Travelogue 7-8/12, July + August thoughts

Yes, I’m terribly late, but I was on vacations. Which means I’ve started spending a lot of time on a crazy cyberpunk adventure game project instead of getting some rest like human beings are supposed to do. I’m having a lot of fun working on it, but this is not the place to discuss it, so if you’re interested, follow me on Twitter.

 

 

That’s why this travelogue issue covers two months. Both were, download-wise, a disappointment. The reasons are unclear, though very probably due to a change in Itch’s discovery algorithm. Downloads have suddenly, drastically decreased. Let’s do the maths. 21,270 at the beginning of July, vs. 23000 downloads at the end. And 24,290 on the 1st of September. That’s not even 2000 downloads for July, while June had more than 5000 downloads. 56 players on average per day instead of more than 150. And it’s even worse in August, with about 42 daily downloads. What the hell happened?

Summer, of course, and vacations. Tedium, possibly. However, that doesn’t explain such a sudden drop. Most of the traffic was coming from https://itch.io/games/free, bringing around 70 to 100 visitors a month. But in July, I’ve had only 10 visits. It seems like my game has been pushed waaaaaaay down the page, which is quite unfortunate. My guess is, all kinds of game downloads were counted as “equal”, but a distinction has now been made between newly uploaded games downloaded for the first time and updated games which are downloaded regularly. New releases obviously seem to have more weight than updates. Does that make sense? Probably. Will it encourage frequent updates for existing games? Definitely not.

I’m pretty sure this was done for good reasons, i.e. preventing developers from abusing the system with very minor updates to stay higher in the list. Don’t get me wrong, technically, it’s what I’ve been doing since the beginning of this project. Except I have no idea how the algorithm work, nor ever intended to exploit it at all. And my daily updates aren’t fake or minor: they stand as the very core of the game.

 

Five weeks on the Road to Awe.

What bugs me here is how dependent developers are, one more time, of any distribution platform’s obscure decisions. I don’t think Itch is better than Steam at this. We know absolutely nothing about their ranking algorithms. Not to mention games featured on the home page are curated manually. If you’re best pal with the Itch team, (or if you happen to be Double Fine), good for you. If you’re not, well, you’re no one. In a system actually built for indie developers, shouldn’t ranking algorithms be publicly explained, or even open-sourced, and refined by the community to avoid exploits?

Itch doesn’t owe me anything. They’re a wonderful indie publishing platform for indie and hobbyist developers, and I love the unique service they provide. This project would simply not exist without Itch’s Refinery: it was built around it. But in the end, the rules that define how games are displayed or not on certain pages is as opaque as Steam’s system. I have no power at all over my game’s visibility, and that pains me. Oh sure, there’s that thing called “marketing” which takes roughly half of a game’s budget when done seriously. But I’m doing this as a creative hobby, remember? I don’t have the time nor the energy to promote my work in a professional way.

 

Five other weeks on the Road to Awe.

And now for the plus side…

This changes nothing to fact some people enjoyed the game enough to send me a few bucks. This is, in my opinion, and for my ego, a major accomplishment.

YouTuber Petjeh continues to make his monthly recap with A Road to Awe! I’m still amazed my game can be experienced as an almost passive, ambient medium. This “non-game” approach is definitely one of the most interesting highlights of this project. Watch it here. (for some reason, this doesn’t seem to be embeddable).

The awesome Justin Arnold has added game controller support for RPG in a Box, which means you can now use a Xbox compatible controller (and possibly other controllers as well) to play A Road to Awe. As I mentioned in this dev log, using a game controller offers a new way to experience the game.

He also enhanced how stairs collisions are handled. You can now follow precisely the slope’s shape, or smooth it with a linear or curved style (not to mention you can assign a different tile for the collision to tweak things even more precisely). Maybe you were used to that shaky ride when climbing up or down by now… But the player’s movement will now follow a linear path, meaning oblique trajectories are now as smooth as when walking on flat terrain.

Want to play the game for the first time or to experience a smooth gamepad ride? Try the link below!

Travelogue 6/12, June thoughts

As I mentioned on Twitter, I think I know how Sisyphus would feel once arrived at the top of the mountain. I’ve made one level every single day since January 1st. And doing so, I’ve tweeted about every new level with a screenshot and a number. We’re now beyond 182/365. While screenshots are numbered in chronological order, the internal level IDs are numbered in reverse order so the latest level stays on top of the list. Which means in the editor, it’s kind of a countdown to 1, with a value that started at 365 and now below half of this number. If we drew two lines, they would now have crossed.

