Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why do game devs hate foreigners?


The explosion sends the hood of the car 50 feet in the air.  It lands with a clang next to me, wafting acrid smoke in my face.  I’m still alive but that’s not what matters.  With a trembling hand, I reach into my coat pocket.  Our ratings board submission is still intact. Phew.
Maybe the game rating process isn’t quite that exciting but it really is a big adventure! 
So, why do game devs hate foreigners?  We don’t but it might feel like that sometimes!  For those of you residing in North America, you’ve probably experienced the frustration of waiting for a game to arrive from Japan.  Likewise, those of you living in Europe and elsewhere often have to wait for North American games to make it across the ocean.  Well, you may be surprised to find that, while money is often a factor, it’s not the only factor causing delays.  As the producer on Nutjitsu at NinjaBee, I have recently been weighing up a number of these issues while we were preparing to release it outside of the United States.  Allow me to share some firsthand insight to help you understand why delays happen. 


Ratings

First up, we have ratings.  As a game developer, it would be wonderful if all the countries in the world used the same game classification board.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  There is no one-stop solution to game ratings.  In North America, you’ll see the ESRB while, in Europe, it’s PEGI.  Even all of Europe doesn’t use the same ratings.  Germany, for example, has its own board with separate grading criteria. 
Some countries have extensive review processes that take many weeks while in others you can get ratings within an hour.  The good news is that many of the ratings boards appear to be making efforts to streamline their processes.  They are learning to better accommodate not only AAA game studios but also indie developers.
How did this impact Nutjitsu? In the past, we’ve worked with publishers to obtain title ratings.  With the current generation of consoles, self-publishing titles has become a reality for many more developers.  However, this comes with a caveat: we now need to register with the various classification boards before we can even submit our title for ratings. 
Each board has their own quirks that you can only learn by interacting with them.  When we sent our Nutjitsu submission to Australia, we provided them with a single disc containing all the materials they asked for.  It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that they told us we needed to provide our game on a separate disc from the gameplay video – merely one example among many.


Localization

Some of you may be saying, “loca-what?”  Basically, this is the process of translating all the text in a game and hooking it up.  While it may not seem like it, this can be a lengthy and expensive process. 
First, the game’s text needs to be translated.  This step is normally pretty straightforward.  We send off the text to a translation company with detailed instructions on context and usage.  This might include screenshots, videos and gameplay descriptions.  The text will often contain symbols where the game might be inserting a variable number or we are coloring the text – we need to let the translators know how to handle these too.  Eventually, the text is returned, we review it, ask questions and, as happens in game development, request additional translations for text that needed to be altered for gameplay reasons or for requirements of the platform holders (e.g. Sony or Microsoft). 
With translations in-hand, the game now needs to be able to identify the region in which a player is located and pass them the proper translations.  This is often where we start to see problems. 



Languages such as Spanish and German tend to have longer translations than the original English text.  This leads to text spilling out of boxes on the screen or text looking squished.  Take this Chinese image from A World of Keflings, for example.  In English, all of this text fit and displayed correctly.  Here you can see, once we plugged in foreign text, some of the text showed temporary strings and none of it fit where it was supposed to.  Sometimes, these need to be hand-edited to fit and sometimes we need to go back to translators to ask for a shorter translation.
Once translations are implemented, there’s an additional testing cost.  Larger studios will hire testers familiar with each language to play through the game and check all of the text.  Smaller studios also need to test their games in other languages even if it’s just to make sure all the text is aligned.   For a large studio, this might not be an issue.  However, for a small studio, the cost of testing might prohibit overseas releases.
Even without a ton of text in Nutjitsu, the game still needed plenty of hand-edits and testing once the translations came back.

Other considerations

A major problem for Nutjitsu occurred when trying to go through the rating process for Japan and South Korea.  Neither of these countries have a ratings process in English.  This means we needed someone who could read and write both English and Japanese or Korean to help us through the process.  In South Korea, we were presented with an additional problem.  We were required to have a registered business there before we could go through their rating process.  While not insurmountable, language barriers made communication difficult.
Sometimes the reason for delaying a game in other regions is a simple funding issue.  A company may need to earn money from an initial launch to fund development in other regions. 
Alternately, their reasoning could be to test the waters before releasing to the whole world.  This is a tactic commonly employed in mobile game development where a game is released in a small region to see if it gains traction.  If it does, additional funding is gained to address feedback and then release elsewhere.
Release timing can also play a big part in the success of a game.  Games tend to sell more in holiday seasons or during school vacation time.  Since these vary from country to country, release times may be staggered in different countries to better coincide with times of increased buying activity.  
Ultimately, on Nutjitsu, we had a game that could be released much earlier in the United States because it required no translations and we were already set up to get ratings quickly from the ESRB.  Adding region support and obtaining ratings has been a time consuming process.  Hence, the later release to other regions. 
I know it’s painful to wait for a game to release in your country when you know others are already enjoying it.  However, in most cases, it’s a pain felt on both sides of the coin.  We, as developers, want to bring that game to you as soon as possible!


