Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year in Review: 2013

Oreganik LLC was incorporated May 31 of this year, and development on Chess Heroes started the next day. In the following seven months, I reached several major milestones. Though I fell short of my goal of a completed product by the end of the year, a huge amount of work was accomplished, and I believe the next three months will see the profile of Chess Heroes rise tremendously.

The months of June, July, and August were a period of intense development that saw a game emerge from nothing. Achievements included a distinct visual style, three separate stages, animated pieces, in-game cinematics, AI, special moves, magic spells, tutorials, and wonderful music by Corey Jackson.

On September 1st, this initial development was capped off by its first public showing at the Seattle Independent Expo. The game met nearly universal acclaim, which reinvigorated my efforts. It was also completely playable by young children, who would finish the demo, gain an understanding of the game of chess, and then ask to play "the real game." This allayed my fears of being seen as trying to "improve" chess, and instead helped me position it as a complement to the game.

Chess Heroes then won a spot at the inaugural Captivate Conference in Austin, Texas during the first week of October. Before the trip, the demo received a lot of polish, a game trailer was put together, and the game was launched on Steam Greenlight. While it didn't earn any awards, it did win a lot of fans, and I came back with a valuable video of people's immediate reactions to the game. Plus, a connection was made with Indie Van Game Jam, who are now planning to visit the studio in February to film an episode of their show.

November saw a massive amount of work put into the game, as well as the introduction of a part-time concept artist. Leif Holt started to contribute artwork and ideas around this time, and I'm excited to see what he'll bring in the future.

After e-mails were exchanged with the head of an elementary school chess club, I decided to add Check and Checkmate to the game, which entailed a huge amount of work. However, this means that the "real game" can be played in Chess Heroes, raising its credibility as a gateway/learning tool for chess. The AI gained numerous improvements [including personality types], "high spaces" were added, players gained the ability to customize their game, almost every bug was fixed, and a lot of polish was added to the game. This culminated in another showing in Seattle at iFest, which cemented the idea that the game was viable while keeping me in contact with the independent developer community in Seattle.

A downloadable demo was launched on a new website the day before Thanksgiving. This was a huge milestone that really boosted my confidence, as it was well received. The goal was to "soft launch" and check for negative feedback or major bugs. Mission accomplished: bugs fixed and no negative feedback received.

With the demo complete, in December I turned my attention towards a full release of Act 1. I wanted to launch on the Kindle Fire before Christmas, as the game plays well on a tablet, and the Kindle Fire was getting a lot of attention from parents looking to buy their children a console or computer. This required a badly-needed overhaul of the game interface, but instead of one week it took two, and the production schedule could not recover from that hit.

As the month wound down, I buried myself in art creation, rapidly gaining speed in Blender as long-dormant modeling skills woke up. RIght now, I'm averaging 30 hours per scene, from start to finish. I expect this time will go down as I build a library of useful textures, and hopefully the use instances and texture atlases for each stage will keep things GPU efficient. I've also been capturing time-lapse videos of my work, which will be good for marketing and advertising at a later date, and the screenshots I've posted so far have been well received. It feels good to do work that is highly visible and gets immediate feedback, especially at this late stage of of the project.


Despite all of that positive development, my biggest fear is being forced to launch the game before it's reached its full potential. Which could happen, because funding is about to become a major concern. My burn rate is low, thanks to various government programs (self-employment assistance, mortgage payment assistance, food stamps), but that support is about to run out (as it should, IMO: the safety caught me, now I have to climb out). I don't have friends who can bankroll me (nor would I consider asking), and my family has given enough over the years, so I'm exploring various options, mostly crowd funding and business loans.

I'm averse to running a Kickstarter campaign, as it is high intensity (resulting in lost work) and has no guarantee of success. Instead, I'm planning to use IndieGogo to run a "pre-order" campaign, where people can get limited edition goodies and I can get funding to polish the game (specifically, in-game cinematics and musical accompaniment). The goal is to start this in February.

The city of Eugene, Oregon has a business development program, which includes loans offered for several points below market. However, as with all government programs, there is a long time between submission, assessment, approval, and check deposit (two months, minimum). That might be too long to make a difference, and it would require collateral. Had I known about the program earlier, I would have loved to see it kick in now. It may not be a viable pathway now, but I plan to submit an application anyway, as I'm not obligated to accept the loan if approved.

However, I recently completed a programming contract, and another is brewing, so there is reason for hope on that front.


The next step -- the most important step, really -- is getting Chess Heroes noticed. So the full-court media press will begin in January. Based on my Greenlight feedback (only 33% up voted) and my in-person demo feedback (nearly 100% positive), I definitely have my work cut out for me when it comes to educating people about the game.

