On making a Coconut Queen-like game

Hi, just some minor updates.

I came up with a more entertaining storyline.

I’ve been investigating costs and logistics for developing for tablets instead of desktops.

I’ve been looking at development platforms, and programmers. Sadly, I cannot hire anyone out of pocket.

I know someone who can help establish a Kickstarter campaign, but the numbers don’t look good. Celebrities and high-profile properties can break the $10,000 barrier, but Coconut Queen (and Andy Megowan, for that matter) are neither.

So I’m sorry, but it’s not currently looking good.

Free Advertising for RadioLab

Two weeks ago, Alice and I gave birth to our first son, Tumnus Fisher Megowan. We did something that, even a year ago, would have been unthinkable to us: we had a home birth. Tumnus was born in a special birthing tub that we rented from our midwife, and which I groggily inflated in the middle of the night when Alice’s labor contractions began.

Thirteen hours later, with a couple of close friends and a birthing team, our midwife instructed me to reach into the water below my wife, and my hand rested on the emerging head of our baby. Seconds later, Tumnus slid into my hands and I lifted him out of the pool where the experts could unwrap the umbilical cord and make sure that his throat and sinuses were clear, and then set him on my beautiful, exhausted wife’s chest.

I could go on (and I probably will later) about the powerful emotions and memories from that day, but I thought I would pass on an image to any fans of the syndicated show, RadioLab. It just happened that I was wearing a RadioLab t-shirt that day. I wanted to share the image with folks who work on RadioLab as a little “Thank You!” for the shows that have shed a little more light in our lives.

How Coconut Queen 2 Will Be Made

The majority of the admittedly light traffic to this site is from people looking for a sequel to Coconut Queen. Search Engines send them here, to an explanation for why Coconut Queen 2 was never made. Basically, the publisher never recouped their investment. There are a few reasons why:

  • Coconut Queen was an entry in the category of Building games, an established genre with a clear leader: Build-A-Lot.
  • When it was released, it was a brand new franchise. That always takes more work to get noticed than a sequel. Like, say, Build-A-Lot 3.
  • iWin releases a game a day. The budget for marketing any one title is minimal, unless strong early sales indicate that a marketing push will  earn back the money right away. Coconut Queen didn’t generate strong early sales.
  • The wrong marketing art went out to everyone. We had rough images of our title screen that somehow went into circulation instead of this:

they sent out this:

  • The highly anticipated Build-A-Lot 3 came out the week before Coconut Queen. This was iWin’s choice, to release at that time. That made it difficult to ask people for more money for a similar game a week after they spent money on a known, low-risk sequel.
  • iWin also decided to release Coconut Queen at a premium price of $20. Build-A-Lot 3 was a third of that cost, at $7.
  • iWin insisted on an exclusive to their site for the first month, limiting visibility in the hopes of driving up sales at the highest profit margin.
  • When Coconut Queen was made available, iWin attempted to recoup their costs by insisting that all partners carry Coconut Queen at the higher price.
  • The name didn’t resonate with male customers.
It was an experimental business model that had proven successful and profitable for iWin on their established franchises such as Jewel Quest, Mah Jong Quest, and Jojo’s Fashion Show. It didn’t work. iWin attempted to find other projects to use my game development talent for a few months. I pitched several ideas, but the market was in flux as mobile games and social games were dramatically transforming the playing field and business models. After a few months without any projects being approved, I was let go.
iWin owns the rights to Coconut Queen, and iWin will not make Coconut Queen 2. End of story.
…or is it?
The business models that drive game development have changed a lot in the past few years, and very dramatically in just the past few months.
  • While there are tens of thousands of game developers, the world knows the names of half a dozen. Doublefine Entertainment’s Tim Schafer is one of those names, and when he solicited game development funds via Kickstarter, the product was crowd-funded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. That kind of investment is a no-brainer for game fans.
  • The Indie Fund covered the development of the game Q.U.B.E., and made back their investment in four days.
  • Even more amazingly, the Indie Fund recouped their $55,000 investment in Dear Esther–which is not only not even a game, but is also a remake of a free productin under six hours.
The major event here that allowed these amazing success stories is just that: the story. The same held true for the remarkable indie game MineCraft. The world paid attention to the stories of the creation of these games, and so people became engaged–and subsequently invested–in the stories that compelled them. People around the world saw opportunities to, for a few dollars, become part of the solution.
So the story of the game being born matters to people now. That’s great. Customer and Creator can connect to each other like never before. What else? There’s plenty more.
Free-to-play games and microtransactions are two business ideas that have made a huge impact. The investment risk has been eliminated for customers, and that raises the comfort level with spending a little money on entertainment. Customers can now even decide what aspects of a game to spend their money on, and while not everyone pays to play, the percentage of people who do are paying more than an estimated retail price, and doing so more comfortably.
Online updates have changed things, too. Packaging costs have gone out the window. The cost to update, at least on more modern delivery sites like the App Store, Android Market and Steam, is negligible. It used to be that patching a game was as pleasant as standing in the RETURNS line at a department store. Basically, you were there because a product was defective, and you had to go through the hassle just to have what you already paid for. What a pain!
That has changed.  It’s not just bug fixes. It’s easy to update your games and apps, and developers can continue to enhance, improve and extend the game at no extra cost to you.  It’s more like someone stopped by, cooked you a nice meal in your own kitchen, and did the dishes before they left!
“Wow! Andy, does this mean you’re going to make Coconut Queen 2 now?”
Yes, and no.
Here’s the no. iWin still owns Coconut Queen. They own the product, the license, the art, and the programming code. I will not make another game in that universe. That particular story, incomplete as it is, is finished. I can’t afford to fund development of such a big game. I have a day job that involves 40-60 hours a week of Not Making Coconut Queen. And my wife and I are expecting our first child in a matter of weeks.
Here’s the yes. I can’t make a sequel, and I won’t make a knockoff of my own darn game design (Cumquat King, anyone?) but I can make a spiritual successor. It will have a new world, new characters, and a new plot. But it will feel familiar. When you play at nurturing this world, you will know that it was created by the same folks.
This time around, the development cost can be dramatically reduced, as I can release the game a piece at a time. The distribution can be broader than ever before, as I’m not tied to iWin for marketing and game exposure, and I can target Macs and PCs and phones and tablets all at the same time instead of just going for Windows.
But I can’t do it alone. I need a team, and I need the time to do it. I can get both of those things with money. There are dozens of fans. With hundreds, I can begin production!
Oh, and I have to decide: will this next version start on another tropical island, deep in a forest, or at a desert oasis?

