Critter Defense 1.1 now available

Thursday, July 30, 2009

(Originally posted to the Mojito blog. Archived here for posterity.)

Hey, our first update has hit the App Store. Make sure to grab it.

The big new thing is Facebook Connect support — this’ll let you see custom high score lists with just your friends. Lots of games do this, of course, and it’s a fun way to filter high scores in a somewhat more meanful way. Right? Indeed.

What else? Some speed improvements here and there and hopefully a crash or two fewer — although, honestly, we’ve had crashes, but not really many at all and (happily) none that have been reported during the actual gameplay. Which would suck. So fingers crossed on that. But we’ll keep our eyes open.

Other news:

Does anyone out there have any better way of dealing with Apple about App Store issues? We’re newbies, obvs, but poor customer support appears to be a common issue. There may be no answer. You can imagine how frustrating it is when you can’t get questions answered or have minor issues addressed in a timely manner (if at all). I’m not yet considering abandoning the platform (as others have — we only just got here), but I’m annoyed. Not sure if says very good things or bad things about Apple that the experience as an App Store dev is so rough. I’ve paid $198 for a developer’s license — one would think that a purchase of this cost would have a bit friendly customer support behind it.

But so it goes. Our experience hasn’t been awful, and we’re actually happy to report fairly big sales (better than expected) these first weeks and a tremendous number of levels played. Yeah, we’re like Sting: Every tower you place, every critter you kill, we’ll be watching you. I hope to have some fun charts and graphs about that up here soon — stay tuned.

Thanks, everyone! Hope you’re having fun with Critter Defense!


Critter Defense is Live!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Alright! Finally! Our cute tower defense game called Critter Defense! has finally been released into the wild. You should check it out — Charles Pratt and I put a great deal of effort and love into this little game. We hope you’ll enjoy it. At the moment you can’t search for it in the App Store, but you can get to it via direct link.

Get it here: Mojito.

Mojito (our new little game development group) also has an awesome blog, if you’d like to keep up with Mojito- and Critter Defense-related activities in more detail.

Thanks, everybody, for the support! We’re excited to see where this leads.


Critter Defense has been approved!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

(Originally posted to the Mojito blog. Archived here for posterity.)


So. Hello. Welcome to the blog.

Y’know, we heard horror stories and I kind of expected that we would submit the app and then wait, like, four weeks and have Apple come back to us with some little niggle like our web-based forums could allow a user to say the word “poop” and, therefore, could you please resubmit with an “Adults Only” warning and then it would take another month to for them to find some new error and then, maybe, by Christmas 2013 or so Critter Defense would hit the store — just in time to be removed for not being iPhone OS 7.1 compatible.

But it didn’t happen that way.

Critter Defense has been approved after a mere twelve days of waiting. Which, in geological terms, is like a second. The game is not in the store, you may note, because I filled out the form on iTunes Connect to let Apple know to make it go live on Monday (so we’d have a weekend to just double-check all of the web functionality — just in case). So I guess they have to approve that. Which may take years. But I’m hoping that they’ll just say “okay” as soon as someone shows up Monday morning with their bagel and coffee and so I am proud to announce after several months of development that:

Critter Defense goes live Monday, July 20th!

That this day is the 40th anniversary of the Moon Landing is, I believe, a sign that someday man will walk on Mars. And that man will have an iPhone. And the first iPhone game played on another celestial body will, in fact, be Critter Defense. America will cheer. Small towns will name high schools after it. And it will possibly even become a US Senator.

We can dream.

So if you’re reading this on or after July 20th, go buy it now. Be a part of that dream.


Just a Cloud

Friday, June 26, 2009

The odd cloud formation in the top photo are mammatus clouds, by the way.


Game Design & Musical Play

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Christin and Tikva rock out.

So Christin and I travelled through dark and drizzle to the Eyebeam “Mixer: Version” party out in Chelsea last Saturday. Britta and Rebecca had invited us to come check out the public installation of their excellent Windowfarms project, a take on DIY urban gardening. Photo below.

Britta's and Rebecca's Windowfarms.

