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Now Available: "A Picture Perfect Murder"

A new hidden-object adventure game from Storm Dragon SoftwareTM

Image of A Picture Perfect Murder main menu.


  • Find clues.
  • Interview suspects.
  • Play minigames.
  • Solve the murder.



Double click to view full-screen.


News and Views

Random comments about playing and developing games, developing game engines and other custom software,
running a small business in retirement, and life.


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Kaila

Just discovered your blog. I can't wait for this to come out also.


09.28.16 Tools, Part 2: Game Engine 4.

I mentioned in passing a few days ago that different game engines have different capabilities. In developing Storm SurgeTM, Madison focused on building an engine that would produce the type of game we liked to play. I played a lot of games in the hidden-object/adventure genre all the way through, and I played the one-hour demo from BigFish of quite a few more that I didn't like well enough to buy. Then Terri and I brainstormed about the types of mini-games and puzzles we like and don't like. Storm Surge supports almost all of the ones we like (even if they didn't make it into "A Picture Perfect Murder," and doesn't (yet) support ones that we don't like. The currently supported mini-games and puzzles are these:
  • Hidden-object puzzles. For those sensible people in the audience who have avoided addiction to these games, in these puzzles you are faced with a cluttery scene and a list of items, and you have to find each item.
  • Find an object, e.g., spot the difference, or find the five butterflies.
  • Misplaced object, e.g., pick up an item that's out of place and put it away.
  • Jigsaw puzzles.
  • Matching objects, e.g., turning over tiles to find mates, or matching pairs of items in a large group of similar items.
  • Tile swapping, e.g., repairing a mosaic or ordering a set of books on a shelf.
  • Cycling puzzles, e.g., Latin Square puzzles or interlocking, turning tracks.
  • Sliding tiles (which didn't make it into "A Picture Perfect Murder.")
Several of these games are shown in the trailer above. We also put in a couple of custom-scripted puzzles -- note that these did not require any additional coding, and you could add your own custom-scripted puzzle using the editor.


09.27.16 Tools, Part 2: Aside.

Speaking of production schedules and budgets, I've been running and participating in software-development projects since 1998. I have yet to meet a programmer who will admit that a piece of software is finished.  Guess what Madison is doing right now.  Marketing the game, right?  Wrong.  He's modifying SpectrumTM, which is what displays the graphics in "A Picture Perfect Murder." Spectrum already works, or we wouldn't have a game. He's just making it do more.

Every programming team needs programmers, obviously. What may not be so obvious is that every programming team that expects to finish a project needs a hard-nosed and unsympathetic manager. Unlike the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert, this manager must know the difference between additions to the software that (a) must be made, (b) should be made, (c) would be nice, and (d) are just the programmers' desire for endless improvement.


09.26.16 Tools, Part 2: Game Engine 3.

Let's talk about the specific capabilities of Storm SurgeTM and how they affected the development of "A Picture Perfect Murder."

First, Storm Surge was designed specifically for 2D hidden-object/adventure games. If we ever decide to build the zombie apocalypse shooter I mentioned before, we'll need a different engine. However, the playing time and complexity of the 2D games produced by Storm Surge are only limited by the designer's imagination, production schedule, and budget. The playing time for "A Picture Perfect Murder" is probably 8 to 12 hours, depending on how skilled you are at this type of game, how many hints you use, etc. We could easily have designed the game to include more scenes, more characters, more clues, more puzzles, and just generally "more." As a matter of fact, the original concept did have additional scenes and puzzles, but we ran up against the production schedule and budget (refer back to 09.08.16 to 09.10.16) and had to leave some of them out.

Zombie shooter concept art by Ducks intern Daniel Phelps.
Storm Surge doesn't have a built-in limit on the number of hidden objects in hidden-object scenes, although as a practical matter you're limited to the number of things you can show in the scene. "A Picture Perfect Murder" has 12 hidden objects per puzzle, but you could put in more or less. The hidden-object scenes turned out to have a much higher nuisance-to-reward ratio for the graphics team (i.e., me) than the other games did, so next time around, we'll probably have fewer of them, or at least no more of them even if the overall game is bigger. (You can do what you want, but I'm just sayin'.) In "A Picture Perfect Murder," the list of items to be found is at the bottom of the screen. When you find an object and click on it, it moves to the list, and the item is scratched off. In your game, you can put the name list just about anywhere you want to, or you could make the item and name disappear or whatever, depending on what animation you want to design.


