this week’s elections) had their own clandestine armed forces known as Escuadrones de la Muerte (Death Squads). I don’t think I need to tell you what they were for.

That happened less than 30 years ago, so when someone says they will declare war, we take that VERY seriously. When someone from the right wing party declares they will call their armed forces, many of us automatically think of the Death Squads. The thought of having a second civil war is not a pleasant one.

And the question was?

My question is simple. During that time, there were clandestine publications, radio stations, protest music and things like that, that were used to spread ideologies and, well, protest against different things. When I say “games, what are they good for?” is because I wonder if games can be used for the same things, but more importantly, I wonder how that would work because the demographic is people who are mostly into games for entertainment.

I can make a game about problems the society in my country face every day, a game about “political correctness” or a game that shows why we don’t want another war. I believe those games could deliver a message, but it’s valid to ask how many would “understand” what the game is for compared to those who would complain because “the AI sucks” or “those graphics are so PS1.”

At the end of the day I wonder when games can make a change, and when they are just a piece of entertainment.

And now, you can listen to the song.

Should “the man” no longer be the default?

•February 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

So that you know, I began thinking about this after reading this article.

Let me start by saying a few things: it is impossible to answer this question with a flat and simple “yes” or “no.” Saying “we want MOAR women characters” for the sake of balance and diversity is too simplistic be discussed any further, but I have nothing against it.

Also, when it comes to story-driven games, I will usually care more about the main character if it’s a woman, not a man. I specifically mention story-driven games because chances are I wouldn’t care if: you “sprite-swap” Mario an Peach in Super Mario because the game will still be about running and jumping; the Material Defender in Descent were a woman because I’d still be blasting hordes of robots; Samus was a man in Super Metroid because I’d still power-bomb Ridley’s rear part to pieces.

The reason I wouldn’t care is because the gameplay itself would not change, and because I didn’t play Super Mario, Descent or Super Metroid for their deep storylines. However, as I said before, I have nothing against the simple gender swapping. That by itself would be a nice change of things, but nothing more because just don’t expect that gender swap be anything meaningful.

Samus is a special case because you don’t know it’s a woman unless you get a specific ending…

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So, having gotten that out of the way… women in story-driven games .

In story-driven games things change because I come to care for the characters. When I say story-driven I don’t mean some overly complex game with dialogue trees or deep storylines. To me, something as simple as your average RPG would count because, it features a character I get to know and care about. That’s something I don’t get from Descent, Super Metroid, or even modern games where gameplay comes first.

So if your game features a woman as the playable character, I hope you’ll make me care about her as a person and about her story.

There are times when certain gender is “mandatory” (please don’t get me started with the whole “gender and sex are not the same” argument because that is completely unimportant to me at the moment). I use quotations because, in some cases, it’s more related to social, political and cultural backgrounds than it is to universal laws.

However some rules can be bent and some can be broken. Just for fun let’s make a small experiment: There’s no universal law that says only a man can be the happy trigger protagonist with no brains, it’s just something that gaming has come to define (based on whatever social or cultural background).

One good question would be if we’d be ok with a happy trigger protagonist with no brains, that happens to be a woman (think Duke Nukem, only reversed). There’s nothing objectively wrong with such character, but I’m pretty sure not everybody would like her.

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It’d be fair to ask this question, though: who says your main character must be someone you totally adore, and who says your main character must be nice and perfect because it’s a woman? I don’t like FPS or TPS games that much, but I’m thinking it could be interesting to have more main characters like her instead of your perfect woman you’d love to take out for dinner (and I’m not talking about looks, but also personality.

Just for fun let’s make another experiment: I’ve spoken about what I think about Gone Home A LOT but I think it fits my experiment perfectly. There’s nothing that mandates the main character to be a woman, so we can swap the two sisters by two brothers, and the love interest for a man. Is the story more likeable, less likeable or as likeable? You’re free to keep the answers to yourself or share them below. However, from a purely storytelling point of view, the game is equally interesting.

On the article I linked above (but never referenced until now), the developer states that he was thinking about making the main character a woman but then it became a man because he was following a Robin Hood style story. Knowing the protagonist could have been a woman I can’t help to wonder why story style was meant to be a male-only thing, as I begin to think how amazing it would have been, specially contrasted to the setting’s political, social and cultural background (assuming, of course, the game was set in some medieval time).

Of course there are things where a specific gender is mandatory, due to universal laws. Like, there’s no way you can make a game where a man and a kid can play the mother-child relationship, unless you know of a man who’s been able to naturally give birth and nurture. And no, Arnold doesn’t count. I don’t consider that a bad thing because nature and biology end where social, political and cultural environments start.

