Sunday, 25 February 2018

Back to Maaaarrrr-gate - GEEK 2018 in review

Lead artist Matthew's thoughts on Bullion's second visit to GEEK expo...

Bullion is back from GEEK 2018, held at Dreamland in Margate, Kent. For Bullion’s second outing at GEEK, we were greeted by some familiar faces at the indie dev area, as well as a few newcomers. This year, Bullion brought a plethora of new features to the event. For starters, we have a second playable map in development, Salty Swamp, which players could test out along with Paul’s magnificently clever AI players, allowing individuals and smaller groups to get the full Bullion experience for the first time. We also debut an overhauled menu screen, featuring my pirate ship model.

Our little bit of GEEK...

With the stand set up Friday morning, I took a glimpse at the entrance to see a queue right up the hill, almost onto the street! Players of all ages flocked to the stand to try out Bullion. Young players were grasping the gameplay quickly, and with some brief explanation from us, even less gaming-inclined parents were picking up the controls and having fun with their families, and occasionally grabbing surprise wins over their kids!

First "full crew" of the day

Paul preps a crew for action

Unlike the publically untested build from GEEK 2017, this version of Bullion proved much more stable, with only a few minor technical issues, most quickly vanquished by Ben in the evenings while the event was closed.

The indie people’s vote returned once again, and despite competing against more than 10 titles, most much closer to release, we still scooped 3rd place like last year! Even with the friendly competition between titles, the indie developers were very supportive of their fellow creators, trying out and giving feedback on each other’s games, as well as going out for dinner together on the Saturday night like one big indie family.

Bullion continued to prove popular all weekend, with players bring along friends to experience the game, guests from last year returning and remembering us, and even small queues and crowds forming, waiting patiently for the next round. It is incredible to see that Bullion can hold attention this well, with less busy games, an amusement arcade, and even Nintendo game setups not proving enough to distract them from trying Bullion.

We got the Stormtroopers' attention...

Young buccaneers take on Salty Swamp

Our guests provided valuable feedback on the game, letting us know what they enjoyed, and any suggestions they had. We were glad to see that most critique we received is already in the pipeline to be dealt with, such as requests for faster movement already planned for the faster moving Bovy Jones, our next bovine buccaneer to be playable.

We knew that Bullion was on the right track when we saw how often players would sit and enjoy multiple matches. Not just kids, but kids at heart, parents and fellow developers all were invested enough to go for rematches against their friends and our computer-controlled cattle corsairs.

Age doesn't matter - smiles do!

Our 6th GEEK - awesome as ever!

With plenty of praise, much fewer bugs experienced, and lots of happy players of all ages, the Bullion team set sail for home from another successful GEEK show. Seeing how much joy the game brings to players young and old makes all our hard work worthwhile. With our most common question being “When will this be released?” we are dedicated to continue developing Bullion, with lots more content planned, including new characters, new maps and modes. Our ride home was filled with brainstorming for the next phases of development, and we are just as excited as the players to see what we can get ready for next year, as well as any other shows Bullion may visit in 2018.

Massive thanks all around to the GEEK hosts, Dreamland’s staff, our indie developer family, and most of all the players who took the time to give Bullion a try.

I’m looking forward to GEEK 2019 already!

This year marks six consecutive years of Leda Entertainment exhibiting at GEEK Expo - once again, thanks to all the amazing people who work so hard to make it happen!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Setting Course for 2018!

As we boldly voyage into the waters of 2018, it's time for a good old review-and-reflect on what last year brought us, and hopes for the year ahead...

Last year was Bullion's debut year in front of the public - okay, we announced it back in September 2016, and for about two-thirds of the year we we running on what was effectively a prototype of the first island, polished up and wrapped in enough placeholders and hacks to be demonstrable. But the feedback we received from the various events we showed it at proved that the "slow-agile" process is working; we have been able to revise our plans and expectations on the run and continually improve both the concepts and the technical sides of the game (even if it did mean several large rewrites of the code!)...

