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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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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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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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Last weekend, we competed in the #fab48hr game making competition in Brisbane, Australia… and what a wild weekend! We won! That was great, but more importantly I was absolutely blown away by the quality of games made by the other teams. I was particularly impressed with the level of quality and polish that was developed in “indie” / student room. There is an enormous amount of talent in Australia and I’m sure we’re going to see more from those awesome young developers.

In the #fab48hr competition, each team must concept, design, and create a game based on three keywords that are provided at the beginning of the competition. This year, those words were “suit”, “key”, and “badger”, provided by Yug, Hex, and Jinx.

We made this:

Download the game we made here [WINDOWS] or if you use a Mac, try this link [MAC].

The Badgers of Fury 161

The Badgers of Fury 161

How to Play: Without giving too much away, if you have a couple of XBox controllers, plug them in for the best experience, using “A” as your action button. If you have to use a keyboard, you can use the arrow keys for player 1 and WASD for player 2, with “shift” as the action button. Also be aware the the glowing yellow floor (which totally looks like lava) will kill player 1 and the swirling blue circles (evidently poisonous gas…) will kill player 2. That’s all you really need to know… oh yeah one more thing: the badgers aren’t nice and they will eat your face.

The Badgers of Fury 161 was developed by the Alliance of Indie. This team was composed of developers from a number of Australia’s top Indie studios including yours truly Agent Tom (The Voxel Agents), Liam Hill (Defiant Development3 Blokes Studios), Cratesmith (Cratesmith,DefiantStrange Loop), Matt Ditton (Queensland College of Art, Defiant), and the incredibly talented Milenko (Strange Loop,Defiant).

The Alliance of Indie

Matt Ditton, Agent Tom, Liam Hill, Cratesmith, Milenko

But really, kudos where kudos is due:
As proud as we are of the game we managed to make in 48 Hours, the real winners of the competition were the indie team Rockin Moses (read about them here: http://making-games.net/48/?p=2916) who made a really fun game called The Fifth Suit. 

This game was great fun to play. For me, their game evoked “Smash Brothers Brawl”. While playing, I was less concerned about winning and more concerned about trying to make life difficult for my opponents. It was a strong social experience and quite a polished product for just 48 hours of work! You can grab a PC version of their game here [WIN] but it’s best played with XBox controllers. If you’re lucky enough to have some XBox controllers then I strongly suggest you get this version [WIN – XBox Controllers].

Congratulations Rockin Moses!

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We spend a lot of time being all creative and fuzzy and nice here at The Voxel Agents, but often we need to stand back and have a good hard think about what’s actually happening out there in the mobile games space.

To make sure we are all still on top of everything, I spent all of last week researching the mobile market space. I forgot everything I knew about iPhone and Android and had a good hard look at the information that is out there. Some of my findings certainly will be old news to you, and some might change what you thought you knew. So, if you’re interested in the business (pronounced “biz-niz”) side of being an indie game developer, check this stuff out:

 

You may think the iPad is a mobile device, but you’d be wrong.

  • 43% of iPad owners use their iPad more than their desktop computer 
  • 28% say it’s their primary computer
  • 34% use it more than their TV
  • 83% use it primarily while at home. Only 11% use it on the go.

Source:
http://gigaom.com/apple/admob-survey-shows-what-the-ipad-is-good-for/

 

Developers are flocking back to the iOS platform

According to a blog post by Flurry, in the first quarter of this year, about 65% of new projects were for iOS compared to a respectable 35% targeting Android. However, in the second quarter, iOS accounted for 75% of new projects, leaving just 25% for Android.
It’s worth considering this is based on Flurry’s information alone, so it could equally be taken to mean that Flurry itself is proving to be more popular with iOS developers compared to Android dev’s. This would mean Flurry’s stats in the future are going to have a strong iOS bias.

Sources:
http://blog.flurry.com/bid/66618/iPad-2-and-Verizon-iPhone-Take-Some-Wind-Out-of-Android-s-Sail
http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-20079497-94/apple-regaining-momentum-with-developers-study-says/

 

Even though iOS has more Apps, Android has more free Apps

And that’s not proportionately, that’s in total. The paid model is just not working well on Android.
This same report concludes that sometime this year, the total number of Android Apps will equal the number of iOS Apps (contradicting the story told by Flurry).

