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.” 

Tweaking games for a better challenge

I’ve been playing around with a few of my older games lately. Galactians 2 in particular has spent a good amount of time on the ramps.

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Swoop, dodge, blast, bounce and splat

When I wrote it a year or so ago I was keen to just upgrade the graphics from the previous incarnation, Galactians, and boost the player ship’s laser power. My design document for the game was (as usual) a single sentence that roughly read “swoop, dodge, blast, bounce and splat”

To that end it came out pretty close to the design :)

It was a game that I’d enjoyed making and had tested to death before I unleashed it upon the portals. But I guess there was always an element of “am I making it too easy by giving the player so many laser power-ups?”
I still think I was. But the amount of fun that could be had wiping the screen clear of swooping aliens in under 3 seconds was just too irresistable to ignore.

3 second attack waves?

I’d played with the concept of short waves of attack with HyperGunner. It worked quite well in that game so I was keen to repeat it.

4I played Galactians 2 a lot this last week and of course my ability to rack up the high scores increased. Before very long I was in to the millions and the average game length was probably around 10 minutes.
It was only when I stopped to look at that number 10 that it occurred to me that it might just be a bit too long and a bit too easy. Should I be thinking about reducing the average game time?

My Google Analytic stats show me that the average amount of time on a game page is around 3 minutes. This isn’t exactly scientific. It only takes a handful of players to stay on the page for 10 minutes whilst the other lord-knows-how-many-thousand duck in and out within seconds to skew the figures. But that aside I stuck with the notion of 3 minutes per game. It seemed like a reasonable amount of time to be playing and quite possibly the optimum amount of time to trigger that all important I must have another go and do better.

So where next?

The frankly ridiculous jelly bomb

Well I didn’t want to mess with the core mechanics of the game.
I liked how the aliens peeled off the formation and swooped to attack. I also liked how later levels would see a non-destructable guided missile and the frankly ridiculous “jelly bomb”. It also seemed to work that on later levels just as the player was becoming comfortable with the repetition of blasting and splatting some aliens would target the player with their bombs rather than simply dropping them.

It was when I focused on the bombing habits of the alien bugs that I realised something fairly crucial to the game’s challenge / reward dynamic. The distance between the hovering alien formation and the player’s tank was fairly large. Around 200 pixels from the base of the lowest alien to the turret of the player’s tank.

Within that space the aliens would shift left and right whilst diving often in a sharp angle. On the shallower dives the player was pretty vulnerable. But on the steeper dive curves the player had a lot of time to react.
So I tweaked the game to shunt the player up by 48 pixels (I always work in 8’s with sizing in these games. No idea why?) and reduce the severity of the alien dive curves.

More challenging and more fun

The result was incredible. The challenge presented by reducing the player’s available response time was enormous. Better still it actually felt like the kind of arcade game that I grew up playing. I was thrilled.

My high scores were halved, as was my play time. Rarely did I score 1 million and rarely did I reach 4 minutes per game. But nothing was lost. In fact quite the opposite. The game was more challenging and consequently more fun.

The concept of reducing reaction times is now high in my mind as I shift my focus to some of the other games.
In particular Jumpin’ Jasper, which is nearly complete, is prime for applying this “rule” to.

There is of course another benefit to shrinking the play area in this way. The game suddenley opens up to a wider audience of Samsung Galaxy Y and iPhone 4 users. In fact my player sessions have more than doubled as a result.

An extremely worthwhile exercise.

Jumpin’ Jasper – a new HTML5 platform game in development

I’ve been working hard on my new HTML5 platform game recently and have had a huge amount of fun creating sprites and some interesting monster AI. It was always my intention to use the game as a vehicle for another new character and I’m pleased to present to you my lovable baby squirrel Jasper :)

html5 game title

I think I’ll probably call his first game Jumpin’ Jasper since that’s pretty much what he spends most of his time doing. The title frame above is my current placeholder being used in the development.

I thought it may be interesting to share my design document. It contains a single sentence:

Cute, cartoony and full of bounce !

It does make me smile when I read that back. To hell with lengthy discussions on what goes where in a level or how a monster should behave. That stuff happens organically for me as I code and test. I think as a designer I just know when something feels right and I can only achieve that by repeatedly playing the game and tweaking the code.

Screenshot

There’s still a ton of work to do with the art. I envisaged some nicely detailed backdrops to each level so the blue gradient won’t be quite so stark. I’m currently aiming to use a kind of Lego approach so that I can create elements and re-assemble them to create some varying background images. It will be very much a fantasy setting.

The game is currently all about jumping around the platforms, riding moving platforms, avoiding spikes and monsters (including the pesky wasp and wasp sting!), bursting bonus ballons and collecting bonuses and hazelnuts. I’ve tried really hard to keep the game moving. I didn’t want the player scratching their head trying to decipher what to do next. I think it works. I’m also very pleased with the powerups available. I think they’re fun. Especially the power boots!

Hoping to finish the game in the next couple of weeks.

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