Friday, October 29, 2010

Go Live (or Die Trying)

As some of you already know, we just released the next chapter in the ever-expanding MilMo universe. It's called MilMo: Mice & Maniax. This time we move into a slightly darker area of the imagination, and it's been a blast to work on. Games don't exactly develop themselves, of course, and so we've had to make some critical decisions these past months. This post is going to delve into the hows and whys of the new expansion.

It all began with the wrap-up of Summer Tide Saga, the first MilMo adventure. The Saga begins on Lightmill Island and spans a vast summer archipelago. With the release of the Alien Ruins level and the last of the major bosses, that world became complete. Summer Tide proved to be a great way for the team to find out what MilMo is about: what kind of gameplay belongs in the game, how levels should look, sound and feel and what kind of stories take place on them.

Work in progress of the Mice & Maniax splash screen
Earlier this summer we sat down to begin work on the next adventure, and the first thing we did was to assemble a team of imaginative people to write and draw some high concepts. High concepts are usually very visual and most of the text consists of headers and bullet points. The idea is to get a quick feel for the flavor of some different ideas.

Once we had several solid concepts we sat down to compare the pros and cons. Did any of them feel right? Were they visually engaging? Were these ideas doable? Junebud is a small but creative company and we don't have unlimited development resources. It's tempting to stay close to what's expected and focus on doing it well. It's also deceptively easy to grab a wild, crazy concept and just go, only to find out half-way that there's no way to do it well, or even complete what you've started.

We had some very exciting ideas on the table and a decision had to be made. In the end we went with the path that inspired us most. All the cool possibilities of having your game character shrunk, the environments, the enemies, the puzzle of figuring out who (or what) the non-player characters were made us throw caution to the wind. Some ideas are like that: too good to pass up on.

Introducing a new kind of non-player character: the mouse
While Summer Tide Saga is an idyllic world of high skies and long beaches, where you spend your time beach combing or uncovering mysteries, Mice & Maniax is a darker, more sinister world of hidden threats and heroic deeds. Because Mice & Maniax involves so many new effects and visuals, we've had to do a lot of head scratching. Hopefully, the results speak for themselves.

The plot: a fun tool for writers
Plot-wise we've wanted to make this new adventure clearer, more immediate. The setting, the people and the deeds that need doing should all gel together better than before, to tell the story of the mad scientist and his corrupted house. We decided to go in a more immersive story-telling direction, which made our game writer quite happy.

On the topic of releasing new content, I have to touch on the issue of Halloween. I'll admit it, I'm a huge fan. I love the time of year, I love the visual props of Halloween, I love Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, I love John Carpenter's original Halloween movie and, well, I love monsters. We've known for a long, long time that we wanted to release a big update for this Halloween, and we wanted that update to have a certain ominous, creepy feeling to it. But as a game developer, the most challenging part about Halloween is that it won't move. It is where it is, when you look in your calendar, and that means it's a deadline that can't be bargained with. The entire Junebud Crew has worked long hours indeed to make sure we could bring Mice & Maniax to our audience in time for Halloween, and I am immensely proud that we did.

Future projects. We have them.
We have so much stuff in the pipeline (gameplay features, stories, graphics and events that we really want to do), that everything we do means there are hundreds of things we don't develop. Mice & Maniax rose to the top both as a concept and as a technical challenge. All things considered, I can safely say it's a worthy update. Think of it as a promise of all the great things to come. One of my favorite aspects of MilMo is that it's a 100% living project. Everything and anything about MilMo could change at any time, and the game grows with every week and every month that goes by.

When I worked with boxed titles that were sold in stores, there was a single, huge deadline at the end of the project. That resulted in a “gold master” disk that was shipped to the publisher, who made lots of copies. Then the copies were shipped to brick-and-mortar stores. If you made a mistake, you had to make a patch and put it online (or before that, burn on a CD and ship it with popular gaming magazines). Working fully online, fully live and developing a game with the players along for the ride is a beautiful way of making games. Every day at the office is an adventure and any idea can be made into reality and shipped at almost any time. Instead of hulking final deadlines, we work with many small deadlines and get to see how people like the game after each one.

Awesome stuff in the making
MilMo is an awesome project and we have a lot of surprises we can't wait to spring on you guys. It's more like your favorite TV channel, where you get new stuff every week, than like a favorite movie that you watch, and then watch again a couple of years later. What's not to like? Stay tuned.

