Devlog #9: American Angst also available on MacOS and GooglePlay

A couple of months after the release of American Angst for Steam back in October, I finally published a MacOS version via itch.io back in February, as well as an Android version on GooglePlay last month.

The itch.io version (MacOS and Windows) as well as the GooglePlay version are free to download and contain neither ads nor in-app purchases.

Personally, the Android smartphone app is my favourite experience of the game. I somehow envisioned that’s the way it should be played in the first place, and I also was able to remove some clutter from the game (like the frightfully long and boring intro).

The downloads so far are in the three digits which I am totally happy with. After all, it is a text-heavy game, I had no marketing budget and it is my first attempt into game design.

The feedback has been constructively critical over all, but there has been some praise as well which I’m copypasting below. So if you stumbled upon this devlog and are thinking about downloading it, read the following and give it a try!

„Fun way to waste an afternoon.“ – The Zombie Chimp

„If you like short horror stories, you will enjoy this.“ – Totally Gamer Girl

„A horror story at heart, American Angst is very well written. There’s just enough suspense and thrill that you’ll find yourself biting your nails as you play.“ – GameSpew

„Treat yourself to some textual scares.“ – HorrorTalk

„An atmospheric Text-Adventure with a surprising story.“ – Gwyn Gaming

Download American Angst for free or get it for a 99ct on Steam.

Devlog #8: Release Day!

It’s official: American Angst is out today on Steam!

This is how we got here:

Five months ago, scouring the internet for a tool which would help me create a gamebook akin to the Choose your own Adventures I loved in my youth, I discovered Twine by Chris Klimas.

Twine, in short, is a game engine for choice-based games, or interactive fiction. Employing HTML, CSS and JavaScript, you are able to create a story where the player decides how the story plays out. Which is a good thing, because I have a grip of HTML and CSS, as well as basic knowledge of JavaScript.

This discovery opened up a whole new universe for me: There is whole scene of people devoted to creating and playing text adventures! In the next hours, I explored the Interactive Fiction Database, the IF archive, checked out Choice of Games and other developers, devoured Emily Short’s blog and subscribed to Planet IF’s feed; but more than anything else, I studied everything Twine related.

And then, I started writing.

Right from the word go, I wanted to create a horror-related text adventure. And while the waking-up-with-amnesia setting is, granted, not the most innovative premise for horror (or any genre), it was the perfect set up for my first game.

And here we are, five months later, October 26th: American Angst, a text-based survival horror game with RPG elements and very dark humor, my first game, is being released on Steam as we speak (or read).

I’ve published books in Germany in the past, so I’m not new to writing. But I’m a total noob when it comes to PC games. I haven’t been this excited about a project in a long time. After five months of writing on my own and another month of beta testing with a couple of friends, it’s out in the open, and that’s quite awe-inducing.

I hope that one or the other player will enjoy it. I’ve got ideas for a sequel, so let’s see what happens. Anyway, here we are: Release Day! Woo-hoo!

American Angst on Steam

Follow me on Twitter: @m3g1dd0

Devlog #7: Release Day is approaching! Also, American Angst will be PC-only

It’s been a while since my last Devlog, the reason being that my website broke due to reasons beyond my control and I had to rebuild everything. So I’ll make a quick chronological recap of what happened in the meantime:

  • I set up the Steam storefront
  • I finished writing the game
  • I shipped it to my beta testers (and betatested the hell out of it myself)
  • I wrote and created the Mini Games and finished writing the epilogue
  • I setup Steampipe and put up my build for review
  • The first build was rejected due to the fact I tried to be ironic and put an „actual in-game footage“ overlay on my screenshots, meaning: My build was rejected because the screenshots in my storefront were against policy. Way to go, Misha.
  • I’ve created a presskit.

Yeah, that about sums it up. So, presuming Valve accepts my build in the next 48 hours, I actually might be able to release the game on schedule. How about that.

Now to something related but different:

If you are one of the two or three people who have been following this devlog, you might remember that I was going to release this game for PC and Mac. And yes, there are indeed two fully functional builds, a build for Windows and a build for Mac.