A handful of other projects were installed at Eyebeam for the event. We played a quick round of David Jimison’s Mad Libs+karaoke thing (we needed more alcohol, honestly) and after doing a round of meet-and-greet with the (actually surprisingly small) contingency of former ITPers we settled in for a round of the very well put-together World Series of [You] ‘Tubing project. Check out the link for the details, but quickly: A player goes to a kiosk and picks out five of their favorite funny/absurd YouTube videos. Mind were mostly along the lines of hamsters having sex and cats acting weird. I know what I like. And then you go up onstage and “play” your videos alongside someone else’s video choice. And the audience decides who has the better video by pointing with green laser pointers. Hamster sex video? A winner! Cat swatting at a hammer? A loser. I lost. Overall. So my YouTube skills must be weak. But. Very fun game. Very nicely put together.

The pic at the top of this post (and the one below) are of Hans-Christoph Steiner’s hacked iPod musical performance project. Briefly: You pick an instrument. Each has an iPod stuck to it with custom sound-generating software that you kind of “scratch” (DJ-style) by touching the scroll interface on the iPod. I fiddled with the drums which apparently worked by pushing the four buttons above the wheel (on a third-gen iPod) — but it had crashed or something and I couldn’t seem to get it to work.

Now. I’m not trying to get on Hans’ case — I liked the project. It looked great — I loved the whiteness of everything. Plus, it was quite a technical achievement. And people had a lot of fun with it — I mean, check out the pics. Girls gone wild. But. The sound was wild cacophony. Wild cacophony can be good, at times. But this wild cacophony came from people having a rather limited perception of what sounds poking at the iPod would make. And if they knew that, then they seemed to have little idea about how to use the sounds (besides just poking furiously). And if they figured out something good to do, they had no way to coordinate with the three other people making random noises on stage. And this is a very common problem for projects which expect audience members to come up and participate in the creation of sound.

So. My graduate thesis for ITP (called “MMMI”) kind of sucked. I mean, it had its moments. The technology was kind of clever and I think I had a very polished visual design — but the resulting music wasn’t so hot. So, y’know, failure. It was a musical project, afterall. Specifically, a project that invited about twenty people to interact with the same musical interface at the same time with a specific goal of creating an intelligible piece of collaborative music. (The project also involved a bit of phone-to-screen technology which I’m not going to get into because it’s neither here nor there as far as this discussion. If you want to know more, go here.) Okay. I failed. But I think I was on the right track. Here’s why.

People need structure. People need to be told what to do. Or, at least, to be given a shove in a certain direction. Whole broad swaths of design are built upon this notion, from architecture to web design to game design. People need this because they want to have success with things they may not be experts at. I want to successfully use the bathroom in the Chrysler Building despite the fact that I have never stepped inside the building before in my life and don’t even know how many floors it has. I want to successfully buy a Hickory Farms beefstick party pack from their site despite not knowing intimately how payment authentication on the web works. I want to have fun with Call of Duty: World at War even though I don’t know each and every level inside out and don’t even really know how much damage the different weapons do to bad guys.

But in a creative environment people don’t want to be told exactly what to do. They want hints — signposts that can direct them, but be ignored if the user thinks of something better they’d like to do or try. And this is where I feel like applying “game-like” design strategies to musical instrument design is key — especially if you want several people who have never played your instrument to be able to collaborate in some meaningful way.

My grad thesis, MMMI, tried to solve this by giving players points by hitting the balls on the screen and making sounds. Everyone had the same score, so it was cooperative rather than competitive. I wanted players to keep the musical balls bouncing on the screen, so I rewarded them for doing that. How they bounced the balls around to make different sorts of sounds — that was where their creativity and freedom came in. But. In order to advance “levels” — to get to the next set of sounds and visuals — they had to reach certain points thresholds. So. If players liked where they were and didn’t care to advance, then the points could be ignored without any penalty. Good, right? I offered a structure, but also allowed players to ignore the structure without serious consequence. This is one of the reasons I call this sort of thing “game-like” design or “applying game-like mechanics” — it’s not a game in the usual “win-lose” sense.

So, yeah. My particular implementation wasn’t that awesome — this sort of design can be challenging, it turns out. (It also, just to note, probably alludes to the generative composition movement and possibly the sort of audience-performer breakdown of a “happening.” But who knows.) You have to provide a game-like structure but kind of modulate the punishment and reward systems to match what you, as “composer,” think would be a positive experience for your amateur performers.