The Daddening

Three weeks ago, while on vacation at Disneyland, Alice and I learned that she was pregnant. It did a lot to explain why her tummy had suddenly become so finicky, and why the mere thought of pickles would make her drool.

The baby has been the subject of nearly every conversation since then, and planning for the future is always on my mind. Looking back over the past few weeks, I can’t even conceive of what would be occupying our attention right now if there had been no news of a pregnancy. But for a while, it remained somewhat abstract of a prospect. There were very few immediate or drastic changes to our lives, as we had been discussing the prospect of starting a family for years. So it just got a little more urgent, so what?

Two days ago, we had our first ultrasound appointment. The moment the image on the screen, being taken from Alice’s belly and projected on a screen, showed a tiny figure, that’s the moment I will remember, second only to the announcement of the pregnancy. It was the moment that we first saw our child. It was the moment that there were clearly now three of us.

Ironically, this means we are going to stop going to Disneyland for a while.

Eulogy for My Grandfather

On the night of April 21, 2011, my grandfather Joseph Splingaerd passed away in his home in Southern California.  He was 92 years old, just a few weeks short of his 93rd birthday, and had been in failing health for quite some time.  I decided speak at his funeral mass, and spent the past week agonizing over what to pick, out of 40 years of memories, as the right words to say.  I knew that no matter what, many things would remain unsaid, and that was hard to live with.

I ultimately decided to let others speak of his remarkable history, positive traits, and achievements, and instead allow myself to focus on my relationship to “Grandpa Joe”, some stories and memories that would make people smile and laugh, and to take the scary step of allowing people to see the parts of him that remained alive in his grandson.  It would be risky and audacious to make those comparisons, and a delicate matter to invite laughter at a funeral mass, and I approached the podium with a speech that was unrehearsed.

Today I read it aloud, unrehearsed, to the congregation of his loved ones.  It was received better than I could have hoped, and I was told afterwards–by many of the people who had been closest to him–that I had succeeded in evoking his memory, and my resemblance to him.

I would like to now share with everyone that eulogy.

“I wanted to write something that I thought Grandpa would like.  I hope you like it, too.”

“Thank you all for coming.  Let me start by saying that, twenty years ago, I was overseas and missed my grandmother’s funeral, so I will have a few words about her, too, by way of goodbye.”

“Last night, I arrived here in Los Angeles by plane, and walked from the gate to the baggage claim area down a hallway that hasn’t changed in decades, and this triggered a memory.  When my sister Cindy and I were children, the airport was a place that we went to, more than for any other reason, to pick up Granny and Grandpa for one of their visits.”

“Dad would park the car in the lot and we would all walk to the international arrival gate next to baggage claim.  I would scan every face walking down that long hallway towards us, until we spotted one another, and there we would all smile and wave to one another.  We would all chat happily as we piled into the car and headed home, where Cindy and I would eagerly bounce around the guest room while Granny and Grandpa unpacked, because we were eager to see what toys they had brought us this time.”

