2014: Full Speed Ahead

The new year has gotten off to a snow start, though.

For us here at SophSoft, Incorporated and Digital Gamecraft, 2014 is starting a little bit later than originally scheduled.  We took our usual couple of weeks off at the turn of the year, but the weather decided to insert itself into our plans.  On the first full day of our break, we were hit by a serious ice storm, and although we were very lucky to be mostly unaffected by the power outages, our immediate neighbors were without electricity until New Years Eve.  Fortunately, they were back online just in time to watch the Michigan State University Spartans win the Rose Bowl!

On the first day “back” from the break, we received more than 18 inches of snow, which essentially shut down all of East Lansing and surrounding communities for a couple of days.  Although we could still get development work done, the first priority was digging out, and that took many hours of physical effort, so it was not easy to just jump right back onto the project schedule.  On top of that, we received several pieces of personal news, both bad and good, so it was an emotional week, too.   (Personally, I managed to get sick in the midst of all of this, from which illness I am still recovering.)

Nevertheless, despite the slow ramp up, we are now approaching full speed ahead with game development in 2014.  We added some newer development systems to assist with our desktop and mobile development, so now we have a state-of-the-art environment for creating games for Windows (up to 8.1), Mac OS X (through Mavericks), Linux (Ubuntu), iOS, Android, Windows Phone, HTML 5, Silverlight, Flash, Xbox 360, OUYA, and more.  If anybody needs to contract some programming talent, you can contact me here.

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (Russia) are just three weeks away, and we expect to have unprecedented coverage, both through our @DGOlympics twitter feed, where we will again provide results for all events (as we did for the London Summer Olympics in 2012), as well as through a new (broader) game site that we plan to announce shortly.  If you have any interest in the Olympic Games, please follow us at @DGOlympics and spread the word.

On the Solitaire front, our top priority is finishing the substantial rebuild of Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition and the other Goodsol Solitaire Engine games.  While we have, unquestionably, the best technical platform (and the most games) for the Mac, we are revisiting the interface to make it even more fun to play.  Of course, we are also planning to add many more new games in our relentless march toward 1000. 🙂

We have a new iOS upgrade for Demolish! Pairs (and later, Demolish! Pairs FTP) in the works.  We are adding (at least) one new play mode, by popular request, and several other new features.  (The exact list of features will be determined based on scheduling considerations.)  Of course, you can buy Demolish! Pairs on the App Store now and get the upgrade for free when it is released.

There are currently three more major projects in design and development, but I will announce each of those here at an appropriate (later 🙂 ) time.  Additionally, there are always a number of maintenance projects which, at this point, include changes to our iOS games mandated by Apple to be “optimized for iOS 7”, modifications to most of our Windows games to properly handle touch interface changes made in Windows 8.1, and of course, everything can use a fresh coat of virtual paint for 2014.

Rather than spend any more time typing about this, I should get back to actual development work, as 2014 is looking to be our most exciting year yet!

2013: Year in Review

Overall Performance Grade: B

Digital Gamecraft / SophSoft, IncorporatedAs the number of hours left in 2013 dwindles down to minutes, it is a good time to look back on the past year and do an honest performance review for the work we have done at Digital Gamecraft and SophSoft, Incorporated.

Major Events

#10: Lack of Ideas?  Really?

We created a roadmap of our upcoming development projects, which list “contains 30 games, in 6 different genres, spanning approximately one dozen platforms, plus a productivity application and an information web site.”  Toward the end of the year, we also did a reevaluation of our company purpose, vision, and mission, confirming our goals and how each of the above products help fulfill them.

#9: iOS Development

We finally released our first iOS titles this year, and once we started on the new platform, we shiped 12 SKUs for iOS (7 titles and 5 updates).

#8: Goodsol Solitaire 101 Touch Edition 1.0 / GSCITE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of this collection of 101 favorite Solitaire games (plus 34 bonus games) on June 3, and we released a significant update on September 27.

#7: Most Popular Solitaire Touch Edition 1.0 / MPSTE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of this collection of 30 most popular Solitaire games (plus 13 bonus games) on April 25, with a significant update on August 14.

