New Site: WP Tips and Hacks

For years I have been thinking about how successful MacMost has become, and how I can keep it growing. At the same time, I have though about duplicating its success. I’ve really gotten good at updating a resource like this almost every day, and keeping it up for years. So is there another topic I could cover besides Apple stuff?

I think about what I’m good at, what I have a lot of experience with, and what I use all the time. Then just recently it hit me: WordPress. I’ve been using WordPress for a long time. Not just using it, but modifying it and digging into it. PHP, the language it is built on is something I’ve been using even longer.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this was the idea I had been looking for. So I started a new site all about WordPress.

I’ve putting my own spin on it, as I did with MacMost. It won’t be for professionals, like plugin or theme developers, or those that work to build and maintain WordPress for clients. Instead it will be for everyday users of WordPress who prefer to do it themselves. I think this is a lot of people.

All too often when you try to figure out how to do something in WordPress, the answer at some site is: get a plugin. A lot of people out there have sizes with dozens of plugins as a result.
I’m going to try to champion writing small bits of code, or “hacks,” to get things done, rather than always grabbing another third-party plugin. I’m going to teach this the right way, encouraging people to develop their own custom plugin for these hacks. But I’ll also have posts where I mess with themes, functions.php, and various settings. And I probably will talk about some plugins when I think they are worth installing.

I’m off to a great start with this project, having posted every day for the last month. I even jumped right in and created my first Udemy course. It teaches the basics of creating your own swiss-army-knife plugin. Here’s a coupon to get it for only $10.

My plan is to keep it going. I want to add content day-after-day, year-after-year, just as I have with MacMost. I think I’ll enjoy it as it combines my teaching skills from MacMost with my coding skills. There’s a weekly newsletter at the site, so sign up for that and watch it grow!

Posted on November 7, 2018 at 4:07 pm by site admin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: General

WindWord Development Notes

So I’ve been building games professionally for 24 years now. Do I have a process? Not one, but several. And none of those are how I made WindWord.

It started out as a basic idea for a quick word game, something I could punch out in a few days. You have a word search grid and you can make words by linking letters that are next to each other. Lots of games are like this. But my idea was that you had to start with the center letter. Then when you finished a word, the grid shifted so the last letter of the word became the new center.

Once I built that in a few hours, I couldn’t help notice that it felt like you were traveling around on a map. So I made it a map. To make it look more map-like and to get around the issue of whether diagonal moves were allowed, I switched to a hexagonal map.

It is much easier to have a map that is all water and plop down some random islands than it has to have a land map and come up with mountains and rivers. So I did that. And it struck me right away that finding words in the sea of random letters was a lot like sailing. Sometimes you had to tack. Sometimes you had to go with the wind even if it was in the wrong direction. Sometimes you had to do a lot to travel a little, and sometimes you could shoot across to your destination.

So not only did this establish the main game mechanic, but the name of the game just appeared in my head. And the name made me think of 18th century sailing vessels, pirates and old school trading games like Sea Trader and Taipan. It also helped that I am in the middle of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle series right now, which has a lot of ships and trade.

So I put a port on each island and set up a trading game like Taipan. You could buy and sell six goods in each port, and the prices fluctuated as the days passed by. I added a random chance of pirate raids. This turned out to be a good way to encourage players to look for longer words instead of just using two-letter words to move around. The longer the word, the less chance of a pirate encounter.

Pirate encounters in the old school trading games were usually just tun-based fight-or-run dialogs. But since I was already combing a word game with a trading game, I added card battles. You buy cannon cards at ports and then use the numbers on the cards to put a little strategy into the fights.

I started adding lots of little features. There is a mini-map. You can “pray” for help if you can’t spot any good words in the sea use for moves. Each port has a single piece of a treasure map available for sale. Once you have all the pieces you can get the treasure and “win” the game.

There were a lot of nice and juicy programming challenges for me in this one. It turns out that a sea of random letters won’t contain many words in it. Even using weighted letter choices (more e’s, fewer x’s) only helped so much. I experimented with letter pairs, but encouraging good pairs of letters (“ea”) to appear and discouraging bad pairs (“fp”). At one point I used a genetic algorithm that generated seas with letters based on rules to see how many words appeared. Then it mutated the rules to find better rules.

