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PAX it up, PAX it in

Let me begin

…by giving a big thanks to the Indie MEGABOOTH for including us and to everyone who came by, played World Zombination, took pictures, bought t shirts, brought us donuts, and signed up for the beta.  It was Proletariat’s first time showing at PAX East in our hometown of Boston, and while it was bittersweet not to be able to spend all weekend messing around and playing tabletop games, it was definitely the best event we could have hoped for.

Personally, I was most excited to meet a lot of people who watch our streams on Twitch and were getting to play World Zombination for the first time, as well as the people who have seen our game grow over the past year. All I can say is THANK YOU.

I asked the Proletariat team what their favorite PAX moment was, here are some answers:

Gordon: A cosplayer dressed as Michonne from the Walking Dead playing World Zombination and loving it.

Mike: Working the booth…no joke. Especially people playing the game connected to the big screen. 

Bryan: The overwhelmingly positive response. Almost every person who played was excited to sign up for the beta! 

Damon: That Evolve alien.

Matt: People who stuck around and asked lots of questions or came back to tell us we had the coolest game. Also, giving demos to kids! 

Here are a few photos in case you missed it:

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More like Indie MASSIVEbooth, am I right?? (Click to enlarge…we’re in there somewhere)

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Damon and I setting up the booth, and also telling secrets

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HI BRYAN!

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Demos, demos, demos! 

We are already getting some reviews rolling in from PAX, which you can check out below, and keep in touch on our Facebook and Twitter pages to stay updated!

We had all hands on deck for PAX, with every one of us at Proletariat giving demos over the weekend. It was totally exhausting and amazing and I can’t wait to do it all over again next year.

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Kristen Mukai, Communications Manager

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Everything to know about World Zombination at PAX East

We’re really excited to be at PAX East this weekend showing World Zombination! Here’s your guide to all things Proletariat:

LOCATION:

We’ll be in booth #575, part of the Indie MEGABOOTH. Take this map. Its contents will help you on your way:

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Keep an eye out for the Survivor and Infected banners.

BOOTH FUN:

We’ll have plenty of team members at the booth each day offering hands-on demos of both Survivor and Infected gameplay on iPad and Surface tablets. We’re bringing a ton of Boston postcards and faction buttons as free giveaways, and are selling t-shirts for the FIRST TIME EVER! Each of these designs will be available for just $10 (cash only). 


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t-shirts available at PAX East! (click to enlarge)

MEET THE TEAM:

The entire team will be at PAX over the course of the weekend so please come say hi. We’ll also be at a number of other events including Made in MA, Indies Need Booze, and Joyful Bewilderment.

Plus… ZOMBIE SELFIES:

World Zombination lets you choose if you want to be a human or a zombie. Now we’ll help you take it one step further by zombie painting your photos! Snap a selfie at our booth and tweet or Instagram it with both #WZselfie and #PAXEast to enter. Then, on our next Twitch stream, our artist Lauren will zombify as many selfies as she can.

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THIS COULD BE YOU. But it’s actually me.

See you there!

Kristen Mukai, Communications Manager

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Surgeons and Firefighters: Two Types of Level Design in the Funpocalypse

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Within the realm of design-land at a video game company, level design typically comes in two flavors, each with its own set of quirks. There are generally things I love in one type and miss in the other, but neither is inherently better and both offer distinct advantages. What follows is a brief, high-level introduction to both traditional and procedural level design, as well as how we approach it here at Proletariat.

When talking about traditional level design, there’s something I like to call, for lack of a better term, “traditional level design.” Building levels this way gives the designer direct and precise influence over most of the minutiae in the design of a level: obstacles, enemies, objectives, etc. For thematic and mnemonic purposes, this is the “surgeon’s approach” because surgeons use scalpels and those are supposed to be precise. The Surgeon is also a playable character in World Zombination. See what I did there?

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Traditional level design has a designer manually manipulating and arranging assets to produce a compelling experience that falls somewhere in that just-right-porridge state (technical term). It’s not too tough and it’s not too easy, but juuuust right.

Beyond traditional level design is what Proletariat leverages in the development of World Zombination: procedural level design. In describing this approach you could put on your fancy pants and call it algorithmically-made level design. Or you could stay in those comfy sweats and call it the “firefighter’s approach.” Much like the axe-wielders in our game, I like to think that procedural level designers do their jobs in much broader strokes. Like swinging an axe. Firefighters swing axes in broad strokes. See what I did there??

Now, as to those quirks mentioned above, each approach to level design has associated strengths and weaknesses. I’ve labeled the former approach traditional because that’s largely how it’s been done with content-driven games: one guy manually laying track that is always more-or-less the same at that point in the game for everyone who’s going to experience it. Mario Brothers games are the quintessential example here: it’s a handcrafted experience and pretty much the same for all players. 

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Traditional level design empowers an expert designer to lead the player along a predetermined experience. A good level designer has done his or her job if the player can put on their smarty pants (these can be dressed up or down) and progress forward under the guise that they accomplished it entirely on their own (when the level designer was telling them how to do it the entire time). Another example that jumps to mind here as it applies to narrative is Portal; you can’t help but feel compelled to follow and enjoy the narrative from little more than cake-related vignettes left for discovery at opportune times.

