Akari – short play demo video

Akari is a game that we’re currently thrilled to be developing here at Space Monster Games. It takes its lead from classic early 1990s shoot em ups such as Raiden and Outzone. Though the visual style is developing nicely we’re still hard at work creating some cool graphics and effects to keep you entertained for many, many levels.

More about the young hero of the game, Akari, and her backstory will follow in future posts. We hope you enjoy the video.

Defining alien attack formations in a retro shoot em up

In our last game, Thundergun, we adopted a purely randomised approach to generating the levels. That is, the alien formations were predefined prior to the game loading but their formations for completely random.

For our next game, Akari: Battlestar (working title), we’re looking to plan the action with far more precision.

Our inspiration for this game is from the early 1990’s and games like Raiden.

Raiden was a tough game. Very tough. Our game will hopefully be a little more forgiving in the style of what were once referred to as manic shootersDo Don Pachi epitomised this style in which you pitched your fighter against hordes of formation-based adversaries who sprayed bombs (with some elegance) around the screen. Under normal circumstances avoiding the bombs would be nigh on impossible. But this genre used much tighter collision detection; often using just a single pixel in the centre of the player’s ship for collision reference.

We’ve already adopted a similar approach.

But it’s the fighter formations we’re keen to establish up front by way of an in-house level design system. The placement of aliens, cannons, collectables, mini bosses, tanks; you name it, will be handled by this system. Each entity will have all attributes defined and the resulting output stored in a JSON format to be read by the game.

The attack formations for Thundergun were based largely on Capcom’s 1943.

Fighters swooped in, curled around and then flew off. If you took the entire formation down you were presented with a bonus item.

For Akari we want to have a lot more variation.

Fighters will adopt one of several attack formations.
e.g.

  • Drift down from the top of the screen, pause, fire, drift off to the side
  • Drift in from the side, fire bursts, drift off to the side
  • (Tanks) trundle in from the side and follow a set path
  • Squadron formations from the bottom of the screen that fly off screen and return in slow formation

For Thundergun we introduced the concept of a game progress ticker. In code this was defined as part of the global namespace g{} and referred to as g.progress

g.progress bumps with every tick of the game’s main loop. This is consistent and in tune with everything else that the game loop handles (movement, animation, collision etc) so it’s a good base for defining the introduction of alien formations.

As g.progress counts its way through to several thousands for each level it passes what we refer to as waypoints. As each waypoint is triggered a new randomly but predefined alien formation is spawned.

The difference with Akari is that there will be no randomisation. Everything will be delivered from a level data file.

At set intervals in Thundergun the action was interspersed with a mini boss; a larger fighter that drifted into view and bullied the player. Formations continued to spawn around it.

For Akari we’ll suppress the formations and halt the bumping of g.progress while the mini boss action plays out.

With the mechanics for the mini boss developed we have pretty much 90% of the code written to handle a proper end-of-level boss. The main difference will be in defining the scale of the boss and any sub-elements such as wing-mounted cannons.

Level structuring isn’t a new thing for us. We’ve employed it for our platform games and the C64 style shooter Crossfire.

Hopefully we can get a demo up and running in the near future. Exciting times in arcade game development!

Further adventures in marketing arcade games on the App Store

It’s always easier to make decisions when you’re armed with data.
This morning we pulled down some stats from Apple’s reporting site to pore over the numbers.
(We don’t currently publish to Google Play, though that will come soon)

To Charge or Not to Charge

We released an arcade game (Chaos Grid) to the App Store two weeks ago and initially offered it for free.
In a short space of time we’d had just over 800 installs. 95% of those came from Japan.

It’s easy to assume that this is an indication that the game would be successful if we charged for it.
So we did and opted for the lowest tier of pricing – 99p.

7 days later and we’ve had an additional 12 installs.
Less Apple’s cut that comes in at $8.06 (£6.40)

Our assumption was wrong.
There’s work to be done before we  can consider charging for the game.

There are other ways to monetise the game.
In-app Purchasing and advertising being the obvious choices. But we reject these as they aren’t true to our ‘promise’ to the customer.

We’re doing this to ‘relive the thrills of the video game arcade’.
It’s our ‘Why?’, if you like.