I will say it again: Both builds worked perfectly on my machines and worked perfectly with my beta testers. But after steampiping them up to Steam, only the Windows version worked. The Mac version doesn’t launch from Steam. To be precise: It doesn’t launch at all. So the Mac build that I and my beta testers could play before uploading it to Steam doesn’t work anymore on the other side of steam pipe, neither when launching via Steam client nor when directly launching it from the Steam Apps folder. What the actual f…

I’ve spent the last couple of days researching this bug and trying out different fixes (including an assortment of chromium-args, clearing the download cache, de- and reinstalling the  Steam client, but to no avail.

That’s why I have decided to leave the docks with only a PC version. Hopefully I will be able to include Mac in a future update.

So, this is what has happened since my last update. We’re basically good to go and just waiting for Steam’s ok. As soon as the build is approved, I will confirm the actual release date. Still hoping it will be Thursday, to be honest.

Devlog #6: I changed my mind – I will also be publishing on Steam

I like to think of this Devlog as my thinking-out-loud space on the web. As I am developing my game all on my own, one sometimes just has to start speaking to oneself and going through different scenarios.

Also, it helps to get meaningful feedback, as I did for my last devlog, in which I presumptuously claimed I won’t be releasing my game on Steam. In this devlog I won’t be going into the details of that decision (you can read them in the post), rather, I am going to explain why I changed my mind and how this will affect the release.

So, presuming you read the last devlog, you are aware I made the decision not to release on Steam and stick to itch.io, Gamejolt and Google Play.

Following this post, I received an email from a close friend who basically told me I was being totally crazy, for one specific reason:

If my prime motivation was to find players and get people to be aware of my game, Steam is the place to be, meaning that the exposure I would be getting via Steam would eclipse the reach on any other platforms, including my own website and social channels.

After reflecting on this, I found his advice to be pretty sound. Sure, exposure doesn’t equal downloads, BUT no to hardly any exposure guarantees the game will hardly be downloaded.

But there was still the little matter of the fee Valve wants you to pay to be able to publish on Steam. I’ll be honest: My work in the ad industry pays me enough to have a good life with my girlfriend and dog, but not nearly enough to be able to play around with hundred bucks left, right and center.  But then again: Here in Europe, it’s roughly 87 Euro instead of 100 Dollars.

So, after toying with this thought, I decided I’ll take the risk and give Steam a try. But due to the fee, I will not be distributing it via Steam for free – the game will come with a price tag.

„But… aren’t you publishing the game for free on itch.io and Google Play? Why should anyone pay for it, then?“

Valid and very good question. I thought about this, too, and here is the solution I’ve come up with:

From the get go, I planned to release American Angst with bonus content, eg. a short-story epilogue. I also am working on two mini games from the American Angst universe. So the plan is to release American Angst on Steam as a „Steam Deluxe Edition“ which will include:

  • American Angst (Main Game)
  • American Angst: Murderbook (Short-Story Epilogue to the Main Game)
  • Arkwright House: An American Angst Minigame
  • Kasey’s War: An American Angst Minigame

So, to be clear, the last three positions will be content only available on Steam – I guess that’s fair with a price tag of $2,99 I’ve decided upon.

Now, I am not expecting my game to be a massive hit on Steam – it’s far too niche for that. If I get hundred downloads on Steam that would be huge, I’d have my initial investment back. But what I am speculating on is that a percentage of players who discover it via Steam who don’t want to pay for it might look into the free version and play my game anyway. And in the end, as it is my first game every, players are what I want. To recap: I agree that Steam is a great way to market a game (I underestimated this factor clearly) and I hope having it on Steam will help promote the game generally and raise awareness for it.

Devlog #5: Why I will be publishing via Itch.io and Google Play, but neither Steam nor Apple

So the release of American Angst is still a month away give or take, but I am definitely on the home stretch. Really can’t wait to shove it out into the wild, alas there’s still some work to do.

As you can see from the game homepage, for now I am planning to release it via GameJolt and Itch.io, as well as Google Play for the mobile version. No Steam, no iOS. I would like to explain why. Nobody has asked so far, but I’ll answer the question, just in case, and if it’s only for further reference.