This is where I’d like to make an important aside: a level designer is first and foremost a teacher. This is one of the strengths of traditional level design: since designers have finite control over the minutiae, they can determine how and when a player will be exposed to new mechanics, new enemies, new narrative, and other shiny new things that are…new. They can introduce new concepts in a safe environment where the player is free to experiment, they can teach the concept through ramping iteration, and challenge the concept precisely when and where the player is primed for the challenge and standing on the precipice of mastery. It’s a great feeling when you get there as a player, like hitting that elusive “flow” state, but chances are if you’ve ever felt empowered by your own mastery of a new skill in a game, or had that “A-HA!” moment in the narrative, you have an expert level designer to thank at least in part.

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Yes, traditional level design empowers a designer with precision, but this comes at a cost—literally. The common con associated with traditional level design is the expense: time, money, people, you name it. Somebody’s got to sit down and spend the time iterating on an “optimal” experience, and those somebodies gotta get paid.

But with a little ingenuity and a lot of talent, developers can put together a solution for a game like ours, which on one hand requires a ton of compelling content, but on the other hand, is being made on a budget. Where a surgeon uses a scalpel for the smallest details, a firefighter has his axe. Now, I don’t in any way mean to suggest we’re figuratively fireman-axing levels to death in comparison to precisely modifying elements. Rather, in World Zombination we’ve got a pretty rad system that simplifies the process of designing cities and their layout (our version of levels).

Allow me to better explain with an example. Our artists have made a ton of wonderfully post-apocalyptic buildings, many of which are specific to a single city. This is done so each city carries over the identity of its real-life counterpart. Traditional level design in many cases would then call for some combination of level designers and artists to assemble these hundreds of assets into interesting combinations in and around the play space. For a game at the scale of ours—with dozens of cities and hundreds of city blocks—that’s an amount of level design work that could occupy a small army of designers.

Rather than grab my scalpel, I’ll instead reach for my axe. Generally speaking, what are the sweeping strokes a particular city would need to make it recognizable? What’s the min/max for park coverage in San Francisco? How about Detroit’s industrial area? What about New York? How do we represent Central Park? 

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By determining generalities about these and a slew of other factors, we can successfully approximate the layout, look, and feel of any city. Better still, we can randomly generate near limitless unique variations of each city, blowing the roof off of replayability. We can tell our tools to pull from certain décor or gameplay sets—what we call ‘encounters’—and calculate offensive and defensive ballpark values along a particular route through the generated city. We can determine the complexity of the streets layout, which buildings appear adjacent to roads, and which enemy types are allowed to appear and in what combinations. At the end of the day, we have a ton of variables to tweak and modify.

It’s a remarkably robust system and incredibly efficient, saving countless man-hours of development around each city. The drawbacks come in when we demand a great deal of precision. It defeats the purpose to use the tool this way, but there’s a very good reason why we do it exactly once. It’s called the first-time user experience, or the FTUE (‘fuh-too-ee’—that is actually a thing), which could be its own post so I’ll summarize briefly: the first time a player plays a game is also the first time they can make a judgment and either become a dedicated player or walk away forever, so you want to get it right. Understandably, we bend over backwards to make this first experience as accessible as possible, considering what’s at risk.

Similarly, many games without procedural level design try to shoehorn in the replayability and content load of this approach—but with limited success. Look at mastery systems (lots of mobile and Facebook games), mirrored levels or playing levels in reverse (Mario Karts and shooters), incentives to play through the game again or on a harder difficulty (“new game plus!”), or modified art in an otherwise unchanged experience (ever beat Super Mario World’s Special World?). Instead, many of these approaches just come across as a desperate plea to keep players playing and arguably aren’t as compelling as new, original content.

Weighing both sides equally, there are parts of me that do miss being the surgeon and giving a level that element of craftsmanship you can’t really achieve otherwise. But procedural level design’s got more heft and staying power and can keep things fresh for far longer. It’s still possible to noodle with individual gameplay encounters and drop them in the pool of assets a generated city can draw from. And an axe is way better in a zombie apocalypse anyway.

Josh Hufton, Level Designer

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Let’s fight this one Co-Op: my thoughts on online harassment and the responsibilities we have to each other

Most of us participate in development streams here at Proletariat. We do them at the same time every week. We’re working on the same project, using the same stream service, webcam, everything. All things are equal. And we all get trolls. It’s the internet. It’s Twitch. “That’s just how it is, bro!” We know.

But when I’m streaming, the trolls aren’t bashing the game or my artistic abilities. Most of the unwelcome comments I get are about my physical appearance, veiled questions regarding my validity as a professional developer, and strange sexual advances.

