Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Whoa - this blog still exists??

If you want to stay up-to-date with AAD Productions this isn't the place to do it. I recommend the following:

Official Site

I'll leave this blog up since it's kind of fun to see the origins of the FRONTIERS project, but I doubt I'll post here again.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Minerals! And Other Great Ideas

(This is one if those rare wholly positive posts. You heard it here first, folks!)

After launching the Greenlight page I knew I could expect some great feedback and ideas from the folks who pledged at Kickstarter. (Everything from survival to crafting has been adjusted based on Greenlight input, and they haven't even played the game yet! Who knows what will happen during beta testing?)

What I didn't expect was the wild diversity of professions and perspectives. It could just be an illusion caused by the format but the Greenlight camp always felt like a pretty narrow demographic. In contrast the game's Kickstarter backers have been all over the map, literally & figuratively.

Since launching the campaign I've been in touch with not just dozens of artists and musicians and writers but also geologists, linguists, historians and architects, all eager to help me shape the world into something that lives up to their own unique expectations.

Not that I ever could - to please them *all* the game would basically have to be a fantasy-themed Matrix. But I'm finding their input to be beneficial in unexpected ways.

For example: a geologist had a great deal to say about the shapes of the world's land masses, and based on his advice the world's realism factor will be bumped up a tad.

Now I can tell I'd have to work for years to make the world geologically consistent (and genuinely realistic landscapes trend to produce boring gameplay anyway) so I can only take this advice so far. But then he casually rattled off what kinds of natural minerals each region would have in abundance due to the formations & climates I had chosen for them.

Over the past few days I've used this information to upgrade the game world's economy. It already feels richer and more legitimate. I'll be honest, apart from the obvious stuff like diamonds and salt I hadn't given minerals etc much thought. But after just an hour of plugging in numbers everything from the motivations of major characters to the histories of entire regions has been improved. By minerals!

And this is just one example - there have been dozens of similar cases.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised - the backers have already invested money in this project hoping they'll enjoy it - what's a few more minutes to write out an email if it boosts the quality that much more?

All the same I can't help feeling like I've won some bizarre lottery every time an amazing new suggestion lands in my inbox. It takes a bit of the pressure off knowing that when I have a down day it two and can't shake an idea out of the old noodle, my backers have my back.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Story of A Guy Who Discovered that IndieGoGo Isn't Good for Gaming Campaigns and Abandoned it For Kickstarter

Note: This story is biased but it isn't a hatchet job. IndieGoGo may have promised something they couldn't deliver, but everyone I dealt with was personable & pleasant to work with and I believe they did what they could to help the campaign succeed within the constraints of the platform. IGG a good platform for a lot of projects - just not gaming projects.

Decisions, Decisions

The trailer went live and I thought to myself, I believe this game has a chance. Time to crowdfund.

The question is which platform? Kickstarter, or IndieGoGo? I knew Kickstarter was the 'default' choice but I'd also contributed to successful gaming campaigns on IGG, like Ghost of a Tale and Darkwood. And I knew FRONTIERS had some global / casual appeal, which could make IGG a good option... hmm, decisions.

In one of those weird (not-so) coincidental moments, I got a phone call from IndieGoGo.

They'd seen the trailer and wanted to extend a helping hand. They made a pitch that involved IGG's Flexible Funding (which I opted not to use), and assured me that they'd help me one-on-one to tweak the campaign for success. That all sounded fine, but then they dropped this bomb - they would take a hands-on approach to helping my campaign get media exposure all over the world.

Exposure, you say? All over the world, you say?

Well, that sealed the deal for me. I'm a total outsider without any press contacts and very few supporters. A crowdfunding platform that provides some of that up front would give me a huge leg up even if the platform itself was less popular overall. FRONTIERS gets funded, IGG gets their cut - everybody wins. Right?

