CAT | Games

We just received a new advertisement for Train Conductor 2: USA made by Asher Blok, a high school student in Maranatha, Victoria.

Thanks Asher!

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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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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

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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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Settling In!

We moved into our new office in Collingwood last week and we’ve been settling into the new space. We’ve had to deal with all kinds of things such as a brilliant coffee machine, a bit too much sunlight, and everyone having to work out how exactly to get to work.

The new space is great. We have a lot more room to move and it’s closer to home for most of us (except for Sam… sorry Sam) and it’s right near Melbourne’s funky Smith St. Maybe we need to start being more funky so that we all fit in?

Levels! A whole bank of levels!

We’ve been making a lot of levels for our next game. So many in fact that just managing all of them has become quite a chore (hundreds and hundreds of designs that could make their way into the final game).

To deal with these numbers, Agent Sam has made a really nifty tool that allows us to easily sort and structure our levels, give them ratings, and easily view information about each level. This was all done using Google Spreadsheets and some nifty Google Apps Script. We’ll have to write a full feature-blog post describing how great Google Apps Script is for making simple tools as it’s proven to be a very versatile weapon we can use in our quest for making better games.

Metrics!

Another cool thing we’ve made by hacking Google Spreadsheets is to create nice reports about who is actually playing our games and how long they are sticking around. This info is great because it helps us make our games a lot more fun, but it can sometimes be hard to really read the graphs that Flurry make. So we made our own graphs!

Even more awesomely, we were able to use Google Sites to automatically pull these graphs from the Spreadsheet, and display everything in a somewhat nicer format.

Leveraging Google’s services has proven to be a really great way for us to rapidly create useful tools that enhance our ability to make games. More on this in a future blog post feature.

We made some really hard levels, couldn’t solve them, and so made the computer do it for us

When designing levels, it’s often very difficult for the level designer to be able to keep all the variables and permutations of the level in their mind at once. It’s possible for us to make much higher quality levels if we have an automated “solver” that can solve our levels for us, as well as providing very useful information about a level (such as the number of possible solutions). We’re also kind of lazy.

So we made a “solver”. This has actually been a work in progress for quite some time, but it only just recently became awesome.

 This tool was made by extending Unity through it’s great editor features. We really strongly recommend that other Unity developers get in on this and start making wicked tools by extending Unity.

And then we made it even more awesome

The next step, of course, was to make it automatically show us the possible solutions in a way that was highly readable to a level designer. Agent Sam is doing a more detailed write up about this, but basically we can learn so much about how our levels are structured through this tool and it makes it much easier to make great content.

We quietly started a beta test

Agent Henrik began work on a beta test for our new game. It’s a closed beta at the moment and I am sorry but it is now closed.

Sorry about that.

On the bright side this means that our new game is getting close. We still don’t have a definite launch date but it will definitely will be released sometime.

We also started thinking: “What’s Next?”

The new project is in it’s final stages so we’ve started thinking about our next project. We have some new IP that we want to develop further into a new game, and so we’ll definitely start work on that.

But we also see a lot of potential to improve Train Conductor, so we’re going to explore that. It’s still early days so we don’t have totally concrete plans at the moment, but we’re thinking of making the newer “Challenge Mode” the focus of the game since that style of play seems to be much more the kind of play we were trying to create with the original Train Conductor.

 

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The best art style for a logic puzzle doesn’t get in the way of a players ability to see and solve the puzzle itself.

Agent Tian and I researched what art principles were used in defining art styles for logical puzzle games. This information will be  relevant to other small development studios, as well as artists and students of game design.

We gathered data about the audiences of various games from the Facebook pages and user reviews of those titles. We found that Train Conductor 2, being a score based arcade game, attracts a much younger and tech savvy audience than is common for logical puzzle games.

Here are two typical sets of demographic data we’ve gathered from users interacting on the games facebook pages:
If you’re unfamiliar with Quell it’s a fantastic logical puzzle game that is performing well on Android phones. On their website you can read about the Making of Quell where you can read their development story.