In the end, the best method was to lay down actual words in random paths throughout the game like building a word search grid. Then fill in any blanks with weighted random letters. This not only placed a lot of words directly, but many words have common parts and these often combined with other parts to form new words.

I also had to play with the trading game economics. It isn’t very complex, though. It just basically starts you off trading the least expensive item until you can afford to get the next one. It helps to find a trade route — a quick way to get from one port to the next and then back. And then repeat that for a while. You know, like real life. But since treasure map pieces and cannons are scare, you do need to branch out eventually and travel around the whole map.

So what about the revenue model? I decided to just make this a paid game with no ads or in-app purchases. This kept my design clean. And anyway, I’d like to build up a collection of these purely-paid apps so I can eventually build more no-revenue apps like Island Golf that exist purely to bring more attention to my entire collection of games.

And the game is doing somewhat well. It is definitely my best launch of a paid app since the early days of the app store. Some days are at zero, but on others I sell a handful.

I’d like to keep working on the game. So I hope to get some decent sales in over the next few weeks. I can add so much more to this game. More items to buy besides cannons and map pieces, more combat strategies, more graphics, certainly. If this game does well I could very well decide to focus on it. I have been hoping for some time that a game will do well so I can focus instead of just moving on to the next game. And this would be a good one for that as I would really enjoy it.

Posted on June 1, 2018 at 3:17 pm by site admin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: General

Cribbage vs Robots

I’m experiencing a bit of a creative streak recently, creating several new games so far this year. I returned to app game development after more than a year away from it. My first game in this series, Island Golf, was a success in that I enjoyed making it, remained focused on the app all through development, and really took the time to fine-tune it before release. The result was a good game that had no major problems, even if it wasn’t much of a success in the store.

I followed that up with Nonograms Unlimited. Nonograms are en existing game, so I was simply implementing my version of that game. But this game, which includes ads, was more of a success. I won’t make a ton of money from it, but it looks like it will contribute a small piece to my bottom line from now on.

My third game, just released, is Cribbage vs Robots. Cribbage, of course, is an existing game. So this is just another chance for me to implement it better than existing apps. I think I’ve done a good job at this. I played a lot of other apps and figured out what I like and don’t like about them. I tried to make it quick and easy to play, removing all frustrations in handling the cards on a touch screen.

Since Cribbage is a two-player game, and I wanted to make a one-player app, I had to write a game AI to challenge the player. Writing a Cribbage AI is challenging, as most are. But you really need to balance the intelligence of the AI with its ability to make mistakes. No one likes to play a game and lose. People like to win. And playing against a perfect AI would make this a really bad game. At the same time, a perfect AI would take up a lot of processor time to run all of the numbers. So making a perfect AI and introducing some randomness to it wasn’t the way to go.

So I tried three different approaches. The first plays based off some basic rules that beginner Cribbage players are often told. So it looks for things in its hand and during the play, and applies the rules. The second uses a much more complex set of rules taking into account most situations and also looking at point values of cribs very closely to compare moves. The third is very different, running simulations of what would happen if cards were played or placed in the crib. Instead of considering all possible outcomes, which would take a lot of computations, it runs thousands of simulations based on decisions and picks the card(s) that score the best.

I liked all of these AIs. That’s why I decided to include them all in the game. This led me to the idea of creating “robots” that you could play against, each using a different AI, plus a random element to them to make them more unpredictable. So 6 different robots, two for each AI plus one a little more random than the other.

I actually come up with a fourth AI that I didn’t use, but was very interesting. This was my placeholder AI that I used to test the interface during early development. It was a completely random AI. It picked a random valid card to play each time. The surprising thing was that it played pretty well. After all, to pick 2 out of 6 cards for a crib is only 15 possibilities. So that’s a 1-in-15 chance of getting it perfect, and probably a better than 50% chance of making a reasonable decision that a beginner human would make. Then for the play, there is really only a 1-out-of-4 choice to make, followed by a 1-out-of-3, then a 1-out-of-2, then only one card to choose from. So there aren’t that many options. Often the random choice was reasonable, and sometimes it seemed like the random AI was being very clever.

From reading other developer blogs I know what to expect now. I will get complaints that the AIs are too hard. I will get complaints that they are too easy. I will get complaints that they “cheat” even though they do not. I will get requests from people to include their favorite Cribbage rule variations or suggestions to speed up or slow down gameplay. Cribbage players are very passionate about their game. But the main thing I need to focus on is the game’s success. I can worry about adding options and pleasing players if the game is successful.

