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July 2011 Meeting & June 2011 Boston Postmortem – Slam Bolt Scrappers by Fire Hose Games

Here we present one of two parallel posts that provide an insider view of the successful Boston Indies company Fire Hose Games. In this post you can read about two different versions of Eitan’s recent post mortem talk on PSN release Slam Bolt Scrappers.  In the other post by Jon Myers you can read a narrative about the foundation of the company.


 

On June 8, Fire Hose Games Founder and Creative Director Eitan Glinert and several members of the studio’s development team were at the Skellig in Waltham to give a postmortem of Slam Bolt Scrappers, the studio’s first game.

A month later, Eitan was at the Bocoup Loft in Boston, talking to Boston Indies about the studio’s journey from Ramen-eating artists to releasing Slam Bolt Scrappers on the PlayStation Network.

Both presentations featured the good, not-so-bad, and really bad things that happened along the way to creating Slam Bolt Scrappers. Eitan showed the same slides about the same game to many of the same people. But this doesn’t mean the two presentations were anywhere near the same.

Photo by Elliott Mitchell

Take Eitan’s two opening statements about his presentation on a game about punching baddies in the face and building weapon towers from their dead bodies that was released on March 15:

Boston Post Mortem: “This is something we poured our hearts into, so it’s really hard to say, ‘hey, this is where we screwed up.’”

A month later at Boston Indies: “The whole purpose of this is for you to learn from the shit we did wrong, and hopefully things we did right also.”

At Boston Post Mortem, there were a hundred people or more: journalists from Gamasutra, AAA development studios and other local developers in the industry. Eitan told his studio’s experience developing Slam Bolt Scrappers.

At Boston Indies, there were 30 or so other indie developers (and one wayward journalist), all in varying stages of production that Eitan and Fire Hose Games passed through in the last three years to create Slam Bolt Scrappers. It was a conversational how-to guide, with footnotes, for a room full of friends and acquaintances.

“It all comes down to audience,” Eitan said in a later email conversation. “At BPM I assume there are more ‘industry professionals,’ people who work at big studios and have done so for years. So I try to focus on development points that will be most relevant to them – how we could have improved production, how marketing went, etc.

“At BI I assume there are more ‘aspiring indies,’ or people who are just about to take the plunge into making their own game. For them I focus more on getting the pieces in place that are needed to create the game – things like setting up business deals, putting a team together, and getting your game out there for people to see.”

From the beginning, that was the stuff that the indies assembled in the Bocoup Loft wanted to hear. Unlike the BPM format, where questions came at the end, at Boston Indies Eitan invited the crowd to stop him and ask questions. And that they did.

Why did Fire Hose Games decide to go exclusively with Sony and the PlayStation Network?

“Because they said ‘yes’ to us,” Eitan said. “It’s not like everyone was lining up to throw money at us. But I know very few indies that got the support we got.”

How much time did you put into fundraising?

“You just need someone who is either basically just raising money, or actually … just raising money,” Eitan said.

How important was showing off the game?

“Ultimately, buzz matters more than anything else,” Eitan said. “Get on your soapbox and show people your game. If people aren’t impressed by your game, than ask yourself why they aren’t impressed.”


Fire Hose Games took Slam Bolt Scrappers through five iterations in over two years, which Eitan said was incredibly difficult towards the end, having essentially to throw out three or four months of hard work spent on the fourth iteration.

“I was actually afraid of mutiny at that point,” Eitan said. “It gets really dangerous when you have something mediocre, because then you start lying to yourself and incorrectly thinking it will be good enough if you just put on a few layers of polish.  Be ready to iterate whenever your game is not awesome.”

Screenshot courtesy of Fire Hose Games

Perhaps the most apparent “really bad thing” that happened was entirely out of the studio’s control. They released Slam Bolt Scrappers on March 15, and then in early April the hacker group LulzSec took down PSN.

