Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Octopus 8's thoughts on funding

So we're out there: Octopus 8 Studios has been launched in the press and we got quite a lot of publicity in the gaming press, for example on Games here.  We were extremely pleased with that and excited at the coverage.  I am working with Justin Parsler and Rich Barham.  We're funding everything out of our own pockets for now and Rich writes about that decision on our website here.  For those of you who aren't into trawling to somewhere else then  you can read it below where I've re-posted the text!


It’s interesting. Most entrepreneurs will do whatever is necessary, fighting tooth and nail to get funding in order to help their business get going. I respect that, particularly given how challenging it can be.

Let’s face it, wouldn’t it be good for Octopus 8 Studios to have some money behind us to pay salaries, both our own and to colleagues, and so we can open an office and get marketing spend amongst many other things?

Sure, that would be absolutely delightful, but, after a lot of discussion we elected not to try for funding. Here’s why.

Octopus 8 Studios is built on a few key foundations; they were thrashed out as the product of forming a company where we would like to work and one we would work with. They were formulated out of the observations of where we had experienced some of the less pleasant side of business, and where we felt we could draw the line between being awesome to one another, to partners and colleagues without being naïve.

I’d like to share some of them with you. I’m going to assume you haven’t seen them on our website, (yes, that’s a reasonably shameless plug) and there’s a few more added so here goes:

“An Octopus has three hearts. We would like to reflect that in the way we do business. Integrity, care and respect of those with whom we work are of prime importance to us…:”

“We have many strings to our bow or arms to our…well, you know.”

“Octopus 8 Studios is based on the premise that creativity should be nurtured, shaped and supported, and by that process mutual gain enjoyed. Exploitation of young talent is our antithesis.”

“Nice doesn’t mean naïve, we’re a business and we aim to succeed. Success and the good treatment of others isn’t an either/or situation and that’s something we will always be careful to prevent going astray.”

“Gamers are still gamers regardless of color, sex, nationality, age or creed. So are game developers. We want to make sure we’re championing that in everything we do. We want to make the best games, with the best people anywhere. That’s regardless of whether they’re from next door or the other side of the world.”

Now, I’m not going to tell you that any of these are completely new but I am going to insist that I have seen many of them fall by the wayside in Games Studios from time to time. Ask yourself:

How big do you get before you stop answering applicant emails?

How long before the CEO blocks their external facing inbox?

What do you do about it when you make these changes?

These are all real problems, but you know what? There’s a lack of transparency about why these things are done as well as the fact that they are done which hurts people.

Talking to your applicants or fans (most often they are the same people), or writing an open letter to post on your job boards about why you do things that appear to value process over people, even why you simply had to hide your email because yesterday you got xxx mails asking for ???.

All this helps people understand your constraints, and gives people the communication they need to get a fair chance. Social media now makes things easier, but it’s important to remember that you need to be multi faceted in your approach to communicating with talent, or you are letting people slip through your fingers.

Our beloved Games Industry.

It’s pretty awesome, right? Great place to be – you wear weird clothes (maybe) your work environment is pretty relaxed and if you’re doing things right, its kinda fun. No, not you…put down the nerf gun please.

Don’t we have a responsibility to help people who want to have the opportunity to share in that? It doesn’t matter if no one gave it to us. This isn’t about us (and frankly that’s part of the problem). Consider: when was the last time you wrote back giving actual viable advice to someone who wasn’t successful in joining your organization?

If the industry is to be healthy, we need to take a step back and look at what we have become.

Right now, there are some huge leviathans that are great at looking after people but sometimes that becomes inconvenient (there are exceptions) and many mid sized studios who are falling down one after another because they’re trying and failing to be the next leviathan.

Lots of people are self-publishing, it’s easy to get content out there, but no one is working with those people to give them the support and guidance that a studio traditionally would have, nor are they getting a structure to make a career move into a leviathan in many cases. Great talent in so many cases is giving up on a 40% formed idea because they can’t get the help on the other 60%, or the support to get them all the way through process to the finish line. Where is some of that great talent now? Which amazing potential games are going to fall through the gaps?