#6: FreeCell Plus Touch Edition 1.0 / FCPTE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of this collection of 8 FreeCell type Solitaire games (with 4 bonus games) on April 2, and a significant update on July 31.

#5: Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition 2.50

We released this update to the premier Solitaire program for Mac OS X, bringing the total to 500 games, after two previous updates, PGSME 2.42 (420 games) and PGSME 2.44 (440 games), earlier in the year; we also launched a major upgrade project to make the next version of PGSME, due fairly soon, even better.

#4: Pretty Good Solitaire Touch Edition 1.0 / PGSTE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of our flagship Solitaire product with 500 games, the biggest Solitaire package available for iPad, on July 16, and then followed that up with a significant update on October 22, with 520 games (plus 72 bonus games).  We also refined our upgrade development process for this title.

#3: A Little Solitaire Touch Edition 1.0 / ALSTE 1.10

We released the very first version of this collection of 9 Klondike, FreeCell, and Spider Solitaire games, for iPad, on March 22, and published a significant update on July 26.  This was a major event not only because it was our first ever iOS game, but also because, on March 27, it became the #1 card game in the App Store.

#2: Demolish! Pairs FTP 1.0.1 for iPad

We released a free-to-play version of our arcade/puzzle game, Demolish! Pairs, on November 6.  This was the second SKU from Digital Gamecraft, and our very first venture into the “free” section of the App Store (with decidedly mixed results).

#1: Demolish! Pairs 1.0 for iOS

On June 18, we released Demolish! Pairs 1.0, our puzzle/arcade game for iOS, thereby reentering the self-publishing arena.  It was the first title published by Digital Gamecraft, and the last to contain fully custom artwork (and sounds) from our late artist, Rick Tumanis.  Although it was not the runaway success that it should have been, it provided a positive first step and, along with Demolish! Pairs FTP, gave us some very useful information about the iOS market.

What Went Right

Digital Gamecraft has remained a full-time independent game development company for (now) the 19th consecutive full year (stretching back into 1994, as Sophisticated Software Systems); this alone is a significant accomplishment.

Our product development continued apace, as did our strong affiliation with Goodsol Development, resulting in 15 SKUs released in 12 months.  We firmly established ourselves on the iOS platform, and Digital Gamecraft has published its own titles.

What Went Wrong

The video game industry, as a whole, is in a period of crisis, even though some “evangelists” continue to preach the opposite.  Continuing to survive in this depressed climate is a true challenge (though we strive to thrive).

We have seen falling sales and reduced revenues, and our entry into the iOS market with products on the App Store has done little to stem the negative trend.  In fact, it distracted us somewhat from Windows and Mac development, where the sales are slowing, but which are still a better investment than mobile platforms (for now).  Our experiments in free-to-play marketing suggest that it is not a general solution.

Final Evaluation

On balance, I awarded a grade of B (again) for overall performance in 2013.  My initial inclination was to grade our efforts as a C+, but when I looked back on what actually happened in the year, we met most of our development goals.  Digital Gamecraft released its first two games, and we broke into the iOS market with numerous titles.  Although reduced income does cast a pall over the year (and my mood), I determined that it should not count against our productivity grade.

That said, though, things will clearly need to improve in 2014, and we have already taken steps to achieve that, but this is a discussion for another post. 🙂

Lack of Ideas? Really?

Ideas are easy.  Execution really matters.

I somewhat regularly read about “game designers” who are lacking ideas, usually via posts from the individuals themselves seeking good ideas for a game (from others).  Mind you, I cannot lay claim to being the best game designer on the planet, but I can certainly tell you that anyone who says that they have no game ideas is definitely not a game designer.

The truth of the matter is that any real game designer always has too many ideas to be able to execute all of them, or even a significant percentage.  If you do not have this problem, you best not fancy yourself a designer at all; instead, take a job with a game company where you can develop the ideas of somebody else, and maybe add a little design input every once in a while.

Here are a few characteristics of pseudo-designers that I have encountered over the many years I have been in this business:

  • they think that “Quake, only with bigger guns” is an interesting idea;
  • they focus on a single design idea to the exclusion of other approaches;
  • they believe that their one idea is so valuable that others are just waiting to “steal” it;
  • they think that an idea is somehow the same as a game design; and
  • they have no idea how much effort is actually involved in building a game.