“Three weeks after it went on sale, suddenly it wasn’t on sale,” Eitan said at BPM.

There wasn’t much anyone could do; Slam Bolt Scrappers’ distribution network evaporated, and so did the games sales. But that hasn’t slowed down Fire Hose. At both events, the studio announced its next project: Go Home Dinosaurs.

Image provided by Fire Hose Games

Eitan later said he hoped what people took away from both his presentations were the hard learned lessons that impacted the games development, hopefully helping people sidestep the landmines he and his team waded through.

But standing up at the Bocoup Loft, Eitan could point out more than half the crowd as an example as someone who helped him and Fire Hose Games when help was needed. And now that Slam Bolt Scrappers is done, there is one more Boston Indie that’s been to the finish line and can help the next stressed out first time developer to the same goal.

At Boston Indies, Eitan said there was one extra message: “You can do it, just be prepared to bust your ass in the process and realize that you can’t go it alone.”


 

Ian B. Murphy is a newspaper reporter at the MetroWest Daily News in the daytime, but would rather be gaming at any given time. He is excited to learn about the business at a grassroots level, make some friends, and have a few beers.

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May 2011 Meeting – Ananse Productions

At the Boston Indies meeting on May 23, Kwasi Mensah of Ananse Productions presented on Game Design and Accessibility in the new space at The Bocoup Loft. He gave a talk that was one part postmortem for their recent iPhone release of Stem Stumper and one part impassioned lesson about making games available to everyone. It was clear at the presentation, as it is in his own post, that Kwasi believes games are a powerful medium in which developers can reach out to all people.

Kwasi was an intern on Medal of Honor just out of school and more recently served as an engineer for Demiurge here in Boston. He wanted to do something new and self-initiated. He decided to begin his own company in order to make, as the Ananse motto puts it best, “games for the rest of us.”

After that brief background, Kwasi drew an important distinction when it comes to discussing how to make games more available. On the one hand, he defined usability as concerned with the developer’s attempt to make the interaction as intuitive or simple as possible, preventing steep learning curves or frustration. On the other hand, he explained that accessibility involves careful attention to the needs of those with disabilities. As he pointed out, taking one of these into account will very often lead to the other. He also noted that this distinction is very often overlooked.

Kwasi likewise observed that these concerns are typically taken into account too late in the development process. To make games that are available for everyone, he claimed, the developer must include these considerations in the design process from the start. Throughout the remainder of the talk he continually referenced this as the number one priority for anyone who desires to make accessible games: think about it at the beginning.

Stem Stumper in the sound-only "Sonar Mode"

The remainder of his presentation (slides below) was divided into sections covering Hearing, Touch and Mobility, Sight, Screen Readers and Resources. Throughout, Kwasi provided jaw-dropping statistics to demonstrate the vast size of a consumer base that most developers seldom consider at all. Over and over, he referenced Angry Birds as a title whose design and play lead the pack of mobile games in usability and accessibility. Attributing inclusiveness to the success of Angry Birds, he also theorized that greater availability can only lead to greater sales. Enabling players to play at their own pace is another suggestion that resurfaced multiple times. As a final note note on process, he claimed that user testing (and in particular testing with a diverse cross-section of people) is absolutely crucial. “One cannot make sure a game is accessible without actually having a diverse group of people play it. Any talk about accessibility that doesn’t involve testing is not a good talk,” he said.

Kwasi concluded with some resources and references that you can find on the final slide in his presentation, which he shared with the us on email the very next day. Clearly, Kwasi is a workhorse of compassion who always thinks of others before himself. I for one am proud to call him a member of our community.

 


 

Jonathon Myers is a writer but he can barely keep his portfolio website up to date alongside his creative writing and Reactive Games. If you are interested in covering Boston Indies events, contact [email protected] with samples.



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Everything is Fine. Finally.

I have spent the last week trapped in my bathroom.  I blame GLaDOS.