09.23.16 Tools, Part 2: Game Engine 2.

Asking how much an engine will cost is like asking, "How high is up?" They run from free to expensive. Wikipedia lists about 170 game engines, many of which are free, so why would you either buy or develop one? There are two good reasons for buying an engine or getting one free:
  • Your coding skills aren't up to building your own engine.
  • You don't want to spend a year and a half (about what it took Madison, working alone) developing an engine.
There are also good reasons for developing your own engine:
  • Madison is kind of a do-it-yourself guy, which is one reason people make anything that they could buy. He knows exactly what the capabilities of Storm SurgeTM are and how to add or work around anything I want to put in the game that isn't supported already.

  • It may be that no free engine is available that does exactly what you want and that works. Some of the free engines work just fine, I'm sure, but it's entirely possible that you could invest time an effort in developing a game using a particular engine, only to discover some glitch at the end. For example, I have purchased a few games with flickering graphics. (I've never seen the graphics from Storm SurgeTM flicker.)

  • If you plan to create a series of games, building your own engine means never having to pay additional license fees, and the second game goes together much faster and cheaper.

  • If your engine is good enough, you might be able to sell it and recoup some of your development costs. Just remember that you have at least 170 existing competitors.

09.21.16 Tools, Part 2: Game Engine.

Say you have downloaded a game, such as "A Picture Perfect Murder." Three chunks of data go onto your computer. One chunk is the graphics, which to you means, "the world you see in the game," and to me means, "all the stuff I've been talking about for the past week and more." A second chunk is the game scripting, which is a particular game, as opposed to another game with different graphics and plot. The third chunk is the game engine, which you don't ever see, but it's what takes, say, the tile graphic I showed you on 09.14.16 and displays a single tile, lying on a background, that flips over when you click on it. If you want to build a game, you need a game engine. A number of reviewers have listed pros and cons of various game engines; just search for "game engine reviews."

Which game engine you need depends on what kind of game you want to build, how well you want it to work, how much money (if any) you have to spend, how soon you want your game to be on the market, and so on. We wanted to build a hidden-object/adventure game.  Well ... Madison and the interns actually wanted to build a virtual-reality, massively multi-
Zombie shooter concept art by Ducks intern Daniel Phelps.
player, zombie apocalypse shooter, but what we felt capable of building as a first game was a hidden-object adventure game.  Madison decided to build a game engine of our own, which he did, and which we call Storm SurgeTM. I'll talk more about Storm Surge in the next few days.

We're still greenlighting. If you have a Steam account, please wander on over and give "A Picture Perfect Murder" a Yes vote, and share this post with all your friends.


09.20.16 Tools, Part 1: Graphics Software.

I've only worked with a few graphics packages -- PowerPoint, Photoshop, Paint, DAZ Studio, blender, Sketchup, Spectrum Works Studio, Picasa, PhotoStudio Suite, and a few others that I tried in demo and rejected completely. Here's the one thing that I learned: NONE of them do everything, and NO PAIR is completely compatible. Caveat emptor.


09.19.16 Tools, Part 1: Graphics 5.

Jpeg files are compressed, which is why the same image gets smaller if you start with a bitmap (.bmp) and save it as a jpeg (.jpg). Small is good--nothing wrong with small. Small image files load faster and take up less room on your server or hard drive. Unless your image goes through several compression steps, your eye is unlikely to notice any difference at all. Unfortunately, jpeg file compression for images introduces what are called "compression artifacts," and boy! does your graphics software ever notice them! Here's an example of how that can complicate your life.

On the top, we have a black square against a red background, saved as a bitmap. Then I chromokeyed out the red to put the black square in the middle of a randomly chosen image -- ONE step with Spectrum Works StudioTM. No muss, no fuss, no need to cuss. On the bottom, the bitmap has been saved as a jpeg. Taking the same ONE step to chromokey gives us the sloppy result on the bottom right. By fooling around with the chromokeying settings for several minutes, I eventually got a square, but I could still see, with the naked eye, a very dark red, 1-pixel frame on the square. So the moral is, work with bitmaps (or other lossless formats, such as .png) until the last possible moment. And even at the last possible moment, most of the images you use on top of other images in your game, e.g., in a hidden object puzzle, may have to be saved as bitmaps or PNG files, depending on your game engine. That way your solid background (compare the fuchsia from 09.13.16 and 09.14.16) will disappear completely when you either chromokey or make it transparent in real time in the game.

