Agent Logs

Greetings Toy Maniacs!

You may have noticed in the last seven days that just like an ageing Hollywood surgeon, we’ve decided to conduct major cosmetic and corrective* surgery on several (seven to be exact) parts of our new young superstar, the still highly infantile Toy Mania™. We’ve done this in order to diversify the strategies that can be used and enhance game play, all in our endless quest to make the perfect game for you, the toy maniac, or “player”. Not only that, but we want to tell you why we made the changes. It’s because we care. The other and more important reasons are below.

1. Tutorial: When faced with the beginning of your first attempt at the new look Toy Mania, the game will assist you step-by-step to show you easy ways to group colours and form bigger groups. Forming bigger groups to score the most points is still at the core of the game’s aim.

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2. Background: We’ve made a slicker background in the shape of blue/purple storm clouds in the night sky so you can see the pieces more clearly. If you look closely, you’ll see that all images are actually in 3D! We are in the future! or a 1950’s sci-fi. You tell me.

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3. Entire colour grouping: This is the big one. A growing trend amongst new players was to make many smaller groups of three or four before clicking on the animal to clear it. We’ve now made it impossible to clear an animal until all of the available pieces in that colour have been properly assembled.

Sidenote: Colours of two pieces will now group rather than the previously required amount of three. Every bit helps.

4. Autoclear:  As with the “entire colour grouping”, as soon as an entire colour has been assembled, the group will automatically clear itself. That means we’ve eliminated the accidental clearing click so if you want to amass a giant collection of one colour, refrain from grouping them. Without the focus on clearing, you’ve got more time to worry about grouping. Don’t say we never do anything fun for you.

5. Positive affirmation: As if the stars and sound effects weren’t enough, a positive affirmation will now appear alongside them on the screen when you make and animal and clear a group. There all nice enough but “You don’t toy around” is a pun we’re really proud of. We really want to drive that point home.

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6. Loading screen tips & facts: We’ve acquired a whole lot of knowledge about Toy Mania so we’re sharing it with you at the loading screen! Get to know personal details about the animals, learn some strategies for higher scores which has been mixed in with some general banter that can only be described as a smokescreen for the main reason we’ve added these little gems here; which is that nobody likes to wait. Fact.

7. Whistles, sorting cubes & bombs:

Because of the autoclear, there is now, at this stage, no longer a need for the almighty grouping short cut tools of the whistle, sorting cube or bomb. The group scoring calculator is still the same, so if you amass a group over 18 pieces, you’ll still reap the reward on the scoreboard.  Remember, bigger is always better.

And so, with these features having been successfully implemented, here are a few ideas we’re currently experimenting^ with that will either make the cut of our future updates or soon find its way to the trash bin:

Boosts:

Whistles (max. 5)

Bitcoins:
Cat claws:

*Corrective surgery does not in any way intend to stipulate that any previous versions of Toy Mania™ were any less beautiful or important.

^During experimentation, all developers wear safety goggles, a white coat and maintain a clean working space. Photography at this time is forbidden.

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At the 2013 Game Developers Awards hosted by the GDAA, Puzzle Retreat was awarded with the Accessibility Award. Not only is it an awesome and prestigious award that we like showing off in our office, but it marks a very important milestone when it comes to game development. Film Victoria and Screen Australia now consider accessibility when it comes to providing funding and are now rewarding companies that excel in developing games that are accessible to a wide audience.’

We think this is pretty swell.

Accessibility in gaming has always been a topic of contention. How does one make a game that caters towards people with motor, cognitive, hearing, speech or vision impairments? Mainstream games usually shy away from this demographic in favour of the masses.

In terms of our games, we aim to make them accessible to those living with impairments. We believe everyone should experience the joy of gaming!

Puzzle Retreat was designed from the ground up with that philosophy in mind.

Sometimes games (particularly puzzle games) rely too heavily on language, small icons or graphics that are make it difficult for players with certain types of vision impairment or  difficulties with language to be able to understand and follow. We’ve attempted to alleviate the problem by using large and bold icons that can easily be differentiated. Furthermore we tried to make the game playable without understanding any written text.

There is an definitive association between time limits and penalties with puzzle games. I’m sure you’ve all felt the frustration of nearly completing a level, only to have the timer run out on you. We decided to take a different route when it comes to unforgiving scenarios.

We eliminated them entirely.