Sources:
http://www.distimo.com/blog/2011_04_the-battle-for-the-most-content-and-the-emerging-tablet-market/
http://makingmoneywithandroid.com/2011/05/google-android-marketplace-vs-apple-app-store-latest-report

 

iOS has served 15 Billion downloads compared to Androids 4.5 Billion

Given that the iOS App Store has been around for so much longer, this is not a bad showing from Android. However, the vast majority of the iOS downloads occurred in the face of competition from Android. The nail in the coffin: a greater proportion of those iOS downloads were paid.

Those numbers should have six 0's after them too, by the way

Also interesting: the average iOS user has downloaded 75 apps.

Sources:

 

Android App installs per day may be reaching parity with iOS installs

But more of the Android installs are free Apps. Clouding the picture is the fact that Apple has clamped down on “incentivized” installs which has removed a lot of “false” installs.

Source:
http://www.insidemobileapps.com/2011/07/14/android-ios-parity/

 

500,000 Android devices are activated every single day

Which means that in the time it took you to read this post another 30,000 Android users began on their merry way. What’s less clear is how many of these devices really deserve to be considered competitors to iOS devices; presumably a large number of them are low powered devices designed only for basic email / web access and social networks.

Sources:
http://www.ubergizmo.com/2011/06/google-activates-500000-android-devices-daily/

 

 

and most importantly of all…

Android or iOS regardless, it’s a very VERY tough market out there
There’s only so much pie, you see. If we all got an equal slice of that pie, then we’d take home about $8,500 each, which is hardly “quit your day job” money. If you then consider that Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja are both very very fond of pie, then you start to realise that a lot of developers are going hungry (so to speak…).
Sources:
http://gigaom.com/apple/the-average-ios-app-publisher-isnt-making-much-money/
http://blog.flurry.com/bid/24163/Rise-of-the-New-Middle-Class-Indie-iPhone-App-Developers-Part-I
http://www.geeky-gadgets.com/80-percent-of-paid-android-apps-are-downloaded-less-than-100-times-27-05-2011/ 

Thanks for reading this far. Hopefully this is useful information for you. Please let us know your thoughts on the state of the market. Should game developers consider market forces, or should they make games they love and hope that there’s an audience?

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We like to use paper prototypes to test our ideas. We find it helps to test ideas really quick, and playing board games is a pretty super job to have 😀 We like it so much, our next game came from a board game prototype.

It’s the weekend, and maybe you don’t have much to do… Or maybe you’re attending the Freeplay Festival like us and get all inspired to make some games. To help you, we put together a generic set of board game pieces that you can use to develop your own board game! Download the pdfs below, print them on A4 and get started prototyping new boardgames! The set contains a total of eighteen unique pieces for you to play with 😀
Three “good” characters
Three “bad” characters
A house
A treasure chest and a coin
Three environment pieces
A life
Five generic symbols
And all of these icons in easy to print PDF’s are available here and here.
So get crackin!

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Agent Henrik is cutting paper boards for our next game! Guess what kind of game it is!

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The Voxel Afternoon Tea! Sound’s awesome, doesn’t it?

As creative individuals we are always producing new ideas, but how can we continually produce without also absorbing ideas?

So, we came up with this idea of holding an ‘afternoon tea’ session every Friday lunchtime. During tea each Agent shares something that they have recently discovered or found interesting and we all discuss.

We thought you might be interested to check what each person shared!

 

Name: Agent Matt
Material shared: Not Tetris 2
Play it on: http://www.stabyourself.net/nottetris2
Reason for sharing: I think it’s an interesting subversion of a classic game. The ‘broken-ness’ of it just works, and it is self documenting.



Reflection
Henrik: I’m impressed of the product. It’s been taken way beyond what he needed to show the concept. I’m not entirely sure what the developer is trying to tell or show us more than that its works but regardless I’m impressed.
Simon: I like how the whimsical controls match the developer’s attitude in destroying a classic 😀
Tom: Subversive! Loved how he broke the rules of tetris by making the blocks not behave the way they should, but the players objective remained the same. I’d love to see someone clock this game (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keeSEJG4XzU).
Tian: It’s interesting to watch it, but I don’t think it will be as enjoyable as the original Tetris…
Ramsey: Great Rehash on a classic, lovin it bro

 

henrik

Name: Agent Henrik
Material shared: Amnesia Dark Descent Gameplay Video
Reason for sharing: Along with Limbo, Amnesia was the best game I played last year.