GEEK was definitely a highlight of 2017, and also where we started realising just how fortunate we were having Matthew and Ben H on board; both stepped up and ensured that we had all the 3D art, animation and sound/music assets required to get us demo-ready, and then joined us on the stand at the show. And despite a large number of bugs being found (prompting the largest of the aforementioned rewrites), pretty much everyone who played that first demo had only positive things to say. Taking third place in the show's Indie Awards was an added bonus!

Our other "big" show of the year was, of course, Play Expo in Manchester, by which time we had had a chance to address all the issues that had come up at GEEK (albeit by the skin of our teeth), and also start replacing some of the placeholder sections with more finalised work. Again, loads of great feedback, and we fulfilled a long-standing dream when Jeff Minter - creator of games that inspired us back in the 90s when then-Ledasoft Developments was first starting out - came and played. It was just a shame that Matthew and Ben H could not be there this time, but given the situation (Ben H having returned to the USA and the short notice of the decision to go), it was not a surprise. Maybe this year...

We also had a number of smaller events: WeGeek in London resulted in a highly-polished video interview, and Reading and Aylesbury Comic-Cons gave us a chance to catch up with Noaksey - indie affectionado extrodinaire and friend of Leda Entertainment since our breakthrough with Bopscotch at GEEK 2014. These smaller shows were no less valuable than the "big" ones as they offered plenty of opportunity to network with other developers, and also spend time chatting with those who had played the game, getting more detailed feedback to fuel the next wave of development.

However, 2017 also brought its share of frustrations, mainly related to the speed that the project is going at and team communication. Bullion is Leda Entertainment's first 3D project, and by the start of 2017 we had already learned enough to significantly revise our rather insane initial expectations (four fully animated characters and two islands in six months!) into something more realistic. But thanks to the team maxim off "life comes first", we ended up having to re-plan in such a way that various pieces of work were left dangling in limbo, rather than being completed and plugged into the game. Nobody's fault, but none-the-less, very frustrating, especially when the most-often asked question at the expos had been "when will this be coming out?". At the same time, we had also realised that we were going to need to find Matthew some assistance, and we do have a number of other artist/animators in various states of engagement with the project - but with the high bar set by Matthew's work to date, it is proving challenging to meet that need! Again, maybe this year we will get a breakthrough...

Life events had a huge impact on the team: Ben H had study commitments for a number of months in the first half of the year, following which he ended up having to return to the USA - however, he had made it clear that he is determined to stick with Bullion and is just waiting for his situation to settle down... once again, we realise just how fortunate we have been with those working with us on Bullion! And similarly, Winter's job situation meant she has had to step back before she could really get involved - so that's another hope for the year ahead: that she will the able to join back in at some point. Add in family, health and other employment/work related issues, and 2017 ended up being considerably more challenging than anticipated! But once again, the slow-agile process has allowed us to revise our plans and keep things moving.

So what's next? Well, GEEK 2018 is looming on the horizon, and once again it looks like it will take a big push to get the next round of features ready in time... but we will keep on adapting, revising and updating, and see just what can be done in the six-and-a-half weeks we have left. In the longer term... well, hopefully we will have the people in place to pick up the pace and forge ahead into 2018. Ultimately, we hope to have some kind of early-access preview available at some point this year... here's hoping that the winds and tides favour us!

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Making Berth in Manchester: Bullion comes to Play Expo

When Replay Events announced about a month before their flagship Play Expo Manchester event that there were a number of indie zone spaces available, it presented us with a difficult decision. On one hand, Play Manchester is huge, with great possibilities for getting both feedback and exposure for the game, and thanks to our previous titles we have a great relationship with the Replay team; but on the other hand, it was at short notice - organisation with team members and families aside, the new build absolutely had to be ready - or we would be falling back our old demo from GEEK which we knew to have bugs and missing a lot of functionality...

"Indie Alley" at Play Manchester
Bullion alpha v2 ready to go at Play Expo Manchester
All ship-shape and ready to sail...