Puzzle Retreat allows players to take as much time on an individual puzzle as they’d like, reset it as many times as they want and even skip the puzzle entirely. Puzzle Retreat was designed to be a relaxing puzzle game, so it only felt right to dispose of time limits and penalties.

We’ve also tweaked the detection radius of the blocks so that its extremely forgiving when a player misses a block by a small margin. This feature, plus the removal of the timer allows players who don’t have a range of fine motor skills to be able to enjoy Puzzle Retreat.

We at The Voxel Agents are extremely excited when it comes to the future of gaming in Australia. With so many awesome studios producing games of such high quality and Film Victoria and Screen Australia providing consideration for funding to those who place emphasis on accessibility, we can’t wait to see what gets released in the future.

This is Agent Aiden, signing out.

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That’s right. We’re excited to announce that we have moved into a new office! It is part of the a new game developer shared office called the Melbourne Arcade (@TheArcadeMelb) in Southbank. Thank you very much to GDAA for making this collaborative environment a reality. It’s proving to be awesome already!

Here are some photos of our new pad!

Walk up the stairs and turn right to find the ‘Voxel Agents’ plaque on our fabulous door. Through said door you might see a few agents at work.

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Working hard or hardly working? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Across the room you will find a board full of Voxel Agent secrets and shelves full of miscellaneous gadgets. If you look really closely, you might see a protoss zealot hiding behind a firebat. Weird, huh?

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Next to the board of secrets is the lounge area. Also known as my desk.

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If you look right outside of our beautiful windows you can see the Eureka tower. Such a great location! Sometimes we feel a bit sorry for the passing by passengers, because City Rd happens to be on the route to the docks :C

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Down the corridor are the offices of Surprise Attack, Many Monkeys Development, Tin Man Games and many more to come. We’re ecstatic to be sharing a space with so many other awesome studios – plenty of creativity in air, and when we walk past a board room full of people playing a multiplayer game together for “work” we remember how great game development is ;P

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It’s nice being in Southbank. It’s a gorgeous area, and Simon has told me stories of how it is a historical site for The Voxel Agents. The first press photo of the original co-founders, Simon, Tom and Matt (left-to-right), was taken on the bank of the Yarra River in 2009, complete with amazing hair cuts!

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Together they started the studio in an small office on the top floor of the HWT Tower (pictured) which is literally across the road from our new place. However, the story goes that all they could afford was the converted fire escape, with no windows next to the mens toilets! However, once the first artist arrived to join the team they couldn’t possibly fit a fourth in a one person office (!) and moved to Richmond.

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Accordingly, the original concept of Train Conductor was dreamed up on the side of the Yarra River while looking across to Flinders St Station. And hence the station features in the Melbourne level of Train Conductor, from a view not too dissimilar from the foyer of the top floor of the HWT Tower!

The arcade is The Voxel Agents fifth office in five years, and from the sounds of it, the best yet! We’re really happy with the location, the office space and we love being so close with other awesome Melbourne game devs! Exciting times ahead :D

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Sep/13

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AgentAiden

Update #2

Greetings Agents,

Its time for change! This week, most of the updates are centered around easing newer players into the game.

Instead of the plain old loading screen we had in the last version, you’re now greeted with all of your favourite creatures!

We think it’s best to articulate the purpose of the game within the first few moments of loading the game up. The purpose being that you will be making some quirky looking animals, and your aim is to make them as big as possible!

Newer players who didn’t notice the 60 second timer thought that the game was ending because they were doing something wrong and the session ended because of their mistake. We added the ‘Time’s Up!’ because we wanted to inform players that there is indeed a time limit and so that they understand why the screen went dark.

Here is a .gif of the new ‘Time’s Up’ feature in action: http://imgflip.com/i/2yl5t

Another issue we noticed at PAX was that players weren’t using the power-ups! Most of the time they were ignored until we told players about them or it was accidentally clicked on. The game will now show players what to do with power-ups and how to use them.

As Toy Mania is a game inspired by a Rubik’s Cube, we found it difficult to portray to new players that the cubes actually wrap around! With this update, we’ve made it so the cubes visually represent the wrapping rather than suddenly disappearing on one side and magically appearing on the other.

