Precarious Potions Post-Mortem

“Yesterday I released my first app to the App Store and Google Play.” What a phrase. As of today there are over a million apps in the App Store alone. I am still learning how to “make it” in this market and am beginning a new journey as I write. What an exciting week! For the sake a post-mortem, though, how about we rewind a bit?

Beginning

I started work on Precarious Potions the summer of 2012. I was working an awful job and discovered HTML5 as an alternative. I had been making games for the past 10 years, but never thought I could earn a living doing it. I started making Precarious Potions as a way to learn the platform. I put it to the side while working on other games, and established a sustainable business over the next year and a half. Whatever I was working on, I kept coming back to Precarious Potions. It reminded me of Cut the Rope and Jenga in all the best ways. It was just so compelling I had to finish it.

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Learning Experiences

So what have I learned during this time? I have grown immensely as a game designer. I refactored the game at least twice. The scope of the game has both exploded and shrunk and has settled somewhere much grander and yet simpler than I originally intended. I learned how to build atmosphere and adventure without an enormous amount of assets. I disposed of stereotypical tropes like the “level wall” nearly every puzzle game uses blindly. I questioned my reasons for making games and for following cookie-cutter models given me by the games I was emulating.

I learned how to design levels—and I’m not talking about using a level editor to place elements on a page. I’m talking about creating lists of lessons players should learn to play the game without instruction. I’m talking about deconstructing what male and female players from ages 5 to 99 do automatically when presented with a stack of books and a bottle on a touch screen. I’m talking about using zero tutorial text. What I learned the hard way is that creating good puzzles is about first knowing your player really well and then simplifying until the player has the knowledge and ability to make complicated decisions on their own. Of all the areas I grew while creating Precarious Potions, this was at once the most painful and the most rewarding. I still get a headache thinking about it, but am prouder of fewer things.

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What Now?

I also learned that HTML5 is powerful, useful, and mature. We are no longer in the era of cute web demos. “Write once; run everywhere” is no longer a buzz-phrase. You can do it today—I did it yesterday. If anything, Precarious Potions shows that there are options outside of proprietary languages and plugins (all of which are great in their own right) that are legitimate and robust. It’s not perfect. It’s got weird bits and awkward places, but I would recommend it and I intend to keep using it.

I love my game, and I hope you do to. I’ve released it for free with zero ads and in-app purchases. I am honored to have a partnership with the great guys at gamemix.com who have made that possible. If you’d like to give the game a spin, you can play it on iOS, Android, and/or the web via www.precariouspotions.com. If you like it, consider rating or sharing with a friend, your mother, or your favorite house pet. Tweets, posts, and +1’s are sweet, sweet gifts.

Have a wonderful day, and I hope you enjoy playing.

Ryan Davis, Creative Ink Games

 

Photo Mar 03, 7 24 42 PM

Precarious Potions Launch

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Today is finally here! After many months of tough love, Precarious Potions is ready for the world. What can I say? There really are no more words.

It’s free, it’s fun, and it won’t ask you to harass your Facebook friends. Play in an app or a browser through the power of HTML5.

http://www.precariouspotions.com

Have a wonderful, fantastic day.

Ryan

Developer Diary #15 — Red Tape

This is Apple.

Alright, it’s about time I wrote. I’ve put off writing until I could announce Precarious Potions, but in light of recent events I will abandon that plan and write anyway. The past couple months I have been beating my head against the red tape gates of App Store submission. Precarious Potions is ready to go on Android, but iOS is proving to be a ferocious bureaucratic monster. I’ve tried to get around not owning a Mac but in the end I gave in. I will be buying a shiny new app submission box. Woe is me and all that.

On a more positive note, the New Year has brought a great deal of business with it. It has been encouraging to find email waiting for me almost every day. It looks like my work is getting out there and generating its own interest. That said, I do not know where most of my website views come from (you are a mystery to me). I can only think that the largely false “If you build it, they will come,” has become true in “build enough, long enough, and somebody will show up.”

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I have also spent some time reskinning JuJu Berry (the matching game I made for a local frozen yogurt shop) into an improved version with my own IP. I am thrilled with it and will be charging full steam toward Apple’s red tape nightmare again as soon as Precarious Potions is out the door. The current version is available for license now.