Some of the more memorable comments I’ve received:

“Is that thing a man or a woman? It’s wearing lipstick.”
“Your hair is fucking dumb.”
“Show more cleavage or I’m leaving.” (an interesting variation on TITS OR GTFO)
“I’m only watching because you look like my ex.”
“Can you put your hands up to the camera? I want to see your hands.”
“You would look sexier with a neck beard.”
“Yeah but that only works for you because you’re a hawt girl.” (This comment came after I said the best way to find a job in games is to go to networking events and meet people, instead of throwing resumes into an HR black hole)

A lot of this is simple enough to deal with. Tits or GTFO? Ban them. Your hair is dumb? Ban hammered. More cleavage? All of the ban.

The murky area of stream chatter that makes me really uncomfortable includes comments like, “you’re pretty,” “marry me,” and “you only have this job because you’re a hot girl.” My stomach is turning even as I type this, because on the surface, it sounds like a humblebrag. I mean, come on; being called pretty seems like a non-problem, right?

The thing is, whether someone is saying they think I’m disgusting and look like a man, or that they think I’m pretty, they’re ignoring me as a developer in favor of talking about my physical appearance. Compliments like this are actually undermining and demeaning and difficult to reproach without feeling like I’m coming off like a jerk, or first explaining gender politics and then coming off like a jerk.

So, what do you do? Honestly, I don’t know. Every female game developer I know has stories like mine, and most of us grit our teeth when it’s happening, smile, and hope that if we ignore it, it will stop. In a perfect world, we would always be able to call people out on this kind of crap. However, when you feed the trolls and engage, things can snowball and you might end up bringing the hate down on yourself tenfold. Just look at what happened with Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian.

A lot of things hang in the balance when you make the decision to engage. If I call this out here, am I being too political? Will this reflect poorly on my company? Do I want to lose players over a stupid boob comment? Am I willing to risk hurting my reputation in this very small industry? Would it be unprofessional? The truth is, if you ignore it, it usually stops, and you can roll your eyes and laugh about it afterwards.

But every time I’ve laughed about it, it’s been uneasy. I know that ignoring these comments, even the seemingly innocuous ones, is a silent endorsement of the kind of behavior that’s holding back gaming culture—a culture that I love, and love being a part of.

To be clear: 90 percent of my interactions as a streamer, a gamer, and a developer have been incredibly positive. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be doing it. When I stream and someone tells me that they’ve learned something, it’s easily the highlight of my week. However, the positive experiences don’t negate the bad ones, or make them any less damaging. Ignoring it is apathy in the face of something that absolutely needs to change. But when you’re the person on the receiving end, taking a stand and calling bullshit is incredibly hard, and can have very real consequences.

What if it’s not you on the receiving end, though? My coworkers and peers aren’t blind. They see harassment happening to me and other women. They’re good people and it makes them uncomfortable too. A lot of times their impulse is to offer advice—You should call them out! Troll them back! Don’t take that shit! This advice is well intentioned but, ultimately, it doesn’t address the real problem. The behavior that needs to change in these situations isn’t mine.

In my opinion, the most meaningful thing they can do is simply speak up. I’m not saying that I need others to ride in like white knights to save me from the randoms on the internet, but navigating these situations becomes so much easier when you know people have your back.

After a stream I did that had a wealth of particularly vile comments, I felt defeated, went home, didn’t talk about it. Later that evening, I saw these tweets from our CEO:

The commitment here was minimal. They’re tweets—less than 250 characters total, but this meant the world to me. Being an ally doesn’t mean you have to make a huge effort. It can be as simple as saying, “Hey, internet. I saw that, and it wasn’t cool.”

Convention season is upon us, so I’m leaving you with this: gamers and developers, if you see hate or intolerance or harassment, please, be vocal about the fact that you’re not down with it. When I’m facing this crap, when ANYONE is facing this crap, the responsibility to call it out can’t and shouldn’t fall solely to those of us who are in the line of fire. When you step up and help make these things visible, you’re making their behavior less socially acceptable. You’re making them the outsiders, instead of me. Even if it’s in little ways, you’re being a (excuse the pun) game changer.

- Lauren Cason, artist

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We’ll do it live! (adventures in live development streaming)

Hey everyone, I’m Lauren, and I’m an artist here at Proletariat. I’ve done a lot of development live streams for our game World Zombination recently, so I wanted to talk a little about them—why we stream, what my experience with them has been, and how to make them go as smoothly as possible.

Why are we streaming?

Game devs do live development streams for a lot of reasons, from direct marketing of their games to just having fun and connecting with other gamers. The streams we do on Twitch at Proletariat have a few functions: they help build our community, they act as a resource for the indie game community, and they drive increased interest in the World Zombination beta (which hopefully means more people sign up for the beta email list).

We have goals for our stream, since we want to use it to engage and grow our player base. Our broadcasts have become good drivers for traffic: from one recent two-hour stream, we had more than 15,000 total viewers, more than 1,200 concurrent viewers at its peak, 25 mailing list sign-ups, and 28 new Twitch subscribers. All nice bumps in our community from simply doing our work on the air and answering some questions while we do it.

So…what do I stream?!

Why would people watch our stream? Probably for fun (and sometimes to learn things). So with that in mind:

Things that ARE fun to watch:

  • Painting the shiny bits on that sweet sniper rifle
  • Zombies exploding
  • Tweaking the VFX on vomit.