Train Yards is a successfull logical puzzle game developed by Matt Rix. In his postmortem at GDC this year he talked about the difference between developing for casual players and harcore players. The slides are available for free here and you can listen to the full talk if you have access to the GDC vault here.

When developing a game for gamers you can skip several levels of teaching. With 10 years of gaming experience comes vast a priori knowledge of computer interfaces and how they usually respond to player input. For example, I’m sure you have, at some point in life, been completely mind boggled by the inability of an old relative to move files across folders.

We’ve seen endless cases, while playtesting with a casual audience, where the play tester develops the most obscure theories of what the game rules are. The cause of these theories is simply miscommunication by us, the developers. By stripping the game of unnecessary art assets we can greatly reduce this problem: less art assets mean less objects for players to develop wacky theories about.

We can see a clear connection between logical puzzle games that value graphical prettiness more than usability, and bad chart performance. We see the opposite effect when usability is considered first. It is clear that puzzle games that value usability over art outperform on the marketplace. Sudoku is a good example because there so many Sudoku apps (Appannie gives 823 results).

The players top favorite Sudoku game out of those 823 competitors is the example to the right. Their secret? They have the largest buttons possible.

The GDC talk “How to make your player feel smart” by Randy Smith (available for free here) gives advice about puzzles in games. He references the book “The Design of Everyday Things” and further emphasises the following principle:

Look at the example on the right. Though you might not be sure of the rules or the objective at an initial glance everyone will know how a car moves and player will try to interact with the element in that manner. Logical puzzle games that stick to this principle are clear favorites among the players. For example, see Traffic Jam & Cross Fingers

I will hold off with the remaining slides of the presentation. They rely heavily on statistics and I don’t want to bloat this post with pie charts. If you like that sort of stuff send me an email (henrikpettersson@thevoxelagents.com) and I can provide you with the whole presentation but you will have to draw some conclusions by yourself. I will publish the remaining data with descriptions sometime in the future.

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In 2011 we made loads of prototype games; some small, some funny, some that sucked, almost all ugly (except the lucky few that receive Tian’s touch :D). Here’s a visual tour of 20 of the 24 games that we made in five months. Together they paint the picture of what Voxel Agent games look like when they’re born – a mish-mash of squares, circles and terrible colour schemes!


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We’re proud to announce that Train Conductor 2: USA is finally available for android phones! Launched in early december, the new Android version is double the size with twice the content of the iOS version. We’ve spent many months creating cool new unique content for this release. It’s the biggest update to the Train Conductor series that we’ve ever attempted. So what’s new?

Challenge Mode

Stopped Train Timer

Stopped Train Timer

The existing survival mode feels like you’re running a marathon compared to the fast paced, action packed new Challenge Mode. In Challenge you’ve got to deliver as many trains as you can in about 2 minutes. One thing we noticed about the old survival mode is that you can draw out the experience by stopping lots of trains and dealing with one a time. This is fine, and we’re leaving survival mode as it is so you can continue to play that way, but in Challenge Mode if you leave a train waiting for too long, it will signal to the train network that there’s a delay and all new trains will stop from entering the screen. This keeps it fast paced and rewards players who can “Enter the Matrix” of Train Conducting with finest of crash-avoidance skills.

If challenge mode sounds stressful to you – don’t panic! You can toy around and make mistakes without stress as you’ve now got three lives up your sleeve in Challenge Mode. We all love the new three-lives feature, and in the later challenge levels, you’ll need it!

Three Strikes

Three Strikes

Updated Game Icon

If you look at all the best icons, they feature just one element and look very clear when miniaturised. Finally I think we have a very distinctive and clear icon to represent the game, also it looks HAWT 😀

Updated Game Icon

Updated Game Icon - worthy of your home screen

New location: Chicago – the six track demon

Like Challenge Mode, Chicago is not for the fainted hearted. Players have always asked for six tracks, and here it is – it’s a demon!

During the course of a typical day on a busy city train network, there will be peaks and troughs in the flow of trains as commuters pour into the city in the morning and out again in the evening. Agent Henrik and I were trying to recreate these peak times of the train network in this new design.

