As you know, back in December we interviewed a video game developer called Randy Linden about his work on various games for the NES and SNES. These included Where’s Waldo for the former, the official port of Doom for the latter and various other titles from the 8 and 16-bit era of gaming. It was a well received interview and got quite a bit of coverage elsewhere as a result.
Unfortunately, that was just part 1 of the full interview we had prepared. Indeed, for various personal and logistical reasons, the interview had to be split up into two parts, with the former covering the 8 and 16-bit titles and the latter covering those which came later. It wasn’t meant to be a huge deal, just a way to keep things going for a few days or so.
Then six months passed, and with life getting in the way at all times, everything just kind of got stuck in limbo. Would we ever get to read the second part of the interview? Would Linden’s experiences developing Bleem! Or Cyboid ever see the light of day? It was impossible to tell, and many people just assumed the article was dead and buried.
But now the wait is finally over! After six months of waiting (and various real life issues getting in the way), the second part of our exclusive interview with Randy Linden is up and ready to go!
And well, if you thought the last one was interesting… Just wait till you read this. Because whether it’s Bleem!, Cyboid or game development as a whole, this interview is filled with titbits about the games industry and how it works.
So, if you’re interested in knowing about said projects (or just how dire the world of smartphone game development can really be about now), keep reading!
Starting with a question about the former, an interesting PS1 emulator for PC that was actually sold in shops back in the day. So how did that idea come about? After all, it’s not often that emulators are made by actual companies.
A few years ago, I looked back at my career and realized there was a pattern to the projects and work I’ve done and finally understood what it is that “drives” me as a programmer: Typically, there’s a complex technical challenge, something large in scale or intricate with many details and interrelated components, and there’s always some aspect which makes the project both unique and difficult to accomplish … Bleem! fits that pattern exactly.
We’re going back about twenty years and at that time, the PlayStation was inexpensive and had a huge library of beautiful 3D games, some of which even had movie clips… remember: this was before watching movies on a PC was something typical – or expected!
In comparison, PCs were expensive and the vast majority had graphics cards that didn’t “do” 3D – at all!
The few PC graphics cards that had 3D hardware were very limited and even basic capabilities, like alpha blending (i.e. “transparency”), were rare. I’m not sure you could even find a 3D chip today that didn’t support alpha blending!
Of course, there were a handful of truly excellent 3D games for the PC which rendered everything in software, so I knew the average PC had enough horsepower for Bleem!, but it wouldn’t be easy.
The “company” came about later on when it was obvious that Bleem! was actually going to work and something I thought people would want.
And what was it like coding the thing? Must have been pretty hard getting PS1 games working in such a program, since emulation is one of the trickiest things to really ‘nail down’ in the games industry.
I had experience writing emulators before (“The 64 Emulator” for Amiga), but the hardware for those systems was well-documented. In this case, pretty much everything was a “black box” – well, “grey” actually!
When I first put a PlayStation Disc into my PC, I was surprised that it wasn’t ejected right away and began exploring what was on the disc – lots of files and it looked like nothing was hidden, encrypted or obscured in any way.
The core processor was a MIPS RISC CPU, so that’s where I started… I went to the local bookstore (yes, I’m dating myself a bit here…) and bought a reference manual for the processor.
I looked at some of the files on the disc again and, sure enough, it was MIPS code.
Two of my engineering strengths are reverse-engineering and optimization, so little-by-little I figured out how the hardware and software operated and wrote the code accordingly.
I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I saw a PlayStation game running on my PC; it was so early in Bleem!’s development that very little code was actually written (for example, most of the MIPS CPU opcodes weren’t even supported yet!), but there it was on my screen … and I knew that exciting times were ahead.
It’s taken years for me to recognize and appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime experience that was Bleem! – not just the development, but every aspect of the entire project: Bleem! was exciting, challenging, frustrating, annoying, fun and pretty much every other emotion all wrapped up into a few years of my life.
Unfortunately, it seems Sony didn’t quite like Bleem! All that much, leading to a court case against your company. How did that feel? Were you surprised Sony was willing to sue over this?
Yes, it was an unexpected surprise initially – I truly believed the huge number of people who owned a PC but not a PlayStation would be a massive market for Sony.
What other interesting projects did you work on between Bleem!’s shut down and your current company? Any major franchises a lot of people would recognise?
I worked at Microsoft for almost ten years on a number of different projects you’d probably recognize… Kinect and Microsoft Band, for example.
Onto R and R Digital now. What made you decide to become an indie developer here?
A couple years ago I was working at Microsoft on Band and when they decided to stop further development I realized it was an opportunity for me to return to my ”roots” as an indie developer.
And how did you come up with the name? Seems like an unusual choice of branding for a game development company.
The company name had to be something simple and, importantly, wasn’t already taken… so all the various domains, social media accounts, etc. all had to be unused and available.
R and R – as in “Rest and Relaxation” – actually, it’s for Rand and Robert – my husband of 22 years.
As does the somewhat retro style of the site in general. Is it meant to be a call back to the days of Doom and 1996 game developer sites?
Not really … although if that’s a good thing, then “Hell, yes! Absolutely that’s the design!”
