Thinking About Star Hound

We’ve been thinking about Star Hound a lot lately. In case you’re unfamiliar, Star Hound is an endless runner game, that really never made it past alpha phase. We’ve always wanted to add more to the game, but we’ve had too many other projects going on. Here’s some recent fun concept art.

A stylized, colorful, futuristic skyline

Don’t forget you can download the alpha version for free for iOS or for OS X. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s still really fun, and (did we mention?) it’s free. Go download Star Hound now, and let us know what you think.

Goodbye Basics

We’re terrible at making free-to-play apps. Basically, we take a premium experience and slap some ads on it. Turns out we’re just not that interested in developing arcane monetization mechanics and sideways sales pitches. We especially don’t like designing features that exploit people’s psychological soft spots (think Casinos and a sadly large number of games on the app stores).

With this in mind, we’ve decided to take down Blockwick 2 Basics from the various app stores. The main reason we decided to discontinue Basics: it wasn’t working. We weren’t even making pocket money from the ads and not enough people were upgrading to the full version. The numbers just weren’t adding up.

Another big reason we’re abandoning Basics is we dislike ads and so do most players. So why support something that most people aren’t crazy about? And finally, all the Basics puzzles are available in a free puzzle pack in the full version of Blockwick 2. So, all those easy Basics puzzles will still be available for curious and dedicated Blockwick players.

We’re considering making a free primer version of Blockwick 2 similar to the demo versions of Aqueduct and the original Blockwick, but we’ll see. Aqueduct 101 really helped sell the full version of Aqueduct, but Blockwick 101 didn’t have as good of a conversion rate. Again, we’ll see.

At the moment, we’d like to explore new game ideas. We’ve been working on Blockwick 2 for almost a year and a half now, and it feels like it’s time to move on. We may make a few more puzzle packs and fix bugs when they come up, but probably no more crazy big updates.

Goodbye Basics, hello something new!

Starbucks App Store Pick of the Week

Well, it was a fun week at the end of August. Our latest puzzle game, Blockwick 2, was selected by Starbucks as their “App Store Pick of the Week”. This is a promotion that Starbucks and Apple run in partnership with selected developers to sell more coffee, raise awareness of the App Store, and give a premium app a little moment in the limelight. For Starbucks customers (who also use iOS devices), it means they get a free app, so it’s another reason to stay a loyal Starbucks customer.

pick-of-the-week

After the seven days of the promotion, we gave away over a quarter million copies of Blockwick 2. This is a terrifying number for us— on one hand we just gave away a ridiculous number of copies of our most valuable game, all for zero profit. On the other hand we got access to a huge swath of people who otherwise would have never heard about our game or company. Exposure is something our company sorely needs, but it doesn’t pay the rent. The real question is in the long run will it have been worth it? So far we’ve only seen a very tiny bump is sales. Stay tuned for further conclusions on the program’s efficacy.

PS. The promotion ran from Tuesday the 25th of August to Monday the 1st of September 2015.

Maintenance Mondays

We are a team of three people, and we’ve been cranking out games for almost seven years. We’ve released over a dozen titles spanning multiple platforms and marketplaces. Having such an extensive library of games brings up a difficult issue. How can a team of only three people continue making and publishing new games all the while maintaining previously published titles?

Our solution to this issue is a protocol we have named Maintenance Monday. Every Monday we set aside a portion of time to work on keeping up some of our older games. Sometimes this means something as mundane as updating compatibility for a new operating system; sometimes it means something larger like adding an entire chapter of puzzles or even a graphics overhaul to support the latest super-high-density display. We then keep the rest of the week for moving forward with our main projects— developing and publishing new games.

Maintenance Monday isn’t set entirely in stone and it isn’t always perfect. If we really need to focus on a crucial project or an emergency we obviously can suspend the side projects. Another issue emerges when deciding which of our older games gets attention. At a certain point, when a game gets so old, we simply have to stop supporting it. There are several games which we’ve stopped supporting entirely, not because we don’t like them, but the cost to keeping them up is no longer paying the bills. Our first game, Enso Dot, is a really nice little puzzle game from 2008 that we had to finally put to rest. No one was buying it anymore, and the cost in time to bring it up to ‘modern’ standards with high-res graphics, system compatibility, etc. was much too high.

Our latest side project is working on an update for Monster Soup. This one is gonna be a big one so it’s going to take quite a few Mondays to get there. The game currently supports high-res graphics for the iPhone 4, but since then devices with even higher pixel counts have been released to the public (Read a bit about that process here). We are also taking a look at a weird issue caused by Apple’s later versions of iOS. We are even contemplating fixing how the level completion mechanic works to try and reward players for making longer chains. All this adds up to quite a lot of work, but hopefully with Monday on our side, we’ll keep all these plates spinning.

Super High-Res Graphics for Monster Soup – In Progress

One of the great things about creating vector based 2D art, is the ability to scale it as big as you need it. Today we started going through all the assets from our 2011 game Monster Soup. We thought it would be a good idea to go ahead and bring the game into the age of high-res displays as well as work on some other tiny improvements.