It would be easy to take this talent and squeeze it until it was dry then cast it away, or to exploit it for everything possible till the next potential great came along. We were determined that we would nurture and grow people, and not just once but over and over again. We are in a great position to partner with people to help them learn, grow and evolve while making amazing games. Making sure that we are treating all of those people; whether we work with them or not is a baseline expectation.

So, with that little speech out of the way – it may start to become clear as to why we did not seek to obtain external funding before making a start. Most of those with capital that we have personally experienced are looking at the bottom line and for them – quite rightly so, they want to make money out of their investment. More power to them right?

Yes and no. That’s not really what we’re about. We believe that the right approach will make money, can make a whole lot of it – but it’s going to happen gradually over a longer period and it will have ups and downs. We didn’t want to compromise on our belief to grow and nurture in order to force things into the milestones of investor profit expectations. Will we succeed because of this? Does it make us bad businessmen or ‘blue sky’ idealists? Perhaps.

Octopus 8 Studios to me, represents an evolution of how the games industry can work and as a studio I believe represents the opportunity for a new style of mid sized studio, hell maybe even a leviathan with three hearts (get it?). We would certainly like to be in a static location where we can also provide people and standard way of living with salaries and benefits that everyone deserves, but with more on top besides. Perhaps we will find the investors who share and understand our goals, if not – we will continue as we are, with very long boots and a whole lot of straps.

We have a dream that the industry way of doing business will evolve to where mutual benefit trumps the power of the few. Is this evolution or revolution? I think that much is still a little unsure, perhaps it’s both,

We shall see.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Keeping Busy

You might think that my lack of posting recently has been because things are slow or that I don't have anything to post about; happily you couldn't be more wrong!

It has been a manic few months, and hopefully I will now be blogging a little bit more (the eternal cry of the errant blogger - I know!)  So, where to begin?

Well, the work at Lady Shotgun continues apace, it's been a great experience and I have worked with some wonderful people.  I can't say too much about what I'm working on as it's all covered by Non-Disclosure agreements, however I've worked on a number of projects that have gone pretty well and which are hopefully due for release (as well as some that might not be!)  As a work for hire company it means we sometimes do stuff that doesn't see the light of day but its a great experience

I've also moved 'day job' to working at Brunel University where I am not teaching on the games design course there.  Mostly I'm lecturing the BAs there and it's a wonderful experience.  I am learning loads and getting to work on and talk about games all the time, it's incredibly enriching and the students there are both dedicated and hard working.  On top of that it defiantly expands your thinking about games and is enhancing my reading into the subject.  I may go on and do a PhD at some point in the near future (which would of course take quite a few years but is an exciting prospect).  One of the side effects of this is that it is giving me a bit more time to play board games and try out new games that students recommend, all of which is excellent.

Finally (but this is also incredibly exciting for me) I have been involved with a new startup company called Octopus 8 Studios.  We're aiming to work in a fair and open way with new talent and produce games that they want to produce, giving advice and direction to them.  I know from my own experience that without a guiding hand it's incredibly hard to get your work actually complete and that is part of our mission, to help people get on with it and give them the best chance to do well.  One never knows in the games space if what you're working on is going to fly or falter, but I think we're working on some great products and that they have real future prospects.

So it's been a busy time, and I am trying to fit in some social life as well as some gaming of my own, so it's a good time for me, and I very grateful for it.

Hope things are just as great for you!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Progress Update

Gosh it's very hot isn't it!! <melt>

So I thought I would write a quick update on my progress as things are going, it's been a while since I've written one!

Finding a job is proving to be very difficult!  I knew that was going to be the case and I am luck enough to have a job which pays my bills and things and are understanding enough to indulge me nipping off to interviews... Not that I've had loads!  The ones I have had have been informative and interesting though and I have learnt more by doing them.