We found that six tracks is at the EXTREME limit of human train conducting abilities 😀 Seven was out of control, to the point where it’s hard to target the right track because they were so close together, whilst also being hard to find the right track instinctively without having to count down from the top every time. So this is it, the maximum number of tracks we’ll ever put in a level.

Control trains across 6 tracks in Chicago

Control trains across 6 tracks in Chicago

Android Exclusive: New Train Droid gives extra points

This Android character is one cute little robot. We couldn’t resist putting her into the game. You’ll find Train Droid in Challenge Mode levels, but she can’t be everywhere at once – so keep an eye out for which level she’s in each day.

The new Droid Train

Droid Train appears in a different challenge mode each day.

Deliver Gold Trains to unlock Challenge Mode

The new Gold Train

The new Gold Train

Existing players of TC2 are thinking, “Gold Trains? They already exist!”, but what I mean is Double Awesome Super Special Gold Train, it’s just a bit long of a name. In this update there’s a new “golder” train, maybe its 24 carats? In all levels except Miami, you can deliver Gold Trains (or Gold Ghosts at night) to collect Gold Tracks, and with enough Gold Tracks you’ll unlock Challenge Mode of that level.

The Gold Trains are rare, and boy when one appears, you do not want to stuff that up!

New Nashville level art and special FX

Previously we redid the Miami art because it just wasn’t up to standard, now Nashville has also had a make over too!

We’ve also updated the colours on the ghosts. Previously, the ghosts and demons were similarly coloured (i.e. white), and users were smart to complain. It most adversely affected the Nashville level, and you can see the results of Agent Tian’s touches.

The new Nashville

The new nashville is much brighter.

Improved score screen

We always felt that the score screen didn’t really reflect your excitement each time you beat your high score – it didn’t erupt with awesome like a cream filled awesome cake. Hopefully now when you break that high score, you’ll feel like a king. We’ve also added some great feedback in-game for when you deliver that trains that puts you in the record books. But you’ll just have to play it for your-self to experience it.

New High Score!

New High Score!

Keen conductors will notice that we’ve also brought the score screen over the level. This means it takes less time for you to hit the ‘retry’ button. Some players are playing levels hundreds of times over in one session and we don’t want to waste their time jumping between screens.

Improved “Level Unlocked” Screen

Unlock a new level and be showered in awesome 😀

Just unlocked Challenge Mode!

Just unlocked Challenge Mode!

New Level Select Screen

The previous level select screen was entirely superfluous once you’d played the introduction. It really didn’t do much for you. Although I don’t think the new design is without it’s own flaws, you now have access to both modes (an unavoidable decision making step) and the introduction button is appropriately de-emphasised. Also, you don’t have to jump into a level to see the leaderboards anymore, it’s right there on the next screen.

Shiny new Level Select screen

Shiny new Level Select screen

Lite Version

Not to be forgotten. we created a whole new Lite Version that will bring the game to a wider audience. If you’re not sure if you will like connecting trains, test out the Lite Version and see what you think. It’s got the first three locations there and will keep you busy for hours. Almost all of the changes above are in there, with the exception of Challenge Mode.

Train Conductor 2 Lite

Get Train Conductor 2 Lite Today

And more!

  • Sparkles and Fireworks – New celebration for players who beat their high-score
    • When you beat your high score, you want to know about that in-game, not just at the end. Break a high score and you’ll see it, hear it, and feel it.
  • Menu backgrounds and buttons are more pretty
    • Simply, we let Agent Tian loose on the graphics, and she worked her magic.
  • Added a screen to let you know that “You finished the game!”
    • It just seemed odd that you spent so long unlocking levels, and then suddenly there were no more to unlock. At least you can feel good now that you’ve unlocked every location! (and now go collect Challenge Mode levels :D)
  • We made the sound effect and music mute buttons bigger.
  • Tutorials are shorter and more to the point.
  • All buttons are now blue.
    • This helps show what you can click, and what you can’t. There are a few minor exceptions, but the major pathways through the game are cleaned up.
  • Twitter and Facebook integration have been rewritten to improve the login and posting processes.
  • The pacing of the trains appearing in Miami has been made more interesting, less repetitive and more friendly to new users.
  • The fonts in-game throughout the HUD, menus and in-game are more consistent.
  • Numerous graphical elements were upgraded to HD.
  • Improved the induction process of welcoming the player to the game.
  • Bug fixes galore.