It seems downloads are still increasing. On the 1st of July, we were at 21,269 downloads, vs. 16,783 on the 1st of June. Comparatively, that’s almost 500 more downloads than for May. It means an average of 150 daily players, which keeps blowing my mind. The game has got a couple of nice video reviews that may explain this (not to mention the ongoing monthly recap series by Petjeh).

 

A YouTuber with 12K subscribers can sure help a bit spreading the word.

 

This one is in Indonesian so I’ve no idea what he’s saying, but he seems to have fun.

 

Something unexpected also happened. The amazing Justin Arnold, who develops RPG in a Box, the engine I’m using, had the great idea to update the control scheme in first-person view. So it’s now possible to hold the left mouse button to move forward and simultaneously hold the right button to look around and change direction. Instead of clicking a distant tile and holding the right button to look around during the ride, you can now choose to control every step of your walk, without the clunkiness of the keyboard. A few people complained about the controls, so this is indeed a very welcome addition, and also a new way of experiencing the game. It somehow feels a bit like racing game, where the goal isn’t to go fast or avoid obstacles, but to make the camera turn as smoothly as possible to keep that ambient flow intact.

Regarding level design, there’s not much to say. I’m starting know what works and what doesn’t, but that doesn’t prevent me from building levels I don’t like. It’s still quite hard to design balanced levels. I’d say a good level doesn’t feel repetitive nor predictable, avoids losing the player in a massive coloured void, has interesting landmarks and points of view, and has music with a rhythm that complements its colours and structure. And yet, all these elements put together create something very subjective, that can feel satisfying or not depending on who’s playing. They can even contradict themselves. Symmetry is usually predictable, but visually pleasing. Repetitiveness can be aesthetically striking, but dull to explore. Music can be dissonant, but create a unique atmosphere. Reaching the exit within 10 seconds or 3 minutes can feel surprising or boring. A beautiful screenshot can hide a bland level, while one I hate will get more likes and retweets than any other before. I suppose it’s all in the eye of the beholder player.

During these six months, I feel I’ve learned a lot. And I also feel I’ve learned nothing.

 

Travelogue 5/12, May Thoughts

So, it’s that time of the month again. We’re now at 16,783 downloads, which means roughly 4000 more than in April. It’s about 15 more downloads per day. Maybe more people discovered the game, or more players updated it daily, or both. In any case, it seems A Road to Awe is slowly getting more popular. I have no idea what one can find in this game. A colourful routine discovery? A daily one-minute long chill-out session? I’m not even sure what I find in this game.

After five months, it has become a habit, maybe even a reflex. I doesn’t feel like a process or a ritual, but mostly like a part of me. It’s like eating or getting to bed. Something I have to do daily, that I sometimes think about, but merely notice. This possibly explains why I gave up with tracking the duration of my level design sessions. Stacking voxels has become natural. Definitely not in 15 minutes though. You can easily double or even triple that time. But doing so feels much more satisfying than building something as fast as possible.

However, it doesn’t mean I’m happy with every level. One of the strangest, hardest thing to accept is that I can like a design but hate every screenshot of it, because there’s simply no good angle to make an interesting composition, while the layout itself feels actually good. And the reverse can be true. Pictures of an awfully basic level with a dumb straight path may look stunning in some cases. At this point, I’m not even sure that the game itself is more important than the screenshot. It’s a different way to experience the same material. Many of my followers don’t play the game, or don’t care about it at all, but every day they see a new screenshot in their timelines, and even without playing, they are involved in the process.

An interesting example of a level that could only be truly appreciated in 3rd person view.

So, what is a “good” level made of? I still don’t know. Especially when the screenshots I don’t like are retweeted way more times than the ones I actually like. I’ve noticed a few patterns that people seem to enjoy more than others : massive symmetric buildings, mask-shaped structures, pseudo-figurative landscapes… But a cool-looking screenshot doesn’t always mean a pleasant level to explore. And yet, screenshots have aesthetic values of their own. Are they a by-product of the game, or the end product?