If you want to see what the fuss is about, please get the demo at chess-heroes.com, vote for the game on Greenlight, spread the word on Twitter and Facebook, and, of course, send me an e-mail with any feedback or questions.


Despite the fact that nearly two hundred developers live in the city, they rarely leave their "silos" of Zynga, Disney, Pipeworks, and other scattered studios, so I've reached out to indies and students in an attempt to build a dev community here.

A weekly morning cafe meeting was fairly well attended, but "I don't wake up before 10 am" was an excuse I heard too often to ignore! So, look for changes on that front next year.

Finally, I hosted a Ludum Dare jam site in December. About 12 people came through, and at least three games were finished on site: Burning Love (my own contribution), Monogamites, and Molten Progeny. Next year: more jams, including the Global Game Jam in January!

Thanks for reading, and here's to a fantastic 2014.

Ted Brown
Owner & Game Developer, Oreganik LLC
Couch, House, Park Avenue, Eugene, Oregon, USA, Earth, Sol System, Milky Way, Universe 42

Friday, November 29, 2013

Chess Heroes: The Demo is LIVE!

I am excited to announce that the Chess Heroes demo is live and ready for you download!

After three expo showings in three months (SIX in September, Captivate in October, iFEST in November) and after adding a ton of new features and polish, the demo has become quite a feature-packed action hour of fun! Please give it a try, and let me know what you think on Facebook or on Twitter!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One Day Of Development

Would you like to know what I get up to on a sample day? Specifically, a day leading up to the demo's full public release? Well, you're in luck! Here's a list of what I got done on Monday, Nov. 25th.

Remove "Work In Progress" bar
Change "Design Demo" to "The Demo Version!"
Add Web link
Add twitter link
Add blogger link
Add Facebook link
Add Steam link

Add Steam link
Adjust position of "quit for real button"
Change release date

Remove Bar crown
Fix button positions to be proportional to screen

Test deeper shadows, less ambient light (ambient from 51 to 25, angle prev. at rot. 50, 147, -3 now sharper)
Fix broken textures of castle

Destroy stars and checkmate ribbon so they don't block "you unlocked" screen
Create high spaces for Granary
Debug Commands only enabled if UIO is pressed together
Add debug mode to show cursor position

Pawn King disappears after Checkmate [can't repro in debug environment?] [posted on forums]
Identify odd "speck" in lower left quadrant, visible in Harbor 1 [menu camera was not excluding board spaces]
allowPlayerKingToMoveIntoCheck not checked when entering state Turn Start
Sliding pieces not checking number of pieces between themselves and target when tested by CanCapturePieceIfOtherPieceMovesToXY
Enrage tutorial: bishop is not re-selected
After a piece has been enraged and moved, it can't be deselected if selected later in the game
Upgrade tutorial: could not select pawn

Update intros for Act 2 and Act 3
Update summaries for all three acts
Update "About" text for Abilities and Magic
Upgrade tutorial: eliminate "captures create energy"
Update text for all four tutorials
Enrage tutorial: change "granary" to act 3

Find or create Star sound
Find or create Checkmate sound
Find victory music
Find defeat music
Add Star sound
Add Checkmate sound
Add victory music
Add defeat music
Add Execute music intro (same as tutorial)
Reduce volume of spell casting
Add sound effects to Granary Menu
Add sound effect to "To Battle"
Add sound effect to vignette fade before battle

Friday, November 15, 2013

Chess Heroes News: November 15, 2013

"Games are a series of interesting decisions." -- Sid Meier

New Features And Additions

It was a short week and I had a hurt shoulder, but I still managed to cram a bunch of stuff into the game!
  • An "Execute" move that lets you handily take care of a single, straggling enemy piece wandering about the board. It's cinematic and satisfying.
  • AI that does a full analysis of each move, including whether it's a mistake (unforced error) or a trap.
  • AI that has difficulty levels, which are limits on the number of mistakes and traps it can attempt over the course of the scenario.
  • "Sick" enemy pieces that have a nifty graphical treatment and a special AI override that makes them push for your home row. If any reach that spot, the game is over!
  • Full design support for high spaces. These are board spaces that pop up a bit, slowing down sliding pieces and subtly altering the landscape.
  • A new chess logic engine that is faster, deeper, and more robust. This was a badly needed update, as it was becoming rather difficult to debug AI problems.

Ruminations on Target Audiences 

Chess Heroes may have Peter Pan syndrome. Not the desire to be eternally young, but the problem author J.M. Barrie faced when trying to turn his play into a success. After moribund results from adult audiences, he ensured kids from a local orphanage were scattered throughout the theatre. Their raucous peals of laughter loosened the atmosphere, and soon the adults joined in as well. Had J.M. Barrie not introduced kids into the equation, adults might have written it off as ... to quote the Disney movie ... poppycock.