I am finding myself growing a passion for this style of match three game. I know that’s weird. It also rings a bit anti-indie. However, I think I have stumbled on something really incredible. I know match three has been done to death, but it is always done to death the same way. In the end, it’s about bottle-necking the player with number of pieces. But what if it was fundamentally different? What I am asking now is, “what if the bottleneck is removed?” What if the limiting factor becomes player memory and organizational prowess? I cannot describe how excited I am to play with these ideas. It’s just waiting to be done.

Things are really looking up! I can’t wait to report on Precarious Potions. Fingers crossed for late February!

-Ryan

Developer Diary #14 — Ohio Game Developer Expo

Last weekend my wife and I attended the Ohio Game Developer Expo. The OGDE is a completely new event which was held on Ohio State University’s campus in Columbus Ohio. This was our first event like this, so we approached it with a bit of anxiety. To make things interesting, we had just finished a week of grad school finals. We had zero opportunity to catch up on sleep before waking up at 4am to make the drive to Columbus. Friday morning, we had nothing ready for our trip. After our last final, we managed to design business cards, a poster, a table layout, and desktop configurations of two tablets and a laptop. I also created and exported stable builds of each game in a few hours the evening before. Then: packing, booking a hotel, sleeping a little, loading the car, driving off into the dark, and suddenly we were setting up.

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The expo was a huge success. It turned out to be an intimate affair, with about 30 booths and a steady flow of traffic given the space. We had the opportunity to meet and talk to a bunch of great people who live only a state or two away. Living in the Midwest can be isolating as a game developer. It seems the big-kid clubs are all in California, New York, or some other coastal region. It was unbelievable to meet real people who made and played games. To all of those who we met at the event: I’m so glad for your presence. It was a true joy to meet you.

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As you can see in the photo, we showcased Precarious Potions at the expo. I made a special build which reset all save data when the game was started so that players got a fresh experience, every time. I have heard more than a few times to make sure your build is ready for public consumption before a show, so I took time to get things ready. In spite of this, I expected problems. The best way to find all the ways your game is broken is to show it to real people, after all. Yet, we had none. The hardest part of the event was keeping my introversion in check with coffee.

I now feel very prepared to launch Precarious Potions. The feedback was incredible. I kept fishing for critique, but no one could (or would) say anything against the darn thing. One woman described it as “pleasantly frustrating.” Another compared it to Cut the Rope, which is absolutely what inspired me at the start. No one needed instruction, not even children. In fact, the kids learned much faster than the adults. One kid ran back to his mother’s booth after playing and presented me with free merchandise from their table. In general, people played much longer than politeness dictated–and some played a very long time. I left the event excited and ready to wrestle with multiple ridiculous submission processes.

Which is what I am going to go do right now. Expect a release early January!

-Ryan

Developer Diary #13 — “Done” and “Released”

About a week ago I started saying that I am done with Precarious Potions. It’s a great feeling, being “done.” It’s really too bad that “done” and “released” are not the same thing. Now that I am no longer adding content, I am rounding up edge cases, squishing bugs, and arguing with nonsensical web standards. In some ways I want the release to be as perfect as possible, and in other ways I know that I can never make it 100% functional for every browser on every device in all weather and astrological conditions. The consensus at the moment is that HTML5 is still flaky, at best. I’m starting to learn tolerance for odd bugs that don’t actually break the game. It’s the ones that do that are currently driving my up the walls.

One important thing I do in the time between “done” and “released” is lots of random testing. I usually stick my iPad under someone’s nose and ask them to check out a game I made. If they look interested (which they usually do) I ask them for critique—mean critique. I want them to rip it apart. This serves two purposes: The first is to take their socially acceptable nothing-but-vague-praise response and push it into a more realistic realm. The second is to help find the things that solicit 1-star reviews before they have the potential to scar my game’s reputation. You can hear it before or after, but I find it much easier to manage before. If the tester truly likes your game, they won’t be able to help including praise along with the critique. Either way, it’s a win-win.

I can’t wait to kick this game out the door. I’ve got a lot of great plans for it—which I will be writing about quite soon. I really believe in where this game has gone. With the right exposure it will do well in the wild. Once it releases I will share more details about the transformation it went through in the past year-and-a-half, as well as overall success or failure in the marketplace.