I will start by explaining how this project came to arise in the first place:

I loved CYOA as a kid. A few months back, I had the idea of creating a web-based CYOA and started researching.

Well, this opened pandora’s box. In a matter of hours, I had reviewed and evaluated the different tools available, and soon settled for Twine (not that the others were bad, I just got the impression Twine was the best solution for what I was aiming at).

On my first weekend with Twine, I tried a couple of approaches to games, read through tutorials, copied them, scoured the Twine community. When Sunday came, I had good basic mastery of the engine and was ready for my first „serious“ endeavor.

I am a great fan of 70s horror and splatter movies like The Last House on the Left or The Hills have Eyes: jump scares, violence, dark humour, with some superficial social commentary thrown in for good measure. I also have a slight penchant for trashy as well as high-quality modern takes on the genre (looking at you, Hostel, The Crazies, Wolf Creek, You’re next, Inside, High Tension). Add to this my love for CYOA, Dungeon Crawlers and RPG, and you have the perfect mix for my first endeavor:

A text-based multiple-choice survival horror called American Angst.

This is my first try ever to create a game. I’m not a professional developer, hell, I am not even a spare-time developer. The closest I get to programming is a basic mastery of PHP and being able to work and maintain my WordPress sites.

American Angst is an experiment, albeit one I am taking seriously. I want the best result possible. The game will look great from my perspective, it will have a fine enough story, solid writing (I hope), multiple ends, replay value and approximately 45 to 60 minutes of game play. Absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

That being said, as it is my first try, I feel I don’t want to charge anything for it. So I will be releasing it as „pay what you want“ aka „for free“, because I hope to learn from the feedback (I am hoping it will be appreciated enough to warrant a sequel I have concrete ideas for).

This means, I won’t be making any money off it, and that’s ok, because I really enjoy the experience and learnt a lot. But it also means I am a tad shy about investing real money to promote it.

Steam Direct wants 100 $ upfront per App, Apple wants you to pay 100 $ per year. And frankly, that’s just not the kind of money I’ve got flying around for shits and giggles. Sure, I could charge something for my game, but I’ve decided that’s this is not the route I want to take right now – at least not with the first game.

Let me be clear: I believe in American Angst, I think it’s awesome, but that’s just me. It’s not that I don’t think it has potential (I sure hope it does), but 200 $ just to get my game on two platforms with no guarantees whatsoever is no option at the moment.

So, for now, I’ll be going with Itch.io, GameJolt and the Play Store (for which I payed a one-time fee of 25 $, which is an amount I was willing to spend, as I will be probably needing that account for other reasons as well).

And here’s another thought: I am thinking of including a paypal.me button on the end screen of the game, and if anybody feels he would like to contribute and buy me a coffee, that’d be fair and great. Building on this, if donations ever break through 100 $ (not counting on it to be honest), I’ll release it on Steam – or if downloads across platforms reach 1000 units within six weeks. Whichever happens first.

What are your thoughts on this? Makes sense? Am I missing something?

Devlog #4: About current Progress, multiple endings and their impact on the story

First things first: American Angst is as of now 80 percent finished. Which is a tad disappointing, as I wanted to release it next week, but that won’t be happening. What with our new dog and me underestimating the scope, it’s safe to say end of September, beginning of October is a more realistic timeframe for the launch of the game. Also, this is just my personal ambition, I am absolutely not under the illusion that there are myriads of people waiting for it to drop.

At least 4 distinct endings

That being said, quite a lot of progress has been made in the past weeks. As promised, the game will have multiple endings. Right now, it boils down to four distinct endings, with each distinct ending having variations based on minor decisions throughout the game. To illustrate: If you made major decisions X and Z in the game, you will experience ending 2 in its B variant based on a minor decision you made earlier.

So there basically will be more than 4 endings de facto, but when communicating about the game I will restrict the official number of multiple endings to the distinct ones, because the variations are often atmospheric, less than consequential.

