No, we are not dead. But we are split up.

Now I suppose it is okay to officially say, given the distance from the project, that Kale In Dinoland was never meant to be taken seriously as a game. Nor was it ever a real GameBoy title. Whoops! Surprise! (not really)

The whole of Kale In Dinoland as a project was to overdramatize (and satirize) the indie developer and the pitfalls of retro culture in a larger sense. The extreme, design-limiting, even quality-detrimental commitment to the “authenticity” of our “source material” (GameBoy games) criticized the hollow belief that retro games were all somehow better than games are today. While nostalgia is impossible to get away from, such an unhealthy focus on games such as Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda: aLttP as exemplars of genre in an  era of radically different platforms (touch-devices) and consumers (the social market) is plain unrealistic and downright unoriginal for the game designer.

Of course, Kale In Dinoland wasn’t solely a satirical venture: its other aim was to establish a universe, somewhat subversively, which we (the Rotting Cartridge) could then capitalize on in further game releases, leading to the finale. That plan is still in effect. But how I go about achieving that finale, or whether the finale will ever be achieved, is no longer the constricting noose it once was. Put frankly, I am sick of the retro-ports theme. I want to design a game for iOS — for iOS, not for GameBoy and then pseudo-ported to iOS — that is also interesting to think about, and the complexity of whose UI does not directly conflict with its authenticity, because it seeks no authenticity.

So The Rotting Cartridge (me) is working on a new game. But I don’t know whether the game will come out. Right now I am only toying with the idea, testing the design in my off-time, writing a narrative. Those are the things intrinsically enjoyable to me. IF I do decide to produce the game, over the summer for example, then I would need to get a team together. For that I’m looking at Starmen.net.

We’d like to take this time to respond to the heated debate that followed from our “What’s Wrong with the IGF” post.

First, to anyone that took our blog post personally, please understand that this was not a personal attack.

We wanted to bring to light a fact that some judges don’t play games that they are assigned, and that that may be a problem in the future.

In light of the $95 entrance fee, we believe every developer deserves a fair shot at a nomination.

Judges not playing a game they are assigned to judge, for any number of minutes, is simply not acceptable.

Regardless, we had not intended this as a personal attack against Brandon Boyer or Simon Carless.

We understand that they do their best to make the IGF what it is.

As hard as they work, the system itself is flawed because it makes it easy to overlook games when the IGF was created to do the opposite: notice overlooked games.

However, we do not agree that calling would have solved anything. If we had decided to call, it would have been a word of honor against posting.

Furthermore, we mentioned the email because we are arguing for openness, not private correspondence.

Everyone should know about these issues and not be kept in the dark, so that we can have an honest debate over what could be done.

It is enlightening that some developers have already come out of the woodwork to voice similar complaints.

To that end, we’d like to wish everyone the best. Oh, and we’ll change the blog theme.

- the rotting cartridge

Read the rest of this entry »

UPDATE: We’ve posted a public statement about this post here.

Hello there.

Way back in December we posted an update saying that we would post “about our terrible IGF experience.” Granted, we may have exaggerated a few things back then. (read: a lot of things!) But with the IGF finals at GDC coming up, there is no better time than the present to relate our experience.

First, some backstory: We are an independent developer producing an iPhone game named Kale In Dinoland:

This year the IGF decided to use TestFlight for its iPhone games. We paid the $100 customary to the festival, as over 500 other developers did for their games. Going in, we didn’t expect to get nominated for anything. The game was content-complete but wasn’t done to the level of polish we wanted. Not to mention, there were still bugs. But this isn’t about the overall quality of our build, it’s about giving every game its fair shake.

Let me explain. When the IGF chose TestFlight for iOS distribution, they made a big mistake. We were given a list of all of our judges’ email addresses, revealing their identities. We aren’t going to release those names to respect the judges, but let’s just say we had a heavy-hitter.  For every judge, we could see how much they played; if they even started the game at all. How do we know this?

