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I tend not to talk about the business of the games I make very much, not publicly anyway. I don’t have a problem with business discussions but I tend to restrict them where they are most productive. I talk with a lot of other indie developers about business matters, so we can share insight and I can make my choices based on actual experience and not just from dogmatic opinions argued on forums and blog posts.

I also find the many business sessions at developers conference incredibly boring and typically a waste of time. So many developers are eager to tell you of the amazing success they’ve had with their first game and what you can learn from them. Yet often their advice is either blindingly obvious or just one lucky break that they’ve not yet proven they can recreate in any longer term. I am much more interested in hearing about people designing games, something that comes from their passions and not just their bank accounts.

So for the most part I try not to spend my days sharing my opinions on gaming business models. Though I do spend a lot of my time thinking about it, because I want my games to be a success and reach a wide audience as possible. Obviously my end goal is to get into a position where I can be earning enough money to keep making whatever I want to make. Right now I’m still supplementing my games income with contracting work but I feel like I’m getting there.

Having said all that I feel compelled to finally sit down and write something more public about the controversial “free to play” topic. There’s two reasons I want to write about it, firstly because I’m about to release Kairo on iOS and Android and will be doing so a “premium” title. Secondly, on a near weekly basis I feel this real push from the free to play advocates that those of us who aren’t embracing the model are making a mistake.

I would describe myself best as a free to play skeptic. I don’t hate the model entirely and have a lot of fun with games like Jetpack Joyride and League of Legends. There is still a lot of potential for what people can do with free to play that hasn’t been explored yet. However I do have many reservations:

  • I’m skeptical about claims that this is the winning business model for the future of the industry. In it’s current incarnation F2P is in it’s infancy yet people are quick to extrapolate from short term trends or widely different territories. I wonder if these are the same people who told me a few years ago Facebook gaming had won or a few years before that subscription based games as a service had won.
  • I’m skeptical when people tell me any game could be made free to play without ruining the design. I’ve yet see any compelling rationale for how some exploration adventures like Ico, Fez or Journey could be F2P without destroying mood, how survival horror like Silent Hill without destroying tension, or how a point and click adventure could be made F2P without just being pay to win.
  • I’m skeptical of the common forms of free to play game design being used. The “energy” model where game progress is slowed down or outright halted unless you pay seems like a such dead end. Many of these games are just re-skinning the same experience and actually contain very little gameplay. Even worse is those that feel like a good game completely ruined by these kind of artificial timers ruining the game flow.
  • I am skeptical that free to play is the most enjoyable way for me to engage with a video game. The draw of initial low barrier to entry quickly loses its shine when the game is cosntantly pestering me to drop in coins. Like a cinema film or a book or an album I often just want to pay up front and sit down and enjoy the experience without being nagged constantly.
  • I’m skeptical of the ethics of the people involved in making F2P games. Many games are now being designed more around encouraging addictive behaviour patterns and less about creating an entertaining journey. We’ve been down this road before with arcade games where many games despite other qualities were intentionally unfair and often outright broken just to force you to put more coins in. However now we’re not talking about spending 5 pounds/dollars to finish Turtles we’re talking hundreds or thousands on Smurfberries. That the people involved in this are so dismissive of the ethics worries me.
  • I’m skeptical of the sustainability of businesses being funded by a small percentage of susceptible “whales”. These aren’t always people with the disposable income to spend as much as they are doing on F2P games and I have to wonder if eventually so many of them will be burned by a handful of games they’ll start to avoid them and will we find enough suckers to replace them. I also wonder if we continue to prey on these people will we find ourselves under regulations like the gambling industry.
  • I’m skeptical that any single business model will be overwhelmingly dominant in the games industry. More than ever games are branching out in all directions, more types of games are being explored, on more platforms and with all sort of different payment models. That’s the future I see, one of diversity and choice of what we play and how we receive it.

So where all this leaves me is that I am about to release my game on mobile in a format that many mobile developers quite vocally consider bad business practice. I’ve looked at the advice free to play consultants have for making your game an effective free to play title and they just do not work for the type of games I tend to make. Kairo is a minimalist game about exploration and puzzle solving. There is no appropriate space in the game for consumables or expressing personality through an avatar. Sure I could make the hint system micro-transaction based but the hint system was added to aid gameplay and reduce frustration, so making it a paid system would damage the game flow.

Even to ignore all the design reasons it ultimately comes down some simple pragmatic business logic. More people are failing with free to play games than are succeeding. I’m sure advocates will claim those people didn’t embrace F2P properly into their games. Assuming that defense is correct (which is a huge assumption) I know I can’t make Kairo a game that fits that model well so I’d almost certainly be dooming myself to failure too. If I only sell a handful of copies as a premium title I think I’ll take a small amount of something over a whole lot of nothing.