As ever, the Replay team were superb. On the whole, communications were above and beyond the call of duty, which was pretty much the deciding factor in our going - a few days later and we would not have had the new demo ready in time! The only issue was the late release of the exhibitor packs, leaving us almost no time to organise logistics. The indie zone itself was located in a prime position, right opposite where the people queuing to enter would come in - once again, Replay Events following up on their commitment to indies, so a big thumbs-up there. Unfortunately, the venue impacts the atmosphere - Event City is essentially a huge metal box with bright lights for the most part, and despite the Replay team's best efforts, it is difficult to evoke that grungy retro-arcade feel. At least the public wi-fi was working this time!

Due to the eleventh-hour exhibitor packs, we had to set up on the Saturday morning before the show. Not content with committing to a new, relatively untried demo, we decided to really push the boat out and run on our old budget Lenovo laptop - we did have other hardware available, but we figured that a bit of initial humiliation was better than an accident with a newer box! At ten o'clock, the doors opened and we took a deep breath as a small horde of people flooded in...

There were a few more people at this one...

... and the new demo performed almost flawlessly! None of the crashes or "oh god, that's embarrassing!" bugs (cough-teleporting bulls!-cough) that had popped up in its earlier counterpart. In fact, the vast majority of the issues we came across were design related, and mostly in the placeholder-heavy areas, and by the end of the event there was not one single post-it note on the back of the pop-up banner! Once again, visuals and audio received high praise; it was just a shame that Matthew and Ben H could not be with us to hear it. Ah well, there's always next year...

Thanks to the great positioning of both the indie zone and our booth within it (second from the entrance end - score!) we were consistently busy, with the jewel in the crown for the event being when indie legend Jeff Minter, whose games we had grown up with, came over to play. We also had plenty of press contact, loads of great feedback, and some absolutely corking ideas as to how we could polish the game up. As ever, it was both hugely satisfying and fun to watch people playing, and how they play... for some reason, it feels like there is a ritual that the mums of families can do to become absolutely awesome at Bullion - by hesitating and protesting that "they are no good at games" before picking up a controller, they suddenly gain mad gaming skills...

Mums have mad skillz!

Achievement unlocked - play with a legend!

To sum up - a great event, hugely positive and progressive, and re-affirming that the game is moving in the right direction. However, we now need to up our game as best as possible in the development process as the question we got asked the most was the one that we could not answer: "When will this be released?"

Keep 'em alive, Paul!

Jupiter takes the bull by the horns...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Walk the plank!

Recently, Steam - one of the platforms we have been considering for Bullion's final release - kicked out over 200 games.

Why? Because they were quickly-made, low quality hack-togethers from a single studio (operating under a variety of names), designed to try and game the system.

Good riddance to bad rubbish. But this once again highlights a problem that has been growing in the "indie" market for some time - and it is endemic to the stores.

Back in the mid 90s, when Bullion developer Ben launched his first game, it was released through a Public Domain library - essentially a mail-order service that any developer could submit work to, and effectively the forerunners of today's online stores. The P.D. library in question offered a promotion scheme - if you submitted a game to it, the game was reviewed and if judged good enough, it was put into the "promoted" section - it appeared in adverts for the library, was pushed for magazine reviews etc. If it was not good enough, it went in with all the rest.

The trick that made this work was that the developer had to decide whether or not they thought there work was good enough to pitch at the promoted section - the risk being that if you got it wrong, you were stuck in the bottom tier.

Obviously there would need to be a lot of adapting for scale, but this may be the answer to the current flood of shovelware in the indie market - while at the same time giving discoverability to great games that might not quite have the visual polish or the marketing connections of those in the absolute top flight. This is how it might work:

The store divides into a number of tiers, each with its own promotional channels:

  • Triple-I - effectively AAA, but not released through a publisher
  • Contenders - highly polished both in appearance and game quality, but not quite Triple-I
  • Mainstream - lacking polish, or using a significant number of pre-made assets
  • Basic - reskins, asset flips, prototypes and higher-tier rejects

To submit, the developer has to create a pack that includes a number of screenshots, a one-minute gameplay video (including in-game sound), a list of any pre-made assets used, and a brief pitch as to what tier they want the game to be listed under and why - this allows rapid screening out of games that are obviously trying to get into too high a tier. Games that pass this first step can then be further reviewed if deemed necessary. If the game is not accepted into its target tier, it goes in "Basic".