I bring up Peter Pan because the most enthusiastic, ecstatic players of Chess Heroes are children. The aesthetic is soft and approachable, the controls are intuitive and easy, the pace is self-regulated, and the visceral feedback of the pieces knocking into each other has them jumping up and down in their chairs. Adults -- and we had several fans with beards -- tend to be more reserved in their judgement. This is something to keep in mind should it be presented to, say, chess teachers, or parents: they may underscore the value of what we have here, because they have lost touch with the simple delights of childhood.

Goals of the Demo 

I'm sure folks are wondering why the demo isn't ready yet. The reason is: I want it to be packed full of so much new material that people can't justify NOT trying the full version. And the features that I'm adding are -- exclusively -- features that would be added for Act 1. In a sense, I'm pushing back the date for the demo, but not the final product. The goal is still Act 1 in December.

Kindle Fire?

I can't shake the feeling that missing out on "the tablet Christmas of 2013" would be a huge mistake. Can I possibly whip up a smaller version of the first Act into shape so that it's available on a tablet (say, the Kindle Fire) by then? We'll see!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Chess Heroes at iFEST Seattle

A wee bit blurry. Sort of how we felt after eight hours of talkin'!
This weekend, Corey and I brought Chess Heroes to iFEST, an independent game expo at its annual stop in Seattle. We hit the road out of Eugene at 5 AM, cruised into Seattle (blasting Paul's Boutique) at about 9:15, and drove to the address specified by the Seattle Center.

When we arrived, the navigator voice stated our destination was on the left. We looked to the left. It was a demolished building. Uh oh!

After a laugh and few choice words for modern computational touchtronic navigational assistance, we figured it all out and were set up not thirty minutes later.

The folks running the show were great (thanks for the help, Terry!), and Chess Heroes won a bunch of new fans. There was one hair-pulling incident, involving a special chess piece that would disappear and break the game. And it only happened on the Windows version! Ah well. Something to ponder before the demo goes live!

Corey noted that the people who "got it" the most were kids and other game designers who were at the show. For kids, the accessible nature of the game was a big plus, and the animations really made an impact (especially the Rook shooting the Pawn!).

The Rook's special move never failed to make a smile!
And then there were kids who really got into it, pushing their pieces around like tiny Caesars and jumping up in down in their chair as they captured pieces.

This young man raised his arms in victory and shouted "FOR NARNIA!"
We did not correct him. =) 
Meanwhile, game designers talked about their love of strategy games and the appeal of trying to inject something fresh into the game. Our line was "We're taking chess in a new direction, and we're trying to see if it leads to a cliff or a verdant forest." Or, as an A/B test, "We're taking chess in a new direction, and seeing how far we can go before we get pitchforked." Proper chess folks did not set our table on fire, thank goodness, so I think we escaped that sad fate.

Finally, there were the normal gamers who just got hooked and would not stop playing, even retrying certain scenarios over and over until they won.

It took him ten tries to beat this scenario.
Far from being frustrated, he voted us best in show!
At the end of the day, my beliefs about the game were reinforced.

  • Kids and game designers will be our biggest fans.
  • It's easy to dismiss the game until you play it (and then you can't stop).
  • Therefore, I have a serious marketing problem on my hands!
I also heard  (from the fine folks at Zachtronics) that the name of the game might be a liability. It's chess, but not chess. There are no "heroes" with capes and swords. Sort of like how their game Spacechem was neither about a) Space or b) Chemistry, and that was not a good name for the (excellent, well-designed) game! Something to think about, surely.

Also from the Zachtronics camp was a suggestion to make a sequel in space. Little did she know... that was the plan!  =)  [but first, ship version one!]

Before I wrap up, I want to give a quick shout out to the lovely indie devs of Seattle I'm slowly getting to know, as I somehow end up there every other month or so:

Friday, November 8, 2013

Chess Heroes News: November 8, 2013

BAM! It's update time, sucka!
At this time tomorrow, Corey (the musician) and I will be driving back from iFEST in Seattle. That's three public showings in three months, and it's pretty amazing to be in the middle of it all.

I've also been extremely active in the local business community, working with local game developers and entrepreneurs. I'm sowing seeds, basically, and what will pop up? I don't know, but I believe it will be good!

These expos and outreach programs carry a heavy cost. Since we're in November and Act 1 isn't ready yet, you can tell just how much of a hit my schedule has taken. However, the upside is more time on foundations, and making the game as widely appealing as possible.

So when's the game coming out?

November is now the month the demo will be released. After that will come an IndieGogo campaign for pre-orders, then a full release of Act 1 in December or January.

Oh yeah. I ran the game on an iPhone this week. Want to see what it looks like?

