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!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dev Notes: Private Pre-Alpha Demo!

This is it! Chess Heroes has taken its first steps into the wild!

I compiled a list of 60 people whose opinion I trust and respect, and sent them links to the game today. This is a big step for me. It's sort of like the first time you leave your child at someone's house. If they get back in one piece and everybody's smiling when it's over, I'll call that a success. Until then, I'll be in a corner, gnawing on a frozen towel for comfort.

And reading this tweet, over and over:

Christer "McFunkypants" Kaitila is a bad-ass indie developer who consistently crushes it with game jam entries, and hosts a few of his own, including #onegameamonth. (Which I totally signed up for then immediately bailed on, due to hurricane levels of WTF in my life) His support means a lot to me, and he sent back some excellent feedback that -- no joke -- deeply altered some of the core level design concepts of Chess Heroes.

I also got help this week from Jon and Jon (Jon Rush of Battlecry Studios and Jon Heiner of Realta Entertainment), who helped me solve a texture problem that was bugging me.

All I can say is, developing a game by yourself just means you get the biggest credit on the box. There's no way I'd ever be able to do this alone.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Dev Notes: Demo Development!

Wither: A spell cast by the Scarecrow King.
Restricts movement to a single square.

The past week has seen the game transformed from a mostly-stable, silent, hands-on demo to a rock-solid downloadable demo that's alive with sound!
I wanted to be able to send the game to interested bloggers (like the fine folks at Geekenstein) without a full page of stuff "that should be there." I also entered the indie game competition at the Captivate Conference. The game must represent itself well, without me holding its hand, and I think I'm getting pretty close.

After a thorough round of testing, I'll be posting it live to the internet. 

Hoo boy.

Major additions this week (September 8 to September 14)

  • Music Manager to handle transitions, fades, etc.
  • Audio Manager to handle sound effect calls
  • Integrated 18 sound effects. A mix of custom recording, remixes of base sounds, and direct downloads from freesound.org. (note: all sounds will be original on game's release)
  • "Quit Chess Heroes" menu now available on all screens (before that was created, you had to kill the process to exit. heh heh)
  • Revised cinematic for Upgrade spell to show Pawn transforming
  • New cinematic treatment for boss abilities Wither and Riptide
  • Revised logo graphic and added "Pre Alpha Demo" to title screen
  • Keyboard input to acknowledge instructions, open menus, etc.

Bug Fixes of Note

  • Fixed "Unlock All"
  • New users no longer get the "Continue" option
  • Title screen buttons now sit at screen percentage, instead of fixed height
  • Various interface issues cleaned up
  • No longer possible to "soft lock" the game using Enrage on a piece with no valid moves
  • Indicator arrows match camera rotation
  • Camera rotation does not snap back to default after each move
  • Cleaned up various issues with spell interface

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Chess Heroes FAQ


What is Chess Heroes about?
You are a chess King who's pieces have mysteriously disappeared, just as your kingdom is invaded! You must take back your pieces and rebuild your army, then travel abroad to learn new skills and ancient spells that will help you overcome a sinister foe.

What is a Tactical Puzzle game?
You fight the enemy in a variety of scenarios that are short and fun. The board can be any size, and there are no rules on the number of pieces on the board. This means you'll encounter a new challenge each time you play! The tactical puzzles are designed to reward skill and experience, while new players will get a sense of accomplishment as they "unlock" the secret of the puzzle after a handful of tries.

How is it like chess?
Each chess piece moves like it should, so players with only a passing experience of the game will be right at home. And the King earns new pieces one at a time, giving totally new players a chance to learn how to play, by playing!

How is it different than chess?
In Act 2 and Act 3, players will earn Special Abilities and Battle Magic, which put incredible power in players' hands. They'll need it as they face down bigger and bigger groups of enemies, and to beat the unique bosses at each location!