Reflection
Matt: Watching videos of people’s reactions is always interesting. It’s incredible just how psychologically hooked people can get, even though they can just walk away at any time.
Simon: Amnesia looks like an horrifying ride and I want to take it 😀
Tom: I need to play this game, but after watching that video I also need to play it on skype with Simon.
Tian: I was worried at first when you told me it’s going to be scary, because I tend to scream if I see something scary. But I didn’t and it was kinda confusing… and funny. However I still would not play the game, just because it’s a scary game and I’ve experienced enough scary things.
Ramsey: Looked fantastic, I’ll get on it as soon as I grow a pair to play horror games lol. It seems the developers really understood how to manipulate the emotions and fear of the player and tweak it to ALMOST the point of snapping.

 

Name: Agent Simon
Materials shared: Live coding!
Reason for sharing: These guys inspired some of my final year work at uni and have been an ongoing inspiration. I like the idea of using a computer as an instrument, and not just to play samples, but to use it’s logic to generate interesting melodies on the fly.


Reflection
Henrik: Much admiration to the people who travel in new direction of creativity. Extra interesting since it’s an area I too wish to explore.
Matt: Code as performance is awesome!
Tom: Loved the performative aspect of this. Reminded me of conditional design more than generative design.
Tian: It’s always amazing for me when someone can do both art and programming. They would have some really symmetrical looking brain I think. 😀
Ramsey: Future sailors, taking retro to its logical conclusion! Boosh aside, this looks really cool and I’d love to see where these guys end up creatively in a year or two’s time. It seems to me that once they master their tools ( which they created lol ) they will definitely come into their own.

 

Name: Agent Tom
Material shared: We are the Strange (trailer).
Reason for sharing: Striking visuals and an amazing story. I love how it combines so many different types of visual elements and twists them into an unholy creation of amazing awesome.

Reflection
Henrik: Don’t know if I’d enjoy the movie but will see it because of it uniqueness. If we did not have creations like these our culture would be very dull.

Matt: Crazy video, I imagine it would have been very difficult to juxtapose all of the various techniques.
Simon: I don’t know whether I like his commitment or his craziness more.
Tian: Interesting find, I would love to know how he can afford to make such a long movie by himself. 18 months of production time doesn’t sound like a long enough period for making a good quality movie to me. Also I would love to know how he promoted and sold it, I think it’s really hard to market this kind of film.
Ramsey: Really cool animation man, I can’t wait to pull out the popcorn and anti-seizure pills and let it siege my senses.

 

Name: Agent Tian
Material shared: Get Out – Animated Short
Reason for sharing: Awesome story and imaginative visual style, and the concept is very funny yet heartwarming. Best animated short I saw at MIAF so far this year.


Reflection

Henrik: Fantastic short by people with skills and understanding that goes beyond animation goodness. I think the isolation cell metaphor worked for the most part. The additional details noticed through a second screening were few but impressive.
Matt: Great surprise ending. I was starting to feel really sorry for the guy. Sometimes you think if people can be happy in their own head-space, why should we force them to change? I think this video shows why.
Simon: Cleverly French.
Tom: Great animation. Interesting world. I didn’t actually like the ending. It made everything ok and nice and fine in the world… to me that’s as good a story device as “it was all a dream”. Nice twist in the tale though, I’ll give it that. Animation: 10 points.
Ramsey: Really great little short, beautiful animation and characters, im glad you shared this with me, I will definitely be showing this to my friends!

 

Agent Ramsey shared a top secret idea, so will remain in the vault 😛

Where do you find your best sources of creative inspiration? Please post in the comments any interesting things you’ve found on the internet as we’re really interested to see what inspires you.

 

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2010 was a great year for The Voxel Agents. We saw the massive success of the Train Conductor series and we cemented our position as producers of high quality indie games for iOS. 

So now that 2011 has rolled around, we decided the time was right to grow our team. We’re very, very, happy and proud to announce Henrik Pettersson and Yangtian Li as the latest additions to our secret service / games development studio.