Whenever I hear one of these stories now, I just have to shake my head and sigh.  Granted, early in my professional career, I was more likely to be swayed by somebody with a grand idea and (at least) a partial game design but, of course, the conversation usually ended with “you create my game and I will split the profits with you, 50/50.”  Even when groups are formed to pursue a particular game design, unless they are properly funded, it almost always ends in failure.

I can hardly believe that people will claim they are a “good game designer”, but they cannot come up with a good idea to turn into a game design.  When I worked at Quest Software, and we were wrapping up The Legend of Blacksilver (Apple II version, circa 1989), our entire development staff (of 4!) sat down at a local Burger King and brainstormed at least four game ideas to consider before the end of a fast food lunch; I still remember one of the ideas that was not chosen to pursue.  Given that, I am astonished when somebody thinks that my company would bother to take their basic game idea, when we have a backlog of our own designs yet to be done, and could easily devise more when/if necessary.

When I first heard about the One Game A Month challenge, I was intrigued at the idea of trying to start clearing out the backlog of those designs (full and partial) we have wanted to create.  Although I am not officially participating, primarily because after 30+ years, my game development goals are not congruent with the bulk of the “indie scene”, I realized that the way to get this done was to actually think less about game design, and focus on execution: actually getting the projects completed.

Execution is always the most important part of game development, because “wouldn’t it be cool if…” is always much easier to say than to do.  Somebody has to program, somebody has to create artwork (likewise, sounds, music, levels, documentation, etc.), and it all needs to be put together and, most of all, finished.  It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all (i.e., more than 90% of) games are never actually completed.

To give you some numbers on the extent of the Digital Gamecraft backlog, I spent an hour or so simply writing down the names of projects for which some design work had been done, including games that had been partially designed and researched, games which had fully documented designs, and several products in various stages of development.  I stopped when I reached 32 projects, though there are certainly more.

The reason that 32 was a good place to stop was that I wanted to prioritize them using a simple binary selection process (a bracket system, if you will), knowing that all of the higher priority projects would spring immediately to mind.  I went through the pairs of projects to generate a rough priority list, and then I manually tweaked the development and release order to create some variety in our lineup (i.e., not producing two games within the same genre back-to-back).  Now I have a list of projects that, even if we could finish one per month, would take us almost until 2016, and that does not even include any of the four AAA games we pitched at E3 (and CGDC) back in 1997.

Our current project list, as it currently stands, contains 30 games, in 6 different genres, spanning approximately one dozen platforms, plus a productivity application and an information web site.  If we can accomplish even half of that in the next 5 years, I will probably be extremely pleased (or, possibly, cloned 😉 ).

However, if your problem is with finding ideas, rather than actual execution of game designs, then it may be time to give up the concept of being a game designer.

2013: Year in Preview

Happy New Year!

Digital GamecraftWe at Digital Gamecraft have emerged from our two-week “break” into a new year with a fresh sense of optimism, renewed productivity, and an almost overwhelming prognosis of much greater success in 2013.

There are three major factors that play into the very positive outlook for this year:

  1. We had a strong finish to last year, with a large number of product updates shipped and a significant stabilization of our development platforms and processes.
  2. Despite officially being “out of the office” during the break, I actually fell back to my love of game programming, hence Demolish! Pairs made fantastic progress.
  3. The first day back in the office saw us ship another major update to Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition, adding another 20 games (to be published very soon).

After a certain amount of adjustment during 2012, we are not making any changes to priorities for the new year.  However, we did map out our course of development for the foreseeable future, and just seeing the project list is fairly exciting itself.  We have four brand new game products to launch within the next six months, as well as a new web site project and a productivity application.  Of course, success begets success, so new clients are also contending for SophSoft, Incorporated game development resources.

Personally, I am resolved to both read and write more; my desire to spend more time programming games is handled nicely by the facts in the above paragraph. 🙂

So, here’s wishing all of you a great deal of success (however you choose to define it) for the coming year, and a nice recovery for the game industry in general.

2012: Year in Review

Overall Performance Grade: B

Digital Gamecraft / SophSoft, IncorporatedDespite being in the middle of our two-week break, I decided to take a short hiatus from the warm tropical sunshine (actually, the snowfall outdoors and a space heater in the office) to do a performance review of this past year at Digital Gamecraft and SophSoft, Incorporated.