What are Special Abilities?
Special Abilities alter the player's view of the battlefield by turning Pawns into a resource. For example, the King can sacrifice a nearby Pawn to move as a Queen for one turn, while the Rook can launch a Pawn across the board to capture an enemy piece, destroying the Pawn in the process! Each piece has their own Special Ability, and as the campaign to take back the kingdom goes on, Pawns will become more and more valuable!

What is Battle Magic?
Every time a piece is captured, magical energy is released onto the battlefield. The player can use this energy to accomplish wondrous feats, like moving a piece twice, upgrading a Pawn, freezing an enemy piece, and more!

How long will it take to play?
The demo features twelve scenarios across three locations, and it takes most people about 40 minutes to an hour. The final game will have eighteen locations across three acts, as well bonus challenge levels! I'm also considering a scenario editor, cosmetic unlocks, achievements, and other stuff that's fun to play around with.


When is Chess Heroes coming out, and what platforms are supported?
Chess Heroes will be released in three acts on PC, Mac, and Linux platforms, starting in the Fall of 2013. (I'm aiming for early November) Those who buy earlier acts will get the later acts for free, which is a bargain, since the price will go up each time! It will start at $6, go to $8, then stop at $10.

Is Chess Heroes coming to mobile?
A lot of people expressed interest in playing the game on a tablet, and I really want to make that happen! On the sunny side, I'm using Unity, and the game will be a snap to port. On the cloudy side, releasing a new title with little to no publisher support on a mobile platform is … dicey. At best. So, hopefully, by starting on PC platforms I can build an audience and some awareness of the project, and work towards an eventual mobile release. It's a business decision at the end of the day.

Will Chess Heroes be released on a console?
I have a background in console development, and I would absolutely love to put this on a console. Once again, Unity and a simple interface save the day, and once again it comes down to a business decision. I wish I could just smash a bottle on the wall, wail away on a guitar in a thunderstorm, and raise a middle finger to mature fiduciary practices, but a mortgage and kids really change the calculus on things, amirite? But seriously, it can happen, and hopefully will.

How many people are working on the game?
If you count the musician, then two. I mean, I count the musician. Like a one, a two, a one two three? Er. Sorry.

It's just me, Ted Brown, working on the game. Corey Jackson is creating the music.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Seattle SIX Roundup

Chess Heroes had its first public showing at SIX, the Seattle Independent Expo, on September 2. And the reception was incredible! It was almost unbelievable how positive people were when they saw and played the game. Nobody walked up, played it, and tried to sneak away, for example. Nobody gave half-hearted praise as they scooted away from the table. It was all good! In many cases, it was extremely enthusiastic! To say that this was a "tremendous boost" really doesn't do it justice, but I'm technically on vacation right now and capturing emotions with highly specific poetical nuance is not high on the list. =)

I want to give huge thanks to everyone who skipped a bit of the Penny Arcade Expo to see us at SIX, and to everyone who spent some time with Chess Heroes. Another huge round of applause goes to my wife, without whom it could not have gone as smoothly!

That's us. Now you know what we look like! (but when you read this, I hope I still sound like Morgan Freeman in your head, instead of one of those singing chipmunks)

According to my wife, this was a typical crowd watching Chess Heroes on the big screen we had in the corner. Other times, the station looked like this:

People sat down to try the game, and often played through several levels. Other people liked to sit back and watch the animation, comment on tactics, and sometimes heckle friends who made silly errors that let their King be toppled!

Without a doubt, this was a worthwhile trip. I know I'm supposed to be on vacation after working every day for a month, but I'm so stoked right now that I can't stop thinking about it! (which is why I'm sort of straddling the line with e-mails and blog posts, heh)

I'll post a FAQ later today, but to answer a common question: Chess Heroes will be out, in some form or another, by November of this year. It will be released in three waves, once for each act, and those who buy it early (and cheap!) will get the later releases for free.

