Baby’s Playful Hands

Two years ago I released an app I made for my 8-month-old son, called Baby’s Musical Hands. It had some colourful squares that played musical notes when tapped. I wanted to make something for him that he could play on my iPad without worrying about buttons that were too small to press, ads, or in-app purchase. The app proved to be quite popular with infants and their parents, and I was extremely happy at the reception it got. It even won some awards from the Children’s Technology Review and the Best App Ever Awards.

Since then, I’ve been giving thought to ways that I could change the app to provide even more interest to babies and toddlers. My daughter is now a year old, so I thought I would take this opportunity to make an app for her: Baby’s Playful Hands. Baby’s Playful Hands is similar, in that there are coloured squares that play musical notes when tapped, but I’ve added more layers of interaction. There are six instruments and colours, and they change as the baby plays with the app. There are more animations to surprise and delight children. And I changed the musical scale to a pentatonic scale so that things sound nice when babies are randomly hitting notes together.

Baby’s Playful Hands is available on the iOS App Store today! It’s a universal app, so it runs on iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. I hope you and your children enjoy it as much as mine do! :)

Get Baby’s Playful Hands on the iOS App Store

Owen


Creativity and Self-Doubt

There have been some studies recently that look at the way social networks affect our perception of ourselves in relation to others. Some of the studies have talked about how since we tend to share only the best of ourselves online, it can lead us to feel bad about our own lives, as they seem so much less perfect than the lives of those around us.

I’ve noticed that this can happen when we talk about our work as creative individuals. We like to talk about our successes, but we leave out all the hard work and failure that came before the good parts. Maybe we don’t like to think about the difficult parts. Maybe we’re afraid of appearing weak. Maybe we’re afraid of looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.

Five years ago, when I was new to the indie game development scene, I was working on my first game, Dapple. I had been working on it for a couple of months, and what had started with great ideas and enthusiasm had turned to a place where I was starting to doubt every decision I was making about the game design. Should I match three colours or four? Does the game need power ups, or will it work better without? Should I let the player choose their colour each turn, or should I pick one of the available colours at random for them? I was getting stuck inside my own head, convincing myself that every decision I was making was bound to be wrong.

I decided to reach out to a game designer I respected and ask for advice. I sent an email explaining who I was and my situation, and asked for advice on how to get through periods of self-doubt. How do you make a decision when you feel like all your ideas are wrong, I asked. The response I got amounted to: “Sorry, this doesn’t happen to me. Can’t really help you out.” As you might imagine, this was pretty crushing. Now I felt even more incompetent and I started to feel like “real” game designers must not ever doubt themselves. What was wrong with me that I doubted my own abilities?

But the longer I worked, and the more game designers and developers I’ve met, the more I’ve come to realize that either this individual was, by far, the exception, or wasn’t being honest with me. I have shared my feelings of self-doubt with many other designers since then, and invariably they have similar stories. We all doubt ourselves and our decisions from time to time. We go through periods where we think our work is terrible and will never be good. We become convinced at times that no one will like our game.

What I’ve learned is that, for me, it’s just part of the process of making a game. Making a game is about making a huge number of decisions, and it’s only natural to feel at times like I’m making the wrong ones. And hell, sometimes I am going to make the wrong decisions. But that’s ok. The important thing is to take the information I have available and make a decision.

An old boss I had once said to me “don’t worry about making the right decisions, worry about making the decisions right.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was saying, but I do now. Sometimes you just need to make a decision and move on, or you can become paralyzed by it. If you realize later that the decision was wrong and makes the game worse, you can go back and fix it. But don’t let yourself get into a situation where you refuse to make decisions for fear of being wrong.

I wanted to write this in case any new game designers happen to be following me on twitter or read this blog. I didn’t want someone working on their first game to feel like the doubt they’re experiencing is unique to them. I wanted to say to you that self-doubt is common. It’s ok if you experience it, because everybody does. What’s important is that you find ways to work through it and move on.

Over the last few years I’ve found that a few things can really help me when I get stuck on a problem:

  • take a walk outside, preferably in nature
  • exercise
  • visit an art gallery and remind yourself of the beauty we are capable of creating
  • go to a movie and see something great
  • go to a movie and see something terrible
  • work on something unrelated for a few hours, or a day or two (but be careful not to jump indefinitely from project to project when things get hard, because things always get hard at some point)
  • do a game jam
  • just make a decision and start working on it. If you hate it, you can change your mind.