The game’s assets are mostly bitmaps, but the original artwork was created with vectors. Diving into a project that’s over four years old can be a bit disorienting, but a few hours later I had recreated half the game in 4x, high-resolution glory. The update will of course take us a while because we are also working on a bunch of other projects, and this is a Maintenance Monday kind of thing. But in the meantime I thought I’d share this lovely tiling background of frozen soup monsters. Enjoy.

ice-4x

 

From the Code Shop: Sticky Block Collisions

Sticky blocks were perhaps the trickiest element to implement in Blockwick 2, especially considering our desire for “pixel-perfect” collisions. Here is a quick breakdown of how we pulled them off.

sticky block

First build a hierarchal array of blocks. Then move each dynamic block towards its goal (with a lag if not root block). Then collide each dynamic block against static colliders. Each block that collides with static collider is flagged and locked from moving in that direction. Then collide dynamics blocks against each other causing any lock flags to propagate. Each collider’s lock flags expire after a few physics steps using simple bitwise operations.

Pros: Stable simulations in most cases. Fairly efficient for pixel perfect collisions. Cons: Rounded corner collisions are not handled very well. No rotations.

Designing Clean Blocks

With the past couple of years’ design trends all rushing towards a flat world, we wanted Blockwick 2′s art style to draw from this, but add some dimensionality and not get bogged down in some of the shortcomings of flatland. The idea to stay as flat and minimalist as possible, and still suggest dimension was more easily conceived than accomplished. Here’s what we came up with.

blockwick_2_block_design

So the look is simple and clean, but definitely 3D. Afterall a game where you slide around blocks really just feels better when its world has some physicality.

Icon Sizes Needed For Android and iOS

icon_size_for_ios_androidHere is a good list for the icon dimensions required for making an app for iOS and Android. I made this list for our latest game Blockwick 2. Note that the largest sizes are for the respective marketplaces.

Android

  • 512 × 512
  • 192 × 192
  • 144 × 144
  • 96 × 96
  • 72 × 72
  • 48 × 48
  • 36 × 36

iOS

  • 1024 × 1024
  • 180 × 180
  • 152 × 152
  • 144 × 144
  • 120 × 120
  • 114 × 114
  • 76 × 76
  • 72 × 72
  • 57 × 57

Making 3D Flip Blocks Fit into the 2D World of Blockwick 2

blockwick_2_flip_blocksBlockwick 2 is rendered completely with 2D sprites except for one special block type, the Flip Block. With so many possible arrangements of colors and animations, using 2D sprites would have been far too complicated and tedious to implement. Using a 3D asset made the most sense as we need to be able to select a color for all six sides and animate the block flipping over as it rolls around the board. The animation is especially important as it allows the player to understand that with each move the block is rolling rather than sliding.

First, our designer, David, modeled the 3D asset in Blender. Once in Unity, we needed to rotate the Flip Block around the X-axis to match our the angle of three dimensional illusion from our 2D sprite.

blockwick_2_flip_blocks_in_unity

Since our 2D tile grid is non-square, even with the flip block rotated, it still lines up perfectly with all the 2D sprites. Now we light the Flip Block(s) with a single directional light rotated an angle based upon the length of the block shadows. It’s a good start, but our shading if far too dark and not at matching the style of the rest of the scene. So we crank our ambient light color all the way to pure white and adjust the intensity of our directional light. This is now essentially mimicking the screen shader used to render the normal Color Block sprites. Finally, we adjust the specular colors for materials that are applied to the faces of the Flip Block for a bit of fine tuning.

http://kiefferbros.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/blockwick_2_flip_block_in_unity_2.png

There you go, a 3D-lit object mimicking the style of the 2D game. Check out blockwick.com to see it in action.

Making Better Puzzles for Blockwick 2

We wanted to make the difficulty progression in Blockwick 2 a bit smoother and slower than in the original, so after building near 250 puzzles, we decided to enlist a band of fearless puzzles testers to help us sift though them and rate them according to difficultly and enjoyability.

blockwick_2_beta_ratings

After solving a puzzle, a screen would pop up that asked the player how difficult and fun they thought the puzzle was. We then waited about a month to let the puzzle testers have at it. After this testing period, we gathered all the ratings into a spreadsheet along with time spent on each puzzle, moves per puzzle, and other related info, and filtered it through two algorithms designed to suggest each puzzle’s difficulty and likability. We then color-coded this data for easier analysis.

blockwick_2_beta_ratings_analysis

It’s often surprising which puzzles are found difficult or easy. We can be quite certain a puzzle will be rated very difficult only to find most players had no trouble at all with it (and vice versa). Same goes for enjoyability. I think this comes from just being too close to a project; you lose perspective. Getting outside feedback is essential.

Blockwick 2 is now available on the iOS, Amazon, and Google Play.

A big thanks to everyone who helped us play through the early versions of the game and rate puzzles! We really appreciate your feedback!