Thanks again! And like us on Facebook if you want a chance at winning $20 on Steam on September 5th!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dev Notes: Animations and Rigid Bodies

Wow! What a great week. I started knowing what I had to accomplish (adding character to the chess pieces via animation), but had no idea if (a) it would work and (b) how to actually do it. And then when I got (a) and (b) done, I had to worry about (c) getting it into the game!

I'm happy to report that the results are in, and measured by the "it feels good" meter, animating the chess pieces and tying that to a rigid body collision system really hits the mark.

The Pawn, for example, hops around from space to space, with a little squish and squash action on his base as he does so. And of course, he headbutts pieces he's trying to capture. Spunky little guy, isn't he? The rest of the pieces each have their own "personality" and set of animations. I can't wait to show you!


Two other great things happened this week: my good friend Corey gave me a CD of musical "sketches" of him trying to hone the dual themes of the game: the bright, clear sounds of the Light side, and the heavy, warm sounds of the Dark side. It sounds great so far. He is a gifted musician, and I'm incredibly honored he will be taking the time to help me out on this.

I also sat down with my friend Jim, a senior designer at Zynga, for the first ever playthrough! Jim gave me clear-headed, well-articulated design critiques and suggestions that are extremely valuable. But the key emotional takeaways for me were the words "I'm impressed" and "It feels good to capture pieces." Rock on! Especially since I'd only finished integrating the animation system that morning. :D


Jim also helped me figure out exactly what Chess Heroes is, in terms of genre classification. I was straddling the line between Tactics and Strategy, but it didn't really fit the definitions, and I wasn't comfortable with the "high concept" summary. But he helped me realize that, based on the scenarios I've designed, it's a "tactical puzzle" game. I've crafted each scenario with specific intentions in mind, and hopefully this will clear up any confusion from future players.

That's not to say I can't shift gears later, and offer a more strategic take in later builds or acts, such as a meta-design similar to the classic Heroes of Might and Magic. Time (and feedback!) will tell!

Market Penetration!

Ew! Really? Ok. Um.

I had to rejigger the website for Oreganik (it was pretty... boring) and make one for Chess Heroes. There's also a Facebook page, so please Like it if you'd like to get the updates and occasional funny game-related news snippets.


I'm actually writing this on Saturday, as I've shifted to a 7-day workweek schedule until the Seattle Indies Expo (SIX) is over. I was stoked to discover it will be next door to PAX, so if you're there on Sunday, please drop by and say hello!

Here's the hit list for the week. I'm considering posting the remaining list online. If I get a SINGLE E-MAIL saying that would be good idea, I'll do it. :)

  • New Business cards
  • Get info on SIX turnout, layout, etc
  • Buy set of warm gray Copic markers

  • Set up Facebook page
  • Create website (chess-heroes.com): features, summary, supported by, SIX3 blurb, launch date, Google analytics
  • Oreganik.com update
  • Update sword in logo (VERY IMPORTANT: the first sword was clip art off the internet! now it's all 100% original)
  • Update logo in game and all websites
  • Dev Blog Update (hello!)

  • Contact Humble Store (no response! *sadface*)
  • Contact Fastspring

  • Capture intro and send to Corey for music
  • Hi-rez models of Knight, Queen, and Rook
  • UV and Ambient Occlusion pass on King, Queen, Pawn, Rook, Bishop, Knight
  • Light and Dark textures for King, Queen, Pawn, Rook, Bishop, Knight
  • Add support for Dark textures
  • Integrate animation system into game
  • Animate move and capture for King, Queen, Pawn, Rook, Bishop, Knight
  • Re-make Outline models for King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, Pawn
  • Bug: Fix tutorial arrow placement on screen
  • Playthrough and notes

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dev Notes: The road to SIX

On Sunday, September 1st, Chess Heroes will make its first public appearance at SIX3, the Seattle Indie Expo. This was not part of "the plan" until it was announced, but I feel like I can have the build in presentable shape by then.