Kairo is out now for Windows, Mac OSX and Linux for $8 from the Kairo site.

iOS and Android versions are near complete and should be available early January.

On Sunday 21st October 2012, after two and a half years of development I released my video game Kairo. Exactly seven days earlier I received a phone call to let me know that my father had died. After two weeks in intensive care with pneumonia his body couldn’t take it anymore. Normally I try not to talk about my personal life in public like this but it’s impossible for me to adequately explain what it was like finishing this project without giving you some understanding what I was going through.

I owe my father for everything I am today. He always encouraged me to take whatever path I wanted in life and once I made a choice he did everything he could to support me in my decisions. We went down quite a few dead ends together before I really figured out who I was and what I really wanted to do with myself. I don’t know where I would have ended up without him but I doubt very much I would be pursuing a creative career I love. I know he was proud of me and I just hope he knew how proud I was of him.

Finishing any long term creative project is never easy but as the end of Kairo appeared on the horizon I was finally starting to enjoy working on it again. The long slog of finishing all the content was over and all I was doing now was polishing. The polish phase is normally for me the most fun, as it’s when all you’re doing is making a finished game even better. I have half-jokingly said that I could easily spend another entire year on the game polishing it to perfection. Ultimately the more time I spent doing that the more diminishing returns I began to see so I decided enough was enough. I set a final deadline on which date the game would be released and booked a London venue to celebrate the end of an era with a launch party.

Just to make things even more complicated, Kairo wasn’t the only project I was working on. I have been funding my game development over the past few years by doing contract work as well. During this same period I took on a project from a client that seemed simple initially but quickly turned into a high pressure project with very strict deadlines that could not be delayed even by a single day. This involved me working evenings and weekends and even taking a day off for my father’s funeral was a huge inconvenience. I could have ditched the client and told them to replace me but it would have derailed the project and knowing the stress the rest of the team was under I couldn’t do that to them.

I could have delayed the release of Kairo of course, but I needed it off my back. With the things I still have to deal with in the coming weeks I just wanted one less thing to worry about. So the last few weeks of development were utterly miserable but I got the job done. I made long lists of things that needed improving and worked through them like a machine. Focusing on the work at least made for an effective distraction. The whole final process just felt so clinical for me but I couldn’t deal with it any other way.

Now I’m done people keep telling me “It must be a relief being finally done” or “It must be really satisfying.” and when they do I smile and agree and talk about what a long journey it’s been. However the truth is I don’t have any positive feelings about the game, right now I mostly feel numb. For a long time making something personal to share with an audience was important to me, however now I’m weighing it up against what I’ve lost it all seems very pointless.

I hope those of you who’ve bought Kairo enjoy it. Though it may not seem like it there is a lot of me in that game, the person I was as I went on that long journey to make it. Now I’m at the point where I need to decide where to go next. Thematically Kairo is a game about hope when all seems lost, and that came from a personal place of where I was mentally when I started making it. Right now though hope is not something I can relate to so I think whatever I work on next is going to draw from much less optimistic feelings.

I should end by saying that I am not without perspective. I know losing parents is something most people will go through sooner or later so my loss is not really special. I also know that making games probably isn’t that important in the overall scheme of things. However I wanted to write about finishing this long arduous project and this was the only way I knew how.

Good luck to everyone else out there working on a long project that seems like it’s never going to end. Just don’t forget to spend some time with those you care about while you still can.

Richard Perrin

This is going to be a bit of a dull post since it’s all about the logistics of where I am and when and how you’re getting the game. So please bear with me.

State of the Game

Getting to a beta state has been the hardest thing I’ve had to accomplish but I’ve finally reached that point and I’m now on the home stretch. The game is content complete and fully playable from beginning to end. Getting here has been an immense weight off my shoulders and I am the happiest I’ve been with the state of Kairo in a long time.

I’m not quite ready to release yet as a lot of things still feel very rough to me. What remains now is a lot of polish work to improve everything that’s in there. I’m not anticipating this will be a long process, ideally only a few more weeks, but I’m trying to not rush it out the door.

I find the polishing phase to be one of the most rewarding parts of game development, second only to initial conception and prototyping. Instead of spending time trying to grind out the remaining content, all my time is devoted to making things better for you the player. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Pre-Order Customers

Hopefully I should be sending pre-order customers a version of this beta sometime tomorrow (Friday 7th September). I’ve been ripping out and replacing the clumsy options menus and input manager and putting in a slicker and more flexible system. That should be finished tonight and at that point I’ll be putting out this new beta for you all to try.

In all likelihood this is the only beta version I’ll be sending out. Ideally the next version pre-order customers will be getting will be the actual release version a week before the public release. In all honesty I’d rather people waited for the final release before playing through to the end of the game. However I owe all of you who’ve supported me access to this beta. I know people say “I couldn’t have done this without you” but in truth I would probably have abandoned Kairo were it not for the support I’ve had along the way.

