Archive for the ‘Developer Interview’ Category

Interview with Landgrab developer: Desau

Sunday, August 14th, 2011 is a Risk playing site that has been around longer than anyone.   I interviewed the developer, Desau to see what makes it tick.

1. LandGrab has been going strong for quite a long time.  When did it start are what was your impetus to create an online Risk site?

Desau: LandGrab was born from an earlier private project I developed to play Risk with some friends back in California while I was living abroad, in France.  That project started in 1997 and was used privately be a small group of my friends for a few years.  That group of friends started growing until the old system really wasn’t maintainable and usable by the larger user-base.  I started thinking of remaking it for a larger (public) audience around 2002-2003, then actually started writing the code in 2004.  LandGrab was released publicly in August of 2005.

2  LandGrab has many features which are found no where else in the Risk playing world.  Which features do you think make LandGrab special and how did you come up with them?

Desau: Yeah — I think just that point sets it apart.  It’s sort of the “kitchen-sink” variant on the net.  There are a number of really good sites out there, but I’ve always tried to make LandGrab the one place where you can find “your” rules. When I was growing up playing the board game, we all had our own house rules.  I played in a number of circles of friends, and a number of different houses.  Each house had its own set of rules .. and they seemed to morph from game night to game night.  So I thought it would be imperative to allow the game creator to set up the rules however he or she wanted them played.
Recently, I added “Bridges and Walls”, which allow the players to control game borders as the game is played, by devoting soldiers to become engineers for a few turns to “build” bridges or walls.  I don’t think I’ve seen this anywhere else, so I consider that one a LandGrab-only setting.  I came up with that idea, as I have most, by just playing the game.  I still love to play it, and I’m always in at least 20 active games at any given time.  I was playing a game and thought to myself - “it would be great if there was a wall here, so I didn’t have to defend this border anymore …”

3.  LandGrab has tons of customizable game settings.  You can adjust the cards, armies, and over all game type.  How do you as a developer decide what to put in and what to leave out?  What are some of the most and least popular settings and have any of them surprised you?

Desaeu: I try to let the user-base drive this.  If I see a particular feature is requested a lot, I’ll probably give it more thought than one that isn’t.  Beyond that, it’s whatever I think would be fun and cool.  More about this in question #8, but since this is a hobby for me, I write code that interests me and keeps me engaged.
Most popular, which surprised me, was realtime.  I never expected so many people would be willing and excited to sit down for 3+ hours and play a full game with total strangers.  Realtime games on LandGrab are much more popular that I had originally thought.  As for rule settings, the “area-based reinforcements” has been a bit of a dud.. it may get deleted at some point.

4. LandGrab allows you to adjust the play style of AI (computer) players as well as change inactive players to computer players (Borgify).  Were computer players part of LG from the beginning or were they created out of need?

Desau:  They were there from the very beginning.  That was actually part of a senior project for my BS in Computer Science.  This was pre-LandGrab, but my original project (discussed in question #1) had computer AI as a research project.  I just ported and improved some of that original code for LandGrab, then it because a natural fit for people who timeout.

5. For those who may be familiar with computer players on the official Risk game on Pogo, or on Lux Delux, how would you say your AI players stack up against the competition?  How much development went into creating and testing their AI?

Desau: I’ll be the first to admit that the AI on LandGrab is pretty bad.  There are times when it can overwhelm you if you don’t pay attention to it, but it’s quite predictable, and doesn’t really think very far ahead, or have a strong decision tree.

6. Some sites have a tightly controlled map creation process, some are more open.  There are pro’s and con’s to both.  Why did LG go with a more open process and how has that worked out?  If you had to pick a favorite map, which would it be, and why?

Desau:  Yeah - I’d say it worked out.  And, I agree that there are pros and cons to each method.  Having a controlled process certainly weeds out bad maps, but I believe that’s the job of the map choosing UI.  That’s why I have a list of endorsed maps — those are the ones that most people see and choose from.  However, if I want to make a silly map to play with my friends for 1 night, why not?  It’s all about letting the users do what they want .. as long as it doesn’t hurt other players.

