The Building of a Village Builder

What started a few weeks ago, as a pure experiment, evolved into a prototype of a village builder game. To clarify, it’s a video game, where you build a village by acquiring and investing resources, attracting settlers, traveling merchants and eventually even barbarian raiders to your settlement.

You begin as one person with a camp. From there, you can start gathering wood, food, stone or gold. You’ll need these, to add buildings to your settlement, starting with a hut. Each building serves a purpose. The hut, for instance, houses your villagers and thus sets the maximum people that can settle with you.

The goal is simply to get through 365 in-game days, and see how much you have accomplished in that time. It is possible to end the game before then. If you mismanage your village, starvation might get you, or villagers may even rise against you. And of course there were those barbarians, I mentioned.

The game scales with your village. Visiting merchants have bigger, better offers, the stronger your village economy is. Likewise, hoarding gold will increase chances of getting raided. Besides buildings and resource gathering, the player can invest gold in technology, thus improving on the village in a slightly different way. For example, increase the technology for housing, and each hut can hold additional villagers. Increase farming technology for additional food yields, and so on.

The experiment that started it all, was to prove myself wrong. A while back, I experimented with making a similar type of game using Gamesalad. I fairly quickly got stuck, however, and decided that the engine was to blame, for not being well suited for this type of game in the first place. Since then, I have learned a lot about designing the relevant mechanics, and so I wanted to see if I could do it now. The result, while still very primitive, is already both more sophisticated and better balanced than my first attempt ever was.

There is still far to go, before I would even call this an “early release”. It’s a prototype evolving into a pre-alpha. For one, the game has no art or sound at all. It’s just buttons and text in black and white boxes. There are many bugs and things that need tweaking and rebalancing, and I really want to integrate some sort of procedural storytelling device, which I will likely tie in with the villagers themselves, somehow. I haven’t fully developed that layer yet.

Working in layers has been my approach all along. The resources you gather is one layer, buildings add another, the technology and trading represent new layers as well, and so on. I try to design each layer to be as independent from the others as possible, to make things easier to balance and change, as the game evolves. This is where I felt that Gamesalad fell short before, and though it does have its limits, working within them adds a challenge and structure too. I often find inspiration from having to work within a limited space, regardless of whether that space is technical or creative in nature.

Along the way, I tweet updates and occasional screenshots (I’ve included a few examples in this post), both as a log of how things progress, but also to put it out there for early feedback, support and a feeling of having committed to the project. Last time, I gave up when things got tough. This time, things just seem to be get more fun as I go…

Diner Match, a Success Story

Diner MatchAs someone who enjoys reading video game post mortems, I thought the time had come to share a bit about one of my own games. Let’s begin with some stats. Diner Match is my third game for mobile, and so far also the most downloaded of the three. Currently, that means around 400 downloads in just under a month. Not exactly staggering numbers, but still, it’s around what I expected.

This was always a micro production, it’s free, and the only income I get from it, comes from players clicking on ads. Last I checked, I had made almost $0.50. Obviously, if I was in it for the money, I would have failed miserably.

Currently the game is out for iOS. An Android version is coming, eventually.

How Diner Match Succeeded

I am happy. Did I mention, it’s my most downloaded game? No matter what the actual numbers are, that’s awesome! I check the Game Center leaderboard from time to time, to see what scores are needed now, to get into the top 20 or top 10. Seeing names climb up the list, tells me there are players who are addicted to the game, and that’s just about the best news possible. Because it means that game is fun!

In Diner Match, the goal is to swipe food items onto the right plates, before the food slides off screen. If you miss, or make a wrong match, you lose a life. Occasionally, a bonus “tip” appears, which you can tap for extra points. The whole thing gets faster as you go, until you can no longer keep up. When your 3 lives are up, the game ends.

So, Diner Match is a success because it’s fun and at least mildly addictive. Why then, was I expecting relatively low numbers? For one, I’m not great at promoting my games, getting it out there on all the cool websites, and so on. I tweet about it, I post about it, but if you are not already following me, chances are you won’t hear about anything I create. Most often, I hide behind the excuse of not having enough time, and while I do have a full time job as well, I still find time to both play and make games, so it’s not really much of an excuse. Let’s say, it’s a great argument for working with a team of diverse skill sets.