TestFlight records NSLogs (iPhone version of console logging) and custom “checkpoints,” uploading this data seamlessly for us to see. In addition, when a judge opened the TestFlight invitation email, downloaded and then installed the game on their iDevice, we can see all of that. I believe that the IGF organizers, who are usually lips-sealed on the judging process, did not know about this functionality. We can see exactly when a judge installed the game, when they started playing, how long they played, and how far they got. 

As you can imagine, this was an opportunity for us to see what really goes on behind closed doors at the IGF. How much do games really get played? Does hype count for everything? Is it true that to be a contender in the current IGF, your game has to already be widely known in indie circles? Does this mean that most of the judges won’t end up playing your game in these circumstances regardless of the quality of the title?

Here are the statistics:

Eight (8) judges were assigned to Kale In Dinoland. Of those judges, 1 didn’t install the game or respond to any of our invitations (which we had to send multiple times before judges joined). 3 judges didn’t play the game. Of the remaining 5 judges that played the game, 3 played it very close to the IGF deadline, which was December 5th. One judge, our outlier, played the game for 53.2 minutes. Excluding the outlier, on average each judge – including the 3 that didn’t play it – played the game for almost 5 minutes’ time. Back in that build, Kale’s intro cutscene took about a minute’s time. So we’re talking almost 4 minutes for each judge of actual game time.

Granted, they could have deduced the game was absolutely terrible and didn’t deserve their time. About this time, though, we were also running a beta that was being played by anonymous iOS gamers from the community. These helpful gamers were all interested in the game, having seen it on TouchArcade and IndieGames.com. What is the influence of prior marketing? The average play time for these external beta testers was 34 minutes, accounting for that one minute of cutscene time.

So, a large group of anonymous gamers who were not required to play the game averaged about 30 minutes more play time than the the 7 judges who were required to play the game, 3 of whom did not even play the game. Is 4 minutes enough time for someone to give a fair assessment of a 2-hour-long game? How many more games were given similar treatment? Had we not taken initiative and sent multiple emails urging judges to download the game via TestFlight, how many judges would have ended up playing the game? Here’s the last email I sent out, urging the judges to accept the TF invite:

The build has been up for a while now (I sent emails via TF), but only 1 judge has installed, and 4 other judges still haven’t even signed up for TestFlight.

The sad truth is, the heads of the IGF know about all of this. They made the mistake of using TestFlight and allowing us, the developers, to see backstage. Shortly after posting the update that included negative remarks about the IGF – on this relatively unknown blog – we were mysteriously followed on Twitter by @brandonnn and received an email from none other than Simon Carless.

Hey folks,

It’s just been brought to my attention that you believe that you’ve had some issues with your IGF experience and are preparing to blog about it. My name’s Simon Carless and I head up the GDC events, including the IGF – and I’m CC-ing Brandon Boyer, the IGF chairman here.

Before you go ahead and do that, could we have a phonecall discussing your perception of what happened during judging and your impressions of what didn’t run correctly from your perspective? We _do_ actually care about individual entrants such as yourselves, and it upsets us when people don’t feel like we’re doing a good job. So let’s talk about it directly!

Myself and Brandon are available at a few times on Monday – I’m in U.S. pacific time and he’s on U.S. central time. Do you have time for a call?

Thanks,

Simon Carless

EVP, UBM TechWeb Game Network

We considered calling. At the very least, we decided not to post what we would have, and gave it some second thought. Let’s be honest: It is obvious that Brandon Boyer and friends care about the IGF as the prime outlet for indie games. We don’t doubt that. But this isn’t about handling the situation silently. If we had called and talked about our concerns, the heads of the IGF don’t have to be held accountable for a broken judging system. It’s about transparency, which is something the IGF completely lacks.

So there it is, our story about the IGF. We hope that, as a community, we can change the IGF for the better by exposing flaws in the judging system and holding those in power accountable. But until then, please hold off on marking the IGF as the be-all end-all of indie games. Instead, join protests like the IGF Pirate Kart. And if you’re still not convinced there’s something wrong with the IGF judging system, hear it from a judge herself.

