Archive for May 2009

WHat NARUTO: Rise of a Ninja got RIGHT

There have been a small host of Naruto oriented games out on pretty much every console and system available (except the iPhone, but I suspect that’s only a matter of time).

For those of you who don’t know the history of the IP, here’s a rundown so you know what I’m talking about, and why I think this is significant: Naruto is an ongoing manga (comic book/graphic novel) series published internationally by Shonen Jump out of Japan. There is an associated anime (cartoon) series that takes you through the manga almost shot by shot that is currently being run in a number of venues, Cartoon Network being the most widely known, but as is always the case with translated works, the language has been modified for the 8yr old set. If you’re looking for something a little closer to the original Japanese (language issues and all) you can find it on Shonen Jump’s website or places like Hulu and Crunchyroll.

So, insofar as license-able properties go for videogames, this thing is pretty much clad in 24 carat. Most likely not so expensive as to suck all the funding out of the actual game itself, but with a massive fan base already installed and hungry for more. Oh, and it’s got ninjas in it, which makes it an almost brain-dead plugin for the established one-on-one chop-saki style fighting games like the Mortal Kombat and Soul Caliber franchises. You can’t get more instant, visceral action than one of these flying fists-of-fury style games pitting friends against foes, or friends against friends or any combination of the two.

And in fact, on one level, you’re looking at the *obvious* storyline of the original manga. The focus of the main characters is all about getting stronger, becoming better fighters, how to get faster, meaner, and powerful enough to defeat all comers — classic fighting-game stuff. The main character, Naruto, is on a quest to become the Hokage (the story equivalent of the Head of the Village) who is most often the strongest ninja in the village.

But that’s all surface styling. That’s what you get if you blast through the comic pages or the anime at top speed looking for the fight scenes and fancy moves. And if you’re doing that, then you’re missing the entire underlying point of the story. In fact, you’d be missing the thing that makes this IP such a universally acclaimed storyline. At it’s core, Naruto is about one young man’s quest for acceptance, for the recognition of his peers and during this quest rather than change himself, it is the society around him that begins to change for the better.

Of the Naruto games currently on the market, (and there are more currently in development) Naruto: Rise of a Ninja is one of the few titles whose gameplay focuses on this high-concept of the original story. Consequently it has turned out to be one of the better sellers and most positively received games set in this universe. You begin the game a shunned, disconsolate troublemaker, and the game aggressively reflects this, you can do little more than shuffle around and hear the insults and rejections of the villagers around you. You are offered only one way out and it is a classic one, the sort of thing that might happen to any kid in any country looking to achieve recognition. Someone is trying to use you and your troublemaker reputation to suit their own ends and they play to Naruto’s doubts and desires. It walks you through the basics of the combat system, setting you on the path to the larger game experience. Now, granted, it does walk you through large parts of the original anime, even using cutscenes culled from the cartoon to support and guide the game. These are limited, however, to the core storyline, between these scenes the game is remarkably sand-box like, giving the player the opportunity to explore, to try things out and to learn new skills as they choose to advance to plotline without giving you a clear linear path to the endgame.

One of the most clever elements in this game, one that evolves as you go and helps you keep track of your progress, is the “happiness meter.” Interactions with the crowd NPC’s are limited; each has a floating emoticon over their head that shows how they feel about Naruto. Attempt to get help from anyone who doesn’t like you (or run into them as you are bombing around the village at top speed), and you will be met with open scorn and ridicule.

But as you work your way through the assignments given to a junior ninja (such as yourself) you will find more and more people in the village willing to help you out if you need it, thereby making the game easier to navigate. So the player is doubly encouraged through this mechaninism not only to find quests that will make the character stronger, but to explore the universe to find other quests that, while they may not bring you much closer to the end of the game, will bring you more of those little happy icons and thereby give you an added advantage on larger quests. As you increase the overall level of happy villagers, new quests are made available which include racing elements that require not only cleverness with the joystick but also the ability to perform special skills on the fly, new pieces of the core story to follow.

A note about the console controls on this game: As the Xbox controller setup has gotten less alien over time, more and more games are taking innovative advantage of the half dozen buttons and joystick options. Naruto: RoaN is no exception to this rule.

Requisite in-game elements like the ability to cast jutsu (a series of hand signs that end in the execution of a special maneuver or attack) are handled with a clever sequence of moves using both analog joysticks rather than a complicated series of button presses, the effect puts one in mind of actually performing the handsigns, rather than simple button-mashing. These special moves are not restricted to the fight sequences as they open up new areas of play in the sandbox. For example, the player acquires a jutsu level that gives you the ability to run up walls, a skill that lets you climb to the rooftops of the village normally inaccessible by regular running and jumping skills. It’s a refreshing change from games that only allow a useful execution of your character’s “signature” moves in combat. Try to fire up a jutsu in an inappropriate place (where there’s nothing for it to interact with) and you’ll get one or another clever “filler” animations (including bouts of flatulence if one isn’t careful).