Things that are NOT fun to watch:

  • Fighting with Perforce
  • Exploring endless file directories
  • Naming Photoshop layers
  • Watching a .psd file take five minutes to open because you’re addicted to layers
  • Unity loading screens
  • Taking two minutes to find a reference folder on your desktop among the cat gifs (so many cat gifs…seriously?)

I try to maximize the fun (or interesting/educational) to watch parts and minimize the bullshit. Yes, the bullshit is part of game development; but no, no one wants to watch that.

I always clear my desktop of everything but one folder that has my psd, my reference folder, and jpegs of any process work. I have my layers set up in Photoshop, and they are named and masked and ready.

In addition to that, I’m usually working on something where I’m comfortable with the process and know how things are likely going to turn out. I don’t really want to be attempting to solve super complex artistic problems while I’m streaming. Part of that is vanity—who wants to screw up with an audience? But a large part of it is that your attention is going to be elsewhere. Something I’ve heard from a few people who have done art streams before is that they had a really hard time doing any work, because they were too busy fielding questions. Painting a concept, watching a chat room, and answering questions all at once is like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. So I try not to get too fancy with my head pats.

We’re all set up, we hit broadcast…oh, shit…we’re live!

I’m just doing my job, but now it’s over the internet with several hundred people watching. NO PRESSURE.

One thing I’ve figured out in doing these streams is that if I’m trying to engage people, I need to let them know that I’m watching the chat and taking questions. And that needs to be done beyond just saying it once at the beginning of the stream; viewers drop in and out of these things constantly. I will occasionally tell people that I’m taking questions, and will let them know the other ways in which they can engage with our game (Here’s the beta link! That’s an interesting question! We wrote a blog post about it recently! We have some pictures of that character on our Facebook!).

I talk about the game, too. People aren’t going to know what the hell I’m drawing a sniper rifle for, especially since it’s for a new IP from an indie studio. This is an opportunity to pitch what we’re working on, so I make sure to do it!

So that’s what I have to say about doing development streams. Well…almost. There’s another side of streaming that I want to address that’s a little more personal, and little more challenging. But that’s a discussion for another day, another blog post. For now, thanks for reading, and I hope this helps any would-be streamers!

- Lauren, artist

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Seth sat down with John Lindvay of BigSushi.fm to talk about the inspiration for World Zombination and also completely geek out about WoW. 

"After exiting Zynga, Seth and his team sat down and thought long and hard on what kind of games they wanted to make. It’s the common type of soul searching that happens all the time, especially after layoffs. What do we want to do with our new found freedom? Proletariat started to talk about their collective experience in playing WoW. The community, the coordination, the persistence, these are all things that we shared a fondness for. Their hope is with their first hand experience, they could perhaps capture some of that essence.

World Zombination is the plan. It is an interesting mix of deck building and real time strategy. It also requires coordination that’s often found in games like Pandemic or World of Warcraft. We as players choose a loadout of human or zombie squad members and attempt to overrun or protect cities across the globe. Prior to the call Seth was walking me through the early and later levels for both factions. I got a good sense of the depth that was possible. The potential for cooperative and coordinated gameplay but with the leniency of being able to ‘…get up and check on dinner,’ as Seth put it has me excited.” 

Read the full writeup here. 

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Community Pt. 2: Electric Boogaloo


Kristen and I were totally in Breakin’

Last week, instead of sleeping on a cross-country flight, I wrote the first part of a two-part post about Proletariat’s approach to building and managing our community leading up to the launch of our first game, World Zombination. Part 1 was primarily about why we take our unique approach (we’re small, the game benefits from your feedback, and we want a strong community already in place when the game launches). This post will broadly cover how we are going about implementing our strategy.

I find it valuable to give an overview of what “community management” means to us. While there are as many definitions of community management as there are community managers, I tend to think of it as having four primary functions: growth, engagement, listening, and development.

  • Growth is obvious; a community can’t exist, let alone prosper, without members, especially ones who are active.
  • Engagement is fundamental to personalizing the brand and fostering invested community members; it’s the creation of relevant content and initiating, participating in, and moderating conversations.
  • Listening combines both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis; basically: gathering direct and indirect community feedback and hard metrics from social media and web channels, scrutinizing that data, finding patterns/anomalies and potentially valuable conversations to participate in, and making appropriate action plans to address those things.
  • Development is the part where we take the actionable things from our listening and…take action; filtering feedback to the appropriate development and customer teams, making adjustments based on competition and industry trends, and changing marketing approaches and channels that are utilized as deemed valuable.

So who gets this done? Our community team is actually a community/marketing/communications team., or put simply, “Team Awesome.” We’re a small studio, so Team Awesome consists of only two people who wear/share a number of hats: Kristen, our Communications Manager and me, the Community Director. While we very much work in tandem, we have specific specialties: Kristen mostly deals with the media, while I focus on our players. Additionally, every member of our studio gets involved with community in some way, through writing blog posts about what they do, live streaming their work, answering questions on social media, speaking at events, and demoing World Zombination at conferences.

