Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Our first mobile release

The last two years have been all about learning. Now we have encountered yet another possibility to learn when we launched our collectible card game Permia - Duels in Windows Phone store at 14 Dec 2013. After about one and a half months and almost 100 000 downloads later we have had first few small ideas what it means to publish a game in a mobile market place.

Earlier we only had experience of releasing game in a small social network Habbo hotel and it has been very much different experience.

Update delay
First of all, we cannot update the game currently whenever we want to. We have not yet implemented the feature that allows us to update the content for the game directly without going through store certification. That is something we definitely want to do in the future. Already we had an issue where Lumia black update changed the way some configuration for the viewport of the game were defined and our game was broken for all the high end devices with HD resolution. You can imagine how grateful I am for Microsoft Store certification team that handled the update in two days instead of one week just before our promotion all over the world started.  All the previous review periods were closer to that one week. Even if the certification goes as fast every time in the future it is still at least couple of days after we have the new version ready before the players can use it.

All the data we gather from the game and feedback that we follow have helped us to react to the problems much quicker than it would have been possible without these. We have found couple of bottlenecks in our server code after the release and both times it has been the same. First active user tells that something does not work like it should. Then our ratings start to decrease. These are enough reason to start studying what is the problem. Then simple analytics that we gather from the game pinpoints the place where the problem lies. Both times we were able to fix the bottlenecks in one day after they first started to encounter. For the team that is as small as us I feel that it is amazing to react that fast.

These seem to have power of the god. When we did not ask our players to rate us at all, we mostly got bad ratings. It seems that people remember to tell if they don't like the game or the game does not work much more often than if they like the game and we don't remind them to do that. Permia - Duels average rating was less than 4 before we implementeda "rate us" dialog in the game. We don't want to interrupt the player, but it is crucial for our game to have good ratings. Without good ratings, we don't get promotion from Microsoft. Without good ratings, players do not download the game and because our game is multiplayer game, our game cannot live without plenty of players. Everything starts from ratings. How cruel that is when you are not going to buy those ratings for you. We don't want to buy ratings so we decided to add the dialog. After we had the rate us dialog in the game our ratings have gone up to 4.4 average and still growing. We have had much more ratings than before and it has helped us to get promotion and more importantly the players as well. Yet another story is that only good rating is five stars. All the other will weight ratings in wrong direction. Average 4.3 is minimum that is expected from us.

We had an excellent review from WPCentral. We advertised that in our Facebook and Twitter accounts. One day after that we got an excellent review from WP player ratings. We advertised that as well in our Facebook account. I was quite amazed how big difference was with the impact those messages had. The player review was seen by six times more people than the WPCentral one. With this case it seems that people are more interested about what other people say than what media says. The article in WPCentral reminded us about importance of the social media. We really have not been active enough to promote our social media sites. We have had over 1 000 000 players playing our games and we have little over 160 people that likes our Facebook page and little less than 100 people who follows our Twitter. We will test with next update if we can get little more players to follow us because social media is currently best way to notify our players what is happening.

Some final words
I have to say that we feel very welcome in Windows Phone environment. All the great feedback has given us strength and motivation to continue with the path we have taken. We are long way from the product we have in our vision. With the help of the players we will go towards that vision and continue delivering new features one by one. First couple of months we will use to make sure that everything works like it should. We create small adjustments to the game and after we are satisfied with the maturity we will start bringing new features to the game. If you have Windows Phone 8 and you have not yet downloaded the game, now is the perfect time to download it. :)

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Pains of UI design, part deux - (dis)similarities

There is one more topic I want to touch on briefly before going into specific UI issues. Are game UIs different from “regular UIs”, i.e. user interfaces in non-game, productivity or entertainment applications? I gave a short lecture on game UIs a while back and this was something I brought up then.