I would tend to classify this game as an RPG, or perhaps an Action/Platformer due to the amount of gameplay that involves solving platformer-style timing and spatial-relations puzzles. There are significant fighting elements. In fact in some areas, it feels like having to engage in ninja-style fisticuffs which is your penalty for not being quick enough or smart enough elsewhere.

Alongside the RPG, however, is a fairly complete, separate one-on-one fighting game, but because the access to this second game is nested in the menu and lacks story elements or campaign in the fighting segment, I feel like it is a superb happenstance, an offshoot grown from the solid development work done to include these types of fights in the primary RPG area of the game. Again, one of the things that sets this game apart from the other Nauruto’s out there is the focus on story as the core element of the gameplay, rather than allowing it to become yet another “Hero Vs Antihero” fighting mashup.

 This aritcle was originally published in Fantasy Magazine:  http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy/?p=2982

Game Budgeting for NEWBS: Part Two

Now, lets’ look at overhead.  Overhead is the cost to have an employee, this includes the cost to rent the space, power, internet access, snacks for the team, possibly the foozeball table (all startups are required by California law to have a foozeball table, really!) phone service, all that choice stuff.  In biotech (where I was first schooled in budgeting) the rule of thumb on overhead was that the overhead for an employee was the same as their annual salary, so a lower-level pipette specialist at 25k a year would cost you an additional 25k per year in overhead.  BUT, games are significantly less (not least in part because of the insurance riders that come with working with chemicals that can eat your skull but leave your face intact; the Wii devkit is arguably less hazardous).

 

So for the games budget, let’s go with 20%.  I’ve seen budgets use 15% – 25%, so I’m picking 20% as a middle ground (though I am not aware of any official “rule of thumb” as of yet for games).

 

Month:                      01         02           03         04         05         06     

Producer:     5400     5400      5400      5400     5400     5400 

L. Progrm    8333     8333      8333      8333     8333      8333 

L. Artist       5000     5000      5000      5000     5000      5000 

 

Sub Total:  18,733  18,733   18,733   18,733   18,733   18,733

Overhead     2809      2809      2809     2809      2809      2809

 

Total:          21542     21542     21542     21542     21542     21542

 

Now here comes one of the interesting bits.  What about your timing?  While it would be nice to get a big, fat check up front on Friday, spend the weekend partying in celebration and have everyone show up to the office, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first thing Monday morning, you’re going to need to include some ramp up time, ideally to work with a milestone schedule.  So lets say this merry band of leads is your “core” team.  After a month or two you’re going to be ready to add more people, and the budget will need to reflect this.  In this case I’ve brought in a junior level artist, programmer and an audio engineer.

 

Month:                      01         02           03         04         05         06     

Producer:     5400     5400      5400      5400     5400     5400 

L. Progrm    8333     8333      8333      8333     8333      8333 

Jr. Progrm          0         0             0       4166     4166     4166

L. Artist       5000     5000      5000      5000     5000      5000 

Jr. Artist             0         0             0       4166     4166     4166

Audio                0         0             0             0     3122     3122

 

Sub Total:  18,733  18,733   18,733   22,065   25,187   25,187

Overhead      2809      2809        2809       3309       3778      3778

 

Total:          21542     21542     21542     25374     28965     28965

 

Another key consideration is going to be your startup cost.  You didn’t expect your employees to all bring their computers from home, did you?  Well, okay, if you are working with an indie studio that may well be the case.  If you plan to go bigger you’ll need to think about it.  What are they going to need?  Dev-kits?  Cubicles?  Chairs?  (and if you even *think* about budgeting for $500 office chairs in this day and age, the hairy, hoary gods of accounting will hunt you down with red ink and sharpened pencils).  Same process goes for Engine licenses, you’re going to want to consider how many seats you want.  Best to plan for what you know the license will go for up front (if a deal can be struck later on to bring that cost down then you can adjust the numbers, but at this point you want to err on the side of realistic). I usually include those in the “startup costs” because they take time to get used to if you’re not already familiar with them, so they are going to be one of the first things your team needs to get their hot little hands on.

 

Now keep in mind, all of that was an employee-based budget, looking at a game if you are a full-blown studio, with a real-live office and all those formalized elements.  If you’re an indie studio, or a game designer working up projects piece by piece, you’re going to want to be thinking in a slightly different fashion.  Still the same fundamental process, but instead of working with an eye towards a recurring 12 month cycle, you’re going to want to look only at the duration of the project and you’re going to want to be paying your people on a per-project basis, rather than on a salaried basis.