However all is not doom and gloom by any means.  I have been lucky enough to work with the brilliant Anna Marsh on a number of projects for her company Lady Shotgun, it has provided some hugely valuable experience and I have made it onto their website!  This really is a very exciting moment of 'recognition' for me and I am thrilled about it.  Here's a screenshot:

and here's a link to the page.

Hooray. The additional news is that, not only have I done a bit of design work for them but I am now about to start work on a game for them too, due out <gulp> some time around Christmas, and it's a game I helped write the initial design document for, so that's very exciting!

So, all go!  Apologies for a lack of updates for the last couple of months, service to be resumed.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Ever-Never-Winter Nights...

It's been a long road from Ultima Online (and it's dial up connection) to Neverwinter and many MMOs have fallen along the way; but here I am playing the new 'Free to Play' MMO from Perfect World.

It's technically not been released yet, and whilst to many that might sound like I was onto something special, that I was one of the Glitterati of the gaming world... in fact I am a punter like everyone else because the game's open beta is available to anyone who wants it.  So that's a Soft Launch then, right?  NO - what the hell is a SOFT launch?  It's a launch, that's what it is, a launch with an apology so we shouldn't be annoyed if it doesn't work!    Never apologise before you begin, it's a fundamental rule of presenting...

Anyway that rant over and aside I am, as  you may have gathered, playing Neverwinter from Perfect World. It's an MMO based (loosely) on the Neverwinter Nights / Baldurs Gate games and uses (also loosely) the D&D 4E rules.  Not that you need to know any of that to play the game, but if you do there are some nice nods to those titles.

I've been playing for about a week now and it's a nice, engaging game, it's an action MMORPG, so imagine Diablo as an MMO and you're on the right lines.  The game makes some very interesting choices in this regard, firstly you have to target things, not by pressing '1' or a hot-keyed 'target-of-target' button but by holding your reticule over what you want to hit / smash / burn / make have a bad day.  That changes your game play quite a lot; and if you don't believe me think about it from a healer's point of view - I can't target the tank by pressing F1 and then my healing button, instead, in amongst the fray I have to hover over him and heal him, hoping that he doesn't move!  All that being said it works remarkably well - it's challenging and that's not a bad thing!

Mobs ambush you, some of them are hidden behind columns and they don't always fall for old tricks like Line of Sight pulling...  It's all rather refreshing!  The Holy Trinity of Tank / DPS / Heal is still there but (at low-ish levels) it feels a bit muted - there's often a lot of mobs to deal with and the AI will teleport mobs out of AoEs / attack people standing at the back and things, so this is an action MMO with an emphasis on the action, I've found myself to need to be mobile and alert while playing.

You get a trail of lights that lead you to objectives and lots of people have commented that it's 'dumbing down' MMOs (sigh - I bet they have installed Quest Trackers in WoW or looked up guides in TSW!) - it's true that it stops you faffing around if you don't want to, but deviate from the glowing trail and you'll often find extra rewards, hidden chests or sometimes a mimic waiting to ambush you (My first mimic and gelatinous cube were happy moments!)  It's easy to miss stuff if you don't explore, and there's a lot of loot waiting to be had off the beaten path.

Quests remain simple, there are times when I need to go to the field of blah and kill a dozen wargh, only to then have to go back to the field of blah and kill 6 targh, but I am happy to trade that for there being more things to do and an all round prettier game.   There are escort quests, carry quests and find the whatever too.  The questing, I would say, isn't anything shiny and new, instead it is like a comfy jumper of quest hubby goodness, I feel 'safe' in my journeying around the world.  The quests have some nice text associated with them, and some cool storyline moments (there's a very good one early on with unexpected endings) and that's nice fluff ~ some thought has gone into creating atmosphere in amongst the questing.  The zones have (so far) had individual feels to them, it has felt like I am going to different places.  The instances have echoed that.  All in all the graphics are a little lower than you might expect but that probably helps it run more smoothly.  They do look very D&D though, which again helps invoke the right 'feel' to the game.  There are some really impressive graphical features too, with some very nicely drawn elements.