More importantly, where is the game? In the editor, when I build new levels? In the “playable” interactive sequences? On social networks? In a video streamed by a YouTuber? In the mind of my friends and relatives who understand the game (or don’t)? There are so many ways of experiencing the concept, so many interlinked processes, that I’m not sure where it starts and where it ends.

But that’s probably the point. I’ve always envisioned A Road to Awe as a self-incrementing loop fuelled by the many layers of my daily experiences.

Speaking of which, deciding to drop the 7 blocks width rule was, in my opinion, an excellent idea. It gives me much more space and freedom for interesting structures, while being barely noticed by players (except when they say levels look better). I’m currently sticking with a maximum width equal to the level’s length, which gives a maximum surface of 19×19 blocks, and no vertical limit. So I can finally build cubic levels, something that definitely makes sense in a world made of cubic elements. Why didn’t I think about this earlier, being a cube lover? Because I focused on the “road” part, assuming it had to be more long than wide. That was a logical choice, but a choice implying a figurative, material, not-so abstract approach to what a road can be. Except most of my levels barely look like a road, so what would be the point to follow a pseudo-realistic rule? I say, long live the cubic chaos that link a point to another!

Until next time, you can play the game here:

Travelogue 4/12, April Thoughts

Every day I expect to be bored and lack creativity, yet every day, after a few minutes, I get a fresh idea, or an iteration of a past idea, and create a new level. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s good. But the road keeps growing, and so far, it has been an amazing ride. We’re one third done. Four months passed, eight remain. Time fucking flies, kids.

This travelogue issue is a bit late, due to real life events, like family and friends visits and sick pets. But I managed to stuck to my daily schedule so far, and I don’t know if I should be surprised or not.

We’re now around 12800 downloads, and I still don’t have a clue about what’s going on with these numbers. Downloads seem to want to stay totally unrelated to the number of page views. However, the average activity is very stable. The game has been downloaded around 3500 times in April, which means an average of 115 people download the game every day. Maybe they just update it and never play it. But they still download it, and it makes me happy.

One source of frustration is how awesome some levels look in the editor compared to how lame they look in the game. I sometimes design complex geometric patterns, which are totally invisible in first-person, or worse, look like flat, boring crap. When the road will be complete, it could be funny to add a third-person mode. That would make the game totally different…


How could you imagine such a shape while playing in first-person view?

There’s another thing worth mentioning: I finally broke a rule. Limiting the road’s width to 7 blocks has become increasingly frustrating lately, so I’ve decided it’s time for a change. The core idea behind this rule was a that road section should be longer than wide, but it doesn’t really make sense any more given the bunch of totally crazy levels I’ve designed. A square section now seems to be a more interesting area to work with, especially since the spontaneous “visible exit from start” rule already keeps levels coherent. Probably too coherent, since it has proven annoying many times. But this is probably the most important rule, the one that avoid the anguish of getting lost in a colourful void.

Last but not least, I gradually forgot to use a timer. It seems like I don’t even bother any more. I probably should, in order to stick as close as possible to my original concept, but on the other hand, wouldn’t it be absurd to limit my creativity when I have an idea that would require a bit longer than 15 minutes to take shape? There are a few people who really enjoy the game, and it wouldn’t feel right to offer them rushed, half-finished levels. Even if I still try to be as fast as possible, I think the players deserve more than an arbitrary set of rules. I guess that makes two broken rules, right? Oh, well…

To see the results, if you haven’t already, join the journey here:

Travelogue 3/12, March thoughts

Today is the 91st day of the year. Meaning, it’s also the 91st level I’ve designed for this project. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to number the days. Not that it’s especially useful, but it gives me the illusion of a better understanding of time. And I can brag about it. Every single day.

I could also identify days by their internal level name. Today is _17_275_04-01_6.

Wondering why April Fools’ level includes a fish? It’s an April 1st custom in some French-speaking countries. People stick paper fishes to each other’s back (kids, mostly).

Let’s break this down.

The underscore is for sorting purpose. In RPG in a Box, it’s sorted after numbers, so it makes sure levels are added after my daily templates. Because yes, I have one template per day, with a default entrance and a default exit, and a specific colored lighting setting.

17 is for the year, obviously. I don’t intend to increase this number, or at least, not within the current application, since it could go on until I die and clutter the project’s tree accordingly, knowing it already takes quite a while to navigate. But it allows me to sort my “official” levels before the ones I made in 2016 for testing purposes. And it reminds me which year it is.