Also, as there are forks in the game, impacting your geographical and chronological progress, which in turn influence the events taking place in the endings, technically there are of course more than four distinct endings. Currently, I am working on the last fork, so the number of distinct endings may change.

One distinct ending depends on multiple decisions you make throughout the game. These decisions impact an „invisible“ psychological variable of the playable character. The state of this variable in turn reveals or hides options throughout the game, and the choices made on these options again impact the variable. Based on your psychological decisions connected to this variable, you may or may not get a specific ending related to the character development in response to choices made, but this development won’t be reflected in the stats in your inventory. I want this to be invisible, organic . While my game is a gritty, pulpy, text-based splatter survival horror, I aim to flesh out the playable character as much as possible.

All in all, I hope this will contribute to the replay value of the game. Given the fact that you only really find out what happened full-scale if you experience all the endings, I sincerely hope players will enjoy it enough to replay it a couple of times. That’s why I am trying to keep the amount of copy and paste prose to a bare minimum. This approach as well has contributed to the release being delayed.

I obviously underestimated the scope of work, so I apologize if anyone was hoping for an early September release – my fault completely. But otherwise, I am quite happy with how the game plays out right now. I am really hoping it will be entertaining to future players. Hope you stay tuned, either here or via Facebook and Twitter.

Devlog #3: Review of and my takeaways from „Strayed“ (by Adventure Cow)

With my writing, I learnt more from reading books than from taking creative writing classes. And I feel the same way about Interactive Fiction: Playing games of other creators helps me improve on storytelling, pace, mechanics, look n feel, etc. The last game I played is called Strayed and was created by Adventure Cow. This is my review as well as a roundup of what I’m taking away from it for myself. Spoiler: I liked it, but I have my fair share of criticism.

About the story

You are in your car on your way home, when you happen upon a forrest. On your way into it, you hear about strange sightings in the woods. Then you run into a wild animal…

I really don’t want to say more, because for one, the way the story develops from here depends on the player, and revealing more would spoil the fun of experiencing the haunting story Adventure Cow have created.

I really enjoyed the 20 odd minutes each run took. Right from the word go, the narration pulls you into the story. I couldn’t wait to find out the secrets lying behind the mysterious happenings in said forest, and every time I finished a run, I restarted the game to take a different path of choices.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Strayed is Interactive Fiction as I like it: You need several runs to get the big picture, but each run has a satisfying ending on its own, depending on the choices you make.

About the execution

The version I played was for Android – I bought it on Google Play. I was quite happy the developers provided night mode, because reading it on dark background actually did contribute to the haunting atmosphere. Stupid, really, as I’ve read tons of horror literature on white paper in books. But somehow, when I play Interactive Fiction, I’ve come to expect the execution to somehow resemble the theme of the game. But I’m getting carried away. So I loved night mode.

The design of the game is pretty simple. Text on background. No images. That’s it. And that’s ok, as the writing does all the work. I don’t really need sound or visuals in Interactive Fiction, in fact, I prefer it when the game is realized purely in HTML and CSS. Because, let’s face it, if I want visuals or sounds, I’ll just play a normal video game. The point of IF being, for me at least, that you’re playing a book. So Strayed’s all good on that side. Sure, personally I’d have preferred for the header to disappear while playing but that’s just me. I was captivated by the story nonetheless.

What I didn’t like about the execution was one particular feature: parts of the narration are variables that change depending on your choices – so far, so normal. In the case of Strayed, these story variables are underlined which disconcerted me in the beginning. In my upcoming game (and in other IF games), in-line text that is underlined (or marked-up in any other way) normally reveals complemental narration or relevant information. In Strayed, nothing happens after a click. It’s just underlined, static text, which I found to be a nuisance.

I’m not quite sure what the reason is that Adventure Cow decided to underline text, but for me, it somehow broke the immersion. Whilst playing, I don’t really want to know what I changed, I like these kind of things to be organic (in narration, that is; I’m not talking about stats).

Maybe the creators would like to comment on this, we’ll see, because I really would like to know the reason behind this decision.