Abilities have a nice range of options once you get to the point where you get to choose (which isn't for the first dew levels), there are limited options at the moment but that's going to get broader with the introduction of more paragon paths according to their site.

The game ramps up in difficulty, although the first 25 or so levels are fairly easy going.  We managed dungeon instances with 4 people without too much trouble.  The third instance final boss then kicked us round the block and trampled on our corpses!  Which is a good thing!

The Free-To-Play element of Neverwinter is very interesting.  I'll write separately about it because there's a lot to think about but it's well designed from ground up and doesn't thrust a need to spend in your face, rather it encourages you to spend to enhance the experience.

The Foundry deserves a separate write up too.  The Foundry is Neverwinter's user generated content feature.  Players can, using a sophisticated tool set, create adventures for players to engage with.  I've had a look and it's pretty impressive, it also means that the keen dungeon masters out there can create a wealth of content which might help the 'lack of end-game content' phenomenon at least for a while.  More on The Foundry when I've explored more.

I think Neverwinter needs some more classes; there's 5 at game launch and it could use one or two more (but there's lots to draw on from D&D and hopefully they're releasing Ranger / Monk / Druid soon.  Races look a little generic to me, and again I'd like more choice, but perhaps there's enough for now.  I also hate the naming policy which seems to be 'anything you like' - I've wandered past the entire Game of Thrones cast, Chuck Norris and Princess Leia.  I hate peoples names!

Is Neverwinter a keeper?  Very hard to know.  MAYBE - it's certainly fun for now.  It will need to keep it's content coming fast and furious, and will need to battle that 'end-game' phase with gusto.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Piracy Hitting the Pirates

Walk the plank?  Ahaaa

No, not that sort of pirates... Today I read an article written by Patrick of Greenheart Games where he talks about what he did on releasing his new game Game Dev Tycoon to investigate / combat / make a statement about piracy.  It's got some really interesting stats and makes a great point, so have a read.  As for the game I haven't played it yet, and there's a lot on, but I wil and I'm looking forward to it.  

In the meantime all power to them, and I hope their hard work pays off...

The article is here
What happens when pirates play a game development simulator and then go bankrupt because of piracy?

Monday, 29 April 2013

Marvel Heroes: Beta Review

At the weekend just gone I played the Open Beta for Marvel Heroes from Gazillion.  I only came onto it late as I was tied up for the rest of the weekend, so it was a slightly rushed experience, but I can say, hand on heart, that I thoroughly enjoyed it and wish I had had more time there.

Marvel Heroes Review Beta

The game is, for all intents and purposes Diablo I or II but with Marvel...  Now firstly that isn't a derogatory comparison, like a lot of people I pumped many hours into both of those games ("Stay a while and listen...") and loved them.  For me Diablo III didn't hit the mark, but this is much more reminiscent of the earlier games.  Another reason it's specifically relevant is that Marvel is designed by the same man who designed DI and DII, so the similarities are understandable!

For me the game felt a lot like the PS3 Marvel Alliance release, or perhaps the later Civil War game, grab your superhero and dive into a world with some quest objectives and some powers... beat up the baddies... Rinse Tights, Repeat.