I hope that helps. And, if in doubt, read and re-read this quote from Ira Glass:

Ira Glass on having a creative career

Ira Glass on having a creative career

If you have any suggestions for what helps you get through the hard parts of development, let me know!

Owen


Good Design Matters

The summer I turned 18 I was accepted into a summer camp called Shad Valley, held at university campuses across Canada. It was a one-month-long camp focused on entrepreneurship and engineering. It was to be the first time I lived away from home for any length of time.

Shortly before leaving for Shad at the University of New Brunswick, my dad told me he wanted to get me a small, battery-powered alarm clock for the trip (this was before cell phones). So we set off to various stores around town.

We visited several stores. We looked and we looked. I kept saying “what about this one?” “No,” my dad would say, “that’s not right.” And so we’d keep looking. Finally, being a teenager, and frustrated by the length of what seemed like such a simple task, I asked why a particular alarm clock wasn’t good enough. “Because good design matters,” my father replied. Because design is important, he told me. When we buy things we have a choice, and we shouldn’t settle for something that isn’t both functional and beautiful.

Finally, my dad picked a small alarm clock off the shelf. “Here,” he said. “This one.” It was a small black clock with an analog face set behind a circular piece of clear plastic. The face was marked with lines of a nice thickness. The numbers on the face were written in a clear and attractive font. The face was surrounded by an edge of a pleasing thickness. It had a button that made the face light up. The button was exactly where you’d put your thumb, if you were to grab the clock in the dark. It wasn’t an expensive clock, and it was just at a local hardware store, but it was attractive and functional.

At the time I didn’t think much about it. But, the other night, as I sat with my son reading stories at bed time, I looked over at that clock on his bookshelf to see the time. I realized that I’d had that clock for over 15 years. The colours have faded a bit, and the face has a crack in it, but I still like the way it looks. A clock of a lesser design would probably have been tossed years ago.

I doubt my father even remembers having this conversation about that little alarm clock, but it has stuck with me. As game makers we are creating experiences for players that are at their best when both functional and beautiful. It’s not good enough for a game to just be beautiful, or just functional. Something amazing happens in games when form and function act as one. Good design matters.


Thoughts on Proteus

I don’t often write about other games, but maybe I should. If you follow me on twitter, or talk to me about video games, chances are you’ve heard me talk a lot about Proteus over the last year or so. Proteus is a game about exploring an island. Proteus doesn’t have most of the goals or objectives many players expect from games, but I find it to be a wonderful game to play. It’s a game I come back to over and over, because it reminds me of exploring the country as a child. I talked about this in more detail in the Ignite Guelph talk I gave on art and games.

A few months ago I sat down to write down some thoughts on Proteus. What came out was not what I expected. It was much more personal that I thought it would be, even though there’s really nothing expressly personal in the piece. But I felt strange about sharing it publicly for some reason. I guess the experiences we have as children feel special and private sometimes. But, in the end, I still feel like this piece best describes why I love Proteus so much. I decided to publish it on the blog because I feel like other players might have had similar experiences.

And so, without further ado, here are my thoughts on Proteus:

I am 12 years old. I’m at the family cottage; a formerly abandoned place on Georgian Bay that my parents have been fixing up. I spend my summers here.

It’s hot today. The grass seems to be giving off heat in the mid-day sun. The air feels thick and heavy in the humidity. Even the wind feels hot. I stand at the edge of the road looking into the field across from the cottage, wondering if the bull is in there with the cows today. I can’t see the cows from here, but they’re in there, I know it. I cross the road, climb over the old wooden fence, and drop down into the tall grass.

I look ahead to the line of trees in the distance. The buzz of cicadas rings in my ears, over and over. As one winds down, another starts up, filling the air with their perpetual song. I start pushing my way through the grass, on the look out for the cows. I walk to the creek, but it’s dry. We haven’t had rain for a while. I turn and head toward the trees at the back of the field.

A flying grasshopper bursts out of the grass in front of me and its loud buzz startles me. I stop to watch where it lands and I creep towards it. As I approach it launches again and buzzes. I chase the grasshopper through the field until it lands in a pile of rocks and disappears.

I clamber up the pile of rocks – a pile left over from when this land was first cleared – to take stock of where I am. I’ve come about half way across the field. The trees are still a ways off. I start climbing down from the rocks and, as my foot moves one, a garter snake slides out and moves through the grass. I follow it.

The snake weaves its way through the tall grass and I have a hard time keeping up. Every time I get close, it seems to get away. Finally it burrows itself in a bush. I sit down next to the bush and wait to see if it reemerges. After a few minutes I move on.

