Monday, June 24, 2013

Fear Not, More Content is Coming!

I haven't been posting in Video Game Industry in a while, but fear not! I've been putting time into a new author position at, a growing news hub covering video games, movies, and anime. I'll still be showing this blog some love from time to time, but in the meantime stop by and check out my work at Leviathyn!

Dave Ingram on

Here's a sample from my recent work at Leviathyn:

Classic Console Emulators Take Ouya to Another Level -

With the Ouya shipping out to stores later this month, opinions and expectations are mixed and many would-be Ouya players are standing on the sidelines. On the one hand, many players with early Ouyas have complained about weak performance and a lack of compelling titles. On the other hand, the Ouya’s release date has been pushed back due to higher than expected demand, so stores are obviously betting big on the console. Regardless of the pros and cons, I recently discovered something that could push hesitant players off the fence and straight into the pre-order lines.

I took a look into the list of over 100 launch titles available for Ouya so far, and at first I was quite underwhelmed. Most of the titles appeared to be small indie games with unimpressive graphics – games that I would rather play for free on my PC rather than paying for a console version. However, as I browsed the titles, I discovered a gem that made my mind explode in nerdy bliss, and suddenly I saw a world of new possibilities for the Android-based console. I discovered a range of classic-console emulators, from SNES, to N64, and even Atari 2600, which means the Ouya could eventually be turned into every classic console you’ve ever loved, all in a single box. And since ROMs are free (as long as you own the original game), the Ouya can provide access to virtually any classic console game ever made for a total cost of $99. I’m getting one.

Here are a few classic-console emulators  available on Ouya at launch:

I’m more excited about EMUya than any of the others. This emulator will support NES ROMs at launch and will add support for Atari 2600, SNES, and Gameboy soon after. The amazing thing about EMUya is the inclusion of an indie game store directly in the app, allowing indie developers to create games specifically for the architecture of NES, SNES, or Atari 2600 to be played on Ouya consoles.

Super GNES
This SNES emulator boasts the ability to scan ROMs directly from a smartphone, creating a neat visual library of games with original cover art. Super GNES will also feature built in support for Game Genie and Pro Action Replay codes, allowing players to relive the days of typing in those long secret codes. The emulator supports networked multiplayer via WiFi or Bluetooth, and it looks like it might be free (no price is listed on Ouya’s website).

Mupen64Plus AE
TurokThis open-source N64 emulator is an Ouya port of the Android version of Mupen64Plus. It’s free and lightweight, and the fact that its open source means its likely to be extended and enhanced over time. Call me crazy, but I’m most looking forward to replaying the first three Turok titles for N64.

Snes9x EX Plus
Snes9x is one of the most popular SNES emulators available for PC, and its the one that I’ve logged the most hours in. Snes9x EX Plus is an open-source project based off of Snes9x, and the Ouya listing claims nearly 100% game compatibility. If this open-source port is anything like it’s namesake, it could emerge as the most popular emulator for Ouya.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

5 MMO Games to Watch Out For in 2013

2013 looks to be an exciting year for MMO games, with a slate of potential blockbusters set to release steadily throughout the year in a range of MMO genres. Upcoming MMORPG's look especially mouth-watering, as developers reach for innovation after watching countless World of Warcraft clones quickly fizzle out. The 2013 release schedule promises something for fans of all genres, including more triple-A MMOFPS titles than ever before. With so many great games coming out, which ones will be the most successful? No matter which games top the charts, these 5 new MMO games are sure to make a huge splash in 2013:

The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online can't be more hyped up at this point, and Zenimax Studios is doing everything they can to satisfy fans' expectations and woo MMO fans who have not experienced the epic single-player franchise. The Zenimax team promises to bring the depth, lore, and customization of the previous titles into the MMO, but the combat mechanics are probably the most anticipated crossover. The Elder Scrolls Online will do away with the menu-driven combat of recent MMORPG's, and will say goodbye to ability cooldowns altogether. Players will be able to experience the same real-time action combat they've come to love in the Elder Scrolls series, utilizing a small handful of abilities (chosen from a large pool of options) that rely on consumable attributes.

Regardless of how this game fares over the long term, it's almost guaranteed to be a blockbuster hit at launch. Aficionados of MMORPG's and the Elder Scrolls series won't want to miss this one when it comes out. 

Path of Exile
I won't say that there was anything wrong with Diablo III, but it is clear that fans of the franchise were sorely disappointed. Path of Exile is a new action MMORPG from a small studio in New Zealand. Currently in beta, Path of Exile is sure to be a sleeper hit when it releases, since it is made by hardcore dungeon-crawler fans with an immaculate attention to detail. The amount of customization available in the new and unique character build system ensures that no two play experiences will ever be alike, and the game was designed to satisfy all the desires of long-time dungeon-crawler fans.