So! Thus begins the Road to SIX. And, honestly, the journey started last Monday, so we're halfway to TWO or something. I have a laundry list of stuff to do, and here's a list of what was accomplished last week.


  • Value study of the Castle (this is where I use shades of gray to "sketch out" what will eventually be color values on the model. It helps makes things cohesive when actual color gets involved)
  • Windmill Model and value study
  • New chess piece model: Pawn King
  • New chess piece model: Harbor King
  • New chess piece model: Scarecrow
  • Hi-rez King
  • Hi-rez Pawn
  • Hi-rez Bishop
  • Hi-rez version of Oreganik Logo

  • Created an in-game cinematic system for camera and actor control
  • Scripted the intro sequence.
  • Added "boss battles"
  • Integrated the Pawn King, Harbor King, and Scarecrow
  • Added Boss Ability functionality (sort of like a unique spell)
  • Created a boss ability called "Riptide" (it pulls pieces towards the boss, and they can be swept off the board)
  • Created a boss ability called "Wither" (shrinks pieces on the XZ axes and limits their movement to one space)
  • Finished the demo scenarios for Castle
  • Finished the demo scenarios for Harbor
  • Finished the demo scenarios for Granary
  • Switched demo flow a bit, changed the order you get certain spells and abilities
  • Discovered and fixed a handful of bugs
This week I'll focus on re-modeling and texturing all of the chess pieces, then animating them in game, to give them a bit of "life." (the example I give is Pixar's wonderful short "Luxo Jr.") I also need to set up business stuff so I can accept money for the game! Very important.

On an unrelated note, even though the game code framework is holding together, and I can add new features (like boss battles) fairly seamlessly, I am fighting a huge desire to go back and re-engineer the game "properly" now that I understand exactly what it is I'm making! I understand this is common...

Friday, August 9, 2013

Office Decor

I've begun adding little decorative touches to the Oreganik office (which is actually a desk in an tech incubator in Eugene). This is the old-school gamer version of high-brow art.

When I can justify the cost of buying the original Japanese boxes for these epics of the 16-bit era, well, that will just make it fancy. Pinkies up!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Dev Notes: Stage Art Update

I apologize for not posting steady updates, but things have been fairly busy at Chez Oreganik. (and it's pronounced "or-eh-gan-ik," as it's a portmanteaufromhell of Oregon and Organic with a special K at the end for technical clout)

I spent most of the day yesterday fine-tuning an algorithm to properly simulate the sea foam that's generated when ocean water pushes back and forth against pier posts. And, yes, it makes me giggle uproariously that I got to spend an entire day exploring an artistic expression of nature's mathematics. =)

If you remember the last post, things were very basic looking. It's getting better, I think. What you can't see is the motion of the ocean, which is on an exponential sine wave. It flows out, flows in, then settles for a moment before starting again. It feels like I remember the sea to be.

As for what's missing, shadows are definitely on the list, and that's going to be "free" once I get Unity pro. The look of the water is "eh." The colors are not be final, either, but then again, the board really "pops," so I'm still thinking about how to best represent the board squares (maybe as chalk outlines on the pier?) What's important is that all of the textures are hand-painted as tonal values, and I can go back and adjust in Photoshop as time permits.

The Harbor Stage of Chess Heroes (work in progress)
There are going to be three stages in the demo: a Castle, Harbor, and Granary. Today I restarted the Castle, as the old model wasn't really up to snuff. Here's today's progress:

The Castle Stage of Chess Heroes (3D Model, work in Progress)
The outer walls are very plain, but won't be seen in the game. However, most of the interior will be visible during the intro, so I spent time on the buildings to give them a bit of Mediterranean flair in the geometry. (you can't see too much of that at this angle however) The central tower is based off of the King piece, and will be featured in the intro and opening scenarios.

After I add props and get the tonal values locked down, I'll mock up the intro sequence to make sure everything looks good before investing time in textures. And after THAT comes a Windmill model for the Granary, and after THAT, well... I'll be done creating scenery for the demo!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dev Notes: On to art!