Meanwhile, I am already well into the development of my next game. But this is going to be a bit of a weird one. I started making a word game. But the way the game looked moved me to making it a trading game. Right now it is both. I’m not sure anyone will want to play such an odd game. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted on April 24, 2018 at 10:34 am by site admin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: General

Island Golf Development Notes

Island Golf is my first new game in more than a year. That’s probably my longest drought since I started making games in 1995. I’ve been busy developing online courses and had been discouraged by the lackluster performance of my last few games and the App Store in general.

Back in December I actually went looking for an idea for a new game that was small enough so I could spent lots of time perfecting it. I developed some quick prototypes for a number of games and tossed them away. I noticed a golf-like game in the app store that was new and doing well, and very simple. That made me think about one of my very first successes as a game developer.

Back in 1996 I had started making Shockwave games for my own website and was getting a lot of attention. One of those games was called Pretty Good Golf. It was a very primitive 2D golf game. Shockwave didn’t even have hit detection at that point, so I had each fairway drawn with a series of horizontal and vertical ovals. You can calculate hits using simple math with those. The game looks so primitive today. Actually, it looked primitive then too. But in 1996 people were just amazed that you could interact with a web page at all.

Pretty Good Golf was actually the first game I licensed to another company. I continued to improve the game for a couple of years and then stopped working on golf games to move on to other things. So it has been at least 15 years, maybe more.

I started off creating this new golf game in Adobe AIR with one very important goal. I wanted the courses to be generated randomly from an algorithm. I remembered what a pain it was to make the courses for Pretty Good Golf. For this new game, I wanted a new fairway to just appear, and an infinite number of random fairways to come after that. I actually started with the idea that you would just keep playing holes in an infinite golf course.

So I embarked on weeks of development playing with algorithms that I devised to create a realistic-looking course hole. There had to be a fairway, surrounded by rough, then trees. And there had to be sand and water features too. And it had to be playable. And it had to fit on an iPhone screen and an iPad screen. And not too easy or too hard.

I started and tested and tossed dozens of models. I started over from scratch many times. I marked up my whiteboard with diagrams and equations. I loved it. What fun!

Eventually I got an algorithm that worked. After weeks of work on that, it took me about an hour to create a simple interface to “play” the holes. And I had a game where you could play hole after hole, never seeing the same hole twice.

One day I had the crazy idea of changing the background color to blue to see if the fairways would look like an island. It did! A few more adjustments and there were sandy beaches all around and even fairways that existed on multiple small islands where you had to hit the ball across the ocean. And it gave the game an artistic theme! I changed the trees to palm trees and worked on adding jumping dolphins and seabirds flying by.

And speaking of palm trees, I looked for some good vector palm trees and couldn’t find anything that looked just right. How hard could it be since you could make a palm tree with a few simple shapes. So that’s what I did. I spent a day creating an algorithm that created palm trees using math. That’s why all the trees in the game are slightly different. They are all generated randomly! Math FTW!

So the original game presented you with an infinite course. It was more of a toy than a game. So I changed it so you started with a set number of strokes and you saw how far you could get. With 50 strokes you could maybe make it to 7 or 8 holes before running out as a beginner. But someone good could go 18 or even 22 holes.

But after some testing, it turned out that this didn’t work so well. If you played an exceptionally good game, and so got to 21 holes, then it was unlikely that you would beat that any time soon. You would try a few times and then give up.

So I went back to the idea of a normal 18-hole round of golf. I wanted to do a high score board too. In order to make that fair, I switched from completely random holes to random holes starting with a random seed. So each day presents a new course, but the exact same course for everyone based on the date. Now you had a level playing field. And each day the high score board starts fresh. Hopefully this will keep players coming back. I know it does for me.

One difficulty I had to overcome with course generation was to make the holes look fine for such different screens. The iPhone X screen is 1125×2436, a 19.5×9 ratio, while the iPads are all a 4:3 ratio. So too wide and the fairway barely takes up any space on the iPhone X, leaving the top and the bottom of the screen blue water. Too tall, and the iPad screen has lots of water on the left and right. But the fairways had to be exactly the same to make the high score boards work. So there was a lot of compromise there.