Major Events

#10: FreeCell Plus 4.10

We released a maintenance update to this popular collection of 8 FreeCell Solitaire games (plus 4 bonus games) on October 16, for both Windows and Mac OS X.

#9: Most Popular Solitaire 2.10

We released a maintenance update to this top-selling collection of 30 Solitaire games (plus 13 bonus games) on October 12, for both Windows and Mac OS X.

#8: Goodsol Solitaire 101 version 2.12

We released a maintenance update to this collection of 101 favorite Solitaire games (plus 34 bonus games) on September 25, for both Windows and Mac OS X (after the earlier release of GSCI 2.10 on July 3).

#7: Are you kidding me?

During August and September, we experienced major failures of systems running (in order) Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows, while development continued (mostly) apace.  All systems were restored, development processes were optimized, and this Gamecraft blog was improved.

#6: Action Solitaire 1.50

We released a significant upgrade to this arcade Solitaire game on May 15, adding 5 more games for a total of 75 games, for Windows (only).

#5: Preparing for Mac App Store Submission

Starting in January (and extending into March), we published a 6 part article, plus introduction, giving a most detailed listing of guidelines and pitfalls associated with submitting a product to Apple for inclusion in the Mac App Store (for OS X).

#4: Pretty Good MahJongg 2.41 / ME 2.02

We released an update to this definitive collection of MahJongg Solitaire, tile matching, and puzzles, which contains 55 games and 300 layouts, on September 25, for Windows (PGMJ 2.41) and Mac OS X (PGMJME 2.02).

#3: ISVCon 2012: Success!

The company attended the inaugural ISVCon conference (renamed from Software Industry Conference) in Reno, Nevada, and I presented Quality Assurance for Small Software Publishers and also spoke on the How Games are Different panel.

#2: Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition 2.40

We released another major update to this largest collection of Solitaire games for Mac, adding 25 new games for a total of 400 games (plus 60 bonus games), on November 27, for Mac OS X 10.4/Tiger through (current) 10.8/Mountain Lion (after the releases of PGSME 2.30/2.32/2.33/2.34/2.36/2.38 earlier in the year).

#1: 30 Years in Business!

In January, our company celebrated its 30th ANNIVERSARY, making us “The Most Venerable Independent Game Developer in the World.”  (It may be a bit of hyperbole, but we have been doing this since well before many “indie developers” were even born.)

What Went Right

Digital Gamecraft has remained a full-time independent game development company for the 18th consecutive full year (stretching back into 1994, as Sophisticated Software Systems). Some internal projects, including Demolish! Pairs, have made huge strides, and we have multiple iOS projects poised to release early in 2013, while maintaining our expertise in Windows and Mac OS X platforms and adding others (to be announced).

Product development was really solid for the entire year, and our strong association with Goodsol Development continued, as evidenced by the numbers: 18 SKUs published (plus two quiet updates), 16 closed beta versions, 6 internal (alpha) versions, and 3 more updates pending release.  That is a SKU/update shipped about every 8 calendar days, on average, not at all bad for a small company.  A new development/release schedule for Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition is more efficient and working well (so far).

What Went Wrong

The heavy release schedule of various Solitaire games on multiple platforms took a toll on the resources (mostly time) available for other projects, compounded by the several weeks of hardware and system failures and recovery, so Demolish! Pairs was delayed (again) until early 2013.  Marketing efforts are nascent as well.

Despite the improved release schedule, desktop sales have not lived up to expectations, based on results from previous years, so some rethinking and second-guessing has taken place.  In particular, the division of effort between (tried and true) desktop development and (less reliable) mobile development (for lower price points) is a matter of some risk.

Final Evaluation

On balance, I awarded a grade of B for overall performance in 2012.  Although specific tasks, especially the intention of shipping a new Digital Gamecraft product, were not fulfilled, the entire year was fully productive and reestablished forward momentum after a disappointing 2011.  This also takes into consideration progress on a number of projects that do not (yet) figure into the published release schedule.

We are capable of an A+ grade in 2013, so that is clearly the goal.