Another .gif of this glorious feature in action: http://imgflip.com/i/2ylzc

There is a shiny new button that will allow you to invite all your friends to play Toy Mania. We’ve found that the ‘bigger is always better’ rule in Toy Mania applies to real life too. Toy Mania is much more fun with friends to compete with! :)

Some players have been trying to access Toy Mania on their mobiles. At this time the game is playable exclusively on a desktop computer on Facebook.com. We plan on releasing Toy Mania to mobile platforms as soon as possible, but for now if you attempt to access the game on mobile you will be greeted with this dashing screen.

Thats all for this weeks updates!

You’ll be hearing from me soon.

Agent Aiden

pr@thevoxelagents.com

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PAX was such a great event and I loved meeting our players, especially those of you who have been supporting us for so long! You fill me with pride and excitement that we are making something worth making. Events like these get me so inspired, and they remind me why I make the games I do.

I got the chance to be part of the panel ‘Getting out of the Garage’ with a fellow devs from our oz industry. We spoke about what inspired us to get started, and what mental illness we had to let us do so. During the talk I mentioned that our inception was partially inspired by a manifesto for making iPhone games. We weren’t always the fearsome, bearded developers you know us all to be and at the time of creating the studio, it wasn’t obvious that starting a mobile games studio making original IP was such a good idea. Certainly at the time there were zero prominent examples of it working in Australia!

Matt, Tom and I (and our other friends too) had always talked about starting a studio . It wasn’t until our team won the 48 hour game making competition twice in a row, and when Pandemic closed down and I had quit Halfbrick that it just all fit together. We knew it was time to start a studio. The manifesto isn’t the reason we started, it just formed a part of the conversation. But it’s interesting to look at it in retrospect, and see that where we were coming from.

The “Manifesto for iPhone Game Development” was actually a tongue-in-cheek title to a thread I posted into a private forum my uni friends and I frequented. The “manifesto” bit was the joke. At the time the title seemed stupid. iPhone’s weren’t “gaming” devices. But I can’t take credit for thinking otherwise. I’m an unashamed Apple fanboy for almost a decade now. I was reading Roughly Drafted regularly and Daniel Eran Dilger’s ideas convinced me that there was huge economic potential in the App Store, and that the iPhone’s success seemed highly certain. Daniel Cook’s game design blog was my significant designer inspiration – especially the articles about innovation and creating new genres. The iPhone seemed to be the perfect mix of the circumstances Cook talked about for great innovation to occur.

Without further ado, here is the Manifesto as it was written back in November 2008.

The Manifesto for iPhone Game Development in 2008

  • There is no first party developer to compete with. Apple has no interest in making games. Yeah they have a Poker app, but that feels more like proof that games can exist as apps, rather than any significant attempt to become a game developer.

  • Big companies aren’t that interested yet. All the massive developers and publishers are either ignoring the market entirely, or giving it extremely little focus. The attitude is generally that the iPhone is not a serious gaming device.

  • Game developers are generally avoiding Apple products, regardless of opportunity.

  • Quality standards are easy to beat.

  • The platform lacks a defining title, and the opportunity is there for an innovative title to fill that role. Gameboy = Tetris. Famicon = Mario Brothers and Zelda. Playstation = Wipeout (to me at least). iPhone = Trism? Really? Good idea, but surely we will progress from here.

  • The iPhone is at a very early stage and innovation on the platform has barely begun – it is an exciting time to be designing iPhone games! Think of all the possibilities with a multi-touch screen, an accelerometer, an always connected internet device, a device you ALWAYS have with you, GPS, bluetooth! Each offers huge potential for new experiences!

  • Consumers expectation are at a comfortable level for indie studios; $1 – $10

  • Units sales are already considerable and sales growth is huge. Consider that the iPod sells hundreds of millions a year… well where are those iPod users likely upgrade to?

  • The approval process is relatively easy for indie developers to satisfy. Certainly better than current handhelds, and forget consoles!

When we started the company, we focused in on the multi-touch screen as our key differentiator. Ultimately though I think the always-on internet connection and “always with you” device have been the single most important aspects for innovation for game design, and even the games business. So much innovation has occurred by exploring these aspects.

In 2013 I’d it’s not so clear cut that the iPhone is the best platform for an indie studio to get started with… But that is a whole other discussion!

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Welcome to the first of a two part series about strategies you can use in Toy Mania. This first post will include a few basic strategies that will help you on your way to become a toy making master!