I’m nearly at the tree line now. I can see the hill the trees growing on in the shadows of the forest. I pass into the shade and immediately feel cooler out of the intense sunshine. The air smells different in here, damp, and alive. I climb up the hill, following an old cow path up the slope. I still haven’t seen the cows. Maybe they’re in the back field near the pond trying to stay cool.

I come out of the trees at the top of the hill into another field and follow the path to the pond, but the cows aren’t here either. I stop next to the pond and stand motionless, listening. The air up here is still, the wind blocked by the trees. The buzz of the cicadas continues. As I crouch very still by the pond the frogs begin to croak. I listen carefully. I can hear one nearby. I look through the cat tails in front of me and see a big green leopard frog. I reach out my hand and, just as I’m about to touch it, it dives into the water.

I stand and look around to get my bearings. The cow path weaves off up the hill. I follow along the path for a while. I reach the big pile of rocks in the back field I’ve been looking for. I clamber up the rocks to look around. I still haven’t seen the cows. Maybe they’re in the back forest, but I can’t see them from here. I turn left, climb down the rocks, and hop the fence into the neighbouring field. In the distance a group if poplars grows on a small hill, rising above everything else. I make my way towards it.

As I start up the hill, I turn around. From up here I can see back down across the fields, all the way to the water. The lake is a deep blue in the sun. White caps from the wind dot the blue expanse. Water extends to the horizon. Islands in the distance hint at new things to see and places to explore.

I circle around the hill until I find the stone foundation from a house that is long gone. I drop down into grass at the bottom. I lie down in the grass and close my eyes and listen. Here there is no wind and the cicadas’ buzz fills my ears. The sun is warm on my face. This is Proteus.


5 Years Old

I can hardly believe it myself, but Streaming Colour is five years old today! Five years ago today I arrived in Toronto after moving back from Vancouver, sat down at my computer, and started my indie career. When I started Streaming Colour I had no idea if I’d survive for five years. It was a gamble. I had a left a good job as a senior programmer in the console games industry and I was taking a big risk. My goal was to build the business to the point where I was making a livable income after five years. Not be rich, just making enough to keep doing what I wanted to do.

It has been a very long and very short five years filled with lows and highs, and everything in between. Being an independent game developer definitely hasn’t been easy. In fact, it has been a huge struggle at times. But it has also been incredibly rewarding on a personal, professional, and creative level. There are few things as creatively rewarding as taking an idea in your head and turning it into something that people can experience for themselves.

Over the past five years I have taken on some really interesting contract work. I’ve spoken at conferences in Guelph, Toronto, and San Jose. I wrote a chapter in a book on iPhone development. I moved to Guelph, Ontario with my amazing wife, and we’ve had two incredible children. Through it all, I somehow managed to release seven games/apps. I’m not releasing any numbers today, but these are those games ranked from most revenue to least, for those curious:

  1. Finger Tied (Oct, 2012)
  2. Baby’s Musical Hands (July, 2011)
  3. Dapple (Feb, 2009)
  4. LandFormer (June, 2010)
  5. Monkeys in Space (Nov, 2009)
  6. Dirty Diapers (Dec, 2010)
  7. Finger Tied Jr. (May, 2013)

Update: A couple of people on twitter were curious about relative revenue. Here’s a graph showing each game/app as a percentage of total revenue earned on the App Store:

Game Revenue Percentage

Breakdown of revenue by percentage of total App Store revenue. Accurate as of 2013-07-08.

I have learned some hard and important lessons about developing games on my own. I’ve learned some very hard lessons about marketing and PR. I feel like I’m getting better every day at what I do, and I intend to keep learning and improving with every game.

After releasing Finger Tied last fall, one thing I realized was that I really missed working with other people. Working on one’s own gives you a lot of creative freedom and choice, but it’s also really difficult to see the big picture at times. Late last year, Matt Rix and I teamed up and started prototyping some game ideas. He and I had worked together a couple of times at TOJam in Toronto, and we decided we’d see if we could make a game together. Earlier this spring we founded a new company called Milkbag Games and we’re currently hard at work on our first game: Snow Siege. It has been a fantastic experience working with Matt so far and I think Snow Siege is going to be a really great game.

Finally, I wanted to extend a big thank you to everyone who has supported me and Streaming Colour over the last five years. If you bought my games, offered encouragement, talked with me about game design at GDC or 360iDev, or just sent a friendly message of twitter, thank you! Nobody can do this alone, not even those of us who work alone. I wouldn’t still be doing this if not for all of you. Here’s to the next five years!

Owen