7. LandGrabs forum community has almost a 100,000 posts.  What are some aspects of LG’s community that make it a success?

Desau:  Not really sure.  I tried to keep it easy to access and somewhat integrated (although not nearly as much as Conquer Club).  I think the game just lends itself to socializing.. so that part needs to be there.  Obviously having some regulars around with their well-known personalities helps.

8. Is it difficult to be a single person development team?  How do you appease the many users and the growing TODO list?  Is LG a full time gig for you?

Desau:  Well — it’s difficult to get a lot of stuff done quickly, but it’s easy to make decisions  :)
If you’ve seen the TODO list on LandGrab, you’ve seen that you can vote for items.  This certainly helps me to prioritize things.  I also read the forums regularly to keep a pulse on what’s working and what isn’t.  High priority bugs (that hit a lot of people) are usually my number 1 concern.  After a major release, I’ll just spend time doing nothing but bug fixing for a while, until things stabilize.  After that, I try to find features that a lot of people are asking for, then mix in some stuff of my own creation.  I’ve got another admin (foist) who is a great help in bouncing ideas off, and he’s an amazing artist — most of the graphics that you see on LandGrab are from him.  When doing development on large new features, I’ll usually consult him to hash out how something should work.
Full time gig - no.. never has been.  It’s always just been a fun hobby of mine.  I currently work at a pretty fast-paced startup, and I’ve now got two kids and a wife, so LandGrab really doesn’t get nearly as much time as it used to.  It’s never made a ton of money, I’ve always done it because it’s a good outlet for creative design and development for me, and I just love to play the game.

9. Not many Risk sites provide a public API.  Are there examples of people using it in interesting ways?

Desau:  One of the users made a tournament manager which allows people to create tournament games and monitor the progress.  That’s probably the biggest project that’s come out of it.  I’ll admit that I’m not really happy with how the API works.  I wrote it using SOAP when the SOAP vs. REST war hadn’t been won by REST.  I have dreams of redoing it all in a much simpler RESTful design at some point, opening it up to a broader base.

10. LG has monthly and yearly premium accounts like many other sites, but LG also uses a coin based marketplace system.   This seems a little confusing to me.  How do the coins fit into the membership model?

Desau:  Yes - this has confused a number of people, and it needs to be smoothed out a bit.  Memberships were there before the Marketplace / Coins came along, so when I implemented the Marketplace and Coins, I left the old membership avenue in place.. you can purchase a membership using a credit card, paypal or google checkout the same as always.
However, you also have a new method of using “LandGrab Coins”.  The Coins can also be used for other things, such as gaming tokens - which allow you to rejoin games, or add another realtime game, etc.
Coins can be earned by playing games and unlocking achievements.  You can also purchase coins (using the aforementioned methods of paypal & google checkout), and you can also earn coins using various ad-based offers.

11. From talking with other developers, it seems that a major thing they struggle with is marketing and getting users.  LG currently has over 70k signups.  Is this something you have struggled with and do you have an tips for what has worked best?

Desau:  I haven’t really marketed it (at least not well). It’s mostly spread by word of mouth and a few review sites.  I do spend a very small amount of money on a google ad campaign, but it drives very little traffic.  Since it’s a hobby site for me, I don’t really care how fast it grows, although it’s nice to have a steady flow of good opponents to play, so I like to keep it active.

12.  What are some general tips to help new LG players not get slaughtered and perhaps win a few points in their first few games.

Desau:  :)  I’d suggest starting with a computer game.  Just start a game with 3 or 4 computer players so you can get used to the interface.
After that, try creating a few games so you know what type of game you’re playing.  If you decide to join a game instead, as you’ve said, there are a myriad of choices, so you need to read the rules screen carefully.
I’d suggest creating your first few games with settings you know.  Perhaps leave out the leaders, fortresses and capitals.  Just set the cards and armies to something you’re familiar with, then play a game with 4 or 5 opponents.    I’d also suggest not doing realtime to start.