How about monetization? Should I put ads in the game? In-app purchases? Or, just charge $2.99? I decided that any of these would hurt adoption of the game at the start, so I came up with the idea of doing it completely free. If the game is a hit, then I’ll pick one of those three in a future update. In the meantime, maybe I’ll get some more traffic to my other games.

Now that the game is out, what next? Well, I want to focus the next few weeks on just getting more people playing. It is unlikely that I will get featured in the App Store, or reviewed by a blog or site or anything like that. That takes luck, connections, or marketing bucks. But this time around I don’t want to be shy about spending money to buy ads from Apple, Facebook, Google and Reddit.

Of course I also have ideas for future updates if the game is a success. I want to improve the high score board with longer scrolling lists so you can see beyond 20. I want to improve the artwork in the game, especially the little pieces of flair that appear on each hole. I’d also like those to reflect holidays with little Valentines hearts, Shamrocks, Christmas trees, and so on. Maybe there should be two courses each day, to spread the high scores out. Maybe a north Pacific theme to the other course. Well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

Posted on February 9, 2018 at 10:54 am by site admin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: General

A Free-First Approach: Thoughts On Mobile Game Monetization

I’m finishing up my first new mobile game in a while. I need to figure out how to monetize it. I wish there was a group or forum with other mobile game creators where I can talk about this stuff, but I haven’t found one. So I’ll talk about it here and maybe come to a conclusion. Or, maybe my thoughts will help someone else.

The most obvious way to monetize is to simply charge for the game up front. This was the original method, and has been around since day one. The problem is that with so many free and free-to-try options, you won’t get that many people to pay for something up front. Sure, if it has a big brand name in front of it, or you can afford to spend a lot on marketing, you can break through that. But for a small indie developer with no brand name content, you’ll just see zeros.

Soon after the app stores got going around 2008 or so, the second monetization method started up: advertising. This is what I use for most of my games. You allow a network, like Google AdMob, to place banners or interstitial ads in your game, the user is annoyed, and you get a steady income. This allows you to keep the game free, so more people will at least try it out. But it sucks from a design and user experience standpoint. Plus, the one network that did this really well, Apple’s iAd, doesn’t exist anymore. AdMob only pays a fraction of what iAd did.

Most big mobile games make money through in-app purchases. From a game design standpoint, you can have nice purchases like game levels or more content. But that’s not the model that really makes money. The big apps all sell in-game currency or objects. Often, you need these to advance, or at least advance quickly, in the game. The hope users get addicted to the game and then fork over the bucks. This works great when you have a ton of users and marketing money. It also requires a deep game with a lot of internal content. Small casual games can’t really do it as well, which is why it has never really worked for me.

So here’s where I am going with all of this. I have a new game to launch. I can just stick ads in it. Or. I can just charge for it. The first one may work, but I hate it and it really complicates the design. Also, when I first launch the game I can’t expect to have too many people playing, which means I won’t be seeing any real revenue anyway. So why not start with no ads, and then add them later if the game gets popular? This should increase the chances that the game is a success, right?

Or, if I plan on charging for it, I know it will be a failure right away. No one will pay $3 or even $1 for a game they have never heard of from a company they have never heard of, with no reviews. But if I start it out for free, I can always charge for it later, right? So why not start it for free, and if it fails then it would never have worked as a paid app anyway. But if it succeeds and gathers some reviews and downloads, then I can switch to charging for it.

Or, I can do in-app purchases. But that would require the development of a lot more content. I’ll need new game modes, features, etc. But I can start it out as a free app and then add all of that content later on. At that point I can start charging for the new content.

So all three monetization methods seem to work with a free-first approach. I put the game out for free. Then I can decide whether to charge for it, put ads in it, or add content. Heck, I can do all three. People that downloaded it for free can’t complain (though they will). And I can make one of the in-app purchases to remove the ads.

So a free-first approach is just the logical approach. But then why don’t I see it more often? Maybe I’m just not looking for it. Maybe these free-first games have already moved on to the paid/ads/in-app stage by the time I see them.

And there is one more advantage to the free-first method. There is a halo effect when a game does well. People will seek out other apps from the same developer, partially because the app store shows them. So if the game does well I should see an increase in ad revenue and sales from my other games even while this new game is free.

OK. I think I have talked myself into launching my new game as a free and ad-free app. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted on January 12, 2018 at 5:20 pm by site admin · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: General