Release Plans

I’ve not decided an actual release date yet but it’s looking like mid-October. I’m going to put it on a handful of different games portals though obviously I prefer if people buy it direct from my website. The initial release will be for Windows and Mac OSX only, however I should be able to put out a Linux version as soon as Unity 4 is properly released.

Post launch I’m planning to also release the game on iOS and Android. I’ve done proof of concept testing to convince me that it can work however the game will need a whole bunch of adjustments so that might take a few months. I’ve also purchased one of the Occulus Rift dev kits so I’m going to add support for that as soon as I have the kit in my hands. I think the Rift is going to be an awesome way of immersing yourself in the world of Kairo.

Finally, the Steam question! Yes I want to be on Steam as much as you guys want to buy it from there. Like everyone else now I have to go through their somewhat controversial Greenlight process. It almost goes without saying but if you want to support Kairo please visit my Greenlight page and vote that you’d like the game on Steam. If the game is accepted by Valve I will make sure that all of you who’ve bought directly from me will get a free code to redeem on Steam.

Right, so that was all very dull but hopefully informative.

Oh no, I insist!

They say all advice is autobiographical. Not sure who “they” are but it’s certainly true in my case. Over the past few years I’ve given a few different talks trying to encourage people interested in making games to give it a go. Under the title “You Can Make Video Games” I originally gave a long rambling 45 minutes lecture on it back in 2010, in 2011 I did a concise 7 minute version for the web and this year at PAX East I did an even briefer 5 minute version that focused a bit more on the philosophy than the practical aspects. These talks are all filled with the advice I wish had been given to me when I was younger. I wanted to help other people get past the daunting hurdles that deterred me from making games for such a long time.

It came as a surprise to me when I was looking through my website’s monthly referrals this morning to see I was linked to by an article called “No, you can’t make video games.” In it Aleksander Adamkiewicz paints a bleak world view that is the antithesis to my opinion on the current state and future of game development. I tweeted about it and my faith in humanity was quickly restored by the masses of developers who responded that they found his stance as appalling as I did. Regardless of his specific intention with the article, the whole thing has a feeling of “get off my lawn, game design is mine!”.

I know everyone claims to be have been quoted out of context when they're under attack but I definitely feel like that’s been done to me. He’s used my minimalistic slides as bullet points devoid of the nuance I tried to add in the wording. For example he responds to my advice not to form teams with “Well you better be a fucking universal genius then.” If you watch the videos you’ll see it’s clear I was talking about not going on a online recruitment drive for your very first games, when you should instead make some really simple stuff on your own first using free assets to cover for your skill gaps. I even went as far as tell people where to find those resources. I feel like I’m represented in his article as much more of an extremist than I am.

However I don’t want to spend ages rebutting all the ways I felt he misunderstood and misrepresented my video. That’s not really what bothers me, there’s a much more fundamental problem with his attitude that I take issue with. I’m going to pick a handful of comments from the article that stood out to me:

“The truth is simple, not everyone has the aptitude and skills required to make games (or anything for that matter). Telling people that they do, is irresponsible.”

“I'm really not averse towards the "hands on" approach to learning, but fucking around in Unity will not make a game, and won't make you a game designer.”

“The same way fucking around in Photoshop will not make art, fucking around in iMovie will not make a movie, and fucking around with Word will not make a novel.”

‘...we need more voices, we need more people making games.’ No, we really don't, unless you want to encourage the creation of white noise in the medium and devalue everyones work.”

“DeviantArt is the place where art goes to die in noise.”

“The medium doesn't need the noise of more 8bit platformers and sprite-based nostalgia-driven RPGs without other merit than ‘HEY GUYS, REMEMBER FINAL FANTASY!?’ Be honest Richard, you wouldn't want to play these games, nobody would, even the creator wouldn't.”

“It's the same with fanfiction writers and fanmovies, its people that think they know how novels are written or movies are made and that a camera and a typewriter is enough.”

All of this disturbs me because it feels like a mindset from the past that the world is trying to move away from. There’s this kind of old guard belief that only the professionals can produce work of any real worth. However we live in a world where the internet has helped bring about a democratization of content creation. Whatever your creative flavour you can now reach an audience completely side stepping the gatekeepers of old. You can write a book and put it out on Kindle, you can make film and put it up on YouTube, you can create art and put it on DeviantArt, and yes you can make video games put them out on sites like Newgrounds.

He regards all this as “noise” or “fan fiction” and that it “devalues everyones work” but that is arrogant elitism plain and simple. Sure it might only be one in a thousand or less that is of the objective quality of a Meat Boy or Don’t Look Back but under the old systems those games wouldn’t exist at all. Not only that but the other thousand games are not worthless because they represent a wealth of people creating things, sharing them with an audience and improving their craft. So many amazing developers started making awful crappy little games that we should be embracing and encouraging new talent, not trying to belittle their efforts.