One of the critical features of our marketing and community plan has been to talk—from very early on—about how we’re developing the game and its progress. By creating these discussions well ahead of launch, we have the opportunity to shape the conversation about World Zombination and drive chatter about the game and our studio. I wrote about our goal to be a transparent development team in Part 1 of this post last week, and talking early and often about what we’re doing is elemental to that aspect of our culture. What this achieves, from a community standpoint, is the creation of a scenario where players have the chance to experience a game from start to finish—from initial concept, to raw implementation, to finished product—and see everything that goes into that process. We’re not just creating a polished documentary after the fact with the key pieces that make us look good to show people what goes on “behind the scenes.” We’re letting people peak over our shoulder at everything that’s being made—even if it’s sometimes not so good.

One of the other major pieces of our community management is making friends with the members of our community. We’re involved on a multitude of channels: Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, Reddit, Instagram, Google Groups, and a variety of forums and gaming sites. We’ve befriended a number of regular posters who consistently demonstrate interest in what we’re doing, which ultimately creates a more rich, holistic experience for these players, and engenders loyalty and excitement. To be perfectly honest, the feelings are mutual; it’s awesome when we recognize people on our channels and they know us and our personalities based on the shared experiences we’ve already had. In the end, these relationships not only enable us to attract and retain potential players, but it also allows us to more fully advocate for these players and grow the game into something they will love to play.

Our community is broad, ranging from teens, to 30-somethings working in tech, to stay-at-home parents who are avid iPad users, to rabid zombie aficionados. As such, we take a fairly broad approach to finding them, reaching out, and engaging with them. As I mentioned previously, we’re on a variety of social networks and forums, which allows us to reach the most potential players possible. It’s simply unreasonable to assume that everyone who would be interested in World Zombination would be similar to one another. They like different things and they hang out in different places. Granted, the bulk of them are on the ubiquitous networks (Facebook/Twitter), but we derive tremendous value from participating in more focused venues like Twitch and gaming forums. When it comes down to it, though, despite the different demographic and psychographic profiles that are interested in what we’re making, the one thing they all have in common is that they’re curious about what we’re doing. And we’re more than happy to indulge their curiosity with our weekly live streams, galleries of new character art, and discussions everywhere we can make an account.

So what does this approach to community net us? At a very basic level, we have a cumulative community of roughly 3,000 people at this point (not counting people we interact with in forums and other less-trackable venues). Considering again that this is our first game and we don’t have a built in audience based on our (nonexistent) history, that number is a pretty solid starting point (although I definitely want to increase that dramatically before launch). Having a base like this helps us to more easily spread the word about the game both from a traditional word-of-mouth standpoint and also through the echo chamber effects of sites like Facebook and Twitter, where people who interact with your content can actively and passively enable their friends/followers to view what you post. In addition to this base community, we also attract around 15,000 viewers per live stream on Twitch, so our audience grows across multiple channels each time we go on air.

We’ll be launching a new website and our own forum in the near future, which will add another layer of complexity to what we do. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions about what we’re doing, if you have any tips for how we could be more effective with our community efforts, or if you just want to chat about community and marketing in general! 

Gordon Ryan, Community Director
@gordon_ryan

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On Community: why we bare it all

I’m on a cross-country flight to Portland, OR right now, sitting next to two people playing games on iPads and all I can think (aside from how much I need to write this post) is “it’s going to be insane when I randomly see someone playing OUR game.” So, as any community manager worth his salt would do, I struck up a conversation with them. We talked about about what they were playing, their general gaming habits, and how psyched we were to be getting away from being in the path of another polar vortex.

I learned from one of the women that she only played casual puzzle games (Candy Crush, Angry Birds, etc.) to pass the time and she didn’t consider herself to be into video games (which I found hilarious, since she probably technically spends more time playing them than I do these days). From a practical standpoint, she’s the typical iOS gamer: mom, dad, sister, cousin, uncle, who has a mobile device and wants to be entertained and even challenged by something simple, quick, and interesting. She defaults to it for her entertainment, like one might default to watching a re-run if nothing good is on TV.

The other woman, however, was playing a series of games. She started the flight with solitaire, but then moved on to Plants vs Zombies, and finally settled on a Magic: The Gathering game. She was a gamer who was into strategy games. It was pretty clear that she’d be interested in what we’re working on, so I told her about World Zombination and showed her our gameplay trailer. It turned out that she loves zombies in addition to fantasy and she thought our game looked like fun. She asked when she could play it, so I gave her the info for our website and signing up for our beta, which she said she would definitely check out. We potentially have another player.

I just did part of my job as Proletariat’s Community Director; I did something to help grow our player base.

"But," you may say, "you don’t have a game yet. You don’t even have a beta for people to play!" Fair enough. It is somewhat unusual for a small indie studio to hire people for marketing and community as early in the development process as we did. There’s not a whole lot to market or build a community around when you don’t actually have a product available, haven’t released anything serious previously (and thus haven’t a built in fan base), and have only been working on the game for, at the time, about 6 months. But wouldn’t it be great to have a bunch of people already lined up to play your game when it becomes available?