So we gave it about 4 seconds worth of thought and switched it back to free of charge.
Overnight the installs are back into double figures.

I guess it’s far better to have the game installed on numerous iPhones and iPads than sat there on the app store gathering dust.
A number of things happen when the game is installed:

  • It gets played
  • Our brand is all over the game’s splash screen
  • It (potentially) gets talked about and shared

But there was something else that occurred to us; the Japanese market was up for these games.
When we uploaded the game to the store we selected to have it available in every territory but we have no control over the exposure in each territory. So that came as a pleasant surprise.

Localisation and Culture

The screenshots that we provided for the game’s entry on the app store contain text. English text (above).
Words such as ‘RETRO ACTION’ and ‘ARCADE THRILLS’.
I’d guess that these ‘calls to action’ are wasted on the Japanese audience. They are probably far more interested in the screenshots than any blurb we wrap around it.
iTunes Connect (the developer’s gateway to the app store) offers the ability to provide localised content. We could go to the trouble of translating any words into multiple languages. But is it worth it? Would those words significantly influence the viewer to become a buyer?
I doubt it.

Far better to offer something more culturally relevant.
In the west we appear to use the screenshot as the key persuader in the buying process for an unknown title.
It’s a lot like picking up an X-Box game in the store and immediately flipping it over to see a screenshot of the game on the back cover.
But in Japan consumers warm to specific imagery. Anime style imagery. It’s relevant to them and makes the game feel less ‘alien’. The Japanese are proud of their culture and appear to warm to any attempts to embrace it.

Here’s a useful link that forms part of our on-going research into marketing on the app stores: https://moz.com/blog/app-store-rankings-formula-deconstructed-in-5-mad-science-experiments

Evoking retro memories with box art

We’re huge fans of the golden days of Atari. The box art was a huge inspiration and that wonderful feeling of being transported away from real life is something that we’re keen to evoke with our own games.

Take a look at this concept piece for some promotional artwork for our forthcoming arcade game Thundergun.

The art department are nerds for Atari box art and artists such as Steve Hendricks.

What do you think?

New game on the iOS AppStore – Chaos Grid

Well it’s been a long, long time since we updated our blog. So it’s a real thrill to be able to announce that we’ve been working hard on making some new arcade games. But these games are a little different; they’re built using HTML5, JavaScript and CSS3 (as usual) but are also wrapped up and served to the iOS AppStore.

We’re currently using PhoneGap to do the bundling and it appears to be working just fine. There are issues with choppy performance but there’s a wealth of information out there to address this. Something for a later blog post.

So what’s Chaos Grid all about?

Well, it’s an homage to the earliest shooting games from the video game arcades of yesteryear. We took our love of Defender, Robotron, Galaxians and the 8-bit classic Gridrunner and built a game around their mechanics.

The screens above are the ones we use on the iOS AppStore and they pretty accurately depict the action. Though later levels become pretty frenetic!

If you’re a fan of the old school shooting genre and love those old beeps, whirrs, and electronic wind-up sounds then we’re pretty sure you’ll love the game.

Check it out on the app store today and tell us what you think :)
AppStore icon

Playing with a Star Wars arcade game idea, again

I’m not updating this blog often enough so I thought I’d just share some thoughts on a new game idea. The game is a straight forward arcade game though for me it’s a little odd as the primary focus isn’t on blasting and explosions. At least it isn’t yet! There’s time for that to change.

To get an idea for the style head over to my Playstar Arcade and play Night Bomber.
I’m loving getting back in to the pixel art style and sci-fi games like this lend themselves to it.

Continuing to target the arcade gaming niche with my HTML5 games

Ever since my first foray in to browser gaming I’ve stuck to my goal of creating the kind of games that I enjoyed in my youth. Generally speaking this means classic “pixelled” sprites and the control of an on-screen character / spaceship / vehicle of some kind. Ideally I’d also throw in bombs, lasers and explosions a plenty. 
If I’m honest it’s also a pretty easy style of game to write.

I guess right now I’m wondering whether it’s right for me to continue to target this niche in retro gaming or whether I should move on a bit and challenge myself with a different genre.