A good friend of mine recently returned from living in a foreign country. She’s a very creative person and enjoys video games so I pushed her into making some games of her own. One of her first was a visual novel adventure game made in Ren’Py called Let's Teaching English, and it’s a satirical look at the bewilderment and culture shock that comes with moving to another country. It’s fairly short and I’m sure pedants would argue about whether or not they consider it truly a game but I think it’s really special. It may be the only time that topic has ever been broached in the form of video games and I think it’s a beautiful example of exactly why we need new voices.

Perhaps by Aleksander’s definitions she’s not a real game designer and was just “fucking around” with software she doesn’t fully understand. He called my stance “irresponsible” I find his backwards because I think people like her are exactly what the industry needs right now. If she enjoyed making that game and sticks with it she’ll get better and better as she makes more games. She will be someone bringing a whole new perspective to the industry that would have historically been excluded.

I will share some of the blame here, obviously I didn’t make it clear enough that my advice was primarily to help beginners get off the starting blocks. Maybe it wasn’t clear that much of my advice such as avoiding design documents or teams is not how I think all games should be made, merely that these are common pitfalls for amateurs that result in too many abandoned epic projects. Perhaps I should have taken more time to emphasize this approach is not how you make a AAA retail product, but I have no interest in that market regardless. These issues are full of nuance and much of that is lost in my attempt to make a brief and inspiring rant to get people trying.

However I stand by my original point. If you’re interested in making video games, and for whatever reason you’ve never given it a shot then let me tell you this: YOU CAN MAKE VIDEO GAMES.

P.S. I also still believe there are no rules to game design.

Rambling about process

I don't normally spend a lot of time thinking about the process by which I make games. Over the past few years I've kind of gradually found methods that work for me. Doing a ton of game jams has helped because with each mini-project you're going from inception, through development, polish and release. If you're just working on a single long project you tend just to keep digging the hole you're already in, instead of experimenting to find better techniques. I'm still learning and getting better but right now I have an approach to how I start a new project and foster it through to development that I'm quite happy with.

A few things have made me take some stock about my process recently. Talking to Aubrey Hesselgren at the Bit of Alright conference, watching IGN's questionable Next Game Boss reality show and the development of a small side project I've been working on a little at weekends. It was the IGN show that made me want to write about it the most because it takes an approach to game design that I've also seen mirrored in teaching environments and it's one I'm personally uncomfortable with.

Don't go chasing waterfall

In the first week of the show they ask the "contestants" to come up with a game design and pitch it to the judges, then in the second week they were asked to prototype their concept to show that it's a workable game. I'm sure this makes a lot of sense when you compare it to the AAA industry where a pitch and a design document are the starting point and development is largely tied to those initial plans. I've seen a lot of student teams work on projects in a similar manner and this seems to be the perceived wisdom of how games should be made.

I'm even guilty of this approach myself at times. When I first started jamming I would spend a bit of time trying to get an idea, something I was okay with, and then spend the rest of my jam time trying to realise that initial concept as best I could. I think that approach always resulted in my worst games, the least interesting. What actually works best for me is, to steal Aubrey's words, "let the game be what it wants to be." On the surface it might sound bit vague but I think it's actually very effective and practical approach.

By way of example

Kairo started life as just an image that inspired me. It seemed like you could make a game world look and feel like this abstract architectural image. So I did that, I built a structure inspired by that image and got it into Unity and started walking around it. From there I started thinking of what this world as a whole could look like and what would make it interesting to explore. Soon the one building became a small set of rooms and then some interactions went in that became puzzles. The game as it stands now came out of slow experimentation without clear goals.

My current side project is a little horror game I've been working on at weekends. It started out as something vague I was making for the recent global game jam. By the end of that weekend there was a lot I didn't like about the game but some stuff that was coming together really well. I didn't try to fix up the broken bits, I totally discarded them. They just felt wrong and out of place with the bit of the game I liked. Again a slightly nebulous way of talking about it but if you're constantly playing what you're making you soon start to get a feeling for what you like and what you don't. I still don't have a final clear vision for what this game is, but the bits I've been working on feel right so I'm sure it's going to be something interesting when I'm done.

I suppose you could simplify all I've said in more process orientated terms: build small, iterate and expand as you develop the concept. However the point is not to get too into a rigid mindset of how to make things. I have sympathy for the developers involved in IGN's farce because they're being constantly judged on what they've made. Being poked from the very start of development to justify that what you're making is a fun game people will want to play sounds like a nightmare to me. Being independent should mean you have the room to let your ideas breathe.

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Welcome to the home of Locked Door Puzzle, the independent game development studio of Richard Perrin located in Bristol.

My primary focus is on creating expressive games that explore different forms of interactive storytelling.

For contact details check the about page.