  • First and foremost, bigger is ALWAYS better. A group of 3 is not a very good toy. Try to at have more than 6 in a group – pro tip: The animals gets happier when they’re bigger!
  • Clear smaller groups first, then the bigger ones. Leave the largest groups for last!
  • Cubes wrap from top-to-bottom and left-to-right. So any cube that moves off the left side will appear on the right and vice-versa! Use this to your advantage.
  • Save the whistle for when the colour it’s on is really common.

We don’t want to spoil all of the strategies for Toy Mania. You’ll have to find some out for yourself! ;)

Be sure to keep your eye on this page for next weeks blog post titled ‘Advanced Strategies’.

Agent Aiden

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Hi team!

This week we’ve made some small changes to Toy Mania. Nothing that’s too game changing, just some fixes for issues we noticed at PAX.

We picked up that some players didn’t notice the 60 second timer that was counting down. Now, the clock ticks down in more ways than one! You hear it, feel it, smell it, live it breathe it. It’s all around you.

We’ve also added your biggest toy to the score screen so you can say hi to your new found friend.

The most astute players will have noticed that the ‘BETA’ tag now is an ‘ALPHA’ tag. As the game currently stands, we have what is known as a vertical slice, that is: one feature of the game polished to a good level of quality. Beta suggests the game is feature complete, which is far from the truth. There are many more features that we want to add to the game, and they will be rolled out over the coming months. Keep praying for the Crazy-Cat-Lady Boost, cause it might just happen… What features do you want to see?

Finally, another problem we noticed at PAX was that some people were unsure as to how to use the power ups. To remedy this, we’ve changed the icon just a tad. Doesn’t it look clickable now?

Feel free to email us or post suggestions or improvements to our fan page www.facebook.com/ToyManiaGame :)

See you next week!

Agent Aiden,

pr@thevoxelagents.com

 

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We have just released our new game, Toy Mania! :D

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Toy Mania is a new style of arcade game where players attempt to collect as many toys as possible. We have just recently released the game on Facebook and we’re extremely excited to show it off!

The premise of the game is to create as many colourful toys as you can in 60 seconds. Creating those toys are simply a matter of rearranging rows and columns of colourful blocks to match three or more and make a wonderfully quirky toy. The players who can master this Rubik’s cube-esque system and craft gigantic toys will crush their friends on the Facebook leaderboards.

We decided to return to our roots with a completely new concept. We like making highscore based games, but we wanted to create something that was different to anything else out the market at the moment. Simon initially drew inspiration from a Rubik’s cube. How it embodies an incredibly simple concept but at the same time it involves complex strategy. I can’t tell you how many people were surprised with the level of depth in Toy Mania after playing it for a while. Its a rather deceptive game.

This is the first time we’ve used Facebook for a beta release. Its actually the first time we’ve had a Beta release at all. It fits perfectly with our methods though. We like keeping in contact with our players when releasing new builds of the game so we can explore new methods of gameplay.

After PAX, we just wanted to get as many people to try it as possible. The response blew our minds. We had players who liked the game so much, that they would come by every 30 minutes to get another turn on Toy Mania.

We can’t wait to release further updates and get the game out on iOS and Android.

Here is a link to play it now for free! Only for computers as of right now. 

Stay in touch with the development of the game on our fan page. 

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Much love from the Voxel Agents team!

 

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Puzzle Retreat as we know it today is a far cry from where it began in May 2011. It started as a third-person game about felling trees, and it finished as a relaxing minimal board game about sliding ice blocks. In between, it ventured into a massive variety of themes and styles, including one where you were responsible for unfurling dragons by the pool so they could sunbake. It’s had explosions, bad guys, tractors, floating islands and even storylines. The game you play today was only possible with eighteen months of refinement, simplification and a whole lot of love from a creative team striving to make the ultimate logical puzzler for mobile. This is Puzzle Retreat’s game dev story.

The Pitch

Yangtian Li pitches an idea for a game

Lumberjacks cut wood.

Carpenters make things.

Yangtian Li, our in-house artist at the time, pitched to the team an elaborate design for a lumberjack-come-carpenter game. You fell trees in the forest, bring them home and make furniture. You can then unlock, sell and buy different design schematics, paints, flourishing details, and then trade what you make with other players online.

Add a Splash of Puzzle

Henrik Pettersson was immediately inspired by the puzzle potential of felling trees in a forest.  His first design was a puzzle game where the trees fall into each other and knock each successive tree down dominoes style. The second design, and eventual winner, focused on your player character who stands behind each tree to push it over. You must have enough space to stand behind the tree to push and there must be space for the tree to fall onto. This puzzle design requires you to find the right order to knock all the trees down whilst keeping the appropriate spaces free, and not locking yourself in.