And this is just the latest in a long history of improvements…

This is the sixth major update to TC2. Here’s what’s been added in the past:

  • v1.5 – Massive “high definition” update, prepared the game for iPad’s big display.
  • v2.0 – Added world and friend leaderboards
  • v2.1 – Added a new level: Roswell
  • v2.2 – Added a new level: Seattle
  • v2.6 – Update for Retina Display, including the new Miami art.
  • v3.0 – Everything mentioned above!
Get it right now on the android market! (iOS users will just have to wait)

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Dec/11

20

Agent Matt

The Fire Game

So this is an awesome prototype that I worked on earlier in the year. It’s been sitting on the shelf gathering dust. Dust is boring – Players are fun! So now I’m setting it free.

Hit the image below to start playing, or skip ahead for the long story.

THE GAME

Play the Fire Game in it’s own window

The Fire Game

Play the Fire Game

THE MAKING:

The fire game started long long ago. Regular readers will remember last year when we competed in the 48hr Game Making Competition 2010.. The three keywords were Dinosaur, Revenge, and Bar. So we came up with a game, where you drop raptors into a bar, and try to kill as many people as possible.

PLAY: Raptors in a bar

The bar from "Raptor in a cocktail bar"

We eventually dropped the ‘Raptors in a Bar’ idea, and ended up making a game we called Egg Basher, but the idea of setting things up in a room, and then trying to kill as many people as possible stuck with me. However, there was one major problem with the idea.

Problem: If a player is going to invest their time setting up the scenario, then the outcomes needs to be predictable, and 100% repeatable.
Solution: Replace unpredictable dinosaurs with Scientific Fire.

It has to work. It’s Science!

I remember an episode of C.S.I. (or some similar show) where a house burned down. The police expected arson, because of the strong burn pattern up the front stairs. But some clever investigation showed that the fire actually started upstairs, but when a neighbour came to help, they opened the front door. The sudden gust of fresh oxygen caused the fire to rush down the stairs, and blast out the front door.

I was envisioning a series of traps and tricks that The Player could set up in order to make the fire spread faster. A game with complex timing mechanisms, technical oxygen measurements, and scientific fire!

What we ended up with was an interesting prototype. A very fun toy to play with, but ultimately, not a game.

Play the Fire Game in it’s own window. I hope you enjoy playing it as much as we did making it.

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Scary 'demon trains'!

Everyone knows when you release stuff into the wild that players will leave some pretty interesting reviews. But we have a story that I think puts the icing on the cake….

When we launched TC2 on the marketplace our first few reviews were coming in, and it looked like everyone was loving the game.
Great variety of levels.“, “Awesome visuals“, etc…

But then we got a couple of odd reviews saying the second level of the game was too scary for children.

Now, if you’ve seen the ghosts in our game, you will know they are quite cute and relatively harmless. Ghost trains provide a fun and fast paced twist on the usual ‘avoid-the-crash’ gameplay. We quickly called an emergency meeting at The Voxel Agents to think about how we could respond to this issue, and save our star rating! Meanwhile… Fans of Train Conductor were coming to our rescue.

I see nothing wrong with demon trains” – 5 Stars
I bought it for the demon trains!” – 5 Stars!
‘Demon trains’ hahaha! (…) GREAT GAME!

And finally Katie chimed in with the Gem:
I have a large preference towards games with demon trains in them. In fact they are the only type of games I will purchase. 5 out of 5 demon trains

Thank you Katie! We love demon trains too!

Check out the game for yourself and let us know what you think about the Demon Trains.
Get Train Conductor 2: USA on the Android Market

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