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Author Topic: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues  (Read 27547 times)

Dave Gilbert

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Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« on: 08 Aug 2013, 23:13 »
Hi all. Over the last few years I have received a number of emails from AGSers inquiring about us publishing their game. I am taking a break from publishing this year (our new baby has a way of sucking up a lot of our time and energy), but I have noticed a number of common issues in the games that are sent our way. These issues aren't mistakes exactly, but rather things you have to consider when you want to bring a game to a commercial standard. When I give feedback to the developers, I've found myself often giving the same bits of advice. So I thought I'd share the most common of these issues with the community. If you're thinking of going commercial, it might be of some use.

Quick disclaimer: I learned these common mistakes the hard way - by making them myself! :) You'll see examples of these mistakes littered throughout our entire catalog.

1 - Avoid DirectDraw like the plague. Always use Direct3D. DirectDraw isn't supported anymore, and the results are mega unpredictable. On a good chunk of computers (usually modern laptops), the game will freeze at startup. There are various ways of fixing the problem, but the solutions vary from computer to computer and it's impossible to troubleshoot them all. Release a commercial game that uses DirectDraw by default and be prepared for a ton of tech support emails you won't be able to answer. You can tell your players to "Switch to Direct3D" but the steps for doing that are not intuitive. And if your game is on Steam, it's REALLY a pain. So it's best to avoid it altogether. Make sure your game runs smoothly in Direct3D and release it in that mode.

2 - Avoid the 3:4 aspect ratio (320x240, 640x480, 800x600). If it's not too late, go widescreen (320x200, 640x400, etc). I've noticed a LOT of AGS games sent my way are in the 3:4 ratio. It might be a nostalgia thing, or it might be because AGS starts that way by default, but it causes many problems. On many monitors, the image will stretch across the screen and look ugly. And as with DirectDraw, the solutions vary from computer to computer (and monitor to monitor). Even if the game plays fine, your players will still think you are crazy for releasing a game in 2013 using 3:4 aspect ratio, and get annoyed that they have to play with big black bars on the side of their monitor. I know this because Resonance and the earlier Blackwell games were made this way. It's not a major deal-breaker like DirectDraw is, but it's something to consider.

3 - The oldschool Sierra interface, with different icons for walking, looking, talking and interacting. We all know it. We all love it. Sadly, nobody outside of the narrow niche of old-school Sierra players understands this interface. For everybody else, it's not intuitive at all. It's frustrating, fiddly, and very hard to tutorialize. Plus from a purely practical standpoint, it will be very difficult to port the game to other platforms that don't have a right-click button! So do try and avoid it.

4 - Avoid long intros. This is subjective, but it's an issue that I see cropping up many times (and in my earlier games). Let your players discover your world by exploring it. You don't need to tell them everything right at the beginning. The player wants to PLAY. They aren't going to process a major infodump during the first five minutes of the game. Count the pieces of information you are giving the player in the opening cutscene. If it's more than 5, EDIT IT DOWN (my personal rule - your mileage may vary). This isn't dumbing down your game. It's allowing the player to discover these things on their own. Have faith in your world and the player's desire to explore it.

5 - Are you planning an episodic series? Please reconsider. Unless your name is Telltale, the customer faith in episodic games just is not there yet. Nobody wants to get invested in a story that they don't think will be finished. And let's face it, 9 out of 10 times that is exactly what happens. If your game title ends with "chapter 1", "part 1", or (worst of all) "episode 1"; it sends the message: "this is a short game with a cliffhanger ending that will only continue if the first part sells well enough." There are definitely exceptions to this - Cognition being the most recent one - but it's already hard enough to get people to buy an indie adventure game. Why make it harder for yourself?  A stand-alone game with sequels is better, but still difficult (see: Blackwell).

Anyway, that's it! Keep in mind that this is all subjective, based off my own experience in making and selling commercial AGS games. I might change my mind about any of this stuff a year from now!
« Last Edit: 08 Aug 2013, 23:31 by Dave Gilbert »

Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #1 on: 08 Aug 2013, 23:20 »
Thanks for sharing Dave!   Good advice and food for thought - especially about the episodic game format.
 

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #2 on: 09 Aug 2013, 00:29 »
All noted down in my "How not to release a commercial AGS game" book. Thanks!

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #3 on: 09 Aug 2013, 00:35 »
3 - The oldschool Sierra interface, with different icons for walking, looking, talking and interacting. We all know it. We all love it. Sadly, nobody outside of the narrow niche of old-school Sierra players understands this interface. For everybody else, it's not intuitive at all. It's frustrating, fiddly, and very hard to tutorialize. Plus from a purely practical standpoint, it will be very difficult to port the game to other platforms that don't have a right-click button! So do try and avoid it.
This I find most interesting. So what would you recommend? Since you talk about platforms without a right mouse button, I'm guessing "left click to act, right click to look" is not the best choice either. So what would work best? Single click? Verb coin? Lucasarts verb-buttons-at-the-bottom? Something else?