There are benefits to maintaining a niche and also several drawbacks.
The benefits clearly come in the form of brand association and search relevance. The more I can focus on writing about a specific area of mobile gaming the more I improve my chances of being returned favourably in Google et al.

But sticking to a niche also narrows my opportunities in the wider field of attracting work. Whilst I’m always going to favour working on my own projects and my own designs I can’t disregard the fact that there is some value in being a coder for hire.

Arcade games, the classic ones (which I guess we now refer to as retro arcade games), offer some wonderful pointers for achieving an optimum in designing games for casual mobile play.
Arcade games almost by definition were games that you could play and access quickly and each “go” would last for little more than a few minutes. This is what your single coin gave you and if the experience was a good one you’d possibly sink another coin. If not you’d move on and find something else.
This has real parallels with today’s online games scene. Especially the mobile web gaming scene.

HTML5 game portals tend to target mobile devices. The good sites are clean and optimised for display on the smaller screens. As such they are pretty straight forward to navigate around and generally uncluttered. The same cannot be said for the desktop equivalents which in many cases are more of an excuse to litter the screen with advertising than offer any kind of a gaming experience.

My stats continue to show me that my games are popular. When somebody visits the site they generally play around 3.2 games per session before they disappear. 6% of visitors exit via an advert. I’m not actually sure whether those 6% have enjoyed their time on the site and played that average 3.2 games or whether they’re simply hacked off with the experience and were looking for a way out. I guess there’s every chance this is the case.

Regardless mobile arcade games  and mobile game design (HTML5 game design) continue to challenge my brain cells. I’m always thinking of new elements to games that I scribble down for later reference and often draw upon them when I’m thinking of the finer details of a game’s execution. 

I use SNES and Arcade emulators (ZSNES and MAME) on a regular basis to research gaming styles, challenges, reward systems and every other vital element of a good gaming experience. 
MAME generally offers that throwback to the mind boggling and dazzling array of cabinets that beeped and zapped at me as I stalked the arcade for that perfect way to spend 5 minutes and 10 pence. I suppose it gets me in the mood :)
The SNES games on the other hand are showing me the visual style that I’m aiming for. Especially in my most recent game Jumpin’ Jasper which was every bit a SNES inspired game.

I’ve not set out to find any magic solution here it’s really just a Sunday morning blog update with a coffee and some thoughts. 
I have to say that playing and designing retro-styled arcade games still thrills me. There’s a lot to be said for this.
I may be missing a trick or two by not becoming a more high profile game developer but maybe that’s not for me. 

An old manager once said to me “Stick to what you know by all means but do it well. Do it very well. Be the best at what you do well and above all enjoy it.” 

Taking on the app stores – step 1: Google

I’m on something of a mission to have my HTML5 arcade visible to the search engines. Naturally I’ve a number of keywords and phrases that I want to have positioned favourably in Google et al. My goal is to have phrases such as “free arcade games” on the first page of results and ideally “above the fold”.
To this end I’ve done a good deal of work in making sure that the site’s content is specific, relevant and perhaps most important of all unobtrusive to the player. I think I’ve achieved a reasonable balance.

Every once in a while I grab a coffee and spend 5 minutes punching in variations on my keywords in to Google.
The most recent search phrase was “free arcade games for ipad”.

Before I go on I must at this point pledge my love for Apple’s iPad. I’ve had an iPad since its launch and have very much fallen for its elegance, execution and simplicity. Contrary to popular opinion I also rather like its sandboxed nature. I’ve no intention to “jailbreak” it. There’s no need. Not for me. It does what I want it to do and then some. Most important of all though it plays HTML5 games like a dream.
So appearing favourably for a search phrase containing the words arcade, games and ipad is a key goal for my plans of 2014. Free is obviously also an important word since HTML5 games tend to be largely synonymous with free gaming just now. I guess that will change. It’s interesting that I’ve not identified HTML5 as a key search word just now. I’ve made some provision for it but until it becomes a key word in the mind of the public searching for games on their mobile I’m less concerned about it. That said part of my mission is to create that relationship amongst the gaming public with the words HTML5 and games.