That's not to say I intended to sit on my rear while they did all the work for me - I've typed my fingers bloody sending out announcements and press releases. SLEEP IS FOR THE WEAK. But I figured that a well-placed phone call or two on their part would help convince some of these contacts to actually read the materials I sent. (I don't envy editors who have to sift through emails from yet another first time developer announcing their campaign.)

IndieGoGo made good on their promise to help tweak my campaign at this stage. They were quick to respond to questions and made helpful suggestions. After agonizing over perks for a few days (too many? too few? too high? too low?) I launched! And things were going great!

"IndieGoGo BAD! Kickstarter GOOD!"

I immediately noticed something - people were wondering why I'd chosen IGG. They'd say things like Hey if this fails try Kickstarter! Not the kind of thing that inspires confidence.

I call opinions expressed by anonymous posters - as opposed to folks I'm acquainted with - The Rabble. No offense if you're an anonymous poster, it's just a survival strategy to avoid losing my mind in a rushing current of ideas.

I've belonged to the rabble myself a few times. The rabble always wants something folks can't deliver. The rabble says I need higher resolution textures, the rabble says it loves steering wheel support, the rabble says it hates game over screens. They're not wrong or right, they're just too many to please. So when the rabble said IGG bad, Kickstarter good! I shrugged it off and said that the platform doesn't matter, what matters is the support you can bring to it.

All the same I contacted IGG with these concerns and asked if it was a common problem, and if so what their strategy was for dealing with it.

Not common at all, was their response. A vocal minority.

Fair enough. I wasn't worried; in my back pocket I had IGG's yet-to-be-revealed media influence, which I expected would kick in once I'd conquered their merit-based ranking system and made it to the top of the games category. I was determined to do this in the first week even if it killed me. (SLEEP IS FOR THE WEAK)

There were a few bumps along the way to the front page - IGG's comment and update system are unintuitive and resulted in a few gaffes, plus there was the (admittedly funny and ultimately harmless) instance of an IGG chat support guy deleting several of my perks in real time after I specifically told him not to. "Oh shoot," he said as we scrambled to recreate them (cue Benny Hill theme). But generally things were going well and I was having a good time. I figured that the 'vocal minority' would shrink.

The Rabble Mutates

It didn't shrink. It grew, and it mutated. They weren't anonymous any more, they were supporters; I had come to trust their opinions. Hmm. Time to consider this seriously, methinks.

I'm sensing a pattern...

Then I did some projections that chilled my blood. The campaign had flatlined. FRONTIERS has a group of core supporters that I knew I could count on in the early days - after that the campaign would live or die by the press. (Hence the allure of IGG's promise.) That core was tapped out, and press was still nowhere to be found.

I wrote to IGG again. I felt bad for dumping on them, but I needed to know if I was really on my own, or what:

Hey, [removed]

I've got some bad news - I'm actually considering abandoning the IGG campaign and relaunching on Kickstarter. It's not just the rabble shouting 'why aren't you on KS' any more - pros are telling me point blank to abandon the campaign immediately and relaunch on KS.

Also - now that I'm on the first page of IGG's games section, I got something like two contributors over the past 12 hours. If the site isn't capable of putting eyeballs on my project then I don't know what I'm doing here.

Just want to make it clear I don't feel entitled to exposure or success - I'm responsible for both, not IGG - and this issue obviously isn't personal. You're just my point of contact so you're the one who gets to hear it. (Lucky you, right?)

Any idea how to make this the story of "The industry outsider who ran a successful gaming campaign on IGG" and not "The guy who discovered that IGG isn't good for gaming campaigns and abandoned it for Kickstarter?" I'll do whatever needs to be done as long as you can meet me half way. I'm out of tricks and the campaign has flat-lined. I've got a referral contest planned but let's be real, it's going to take more than that.

- L

I didn't hear back from my point of contact for a few days (I later found out he was on the road/swamped with E3, which is understandable and for which he was genuinely apologetic) but someone else on the team let me know I was being featured in the weekly roundup, another merit-based promotion I'd been shooting for. Alright, maybe this would kick things off. Maybe this was the start of what they'd been promised! I decided to give it a bit and see what happened.