Obviously this approach will require the online stores to improve their curation process and, most likely, bring in dedicated review staff. But ultimately, it puts the onus on the developer to be honest with both the store and themselves - shoot too high and you're down in "Basic" with virtually zero chance of promotion.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But when you have two grizzled old sea-dog programmers in the crew who date back to a time before microtransactions, before game engines, before the internet, this sort of thinking tends to creep in...

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Refitting & Repairing

A full reworking of a lot of Bullion's core code was never going to be a small task, made only greater by our philosophy that "life comes first" - which we have had to take to heart recently...

Sadly, due to day-job requirements, we have had to say goodbye to Winter - at least for the time being. And Ben Hill is returning to the USA having completed his studies - the good news is that he is determined to stay with the team, albeit remotely. We'll raise a tankard to both of ye and see where the winds take us...

As for the good ship Bullion herself - barring a few fittings and fixtures, the big refit is done! The hacks are gone, and we have embraced a lot more of Unity's mechanics (as opposed to rolling our own versions) - it's been a great learning experience as well as an opportunity to tidy up. We've also upgraded a number of the placeholder components from the original pre-alpha demo version to something closer to the production-ready vision, and adding features based on the feedback we got at GEEK. So far, new additions include:

  • Upgraded player status displays in-game
  • Power-ups have production models and are now activated on demand by the player
  • New title and character select screens
  • Block and special attack moves for characters
  • Improved enemy AI

... and yes, we've fixed the infamous "teleporting dead cow" bug!

The "heart beat" is beginning to take shape - one of the first applications we're looking at plugging in will be controlling the enemies response to the players, factoring number of its bretheren killed versus proximity into determining which player a newly spawned enemy will target.

We've also had more outings to Gamecamp, WeGeek and Aylesbury Comic Con, and had lots more great feedback and ideas for new features - we've even had suggestions for new game modes and challenge stages, which could put a whole new spin on the vision of the game. And, just as at GEEK, we have had lots of favourable responses to the visual and audio style of the game, so we suppose we must be doing something right!

Next big date on the Bullion calendar - Reading Comic Con in November, where we hope to be taking the newly refitted Bullion on her maiden voyage... and no doubt covering more surfaces with post-it notes as more bugs emerge!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Shiver me Timbers!

So it's been a couple of months since we first let the public loose on Bullion at GEEK, and given we are still very much in a pre-alpha-preview state, the response was overwhelmingly positive: third place in the indie awards at the show was the icing on the cake, and since then we've seen a few write ups either of the event (with Bullion mentioned), or about the game itself (this one is probably our favourite).

However, as every game dev crew is aware, the chances are that when you let the public loose on your game, a whole load of bugs you never saw before will come up. By taking the pre-alpha of Bullion to GEEK, we decided to embrace this; not only would we get feedback on what people thought was good and/or bad, we would also be able to find and hopefully kill some bugs before they became real problems.

... or at least, that was the theory. And while there were no real showstoppers on the day, there were certainly a few more deeper-rooted problems than we anticipated - the infamous "teleporting dead cow" bug, for example - and Ben managed to cover most of the back of the pop-up banner with post-it notes detailing bugs.

So we have had to take a step back and are currently in the process of re-working some large chunks of the game: not just to fix the bugs, but also to clean up the code, get rid of the blatant hacks that were put in to get us over the line for GEEK, and make things more maintainable going forward. Ain't agile development fun?!?

But this is also giving us some great opportunities too - for example, alongside the big code refactor, we are also looking at game's "heart beat" - an engine that we hope will make the game respond to how the players are playing, and possibly even give us the foundations for a single-player campaign mode.