Where the game worked for me is:

  • There is a large opening rosta of heroes* from which you can choose and if you're a marvel fan you'll almost certainly find one you like, and I understand there are plans to bring many more in
  • The heroes have a good range of powers which let you play in slightly different ways, and a selection of gear and drops that further customise your stuff
  • It's easy to switch between heroes so you can chop and change a bit**
  • There's a nice seeming crafting system
  •  there is a LOT of terrain you can throw / break / smash, that leaves persistent graphics on the dumping ground
  • And there are town portals.  (They're not called that but...)
  • The Free To Play mechanics are 'ground-up' designed***

Marvel Heroes Beta Review

* Things might change before the game opens properly but on startup I had a choice of (6?) characters from which I could choose one.  They were quite a few popular characters, although not the 'heavy hitters' of the Marvel universe (no wolverine / spidey / iron man in there!).  HOWEVER the open beta (very cleverly) gave me 2000 credits to spend.  With those credits I could buy myself a range of about 18 more characters.  They cost between 600 (for the ones I could have started as) - 2000 credits (Iron man!)  That meant I could experience the game from two or three characters perspectives.  More on that below.  Apparently heroes are also 'dropped' as Loot from some quests.

** I only played two but I could switch between them when I wanted to, errantly I didn't note how 'being damaged' translated when I switched, but it seemed to work fine, it also means you can drop heroes in and out in different circumstances if you want to.  Where you're up to in the game is set by the player not the character so you can use anyone (you own) anywhere, although as levels get harder that will be less of an option. You can go back and redo bits of the game with the same / different characters if you want to (via the in game justification of turning back time I think, which was a nice touch)

*** A lot of people are still getting used to FTP games.  I still hear / read a lot of reviews saying "The game was free but they asked me to pay for X, it's so unfair" which amuses (and terrifies me), until the rise of the free society where we all do what we want and the world works itself I want my mortgage to be paid by making games, so FTP is fine.  Some games have introduced it into a 'previously paid for game' and it feels like a bad fitting jumper, just wrong.  Guild Wars 2 did it will, and the balance here felt right too.  If it stays the same I'm sure many people will buy at least one more hero to play (with such a lovely candy-shop of choice it's hard not to!)  

Costumes too are available for purchase, you don't need to buy one but if you want to wear the costume of your choice then you will pay those few hundred credits... And the range of choice is good - if you want Hulk's hulk world costume then it's available, Thor from the movies?  Sure...  and so on.  Iron Man Mark 42 is even available but only if you fork out the $199 for the super-startup pack.  I'm sure people will moan, but y'know, it's a free game, can you really moan about something that's free!?

The other thing about the costumes is that they distinguish you from the people around you; your Thing will stand out from the others, and that's useful aesthetically as well as mechanically.

I'm sure you can buy XP boosts and that sort of thing, which I'm not into but if you want it, it's there 

I started with Thing and bought Jean Grey (She's also Phoenix) and that meant that I could try a bit of ranged and fisticuffs.  Both of these were fun and felt different in flavour and play style, and nicely seemed different from the way other characters were playing also, meaning that if I played more I wouldn't feel like it was just doing the same thing in different colours.

Marvel heroesThere's an intro mission which teaches you how to play with some nice events in it, a brief bit of looking round Stark Towers (with a few nice cameos such as a box with Loki's helmet in it!) and then an open map. The open co-op worked surprisingly well; it was large enough to accommodate and random events (a mugging, a police baracade being stormed and the like) worked extremely well.  I got beaten up and ressed. Everyone bundled into Electro and he was a little easy given the numbers but that sort of balancing is easily addressed.  Then it was off into an instanced area that played very well.  It was challenging but not overwhelming, and the fun of throwing cars at people shouldn't be undervalued!

The graphics are simple and cartoony, not massively detailed, but it works well for the setting and keeps the game flowing smoothly.  Cut scenes are in a comic style and are delightful.  The story is written by the man who wrote House of M, so hopefully a winner.  Apparently the main baddie is Dr Doom, who isn't a favourite of mine, but is quite a standard villain for this sort of piece.  Amusingly it seems to be about the Cosmic Cube (which is what they based the Tesseracht on in the recent Avengers film.)  I hope he's a smoke screen for a bigger plot and their site claims to have a lot of story so here's hoping.  Voice acting is from people who have voiced the characters elsewhere, but not from the movies)

Marvel Heroes Artwork

Controls are pretty simple, left click to move somewhere, (and attack if there's a baddie there), right click to use a power, as you get more powers you can assign them to keys (mapped to asdfg initially).  Using a superpower costs 'spirit', but you have some freebies also (punch / kinetic bolt in Thing / Jean Grey's case).  Baddies often drop experience / health / spirit orbs which you can collect to top up those bars.  New levels mean new powers or improvements to existing ones.  Kit brings advances to power / stats.