Why not just have a musical score for your players? (Score like sheet music, not like points.) Well, that’s certainly another way to go about it. But I think that feels just less “fun” overall — maybe because I’m biased towards the term “game” over the term “score.” The latter feels like something you have to do. The former feels like some you explore and play with.

Anyway. Obviously this sort of application of “game-like” design for creative purposes interests me quite a bit. I feel like this has been touched upon, but we still haven’t seen it flourish. People credit games like Flower or Guitar Hero with being in this realm, but they’re not. Electroplankton kind of is, but at this point it’s fairly dated and obviously incomplete. I might go so far as to say if you can lose at something, then it’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean, you can paint a shitty picture, but if you start painting the sky green and the grass red your canvas shouldn’t abruptly vaporize and tell you how much you suck. Because maybe that’s what you want to do. Maybe that’s what you want to explore. What if I want to play all of the wrong notes in Guitar Hero? The song shuts off and I hear booing sounds.

Okay. Don’t lie: You haven’t read this far. Okay. Maybe. Just in case, here’s a conclusion: I haven’t had the opportunity to work on a project with this theme in a while — since my thesis, really. But I want to. I’m currently exploring a few ideas for applying this sort of thought to iPhone games. And, actually, what’s neat about the iPhone is that there are a handful of apps which kind of do what I’m talking about. No, not “iFart.” (And not Brian Eno’s “Bloom,” either.) The Smule apps, I mean. “Ocarina” and “Leaf Trombone.” (Given the jillions of apps out there, I’m sure there are more.) Whereas my examples in the previous paragraph land a bit on the “this is just a game” side of the aisle, those two kind of land a bit too far on the “this is just a toy” side of the aisle. But it’s nice that they’re there. So, yeah. Hopefully I’ll come up with some clever notion and will get to write another windy blog post about it, here.


Britta and Tikva rock out.


Thoughts on Google Wave

Friday, June 5, 2009

The peeps at Montauk last summer.

“What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?”

I’ve been watching the Google Wave video over the past couple of days. It’s a bit long, but they give a very complete overview of the service. Even though there are a million “tech du jour” blogs and I normally prefer to stay away from that kind of stuff on this blog, Wave struck me so I might as well toss out a few quick thoughts on the matter. So:

1. Yeah, e-mail certainly feels like it could use some modernizing — it hasn’t changed in any meaningful way in, like, forever. At least since I’ve been using it (circa 1994). It’s still “to,” “from,” “cc,” “subject” — and replies still stack inline, although now most e-mail clients will render replied-to text in different colors or something. Progress!

2. Wave is cool. It looks nice. I want to try it out. I like clever web interfaces. And I have a lot of respect for the team that put it together. As alluded to above, I wish more people would put thought into improving how e-mail works. Because doing so seems insanely challenging, especially given how deeply ingrained e-mail is into our concept of how the net works. Getting people to use a new service for the same task is difficult enough — cf. Firefox vs. Internet Explorer. For people my age and older, using e-mail is almost a reflex. Sending e-mails. Checking my e-mail. I do these almost subconsciously. They are cognitively low-overhead tasks for me. To get me to move to something conceptually different would require changing some rather deep wiring (although, yes — presumably parts of Wave will make their way into Gmail). (And I admit that younger generations may have a very different relationship to e-mail than my generation does. Maybe I’m already a crotchety old man. Sweet. Get off my lawn.)

3. There is almost nothing new to Wave. Except the cool presentation. (Which is, yes, a rather big exception.) You can do this now: if your e-mail client renders the web properly. I like the live collaboration inside Wave and I love that slider that lets you replay a Wave over time. But can’t dozens of websites do essentially what Wave is demoed as doing (minus some interface jazz)? Can’t I go set up a poll somewhere and link to it in the e-mail? Can’t I link to a map? Or photos? Or embed them? Widget-like? Why doesn’t e-mail support HTML well enough that I can send a frame that contains the contents of a live webpage that can be whatever I want? It could be a realtime Wave-like app. A Google map. Chess. A poll. A video. Whack-a-kitty. Etc.