If you’re interested in game developer insights, follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ben_bascom @ben_bascom 

Friday, May 02, 2014

A Day in the Life: Video Game Producer

Introduction


I’m Ben Bascom (@ben_bascom) and I’m a producer at NinjaBee.  I’m currently working on Nutjitsu which releases soon on Xbox One.  My previous capacities include programming and design.  I've been a producer for several years now and I’m frequently asked what that means.  What is it that I do all day?  Well, it’s hard to do it justice in a few words.  I really feel like I should walk people through my entire workday so they can get a clear picture of what it means to be a producer.  That is what prompted me to document one of my days and share it.  I will preface this by highlighting that every day is different.  This should, however, provide some useful insight to all the aspiring producers out there.


8:50am


My alarm goes off and I hit the snooze.  No such luck.  My daughter spies movement from where she’s been sitting at the foot of the bed and tackles me. I slowly disengage from my 3 year old assailant and make my way to the shower.

I spend a little longer in the shower this morning because I’m tired – I stayed up later than usual playing games last night.

With the shower out of the way, I look at my phone to check my emails.  I’ll probably only reply to urgent emails right now but I want to get an idea of what I’ll be facing once I get to the office.

No urgent emails this morning.  So, I grab a glass of OJ and quickly finish getting ready.


9:40am


I hop in the car and start making my way to the office.  I like taking the time during my commute to think over game ideas.  Today, I’m running through the details of an Xbox One concept that hasn't been fully fleshed out yet.  I know the core experience is incredibly unique but it isn't enough by itself.  There needs to be more peripheral gameplay, more rewards.  Should I toss this idea or should I incorporate it into something else?  

We’ll see.


10:00am


I arrive at work and jump straight to my emails.  Nutjitsu has recently been sent off to certification on the Xbox One and Microsoft has some questions for me.  We’re working with the ID@Xbox guys.  They’re really helpful but this is all new still and, since we’re one of the first to go to cert with this program, there are going to be plenty of unforeseen hurdles. 

I shoot off some more emails to external partners and I hike downstairs to grab some soda.  One of the many cool things about working here is the free soda. 


No Diet Mt. Dew in the fridge and I forgo my standard backup Diet Dr. Pepper and Vanilla Coke Zero cocktail in favor of the Lime Diet Coke that catches my eye.  As I grab my soda, I tell myself that I should drink less of it – but it tastes so good!


10:30am


I walk around the studio to talk with my various teams to see how things are going.  We have an internal chat service that works great for facilitating communication between individuals and groups but I’m a strong believer that face-to-face communication still supersedes that.

I also look for opportunities to praise employees in-person for their work.  I work with some great people so it’s not hard to find things to compliment.


11:30am


It’s team meeting time.  We have a daily stand-up meeting – stand-up because it does a good job at discouraging people from relaxing and shooting the breeze.  This is where I have the opportunity to get a snapshot of where everyone is at that exact moment and to formulate plans of action with all the team members present.  It’s also a good time to share feedback, announcements and remind people of pending deadlines.

The team meeting is for a prototype that we are working on.  It’s nearing the end of the prototype phase and things are really starting to look cool.  I want to share details but, unfortunately, it’s still a secret at this time!


11:45am


We do yearly reviews with all of our employees.  Steve and I are reviewing Paul now.  He’s one of the last employees I have on my list.

I enjoy doing these reviews.  It’s not always easy to have a personal conversation with someone since most employees share an office space with at least one other here.  This is an opportunity to really dig down and see if there’s any way to improve on the workplace experience. 


12:45pm


It’s nearly lunch time so I make sure I round up any loose ends from the work day so far.  I answer the lingering questions that employees have posed me in our chat program and I run through the emails I have received since I've been away from my desk.


1:00pm


It’s time for lunch.  As a management team, we go to lunch together each day to sync on issues around the studio. 

Today, the hot topic is ID@Xbox.  It’s very prominent in our minds because Nutjitsu is in certification.  We talk about the pros and cons and what ID@Xbox could mean for the future.  Naturally, we compare it to our experiences with Xbox LIVE Arcade on the Xbox 360.  Both programs have their good points.  Other indies who are running through the program right now have been contacting us and we've been sharing our experiences in the hopes that they can make smoother progress through the certification process.