275 is a countdown. It decrements every day, and allows me to keep the newest level on top of the others. I’ve never told anyone “today is 275th remaining day before the end of my project”, but I could try, just for fun.

04 is the month, I guess you’ve figured this out. And 01 is the day, of course. Note the 0 before the 1, to sort this after 10, 20 and so on.

And 6 is the day of the week, which matches the number of its template. 6 is for Saturday. 6 is for purple, with a gradient to Sunday’s pink. Yes, in case you didn’t notice, I use 7 color templates that never change, and the levels cycle between them. So you can tell the day a level was made by its color.

Currently, the game has been downloaded 9300 times, which seems insanely huge to me. At the end of February, we were at around 5800, which means it was downloaded 3500 times in March. Not bad.

If you haven’t played the game yet, it’s here:

Travelogue 2/12, February thoughts

Two months and 59 levels later, the show goes on. The thing I absolutely didn’t imagine when I started this so-called “abstract diary” is that players could use it as a kind of canvas to project their own thoughts and feelings, and actually make it their own diary. This is, as you can see below, what Petjeh’s doing, reflecting on the past month and the important things that happened to him during this time, while simultaneously playing the game.

To think I’m creating a game someone else can rely upon to express themselves is fantastic. And the most interesting thing is, in this way, A Road to Awe literally is an ambient game.

Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

Let’s misquote Brian Eno.

Ambient games must be able to accommodate many levels of attention without enforcing one in particular; they must be as ignorable as they are interesting.

That would hardly be possible with a gameplay more complex than just walking to the exit. What I find especially interesting is you can explore levels as a player, tile after tile, looking around, slowly, or click on the exit and become a spectator.

I know people who let the TV or the radio on while doing something else, not paying attention at all, yet having this need for a kind of background noise. Here, it seems A Road to Awe can fulfill this role, as something interactive enough to require a few clicks here and there, but not demanding enough to require full attention like most games do. This is a way of “gaming” I would have never thought about before starting this project, one that I didn’t even think possible. Now I’ll definitely have to push these interactive ambient boundaries further for future projects.

Sometimes I spin some ambient record, totally forget about it for hours, then suddenly realize there’s music playing, and that it has been good music because I forgot it. Ambient has the unique quality of being forgettable in a positive way, of stretching time, becoming time itself, at an unconscious level. I’d sure like to explore this kind of quality further in video games.

And now for something completely different: A Road to Awe’s statistics. They simply don’t make sense, or at least, not yet. There are days when the game is downloaded maybe 20 times. And sometimes, all of a sudden, it gets nearly 300 downloads. Except there’s no new traffic source. And no special day of the week. For now, I’m unable to spot any pattern. There are even days when the page views decrease but the downloads increase almost proportionally. Maybe some analytics guru would understand this better, but to me, it seems perfectly random. But hey, I like random.

I can still say there are more players now than in January. On January 31st, the game had been downloaded about 2400 times. Now, it has been downloaded 5800 times. Which mean 1000 times more in February than in January. Not bad at all! I have zero understanding about how the Itch page ranking works, but my guess is, the more downloaded a game gets, the higher it appears on the “top games” page.

Since my game is updated daily, it means naturally way more downloads than for most other games, so maybe that’s why it’s not buried in the bottomless pit of never played games yet. Yes, algorithms are our invisible masters, in case you doubted it.

I rarely take only one screenshot for a single section.

Let’s finish this monthly post by mentioning that I spend more than 15 minutes a day on A Road to Awe. It would mostly be 30 minutes. Why? Because stupid me didn’t count the time needed to take screenshots and post them on social networks. Taking a good screenshot isn’t that simple.

I could have decided that each screenshot would simply be the default starting position of every road section, but in many cases, that would have just resulted in an uninteresting colourful mess. So every day, I find myself playing the new road section long enough to find that perfect (or mostly, not too bad) shot. I could say, somehow, that marketing takes me as much time as developing. But you wouldn’t be reading this I weren’t taking this time.

See you next month!

Travelogue 1/12, January thoughts

It’s been one month. Thirty-one road sections have been created and linked, not to mention the dozen of test levels I’ve made in December. Everything went according to plan… mostly.