Instead of creating this third paradigm between the web and e-mail, we need to realize that the web and e-mail are actually the same thing conceptually — they’re just displayed inside different windows (or, hell, the same window if you’re using webmail). And especially with all of this social API stuff floating around, the concept of e-mail being private communication and the web being public communication is breaking down. Or, rather, has broken down.

4. I don’t like Gmail. Personal preference, sure, but I prefer desktop apps to internet ones when given the option. I find Gmail to be visually cluttered and putting ads on my private e-mails — are you fucking kidding me? No. I prefer Apple Mail. So I’m predisposed to being very much not interested in web-based “e-mail-like” communications technologies. I only really use Google for maps, search, and ads (I use AdSense on some of my sites). I’m not a huge fan of their collaborative tools.

When I tweeted about this [1] [2] (sigh — “tweet” is the worst verb since “blog”), I asked “And where’s Apple on this?” I meant: Could Apple’s Mail team please get off of their cans and put some thought into Apple Mail so we could do things like this? I mean, I love being able to send e-mails of travel photos that look like they’ve been thumbtacked to bamboo — but let’s think bigger, here. Please. Screw Google, just use the existing e-mail protocol in some creative way to make embedding live web content into an e-mail simple. It’s a UI problem, mostly. And then to copy Google’s “Polly” poll tool, for example, you could whip up a polling widget (if one doesn’t exist that works well) in, like, an afternoon. With basic HTML and Javascript. And maybe a little social API or something to hook into address books. You have millions of developers who could make little widgety things and blow all of this Wave crap out of the water in no time.

5. I had a dream about ZZTop last night. Surely that’s not healthy.

Anyway. In a week this topic will seem quaint and all of my opinions will be wrong, I’m sure.


Notes on SXSW 2009

Thursday, March 26, 2009

First: I’ve been playing World of Goo, a recent indie game that involves stacking sticky gooballs to one another in order to construct ever more elaborate towers and bridges and such. These goo structures kind of bobble and sway like jell-o scaffolding, so after staring at them for an hour, everything on my screen kind of bobbles and sways like jell-o paragraphs. I swear if I don’t counter-balance this paragraph some of the words are going to unstick and drop forever down into the goo pit on the bottom left-hand side of my blog. You’ve probably never noticed that. No worries. Neither have I.

I digress.

Well, not too far. So one of the guys from 2D Boy, the makers of World of Goo spoke at one of the SXSW panels I attended last week. A panel including folks from several indie game companies including Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany and Jonathan Blow of Braid fame. Well, not Jonathan Blow — a male blow-up doll in a hoodie. Blow got sick or something. Anyway. I enjoyed the panel. And not so much for any technical or business info I picked up. It was mostly, as I texted to Adam Simon, a sort of “chicken soup for the game developer’s soul” deal. Talk of second mortgages and the gloomy dark place of being six months into a game and having six months more development to go and wondering if you’re really doing anything more than wasting your (and other people’s) time. At least this stuff resonated with me, being waist-deep in my own game project (with Charles Pratt) and having a similar sort of fearful lack of confidence — which is, I guess, just the way it goes with creative projects with long development times. So it’s comforting to be reminded that successful people have similar experiences.

Ironic that Adam (and the rest of team SocialBomb) missed, because for the first couple of days they were going through their own gloomy moment, I’m sure. Their great Paparazzi iPhone game worked very well, but they had plans for a SXSW-specific game which seemed to fall apart at the last moment — and I totally, totally, totally know the feeling when it’s launch time and bugs pop up and you’re sitting at home (or someone’s parents’ home, in this case) working through obnoxious fucking fixes instead of going out and enjoying yourself. All developers know this feeling, I imagine.

Otherwise, I think the conference went fairly well for the SocialBombers. All four of them stayed with us at my parents’ home in northwest Austin. Everyone has iPhones these days, so we all got our chance to photograph and tag people in Paparazzi and get our points. Very nice. The other big iPhone app release for SXSW was Dennis Crowley’s and Naveen Selvadurai’s FourSquare — or: Dodgeball with Achievements. Both Adam and Dennis presented along with Kevin Slavin of area/code (where both Dennis and I have previously worked), another former ITPer Daniel Liss and a guy from Zynga. Good panel, though the problem with having a panel the morning of the final day is, well, people can be a bit washed-out. As in, the audience. Me. I’m often a bit hazy. Before noon. On any day.