While this one may not make the same splash as some others, the impressive design will undoubtedly garner attention and a loyal following. 

Game of Thrones: Seven Kingdoms
2013 is the perfect time to launch a high-budget Game of Thrones MMORPG. As the TV series maintains a top spot in the ratings, and the books consistently hit the Top 10 Bestsellers list, developer Bigpoint has a recipe for success on its hands. Not much is known about the game so far, but the early screen shots and trailer are quiet impressive for a browser-based game. Browser MMOs may have been a joke just a few years ago, but each new browser release seems to be more polished and robust than the last.

Expect Game of Thrones: Seven Kingdoms to be a hit among a large audience with its low system requirements, beautiful graphics and free-to-play business model. .

DUST 514
DUST 514 is a long anticipated MMOFPS set in the world of EVE Online. This game has already built up so much hype that its servers will be packed on day one. EVE Online is one of the most popular and longest-running MMOs in history, and DUST 514 promises to take the franchise and the genre to a new level with an unheard-of innovation.

DUST 514 will be an MMO shooter for PS3 that places players into the very servers that EVE Online players occupy, allowing them to play alongside EVE players in massive battles involving space and ground combat at the same time – in two different games. DUST 514 is sure to breathe new life into EVE Online, and solidify the strength of the franchise for years to come. 

World of Warships / World of Warplanes took the MMO world by storm with World of Tanks, achieving massive success around the world, especially in the Eastern European region. From a design perspective, the beauty of World of Tanks is that the gameplay is so fresh and unique that it does not have to compete directly with behemoths such as World of Warcraft or Planetside 2. The developers are placing a big bet on this kind of creativity by releasing two new games at once – World of Warships and World of Warplanes.

Simply looking at screenshots and watching videos does not make me excited about these games, but the unbridled success of the predecessor tells me that both of these games are going to be hits when they release. Both games release to an already loyal audience, and the marketing momentum of maintaining three games at once can be huge if done properly. I'm going to especially keep an eye on World of Warships, because the premise allows for a much more similar play experience to World of Tanks, which people have already come to love. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Do Industry-Wide Layoffs Mean For You?

I've noticed a fairly steady flow of layoff and studio-closure announcements over the past six months, and very little in the way of promising startups or studio expansions. Electronic Arts (EA) recently announced another round of layoffs, leading to the expected speculation about studio closures around the world (especially in Montreal). In a market where video games continue to gain traction with new and old players alike, how can we interpret this counter-intuitive news? And what does it mean for professionals in the industry looking for work?

Lean Business vs. Bloated Payrolls
One constant in the layoff announcements is the focus on "leaning up" organizational structures in the industry. Let's face it, tech talent is not cheap, and the best software engineers come at a hefty price. Perhaps the expanding and saturated video game market is slowing down on it's support for multi-million dollar cash-cow franchises, and companies with huge payrolls are no longer seeing the payoff they once could.

Consider Blizzard's new development project, "Hearthstone," which I believe currently has a 15-person development team committed to it. Blizzard mentions in their sneak-peek trailer that they believe small, lean teams developing niche games is the way of the future. I've also heard this kind of language in numerous Kickstarter campaigns run by industry veterans (think Project Eternity). The concepts of lean business seem to be making their way into our industry (a bit late compared to others), and layoffs are an inevitable result of this.

In a nutshell, the concept of lean business is about employing as few people as possible, and owning as few assets as possible, while outsourcing all nonessential functions. This concept lends itself extremely well to a game-development studio or publisher. Think about things like community relations, customer support, tools programming, audio production, and testing -- all of these things can bloat a company's payroll, taxes, and insurance liability, when these functions could easily be performed by outside contractors.

Lean business models can provide a pathway to financial success for game companies. Unfortunately, when a bloated company tries to become lean, people are going to be hurt in the process.

Opportunities for Professionals
This trend may seem scary at first for industry professionals, but there is a ray of light in all this. At the end of the day, it doesn't take fewer people to make games in 2013 than it did in 2012. Therefore, a leaner payroll means that companies will need to hire more contractors than ever before. Let's say, hypothetically, that a AAA project at EA requires a 200-person team. Perhaps 175 of those people would traditionally be employees, and 25 would be contractors (arbitrary figures). If so, then perhaps their next 200-person project will include 100 employees and 100 contractors, or more realistically, 100 employees and three contractor companies that each put 33 people on the project. So, the opportunities for work are still there for experienced professionals, but the opportunities for "employment" are dwindling. Those laid-off professionals who look for entrepreneurial opportunities to leverage their skills as contractors may find more success than those who seek employment elsewhere.