In an effort to appear less secretive and more identifiable, we’ve recorded interviews with each of the members of The Rotting Cartridge, so that the public can put faces to the magic. The first interview focuses (by his request) on J, the founder of TRC and really the creative genius behind the whole thing:

Stay tuned for a final trailer and release date on our first game/port, Kale In Dinoland, coming in February.

The Rotting Cartridge would like to give a heartfelt thanks to those that beta-tested the game in detail. Cheers!

In the past month, we’ve held a beta test, submitted to IGF, and frantically worked to fix bugs as we gear up for release. About two weeks ago, we agreed that we would take a break in lieu of the release, considering the holidays and our day jobs. The break is also time for our artist to transcribe the original Kale In Dinoland manual, and design the front screen.

The manual is a new addition. We want to make the title screen something new – to tap into some excess nostalgia and give context to the port. Here’s a working example:

Beta Test and Feedback

For the beta, we got a lot of feedback. First, the good stuff: most people enjoyed what they played of the game, and we didn’t hear anything negative about the d-pad and buttons – so let’s put that mystery to rest, shall we?

What we did hear about, and could see on our TF statistics, was that nearly everyone was having trouble with getting used to the game. The difficulty curve is too high. One of the ways we’re addressing this is with the manual.

A page of the new manual

But another way – and how small teams can re-examine levels – is to take a step back, take a breather, and come back with a fresh perspective. Our designer has decided not to look at the game during the break, and then come back and give it a playthrough with notes. Hopefully, any of the frustrating aspects of the level design can be hammered out. However, this shouldn’t be a cause for alarm for the retro purists: we won’t veer off from the original in difficulty.

The Coming Months

Another problem – and something you may have noticed – is our apparent lack of marketing. Wherever we’ve shown the game, we get positive responses all around, but there it is – we haven’t shown the game much. We have a teaser trailer and a simple website – lacking a web designer, which we should get next time around, although S did a good job for what little time she had. Obviously we need to get the word out.

We have some ideas as the game nears release, of videos and promos we could do. This will push back the release, but if the game comes and only a select few notice it, that’s worse than a delayed game.

What are the ideas? A development video, for one, to humanize us. The second video would require more time and effort, but should be worth it, to draw out the retro love from the corners of the internet. We would film a bunch of kids, teens and 20-somethings playing the original Kale In Dinoland in various places, making the parallel to playing our ported version, coupled with some retro head-banger music, and 90′s sound effects. It was a shame the original game didn’t have a TV ad, because we could have just stole that, but oh well.

For those of you waiting out for the full game, don’t worry, it’s coming! We’ll remind our subscribers when that time comes.

Our IGF Experience

In the meantime, we will expound on our terrible IGF experience, and how the IGF is a scam, in another post. The $100 is a loss for all of us, and our founder J is upset about it, though he should have expected that the self-proclaimed “indie game scene” is nothing but a giant hipster circle-jerk. In the IGF post, we are going to be very, very open about our TestFlight experience, who our judges were, what amount they played, and hopefully reveal many of the sleazy details of what goes on in the biased background of the IGF, the largest gathering of people with thick-rimmed glasses the world-over. We encourage everyone: please stay away from the IGF, it has lost its credibility as a viable outlet to objectively judge games, and Mr. Boyer should be lambasted out of the chairmanship. That is all.

I bought and played Bastion the night it came out, having followed Supergiant Games ever since January, when I found a link to a game that – upon first glance – looked similar to an isometric RPG game I was set on creating. But Bastion was its own thing, which I soon found out during the developer videos at Giantbomb.

The reason I was so interested? Sure, the art was amazing – at that point I wasn’t aware the sound was as well – but the narrator. Here was a developer set on doing something new, set on bringing a baby into this world.

I guess with every new sequel to a sequel, I get queasy. There just aren’t that many original designs floating around right now – seems like everyone is dead-set on repackaging the same bullshit we’ve already seen with a different colored ribbon. People have compared Bastion to an old SNES game. I don’t see it. But what I do see is this freshness, and perhaps that’s what people really mean now when they call it an SNES game: an original game. For god’s sake, an original game!