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #4 on: 09 Aug 2013, 00:35 »
If Direct3D supported 256 color mode and didn't ignore resolution when scaling down characters, maybe I'd be okay with it.

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #5 on: 09 Aug 2013, 00:56 »
If Direct3D supported 256 color mode and didn't ignore resolution when scaling down characters, maybe I'd be okay with it.

Direct3D is the reason why that happens? I thought I just had the settings messed up in Winsetup. It really spoils the experience of playing 320x200 games when the characters scale at a different resolution. Real unprofessional looking, and ugly to boot.

And I don't really have any choice but to use DirectDraw myself, and that's disappointing, since I love using 256 colour mode. Surely there's another way to render it?

Dave Gilbert

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #6 on: 09 Aug 2013, 01:43 »
3 - The oldschool Sierra interface, with different icons for walking, looking, talking and interacting. We all know it. We all love it. Sadly, nobody outside of the narrow niche of old-school Sierra players understands this interface. For everybody else, it's not intuitive at all. It's frustrating, fiddly, and very hard to tutorialize. Plus from a purely practical standpoint, it will be very difficult to port the game to other platforms that don't have a right-click button! So do try and avoid it.
This I find most interesting. So what would you recommend? Since you talk about platforms without a right mouse button, I'm guessing "left click to act, right click to look" is not the best choice either. So what would work best? Single click? Verb coin? Lucasarts verb-buttons-at-the-bottom? Something else?

I was mostly referring to how you can right-click to cycle through the verb icons, which negates most of the frustration many people have with them. If you can't right-click, it becomes twice as annoying. :) A verb coin with a few actions is the way to go, if you want to plan ahead for a touch-screen interface.

If Direct3D supported 256 color mode and didn't ignore resolution when scaling down characters, maybe I'd be okay with it.

Well to be fair, if you were going to write a commercial game you wouldn't want a native 256 color game anyway. Like with DirectDraw, it can act REALLY unpredictably on modern hardware. Gemini Rue, for example, was a native 16 bit game! That's unheard of in 2013. It caused more technical issues than I can list. The same for 256 color games.

As for scaling characters, yes this can be annoying. For Primordia we had to render out a whole new set of scaled-down walking animations for the characters that needed them. A bit of a pain, but it was either that or lose over 1/3 of our audience. When you're making a commercial game, that takes priority. For freeware it doesn't matter!
« Last Edit: 09 Aug 2013, 01:45 by Dave Gilbert »

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #7 on: 09 Aug 2013, 01:53 »
Perhaps a Kyrandia-style interface might be good too?

I also like for the dialogue parts how Discworld used graphics to denote what the discussion would be about.

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #8 on: 09 Aug 2013, 03:46 »
No one has written a module to fix the Direct3D scaling? seems like that wouldn't be impossible. I really don't want to use it for my MAGS game because of the scaling issue. I guess I'll just have to draw the graphics with no scaling in mind.

It would be great if you could talk about getting on Steam without going through Greenlight, but I'm sure you've signed some NDA that prevents you from that. :P

Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #9 on: 09 Aug 2013, 04:32 »
Thank you for sharing!  This is all very valuable information, and I'm sure it will be useful to many of us.

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #10 on: 09 Aug 2013, 04:47 »
I believe Primordia at least had to go through Greenlight. Most of the Blackwell games came out before Greenlight was a thing?

But yeah, thanks for this very interesting information!
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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #11 on: 09 Aug 2013, 07:28 »
You said it's all from your own experience. What about number 5? Have you attempted making an episodic series which then failed?

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #12 on: 09 Aug 2013, 09:59 »
Gemini Rue, for example, was a native 16 bit game! That's unheard of in 2013. It caused more technical issues than I can list. The same for 256 color games.
Is that simply a matter for the "Change Color Depth" menu option in AGS, or did you mean something more than that?

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #13 on: 09 Aug 2013, 10:23 »
No one has written a module to fix the Direct3D scaling? seems like that wouldn't be impossible. I really don't want to use it for my MAGS game because of the scaling issue. I guess I'll just have to draw the graphics with no scaling in mind.

Isn't this fixed in the betas?

Dave Gilbert

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #14 on: 09 Aug 2013, 11:31 »
[WARNING! Long post ahead!]

It would be great if you could talk about getting on Steam without going through Greenlight, but I'm sure you've signed some NDA that prevents you from that. :P

Nope! No NDA. I'm free talk talk about it and often do. :)

When we released Gemini Rue, we knew we had a hit on our hands. It was the first game we launched that seemed to have "hardcore" gamer appeal - RPS loved it, as did Giant Bomb, among others. When it became the #5 rated PC game on Metacritic that month, I figured we were a slam dunk for Steam. I got all the information together and sent it to them, only to receive their boilerplate rejection letter in response.

