Reality is a Game

Thoughts on the evolving game world around us.

Escape The Game: My Book On How To Make Escape Rooms

I wrote a book about how to make escape rooms. If you are thinking of opening an escape game or are wondering what goes on behind-the-scenes at an escape room this book is for you.

Escape the Game: how to make escape rooms

Escape the Game is all about how to make escape rooms. It goes beyond only design issues to the business issues that concern escape room creators based on the broad questions that have come my way as a consultant, game designer, and professor of game design.

I’ve worked on escape rooms and have blogged about them (On Designing Escape Games For The Real World and Tips on Designing Room Escape Games), so I figured it was about time I write out my thoughts in a more coherent manner. Thus, the book Escape the Game took shape.

Escape the Game cast of characters.

Escape the Game cast of characters.

I was inspired to write Escape the Game by playing escape rooms that made major, but easily fixed, game design mistakes. I hope to inspire designers to think holistically, to think about their escape rooms as more than the sum of their parts.

Escape the Game book cover

Get my book Escape the Game to find out even more ways to design your escape room.


Indeed, the first draft was just answers to questions that people have emailed me because of the popularity of my posts on designing escape rooms. Escape the Game is now more than that.

Escape the Game looks at the high-concept aspects of making escape games like issues around game flow. The later half of the book goes into aspects of making escape rooms that escape room owners wish they knew before they started; practical things like what to charge and legal issues unique to escape rooms.

I address the most common questions that people have about designing, making, and running escape rooms. I want anybody who designs puzzles and challenges to know that the mechanics are the message. If there is a disconnect between the mechanics of a puzzle and what you’re trying to convey to the players then it makes for a lacklustre play experience.

You can get a good idea of what’s in the book from the table of contents:

Get Escape the Game on Amazon now to learn how to make escape rooms!

A Framework For Understanding Escape Room Games

Puzzle in an escape room
I’m a fan of escape rooms and I keep finding myself writing about them (and bring trapped in them). First it was my book Escape the Game and now it’s chapter in a book on using games in education. Along with Markus Wiemker, and Errol Elumir, I co-authored an article on escape room games titled
Can you transform an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one?

In short, our conclusion is yes you can.

The article goes into more than just thoughts on using escape rooms in learning, we wanted to provide a way to think about and discuss escape rooms as they grow in popularity. We have created a potential framework for understanding escape rooms and discussing the puzzles found within them.

Dialogorientierung & spielerisches Lernen analog und digital
Here’s a short excerpt from what we wrote in Game Based Learning -English Dialog Orientation & playful learning analog and digital:

Puzzle Types in Escape Rooms
Puzzles can be categorized into two basic approaches: mental and physical.

A mental puzzle makes use of the player’s thinking skills and logic. In order to overcome the mental puzzle, the players must deduce, correlate, or decipher clues to arrive at an answer. This type of puzzle is cognitive.

A physical puzzle, sometimes known as a ‘task’ or a ‘twitch’ puzzle requires the manipulation of real world artifacts to overcome the challenge and get the reward. For example, a maze is a task based puzzle. There is no ‘trick’ in solving the maze, you just need to get to the exit. Crawling through a laser grid is another task based puzzle. These puzzles are usually used to eat up time or provide a challenge for people who do not like mental gymnastics.

These puzzle types can obviously be used in combination with one another. A cryptogram may take a while to deduce, however, once the answer key is figured out, it will also take a while to translate. Or possibly a puzzle is obscured by darkness so another player needs to generate light via a bicycle.

Lastly, there is one more type of puzzle which is the meta puzzle. Although not a separate type, this tends to be used as the final puzzle for an escape room. In a meta puzzle, the final answer is derived from solving previous puzzles. For example, let’s say as the players progress through the room, jigsaw puzzle pieces are found with every other puzzle solved. Once they have completed all the other puzzles do they get every jigsaw piece. This jigsaw is the meta puzzle and when put together, it will lead the way out.

From:
Escape Room Games
“Can you transform an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one?”

By: Markus Wiemker, Errol Elumir, Adam Clare

Which can be found in Game Based Learning – Dialogorientierung & spielerisches Lernen analog und digital. You can get the book here, or a PDF here.

If you’re interested in learning more about puzzle and escape rooms check out my book: Escape the Game.

On Marketing Indie Games In 2016

Marketing games is already a difficult challenge and marketing indie games is playing the marketing game on hard more. In 2015 game companies spent $630 million on TV ads with one company, Supercell, spending nearly $60 million themselves on 29 ads.
Marketing spending on games

How can a small indie company compete with these big spenders? Many have tried and thankfully they have also documented their success and failures when marketing their indie games. One thing I have noticed this year is the death of the idea that good games will sell.

Various talks and meetings I had at GDC have led me to believe that the industry has learned as a whole that marketing matters – a lot!

As a result, here are some wise words that I’ve come across about how to get your indie game seen in this changing landscape.

Community

Community
Hannah Flynn of Failbetter Games attributes success to having a very strong community, which she acknowledges can be a challenge.