It’s more along the lines of “I’m not a web developer” and don’t know anyone who wants to do all the work to make an awesome website for free!
As you know from running your own site, it takes a huge amount of time and work to make and keep a site up-to-date – even something as “basic” as ours!
I’ve also learned that web site development can be as complex and challenging as software development; for example, something as “simple” as making a drop-down hover menu that “works” and displays properly on the majority of browsers isn’t nearly as easy or simple as I expected… and don’t get me started on the whole “favicon” thing … sigh.
Seriously, if you know anyone who wants to redo the site (and works for free), let me know!
Still, the website isn’t the important thing here, the game is. So, what’s the story behind Cyboid?
My intention was for Cyboid to be something fast and fun that you play for a little bit and come back to again and again…
Basically, a quick 3D “shoot ‘em up” that you install and leave on your device because it only takes up eight megs of space – which is really tiny compared to games that take up hundreds of megabytes these days!
There really isn’t much of a backstory per se — humans vs. cybernetic monsters/enemies was an obvious, if overused, theme.
Why did you decide to create a Doom like FPS game?
I’ve always been a huge fan of FPS games, although I’m not a particularly good player…
Actually, that’s true in general: I’m a fairly awful player at pretty much every type of game!
Surprisingly, the game seems to come with quite a few neat options, including full-fledged multiplayer modes! What made you decide to go the extra mile with all this?
I suppose for the same reasons I added Mouse, Super Scope and XBand support to DOOM for SNES … basically, if it’s possible for me to add a feature or option that people would like, then I’ll do it!
I’ve always worked hard to do the very best I can – that’s something that our Mother taught us and it runs in our family – so while I’m certainly proud of my accomplishments, I also recognize it’s always possible to do better and it’s really a matter of balance … which is sometimes hard to achieve.
Since Cyboid was first released there have been more than a dozen updates to the game: I’ve added new levels, new weapons, new features (like VR support) all of which have been free updates.
I really see this as a “win-win” all around: the game is better, customers like it more and I’ve learned new things that’ll be useful in whatever comes next, too!
It also includes achievements and leaderboards, which are quite interesting in a game like this. What made you decide to include these in Cyboid?
As above, I wanted to support as many features as possible and Achievements and Leaderboards seem really appropriate for a 3D FPS game.
More controversially though, the game offers in app purchases and advertisements as well. What was the reason for including those ‘freemium’ design trends in a game designed to feel like a home console title?
That’s a tough one… I’m not sure it’s controversial, though…
I think most developers face a difficult decision when it comes to advertising and in-app purchasing – it’s a lot of work to implement either (and double that amount if you want to support Amazon and Google because their APIs are so different from each other.)
The question basically boils down to this: How can I earn a living and put food on the table?
If you look at the advertising numbers, it basically takes a few hundred thousand downloads before any potential ad revenue might actually be worth something – the per-ad payment is fractions of a cent – so until you’ve shown many, many thousands of ads, you’ve earned nothing… and annoyed every single customer along the way.
When Cyboid was released there wasn’t any advertising because I expected game sales to more than make up for any potential revenue from ads.
Initially the game was launched on the Fire TV Stick and Fire TV – There were (and are) very few 3D FPS games that even run on the Fire TV Stick, and Cyboid still stands out as something unique and different that you rarely see on a $30 device, never mind running well!
After a few months of slow sales, I reluctantly added advertising – and, fingers crossed, hoped that would generate some income.
Then, after countless annoying issues with the advertising support (you wouldn’t believe the complexities and incompatibilities across various devices, OS versions and vendor ad logic!), I removed all the ads again about six (or eight) months ago.
For Cyboid, Advertising was a huge loss for (at least) three reasons:
- The total ad revenue after many months was still way below the minimum threshold
- The huge amount of work required to get (and keep) everything working properly on all of the various Amazon and Google devices
- Everyone hates ads (more in this below…)
Here’s another way of looking at it – from a “time investment” perspective:
If I could have done all the work to support advertising in under an hour (yes, everything … all of it … in a single hour) … and, if we were actually paid for that one hour (remember, we still hadn’t hit the threshold after many months, so we’ve never received anything from anyone for all the ads that were actually shown!) … then I still would have earned less than the lowest minimum wage in the US – which is $7.25/hour.
For a bigger picture, take a look through the reviews of many games and a few things stand out in common – “freemium” or paid – it doesn’t matter:
- Everyone hates ads
- There are way too many ads
- The ads interfere with gameplay
- Few people are willing to pay to get rid of them (but happy to post a 1-star review for a game they’ve played for dozens of hours and paid nothing)
Sure, the first level or two are free (and that’s usually including the “training” or “intro” level) and they’re great – but you reach the third level and the enemies or monsters are stronger, so it takes you a dozen or so times but you finally get through.
Eventually, the difficulty ramps up to the point where it’s unlikely you’ll be able to continue playing without actually purchasing an add-on weapon or armour or whatever.
This is also known as “hitting the pay wall” – and every “freemium” game with in-app purchasing is designed and adjusted carefully with that in mind.