And the crew has grown too! Last year we were joined by audio designer Ben Hill (yup, another Ben, just to add to the chaos), whose sound effects and epic title track added a huge level of life and depth to the game, and following this year's Global Game Jam, 3D artist Winter Mraz has signed up to work with Matthew in giving the characters and world of Bullion their distinctive comic flavour.

There's still loads to do, but given the response we've had so far, we've got high hopes for the future, and GEEK 2018!

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Maiden Voyage

Paul talks about GEEK 2017 - Bullion's first expo...

Back to reality, exhausted but satisfied from our fifth year at GEEK - a festival of gaming culture held in the tired but re-awakening English seaside town of Margate. GEEK is unlike other expos that we have presented at - with the emphasis more on the fun of participation and creation, the event has a stronger family-oriented theme than something like PAX or EGX. With LARP and cosplay, model-making and arts and crafts, pinball and video games new and old, there's something for everyone. GEEK is a family, and it shows in the love everyone has for what they are doing - from the Pac-Man ghost logo for the event, prominently displayed in bedroom windows, to installing Mario Kart in dodgem cars, this is clearly an event arranged by our kind of people.

The Indie Zone was placed directly inside the main entrance. This I feel was a mixed blessing. The prominence was great - rather than being tucked away in a corner, the indie games were right there as people arrived. This showed a great deal of trust and belief on the part of the organisers for which we are truly grateful, and spoke to the theme of GEEK being as much about the fun of making games as playing them. It meant that everyone came past us at some point and knew where to find us when they wanted another go. But there were drawbacks. Once people were past us, they might not return until they were leaving - tired and perhaps not in the mood for playtesting; so we'd need to be on ouir A-game when doors opened, and things would get rather quiet by mid-afternoon whereas in previous years it would be madcap until end of day. Standing on a hard floor all day near the open doors in February made for a chilly and tiring experience. The brightly lit corridor lacked the classic arcade feel of the dingy grunginess of the old Winter Gardens venue - our screens somehow not as enticing in the new environment. It felt off somehow to be so separated from the classic, retro and modern video games which were oddly divorced from the main action, hidden away in a separate hall that meant visitors had to walk outside through the closed-up Dreamland park to reach. I found myself acting as unofficial steward for the event, directing disappointed people towards what for many is the main draw of GEEK. Let's hope this didn't put too many visitors off for next year. I anticipate better signage or a change of layout in 2018.

GEEK was the first outing for Leda Entertainment's latest game Bullion, and the first event for our new teammates Matthew (art) and Ben (sound). Nothing beats watching the joy spread on the faces of people playing a game you created, but seeing Matthew and Ben's reactions to that - the enthusiasm with which they interacted with the public, and their delight at people enjoying their hard work - came a close second. It was great to see that the lessons we learned with Bopscotch - bright, loud, colourful, silly rather than gory - carried across to Bullion. It was rewarding to be placed 3rd in the "best Indie" public vote with Bullion at just its pre-Alpha stage, compared against released titles.

It’s not just about gauging the reception of the game with the public, though. Watching others play, you see things - bugs and features - you might not otherwise notice when you play your own game. The controller has 2 joysticks and a D-pad, which do I use? The sword is in his right hand, so clearly it's the controller's right shoulder button to swing it, yeah? Standing back and being an observer shows affords you the head-space to discover the things you thought were obvious but aren't. During the first day alone, we covered the back of our pop-stand with bugs we'd not spotted ourselves, and aimprovements suggested by the public or that came to us watching others play. The feedback we received was unanimously positive, and it was heartening that nobody put down a controller and walked away mid-game.

A highlight of GEEK this year for me was the incredible camaraderie between the Indie developers. In past years we might have looked on eachothers' games, had a brief chat about our journey and maybe played for a few minutes. This year, as well as that, we not only had banter on the trade floor, but we booked out a local restaurant for an evening of great conversation and fellowship.

GEEK was again an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I can’t wait to return in 2018.