13.  Did you expect LG to go on for this long?  Where do you see LG in the future, say 2-3 years?

Desau:  I really had no expectations for it.  Perhaps if it were a business, I’d have come up with a growth projection ..  Perhaps if my day job is wildly successful, and I find myself with a lot of money and time, I’ll spend some of it on LandGrab to turn it into a business.  But until then I’ll keep playing it and adding features and fixing bugs to keep the users happy.
In 2-3 years?  I’ve got a few ideas that I’d like to implement — more things to spend coins on, more things to set it apart from the other sites.  You’ll just have to wait and see  :)
Thanks Desau, make sure you check out net today!

Strategy Game Developer Interview: Afterwind

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

In the first of a series of interviews with strategy game developers, we take a look a a new and promising entrant, Afterwind.

While Afterwind is too dissimilar to Risk to be included in the review section, it will certainly appeal to Risk and turn based strategy gamers.

PRO (PlayRiskOnline):  How would you describe AfterWind in a single sentence?

Ivan (of Afterwind): A browser-based multiplayer strategy on a real world map.

PRO: What was the impetus that led you to build an online multiplayer strategy game?

Ivan: My brother and I wanted some kind of a project together - something with a potential to become commercially successful, but also something we would be passionate about. A website, perhaps, or a web game. A game seemed like more fun - and since neither of us could draw, we decided to make it a strategy game (which doesn’t necessarily require fancy graphics). We felt there was a significant lack of good strategy web games in the internet (though many appeared during the 2.5 years it took to develop our game), especially if you wanted something more complex than a basic Risk-type game. At the same time, web games seemed like the future of gaming, and we wanted to be a part of it.

PRO:  The design of the game and site is very professional.  Describe your team and how long it has taken you to get to this point.  Is AfterWind a full time venture?

Ivan: The team is me (Ivan, design/website) and my brother (Amok, programming) - originally from Estonia, but currently residing in Switzerland and Cyprus. I had a background in web-design (being a freelance web-developer), but zero experience with game development or any non-PHP programming. Amok is very good at programming and his previous job involved some simple Flash game development. We make a perfect team - doing what we’re good at, without intefering with each other’s work. We both have other jobs/projects, so the progress of Afterwind was rather slow, especially on early stages. It took more than 2 years to be able to launch a public beta.

PRO: While not exactly Risk, AfterWind seems to have gone a few steps beyond Risk.  Describe how AW differs from Risk and why you decided to go in that direction?

Ivan: We were big fans of games like Risk and Civilization - however, we definitely didn’t want to create just another clone. We wanted the game to be rather simple on the surface (like Risk), but with some extra ideas piled on top - some borrowed from other games, others our own. For example, the primitive geography of Risk was always somewhat frustrating to me, so one of the first things we decided was to take the action to the realistic world map, present day, with as many countries and cities as we can fit in (160 and 500) and real numbers for population and GDP. We also wanted more than one unit - and having 10 (at the moment) really adds a lot to the variety of gameplay. One of the more radical ideas we had was to abolish all grids and paths and allow players to move units freely, to any point on the map. This decision brought massive technical difficultions, but we felt it was the right step towards finding our own path. These are perhaps the most significant differences from Risk.

PRO: Why did you choose do use Silverlight?  Did you know that another Risk based site, started using Silverlight but recent moved it over to a flash platform?  Do you worry about the acceptability of Silverlight?