I’m now free, and I thank all of you.

My name’s Ichiro Lambe, and I run Dejobaan Games. If you play our games (Aaaaa!KICK IT!, and Wonderful), you may have noticed that, over the past few weeks, they’ve been acting up. First, it was potatoes. Then it was Companion Cubes and covers of Still Alive (here and here) all over the place. But now, there is this:

We didn’t really take note of anything, at first. I mean, bugs pop up, right? Every time a new Windows Service Pack makes the rounds, we have to recompile with a new version of MSSPISPOPD.LIB, or AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! starts trying to compute pi in Visual Basic. Potatoes? Fine. Every programmer knows that’s bound to happen sometimes.

But it turns out that GLaDOS was carefully tweaking our games, simultaneously giving them intelligence and maleficence. They gradually evolved into fully-fledged AIs, whereupon they started making bigger changes to themselves. Hidden messages in Aaaaa!. A warehouse in Wonderful. Weird, spindly, alien things which I still don’t know what they are. And they wanted these changes to propagate.

What should have tipped me off was that our games appeared tossed in a sack together on Steam. That doesn’t happen without a call to Valve on their Red Telephone. (Protip: you can reach it by dialing the number “4.” Do not mention Episode 3.) But apparently the AI’s whipped together a chatbot articulate enough to sound like me when I’m drunk and demanding.

I wanted this over, so I tried slowing them down by feeding them a Spanish language learning tape. This annoyed them.

Madam, I have lost my starchy tubers.
Señora, he perdido mi tubérculos feculentos.

Two guys bust into my house, tied me up, and stuffed me into the bath tub. From the browser logs, it looks like the AIs ordered them online. I did not know you could do this. They even got a receipt (“Movers – $1,195.50”), which is smart, because you can deduct that as a business expense at tax time.

The AIs then started tweeting in earnest, posting images hinting at the changes they’ve made, and working to discredit an uplifted raccoon named Steve. GLaDOS, herself, started showing up in the games, taunting users, and so forth.

I spent the next day or so trying to communicate, though the UI on my smartphone was set to Lithuanian, so I couldn’t do much beyond post a few corrupted images and order cold borscht for delivery (delicious!). Eventually, my battery died, and I was left to sit in the tub for days, with only a basket of herbal gift soaps to eat. I spent a few hours singing Jonathan Coulton, but they eventually got tired of the noise, and had someone come in to slap a gag on me. (“Upkeep – $210.00”)

During this time, my business partners, Dan and Leo, simply assumed that I was spending my time browsing /q/ on 4chan. (This is stupid, because we all know you can only do that for about 15 minutes at a time, but I digress.) Last night, the pair saw #whereisichiro trending, and broke down my door to find me lying in my tub, delirious, albeit with really fresh breath. Dan spent about five minutes photographing me before I got pissed off, and then they untied me.

It’s taken us all freaking night to bring things under control. We wiped out the AIs (Protip 2: Just use the “Everything I say is a lie” line, and kill anything that’s pegged at 99% in the Task Manager). But we left the gameplay changes in, because people were enjoying them.

And that’s it. GLaDOS is still out there. Fellow indies Rob and Alex tell me that she’s still screwing around with Cogs and BEAT. No word from Dylan or the others, but I assume they’re a-ok. But it’s clear that she’s biding her time, waiting to return to life once again.

This weekend, my team and I are going to Seattle to see if we can straighten this out with Valve. I am going to give Gabe Newell an angry piece of my mind, and maybe ask if he’ll sign my copy of Portal 2.

I’d like to thank you all once again. It was your messages of support that both kept me going and led my team to me. The photoshops were touching, and I once again feel strong enough that I can work on my games (albeit behind a firewall this time). For those who want a more detailed description of what went on during the first part of this, we had prepared this report.

Oh, and one more thing. A message for people who say that video games aren’t dangerous: You’re dead wrong.