Today, the Chess Heroes demo reached a milestone: functionally complete! "All" that remains is the art pass, scenario fun pass, then playtesting and final bug fixes.

Some folks say "ship a broken product and fix it live." I disagree with that proposition. =)

Because the blog has been quiet (I'm working on the 7dRTS compo at night, among other things), I'll let slip a screenshot of the art in-situ. This is not final, in other words, but it gives you an idea of the style I'm going for: simple, hand-painted textures and soft colors.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Chess 2.0 ???

Well, this is ironic.

I have a history, well known to my friends, of coming up with original ideas, starting work on it, then seeing an announcement weeks, months, sometimes only days later, where a product featuring that same idea is loudly announced.

The shortest turnaround was a day. Back at the Guildhall, I sketched out the rules for a two-player competitive card game about game development, designed not only to be fun but educational. The next day, a university in the Netherlands announced the release of... a card game designed to teach students about game development.

Now, scant weeks before the private demo of Chess Heroes is ready, Ludeme Games and David Sirlin announce Chess 2: The Sequel and get a fairly glowing reception on Kotaku, titled "Well, Thank God, Someone's Finally Making the Sequel to Chess."

I know this happens to other people. I know this is not my own personal pain cave. (and actually, I find it funny more than anything) But really? Really? Wow.

My own comments on Chess 2 are:

  • Holy moly, those chess pieces look incredible.
  • The rules are very deep, and possibly over-complicated.
At the end of the day, there's no overlap in presentation or rules. Their stated intention -- "relies much less on memorized openings and more on positional play"-- is true of Chess Heroes as well, but that seems to be where the similarities end.

And David Sirlin is an excellent designer. I trust this will do very well.

I just have to figure out how to make sure Chess Heroes is not perceived as "inspired by" Chess 2.0.

PS> Now I remember hearing about the rules from Jaime Fristrom, the developer behind Energy Hook, at the indie game conference in Seattle. But I think the video game announcement is actually new.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dev Notes: Approaching Feature Complete!

The past two days have been a bit slow. I've had to spend time working on the business plan for Oreganik LLC, and I've been going back and filling in any cracks I can find in the demo. This includes updating the look and functionality of the survey questions and inserting them into the flow of the game, and revamping the magic spell UI to be all purty and such.

One thing I learned at Neversoft was to make sure the build could be run, start to finish, each Friday. This provided a clean slate for the next week, and usually prevented any gnarly hacks from putting down roots. Now that Chess Heroes is chock-full of stuff, I'm going to incorporate that into the schedule.

It's extremely excited to be this close to Feature Complete. I thought I'd be here weeks ago, but being part of a family and several communities takes all sorts of odd bites out of the day. It's totally worth it, of course, yet I find myself longing for a cabin on an island where I could... er... sit inside and work all day.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Unity: Detecting a Cursor over an Object

Many indie games feature a single avatar moving through a world. (If I've already lost you, Mario is an avatar, because you control his murderous waltz through an enemy-occupied Mushroom Kingdom.)

Having a single avatar makes things easy for both implementation and comprehension: it's easy to make because you just test to see what's close to the player, and it's easy to understand because the player knows who he/she is on screen. "I am that plumber," they think, and they push a button, and since it's easy to check if a button is pressed, the game responds instantly, and all is well.

But! Some games don't have a single avatar, and that's when you need to use the mouse (or your finger) to select an object, or point to a position on the terrain. These games are almost always strategic or tactical in nature, like StarCraft or SimCity, and here we're going to see how to do that in Unity.