The first concept, and it starts with a forest of trees!

We really liked the potential depth of puzzles this mechanic presented, and the simplicity of the interaction. Playtesters were scratching their heads and smiling, and we could feel the potential of this game really standing out – it’s a brain scratcher that can fit into a few minutes a day on a mobile.

Save the Ozone

Icons avoid the problem of tall trees

(more…)

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Over the past year our studio has continued development on our TOP SECRET grid-based puzzle game.

One of the major and on-going challenges that our team has faced during development was the creation of high-quality handcrafted puzzles.

Agent Matt showing the rest of the team how one of the variations could work

Initially, we experimented with new puzzle variations with cardboard and a set of poker chips. It empowered designers to prototype rules earlier with no upfront code investment (while code was spent on building the actual game). We also couldn’t deny that it came with super cheap “save features” with the use of a handheld camera or pen and paper. However, there were downsides to creating puzzles with cardboard and chips. It took a great amount of time to test puzzles with oneself, within the studio and with playtesters on the streets of Melbourne City.

Pen and paper prototypes in notebook form
was another alternative to cardboard and chipery!

Designers had to make sure that each move made on cardboard was legal and because a computer wasn’t dictating how the moves were made, it was prone to human error and caused creation of unsolvable puzzles and puzzles with unintended solutions. Playtesting within the studio was also a lengthy process, it involved designers restarting the board manually by hand after each play. Since a computer wasn’t dictating the original layout of pieces, this process was also prone to human error and sometimes caused awkward moments when it was realised that a puzzle being tested was unsolvable. Getting our designs in game on a portable device to take to the Melbourne City streets for playtesting wasn’t easy either. We had to use one of our Legacy Flash Level Editors, which we were no longer supporting, to paint out our cardboard prototyped level and then export it, which took about 5 steps before being able to play it in game.

Our Legacy Flash Level Editor,
it was pweeeeetty and initially helped us get the levels in-game

Our first working Unity Level Editor, had paint, erase, load and save features (similar to our Legacy Flash Level Editor). It also saved puzzles in XML (a format that our Legacy Flash Level Editor supported). The Unity Level Editor had a first working solver, which made Unity crash a lot and our designers refused to use the Level Editor until it was fixed. We did see potential in it and persisted to shove in and rip out new features, one of the most significant features was the Solver.

 Our first working Unity Level Editor, we previously supported in-editor revisions!

Like a Phoenix, the Solver died temporarily (ie. removed), but soon after it was reborn (ie. reimplemented), but instead of turning into the same Phoenix it once was, it was reborn into this insanely powerful tool that changed the way designers now go about creating puzzles in our studio to date. The Solver had the ability to tell us how many solutions existed to solve the puzzle and if there were any solutions that were unintended, which we call illegal. A puzzle that was found to be illegal would never make it into the game. Designers were able to create super difficult puzzles that would have taken a day each to make and now they were being made in less than a hour. If a designer didn’t know how to solve the puzzle that they created themselves, they could request for the solution to be played out in Unity’s play-mode by the Solver.

The Solver was then made to play the game for us on device, it was an amusing sight to sit back admiring it’s beauty. It looked as if our studio was haunted by really clever poltergeists that have possessed a bunch of our iPads and was playing and solving each puzzle within a matter of seconds without making any incorrect moves.

A reenactment of the really clever poltergeists hard at work!  

After a couple weeks of non-stop puzzle creation our designers got really accustomed to the Unity Level Editor and following this we had a discussion about our puzzle creation process and where to take it next. From this meeting, we decided to optimise the process further by adding a list of solutions to the puzzle being edited within the Level Editor itself without designers having to go into Unity’s play-mode. It allowed designers to tweak their puzzles and to see the effect of their changes on the final solutions far more rapidly. Previously designers had to wait a whole minute each time they needed to test out a change that would have affected the solutions to a puzzle. Also the newly added visual representation of a solution communicates itself more quickly and clearly as to where each piece in the puzzle fits on the grid to the designer in comparison with how it was previously in play-mode.

Our Unity Level Editor, functionality over form.

If you found this blog post informative, please visit our Puzzle Retreat Facebook Page to Like or Comment.

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