On to a different subject… I’ve read about women representation in games a lot, and while some good points can be found, there’s something many miss. In real life there are women you get to know and respect, just like there are women who clearly don’t even respect themselves (the same applies to men, but in gaming nobody cares about stereotypes in men), and games only reflect that.

How about a game where you approach that subject? Forget the damsels in distress (no pun intended, really) and forget the perfect adventuress and make your protagonist a woman who’s more than willing to be the “hot girl dancing in the music video” and gradually earns more self-respect and becomes more secure about herself?

There’s many other things and examples that could make it to this blog post but you get the basic idea, so maybe it’s closing time?

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I want MOAR women characters not because I am in some sort of quest for equality or balance. I certainly don’t want them because “we need more strong, non-sexualized, realistic, believable female characters,” because female characters should not be considered a “holy grail of character development.”

As a gamer, I want female characters because they can be memorable, because they can be interesting, and because they can give a different perspective to any game based on any theme (I’m looking at you, Robin Hood!). As a developer I want female characters because I find them relatable, interesting and nice to work with. That’s why the protagonist of my current project is a woman, and that’s why there’s a big chance the protagonist of the next one will also be a woman.

So, at least to me, “the man” should not be the default choice if you want me to care about your story and character. But if the game is about blowing up glowing things or collecting coins, I’ll be happy with the game regardless of the main character’s gender.

Exploration in games: Dear Esther has Gone Home…

•February 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I am not going to discuss if the story was good or bad, because you have to decide that by yourself (and chances are you have already decided). If there’s something I can say is that there were quite a few things I couldn’t relate to because I come from a different culture (and no, the whole “sexuality thing” is not one of those things).

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I mentioned that because I think it’s important to know if you plan to make a story that could be considered universal (a story pretty much ANYONE can relate to) or a story for a specific audience (something only certain people with a specific background will understand). However, as I mentioned before, the story is not my point of interest here.

If you’ve read my blog before, maybe you already know what I think about Dear Esther. Long story short: I consider it a walking simulator and a missed opportunity.

Now, I consider Gone Home a project with identity disorder. This is where I take the liberty to remind you I am not talking about the story, so if you plan to share your comment about how great and touching the story is, please save because as I’ve said three times already, I’m not talking about story.

I talk about execution.

My main problem with Dear Esther was that, for an “exploration game” you didn’t do much exploring because all you had to do is hold the W key for 1 hour while moving the mouse around. Even turning on the flashlight or crouching was automatically handled by the system.

To me, Gone Home suffers from identity disorder for two main reasons. First, it tries to be Dear Esther and Myst at the same time, forcing you “game-like” elements (look for the key to open this door) just for the sake to deliver the story “in order.” And second, because it confuses itself with a horror game, putting you in dark rooms and triggering thunder effects, and also throwing a “ghost hunting side story” (for what it’s worth, at least the ghost story was entertaining).

I once said it would have been really cool if, in Dear Esther, I could explore more and get bits of the story. For example, maybe you picked up a book and you got an audio log related to the book, and so on. In Gone Home, I kinda got what I expected because you have to explore to get the story, which is cool.

Except when the story flow is interrupted by the game-like elements forced into the game just to control story flow and deliver it in some sort of linear form. My frustration came when I realized I was no longer learning about Sam’s story; I was looking for a key so I could continue with Sam’s story, and that there was the possibility that I’d need to turn everything upside down to find that key…

And that’s when I stopped playing.

Some time later, I decided to start again, using the “all doors unlocked” modifier. Long story short, I explored the entire house and finished the game in a single playthrough. While my first time was a completely frustrating experience, this second time was completely enjoyable. The game did not need any of those half-baked adventure-ish game elements, not because they are not the focus of the game, but because they get in the way of the actual experience.

So I think it’s a fair to ask: why would you even need to put those hidden-object mechanics in the game and not just focus on the story? Did the game really need such story flow control? I am inclined to think gamers are not stupid, and that they are perfectly capable of getting the different story elements in any order, and then put everything together in their heads. Delivering the story in non-chronological bits and pieces is nothing new, so I don’t see how a “chronological order” would benefit Gone Home in any way. After all, I don’t think there’s “a right way to play Gone Home” (or any other story-driven game, for that matter).

If the game hadn’t offered the “all doors unlocked” thingy, I know for a fact I would have never played Gone Home after that first time I decided to quit the game in frustration.

However, I gave it a second chance and took the liberty to play Gone Home to get the story in some random order based on the path I used to explore the house, and I liked the game a lot (even if there were quite a few things that were not relatable at all). Gone Home offered the level of exploration I would have expected from Dear Esther, which is very good considering the house is a hell a lot smaller than the island in DE.