“Mom, Dad–  since Granny and Grandpa can no longer get into trouble, I can finally confess:  When you weren’t around,they would spoil us.  No, no, it’s true.  For example, when Granny and Grandpa had a house just a couple of miles from ours, and I would visit them, there was a bowl of candy on their coffee table.  In that bowl was a particular candy that became one of my all-time favorites.  So, when there is candy on a table somewhere, and you notice that the strawberry candies with the gooey centers are missing, I can now look you in the eye and say: (pause) Granny and Grandpa made me do it.”

“But let me talk about my Grandpa now.  Age 91.  Almost 92.  I think that’s a new high score.  It means that Grandpa and I were born a half century apart.  And we were born on opposite sides of the world, to completely different cultures. But we still had some special connections, a few things in common, a little symmetry in our lives here and there.”

“I can start with the obvious physical similarity.”

(I touched by bald head here)

“Yes, I inherited his hairline, which skipped a generation and landed squarely on my head, so thank you, Grandpa, for that.  I also inherited his waistline, and expanded on it a little.  But it looks like my Uncle Pete didn’t dodge that particular bullet.”

(“I’ve been waiting 40 years for a chance to tease Uncle Pete.”)

“Life in China was something else we had in common, if only for a little while, but that little bit counts, because we each fell in love with, a pretty girl at about the same age, in the same city of Tient’sin, China.”

“We both enjoyed creative expression through music.  I am sure that for everyone here, some of your most powerful memories of Grandpa are going to be of his amazing singing voice.  When I started reflecting what I would talk about today, the details of conversations, fishing trips, and family gatherings are blurry compared to the strong, sharp memories of his singing voice.”

“For my sister Cindy and me, some of our first memories of Grandpa are of sitting on the living room floor as children, listening to a cassette tape that he had made of himself singing us various children’s songs.  Later, the sharpest memories would be of his voice filling a church without the aid of any microphone.  To this day, when I think of—or hear—any of those children’s songs, like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, or religious songs, like Ave Maria—I hear his voice.”

“I have one more thing to share with you about his voice.  Grandpa had a wonderful, distinct greeting on the phone, and I found it easy and fun to imitate.  When I would phone home and my Mom would answer, I would frequently use that voice when saying “Hi!”  I don’t think she was ever fooled, but it still got a laugh out of Mom so I kept at it for the past ten years.  I won’t be doing that anymore, but I thought you all might appreciate my insight, because imitation, in addition to being the sincerest form of flattery, involves becoming, for just a moment, who you think that person was.”

“Here is how you do it:

You make your softer and gentler, but keep it clear.

Expand your chest to hold a bigger heart.

And into the word “Hi”, you inject all the joy of a doggy greeting his pet human.

Or, as I realized this morning, the joy of peering into a crowd at the airport and recognizing the face of someone you love.”

“Thank you, Grandpa.  And goodbye.”

April 4, 2011

The Frugal Game Studio

Warning: Lots of technobabble in this post!

In addition to taking on contract jobs in the games industry, I also like to work on my own projects.  It effectively means that I run a one-person game studio out of my home.  I was fortunate enough to have been at two tiny startups in my recent past, one of which was unfunded and one of which was fully funded. In a small startup, you get accustomed to having a small number of people wearing a large number of hats, being absolutely devoted to the products, and figuring out to do things efficiently and inexpensively.

I am working on a game  that I call Dragonlings, which is a light action strategy title about herding baby dragons.  I think that the game would be marvelous on tablet devices such as the iPad, but there are some challenges.

  • I have an all-Windows household, which makes development for any Apple hardware difficult at best.
  • Adobe’s Flash would be a great way to develop a cross-platform game that runs on multiple machines, but Apple explicitly forbids Flash from running on their mobile devices.
  • Development for Apple hardware is done in a language called Objective-C, which is syntactically different from the other major object-oriented programming languages.  In other words, Apple forces its developers to learn a language and method of development that is a non-transferable skill.  They require a high level of commitment and a high barrier to entry for making iOS products.

There are a few development packages out there which can ease the pain for such developers.  The ones of most interest to me are those which let me develop the game in Windows, and then easily port it to iOS devices.  In my case, I picked Unity3D.

Unity3D is a 3D, cross-platform game engine that works on desktop machines and a great many mobile devices.  There is a basic version for free, and a “Professional” version for $1,500.  The basic version is sufficient for prototyping a game, so that’s what I’m using.  If the game has potential, then I can decide at a later date to upgrade to the Professional version.  At that time, I may go out and buy a cheap Mac so that I can easily port the game to iOS, too.

