A postmortem usually happens within a small timeframe after release. Well, I waited 3.5 years, lol. Anyway, this is my take on what went right with design and development and what went wrong.
What Went Right
1. Word Graphs and AI characters
Implementing a word graph to store the word list was a great idea because it gave me so much flexibility in solving problems. I was able to search the graph with the AI engine and find words very quickly. I loved that the Game Studio Content Pipeline allowed me to create processors that could take lists of words and create a word graph structure out of them. I saved off this structure to disk and loaded it very quickly at game startup. I played other word games on the XBox Indie Games platform and many had long load times (probably because they were processing giant XML files or something).
The AI was also a pretty good implementation IMO. It looked very natural, and it scaled up and down in difficulty nicely. It wasn’t perfect, but extending it and tweaking it was pretty simple.
2. Overall Game Concept
The RPG/word game concept is a good idea and I think I executed it well enough when it came to the core game play features. I’m pleased with it and would use it as a template for a sequel if I wanted to.
3. Getting an Artist to do the Artwork
Obviously this is a no-brainer if you want something to look good. I simply don’t have the artistic talent. The take away here is that if you want something to be professional, you need to put the money up to get an artist.
What Went Wrong
1. Some Graphics were not done by the Artist
I decided to do some of the graphics myself which was stupid and I think it led to it looking a little unprofessional at times. I also think the box art could have been better but I didn’t do anything about it. A lot of people judge a game by the box art.
2. The story made no sense and was bad
There’s not much to say here. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t interesting. Maybe it was even laughable. I’m not a writer and I don’t pretend to be one. In the end, a lot of reviewers pointed this out but many would then positively point out that it didn’t matter if the story sucked because the game play was good. The presentation of the story was low tech and uninteresting too.
3. The map was not implemented well and was not interesting
The map needed to be a little better drawn and more interesting IMO. The controls on the map were not done very well. I should’ve used a model where the cursor was more freely controllable by the player. The icon stand-in for the player was stupid.
4. Random encounters were confusing
When you moved between locations on a map, you might randomly be attacked by an enemy. At that point, you can either flee or fight. If you fled, you incurred some HP damage. If you fought, you could usually win the battle but it took too long. This whole process was just not done very well and needed to be re-thought.
5. Shields were a dumb concept
In combat, you could earn shields by scoring big words. The AI character also had shields. If you were about to get attacked, you could tap a button and raise the shields for 5 seconds or so of 50% or better armor. The problem was, however, that human players couldn’t quickly raise the shields and ended up getting hit and then raising them. I bet this made them feel like an idiot. The AI of course perfectly handled shields and it was very unfair. The shield concept should go! You already wear armor so I don’t know what I was thinking.
6. Quests were not interesting
A “Quest” in War of Words was just a scripted encounter (a single battle). There were no other variations on this theme. I should have went for more complicated quests that involved multiple encounters, travel, other game types, etc. I have a lot of new ideas but they didn’t make it into the original and it got boring after a while.
7. Battles lasted too long
Sometimes you’d spend 10 minutes or more on one character. This isn’t good. I did try to make this better at one point but still didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. If they were shorter, we could have had more of them or they could’ve been more interesting. Another variation on this is that it might have been too difficult to beat. If you got wasted at the last minute, you had to repeat the (long) encounter all over again. I don’t know, I didn’t want the game to be too easy though. It is really hard to judge the difficulty of your own game.
There’s probably a lot more “wrongs” to write about, but I don’t want to beat up on myself too much here :). I think the overall theme here is that polish was lacking in many areas and polish is what makes a game great.
Tags: War of Words
Back in March 2010, I released a game called War of Words on the XBox 360 platform (Indie games). This game was a hybrid RPG/Word game that used word spelling as the princaipal combat mechanism in the encounters. It was very similar to Puzzle Quest in spirit, although the core game play mechanisms were quite different.