So what do I get when I punch “free arcade games for ipad” in to Google?

Well, disregarding adverts, I get several results before my own site playstar.mobi is returned.
I set out to take a closer look at the links that preceed my own. Here’s some detail.

Results as at 21st February 2014

1. http://www.techradar.com/news/mobile-computing/tablets/60-best-free-ipad-games-692690
A very respectable list of free iPad games available from the app store. Very difficult to compete with as some of those games are AAA in iPad terms.

2. http://toucharcade.com/2013/12/25/best-free-iphone-and-ipad-games-of-2013/
Different games but the same premise. A list of very good quality games that you can install and enjoy for free before you hit the brick wall of In App Purchasing.

So far it’s hard to see where my humble little HTML5 games arcade could possibly fit in to the big world of iPad arcade gaming. But I’ll persevere.

3. https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/namco-arcade/id465606050?mt=8
This time a direct link to some of the games that influenced me both as a boy and as a “grown up” game developer. Geez. This is getting tough. How on earth can I compete with this?

4. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2373779,00.asp
Holy hell another list. This seems to be the way to get your pages ranked well. TechCrunch, TouchArcade, Apple and PCMag are all well ranked within Google so this is no surprise. It’s looking quite ominous a task.

5. http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-31747_7-20110992-243/the-best-free-ipad-games-period/
ANOTHER take on the best free iPad games available to us in 2013. It’s becoming very much a trend is this. I doubt the authors care a jot about what games are good and what are bad. They just want their site ranking well for these search phrases. “The best free ipad games, period“. Well if that’s not arrogant I don’t know what is. Arrogant link baiting. Wow. The internet sinks a level.
This list is different but really no different to the others, other than it ranks lower in Google’s index.

I offer some very simple arcade games that are based on a simple premise: shoot, dodge and blast your way to the top of the high score table. It’s old school and I’m starting to feel like I cannot compete.

6. http://ipad.about.com/od/Action-Arcade-Games/tp/The-Best-Action-Arcade-Games-For-The-iPad.htm
I couldn’t see a date alongside this entry. I think it may be a couple of years old given some of the titles on offer – “Rage” for example.
I quite like this list. It’s simple and honest. But still it points directly to the app store. HTML5 gaming hasn’t a sniff. Yet.

7. http://ipad.about.com/od/iPad_Games/u/A-Guide-To-iPad-Games-And-Gaming.htm
I didn’t delve too deep here but it looks like all the results of number 6 categorised. The author is the same. Yup, very much an SEO exercise.
“Daniel, get us listed up there with Techcrunch for free iPad games. We’re about.com for God’s sake. We need to be registering.”

8. http://iappguide.com/ipad/top-games/arcade-games/free
Hang on. This looks different. I’ve never heard of iappguide.com. These guys could well be HTML5 focused.
Alas, no. It’s another bunch of links to the app store. To its credit it looks pretty well maintained. Right now Flappy Bird is all the craze and there’s a bunch of “flappy” games on offer. No HTML5 but it’s a bit different. Credit to them for weighing in at number 8 but I’m not sure I’d install any of their listed games. It’s just a list and feels pretty pointless. i.e. content I could get just by going to the app store or reading one of the previous 7 lists.

Lists, lists, lists. There’s no experience to be had here. Just lists. If you play Google you can position yourself well but have limited relevance to your audience. I’m not convinced lists are what people searching with the word “arcade” are after. I’m possibly (and probably) wrong.

9. http://iphone.mob.org/genre/arkady/
Proceed with caution! I’m not convinced that this site is a friendly site.
It’s the first site on the list that offers games outside of the app store. Yup, you’ll need a jailbroken iPad for this lot.
If you’ve jailbroken your iPad you’ve really missed the point. You probably should have some form of Android detritus like a Nexus 7 or Samsung Galaxy Mega. Both fine bits of kit but for my money inferior to Apple’s offerings. Anyway, that’s technical opinion and I try to avoid that.
I don’t like this site. It’s just a bit “hey look at my adverts”. There’s no promise of an experience to be had here. Just a vehicle for ranking highly and splurging adverts at you.