Marvel Super heroes is out on June 4th.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Single Player Games: I long to be alone!

Computer use is an inherently solo activity.  There's a keyboard and a monitor, when you get into a flow then you focus on it to the exclusion of all around you and you can while away hours looking at the screen without realising where the time has gone.  Increasingly a lot of people use headphones to get the best sound quality and this shuts out the outside world even more.  That's pretty solitary.

Computer games and computers in general are however bringing us together...  The increase in services like Skype (which I think is one of the most remarkable free services around) for chatting to your friends or the rise of the social network has been a huge feature of the last few years.  The various networks are doing everything they can to get us to be connected to them in every possible way too.  I have a Kindle Fire, an  iPad, 2 PCs (one at work) and an iPhone - all of them have access to (at the least) these two and more 'services' - I am pretty sure that my xBox can connect to it and I'd be surprised if my TV couldn't as well if I were so inclined!

The rise of the MMO has also been a feature of the recent years.  I began with Everquest and have ventured through a whole stream of them (WoW, SWTOR, TSW, GW2 SWG to name but a few acronyms!)  As games in and of themselves they were varied experiences but the thing that has kept me in any of them has not been the gameplay, it has been the community of people I've played with.  The friends, real life and otherwise have been the life-blood of the game and I've enjoyed playing with them as much (more in some cases) than I've enjoyed the game.  

There are elements of this outside the MMO community - Call of Duty and its ilk all rely on the multiplayer game and my best experiences of the game (which I am pretty bad at) have been when playing with friends in a team.

Social Games Notification'Social Games' has come to mean games played on Facebook or increasingly on mobile phones and are the height of an antisocial experience in many ways.  In my years of gaming I can count the number of 'non-academic' conversations (i.e. conversations not held in regard to research or learning or work) I've had about social games that have not been derogatory.  I should stress here I'm not against social games, but that's something I might write about at a later date.  I have received literal hate e-mail about facebook posting up a Farmville 2 announcement / invitation and have caught myself being embarrassed about playing them in the past.  Almost invariably they are single player games where your only real interaction is in one for of 'gifting' or another, they are almost all a-synchronous and have very little to do with any actual contact with people.

I play a lot of games and often one of the criteria I look for is 'can it be played multiplayer', is it co-operative multiplayer?  is it 'tacked on multiplayer'? I spend many hours playing all sorts of games (see perhaps some of my Games I'm Playing posts) with my friends.  I really enjoy that time and it brings me closer to friends who I can't see as often in the real world as I might want to.

But there is something I miss and it's taken me a long time to get there in this little write up.  The really good single player game.  I remember the days I used to rush home from school or college in anticipation of finding out the next plot twist in Final Fantasy or Baldurs Gate II.  They were brilliant, or perhaps I just remember them fondly.  I've found it hard to recapture this recently, Tomb Raider is almost there, but it's still been overtaken by other things.  Bioshock stands out as being good, I liked the first Dragon Age and Mass Effect II was very good, but of late my desire to 'play a bit longer' has been limited to my multiplayer experiences...

Maybe I'm alone, maybe creating single player experiences is just too expensive.  I can see that argument being a good one - the single player games I've played have been quite short, they need a skill that perhaps isn't needed from multiplayer where emergent game play and fun can come from what your friends do.  Bioshock Infinite is said to be a good example of it, and no doubt I'll pick that up soon, but I do wonder and find myself thinking more and more about the demise of the single player game...