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Until next time, here is a preview image of the intro sequence. All elements were hand-drawn on a very large sheet of paper and then captured via my iPad camera. I vectored over them, but the hand-drawn nature remains. I am psyched to use the process again—it made such a difference.

-Ryan

Heurism: Managed Creativity

I often hear Indies talk about their self-employment providing unlimited capacity for creative freedom. The fairly logical thought is that, since they have no boss, they can do whatever they want. This is only partially true. Creative Freedom is not the freedom to do whatever you want. It’s the freedom to pick your restraints.

That Game Company thrives because it restrains itself to a specific thematic pallet.

Let me explain. All truly great people live with purpose. Their actions are goal-oriented and pursue a specific theme. Those who don’t stick with anything very long live scattered lives and are often forgotten. Think of Michelangelo, Beethoven, Einstein, Plato—even the Beetles. These people really took time to flesh out what they were doing. They used heuristic progression, which means that the previous project informed the next. There’s a reason Frank Sinatra is almost his own genre. In an economic sense, creating a genre for yourself creates a supply which will generate its own demand. People come to you because they want another piece of the pie you’re offering—not someone else’s pie.

So what does this have to do with indie game developers? New developers are often so enamored by freedom that they try to do everything. Yes, having no boss means no one is telling you what to do. However, if you lose all discipline and are not self-directed, you will never create your own genre. People will see your portfolio and have no idea what you’re about. They likely came to your website interested in a certain kind of game you developed and want more like it. When they see you are inconsistent, they’ll likely leave. If your portfolio is disjointed and random they might as well go to a generic flash portal–which is just are random but has a greater selection.

Kyle Gabler of 2D Boy and Tomorrow Corporation has a unified portfolio. If you've played any of his previous work, you know what you're getting into when you play a game he's worked on.

Kyle Gabler of 2D Boy and Tomorrow Corporation has a unified portfolio. If you’ve played any of his previous work, you know what you’re getting into when you play a game he’s worked on.

This does not mean that each game should be a clone of the last. In fact you’re likely to make everyone (including yourself) unhappy that way. Instead, choose a theme or two and commit to making at least three games in that vein. Themes could include a mechanic category (platformer, first person, top-down, turn based), a gameplay category (strategy, arcade, shooter, puzzle), an art style, ideas explored, a narrative focus, etc. Whatever you choose, be intentional about what you make. That includes picking your limits. You’ll find that those limits propel your work lightyears beyond the diffusion of unrestrained freedom.

What themes are you working with? How are you accomplishing that? Are there themes you’d really like to start exploring? Maybe we can share some ideas and enrich each other. Lately, I have been exploring the concept of “beautiful danger.” I have aimed for a soft, gentle art style dotted with dark forests, minor music, and shadowy unknown. I also appreciate the power of silhouette and gentle blurring. I want to explore simple game mechanics which are used to create deep gameplay. How about you?

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-Ryan

 

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Developer Diary #9 — Finalizing

Finalizing

Over the last couple weeks I have switched gears from small portal games back onto Precarious Potions. I am doing the difficult but rewarding work of polishing, tying loose ends, and UI finalizing. It’s dull work but I am excited to see what was once a promising prototype transform into a complete game.

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This is my third attempt at a winning screen. So worth the revision.

My todo list is shrinking rapidly these days. I will be doing a lot of art over the next few weeks for story illustrations, revising or removing levels which are not up to par, and including menu-related events for the end of the game, rating requests, etc.

Generally I am not a fan of In-App Purchases. They are usually lazy and often quite evil. Working in HTML5 is pushing me toward using this method, however. I want Precarious Potions to be free on the web and in App Stores, but I don’t want it covered in ads. Fortunately I have had some really pleasant In-App Purchase experiences lately, so I am going to try to model what I saw by offering extra content for paying users. The goal is to have a completely finished and whole experience (for free), which is extended for a buck. What users receive for their money should feel worth the investment. This will probably mean more levels, but it makes far more sense than putting distracting ads into the game flow.

I am wide open to suggestions about this approach, since I am still inexperienced with it. Feel free to leave a comment with thoughts, suggestions, and experience. It’s encouraging to know what is palatable to others in the sticky mess of monetization.

-Ryan

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