I've Made a Huge Mistake

So there we are, a week into the campaign. After a ton of hard work and lots of contributions and word-of-mouth publicity from core supporters the FRONTIERS campaign had bit and kicked and scratched its way to the front page of IGG's gaming section, and was featured in the weekly roundup. And then...

*crickets chirping*

Pretty much nothing. A half dozen contributions over the course of 24 hours, many of which I courted myself.

Oh, boy, I thought. If this is what they meant by helping the campaign get exposure, I am so hosed.

There have been a few articles along the way, but I strongly doubt IGG was directly involved with any of them. A Kotaku article that ran during the campaign was a follow up to one that ran before IGG ever contacted me. Other articles coming out this week were due to the press contacting me, or me contacting them. Polygon reached out before the campaign as well. An indiestatic article released this week could have come about thanks to IGG, but I've got to imagine they would tell me if they'd actually landed something, just to shut me up if nothing else.

I'm not saying IGG didn't try - I believe they did. But not trying and not succeeding both have the same outcome for the campaign.

So, what now?


After crunching some numbers and confirming that yes, reaching the 80k goal at IndieGoGo is a virtual impossibility, I decided to shut it down and relaunch at Kickstarter as soon as possible. E3 is right around the corner, which makes the timing of this decision awkward, but I figure about a week will give me enough time to make it through their approval process. If all goes well it'll launch just as the E3 dust begins to settle. And if the people who supported the campaign the first time around are kind enough to revisit it, there's a chance we can pick up where we left off within a few days.

Will moving to Kickstarter ensure success?

Not at all, but at least I won't be handicapped by the apparent lack of gaming interest over at IGG. As I said, I'm ultimately the one responsible for the exposure and success of my campaign. I'm going to try just as hard to bite and kick and scratch my way to Kickstarter's front page. The difference is that once I'm there I can at least expect some gamers to frickin see the campaign.

I will also be revamping the campaign a bit before the relaunch, especially the perks. People have already made a lot of suggestions for improving them.

Ultimately this whole debacle was my own fault for leaping at IGG's pitch to begin with. I was desperate for help and in that desperation eager to believe they could work a miracle. (Feel free to call me a naive in the comments.) Oh well, lesson learned. In the end, this will just be another speed bump.

TL;DR: IndieGoGo enticed me with promises of exposure for the campaign, and I believed them - but the platform doesn't have a substantive gaming audience, plain and simple.

Oh, and to everyone I shrugged off for saying IGG bad, Kickstarter good?

You right, me wrong. :P

I'll close this with a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported the campaign so far. I will do everything in my power to make this transition as painless as possible. And if you're not up for contributing all over again no worries, I'll understand. Stay tuned for more info.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Lego Big!

The one question I get asked more often than Can you build structures in game* is How can you make a game this big by yourself? Or, if phrased less diplomatically, Dude there's NO WAY you can make a game this big by yourself. Crash and burrrrrrn, that's all I'm sayin!

Part of the reason I'm running the crowdfunding campaign is because, frankly, they're right - I need to outsource some art and writing and possibly programming tasks to get this thing done by January. (Thank goodness the game is modular enough to permit this.)

But in another sense they're wrong, not because I'm somehow doing the impossible but because the game isn't 'big' like they think it is.

Oh the scale of the world is big - I've said so repeatedly - and there's a lot of stuff to find, and I've already talked about the structures, etc. But the game is 'big' in the sense that a basement-sized miniature medieval town made of Legos is big. The size is imposing and it's not something you see every day - you'll have a ball peering into all the little windows and down all the streets and marvel at what an obsessive freak (er, I mean hardworking artist) the creator must have been to put so much detail into the all the little buildings. And holy crap that's a lot of Legos. But there's no trick there. No special engineering knowledge or exotic materials. It's just a lot of Legos and a lot more free time. Any impressive qualities boil down to persistence.