Other good sessions: Tony Hseih, the Zappos CEO (who reminds me somewhat of Xanga founder John Hiler), gave his talk about Zappos’ business culture and some of his broader thoughts on customer service and “happiness” as a business product. Which I really enjoyed. One of the major takeaways for me was from his description of how Zappos hires new employees. Finding people who fit into the corporate culture is key, according to Hseih, so they have a variety of measures they take to make sure that personalities fit and that the people working at Zappos feel integrated into the company. I don’t do much hiring these days, exactly, but I do work on a wide range of projects with an assortment of people and I felt like some of his ideas about hiring could be applied (in less rigorous ways) to my own selection process of deciding people I want to work with. (Not that I need to ask everyone I know how lucky they are, but just as a way to guide my own thought process.) I think I’ve kind of implicitly done this, anyway, in the couple of years since I’ve graduated from ITP. With a couple of minor exceptions, I haven’t worked for or with anyone in the past couple of years that I wouldn’t call a friend aside from work — even if I first met them through a work project. And we’re all in the same extended social circle. I feel like this is such an important element of my lifestyle at the moment — I really enjoy what I’m doing. So something’s going right. Hseih’s talk definitely also dovetailed with the recent “science of happiness” movement — which I appreciate, as well. On a more business school note, he also spoke about customer service as a marketing expense — a topic which I loved. I feel like I deal with crap every month from companies like AT&T, companies that seem to go out of their way to make life difficult for me because the’ve already got my money and, so, well, fuck me. I exaggerate. But. Online, reputation is all you have (well, and price, I suppose — but I would argue that reputation trumps price, overall). And so I like to see a company that considers their core product not selling clothes — but delivering a good customer experience. Zappos has also embraced Twitter as a means of communicating with consumers and, true to form, after I twittered (twitted/twote/twat) about Zappos Tony Hseih followed me. Sweet.

An aside: Let me make one general point about panels: Look, folks. We have (for the most part) paid money to hear you panelists talk. Between airfare and a festival badge and possibly a hotel room, we’ve shelled out a lot of cash. To hear your ideas. SO. When you do your panel, do some friggin’ prep work and have some actual non-obvious points you’d like to make about your topic. Y’know, you don’t even have to be 100% right, but you should at least make us think. Open up a discussion that you seed with ideas. Don’t just mill around and jabber about nothing in particular. And for fuck’s sake don’t spend half of the panel introducing yourselves and then ask the audience for ideas about how to improve your business. I charge a consulting fee for that. (I’m looking at you, everyone on the “New Think for Old Publishers” panel, except Clay Shirky (obvs).) Rude. And you make yourself look ridiculous and out-of-touch in front of exactly the sort of people you should be trying to engage.

Two more panel notes:

  1. Josh Klein spoke about his Creative Commons-based project at the Day Stage on the first day of SXSW, Friday. Good. He’s got a good story with his experience marketing his novel Roo’d, a very good argument for first-time creatives (authors, musicians, etc.) to consider CC-licensing their work. If I might summarize, it’s something like this: Be honest — your first work is probably going to be flat-out ignored by everyone. So give it away. And reap the social benefit. And parlay that into your second project.

  2. Bruce Sterling didn’t give the final talk of SXSW Interactive, as is usual, be he gave a good one nevertheless. No crying this time. But he does what must be very, very difficult at a conference like this: He knows how to handle a crowd and really create an experience, in a turn-off-the-laptop sort of way. This time he started off light, as is the norm, and even cracked open a Shiner and popped a bag of chips while speaking (a reference to his not hosting an after-party at his home this year). But eventually he got to the sort of Big Picture thinking which is why I think he’s so valuable to a conference like SXSW. I, for example, get so caught up in the day-to-day of the web and social media and really develop a cynical view of so much of this stuff because I’m defensive about people marketing to me and I think almost anyone who seriously calls themselves a “microcelebrity” is an asshole and I think your blog is a steaming turd, you Twitter too much, and your genius idea is kind of stupid. And your “clever” t-shirt sucks. Etc. I like it when someone gracefully reminds me — hey, all of this stuff is actually ground-breaking, world-changing shit and, despite the annoyance of having several new “social marketing gurus” following me on Twitter every day and pounds of spam e-mail, it’s all really quite miraculous when you step back for a moment. Clay had a single slide at “New Think for Old Publishers” panel I mocked earlier which said: “The internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history — now what?” A powerful reminder of what’s amazing about this field. Sterling’s was (something like): Despite all of the crap that may go on in the world (collapsing economies, etc.), social media is the thing that keep society from fully collapsing into something like World War I or II. We’re all too connected, now. We all care about too many people from too many places and backgrounds to be baited into hating one another. An oversimplification, maybe. And I’ve probably somewhat distorted what he said in my week-later retelling. Regardless, I like the sentiment.