Summary

If you’re into Interactive Fiction and you like mystery or even horror, you should try Strayed. The writing is stellar and it has great replay value. It’s not the most innovative game on the market, far from it – but I’m guessing that wasn’t the intention anyway. It is a nice story and enjoyable IF experience.

Takeaways

  • Good writing is key – if the writing is good, the look and feel are only secondary
  • That said, there were one or two points in the game where I thought, hey, I would’ve loved to have say in this decision or this development. This made me go back and take a closer look at my narration. The last thing I want to do is to take my players hostage. I wrote about this particular subject in this devlog. Of course you have to stay in control of your story and it’s an economical question as well, but I want to avoid narration where I override the player too often.
  • In my game, I’ll opt to not reveal the story variables in play (except for stats et al). But I’d love to hear thoughts from other players, how they experienced this particular aspect in Strayed.
  • The whole product – from the game itself to marketing and presentation – is very, very professional. Adventure Cow are a model to follow.

What did you think of the game? And what would you like to see in an IF survival horror game? I’m currently working on American Angst, a text-based survival horror game. Find out more.

Devlog #2: Escalating Agency in Interactive Fiction

I’ve been thinking about and trying to implement something in my game American Angst I call „Escalating Agency“. I’m not assuming I’m the first to have thought of this, but as a) I am too lazy to google it and b) this is my first game development endeavor, I hope you cut me some slack and bear with me and my possibly incoherent ramblings:

Agency („the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power“ – Merriam-Webster) is maybe the core factor in gaming in general, and no less so in interactive fiction, the genre I am developing my game in. Choice is what set CYOA books apart from normal novels and it transforms prose into hypertext or: Interactive Fiction.

Working on American Angst, I realize that part of the process of creating interactive fiction is finding your place on the spectrum between open world / sandbox games and a rail shooter, between leaving it up to the imagination of the player and an exposition dump.

The way I see it, creating an open world-like work of interactive fiction is practically impossible (at least for a one man team). Take GTA, for example: a simple process like strolling down a sidewalk past cars would require an unreasonable amount of nodes, provided you don’t settle for a cop out à la „You are strolling down the sidewalk, when you pass a couple of cars. Do you want to steal a car?“, which is fine, but, in my humble opinion, not an open world.

The interactivity of a game should not be mistaken with the freedom to try things out and see what works. – Paolo, Molle Industria

And even if one were to create an open world as interactive fiction, I dare say one would be moving away from another core element of the genre: narration and story. Which brings me to this:

As I see it, good interactive fiction is the perfect balance of agency and story / narration. Meaning: You will want to find a rhythm, a beat of enough exposition coupled with sufficient choices.

My immersion in interactive fiction was always killed when I reached a point in the narration where I thought: „Hang on, I would have loved to have a say here, because, frankly, this is not what I would have said or done.“ But then again, I’m often annoyed if get held up with decisions like „What color are my socks?“ – especially when they have no impact on the story whatsoever.

So neither does one want to produce interactive fiction that basically just uses links to replicate the turning of a book (i.e. an ebook on Kindle), nor does one want to end up with an overly clicky game that resembles Mindsweep as a story.

Which finally brings me to the topic of this devlog.

Following the introduction of American Angst, this is what I would like to accomplish with the initial passages (a passage is what an individual node is called in Twine):

  • I want to supply enough exposition to set the tone and establish the setting and atmosphere of the story
  • I don’t want to give away too much and I most definitely don’t want to bore the player
  • I want to organically introduce core elements of the game (inventory, combat system, et al.) without killing atmosphere
  • I want to provide sufficient choice so the player senses agency
  • I don’t want to overwhelm the player with decisions he isn’t qualified enough yet to make (which would be totally my fault)

I feel the last two points are especially significant. While I personally love being thrown right into the story of an interactive fiction and being able to influence it from the get go, it might set me off if the scope of the decision and its consequences are too large. The reasons being I am not immersed enough yet, I have too little knowledge of the character, the setting, the goals, of what’s at stake etc.

So, I want to create enough choice for it to feel like yes, you have agency as a player, but not so much that you get the feeling your choice could be world-shattering right in the first passage.

