29 September 2011

Feathered Scrolling

I think 2.0 really is an improvement over the original game in a number of ways. One aesthetic improvement depends on technology.

Our original multimedia engine, mTropolis, didn’t support alpha. A pixel on the screen came from only one asset. But iOS supports alpha blending, so we can have translucent effects.

iOS is also a multi-touch OS, designed for small screens. Scrollable areas don’t have always-visible scroll bars, so sometimes it can be hard to know that they can be scrolled. There are a number of approaches one can take to telegraph* this to the user. One is to fade the edges of the list. King of Dragon Pass does this.

The idea is that the list smoothly fades out when it can be scrolled. It may be a subtle cue, but it looks better than a hard crop. (And in my opinion, looks much better than drawing a box around the list, which we usually had to do in the original.) The list above is feathered on both top and bottom.

The implementation is a UIView that embeds a UIScrollView, and sets a layer mask. It’s the scroll view’s delegate, and changes the mask so there’s no feathering if the view can’t scroll in a particular direction. Here’s what one of the key methods looks like:

- (void)featherTop
if (fMaskStyle == kFeatherTop)
fMaskStyle = kFeatherTop;

// Set up a mask to fade just top
CAGradientLayer* gradientMask = [CAGradientLayer layer];
gradientMask.bounds = self.layer.bounds;
gradientMask.position = CGPointMake([self bounds].size.width / 2, [self bounds].size.height / 2);
NSObject* transparent = (NSObject*) [[UIColor clearColor] CGColor];
NSObject* opaque = (NSObject*) [[UIColor blackColor] CGColor];
[gradientMask setColors: [NSArray arrayWithObjects: transparent, opaque, opaque, nil]];
[gradientMask setLocations: [NSArray arrayWithObjects:
[NSNumber numberWithFloat: 0.0],
[NSNumber numberWithFloat: kPickListFeather / self.bounds.size.height],
[NSNumber numberWithFloat: 1.0],
self.layer.mask = gradientMask;

And, here’s what the effect looks like up close.

The iPhone screen is really small, and you need to pay attention to every pixel. Polish like this is really important. It may be subtle, but it just makes the app feel a little better.

* OK, I really wanted to use this word because its meaning is now so divorced from the original literal meaning.

20 September 2011

What’s New?

Skip Olivares writes
I wanted to write and say how glad I was to see King of Dragon Pass for the iPhone.  I bought the original version way back when and played the heck out of it; I have fond memories of staying up late and playing the game.  I've been waiting for another product release from you, but a revised KoDP is the next best thing.  However, that got me wondering if I should get the iOS version or just dust off my old copy of the game.  I noticed you said you added new stories; can you tell me how much was added?
There are currently 25 new scenes in the game, and it’s possible to add a few more. There are also a couple new advisor faces. And there is a lot of new advice for them to say, predominantly in the management screens (where for example they now remind you of your most relevant Sacred Time magic allocations). There are also new treasures. And the manual is in the game, so you can refer to it wherever you are.

The Lore map is new, thanks to Colin Driver. It does a better job portraying things that are actually mentioned in the game, instead of trying to show greater Glorantha.

Game Center is new for iOS — not everyone will care, but I think it’s still worth signing in to Game Center and earning achievements. And other iOS niceties include things like a zoomable map (something we always wanted to do but cut from the original).

We also removed some things — hopefully decisions that weren’t that interesting (like optimizing patrols and crafters, or worrying about sheep).

And there are a lot of bug fixes. I was actually surprised at how many bugs had been in the game, apparently unnoticed, since 1999. Most of them were minor, like typos, though a few would cause problems. (Given how large the game is, I don’t feel like it was actually all that buggy. Software always has bugs. I think my surprise is more that nobody noticed — or maybe we didn’t have a good way to report them in 1999. Maybe nobody cared because they were so minor.)

While the game is still not the easiest, 2.0 took some steps to make a death spiral less likely (if you dig yourself a really deep hole, you will still have a hard time getting out). I did tuning specific to each of the difficulty levels.

And none of these changes can be applied to the original. So if you want them, you’ll need the new version.

But yes, I think it’s the same game, just a better incarnation. So if you haven’t played before, I completely recommend 2.0 for iOS. If you have, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

19 September 2011


We released King of Dragon Pass for iOS on 8 September, and it’s gotten a very warm welcome. Of 136 star ratings in the App Store, 128 are 5-star ratings. And some really great App Store reviews. Here’s what might be my favorite (from the UK store):

It's impossible to describe the emotional tug you feel when an old and trusted advisor, who you've watched grow from a young upstart, dies of old age.
Or when an exploration team disappears into the wilds, never to be heard from again.
Or when a cursed clansman, shunned by his peers, sacrifices himself to stop a raid.
This game will never leave my iPhone. That's the only accolade possible.
It’s also hard to describe how all this makes us feel — but it’s definitely a positive emotion!