2:00pm


It’s time for what I call my daily walk-around.  I have this scheduled on my calendar and try to plan meetings around it wherever I can.  At this time, I try to make sure I get face time with each employee currently under my supervision.  If that’s not possible, due to time constraints, I will at least talk to key people. 

As I walk, or rather, shamble (my foot is currently in a brace) around the office, I have to avoid people doing reps of the stairs.  We have a five-week wellness competition going on at the office right now and one way to tally up points in it is to climb stairs.  I think we’re going to need to replace the carpet on the stairs once this thing is over!

While I’m walking around, I remedy my soda discrepancy from earlier this morning and, while there’s still no diet Dew, I pick up the next best – my Diet Vanilla Coketorpepper Zero cocktail.  I’m so creative, aren't I?


The walk-around time is also a great way to stay in touch and get a feel for what is going on in the studio.  As I move around the office, I walk past a table with all sorts of props lying on it.  Would it be weird to do my walk-around wearing a fake mustache and beard?


2:45pm


Our Nutjitsu submission is missing a file.  I shamble down to the QA department and get the gears moving to remedy the issue.  Jason is on it.

While I wait for that, someone from another studio asked me if we had addressed a similar issue to one their game is having.  I go talk to Paul and Peter to see what they say and shoot a reply back to the inquirer.

I also have a few other emails to send out to external partners.


3:30pm


I have the missing file to deliver but now it needs to be packaged and uploaded.  I need to zip up this file with the rest of the very large package that needs to be re-uploaded. 

While the package uploads, I take the time to review the prototype one of my teams has been working on.  I play it for a while and make some notes on problem areas.  Sometimes, I will have the QA staff enter bugs from my hastily scribbled notes.  This saves me time and, generally, produces better, more useful bug reports. However, since this is a prototype, the QA team hasn’t been involved.  It makes more sense for me to personally enter the issues in our bug tracker.

Lane sent an email letting everyone know a masseuse is coming in next week and there’s a sign-up sheet downstairs for free massages.  This comes around every few weeks.  I’m not normally one for massages but I may have to wander over to the sheet and put my name down – and grab some more soda while I’m at it…


4:30pm


I have some intern programmers on my team who are coming to the end of their internship.  I spend a while preparing feedback to send to their school.  They've been great to work with. This round of feedback isn't too burdensome to write out!

While I write this feedback, I backup the Nutjitsu build from earlier to our network drive.  It’s good to have it there rather than on my computer because the network drive has automatic backups in case of a hardware failure.


5:30pm


I begin rounding up my work for the day.  What this means is reviewing notes from meetings, mentally reviewing conversations I've had and scouring through emails to make sure I've addressed everything that needs to be addressed.  I know from past experience that this phase of the work day will take anywhere from 30-45 minutes on average but, on occasion, it can take much longer.

After the roundup work is done, I review what needs to be done during the next workday.  It looks like I have a day full of meetings lined up but I know I need to finish the remaining employee reviews that are assigned to me.  So, to make sure I have time, I set aside a portion of the day to do a review.

I also need to distribute a build of my team’s prototype to some employees outside of the prototype team in order to gather feedback.  Before I can put a build in their hands, there are some things that need to be fixed.  I scribble down a note on a post-it and stick it on my monitor.  I want to make sure that’s the first thing I see when I come in.


6:00pm


I get in the car and once again put time into thinking about game design.  I am still struggling with the same concept as I was during the morning drive.  I will grind out ideas for this concept over many days and document what I came up with.  I then leave the concept in “storage” for a while and will come back to it after a few days or weeks with a different perspective – maybe to develop it more or maybe to throw it out.


6:20pm onward


I spend the rest of the evening with my wife and daughter.  I receive emails intermittently throughout the evening.  Most I don’t need to respond to until I’m back at work.  However, I keep my eye on them in case there’s an email that needs a faster response.  There was a time where I would have responded to every email but, over time, I have developed a better understanding for what needs to be addressed immediately versus what can wait.  While it’s not always a perfect balance, it certainly works out better for my family now than it has in the past.


After my wife and daughter have gone to bed, I play video games to round out the night.  I’m a night owl, like many gamers.  I play for a few hours and then go to sleep – normally getting 6-7 hours of rest before waking for the next day.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

PAX East NinjaBee booth visitors day 3

I didn't think it could get better but these might be the best looking people in the world. 

















Saturday, April 12, 2014

PAX East NinjaBee booth visitors day 2

This select group of visitors might even be better looking than the previous day's.