Compare this to Skyrim. Skyrim isn't just 'big,' it's BIG in the way a full scale medieval town painstakingly recreated at Renaissance fair is BIG. On top of knowing the historical details you've got to know carpentry and roof thatching and glass blowing, plus costume design and weapon design if you've got live actors, plus backstage coordination and animal wrangling and food preparation... it is literally impossible for one person to make something like that on their own.

So when people tell me there's no way I immediately know I've done a bad job of explaining what it is I'm doing. You're not going to play this game and constantly wonder how did he do this the way one does with Skyrim. You'll know how I did it - it's Legos all the way down.

*No, you can't. But you can do other fun stuff.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Internet is Insane!

A week ago very few people knew what FRONTIERS was. A few playtesters (all onsite), maybe a couple hundred folks I'd reached out to personally or on the gamedev forums, and my wife. I posted my trailer thinking hey, maybe I'll double that.

Now I don't even know how to estimate. A hundred thousand? YouTube alone is cooling off at around seventy thousand. That's not to say they everyone who saw it gives a shit, but the logo has touched their eyeballs. I still can't process it.

And it was mainly due to one article. ONE Rock Paper Shotgun article that I had no idea was coming and suddenly the trailer was getting waaaaaay more attention than I was ready for.

The internet is INSANE, man.

And the craziest thing of all? 100k is small potatoes. Spuds, really.

Look at the views and visitors that some Indie games are working with. It can be millions of people. How the hell do they handle it? I know at some point I'll have to at least try and court that level of exposure. What if I succeed? Exposure is stressful in a way I hadn't anticipated - I thought my problem was going to be haters and internet assholes. Instead I found a bunch of people asking good questions and making helpful suggestions. I want to respond to all of them but it's impossible; I have to ignore so many people. I guess it's a good kind of agonizing, but it's still agonizing.

Anyway, all those first world not-really-problems aside: I'm glad the internet kicked my butt into high gear because what I realized this week is that I've been dragging my feet. I was still afraid that not enough people want a game like this to justify pouring so much money and time into it. But thanks to everyone who stopped by to say 'neat!' or liked the FB page or posted an article I don't have to be afraid of that any more. Instead I can focus on being afraid that I'll disappoint everyone! :)

You've probably seen that I'll be launching an IndieGoGo campaign on June 1st. That's my next big step. With some cash reserves I won't be forced to shelve the game every few weeks during crunch time at my day job. I'll also be able to bring on other artists and writers, thank god.

Raising the dough is going to take a ton of effort (on top of the already impossibly stressful schedule they've got me on at work) but the hardest part - believing it can happen - has been taken care of.

Thanks, Internet!

(By the way, don't worry about my uncharacteristically optimistic mood. I'm sure something awful will happen in the next few weeks that balances the equation and restores me to my cranky self again.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Preserving the Mystery

FRONTIERS is about exploration, and exploration is largely about mystery. And mystery is about guessing without knowing. It's about sensing the shape of things - it's that lump under the blanket in the garage. Is that a handlebar? It sort of looks like a bike but what's that blob near the back? Wait, did it just move? The game knows what's under the blanket but you don't. And long as that tension exists you want to keep guessing / playing. Take away the blanket and suddenly it's just a raccoon sleeping next to a rowing machine. Sure you get that momentary thrill of discovery but there's no reason to keep looking at it.

A few months ago I realized that this is going to be a problem. Here's why:

Dramatic vs. Backstory Mystery

Mystery comes in two forms, dramatic mystery and backstory mystery. I completely made up those terms so if there's a third form, whatever. It's not relevant to this problem.

Dramatic mystery is about plot resolution. Who's behind [x]? What happened to [y]? Will [a] stop [b] from [c]? All will be revealed in the dramatic conclusion! 

Backstory mystery is what happened before you showed up. By accident or design every game has a bit of this as you get acquainted with the world. Most games want you up to speed ASAP - Hello, welcome to Mass Effect, humans made friends with aliens, we use super-luminal spaceships, yadda yadda yadda, here's a gun, GO! Some games (eg Anmesia) are a hybrid, doling out backstory at dramatic moments - I lump those the dramatic column since functionally they're the same.