While we don’t release specific figures, I do want to talk about sales as well. I have to say I’m astonished by the shape of our unit sales graph. The left half is what I expected — a launch splash, followed by a gradual decline as other games push ours out of the limelight. But then sales began to climb again! For several days in a row, so it’s not just a fluke.

While we did get a number of favorable reviews on a number of web sites (which we’re slowly collecting on our Reviews page), their timing really didn’t seem to correlate to sales. So my conclusion is that it’s due to word of mouth — after you play the game long enough to give it a recommendation, you do just that. Thank you!

As an independent developer with no marketing budget, word of mouth is critically important to the success of the game. We’ve tried to make that easy (with Twitter and Facebook buttons in the app), but ultimately it’s your credibility on the line when you recommend us. We really appreciate that.

And, I have to ask you to do it again. We just released an update (2.0.1). The way the App Store works, each version has its own ratings. So King of Dragon Pass will drop to zero 5-star ratings. If you can, please go back to the App Store and rate it again. If you already wrote a review, I don’t think it makes sense to do that again. But if not, those help too!

Thanks again for buying the game, and for letting people know about it.

10 September 2011


Many people have been wondering how repeatable the game really is. If there are only 500 scenes, what happens when you play for a week?

It’s certainly true that the same basic situations are going to recur. But we took a number of steps to help things feel fresh when they do:

No scene will randomly repeat for at least five game years.

And by then, it’s likely the context will be different. Is Dorasa still the tribal queen? Have you patched up a feud? Did you finally get fed up with your Trickster and outlaw him? Can you still afford to pay off a request for wergild? The same situation could easily have totally different ramifications. (This is one reason KoDP isn’t a pure storytelling game, but has a relationship and economic model.) And of course, in a different game, the context will certainly be different.

Most scenes have five responses. We tried to make all of them reasonable choices, so you can explore alternatives. (Even bad alternatives might end up with amusing consequences, and a single choice shouldn’t doom you.) And very often a response will test the abilities of a clan leader, and thus have either a successful or unsuccessful outcome.

A number of scenes have internal variation. For example, in one scene a ring member dies tragically. The specific ring member is random. And there are four possible deaths.

On top of that, flavor text is often randomized. Here’s some of what you see if that ring member was slain by a Chaos horror:

text: The ring gathers in sorrow around <c>, who was struck down by a weird Chaos monster <d6:that had the body of a giant snail and the head of a dragon/that looked like a deer but had the face of a troll/that had the body of a scorpion and a human head/that was hiding at the bottom of a pond/that was living inside one of our cows/that was lurking among the trees at the edge of our tula>.

Finally, if a scene logically can’t repeat within one game, it won’t.

So you could think of King of Dragon Pass as composed of a number of storytelling motifs, which it repeats in endless variation.

07 September 2011

King of Dragon Pass Is Out

King of Dragon Pass is now available in the App Store in the US! (A few hours before the 8th on my clock, but who’s complaining!)

What’s Next?

Releasing the game isn’t the end of the story. Besides trying to market it, we have a backlog of about 20 bugs that are worth fixing. (None serious enough to prevent launch, because they’re minor typos or extremely unlikely, but we’re perfectionists at heart.) And we really want to add VoiceOver support to the game, so blind players can run it. There’s also another scene or two I want to add.

No timetable for that (partly because a few other projects need to come off the back burner now that 2.0 has shipped).

Beyond that, the future is unclear. Needless to say, the better the sales are, the better the odds of spinning off other projects.

But what’s immediately next is waiting impatiently for 8 September to roll around to where I live!

06 September 2011

Android Update

We’re aware that there are a fair number of Android devices out there, and that some of them are owned by King of Dragon Pass fans.

We also know that things have changed since we began development about 20 months ago. Unlike then, the Android Market is now available in Finland (which is one of our most important markets). And unlike then, the Android Market will now accept apps as large as King of Dragon Pass. (Sadly, we’ve heard about some problems facing developers with Amazon’s Android App Store.) So unlike when we started, an Android version is at least conceivable.

It would still face a number of hurdles. The biggest issue is the same one that the iOS version faced: King of Dragon Pass is a big game, with around 40 screens. We’ve worked out the new layout, but that’s for a 480 x 320 screen, and many Android devices vary. The UI would need to be reworked for a new API and a new language (i.e. all the code would need to be rewritten). Even if it’s easier the second time, it would still be a long-term project.