All the best,


Ola Holmdahl is a game designer and CEO at Junebud. Ola's previous career includes teaching game design, doing game design and creating concept art. In a previous life he was a freelance artist and an academic (but not at the same time). 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Casual vs Hardcore Games


Some of you might know me as the community manager at Junebud. That means I also work on the event design team. I play a big part in arranging events that take place inside the game, like the Halloween 2010 event. Each month will bring you a mix of screen shot/art contests and new in-game events, offering some kind of item or ability as a reward. These rewards are unique, so each event is a great opportunity to collect rare and special stuff. The Haunted Stone you can get this month is really cool, since it lets you summon a bunch of small, eerie ghosts!

An event should be easy to understand and fun to take part in, but the deeper you dig, the harder it should become. Events often consist of several steps that have to be completed in order to move on to the next part, or to get the desired reward. The hard thing for me lies in designing a good difficulty curve. It's not supposed to get too hard too fast, but then again, if it's too easy some players will get bored (or frustrated) and ignore the event. On top of those things, MilMo is a game aimed mainly at a casual audience. That means the players usually get irritated if they have to grind for a certain thing for hours. So the question is, how do you make something that's difficult enough? There's no perfect answer here. Remember, you can't please everyone or design something that's going to fit every single player who plays your game.
The Haunted Stone

If you are a good designer you manage to make something the majority of your target audience will appreciate. Some hardcore gamers will accuse you for being a sell-out if you aim for the casual gamers out there. This is something that I find very interesting: casual vs hardcore game(er)s. In the past many "casual" games would lack the quality that made some of the hardcore games stand out. Nowadays you can find plenty of casual games with both good graphics and great gameplay that could easily get you hooked. A casual game is a game you don´t have to sink a lot of time into, before you start going anywhere - or least least stop sucking. Casual games are often played on a lunch break, or when you've got some extra time on your hands, or maybe at a party. These are games like The Sims, Super Mario, Snake, Bejeweled, Farmville, Solitaire, Frontierville, Plants vs Zombies, Tetris etc.
Plants vs Zombies by Popcap Games
 Wikipedia defines a 'casual game' as, “A casual game is a video game or online game targeted at or used by a mass audience of casual gamers. Casual games can have any type of gameplay, and fit in any genre. They are typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of commitment required in contrast to more complex hardcore games.[1] They require no long-term time commitment or special skills to play, and there are comparatively low production and distribution costs for the producer." But this is just another one definition of 'casual games'. There are many others, I recommend you look some up.

Let's take a look at Farmville. It´s a game with over 62 million monthly active users. That would be like every single person in the United Kingdom played Farmville at least once every month. No mater what city you went to, every person you met would know about Farmville! That's crazy! So let's say Farmville is a casual game. It's easy to access, you play it online, it's targeted at a big audience, it's fairly easy to start planting your crops. You can log on for a few minutes and play, and the original game itself was developed in five weeks by a small team, according to Zynga.

Creativity in Farmville
When we look back at the early days of video game advertisement, the game companies usually targeted families, and games were (and sometimes still are) considered an activity for the whole family. Advertisement has become more complex over time, with so many different games and target audiences, and sub-target-audiences. Games today are aimed at children, families, teenagers, adults, hardcore, casual, girls, boys, FPS gamers who only like space marines, etc. You name it, they made it! What's more, you can play a hardcore game like Starcraft casually. And the same person could be a heavy player of Farmville, like level 90. There really is no clear line between hardcore and casual, it depends more on the style of the player.

But what do casual gamers think of hardcore gamers? And how are you greeted in the company of hardcore gamers if you are a Farmville or Habbo player? From what I learned in my three years at a computer development University in Sweden, many hardcore gamers tend to look down at casual gamers, and consider them a “lower form” of player.

The explanation for this could be found in what Wikipedia said about casual games; “They are typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of commitment required in contrast to more complex hardcore games. They require no long-term time commitment or special skills to play (...)”. If you are a hardcore gamers and play video games several hours a day, guard your rank within a special game, practice your skills and are very competitive, it's no wonder you can't take a person who plays Plants vs Zombies a few hours a week seriously. But this elitism is a bit strange to me. For instance, since when do professional athletes look down on someone who only goes to the gym once or twice a week? None of the athletes I know act that way.

Here at Junebud we welcome both hardcore and casual players. MilMo is the perfect game for playing a few hours a week when you have some extra time, or you can go all out and grind it in order to get all the awesome medals and weapons!

The Epic Sword
Well, these are some of the things I think about when I design events. I hope you'll like the Halloween 2010 event!



Sara is the Community Manager at Junebud. She also works with Quality Assurance (QA) and social media. She's got a bachelor's degree in game design, but likes the social part a bit more than tweaking numbers. She usually spends her time moderating the forum, testing the game and planning new events.