Everyone I told about Bastion during this time wasn’t thrilled. They didn’t see the potential the game had, being caught up with the nth installment of whatever RPG series and reluctant to try an XBLA title. But this isn’t about how I was right and they were wrong. This is about why I, fundamentally, can’t look past Bastion’s ending.

(SPOILER ALERT)

When you get to the end of Bastion, the game freezes and you are offered – in a menu screen – two options, either to try and save Zulf or leave him behind. The reason I am so opposed to this is before the menu pops up, the game design is spot-on. Near perfect. Every part of the game felt enjoyable to me. But this – MENU – pops up, I’m thinking, “What is this? No “good-or-evil” menus popped up in the entire game!” All of a sudden I was shocked.

It may have been Supergiant’s tight development schedule. But I view the menu as a blunder, a smear on the perfect canvas.

Bastion is a game devoted to dynamically engaging the player through gameplay. The narration represents the epitome of this fact: he reacts to you, he talks to you, and you trust him. The entire game leading up to the ending moment was filled with direct engagement. You were told your decisions in the game, on the playing field, had meaning. And I was foolish enough to believe they would follow through on this design theme. I was wrong.

What should have happened? There should have been no pop-up. The player should have been able to either realize there was a choice, and choose, or not realize there was a choice. And that potential: for people to not realize there was a choice, and blindly trudge forward leaving Zulf behind only to later find out they could have saved him – is a moment I wished occurred in Bastion, one that I can’t look past.

The trailer is done! We want to drum up some press before release, and not get caught in the trap that most iPhone games fall into with the release-then-market model.

We will have an official website in a few days. Stay tuned!

So I turn on my GameBoy for the first time in years the other day, and –

the rotting cartridge: How’s that for self-justification?

We’re still working on Kale in Dinoland! There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe it will ever be complete but… that’s nonsense. Here’s a more recent screenshot of a later area in the game:

Kale in Dinoland Screenshot

Kale’s sprite might still change at this point. Also if you noticed this game is a port of an old GameBoy game called “Kale in Dinoland”, but now that I’m looking at it I should explain that it does not perfectly emulate that experience because that would be boring. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to limit the design. Like some platformers of the day, Kale in Dinoland has doors that lead to single screen sub-levels containing a power-up or item.

Despite efforts to limit resources and pixel precision, there is undoubtedly a difference in screen real estate with the iPhone that heavily influences level design. For instance, a non-scrolling sub-level in the original is more square. In the iPhone version, I have from the top of the d-pad to the bottom of the health bar: in other words, super widescreen. So a lot of the levels focus on diagonal climbing (since looking for an enemy is the most optimal), almost none on downward progression, and the sub-levels reflect this extreme widescreen. I’ve had to cut some of the falling levels from the game.

The second difference, which I’ve tried to correct for the most part, is speed. In the screen above Kale is riding what I call a “Dog,” which can move horizontally pretty quickly. In GameBoy games, the character’s horizontal speed was capped much lower, so the limited level space could be maximized with enemies and obstacles. But I think the speed improvement will be welcomed by those that play it.

The last comparison is the save feature. Saving in the original Kale in Dinoland? Nonexistent. No save feature today? Almost nonexistent. So yes, Kale will have a save feature. But only as much as I believe GameBoy games would have saved — There are 6 areas in Kale in Dinoland, and after you finish one, your character returns to the world map and you are allowed to save. Meaning, manual saving. I’m still not sure (maybe it’ll be automatic?), but it will definitely only be after you beat an area.

In order to progress through Dinoland, you must beat an entire Area before you can save. Don’t worry, they aren’t that long. But they aren’t that short either. This also means individual levels aren’t selectable, because fitting multiple level select screens and a save feature for 50+ levels on top of a 6-area world map is not realistic to the GameBoy’s capacity.

At any rate, don’t take the ‘original GameBoy platformer’ out of proportion – it is heavily influenced by the original game, but I cannot deny that there are differences.

We finished the main five bosses! ^__^ Now there’s just some tweaking and playtesting to do, and then I have to go back to designing levels and enemies for the Arctic, Grassland, Volcano and Mansion worlds.

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