I'm willing to bet that we'll see many more opportunities for independent professionals to find good work in the future, and at a higher price than they could fetch as an employee. The drawbacks, of course, are the absence of the corporate safety net -- the insurance, benefits, paid days off, bonuses and other employee perks. These are some of the very things that large companies are looking to save money on.

Read More
Gamasutra: New, Significant Layoffs Hit Electronic Arts

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What Makes a Solid eSports Game?

The ESL is one of many popular eSports event franchises around the world.
eSports is on the rise in a wide range of genres, with the support of outlets such as and dedicated casting organizations such as the North American Star League (NASL) and Major League Gaming (MLG). Growing numbers of viewers watch live events from aroudn the world, and big-name sponsors like Alienware and Intel are taking notice and backing events, players, and teams.

Developers and publishers of eSports games find themselves in a new world of opportunities, where suddenly their entertainment products become a way of life for professional competitors around the world, and an obsession for legions of eSports fans. Owning the intellectual property of an eSports-centered franchise brings a new level of sustained revenue and interest that basic multiplayer games, and even most MMO's, cannot achieve. Up to now, it would seem that the games that become successful in the eSports world have been flukes, gaining popularity over similar titles through a combination of great design, compelling visuals and loyal playerbases. Based on what we've seen in successful franchises such as Starcraft 2, League of Legends, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, we can now begin to analyze the things that all of these games have in common, allowing us as developers to understand exactly what our games need to have to gain popularity in the world of eSports.

Let's start with the basics; the obvious elements. Balance is key, and is never taken for granted by serious players. Balancing different races, weapons, abilities and stats is a constant exercise for developers of eSports games. Players must always feel that they have an equal chance at victory, and that their opponents do not have an unfair advantage. Balance becomes even more of a challenge in games with asymmetric factions (different races with different units and structures, for example). Constant play-testing is key in the delicate act of balance. Play-testers should include the widest range of gamers possible: from in-house testers to beta testers; from veterans to casual players; from young players to older.

Controls have to be tight, logical, and above all, customizable. The mechanics of controls are of paramount importance to veteran players, and each player has slightly different preferences for control schemes. The player must feel like he is in full control in an eSports title. Any lag between commands and execution can ruin a competitive experience, as can randomly unresponsive controls. Players should be able to quickly perform any action that logically fits within the framework of the game, and they should be able to do it without looking at their keyboards. Again, bringing in the widest range of play-testers possible can help greatly here. Never make assumptions about controls. Always seek feedback from players and testers.

Skill-based competition is the only type embraced in the eSports world, and for good reason. MMORPG PvP has never broken into the world of eSports due to its heavy reliance on gear and character attributes, for example, while first-person shooters have always had a presence. Skill-based competition goes back to the issue of balance. Each player should feel that the only thing that can lead him to victory is his own personal skill, not the contents of a character inventory or a collection of hard-earned perks. The most popular eSports games build in achievements and vanity rewards to make players feel as if they are accumulating goodies, but these rewards do nothing to provide an unfair advantage.

Emergent Strategy
The possibility of emergent strategy may be the most important design factor that rockets games to eSports stardom. Emergence, an elusive yet well-studied concept in game design, can be simply defined as a simple framework of rules and systems, out of which can emerge countless variations of play. Minecraft is today's shining example of emergent design; think about how simple Minecraft's mechanics and controls are, and how vast the number of different creations have come from it (everything from a 10,000 foot tall portrait of Barack Obama to a fully functional MMORPG).

This is the essential element in an eSports game: the players' ability to create, refine, and evolve their strategic options within a deceptively simple framework. Consider how the four ability slots and 6 item slots in League of Legends allow players an unlimited number of character builds, or how a defined set of structures and units in Starcraft 2 can be used in an unlimited number of ways. Even first-person shooters like CoD:BO2 provide emergent possibilities, since players can deploy such a wide range of tactics all around a map.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Happened to MMORPG Design?

Asheron's Call got me excited for MMORPGs for the first time.
I've been a huge fan of MMORPGs since I was 13 years old, back in the days when having a 56k modem made me the envy of all my nerdy friends. Since then I've played a number of MMOs, most recently culminating in my experiences with SWTOR, which I've written about several times. Recently, a friend and I have started playing the first MMORPG I ever played, Asheron's Call. Released in 1999, this game is actually still running, and has a robust population on its most popular servers.