10. http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/muo-free-ipad-games-addicting-arcade-edition/
Aaaand another list. A bunch of iPad games that somebody has hastily assembled without any real thought or care. Actually perhaps there was some care taken not to replicate what Techcrunch or About.com were offering.
This is a terrible list wrapped with some adverts. Again.

I must be close to being listed. Surely.

11. http://www.imore.com/namco-arcade-ios-freetoplay-classic-arcade-titles
205 words in this article. 205 words. The rest of the page is adverts and links to other site content. Those silly enough to fall for it have commented in the comments section. Jesus.
So for anyone genuinely looking for free arcade games to play on their iPad it’s looking pretty grim. Unless they’re happy with wading through a list of somebody’s opinion as to what’s good they’re not really going to get the “arcade” experience.
Perhaps that’s not important.
I perhaps need to think about this.
Most people surfing the web for games were probably born after the glory days of arcade gaming. Is it really right that I should harp on about the beauty of playing games and striving for the high score for the cost of a single coin?
Maybe not. I am quite possibly barking up the wrong tree. But that said I’m convinced that what was fun for me as a boy 30 years ago ought to be fun for today’s casual gamer. The challenge of a good arcade game with that single goal of dominating the high score table – the one thing that identified you as the “best” – has to be a worthwhile pursuit.

12. http://playstar.mobi/
HUZZAH! I made it. Amongst the endless lists of lists I made it.

So what does a searcher see for their “free arcade games for ipad”?
To better understand this I’m going to try and step inside the mind of the searcher. What kind of a person might want to find free arcade games for their ipad?

Free games for iPad is quite different to free arcade games for iPad. At least I think it is.
If you include the word arcade you’re looking for something quite specific. That’s not to say you’re looking for something from 30 years ago. Not at all. But you’re looking for a style of game that almost by definition is brief, challenging, entertaining and most likely pretty intense.
So far a few of those lists have thrown up their own results and a bunch of the games listed are very good. Very good indeed. But they’re not “classic” in their execution. Not necessarily.
So from this I deduce that what I want from my searcher is an unwritten desire to play “classic” arcade games.
To have my games returned without having to supply an extra (and arguably implied) keyword is good.
The person I want to be searching for “free arcade games for ipad” is an iPad owner (obviously) and somebody interested in (ideally) classic style arcade games from what I would call the golden era.
This is both useful and limiting.
Useful in that it provides a niche target audience to aim for an limiting in that it restricts me to that very same audience.
Nonetheless I am happy to target this audience.

So what words greet my searcher?

Well right now it’s

Free Mobile Arcade Games – HTML5 gaming – No Downloads, no installs | Play Where can I play games on my iPad, Android, iPhone or iPod Touch for free 

Woah. Look at that – HTML5 gaming.
If I can get this person to click they’ve suddenley (hopefully) made an association with free and/or arcade gaming and HTML5.
I’d be happy with either of those associations.
One day HTML5 will be a key search phrase for anyone looking for a particular style of game. Ideally “mobile” and possibly “free”. Whether that shifts to the stinking world of In App Purchasing remains to be seen but certainly the mobile angle is key.

Same game > any device. That has to be a winner. It is afterall our unique selling proposition to our audience.

Road Rage – New HTML5 arcade game

Road RageRoad Rage is finally complete.

I put a lot of work in to this one in terms of balancing the action versus rewarding the player with plenty of on-screen action.

I’m not really in to doing post-mortems on my games but for this one I’d say it’s come out pretty close to how I envisaged it. I made a decision early on to keep the pace up and allow the player a fair amount of freedom to move and blast things. To that end I litter the screen with explosions, bombs, bullets and debris.
I’m hoping that it’s well received enough to justify the extra effort :)

Ultimately the question of “is it fun?” has to be answered and I’d have to say that the feedback from testing that I’ve had is extremely positive. Most of the comments returned highlight the soundtrack, audio fx and big colourful sprites. I’m thrilled to read such encouraging comments since it pretty much underpins my ethos for making games. It’s certainly something that will carry over in to my book.

Road Rage

You can play the game over at the arcade. Sign up, sign in and shoot for the top spot. Let’s see how good you are!