The decision to formally work on community at such an early stage was informed and made by a team of seasoned gaming veterans: Proletariat’s founders Seth, Jesse, Damon, Dan, and Joe. They felt that building community into our studio’s work from early on would engrain it into the development of World Zombination, thereby ensuring that when the game ships, we’ll have a thriving fan base that will hopefully serve to jumpstart downloads and be central figures on forums as the game grows.

But there are reasons that other studios don’t hire community managers early in their game’s lifecycle; it can be risky. Proletariat invested limited start-up funds into marketing resources when it was far from clear if the game would actually ship. Hiring new people to work exclusively on community—whose function is inherently intangible—is a lot of overhead to take on for a small indie studio, especially given the all-too-common opinion of the role in the industry: (at this stage, at least) community and marketing is not regarded as essential. As I mentioned previously, this is not the way our founders feel about it.

In general, however, it is an undervalued role, especially in the early stages of development. I suspect this is because many studios don’t understand the importance of being player-first, despite the fact that player experience is of utmost importance to all stages of a game’s lifecycle (so important, that it probably should be in my job title). Players are what make the game what it ultimately becomes. They’re responsible for whether the game becomes successful (they play) or not (they don’t play), how and where growth and updates occur (feature requests and bugs), and the word of mouth that underlies sustained success. We as game developers are essentially creating a framework for the growth of a community and it’s our duty to ensure that said framework stays healthy. Luckily for me, community is integral to our team, not a peripheral function. In fact, we (our communications manager, Kristen, and I) were the first hires after the core development team.

So why did we make community a priority so early?

1. It’s worth the risk

We’re small. We’re new. And we don’t have a publisher, so we have to cultivate our own fans. It’s essential that we work—from a very early point, well before the game comes out—to make sure that we have a community that loves the game and feels invested. We’re trying to build momentum that will take us through release and transition from people who are interested in what the game might be to actual players. On top of that, we want to cultivate our heroes/evangelists/super fans—the people who will be World Zombination’s biggest players and cheerleaders, and who will become icons in the community.

2. We want what the players want

Building a community early doesn’t just drive awareness and excitement; it helps us make a better game. One of the key functions of a pre-release community is as a resource to provide critical feedback on the game that we wouldn’t be able to obtain otherwise. It’s important to have this feedback early and often so that we can develop and improve the game based on the opinions and experiences of our probable audience, which, if we did it right, should be well represented in our pre-release community.

While we do solicit direct feedback from a limited number of individuals and groups, another major way we get it is passively, by being transparent with our development. This can be thought of as “pulling back the curtain” and basically entails being open with the public about the work we’re doing on the game: showing how it’s being developed, showing new additions to the game (artwork, gameplay changes/tweaks), and generally not being secretive about how World Zombination is built and how it’s coming together. We do this a number of ways: this development blog, art posts to various social media channels, emails to our community, live streaming our artists and developers working on the game, and also broadcasting our weekly sprint review, where we all show off what we built that week.

3. It pays to get naked

This is another risky thing to do, because there is always the potential that there are some members of the community who will be intentionally brutal with feedback, judgmental for any number of reasons, and who will get a kick out of being assholes. We could end up changing or eliminating things in the game before release that people have fallen in love with during development, which often leads to disappointment. When it comes down to it, we’re stripped down naked, showing how an indie game comes together. There are crashes, art that we decide to redo, strange bugs, unfinished UI elements, and other rough edges that many studios would not want the public to see—and judge.

The key here, though, is to not be afraid to show the blood and guts. The payoff is a great community full of players who feel like they know the game more intimately and are inherently more apt to drive game adoption and success. Seeking to establish a community early, creatively cultivating that community, and being open with development sets the tone for community when the game actually launches.

Ultimately, our marketing and community team exists to create connections and richer experiences for the players beyond just what happens in-game. This creates a higher sense of belonging and hopefully means that the game will see active players from the very beginning. In my next post, I’ll go beyond the “why” of our community plan and will go into detail about the “how.” If you have any questions about our community efforts, please feel free to email me at gordon@proletariat.com.

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Gordon Ryan, Community Director

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Here is a thing I did, by Bryan the QA guy

When I heard it was up to me to pick out a bug tracker for the team, I was a little nervous, but not surprised. I joined Proletariat knowing that issues were being tracked in Google Docs and that this would have to change quickly. When I heard I’d then have to write a blog post about it, I locked up and started crying. Here it is, weeks late:

My first instinct was to go with Atlassian’s JIRA, a tracker most of us had used together at Zynga Boston. JIRA is a super-popular bug tracker used by companies like Twitter, eBay, and NASA. The pros of using this software are the thousands of hours of collective experience the team has with it, the powerful reporting and search functionality, and the incredibly large add-on collection available in the Atlassian Marketplace. The con of using JIRA is that it costs dollars. Like, actual money. JIRA was promptly removed from consideration.