In this example, it waits for a mouse click, then sends a ray from the cursor (via the camera) into the game world. If it strikes this object (and it has to have a collider for this to work), you can then run special commands.

 void Update ()
  // This will only fire the first frame after the button was pressed
  if (Input.GetButtonDown("Fire1"))
   // Fire a ray from the camera into the world
   Ray ray = Camera.main.ScreenPointToRay(Input.mousePosition);
   RaycastHit hit;
   // Test it out to 1000 units. If it hits something, continue.
   if (Physics.Raycast (ray, out hit, 1000f))
    // If it hit THIS object, do something.
    if (hit.collider.gameObject.Equals(this.gameObject))
     Debug.Log("You tapped a " + gameObject.name);

If you're curious, here's how you'd do it on an Android or iOS device. Since there's no debug log that's visible, we'll just destroy the game object when it's tapped.

void Update () 
  RaycastHit hit;
  foreach (Touch touch in Input.touches)
   Ray ray = Camera.main.ScreenPointToRay(touch.position);
   if (Physics.Raycast (ray, out hit, 1000f))
    if (hit.collider.gameObject.Equals(this.gameObject))
     if (touch.phase == TouchPhase.Began)
      Destroy (gameObject);

This technique fine for most projects, and I used this code on every object I wanted the cursor to be "aware" of. However, once I needed a system where I always knew where the cursor was, I realized it didn't scale: a raycast would be calculated every frame, by every object. Furthermore, there's no clean way to handle multiple camera layers, such as a Menu Camera and Game Camera, and that can lead to some "fun" bugs and user frustration.

Now, I have a single cursor control object. Each frame, it sends out a ray, and brings back any GameObject it hit. There, your options split: you can Broadcast a generic command to each script on the object, or if you've standardized everything, you can get a script component and run the command directly. I'm using the Broadcast method, because *shrug*. Here is the (simplified) code I'm using for Chess Heroes.
 Camera menuCamera;
 Camera sceneCamera;
 GameObject hoverObject;
 GameObject menuObject;
 GameObject sceneObject;
 void Start () 
  menuCamera = GameObject.Find("MenuCamera").GetComponent();
  sceneCamera = GameObject.Find("SceneCamera").GetComponent();
 void Update ()
  // First check if the cursor is over a menu object
  menuObject = GetObjectUnderCursorUsingCamera(menuCamera);
  // If it's not null, continue
  if (menuObject)
   // If it's a different object, run MouseOver on it
   if (hoverObject != menuObject)
  // Otherwise, check the scene
   sceneObject = GetObjectUnderCursorUsingCamera(sceneCamera);
   // If it's not null, continue
   if (sceneObject)
    // If it's a different object, run MouseOver on it
    if (hoverObject != sceneObject)
    // Nothing of interest in the scene or menu, so run MouseAway

  // If the button has been tapped and there's an active object under the cursor, send it a message
  if (Input.GetButtonDown("Fire1") && hoverObject != null)
   hoverObject.BroadcastMessage("OnTap", SendMessageOptions.DontRequireReceiver);
 GameObject GetObjectUnderCursorUsingCamera (Camera camera)
  Ray ray = camera.ScreenPointToRay(Input.mousePosition);
  RaycastHit hit;
  if (Physics.Raycast (ray, out hit, 1000f))
   return hit.collider.gameObject;
  return null;
 void MouseOver (GameObject targetObject)
  if (hoverObject != null) 
   hoverObject.BroadcastMessage("OnMouseAway", SendMessageOptions.DontRequireReceiver);
  targetObject.BroadcastMessage("OnMouseOver", SendMessageOptions.DontRequireReceiver);
  hoverObject = targetObject;
 void MouseAway ()
  if (hoverObject != null)
   hoverObject.BroadcastMessage("OnMouseAway", SendMessageOptions.DontRequireReceiver);
   hoverObject = null;

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dev Notes: Cursors!

Having hammered the menu aesthetic into a cohesive form, it was time to fall upon the actual gameplay interface, and knock that into place. Ideally, games don't need to hold your hand through every simple action: you want it to feel like you're pulling on clothes that fit exactly as they should, without a tailor fussing about, or an instruction manual to refer to.