 

Let’s take a mobile title as an example and we’ll give it a 3 month development cycle.  This may be longer or shorter, obviously, depending on your specific project.

 

Contractor type      Cost          Month 01          Month 02          Month 03

 

Programmer          7,000            2,333                 2,333                   2,333 

Artist                     3,000            1,000                 1,000                   1,000

Audio                    3,500            1,166                 1,166                   1,166   

 

Now, the cost of contractors is a highly variable thing.  For one thing, you are paying for efficiency and reliability, the more proven a quanitity a contractor is (years of experience successfully working freelance, the amount of equipment they already have at their disposal, etc.) the higher the cost.  One of the key benefits to working with individual contractors is that you won’t need to factor in things like overhead, withholding taxes, cost of equipment health benefits or any of the costs of maintaining an employee.  One of the key downsides is, well, they can pretty much walk off the project if you piss them off too much.

 

The point being that the “standard” figure is much harder to pin down and will depend very strongly on what you can negotiate with the contractor in question.

 

Secondly, the payment schedule is going to have to be negotiated.  Some contractors will ask for 50% or a portion of their payment up front, some will want a milestone type setup where you deliver cash based on completion of assets according to schedule.  So you might have something that looks like this when you are done:

 

Contractor type      Cost          Month 01          Month 02          Month 03

 

Programmer          7,000            2,333                 2,333                   2,333 

Artist                     3,000            1,500                    750                      750

Audio                    3,500                    0                 1,000                  2,500   

BAD MOMMY! No Biscuit!

So I had this phone meeting last week.  I’m normally pretty savvy with these things, but this week…  Well this week was just ONE OF THOSE WEEKS and the long and short of it was I couldn’t get anyone to watch my youngest child while I made this business call.  So, being the clever and resourceful parent that I am, I took advantage of one of our local resources.  One of the higer-end supermarkets has childcare so you can do your shopping in peace.  No muss, no fuss, they have games and computers and fabulous caregivers and my kids absolutely *adore* hanging out there rather than watching me try to calculate the price difference between varying brands of yoghurt. 

So I head over to the supermarket and begin my deception.  First I tool around the aisles for a few minutes, selecting things I am, genuinely, going to purchase.  The time comes for the call, I dial up and head to a quiet corner of the market, you know the one, back on the benches by the drinking fountain.

Then the condenser for the drinking fountain starts up.  No problem.  continuing my call, I move away from the rattling.

Then a loudly gabbling family comes back to get a drink.  I fell back into the relative safety of the aisles.

Then I get the call.  Over the loudspeakers.  “Will Kimberly please come to Childwatch.”

Oh crap.  They only call you for bathroom breaks.  My smallest child is 99% potty trained, and we’re trying to make sure we take him *every* time he says he has to go.  There’s no way out of this one.

I continue with my call, trying to wrap it up cooly and quietly.  I’m having flashbacks of Rush Week in college, where you had to be able to close a conversation with a possible candidate on a timeline or you would get smacked by the Rush Committee.

“Kimberly, please come to CHILDWATCH.”

Oh crap.  This call is IMPORTANT.  But there’s nothing else for it.  I wrap the call more clumsily that I ought.

“KIMBERLY!  Please come to childwatch.”

So I pop my head over the counter with a smile, the awkwardness of my surely failed business call still ringing in my mind.

“I’m here.”  I say to my littlest one.

“Hi Mommy!  Remember to get me a donut.  With sprinkles.”  My youngest son points to the corner of the store that houses the Krispy Kreme stand, then goes back to the game he was playing.  No potty emergency.  No nothing.

*sigh*

How to Create a Game Budget: Part One

So you have your design doc all put together.  You’ve successfully pulled off a work exchange with that artist you met at GDC to get some slick concept art in play, and you really, truly believe you’ve got something that will pique the interest of a publisher. 

You package it all together into a single, iridescent jewel of a pitch document, make a hundred or so phone calls and find a producer who thinks you’re worth a look-see.

“Go ahead and send over what you have, concept art, design doc, make sure you include a budget for that too.”

Thankful that A. The producer wants to see the product of your blood, sweat and tears, and B. You didn’t start stuttering out of sheer excitement, you finish your questions (and you’d darned well better have questions) and you hang up the phone.

WAIT!  Did he just ask you for a budget?  Isn’t that their job?  Figuring out how much this thing will cost to make?

Nope.  That ball is all in your court, baby.  You know how to budget, you do it for school, you do it for your household finances.  Granted, budgeting for your apartment is one thing, you have bills in hand, you know what comes in, what goes out (usually).  So when designing a budget for a game, that’s sort of the same place you want to start.