Ivan: Silverlight was really the only way to create what we wanted - a complex web game that could hold its own next to regular games. In the beginning we considered Flash, but with its awkward Actionscript and insatiable resource hunger it just didn’t have enough muscle to pull the ambitious game we envisioned. HTML5 was still in its infancy back then, with hardly any browser support. And even today, making an eqivalent of Afterwind in HTML5 would be enormously complicated, not to mention 5 times more time-consuming. On the other hand, Silverlight was a very promising new platform that allowed using C# in combination with XAML, was good for building a server-client type of application, was running very smooth (even in version 1!) and could handle the load well. So, we decided to go with it.
After releasing the game we encountered quite a lot of hostility towards Silverlight - stemming mostly from the fact that it’s developed by Microsoft, and that it’s not available for Linux users. On the other hand, I never heard any complaints about the actual performance of SL, and I myself have only good things to say about SL - developing applications with it is an amazingly smooth experience. We hope that it becomes more widespread in the future and finally gets a decent Linux port.

PRO: Do you have a revenue model?

Ivan: At the moment we’re just focused on perfecting the game and building the player base. We do have some ideas for the future, though - perhaps something like premium accounts.

PRO: The realistic world map is great, but you have any plans for fictional or different maps to play on?

This is something we would like to do in the future. Unfortunately our engine makes it rather difficult to add selectable maps, so perhaps we’ll just concentrate on the one we have and various options for it.

PRO: Describe the current AfterWind community and do you have any plans in that direction?

Ivan: In the beginning we found ourselves overrun by a big group of Turkish players - they refused to use English in the chat and were rather rude on a few occasions. Things have improved significantly after we started advertising on - they have a great community there, and we now have a small slice of it. Overall, people seem to be polite, helpful to new players and interested in game development. We now have a constant stream of ideas pouring through the forum. We certainly want Afterwind community healthy and thriving. We already have the forum and a multi-channel in-game chat, and are planning a kind of ‘clans’ as a way for players to organize into groups. There are many other ideas too - for example, tournaments and card-trading.

PRO: When can we expect 1.0 and what can we expect from it?

Ivan: Most likely there will not be a huge jump in game features once we hit 1.0 - it will just mean that the game is (mostly) bug-free and balanced. I guess we will arrive there soon, since we’re running out of version numbers! (currently: 0.94).

PRO: Do you have a customer acquisition strategy?  The online gaming space is always crowded with new entrants all the time.

Ivan: One thing we’re not particularly good at is promotion. Sometimes it feels like we’re hitting aimlessly at all directions, with little results. Promotion takes a lot of time - precious time that could’ve been used to add some cool new features to the game, and this is frustrating. Even so, we’re quite pleased with what we’ve achieved with our modest efforts - there are always some games open in the lobby, and we gained 1600 registered players in 6 weeks, with more coming every day.

PRO: What would you say is the single most important strategic tip to winning an AfterWind game?

Ivan: Never get involved in a land war in Asia! No, wait… This: choose your starting position wisely!

PRO: Describe a typical AfterWind game.  How long does it take, how many players, what is the commitment from each player look like?

Ivan: Depending on settings, a game can last from 20 minutes (small map preset, few players) to hours (whole world, 10+ players). Games can be limited by setting the maximum number of turns - after which the player with the highest score wins. The maximum number of players in a game is 15 - however, a typical game would have 4-6.

PRO: Do you have any plans for mobile applications of AfterWind?

Ivan: We might be able to port the game to Windows Phone 7, since it has native Silverlight support. Will probably have to strip a few things to make the application lighter, though.

PRO: How has your response to the facebook application been?  Do you find more players using the app or the website?

Ivan: In one word, underwhelming. We expected a huge stream of players pouring in, since there are few games on FB that can compare with Afterwind - however, FB turned out to be a tough market to crack. We estimate that only 1-2% of our players are using the app. When it comes to FB games, there’s an enormous competition, and many of them are really fighting hard for attention. Zynga and several other companies are spending millions on advertisement. We don’t have a big company backing us up, so we’ve only spent $50 on FB ads so far…
There are lots of tricks to make it big on Facebook, and we still hope the application will get noticed. We prefer to spend more time on improving the quality rather than on promotion, so perhaps if we manage to really impress people, word-of-mouth will eventually do its thing.

Checkout Afterwind at