Work with bitmaps to avoid compression artifacts.

09.16.16 Tools, Part 1: Graphics 4.

Lighting is another important aspect of photorealistic graphics. In yesterday's image (left), it seemed to me that the trio was dark in comparison to the background. I turned up the lights a little (right) -- remember that the backdrop doesn't change at all with lighting -- and now they blend in a little better with the scene. Now, shadows are a function of the shadow catcher, not the lighting. With the brighter lighting, the old shadows were a little on the pale side. I adjusted the alpha setting on the shadow catcher to darken the shadow: brighter lights, darker shadows. Now the guys look like a real part of the scene.

Make the lighting consistent to add realism.

09.15.16 Tools, Part 1: Graphics 3.

When I started playing hidden-objects games intensively as research for developing our own game, I immediately noticed that they are typically rather gloomy and dark. (Not all of them.) When I started creating our own, photorealistic graphics, I figured out why. It's because if you light the scene, you must put in shadows, and shadows are a pain in the neck.

Your eye doesn't even notice all the shadows in the real world, but if an object doesn't have a shadow in a picture, it appears to be floating in space (left). The shadow anchors the object to whatever it's sitting on (right).

Shadows provide realism by anchoring characters to the ground.
DAZ Studio allows you to put in shadows using a shadow catcher, but the making the shadow catcher is somewhat tedious. I simplified the process by making a separate DAZ project with two shadow catchers, one horizontal and one vertical. For each game scene, I made a DAZ project with a background image and all the items that needed to cast shadows. Then I merged with my shadow-catcher scene with it. Sometimes I needed more than one set of shadow catchers, for example, in the corner of a room you might need two vertical catchers for the walls and one horizontal one for the floor. With only hours per scene of moving things around, I could get the shadows to look as if they were being cast onto the furniture, floor, or whatever, in the background. As I said, a pain in the neck, but the results make the scenes much more realistic.


09.14.16 Tools, Part 1: Graphics 2.

Let me just say here that Spectrum Works StudioTM, which Madison built, totally rocks. You can use it to layer, reposition, chromokey, resize (by pixels or percentages), rotate (by as little as 0.01 degree), crop, and flip images. Even with all that capability, it's simple to use. In fact, it's the only piece of software I used for graphics that was not annoying; it is a firm policy of Ducks in a Row, Inc., that we do not build annoying software.

In just a few minutes, I took yesterday's graphic, chromokeyed out the fuchsia, rotated the plates by 15.5 degrees and resized them by 90% to fit into the square background, and flipped the tiles horizontally and vertically. The project has 5 files -- three copies of the original image and two white rectangles to copy some of the bits that weren't cropped out. Because I can layer the file files in any order, the white rectangles are over some of the images and under others. It's taking me longer to tell you what I did than to do it.

By the way, chromokeying is greenscreening, except for any color you choose. I used it lot in developing "A Picture Perfect Murder," but it's not yet as easy as we'd like. Madison needs to do just a little bit of work to improve the chromokeying algorithm, but as soon as that's done, we think we can sell it at a very competitive price. We'll let you know.

Illustration of game graphics modified with Spectrum Works Studio.

09.13.16 Tools, Part 1: Graphics.

To create a game like "A Picture Perfect Murder," you need three basic tools:
  • Some sort of graphics package.
  • A game engine.
  • An editor for the game engine.
This week I'll talk about how we did the graphics. Most of these games appear to have hand-drawn graphics, but we chose a more real-world, photo-realistic look and feel to go with our murder-mystery plot (check out the trailer above). Some of our images are videos and photographs, but most of them are computer generated, principally using DAZ Studio and Google Sketchup. Almost all scenes had a mixture of the two types of graphics. Once we created the individual background and object graphics, we used Microsoft Paint and our own burgeoning proprietary graphics package, Spectrum Works StudioTM, to construct the final scenes and puzzles.

More graphics are needed than you might think. For example, in a hidden-object puzzle, there's a background containing none of the objects the player needs to find. Each object and its shadow is a separate graphic. If any hidden object overlaps another -- or even the shadow
Illustration of game graphics development.
of another -- separate graphics are required for Object A without B, Object B without A, both, and neither. (Needless to say, I tried to avoid having them overlap!) Finally, you need an icon for the object as it moves down to the list or goes into your inventory. The upper left image on the right shows the difference between the glass and its shadow in the scene and the icon that moves to the list.