Where does one begin?  Where do you pull all those numbers from?  How do you figure out what figure to present that won’t reveal you as a total newb?

First of all.  Take a deep breath.  Budgeting is a PROCESS, that means as long as you stay organized and fill in the blanks you are going to get a good idea of what you need to account for.  Sure, there is a “high-end” form of budgeting, where you know all the nuances and ins and outs of where the money goes, but that just takes time and experience.

First of all, you need to keep in mind there are different ways to structure a budget.  There is a difference between budgeting a GAME and budgeting to run a STUDIO.    They go hand-in hand if you are planning to build a proper 3rd party development house. 

If you are pitching something to be taken in-house by an existing studio, then you’re looking at dealing with just the game budget.  I find it’s good to think in terms of both, it gives you a clearer cross-picture, and if you *are* thinking of setting up shop on your own long-term, it will help you suss out how many projects you’ll have to juggle to keep your boat afloat.

So, first things first.  Do your research.  What type of title are you pitching?  Next-gen FPS?  Puzzler?  iPhone app of the future?  Don’t think about how much you might make just yet.  This is just a cold and hard look at what has to be paid out in the first place.  Take a look, how long do these kinds of games take to develop. 

You can look online, check out developers blogs, read the Gamasutra postmortems, if you know anyone, ask around.  Googling can often find hints buried in developer blogs that you might otherwise miss out on (you can’t read *everything* all the time).  As a rough idea, your average FPS, IF you pay up to license the engine AND start with a nearly locked design document AND a team that has worked together in the past so they can hit the ground at a run, can be executed (and not I say “executed” because you will simply be making the design doc, no feature creep or brilliant flashes of insight allowed)  in about 3 years (AAA “pushing the envelope” games can take 5+ years)

5 years seems to be the outer end of patience, however, if you are working with a new and untested IP.  You will have to check up on your own genre, MMO’s, mobile or web titles, RPG’s all have their own standard timelines that will work for budgeting purposes. (note: We are talking about developing a basic budget here, one you can expand on or trim back depending on what you’re working with, so yours will likely be different once you get it all down on paper).

So back to our basic framework.  Let’s work with a 1yr budget (just to keep it simple).

Month:                    01      02      03      04      05      06      07      08      09      10      11      12  

Now, who do you need on your team?  Well, the most basic setup has a Producer, a Lead Artist and a Lead Programmer.  Yes, yes, CABAL, SCRUM, whatever development style you find yourself using, you are going to need at least one person who stands on the outside, who can handle all the paper, make sure everyone gets the resources they need when they need them, maintain control of the assets as they get completed, all the nitty gritty elements that hold the project together. 

You could have a Producer/Designer or a Producer/Programmer, but in my experience a producer’s job is a full-time gig, it can be very hard to multitask it and do it efficiently.  In addition, we are putting this together to create a proper budget, not to hamstring your project with a shortfall of cash from the get-go, so make sure you put all the people you might need into the budget at first, you can always trim them out later if you have to.

So figure out who you need and what they’re going to cost you.  You can check out job postings, or Gamasutra’s annual “Game Developers Salary Survey” to get an idea of what the going rate is for each position.  Divide that annual number by 12 and you’ll get what you will need to pay out on a monthly basis. (I’m showing only 6mo below so it will all fit on the page J

Month:                      01         02           03         04         05          06      

Producer:               5400     5400      5400      5400     5400       5400

L. Progrm               8333     8333      8333      8333     8333       8333

L. Artist                 5000     5000      5000      5000     5000       5000

Total:                  18,733  18,733   18,733   18,733   18,733   18,733

Now, these are going to be *average* numbers, you may find great talent (if you haven’t lined it up already) that will work for less (or more).

So already you’re looking at a big-a** scary looking negative number.  Well, get over it.  Remember this is just your monthly *cost*, to balance it you’re going to be having money coming in, either from a publisher or an investor. 

Knowing these numbers will help you negotiate your milestones and will help you keep you from agreeing to a sum that is dangerously less than you need to build this game.
 
End of Part One.

“had we but world enough and time….”

So I’ve picked up a new venture (on top of the, what, ten others I have going :) though that list is the the process of being dramatically culled down) writing articles on videogames for the acclaimed “Fantasy Magazine”.  I’ve been told this will be a weekly thing or so, so there’s going to be a LOT of game playing, or perhaps ardent videogame voyeurism, in my immediate future, which should prove interesting.

www.fantasy-magazine.com is the place, if you’re curious about the publication, wikipedia has a few nice things to say on the topic:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy_Magazine