Is it financially worth undertaking such a major project? The easiest way to justify it would be if the iOS version sells really well. So ironically, the best way to convince us to port King of Dragon Pass to Android would be to buy it for iOS. (You don’t need an iPhone, after all. Used iPod touches are apparently under $100 on eBay, and if you want a larger screen, iPad is still the only choice that really makes sense.)

One thing hasn’t changed: A Sharp is still a small studio, and can only do one project at a time. (And we’re not done with iOS once the game releases. More on that in the next post.)

05 September 2011

Money Talks

Apple completely changed the mobile game business with the App Store. In the old days, game developers essentially sold their games to the mobile carriers, who would then add the title to the menus which were called “decks.” Navigation on most phones was pretty cumbersome, so if you weren’t in the first page of the menu, you didn’t get many sales because nobody would see your title. And, I use the term “title” on purpose, because the decks were text-only. Players had to choose your game solely on its title. This meant that many games were licensed, on the theory that if you liked Wheel of Fortune on TV, you’d like it on your phone. (Or at least you’d know what it was.) The App Store means that developers can sell directly to customers without a title-picking gatekeeper, and can use graphics (the icon and screen shots) and ad copy to help sell. (And you can do external marketing because you can link to the App Store.)

One feature of the App Store that resembles the old decks is the top 10 lists. Placement there can make a huge difference in sales. And people discovered that one way to get there was to be so cheap that your game is an impulse buy (increasing sales, which got you in the top 10, which meant you could stay in the top 10). So in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma, a race to the bottom began, and today many games sell for just a dollar or two.

It’s kind of odd for what are presumably the best products to be priced so cheap that people might buy them and forget to launch them. Because most of the time outside the App Store, price is loosely correlated with quality. Filet mignon costs more than hamburger — but it’s a better cut of meat. Normally, you expect a $4 product to be better than a $1 product, even if you aren’t in the mood to spend $4.

Of course, software costs money to create, and you need to sell an awful lot of it to recoup your investment if you’re only getting $1/copy (less Apple’s 30% cut). So not everyone sells for $1 (especially if a product isn’t of extremely broad appeal). Microeconomics suggests a smooth demand curve, where as price increases, sales decrease. I don’t think the App Store fits this model precisely. Not only is there the top 10 effect, but you need to price in increments of $1. And, the prices are all so low that there’s as much psychology as economics involved. Below some price, an app is an impulse buy. $1, $2, maybe even higher, is not a big barrier to purchase.

$1 is the lowest price, but are there any others that make sense? I’m heavily influenced by tech columnist Andy Ihnatko, who discussed this in a talk. After closely following the App Store, he concluded that there are several sweet spots for pricing: $3, $5, and $10. Obviously you’ll have fewer customers pricing an app at $5 (compared to $4), but mostly you lose customers going from $3 to $4, so you might as well pick $5. $10 is notable as the highest price where an App Store listing alone is enough to sell someone — more than that and you will need some additional form of marketing

So what happens when you put these two factors (price = quality, special price points) together? I haven’t done a totally comprehensive survey of the App Store, but premium games are often $10 when new (and often more in iPad versions). When I first noted it, Chaos Rings was $10; it’s now down to $7 but Chaos Rings omega is $9. Final Fantasy III is $16, as is Final Fantasy Tactics.

And I certainly think of King of Dragon Pass as a premium game. There are no ads. It was designed for 40 hours of play, and insane repeatability. The artwork is really good. And many of the testers didn’t run into bugs at all. It’s also a single purchase — you’re not going to get nickel-and-dimed with in-app purchase. On the other hand, while it’s a great game, it may not be for all people —  you actually need to read to enjoy it (even though I’ve seen a 3 year old choose to launch it multiple times).

There’s another important feature of the App store: ratings. Apps that are impulse buys get a disproportionate number of 1-star ratings. Presumably people end up buying things they don’t actually like, and then take it out on the app. (This is even worse for free apps.) Andy Ihnatko claimed that ratings are one of the most important things people use when deciding to buy, so it’s worth thinking about how to avoid bad reviews from people who aren’t really your target market in the first place.

We thought about all this, and also ran it by our testers for confirmation (none of whom objected to our decision). We’ll start King of Dragon Pass at $9.99 (far less than it’s ever sold for before).

In summary, many games use price to say, “Look at me!” We’re using it to say, “This is an awesome game.”

02 September 2011

Prepping For Release

King of Dragon Pass has been approved for sale in the App Store (a little sooner than I expected), and I’m busy getting ready for its release next week.

One aspect of this is preparing screen shots, both to supply to the media, and to show off the game on our web site.

I thought it would be interesting to recreate the same screens I’d used before. (I did switch from a sword clan to a spear clan.) It’s interesting to compare what we could do in 1999 to what a pocket device can do today (we couldn’t do transparency or anti-aliased text 12 years ago).