However, in the future please stay away from adventure-ish game elements unless you really need them.

(Just a friendly reminder: I’m not here to discuss the game story).

Note: In the meantime, you’re free to visit my other blog (regardless of your religious views, if any).

Making the Enola endings…

•January 27, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Before you ask, no, this post doesn’t contain spoilers of any kind. This blog post is not really a behind the scenes thing. It’s more of a rant, really.

The main thing with Enola is that the game is very story-driven. I don’t know how many will notice, but there are a variety of small story details that relate to each other. My plan is to deal with many of these things in the endings (there are 4 endings).

Just to clarify, the endings were written a long time ago, but after around a year I still find them problematic. If you’re familiar with the game, you know it has very dark story, so my main issue has been knowing if things in the ending would be problematic or would fire up alarms everywhere. After all, we’re talking about gaming, where gore and ultra-violence is cool (most of the time anyway), but other things are dissected beyond recognition.

At the end of the day I shouldn’t really care much about that, because I didn’t design a game to please this or that demographic (for example, I made a female protagonist because in my mind it made sense), but let’s face it, some people in gaming are offended really, REALLY easily for very stupid reasons…

So here I am, still trying to figure out the best way to make those endings. At the end of the day I think I’ll just make a “dog ending” à la Silent Hill…

In other news, the factory layout is finished, and it’ll be a night mare to play…

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Laying out levels and other stuff

•January 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Long time no talk!

Well, I’ve been keeping myself busy these past weeks. I have designed the remaining levels and I have prototypes of those levels in UDK. Nothing fancy really, because they are looking like this:

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The image above shows 3 parts of the 7th level in Enola (there will be 8 levels in total). This level has been very difficult to design, because I wanted it to be large, difficult, and maze-ish. My main inspiration was the Water Temple in Zelda, even if this level has no water, and the gameplay in Enola is very different.

However, this level has a big silo-like structure and you will have to move across different levels while playing.

As I said this is the 7th level. There will be 8 levels in Enola: So far you’ve (probably) seen the intro level, the island, cabin, church and strip club. The other 3 levels will be a surprise Smile The game will also feature 5 different levels. Writing the endings has been very, VERY, difficult.

Personally I hate it when endings are underwhelming (I’m looking at you, Half Life 1 and 2). However, you have to understand It’s very hard to come up with a good ending. Basically what I’m trying to do is come up with endings that will actually make sense, because I am not fan of “weird endings that are open to interpretation” in horror games (or in any kind of game, unless it actually earns it).

Enola doesn’t, HA! Well, what I mean is that the game is not cryptic in any way so a “weird figure-out-by-yourself ending” doesn’t make sense.

Anyway, there’s something else I need to report, but not yet Smile

Enola coming to Steam and other stuff

•December 10, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Hello all!

Well, Enola was finally greenlit, and that means you will see Enola on Steam as well. Since we’ve been alpha-funding the game for over one year and a half, it’s logical to ask if we will release the game through the Steam Early Access thing. Short answer: we won’t.

The early access thing is cool, but I’ve realized it’s difficult to sell the game “in chunks.” Doing this also makes it very tricky to know how much to release and how much to keep under wraps, specially since Enola is pretty much a linear experience with a beginning and an end.

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So the plan is to simply wait until it’s finished, and release the final version on Steam and the other stores simultaneously.

In other news, I got some funding for Enola as well (although I won’t see the money until early 2014, heh). Part of the plan is to port Enola to PhyreEngine so it can be released on the Playstation (my goal is PS3 and PS4).

We got PhyreEngine as part of the Playstation incubation program, and I began experimenting with it a little while ago. I can’t devote as much time to it as I’d like to because we have to finish Enola, so it’s a matter of balancing how much time I spend on one thing or the other (right now I’m using 2 days a week for Phyre and the remaining 3 for Enola).

So far I’ve been into importing assets, characters, animations, controls, and things like that.

The obvious question is why port the game to Phyre instead of using Unreal Engine? Well using UE is something I may consider, if I can afford it. Right now we can’t afford to license the engine because it’s somewhat expensive (I could tell you the exact amount but Epic doesn’t disclose that price on their website, so I guess it’s not ok for me to disclose it either even if I have not signed any sort of NDA with them).

In the end it’s all about the money. If Enola on the PC sold a lot and we got a few hundred thousands in net revenue, I think I’d consider licensing UE. So, re-making the game in PhyreEngine and making it feel as closely as possible to the PC version is our current goal. The upside is that the engine supports all the Playstation platforms out of the box, so it would make it easier to support PS3 and PS4 (and even Vita).

And that’s it. See you soon!

 
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