The experience of playing Asheron's Call again has awakened something in me that I forgot existed: the pure joy of playing with others in a virtual world. The slow evolution of the genre had numbed me to the numerous failings of modern MMO design, and playing this gem has revealed gaping disconnects between modern MMOs and the fundamental concept of an open, virtual world.

These days, playing SWTOR (and almost any modern MMO) feels more exclusive than inclusive, more antagonistic than friendly. Modern endgames are designed to encourage people to treat each other with disdain and disrespect, and other players have become expendable at all levels of the game. Forced class roles and the requirements that every player be perfect in every way have made raids and group quests tense and hostile. PVP groups must be perfect in every way, and anyone who plays less than 8 hours a day is summarily booted from any high-level groups.  People who are slightly under-geared are kicked out of groups as if they don't matter, and silence has actually become a rule in raid voice chat.

I'd like to repeat that last sentence -- silence has actually become a rule in raid voice chat. When did the MMORPG experience become as tense and important as heart surgery? When was the sense of exploration and camaraderie designed out of the genre entirely? When did completing high level raids become about angrily insulting someone for being 1-hit, or having hostile arguments about aggro or healing? And when in the wide world of eSports did silence become a rule in raid voice chat!?

I don't want this post to be an advertisement about Asheron's Call (although I highly recommend it as a once-in-a-lifetime gem of MMO design), but let's contrast the way that this game from '99 works to the way that SWTOR works.

In Asheron's Call (AC), any player can train any skill at any time. No one is forced to play any role. Every character can handle tanking, dealing damage and healing to certain extents. This means that groups can consist of as few or as many players as desired, and there is no incentive to exclude people simply because their role has already been filled.

In AC, players are rewarded generously for taking new players under their wings, whereas in SWTOR the answer to every noob question is "Google it, you idiot," followed by "Shut up, troll," followed by "Ignored and reported."

In AC's high-level dungeons, any player can die and return at any time without halting the group's progress. This prevents the necessity that every player be perfect in every way. In SWTOR, if your healer dies, all progress stops, meaning that any casual healers will be insulted and eventually booted from groups.

In AC, everyone's armor is different, and the sky is the limit to the possibilities. In SWTOR, you must have the exact gear that the designers intend for you to have to even participate in a group raid. SWTOR's group finder allows players to que for raids that they are not geared for, in which case the other group members will kick the player immediately. In SWTOR, group members check each other's gear immediately to determine who they have to kick out; in AC, group members check each other's gear out of curiosity and a sense of discovery.

I could go on for days about the huge shortcomings in modern MMO design that I'm discovering by playing one of the originals in the genre. The bottom line is that the first MMO's were designed as virtual worlds to explore, and in which to adventure with friends met along the way. Modern MMO's are designed to exclude people in every way possible, and to force players into following prescribed paths in every area, whether leveling, crafting or gearing up. Modern MMOs are designed to force silence to be a rule in raid voice chat (I know I've said it three times, but it's just insane to me). It has created a cynical elitist culture that excludes anyone who does not wish to spend hours each day grinding through the same boring things just to be able to try and fail at a high level raid several times in a row.

Who has the courage to design an MMO that brings people together in a spirit of adventure? Whoever can achieve that will find my money shoved in their wallet! Until then, I'm going to be on a quest of my own, to discover whether any MMORPGs on the market today are designed to be fun. I'll keep you posted on what I find!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Free Collaboration Tools for Remote Teams

I've just finished my first full-scale game development project, from design all the way through post-launch marketing, and I've learned a great deal in the process. My development partner and I started from scratch to develop a new Hangman app for Android and the Web called Classic Hangman Game (very original name, I know, but it's necessary for discoverability on Google Play until genres and descriptive terms can be searched for).

One of the things we had to tackle right away was to put together a viable workflow and a suite of tools that would allow us to work together, even though we live on different sides of the country. After a few hours of trial and error, we found a group of tools that allowed us to work efficiently throughout the project, whether we were working independently or at the same time.


The first challenge we faced was figuring out how to share and concurrently access project files and resources. We both needed continually up-to-date access to source files, images, sounds and all of the supporting files that Unity produces on its own. We found Dropbox to be an excellent solution, and we've since used it at the Global Game Jam 2013 in Denver.

Dropbox is a free cloud file-storage system with options for premium upgrades. The service allows users to synch folders on any PC or mobile device to any other, while also being able to access the folders and their contents on the web. After a quick download, we both had Dropbox folders on our machines, and we could both access the same files at will. As an added bonus, we regularly received notifications when files in Dropbox folders had been changed, so we always knew when the other person had worked on something.