Facing the fiscal reality of working for a startup, I found five free and open source trackers that were well reviewed online to compare. First and foremost, I looked for trackers that had the best out-of-the-box features, since I have limited technical abilities and don’t want to rely too much on anyone after the initial setup. After that, I looked for an informative dashboard, in-depth searches, intuitive workflows, issue customization, and the potential to track time and tasks should we ever decide to move away from Trello (which is working just fine for right now). With those prerequisites, the final five ended up being Apache Bloodhound, Bugzilla, Mantis, Redmine, and Roundup.

 Apache Bloodhound

- Built to be a better Trac

- Serves as a web interface for Git

Requirements: 

- ​Python >= 2.6 and < 3

- ​pip

- ​virtualenv

- PostgreSQL or SQLite DB

- Apache web server

Bugzilla

- 3 years user experience

- Many big companies use it (Facebook, NASA… back when NASA was a thing)

- Reports are pretty comprehensive

Requirements:

- Server software usually installed on Linux or Solaris

- Perl <= 5.8.1

- MySQL, PostgreSQL or Oracle DB

- Any server, but Apache 1.3.x or 2.x recommended

Mantis

- Looks super easy to set up.

Requirements:

- PHP <= 5.2

- MySQL <= 4.1, MS SQL, PostgreSQL, or DB2

- Apache web server

Redmine

- Recommended by Pikop

- Great Git integration

- Need to create an account

Requirements:

- Ruby 1.8.7, or 1.9.2, or 1.9.3, or 2.0.0, or JRuby 1.6.7, or JRuby 1.7.2

- Rails 3.2.13

- MySQL <= 5.0, PostgreSQL <= 8.2, or Microsoft SQL Server <= 2008 DB

Roundup

- Need to DL and install to run demo

Requirements:

- ​Python >= 2.5 and < 3v

- SQLite, MySQL, or PostgreSQL DB

Apache Bloodhound:

Bloodhound, according to its website, stands “on the shoulders of Trac.” Trac is often listed as a top open source bug tracker and, according to its Wiki, is also used by NASA. Well, how about that? Cool. So, yeah, Bloodhound had the basics of what I was looking for, but didn’t blow me away with anything in particular. I liked that ticket creation was easy and the dashboard was basic yet useful, but nothing really stood out.

Bugzilla:

Like JIRA, Bugzilla is one of the giants in the bug tracking software game. So much so, that—you guessed it—NASA uses it as well. Ok, this is just getting out of hand. Anyway, I have about three years of experience with a heavily modified version of Bugzilla from my time testing at Harmonix, with only good memories of it. I was always a fan of how intuitive it felt, and having had no QA background before working with it, I found the ramp-up to be very smooth. Pros included the powerful reporting, which in itself included the whine functionality. Whines are reports that get emailed to users at predetermined times. If you want a daily or weekly reminder on how many open bugs there are in your project, it’s a simple task to set it up. One problem we noticed right away, though, was the lack of a default dashboard. After looking around for some extensions, none seemed to hit the spot, so we moved on knowing that if we chose Bugzilla, this would be an issue we’d have to tackle.

Mantis:

I loved Mantis from the moment I first laid eyes on it because I love sherbet and it had all the classics: orange, lemon-lime, watermelon.

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Mantis had exactly what we were looking for: a great dashboard, lots of customizable options for issues, strong search and report features, natural fruit flavors. Seriously, Mantis was in the lead for me almost from the moment I dove into the demo.

Redmine:

Redmine also impressed me right away with its simple but thorough design. Right out of the box, it was clear we could easily use this tracker for Features and Engineering tasks, should we decide to consolidate in the future, thanks to the Bug/Feature drop down in New Issues submission, as well as the Gantt chart tab. My Page has your standard dashboard, the Issues tab has all the search options one needs to find exactly what one’s looking for, and optimizing the issue workflow was crazy easy. After some digging, my favorite find ended up being how easy it was to bulk edit via the Context Menu. Find what you need in the Issues tab, check which bugs to edit, and right click to open it up.

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Redmine was recommended by a friend of mine who is also in QA, but far more technical than I am. He pitched it as a great way to integrate our version control (Git) with bug tracking, which is something I am incredibly interested in, but have literally no idea how to do. Luckily, our Director of Engineering, Joe Mukai, does, so he spent some time talking it over with the aforementioned friend and gave it a thumbs up. THANKS JOE! At this point, the only thing going against Redmine was that I could find no proof it was ever used by NASA.

Roundup:

Roundup had a tough hill to climb after I spent time with Mantis and Redmine. It became quite clear that while extremely customizable, it would have taken the most work to get it up to speed and match what was offered by Mantis/Redmine right away. To be honest, not a lot of time was spent considering Roundup. Seems like a real good kid, though…

The Decision:

Knowing that no decision was necessarily final, but wanting to avoid rewriting a hundred bugs in the future, I narrowed the field down to Mantis and Redmine. I knew once either was up and running, I’d be able to start creating and assigning bugs and ramp up the team on the process immediately, with no downtime for building extensions or searching for add-ons. On the fence, I followed up with my friend who once again pushed Redmine as a tracker he has twice set up for companies. When I searched my network and came up blank for any personal recommendations for Mantis, my decision was made, with Mantis losing by a neon-colored hair to Redmine.