Pretty much the same, minus the shadows!
The game looks and plays brilliantly, even on the tiny screen. Along with a very, very consistent request people have made ("I want to play this on a tablet!"), these results have cemented my decision to not only support Windows, OS X, and Linux, but iOS and Android as well. While it will ALSO have an impact on my schedule, I can't afford to "leave money on the table," as it were!

Big thanks to Unity for making that possible. =)

What's new this week?

Along with the iOS build, I added full support for Check and Checkmate (which was waaaay deeper than I thought it would be). This satisfies a consistent request from chess teachers. I included a toggle as well, so I'm not tied down as a designer.

I also added "victory stars" for your performance in each scenario. This is another feature people have asked for, and -- silly as it sounds -- it really brings home the idea that it's becoming more of a "real" game.

New website! New website. Soooo much better than the old website. Check it out!

Finally, I realize I haven't been doing a good job keeping this blog up to date. I now have a Friday newsletter I e-mail "shareholders" (aka indie game dev support group), and that will help me keep this site fresh as well.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The 2013 Captivate Conference

The 2013 Captivate Conference took place in Austin from October 4 to October 6, and Chess Heroes was one of ten finalists for their indie game competition. Since I also have a lot of family in that area, I flew down from Oregon for a taste of that Texas heat (which I adore) before digging in for a northwest winter chock full of game development.

Dylan, my brother-in-law, is a film producer. He kindly stepped up with the expo assist, which was awesome. 

Everything worked out in the end, and it was a good trip, but it was a pretty rocky start!

During a flight stop in Oakland, I discovered that the Steam Greenlight page I had set up was "live," not "waiting to go live." It had no screenshots and a bare minimum of descriptive text. Whoops! (and make no mistake, there were several other assorted expletives) Why was this a big deal? Well…

When you launch a game on Greenlight, it gets immediate exposure on Steam, and then the results determine how long it continues to get that exposure (measured in hits). The page needs to sell the idea to its maximum potential in order to build up enough… uh… steam to get to the top. And I had no screenshots and a video that started out with story instead of action (a common mistake I should have avoided). Only 33% of visitors were voting "yes," while the page helpfully informed me that games in the top 50 averaged 50% or more. And the early comments were 100% pure troll, e.g. "lol nope." I was not a happy camper!

The flight was boarding as I rapidly took screenshots from the latest build, uploaded them to the page, and apologized for a sloppy start. Then I spent the next couple of hours in the air, unaware of what was happening on the internet and unable to make changes. When I touched down, I was distracted and irritable: I couldn't alter the video (because my PC was in Oregon), my jump start on Greenlight was a dead fall, and the next day would be filled with family time, preventing me from sitting down and trying to hammer out a solution.

To be fair, the scenery was wonderful.

The conference started with a keynote by Warren Spector. It was odd to hear him say "I don't know anyone who is doing the art, the design, the programming, and sound effects by themselves these days, not since Richard Garriott" while Chess Heroes -- a direct counter to his statement -- was on display only 100 feet away. Ah well!

Thus began three days of standing on my feet and talking to people non-stop. Sure, it was tiring, but there is no better antidote to online trolls than seeing people sit down in front of the game -- sometimes skeptically -- and then stand up minutes later with a glowing smile and exuberant words. Another benefit is being forced to work the pitch over and over again until it was polished and smooth.

"Chess Heroes is a modern take on chess that draws a lot of inspiration from video games," became my opening line. If people said, "I don't know how to play chess," I'd respond: "Great! This is the game for you!" And if they said, "Ooh, I love chess," I'd reply… wait for it… "Great! This is the game for you!" Of course, the pitch would diverge after that point, but you get the idea: I was looking for feedback, and it was almost universally positive.

Chess with Friends. I wonder if Zynga is already doing that?

By the second day, I realized that recording some of their reactions would be a good idea. Here's what they had to say, straight from the show floor!

After the first conference day, I fixed the few bugs I found, caught up on business e-mails, and checked the Greenlight page. Lo and behold, it was 15% of the way to the top 100, in only a few days, after a disastrous start. It was way behind the pace of other popular games, but then again, Greenlight is over-populated with traditional video game material: shooters, platformers, strategy games, and the like, Given enough production value, they are probably (I'm guessing) guaranteed a decent "yes" rate. Chess Heroes is not only visually divergent (in a lo-fi relaxing way), but sits in a crowd of "traditional games with a twist" titles that are easy to dismiss.

It's been almost a week since the Greenlight page launched -- with no advertising and only a handful of links on community forums -- and it's sitting at 21% of the way to the top 100. I'd prefer to skate to success, of course, but I'm prepped for a marathon, and I know that when people play the game, they like it. Validation and marketing plan, all in one!

I've uploaded a shorter video to the Greenlight page, and I have a task list nearly three pages long. There's plenty to do until I show the game at iFest in Seattle on November 9. If you're in the area, you should come by: it's a free show!

Now then: back to work! Woo hoo!