TianYangtian Li is joins us as our new graphic designer and she will also be the Minister for Pranks. Tian is a very passionate artist has a love of drawing and animation. She came to Australia from her home country of China to study and to pursue her creative ambitions. Tian is a hard core gamer – no one in the office can beat her high score at game dev story. Tian likes all sorts of art and creation including cooking and of course eating. Yum yum. She hates most sports except the ones that have background music. Tian’s short-term goal is to continue to have her work featured in artbooks and exhibitions, and also to avoid getting hit by a car because she doesn’t have health insurance. Tian was the valedictorian of her class at QANTM and has a very bright future in the gaming and animation industry. 

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Train Conductor 2 USA (TC2) is the best game we’ve ever made. We’re really proud of the way it looks and plays, especially when compared to the original Train Conductor. However the launch hasn’t been without issues. In fact, we’re quite embarrassed by some of the bugs that crept into the game before we submitted it to Apple.

We are really sorry that the graphics on iPad and iPhone 4 were not up to scratch. The complaints are totally warranted – we are and have always been listening. It’s completely our own fault for wanting to get the game onto iPad and iPhone 4 right away, but not having enough time to stick to our own quality standards.

Here’s how we’re planning to adress the iPad and iPhone 4 issues:

We’ve been working nights and weekends and, fortunately, we’ve been able to fix many, many bugs while giving the HD graphics a major overhaul! On both iPad and iPhone 4, all text is now crisp and hard edged, buttons are pixel-perfect, train models have increased detail, particle effects sparkle at high resolution, the HUD is cleaner.

We’re pleased to say that this major “World Leaderboards + bug fixing and graphical improvement update” was submitted to Apple just *yesterday* and it will arrive on the App Store shortly as a free update soon!

Graphical improvements in the 1.1 World Leaderboards update:

Tutorials

You're looking great Penny

Trains models

The trains sparkle in the sun!

Miami Beach

when HD and SD collide...

HUD and pillars

I score better in HD

Main Menu

Train Conductor 2: USA all crisp and clean

What’s next:

Since submitting the update we’ve continued to improve the HD iPad and iPhone 4 graphics — they will be prioritized and made better with each subsequent update. We’re really hard at work developing techniques to make better use of the screen space and to have the graphics render more cleanly on all resolutions and devices – not a simple task for the first major game to be distributed as a Universal App.

These improvements will arrive alongside new locations (such as Seattle), a bevy of achievements to keep you busy for hours, and some exciting new gameplay that we are still hush hush about.

We read every single bit of feedback that we can find. We believe in making super fun, tight experiences that feel great to play and so it means a lot to us when people aren’t happy. Here’s a list of feedback to date, and what we plan to do about it:

  • “I miss the multiplier” (Georgina, TouchArcade) – We can’t satisfy everyone on this one. There were complaints from the original game arguing that the multiplier system was too complicated. We tend to agree that it needed simplification. Ultimately though, with endless play mode that old system just couldn’t work. Your multiplier would be reaching numbers larger than human beings have ever imagined. We wanted to start with a simpler scoring mechanism, and build on it. Stay tuned.
  • “Missing the PROGRESS METER. Now we have no visual indicator of the requirement for unlocking the next area” (thespaciousmind, iTunes user review USA) – We agree that the experience points of Train Conductor Australia were a motivator. With TC2 we really wanted to focus on high scores and sharing and competing with friends. We felt that high scores didn’t receive anywhere near enough attention in the first game, yet they were a core part of the train conducting experience. We will fix this issue in a future update by giving more feedback about what you have to do to unlock the next level.
  • “I was surprised about lack of Plus as well. Perhaps they are holding off in anticipation of Game Centre?” (eugekav, TouchArcade forums) – Two reasons; first, Game Center is on it’s way and we didn’t want to have Plus+, Game Center and Facebook – it would have been a complete mess. Secondly, we wanted to integrate the leaderboards into the experience a lot better than we could with Plus+. With Achievements (a.k.a. Awards in Plus+ speak) we’ve actually got all of the important Plus+ functionality anyway. World Leaderboards will arrive in a couple days, and Achievements shortly after. What features of Plus+ you’d like to see in TC2? Let us know in the comments.

There are some big things coming, so keep your eyes peeled and your fingers ready 🙂

Please keep posting with suggested improvements, levels you liked best, questions about design decisions, etc… We plan on keeping an active conversation going so we can keep improving the game.

Thanks
TC2 Development Team

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