IMO, if you get an hour’s worth of enjoyment from something that cost you nothing (or next-to-nothing, like say $0.99), then that’s awesome and it’s rare and should be celebrated more often than we see these days … at least going by the general reviews and comments for just about anything and everything online – not just apps and games, but anything.
Instead, it seems that some people aren’t nearly as generous themselves as they’ve come to expect from whatever game they’ve downloaded for free, played for dozens of hours and finally posted a 1-star review because there are too many ads … seriously?!
It’s hard to me to imagine how someone justifies that kind of review … unless … maybe the game somehow stole their contacts, spammed their friends and then melted their phone – in that case, I get it: 1 star for sure!
Otherwise, how much do you really expect from something that costs 99 cents? … and is that actually reasonable?
Here are some examples from reviews of popular games, all of them have an average rating of 4 stars – so they’re all great games – the quotes are from the 1-star and 2-star reviews.
1. This game has over a million downloads.
a. Was 5 stars. Not anymore. Sadly, another company where greed took over. When will people learn to leave well enough alone and to stop being driven by greed.
Always looking to squeeze that extra penny, at any cost.
b. The game itself is like a 4 or 5-star worth game but every time after completing a board, the next board button is at the same spot, so, of course, I get used to clicking at the same spot. Well then, every once 7n awhile at that exact spot, a ‘watch ad’ button appears and the next level button gets moved so I every now and then, accidentally click it. I feel like this is done intentionally.
c. I liked the game for my kids a lot it has very nice reasoning technique but today I saw ads a lot… And few of ads were very unpleasant, there for I have to remove it from my phone.
d. It’s a fun game but it has way too many full screen ads which takes away the fun I’m uninstalling it
e. So many add in this app
2. This game has 500,000+ downloads.
a. I would like the game more if the adds would not pop up every 5 seconds and if it would keep working every time I kill him.
b. Absolute cash grab, constant ads.
I have never left a review before but I played this game as a kid and seeing it like this is sad. Turning blood on is $6? That’s ridiculous, you can unlock weapons by spam watching ads or paying $28 a month for some subscription.
c. I would give 0 stars if I could. Way too many ads and half the weapons require you to watch ads or do some other stupid stuff.
d. There are far too many in game purchases and ads to enjoy this game anymore. I remember how you used to be able to enjoy this app a long time ago and it was so fun. But having to pay or watch ads for a majority of the weapons makes this game not worth the download. You would think with all these bad reviews involving ads they would do something about it.
e. Everything has to be paid for or watch videos for. I miss when this game was just the easily obtainable in-game currency. Now you can’t do anything without a bunch of gold, videos, or the diamond membership.
3. This game has 30,000 downloads.
a. You can tell by how simple it is, that they put no effort into this game. It’s just a get rich quick scheme.
Because they layer it with advertisements to drain the people they advertise of money then charge $5 to get no ads. I get that it’s a free game but if you make a game with barely any effort then don’t layer it with ads.
The ads aren’t even just a trigger it’s just a 3 second – 1-minute timer. “Haven’t had one ad in a while? Here’s a thirty second one”
It’s not one ad every 10 attempts, it’s just one ad every time the system sees the average $ per millisecond go below the ‘requirement’ usually the ads are about 30-50 seconds or 1 minute.
b. Too many ads. Will not reinstall.
c. There are way too many ads for this game.
d. Waste of space that has no skill requirement and is just some easy money for the developers. More playstore trash
e. I only have it 2 stars because I beat all the levels until you updated it and when you updated it, it added levels and I was happy so I started right away.
f. I beat a few levels and then when back to the main page because I missed getting 3 stars on one but when I went back all the levels that I beat from the new update disappeared so I did it again and they disappeared again. please fix this because I really liked the game.
4. This game has 700+ downloads
a. I really wanted to like this game.
Definitely hit a paywall during the second campaign and conquest becomes grindy playing with any country as the other countries are able to push out generals constantly.
I’d say 2/5. Very disappointed you need to pay to AFC advance in a game that was already bought.
The first two games can earn income through ads because they have enough downloads … the second two don’t have a chance.
How do you feel game design (and development) has changed over the last 20 years or so?
Game (and app) developers have it really tough these days because there are few choices when it comes to earning a living and none of them are easy.
If your game is free, your only potential income is through advertising or in-app purchases – both of which people hate.
If your game isn’t free, you’re at least guaranteed something for your time … well, 70% of something because the other 30% goes to the app store selling your game.
But it turns out that the biggest challenge for developers is simply “getting the word out” … at that’s so much harder than any other aspect of development.
But hey, enough game design questions for now. What have you been doing to market Cyboid and R and R Digital online?
Over the past couple years, I looked at sales numbers, reviews, ratings and many other aspects of mobile games and IMO, the most difficult challenge for developers is marketing.
… and unfortunately, based on what I’ve seen, 99% of us are failing miserably – either people know about you, or they don’t – and if they don’t, chances are that they never will.
You basically get one shot when your game is first released, mostly because it shows up in the “new releases” area of both app stores … but there’s a limited window of time as new games appear and if you don’t generate enough sales to stay on the chart, you’ll eventually drop off … forever.