I believe that the key differences are:
  • In game UIs, you can occasionally justify putting aesthetics before function
  • Games often require rapid user response
    • Even turn-based games usually limit the time available to a player
  • Psychologically, the fact that games you usually volunteer to play probably makes a difference

Tetrablok sea UI draft
As for the third point, I am sure there are a great deal of productivity applications people volunteer to use. Still, I believe that when you fire up your favourite game, your mindset is somewhat different compared to say, editing holiday photographs (which, I am sure, can be a lot of fun. Photoshopping your mother-in-law into all sorts of hilarious scenarios… we’ve all done it). Even if you occasionally stray from your goal (removing those pesky red eyes), the task itself is far more goal oriented. Gamers, in the main, play to entertain themselves. I am, of course, aware that some gamers are goal-oriented achievers who resolutely work towards a set goal; however, I shan’t digress into the domain of games psychology and player types now. Instead, consider this a preamble for my next point:

It is my firm belief that when designing game UIs you can, occasionally, put aesthetics before function. Emphasis on the word occasionally. Your UI should be designed to, first and foremost, be functional. Frustrating but pretty UIs are just – here comes the pun – pretty frustrating. It comes down to, or so I believe, to psychology. In games, you occasionally expect fireworks and you are more likely to forgive slight usability issues in favour of aesthetically pleasing presentation. Microsoft Excel (okay, pre-ribbon Excel anyway) is a great tool with a pretty slick UI and yet most people would agree that they expect something different from games. In a game, I can often justify placing a button in a sub-optimal position to make room for pretty pictures. Often, you will choose to display numerical attributes in non-numeric form (e.g. progress bar, pie chart) just because it looks prettier. Occasionally the graphical presentation adds value and makes the attribute easier to comprehend. Sometimes it just looks better. I could go on.

The second point, which I’ve strangely decided to elaborate on last, is probably the most self-evident. Many games require fast reflexes and in-a-fraction-of-a-second decision making. Please, allow me to put aside the whole topic of game controllers. Also allow me to ignore the very extremes of fast-pacedness – FPSs and the likes. Controlling your character in FPS games is more about the controller than the UI. Ditto for most games where shortcut keys are the primary interaction method. Game controllers are a fascinating topic but I will stick to UIs for now.

Turtle illlustration from Seepia Games' TetrablokNow that I have conveniently (if somewhat cravenly) narrowed down the gamut of game UIs to consider, we can pit games against productivity apps. If I am permitted to rule out a few games more, let’s assume there is a time constraint of some type embedded in the game mechanics. In Seepia Games’ games, the constraint is usually time per turn. The time constraint has a number of functions: it forces the player to work his brain more intensely, it can be used to control the maximum duration of a match and, perhaps most importantly, it protects the opposing player from dissatisfactory ennui. This sort of artificial time constraint rarely exists in the realm of productivity apps. High pass-through rate (completion of a form, process etc.) is desirable but I cannot think of many scenarios where it would make sense to impose a time limit on the user. Such limit could even backfire causing stress and lowering productivity.

The question then becomes, are games and productivity apps different after all in this sense? Prompt, precise response is the desired user interaction either way. Games simply add a “sweat factor” – the time limit. Therefore, I am happy to accept that the chasm between the two is not that wide after all.

So, I posit that a good game UI looks good but still follows the usual principles of good UX design: it works with the user, not against him; it stays out of the user’s way and lets the user focus on the fun parts; and finally, it excites the senses and tingles the bits of your brain that appreciate aesthetics.

There is one more aspect to this I have not discussed now but to which I may return in future – learning curve. A topic for future post, perhaps.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Twenty fourteen (and a little about 2013)

Happy New Year and… drum roll please, happy 2nd birthday Seepia Games. Yes, we’ve been at this for two years now. Little longer in fact, Seepia Games was accepted into the Finnish company register in January 2012 but we did get our hands dirty a couple months earlier.

Anyway, 2014. We released Permia ‑ Duels for Windows phone and on Habbo Hotel last month and will now start working to bring the game to other platforms, namely Google Play and App Store. We also have a lot of new players to take care of now so staying in touch with you all is a priority.

The feedback we have received has been great. Our players have supplied us with useful bug reports, helpful feedback, good suggestions etc. Even those who have disliked the game have been very forthcoming – we do like to also hear from those who tried the game and for one reason or another did not find it enjoyable. Keeping an open mind and listening to the players is paramount. In our first update, we added a number of new languages (e.g. Russian, French and German) and made some changes to our ranking system.

We’ve had many questions about our pet-themed game, Pet Shows.  We are (finally) making progress on this front! The game is coming along and 2014 has given us some new ideas. There is not much more to say yet, but we hope to have the game in alpha stage quite soon. It probably comes as no surprise that the alpha launch will be made in Habbo Hotel. Just bear with us a little longer!

 I don’t like to make New Year’s resolutions (no one ever keeps those promises anyway) but I will say, promise even, that Seepia Games will continue to interact with our players, listen to feedback and make great games.

Have a good year!