I hope I’m getting across what I am trying to say. Because this is what I call escalation of agency, i.e. increasing the stakes of your decisions as the game unfolds in alignment with your investment in the game. My theory is – and I am sure this is a no-brainer and I do not assume to be the first to have thought of this but I wanted to jot it down for my own sake anyhow: the risks you are willing to take and the scope of decisions you are willing to make in a game are relative to how invested you are in a story, a character or ideally both, and the investment of course is relative to the strength of the writing as well as the time spent playing a game. Especially in interactive fiction.

Without giving away too much, this is the challenge I am trying to master in American Angst. As I wrote in the first devlog, every choice you make will impact the story one way or the other. One choice may take you down a different branch with totally different experiences (but ultimately the same, only slightly different ending), another choice will keep you in the same branch, seem minute, but will influence your personality significantly which ultimately takes you to a different ending.

But in my humble opinion it is paramount that the stakes are increased gently, subtly; the decisions escalated little by little. Whether this increase in agency takes place linear or exponentially, well, that depends. But the basic premise, that agency must align with a player’s investment, stands.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts? Feel free to follow me on Twitter!

UPDATE: As Emily Short added on Twitter, there are exceptions: „Choice of Games-style protagonist-backstory choices can have a big early impact.“ Which I would agree with. In that scenario, the protagonist is not static, meaning the players’s choice will help form the narrative for a particular personality. Good point.

Devlog #1: 40 Percent done

American Angst will not only be my first Twine game, it will be my first game – period. So I thought I’d keep anybody who might be interested updated here.

We’re nearly half way there, so I thought I’d start setting up my itch.io today, because if you go public, there’s no way back. That’s exactly the motivation I need after having penned round about 23k words so far.

You can find out everything you need to know about American Angst on its Steam page, but I’ll just give a quick rundown of what to expect (without spoiling too much) in the following paragraphs.

American Angst started as an experiment. I was looking for ways to recreate the experience online I had with CYOA books when I was young. That’s how I stumbled across Twine, among others. What I liked about Twine were the possibilities of customization and the independence from a dedicated platform.

I downloaded the tool and started fooling around. Actually, I never intended to build a game. (I have absolutely no background in game development and even when (and if) I finish this game, I’d rather not call myself a developer, as I can’t code in any language whatsoever. Let’s settle for game creator for now.)

But then I read a few tutorials, started playing around, and pretty quickly, I had built the first dozen or so nodes and completed my first combat. This is interesting, I thought. So I decided to challenge myself to creating a little survival horror story in Twine. And when I say little, I mean it. 5 minutes game play max.

Well, here we are now, 20k words later, and we will probably have around 60-90 minutes gameplay, depending on how fast a player you are and what decisions you make (there is a scenario (and I am not speaking of dying in combat) in which you might be finished after 15 minutes, but that scenario is highly unlikely).

There will be multiple endings, and even the smallest decision may impact which ending you will experience. Speaking of „small decisions“: Depending on choices you make earlier on, some smaller decisions may have an impact or they may not due to what you did before. Totally unrelated example: You have the choice to get dressed first and then fix yourself a sandwich, or fix your sandwich first. In scenario B (sandwich first), nothing happens at this stage. But if you get dressed first (which results in time passing), the phone rings while fixing your sandwich, which in turn startles you so much you cut your hand. Stupid example, I know, but I hope you get the gist.

The tone of the story will feature dark humor. There will be swearing, violence, gore, and so on and so forth. So if stuff like that puts you off, I reckon you won’t like the game. American Angst is a pastiche of slasher, survival horror, dungeon crawler and RPG games, influenced by 70s exploitation horror flicks and video nasties like The Hills have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, as well as films like CubeHostel and Running Man, or games like Resident Evil and Dead Space. Of course, I am absolutely not implying that I in any way will reach the heights of said influences – but I will at least try to create an entertaining, maybe even shocking experience.

So, that being said, I hope one or the other visitor feels like following this project. I will be updating irregularly here, and more and more regular the closer we get to the release date, which will be somewhen in September, I guess. You can also follow the project on Twitter or Facebook. Thank you for reading this post.