The Inspiration

Diner Match is a based on an extremely simple game mechanic: match the food item with the correct plate. It’s essentially the same as the classic match-the-square-peg-with-the-square-hole game, that’s been dominating the toddler segment for generations. In my case, I was more directly inspired by my friend Joel Telling, who was making Orange Banana (available for iOS and Android). It’s similar in the sense, that you have to match two things, but in a way they are also opposites. In Diner Match you’re trying to stay alive, as long as possible, whereas in Orange Banana, your goal is to finish matching the fruit as quickly as possible.

I love Joel’s concept of a game you are trying to end, as fast as you can, and I think he described the difference between the two games best, calling Orange Banana a sprint and Diner Match a marathon. For the record, a “marathon” in this case typically takes a couple of minutes to finish.

As I was working on Diner Match, I had several conversations with Joel. These were a huge motivation for taking the game past prototype stage, and making it public.

Production and Design

The Diner theme came through conversation with my wife, Kelly. She calls herself a foodpornographer, so it’s no surprise we ended up there.

Actual production was very fast. The game came together in just a few days. Much of what you see in the game, is made with stock assets. Since I was planning on giving the game away, I had a limited budget. Altogether, the assets costs me around $50 to license (so, with the current income of $0.50, that leaves me $49.50 in the red – not really worth crying about either way).

Finding art that went together with both the theme, and the overall feel, took as long as constructing and balancing the game mechanics. I made the sounds myself, using the excellent Bfxr tool. Altogether, Diner Match took about a week and a half to make. Not counting the 9 days it took for it to be approved for sale in he App Store.

Diner Match started as a small side project, and ended up as probably the most polished looking game, I have put out. My expectations were low, but I did not let that be an excuse for half-assing the design, and in the end, these are the reasons Diner Match is a success story.

Why I Make Games

Like most creative endeavors, making games is a labor of love. You have to put in many hours, and the results won’t always come out like you had hoped. This is especially true if you work alone, which is one reason, why working with others is a good thing. More on that later. First and foremost, making games is about passion.

Starship Traveller was one of my favorites as a kid.

Starship Traveller was one of my favorites as a kid.

I love to entertain others, and help them entertain themselves. Two other things I love, are stories and story mechanics. This is why I also dabble in writing.

Things started coming together, when I was introduced to the Fighting Fantasy game books. I was raised on books like “The Hobbit”, “The Never Ending Story”, and the Narnia series, but being able to shape a story as I was reading it, making choices for the main character, took things to a whole other level.

Immediately, I wanted to make my own stories in this style. This was some time in 4th or 5th grade, aka the mid 80s.

Fighting Fantasy became a gateway to Dungeons & Dragons, which completely blew my mind. Suddenly it was more than a story with choices, it was building entire worlds and epic adventures within them, all in the company of friends. I played it only a couple of times, before I took to the game master role. As much as I enjoyed playing, writing has always been a favorite activity, and coming up with adventures, characters and settings, and then sharing those with my friends, brought me immense joy as a kid, and continues to do so now.

Fønix nr. 12

Here’s a cover from one the issues of Fønix, featuring a fantasy adventure by yours truly.

I mentioned how working with others is good. As a young gamer, I sought out others with similar interests, found friends, and an interest grew into a lifestyle. We started meeting regularly, and grew in number until we formed a club, organizing events and helping out at conventions.

In the mid 90s, I was writing for a gaming magazine, and working part time as “the game guy” in a couple of after school programs. I was in my late teens the first time, I made real, actual money on anything related to games.

During this time, I played every kind of game, I could find. Board games, PC games, card games, tabletop RPGs and miniature battles, console games – everything short of gambling, really. It widened my horizon, and I started seeing patterns in how games work, in general, across various genres and types.

Skipping forward to present day, about 30 years after first choosing my own adventure, I am mostly focused on video games, however the reasons remain the same: I get to put elements together to form an experience, which the players will (hopefully) enjoy, which in turn makes me a happier person.

Why video games, then? Nowhere is a game mechanic purer, than in video games. A computer doesn’t do well with abstract rules that leave room for much interpretation. Everything needs to be precise, or interpreted within specified parameters. Fiddling with that kind of logic and balance is fun.

In conclusion, I make games because it makes me happy. It sounds almost selfish, and to some extent it is. I do believe we must find our own happiness in life (again, easier to do with friends), and I aim to do so, by creating good experiences for others.