I had a lot of fun working on that game (and a lot of frustrations too). I had hoped that it would have done better in the marketplace than it did, but Indie Games was not promoted by Microsoft much and I think the game also lacked some polish that would have made it more professional like an Arcade title. For example, some graphics weren’t so great (as they were created by me) and the storyline was not very interesting (my fault again, as I am not a good writer either). I do think the game was better than the average Indie game. It currently is rated as 3.5/5 stars on the XBox marketplace with 232 votes (hardly any Indie games score over 3 stars, and many Arcade and AAA titles struggle to get over 4 stars).
This game cost me about $600 USD to make. About $250 of it was for a few hours of an artist’s time to draw the majority of the graphics. Another $200 was spent on audio/music licensing. I also had a domain name and website (which has been taken down) which cost $100 for a year. I bought a few misc. things like video capture software to take video for promotions.
As far as revenue, I can’t say exactly how much it made because the history of payment is long gone (most of the profits were made in the first 3 months of release and Microsoft does not keep more than about 18 months of history). I started out selling the game for 400 points ($5 USD) but later dropped it to 240 points ($3 USD). I make about 70% of that amount per game. I do know that dropping the price increased the purchase to trial ratio to almost 25% which is quite excellent. I think before the price drop, the ratio was between 10-12%, which is pretty good too.
I can tell you that I did not become rich with this game, obviously. The real reason was downloads. If people downloaded the game, you were pretty certain that at least 1 in 10 would buy it. If 100,000 people downloaded it, you’d make a decent amount ($30,000 - $50,000). But I didn’t get download numbers like that. I pretty much blame this on the fact that Indie games is not a great service if you want to get noticed. There’s too many bad games and demos that squeeze out good titles. Also, you have to think of the audience and I think a word game on a console is probably not optimal. If your game wasn’t about farting or beer drinking, it would not make it to the top of the list. If you got on the top downloaded or top rated lists, you were going to actually get noticed in the dashboard because of the promotion you received. If you didn’t get in these lists (I was in the recent released list for about 1-2 weeks and then gone forever), you got buried in the dashboard. Frankly, I’m surprised that any one finds it today (there’s still a few purchases a week). I know I didn’t really market it too much, but how was I supposed to do that exactly?
I also could not translate the game to multiple languages (the fact that it is an English word game makes this doubly challenging than perhaps a simple shooter game). I sold it in all XBox markets in the hopes that English speakers there would play it. Foreign sales were pretty strong actually compared to what I thought.
I originally was very optimistic about a sequel even with low sales numbers. I knew that I could take all of the money I made and the code/content I had and make a better sequel that would probably have made more money and taken less time to create. But I lost interest.
I basically quit Indie Games because I felt that the peer review concept was not optimal. In fact, I was pretty much correct as Microsoft has basically dumped the technology behind Indie Games (XNA) and has focused instead on DirectX 11 for Windows 8 and whatever XBox One has. Their stance on Indie publishing on the XBox One makes it likely that Indie Games won’t even run on it let alone Game Studio being ported to it. You could tell something was up when guys like Shawn Hargreaves started to leave the team.
I have a lot of design documents and ideas in my head for a sequel (including turning it into a turn-based game), but it will never happen with XNA, which is a real bummer to be honest. I liked the platform and Game Studio was really cool.
I toyed with putting it on Windows Phone 7 for a while and even had a very small prototype but in the end, it just didn’t feel right on a phone (without major changes to its design) and WP7 has no users and so a very small market. I could try iOS, but it’s flooded and I don’t like Apple and I’m not versed in any of their programming languages/platforms.
I think turning it into a HTML5 game would be interesting. This type of game would be best for touch or mouse-clicking I think than using a controller. But I’m pretty busy doing real paying work and being with family than doing this kind of thing.
More to Come
I’m planning on blogging about this game in more detail, especially with technical stuff like building directed acyclic word graphs (DAWGs), searching word graphs, building AIs that play games, character and RPG stats systems, etc.
Tags: War of Words