Google Drive

Google Drive works in much the same way as Dropbox, but with the added bonus of having Google Docs built in. Dropbox takes a bit of time to synch files, whereas shared Google Docs are updated almost instantly for all users. We used Google Drive and Docs to share text files -- mainly our design document. We found that we could both have the design doc open, and changes made by one of us would immediately be reflected on the other's screen. We revisited the design doc frequently, and usually designated one of us to make changes to the doc while we spoke over Google Talk.

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is an excellent tool for remote collaboration and communication. The things we found most useful were the speed and ease of setting up a conference, and the ability to share our screens with each other. Using Hangouts, one of us could view the other's screen, if needed, while we worked. This proved invaluable for solving engineering problems together, or walking through administrative processes such as setting up various developer accounts online. The one drawback to Hangouts is that it tends to be processor intensive compared to other voice chat services. To solve that problem, we turned to Google Talk.

Google Talk

Talk is a much more lightweight and simple voice chat program than Hangouts. Whenever we needed to free up resources, such as during play tests or project building, we would switch from Hangouts to Talk for a smoother experience. This is also our go-to program for Starcraft 2 breaks, again to free up system resources.

With this suite of tools in hand, we were able to successfully see our project through to completion, from design to publishing and post-launch support. If you've found this article helpful, please take a moment to check out the fruit of our labor: our first game, Hangman for Android! If you would rather play on the web, come on over to my portfolio website at

Play Classic Hangman Game (Free) Now on Android!

Monday, January 7, 2013

How Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) Does Free-to-Play

Since my earlier post on Lessons Learned from Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) is the most popular post on the blog, I'd like to follow it up with a sort of "post-mortem" of the game's transition from a solely subscription-based MMORPG to a hybrid model that mixes a Free-to-Play (f2p) service with the existing subscription service. The way that SWTOR does f2p is quite intelligent, and solves its monetization and population challenges in unique and thoughtful ways. As the debate over the validity and ethics of the f2p business model rages in industry discussion forums, we can all benefit from analyzing how BioWare has successfully integrated a f2p scheme that is fair, balanced and anything but "pay-to-win."

I won't go into the specific details of SWTOR's f2p service here -- you can check their official website for the details. Rather, I'll cover the conceptual aspects of the decisions that BioWare made to implement the service, and how these decisions impact the relationship between subscribers and free players, as well as the impressions they give to new players choosing which service to use.

To conceptualize the way that f2p works in SWTOR, start by thinking of the entire game, as a whole, and all of the features that go along with it. Imagine that each feature is like a faucet nozzle, and that all of the nozzles were turned on full blast at launch. What the f2p service does is turn some of the nozzles down to a smaller flow, turn others down to a trickle and leave the rest at full blast. An f2p player can pay small amounts to control the flow through any nozzle, turning this one or that one higher or lower at will, while all of the nozzles remain at full blast for subscribers. The most that an f2p player can do is to purchase enough feature unlocks to be playing the same game as a subscriber, in which case the f2p player will be paying roughly the same amount as a subscriber (theoretically). Therein lies the genius of the scheme -- there is no opportunity for a player to buy his way to greater power than everyone else. The most a player can buy is a set of full-blast feature nozzles that makes the player equal to subscribers.

For example, a f2p player only has access to play two pvp warzones per week, while subscribers have access to an unlimited number. In this instance, the pvp "nozzle" is at full blast for subscribers, and at a trickle for free players. However, free players can purchase a weekly pass to enjoy the same unlimited rights as subscribers for this particular feature. Another example is playable races. Subscribers have access to the entire range of playable races in the game -- a full blast feature nozzle. Free players, on the other hand, only have access to a few. Again, f2p players can spend money to unlock additional playable races, allowing them the same experience as subscribers for a small fee.

Vanity goods are another integral piece of SWTOR's f2p strategy, and in this case the challenge was to avoid unfairness toward subscribers, rather than making things fair for free players. BioWare continues to add interesting vanity goods to their f2p store, including unique mounts, pets, costumes and entertaining consumables (things like fireworks). Since these items are only available in the shop, BioWare doles out a healthy allowance of f2p currency to subscribers each month, essentially allowing them the right to choose whatever vanity goods they would like without having to pay more than their existing subscription fee.

It's refreshing to see a company create a viable and robust f2p service, and impressive to see it done post-launch alongside an existing subscription service. SWTOR continues to be one of my favorite games, and I can't wait for the new expansion to continue my Sith Juggernaut's story.