Within the first week, to my surprise, I got about 30 daily players. In the second week, this increased to more than 50 daily players, thanks to mentions in PC Gamer and Warp Door. And it kept increasing following odd patterns that don’t seem to be linked to social media exposure. In fact, a good part of the traffic comes from Itch itself. Currently, a rough average would be a bit more than 100 players a day… and I’m finishing this month with the astonishing number of 200 downloads for yesterday. It’s hard to figure out precisely how many people are playing the game, since not all of them use the Itch app, nor play daily. I only have the download numbers. But this is way more than expected, and hugely satisfying.

To think 200 people took a few minutes to wander through a virtual space I created fills me with joy. But even more rewarding are insightful reviews like the one of Owen Ketillson, whose conceptual understanding of the game really resonates with what I intended to do, or videos like Petjeh’s, who enjoyed it enough to start a series about the game.

Petjeh says he admires the challenge of the concept, the motivation and creativity it will demand daily. But funnily enough, before starting this project, I didn’t even think it would require me to be creative every single day of the year. I assumed I’d just have to stick to my set of rules and that everything would be okay. Everything has been fine so far, but I can already tell it’s getting slowly harder to come up with original level designs.

I’m beginning to notice patterns, and variations of these patterns. Keeping everything within 15 minutes forces me to avoid complex designs, even if I can use more blocks, with a greater efficiency than one month ago. I have no doubt I’ll keep improving, building more with less time, but I’m not sure the difference will be huge in the end. I’m also a bit limited by how RPG in a Box handles vertical layouts, which are perfectly manageable for a normal use, but more challenging to set up under 15 minutes.

However, my main problem is I’m abiding to an unwritten, spontaneous rule. The exit of a level must be seen from its entrance. And I will stick with this rule, because it’s part of the core experience. I want the game to be as relaxing as possible. If I hide the exit, the game may become more interesting, in a labyrinthine way, but the player would need to search, and lose the ability to walk through the level with a single click while just looking around. Some people like to wander, but others prefer the automated pathfinding. I have to let them choose. Incidentally, this comes from a neat RPGiaB feature, which gave the game a new dimension. I built levels naturally around this feature without even thinking about it.

On the other hand, breaking this effortless path would logically fit for bad days. In that case, it would make sense for me to make sinister and twisted levels with viciously hidden exits. After all, if this is supposed to be a diary, it should be a reflection of my mood, a summary of my daily experiences. But given the global rise of fascism and the various atrocities I’m seeing every day, this is probably something I should keep for another game, unless I’d like to torment players.

This is the kind of (crazy) vertical layout that definitely doesn’t fit under 15 minutes. For now…

This being said, I’ve also noticed most of my levels are very geometrical and rely heavily on symmetry. There’s a kind of underlying, imperious order, of course depending on my cube-based building blocks, but still very present. I guess one reason is purely practical: once I’ve designed the first half of a level, it’s pretty straightforward to mirror the remaining half. But another reason may be it’s a reassuring way to keep control, to disallow a possible chaos which would increase the risks of exceeding my time limit and my personal comfort.

I know that at some point, I’ll need to get rid of symmetry to reach the full potential of this experiment. I may also need to stop caring about the 7-blocks wide and the 15-blocks long limits, which I initially set to respect time constraints. The distance between the entrance and the exit will never change, but I see no reason to limit anything between if it becomes tedious and repetitive. After all, A Road to Awe is a game, but I’m Player 1. It has to be fun for everyone, including myself.

Another matter is how levels are accessed. At first, I didn’t even want to link new levels to previous ones. The whole game was meant to be a one-way trip, starting from the title screen. But that would have been quickly tiresome for players checking the game daily. So I decided to always relocate the player in the most recent level, and link it to the title screen. Then I thought, yeah, we get it, time flows and there’s no turning back, nice memento mori, but Jason Rohrer did this with Passage ten years ago (and now I feel old). That’s why allowing the player to walk back makes sense. I wanted a mean to explore time, and possibly nostalgia, not a death march.

This is also what motivated me to add a warp zone. It’s hard to miss unless you really don’t want to look around. Once you’ve figured it out, you can jump to the Monday of your choice. It’s the best compromise I’ve found to keep it simple, devoid of menus, and physically integrated in the game’s space.

And… That’s all for now. I’m open to any suggestion. If there’s something you’d like to see during the next steps of the journey, feel free to drop me a line here on or Twitter, or to comment below.