I KNEW something was up. They never tell you their reasons for rejecting a game, so I couldn't ask them why. All evidence seemed to point that this was a game that the Steam audience would love, but for some reason they weren't accepting it. Something wasn't coming across in my pitch to them, so I hired a PR guy named Joe who could walk into their office during Casual Connect and make the pitch for me.

Joe told me an interesting story. During the meeting, the subject came up that Gemini Rue was an IGF nominee. Steam had NO idea that the game was an IGF nominee, DESPITE ME PUTTING IT ON THE SUBMISSION APPLICATION THREE TIMES!! They obviously never read the thing.

As for Blackwell, they also kept rejecting that. It submitted the whole series to them three times and only got their boilerplate rejection. After Gemini Rue got accepted, I tried pitching Blackwell to them again but again it got rejected. In the end it was Indie Royale to the rescue. The games appeared on one of their early bundles, back when Simon Carless was involved. The Blackwells were the only Indie Royale games WITHOUT Steam keys, and that looked bad, so Steam accepted the games purely on those grounds.

With EVERY game we submit to Steam, we have to do a version of this dance:

Puzzle Bots: Submitted to Steam. Steam rejects it. It got into the PAX Prime showcase and had a good showing. Steam accepts it.

Resonance: Submitted to Steam. Steam rejects it. We submit preview copies to every major press site under the sun and beg for preview coverage. The preview coverage is substantial and glowing. Steam accepts it.

Primordia: Submitted to Steam. Steam rejects it. They suggest going to Greenlight. We put the game on Greenlight and the game shoots up to the #47 spot in two weeks. The game becomes one of the prime examples of "What's wrong with Greenlight?" whenever the subject comes up. In the end, Steam accepts it.

As of now, we have eight games on Steam. Nine if you count Emerald City Confidential (which was a work-for-hire thing). I had hoped by this point that they would just whitelist me for any future game we do. About a month ago I asked them if I could have an app ID for our upcoming game so we could incorporate the Steam functionality early instead of at the last minute like we usually do (because, you know, they never accept us until the last minute).

The response? "We will review it and let you know." And so the dance begins again...


TL;DR: We knew the games were Steam-worthy, and it was just a matter of convincing them. That and we are aggressive, stubborn bastards.

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #15 on: 09 Aug 2013, 11:43 »
Didn't Steam remove their non-Greenlight submission page though? It kind of sucks that these "AAA" publishers get their stuff on Steam no questions asked and Valve won't even tell you what's wrong with your game. :( I guess it's not practical to make an indie game that doesn't win competitions and expect to get a Steam pre-order page before release.

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #16 on: 09 Aug 2013, 11:47 »
Didn't Steam remove their non-Greenlight submission page though? It kind of sucks that these "AAA" publishers get their stuff on Steam no questions asked and Valve won't even tell you what's wrong with your game. :( I guess it's not practical to make an indie game that doesn't win competitions and expect to get a Steam pre-order page before release.

I think they did. Fortunately I have a relationship with one of the dev managers at Steam and I just submit all my games through him. But even still, I have to prove myself each time!

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #17 on: 09 Aug 2013, 13:27 »
Thanks for some good advice.
I made sure to reduce the non-interactive segment of my intro, until you virtually start controlling the character right away.

The only point my game fails at here would be the 320x240 ratio - which sucks I guess but it's not really possible to change now. I have to say I'm less worried about the "4:3 ratio in 2013? Outrageous!"-response than pure functionality issues, since most people looking into point-n-click games in 320x resolution probably aren't too bothered by the game looking old fashioned...

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Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #18 on: 09 Aug 2013, 17:03 »
Gemini Rue, for example, was a native 16 bit game! That's unheard of in 2013. It caused more technical issues than I can list. The same for 256 color games.
Is that simply a matter for the "Change Color Depth" menu option in AGS, or did you mean something more than that?

Yes, Josh selected 16 bit from the color depth menu. This turned Gemini Rue into a native 16 bit game, which had a lot of conflicting issues with modern hardware.

Re: Commercial AGS Boot Camp - 5 common issues
« Reply #19 on: 09 Aug 2013, 18:04 »
If Direct3D supported 256 color mode and didn't ignore resolution when scaling down characters, maybe I'd be okay with it.

Direct3D is the reason why that happens? I thought I just had the settings messed up in Winsetup. It really spoils the experience of playing 320x200 games when the characters scale at a different resolution. Real unprofessional looking, and ugly to boot.

And I don't really have any choice but to use DirectDraw myself, and that's disappointing, since I love using 256 colour mode. Surely there's another way to render it?

Regarding 256 color games on D3D. JJS suggested implementing a cross software/d3d graphics mode that draws everything using software renderer on a temporary bitmap, then blits it over d3d texture.
http://www.adventuregamestudio.co.uk/forums/index.php?issue=325.0