After three weeks of using Redmine, I feel we made the right choice. If you have any questions about the exciting world of QA, send me an email at bryan@proletariat.com.

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Steam Dev Days: Microtransactions According to Valve

In-app purchases have now been around long enough as a monetization strategy that they’re now an established practice in the game industry—although the industry seems to have a love-hate relationship with them. We knew when we started building World Zombination that we wanted the game to be an MMO and that would mean we’d have to consider free-to-play as our strategy. It turns out that opting for this model puts us in good company: Valve (among other great companies) has fully embraced it. The team at Proletariat—and the industry at-large—can learn a lot from how Valve approaches free-to-play.

I attended the Steam Developer Days in January, at which Valve spent considerable time discussing three topics: the Steam Box, virtual reality, and microtransactions. Much has been said in the industry and media about the first two topics, but microtransactions haven’t been as thoroughly examined. Microtransactions are especially important to us, though, considering we’re making a free-to-play game.

At this conference, Kyle Davis spoke about in-game economies in Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2, focusing on the five rules Valve follows to build new microtransaction-driven mechanics and economies. This post will cover each of these topics and discuss some of the ways we plan to apply them to World Zombination.

1. Microtransactions should provide persistent customer value

This is the keystone to an opt-in economy and it weaves itself into the other topics below. The idea here is that when a user pays for something, that object has lasting value beyond just the relief of a temporary pinch. Many free-to-play games capitalize on these mechanics, and they usually focus on consumables used for convenience. In the simplest terms, this is the old arcade strategy of putting in another quarter to keep playing, with no lasting value to the player since the state of the game will be erased when the game ends.

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When it comes to in-app purchases, we want the player to remember—and feel good about—their purchase in a few weeks. Many games do this well; League of Legends is a great example. Once a Champion is purchased, the player owns it forever. In general, most consumables break this rule, but the outcome of using that item can have lasting value as well, which leads into the next idea.

2. Microtransactions should provide positive externalities

“Positive externalities” simply means that if one player purchases something in the game, it should make the game better for every player, not worse, which is a wonderfully elegant way to consider every in-game transaction. For this reason, we won’t use common pay-to-win mechanics in World Zombination. This idea is where consumables can really shine. The example given at Steam Dev Days was a booster in DOTA 2 that grants the player who purchases it an excellent buff and then every other player in a game who is playing with that user also receives a buff, but a smaller one.

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I absolutely love this rule, and it’s something we have been focusing on with World Zombination. Our crystalizing example comes from one of our founders who paid for his WoW guild’s voice chat server and webhosting. He paid for it because it helped everyone in his guild and didn’t feel selfish. Making a purchase for your guild/team/friends is a very powerful idea that every game should consider. 

3. Everything should be tradable

This is a difficult rule to follow in many cases because certain mechanics and games simply aren’t set up to allow this, but a good argument can be made for the value of trading. When everything in the economy is tradable, it provides obvious long-term value benefits because even if a player changes their play style or rolls a new character, they can trade off their hard earned stuff. In the case of Valve, this is done even across multiple games, so if a player is done playing DOTA 2, they can trade their stuff for items in another game.

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Kyle used the example of crates and keys in Team Fortress 2. Crates contain a random drop of items but can only be opened using keys that are purchased for real money. Some players will never spend real money, so they’ll have crates sitting in their inventory forever. Though the majority of players have never opened a crate, most players possess an item that came from a crate. This shows how important trading is to the player base in a way that most microtransactions are not.

4. Value should distribute randomly

This may seem obvious, but when used properly, it can really engage a community around an economy and stretch content much further. When applying this rule, it’s important to consider how this impacts issues like trading. If everything in the economy is tradable, it’s much easier to have random drops because players can still get value out of them. Without trading, this becomes more constrained and means that content is more segmented depending on the structure of the value presented to players.

5. Players should be able to contribute content

This rule, just like the tradability rule above, is somewhat limited by the type of game. Valve does a great job of creating tools to let players add value to games and then creating economies where they can be compensated with real money for their efforts. This creates a new level of structure on top of the base economy where players become brand names and content is created in a naturally expanding way based on supply and demand.

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Current trends indicate that players are becoming more interested in content creation, with some games based solely around it. If it’s possible for us to open this channel, it could be a way to further encourage players to invest in World Zombination and deliver content in a more scalable way than our development team could likely achieve.

Now What?

Valve has managed to create thriving free-to-play games and stable microtransaction economies over many years of testing and development. A set of rules like this doesn’t come easy, and while I don’t think they can be applied to every game, the rules are helpful when making decisions about microtransactions that will keep the game fun.

When we think about World Zombination, the first two rules are the ones that really hit home. Our goal is to make sure that every time a player pays, they are getting something of value, even if they only purchase a consumable item, and that players around them also benefit in some way. We hope to create this value in the way we implement our event systems and our mechanics around guilds and teams. Free-to-play games can be good for both developers and players and, as the model matures, we will see new strategies and directions taken by different games. The bottom line is to provide value to players and make them feel great about every single purchase.

- Seth, CEO of Proletariat