I have been working with Unity for about 8 months now, and have a pretty good understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.  One big problem is that Unity is largely incompatible with Version Control systems, which are how multiple people can collaborate on a single project, and maintain an accurate paper-trail of every change made to a project.  Unity offers its own, proprietary solution for $500 a seat.  It’s not great, so I’m reluctant to fork over that much money for a flawed solution.

Instead, I am using DropBox, a free application that synchronizes a directory across as many machines as you like.  It’s not the optimal system for version control, but it does allow me to drag a copy of the latest version of Dragonlings into a folder on my machine, and have it automatically update that same folder on the machines of anyone whom I am sharing the game with.

I have a strong aversion to letting anything slip through the cracks on a project, so I favor meticulous note-taking, followed by frequent reorganizing of those notes.  Getting these hundreds–if not thousands–of “to do” items out of my head, and into some medium that I trust, is vital.  It clears my head of the nagging worries that I’ve forgotten something, and allows me to fill my brain with the stuff that I’m actually working on at the moment.

Since I’m a one-man studio without a budget (’cause there’s no money!) or a deadline (as soon as possible!) I do not need to track estimated times, dependencies, or load-balancing among a team with several people on it.  Mostly, I just need to track elaborate, hierarchical to-do lists that are constantly being elaborated and updated.  For this, I use the free online application CheckVist.  Like DropBox, it can be shared among many people if I like.

There are other free tools that I am using to make my projects, which I will talk about later.  But for now, I need to get back to work on Dragonlings!

A Note on “Coconut Queen 2″

Recently, a fan of Coconut Queen contacted me to ask about the sequel.  It’s true, we tried setting the game up to end on a cliffhanger, with lots of unanswered questions, to help push for a sequel.  We loved making that game, as the subject material was rich with humorous opportunities wrapped around a very solid mechanic.

But the sequel was not meant to be.  As I explained to George T., the game was a critical success but a commercial flop.  I won’t go into the reasons, but the game made back less than 10% of what it cost to develop it, by my calculations.  Under those circumstances, no sane company would throw more money at a franchise, and I’m not one to disagree!  To compound things, the publisher owns the rights, but has gotten out of the casual games industry in favor of a new core competency, and I am no longer with that company.


For George and the few other fans, I dug up my notes on CQ2, and will share them here:

Liz made her way to the other side of the island, to find a mirror image setup of the situation she was in, only with a man on the throne, surrounded by beautiful women.

What players would have found out next is that Arthur (yes, the protagonists are Queen Elizabeth and King Arthur) had a similar situation.  The natives, who were transplants from Colorado half a century before, had established the original Lui-Lui resort, but had been unable to agree on how to rescue their island from financial and ecological disaster.  The natives had finally agreed to try two approaches–tourism and agriculture–in relative isolation from one another.  They did their best to pick “clean slate” candidates, and give them nearly completely free rein in tackling their respective problems.

CQ2 would have focused on Arthur’s story, starting a little bit before Liz forced the eruption of Mount Kaba-Lui (an event that one of the level designers with a degree in geography assured me was utterly impossible).  Where the first game had you more or less banishing the ugly industrial side in favor of better looking tourist attractions, CQ2 would have you focusing on how to make the best of the food production aspects of life on Lui-Lui.

You would get to meet the female counterparts of Kane, Manu and the rest of the gang on the other side of the island as we poked fun at concepts of “male fantasy” this time around.  Picture beautiful women in CoCoCo Coconut Bikinis, an emphasis on gadgets to solve problems, bamboo hot rods and motorcycles (which we cut from the original game), and more.

I wish I could have continued the story and the type of gameplay, as I like “Environment-as-character” mechanics.  It’s not entirely out of the realm of likelihood that a sequel could be made, and retroactively boost sales of the original, thereby justifying the investment after the fact.  It happened with Westward, another of my games.

But game development is not free.  The cost to you, the player, is $7 to $20 for a few hours of entertainment.  The idea is that a game will make back its development costs through a high volume of sales at a low price.  And there’s no guarantee that we could bring that gang back together for a project.  Even if I heavily reused the art and engineering from the original, I’m talking $50,000 to develop, at a bare minimum.  It would take 5,000 people paying $10 each and then waiting several months for a return on their investment.  I think Coconut Queen, at her best, sold 3,000 copies.

You might think “How about going episodic? Sell each episode for $5-$10, and let each one fund the next?” I’d be for it, but that effectively shuts the door on the major distributors like Big Fish Games.  The casual game portals will not sell partial games, modifications to games, or expansion packs, only complete games.  They understandably don’t want to be in a situation where a developer forces them to carry a certain product, because it’s required by another product.  Every game must be a complete, standalone experience.

That being said, I’ve seen some remarkable crowd-funded projects.  This one’s a bit daunting, though.

So there you have it.  The passion was there to make a sequel, and the people who played the game enjoyed it, but the numbers didn’t add up to make a commitment to develop it.