Okay. Enough about the sessions.

What else? Some dinners and after-parties. Oh: I lost the AMODA/SXSW Laptop Battle in the first round. Controversially, I might add! The judges kind of generally sucked, in many rounds totally ignoring the crowd response when making their choice. Not sure what the deal was. On a few occasions both performers would play and the crowd would almost all be cheering for Player #1, everyone waving a “1” with their fingers — and the judges would go with Player #2. Erm. Okay. Anyway, we kind of bailed after the first round of everyone performing, so maybe it improved. (At least I get to come back if they do it again next year.) It’s disconcerting to feel like you honestly did a better job than someone only to loose to them. Sounds like I’m an egotistical asshole, huh? But I don’t think I am. I just know laptop electronica because I’ve been making blippy noises with computers for the better part of the last fifteen years. Okay. I’ll stop bitching. But. I will note that Todd Simmons and the AMODA crew do awesome events and I know it takes a tremendous amount of energy to pull something like this off (just for me to crap all over). And the musical performances mostly totally rocked! The whole thing was, in fact, really fun. Just those judges kind of messed stuff up. Argh. </venting>

Other stuff: We also went out to eat with a huge crew of ITPers-and-associates, as well. Serrano’s = excellent for evening margaritas. BBQ at the County Line the night before the cenference started. Big fat steaks at the Hoffbrau on Christin’s birthday (Tuesday the 17th). And a few social media parties, including one with a burlesque show. Although way fewer than last year. There were fewer start-ups in general at SXSW this time around. Just to note.

This is getting long, so I guess I should:

  1. Mention that ten people stayed at my parents’ place this time around. Four SocialBombers, Leah Wechsler, Josh Klein, Daniel Liss, Tikva Morowati, Christin Roman, and myself. I still think the record was set the first year all of the ITPers came down. 2006. But this certainly came close.

  2. On Christin’s last day in town we rented paddleboats and paddled out west on Town Lake. Through the Hill Country. Beautiful. And a good respite from computers. We saw lots of turtles and I almost dumped myself into the river crabbing my paddle.

  3. Note the one SXSW music event I attended: the Erykah Badu + Explosions in the Sky show at Auditorium Shores on Saturday night with Joe Stern and his girlfriend Laura (a yoga instructor in Santa Fe). Warm night. Love outdoor shows. Erykah showed up way late, so her back-up band the Cannabinoids played on their own for a while before she turned up to sing about fifteen minutes worth of songs. Then Explosion came out and did their thick, pulpy thing. Followed by an onslaught of actual explosions in the sky — fireworks — over the river. Good stuff.

So. I guess that’s about it. If you’ve read this far, let me reward you with a video of a cat with its head stuck in a bag.

Oh, and AT&T sucks. They’ve been nothing but fail during SXSW. Sure would be nice to be able to get a phone call at the conference, guys! Or send a text message! I know no one could’ve predicted that tens of thousands of people would show up this year except for, well, everyone except you. Anyway. Poo.

Magic Moments

Clay and Josh Klein talk over burgers.

Dinner at Serrano’s went well…

Clay even finally revealed his superhero alter-ego, Troubleboy. (“Be the trouble you want to see in the world,” his shirt reads — an example of a clever t-shirt that does not suck.)

Christin with the biggest shoe ever.

Pillows don’t lie.

Adam and Mike Dory at the Poodle Dog Lounge. Not shown: Lots of shuffleboard.

The end!


Williamsburg Goes Off

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

More about this soon, maybe. I’m exhausted.