But when I sat people down with an early prototype of Chess Heroes, and they asked "which one am I," when there was a single white King, on the left, facing off against three black Pawns, I realized that there would have to be more handholding that I originally thought.

I'll admit, I spun my wheels for a bit, desperate for a way to indicate to the player what was going on, without using ugly in-game menus or text. Finally, I decided to pull up some videos of an old-school tactics game: Heroes of Might and Magic II. When I saw the cursor icons, I realized: that was the core solution!

I'd shied away from custom cursors in Unity before, because they rendered at game speed instead of hardware speed (imagine a target reticle following your mouse, and only catching up when you slowed it down). But in Unity 4, they introduced hardware-speed custom cursors! 

Happily, I went to game-icons.net, found some likely candidates, and went to work. Here are the results so far:

This changes the cursor into a "verb," so to speak: select, move, kill, etc. The next questions players have are: what is the subject ("who is doing this verb?") and what is the object?

Without the ability to dynamically draw an outline around mesh objects (I believe that's only in Unity Pro), I fell back on an old "cel-shading" trick: increasing the scale of a mesh and reversing the normals.*

It's not perfect, but for now, it's Good Enough. You move the mouse around, and the cursor changes to a Pointing Finger when it goes over a chess piece. You click, the piece glows gold, and the finger now has an X on it. You click, it's deselected, and the finger goes back to normal. Ah! Select and deselect.

You select the piece again, then move the cursor around the screen. You highlight a space, and see a boot: walk here. You highlight an enemy piece, it glows red, and the cursor becomes a sword: capture this. It all makes sense! That's a happy place to be right now.

* Everything in a game is drawn with triangles, and every triangle is one-sided. The side it faces is represented by the normal (I don't know why it's called that!). Imagine a perfect one-way mirror: one side is transparent, while you can see your face on the other side. That side is where the normal is facing.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Indie Spotlight: Tower of Guns

Indie Spotlight

You may not have an overwhelming drive to fashion an interactive experience in which you created all of the elements by hand. But I do! And there are more and more of "us" out there: game developers who aren't seeking to change the world, but to master a quad-disciplinary medium (code, art, design, sound), entertain some people, and earn enough coin not to need a proper job.

I don't want to call it a common denominator, but what you'll often find is that "we" are drawn to algorithmically-generated design. This sidesteps a major flaw in being a one-man team: it takes a lot of time to create properly balanced and thematically varied levels (or "content"), and by the time the game is mature enough to need it, our attention has wandered away to another project!

When content is generated randomly, we find ways to constrain this randomness so that we're not facing the daunting prospect of creating a full, living landscape. And so, these games (often called "roguelikes" in homage to the first and which is a term in dispute [read more at The Penny Arcade Report: "What the hell is a roguelike?"]) take place in enclosed rooms (dungeons) or, in quite the reverse, outer space.

The next step is to determine what the player can do, and, what do you know, there's room for algorithmically-generated design there, too! Randomly placed weapons! Randomly placed monsters! You get the idea.

One odd trivia bit: historically, there have been very, very few "roguelikes" that have FPS controls (think Call of Duty or Skyrim). Some, like Nosferatu rammed up against the tech limitations of the day. Others, like Dungeon Hack, are first person, but are turn-based and have a fixed perspective. Borderlands stepped closer, with its randomly-generated weapon and loot system, but it still relied on man-made maps.

I think we're primed to see an explosion of FPS roguelikes in the coming years, especially as tech limits evaporate and game engines like Unity and Unreal become more and more flexible. One of the first out of the gate is Tower of Guns. Check it out.

Randomly generated rooms. Weapons that "evolve" based on other guns you pick up (a rocket launcher + a shotgun = a fistful of rockets!). Full-on Quake-speed FPS controls. This is going to be a good one!

Check it out on its homepage, and give it your support on Steam Greenlight!