In indie games, your community is everything. The gaming community at large cares more about games than any other community I’ve worked in cares about anything. Their ratings, recommendations, reviews, feedback, fanart, streams and videos are worth their weight in gold. Investing in your community is crucial to your future.

It’s not just your community that you are trying to build that matters, there are already many communities that you may want to consider joining. The TIGSource forum is one of the best known. To discover more communities take a look at the big list of indie development forums.

YouTube and Twitch

Streamers use Twitch and YouTube because it’s presently a great way to get a large audience, which means you might want to do the same thing. Over at Wero Creative we’re trying that out. We’re streaming every Wednesday (3pm EST) this summer to see if people are actually interested in watching us make our games.

Watch live video from werocreative on www.twitch.tv

You can stream like we’re trying or you can approach streamers.

Both YouTube and Twitch are popular places for people to discover new games. Minecraft benefitted from positive exposure from streamers and you can too. The key though is have a game that is interesting for both the viewers and the player – try to think of ways the streamer can interact with viewers.

The key to this approach is finding personalities who want to review the sort of game you are making. Reach out to them and hope that they want to review your indie game. Indeed, Pocket Gamer has a good summary of how to approach and work with influential streamers.

Don’t know of any popular streamers? You’re lucky that somebody create a list you can spam: contact list off YouTubers – or don’t because spamming them will make them hate you. On that note, if you make things hard for streamers then they’ll likely ignore you or worse they’ll berate you.

Discoverability

One apporach to indie game marketing: gifs
One way to be found is by putting yourself out there.

In a world filled with emoji and GIFs and all that jazz one needs to utilize visuals effectively. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words and a GIF can be worth way more. Black Shell Games (now also a PR/marketing company) noted in a Reddit post that the key is visual media.

Don’t spend week after week perfecting your copy down to a T if you could instead spend a few hours culling breathtaking video footage and screenshots that sell your game much better than text does. Even on the App Store and Play Store, the icon and screenshots are stunning for most hit apps, and encourage people to play the game.

One way to get discovered is through being part of game bundles. Jaime Dominguez-Blazquez discovered this when promoting the game Vortex Attack, as well as other important notes, in his post mortem on releasing the game on Steam.

Luckily for me, a few days after there was someone, Alie from Groupees (a site about bundles) telling me that placing my game in his bundle would help it to get extra visibility. … I just had to wait a month for the bundle to become active but it was great. We sold almost 4000 units; from that about 25% of the people took time to vote the game in Greenlight.

At first, I thought it was pretty good as it ended up increasing my visibility permanently.

Here is how it went (it’s the green line):

Sales of Vortex Attack

Another way to get discovered is to find a publisher (which is a whole other can of worms). This used to be a really great and guaranteed way to have your game found because it let the studio focus on making the game and publisher focus on marketing. The catch is that over the years the role of the publisher has changed – and it depends greatly on the size of your studio and the publisher in how effective the relationship can be.

Rob Remakes is incredibly skeptical about the benefits that a publisher can provide in terms of helping your game get the attention it deserves.

As ever, there’s no guarantees here that a publisher can definitely get you pushed on sites you may not normally be able to reach (and this is also why PR and Marketing firms exist too, but that’s not for this post) but upping the odds, yeah? It’s not just about mailshots either, it’s about what we call mixers (where devs and journalists meet to talk about works) and show floors and organising demonstrations for the press and sorting keys out and so much more. It’s work.

If none of the above is working for you then jump on to the current trend of in-app advertising and integration.

Price point of a game

photo-1434871619871-1f315a50efba

Yes, the price point of your game is part of marketing mix, in short – your pricing strategy matters. That Wikipedia link is based more on physical goods than digital, but the core ideas apply to video games. A good publisher can probably help you figure out what price to sell at.

The core problem with video games is that here never is a good price for them. Over at the Guardian Simon Parkin asks the question is the price of a video game ever really right? He examines expectations of the consumer and of the creator and how neither might not matter in the actual price.

Similarly, the price of games themselves has remained fairly constant for the past 20-odd years: the blockbusters cost around £40-£50, budget and independent titles around £10, and phone and tablet games go for a couple of quid or nothing at all. The pricing is reflective of nothing much beyond consumer expectations. It often doesn’t account for the number of hours that went into a game’s production or the value and quality of the game itself.

Conclusion

The attitude that a good game will sell on its own has changed and now indies are finding that they need to market games as much as create them. Marketing indie games is hard, but you can do it!

There are ways you can market your game in these competitive times:

  • Embrace communities (whatever that means to your game)
  • Reach out to streamers
  • Become a streamer yourself
  • Consider a publisher
  • Have the right price

Other things to think about:

Board Game Jam 2016!

Board Game Jam Logo

Board Game Jam 2016 is happening April 2 & 3!

At Board Game Jam you can:

  • Learn about how to design an awesome game, from some pros.
  • Try out some crazy game idea you’ve been been exploring.
  • Meet other people who love games.
  • And most importantly, make a game!

If you’re new to games or if you’ve already made a million then this jam is for you! We invite people of all skill levels to join in on the fun.