But the biggest difference between the two is that dramatic mystery is covered by the Spoiler Code*, while backstory mystery tends to be treated as lore and casually swapped. Oh that weird symbol you see everywhere? Yeah that's from the blah-de-blah dynasty 6000 years ago, it represents zoo-be-zoo. Here, check out the wiki. For most games this is a positive thing - playing a game with a mapped out backstory makes it feel more real, more lived-in. It's not spoiled, it's enhanced.

So why are my panties in a bunch?

Because FRONTIERS with a mapped-out backstory is like a rowing machine without a blanket. (Okay, it's slightly more interesting than that, but you get the point.) Sure there's dramatic mystery, and the Spoiler Code covers that, but the backstory mystery is the real draw - and that will be swapped with impunity. And unlike most games, contaminated players may end up enjoying FRONTIERS less. Because exploring / learning / discovering more is pretty much the core mechanic.


That's my first world problem. How to solve it?

  • Nail the blanket in place. (Sorry, racoon.) If the mystery is unsolvable there's no problem, right?

Nope. That's even worse. Unless you're a master of ambiguity (see David Lynch) a mystery demands answers. Not getting them is just fucking irritating. And answers can't be too spaced out, either. It should be a steady drip.

  • Reveal what's going on, but make the goings on mysterious.

Oh boy, you've done it now. This is the LOST / Battlestar Galactica approach, and we know how well they worked out. In their case mysteries were created without answers in mind - FRONTIERS won't have that problem, scout's honor - but the result is the same whether intentional or not: you pull off the blanket to reveal a nightmare manifestation of illogic. Shapes undulate and squirm in your mind's eye like a cubist Lovecraftian terror by way of Escher, driving you slowly mad as you contemplate them, because there is no answer. LOST (and to a lesser but no less irritating degree Battlestar Galactica) will forever remain mysterious, sure, but only because there is literally no way to resolve all the dangling threads.

I call plots like this a PLOST.

But as bad as that is, it's still not the worst case...

  • Reveal what's going on, make the goings on logically consistent, and hold back most of it.

Aw shit. Worst case is when you put in the effort to keep your ducks in a row but you're too stingy with your answers and it ends up looking like a PLOST anyway. Some stories can get away with this because they're designed as a puzzle and expect you to derive enjoyment from the hard work it takes to figure them out (eg, Primer). But for most it's just the worst possible way to fail. That leaves:

  • Be an amazing storyteller and reveal enough to give players resolution while holding back enough to keep the world mysterious.

Well when you put it like that it sounds easy.

Full disclosure: I'm a bad writer. I've written four screenplays and all of them stink. I've made several short films and the story-driven ones are hard to follow. There is a very good chance I will fuck this up. Not the backstory part, mind you - that I've got under control. It's the skillful revealing of information that's got me sweating.

Typically this is where I'd tell you how I overcame that panicked lack of confidence and offer a bit of sage advice but the truth is I've got nothing... so I guess that wraps up this post.

*The Spoiler Code: Thou shalt not tell people what happened if finding out what happened was part of the fun. Thou shalt shalt exercise caution and use blackout / hidden text when discussing spoilers online. Thou shalt use a hushed voice when discussing spoilers in public. Thou shalt not depend on vagaries; they do not work as well as thou thinkest. Thou shalt not assume that you 'spoil nothing' by saying a thing; this is not true as often as thou thinkest. Thou shalt consider a plot point a spoiler until it has entered the realm of public knowledge; whether a plot point is public knowledge must be decided case by case. Lastly; be vengeful toward those who spoil maliciously, but forgive those who spoil unintentionally, for they know not what they do.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Moving on up

Just a heads up, now that I've got an offical FRONTIERS page up and running I'll be posting fewer promo bits here & sticking more to personal thoughts.