Changes in 2016!
Most importantly, we’re now at Ryerson University. New location, same great taste. We’ll have more details soon on the exact spot.

And that is, actually, the only change for now.

Who’s on the what now?!
Board Game Jam is a 2-day event starting on Saturday morning, and concluding on Sunday evening. On Saturday and Sunday, you make your game; on Sunday evening, we’ll have a big ol’ board game party (boozey venue TBA) and play the games everybody has made! Plus prizes.

Don’t know how to make a board game? Good! Board Game Jam is for the adventurous, not for the already-knowing-everything-ous.

Like last year, you can sign up as an individual, or get some friends and show up as a team – it’s entirely up to you!

You can follow Board Game Jam on Twitter and on the Facebook page!

Artificial Intelligence in Relation to Games

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been said by many to bring us a utopia and, now more frequently, a dystopia. Regardless of where research into AI takes us we’ll be seeing the benefits in games in multiple ways. AIs are not new to games and have been used in games for a long time, what’s more is that a good way to test AIs is to use games.

In the 90s an IBM computer beat a world champion chess player and that was impressive at the time. A chess AI can be programmed relatively easy since there’s a set way to play (basically look at all possible moves of a set and pick the best one).

DeepMind

A Game like go is harder to program for and as a result was deemed to be a triumphant challenge for programmers to create a program that can beat a human (the quantity of what needs to be coded for is huge). Last month, Google’s DeepMind beat a top-tier European go player.

Instead of programming for every possible move like in Deep Blue, Google let their program learn on its own. “AlphaGo was not preprogrammed to play Go: rather, it learned using a general-purpose algorithm that allowed it to interpret the game’s patterns, in a similar way to how a DeepMind program learned to play 49 different arcade games.” This is striking because it’s a leap in how we make AIs that play games. We just toss the AI at the game and hope it learns what to do – just like we do with human players.

To hear more about the future of DeepMind watch this lecture by Demis Cassabas (founder of DeepMind) about the future and capabilities of artificial intelligence.

Challenges for DeepMind’s Artificial Intelligence

Does DeepMind seem too good to be true to you? It’s probably because the annoucnemtn around how it beat the go player is a big claim. Gary Marcus deconstructs the advancement and looks at the challenges AlphaGo (and AI in general) needs to still overcome.

But not so fast. If you read the fine print (or really just the abstract) of DeepMind’s Nature article, AlphaGo isn’t a pure neural net at all — it’s a hybrid, melding deep reinforcement learning with one of the foundational techniques of classical AI — tree-search, invented by Minsky’s colleague Claude Shannon a few years before neural networks were ever invented (albeit in more modern form), and part and parcel of much his students’ early work.

What’s more is that AI still hasn’t reached a level of knowledge and reasoning to deal with questions that require multiple contexts. Indeed, a recent test concluded that present AIs can’t beat an 8th grader.

The Allen Institute’s science test includes more than just trivia. It asks that machines understand basic ideas, serving up not only questions like “Which part of the eye does light hit first?” but more complex questions that revolve around concepts like evolutionary adaptation. “Some types of fish live most of their adult lives in salt water but lay their eggs in freshwater,” one question read. “The ability of these fish to survive in these different environments is an example of [what]?”

These were multiple-choice questions—and the machines still couldn’t pass, despite using state-of-the-art techniques, including deep neural nets. “Natural language processing, reasoning, picking up a science textbook and understanding—this presents a host of more difficult challenges,” Etzioni says. “To get these questions right requires a lot more reasoning.”

It’s only a matter of time until the AI teams get from the 8th grade to high school then to the university level.

How does this relate to games though? With smarter AI comes we will get better bots in games and we’ll see that making NPCs will get easier.

Developing a Unified AI Framework

This month Firas Safadi, Raphael Fonteneau, and Damien Ernst published a paper in the International Journal of Computer Games Technology about how we ought to think about AI in games. They argue that we need a unified framework for dealing with AI development and deployment in games.

Their paper, Artificial Intelligence in Video Games: Towards a Unified Framework, is worth a read and will undoubtedly shape how we think about AI in games for years to come. Think about the possibility that game engines will ship with a suite of default AI behaviours that can be easily modified by non-coders.

Here’s the abstract:

With modern video games frequently featuring sophisticated and realistic environments, the need for smart and comprehensive agents that understand the various aspects of complex environments is pressing. Since video game AI is often specifically designed for each game, video game AI tools currently focus on allowing video game developers to quickly and efficiently create specific AI. One issue with this approach is that it does not efficiently exploit the numerous similarities that exist between video games not only of the same genre, but of different genres too, resulting in a difficulty to handle the many aspects of a complex environment independently for each video game. Inspired by the human ability to detect analogies between games and apply similar behavior on a conceptual level, this paper suggests an approach based on the use of a unified conceptual framework to enable the development of conceptual AI which relies on conceptual views and actions to define basic yet reasonable and robust behavior. The approach is illustrated using two video games, Raven and StarCraft: Brood War.

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