Almost every item that you can pick up has a highlighted and unhighlighted form (upper right).

In our tile-matching puzzles, the turning tiles are animated, so we needed a graphic for the tile back, tile front, tile 1/4 turned, tile 1/2 turned, and tile 3/4 turned (bottom). All the tile backs, tile 1/2 turned, and tile 3/4 turned are the same, but for every single tile we had to create unique graphics for the front and 1/4 turn. And so on for every puzzle and scene. Planning and developing the graphics took about half of the total time spent on the game. Bottom Line: Allow about four times as long to produce the graphics as you originally estimated.


09.12.16 What IS "A Picture Perfect Murder"??

Sometimes it's easy to get focused on the details of creating a game and forget that not every person in the world knows what a "hidden object/adventure game" is. Today, by special request, I'll give an overview of the genre and our game. These games go by several names, e.g., casual, hidden object, and adventure games. The "casual" part means that they typically take less than 10 or 15 to complete. Our beta testers, who are experienced in this type of game but did not take part in development, took roughly 8 hours to complete "A Picture Perfect Murder." The "hidden object/adventure" part tells what kind of puzzles you can expect. There's usually a plot of some sort, in contrast to, say, Match 3 games.

In our game, you play the part of a freelance photographer who used to be a crime-scene photographer. You are currently shooting an old mansion that's being converted to a bed & breakfast. Unfortunately, right after you arrive, one of the staff is murdered. You work with the police to solve the murder before the grand opening. You play a number of "mini-games" or "puzzles" to find clues:
  • Hidden object puzzles. Remember those drawings for kids where you have to find six hidden animals or whatever? Like that, only harder.
  • Jigsaw puzzles.
  • Tile-matching puzzles. You turn over two tiles at a time until you find the ones that match.
  • Tile-swapping puzzles. Sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Spot the difference. Again, this is something you see in children's magazines, only much harder.
  • Cycling puzzles. You turn groups of items around on interlocking tracks until they are in the correct positions.
  • Adventure. Remember the House that Jack built? Say you need to dig a hole. You need a shovel. There's a locked shed. You can see a key inside a glass case. So you need a hammer. Eventually you find a hammer in one of the games, you go back to where you saw the case and break the glass (lots of random vandalism in these games), return to the shed, take the shovel, walk back to the place you need the hole, and dig the hole. In the bottom of the hole you find a clue.
Playing each mini-game gets you a tool or clue. Finally, you use all the clues in a fairly difficult logic puzzle to solve the murder.

So that's what it's all about. It's fun; buy today!


09.10.16 Running a Kickstarter campaign.

What do you suppose Kickstarter has in common with driving traffic to your website? Right! In both cases, the rich get richer and the poor get ignored. It's a lot easier to raise money through crowdfunding if some crowd somewhere is already panting for your next game/movie/CD/book/whatever. For the rest of us, the Kickstarter success rate is only about 35%.

Nevertheless, we decided to give it a try. Kickstarter, for unknown groups like us, is basically an organized way of begging from your family and friends. We did have a handful of contributors that we didn't know (thanks!), but mostly our family and friends pulled us through. Here are some of the campaign techniques that helped us meet our goal of $5000:
  • First, our goal was only $5000. This wasn't nearly enough to finish the game, but it funded our intern for long enough to finish a specific aspect of the game. We squeaked in with $5101, but if we had asked for much more, we wouldn't have gotten anything. You must be realistic about how much money an unknown can raise.

  • Second, we made what I considered (as the writer/director/editor, so some bias there) a funny video for the campaign.

  • Third, we posted quite a few updates in an effort to remind potential contributors that we still wanted and needed their help.

  • Finally, we pestered our family and friends with email until they contributed just to shut us up. Remember:  organized begging. I think we sent out three or four rounds of requests. Some people actually thanked us for sending the reminders, saying that they had intended to donate the first time and then forgot.
Ultimately, our Kickstarter campaign was a lot of work. We did manage to fund our intern for a while, but the income/hour was not particularly high. (It turns out that Clang had the same problem, even though they made $526,000.) If you only need a few thousand dollars, you may want to consider getting a part-time temp job instead.


09.09.16 Legal ways to fund game development.

The one thing you need to know if you decide to go into consulting is this:  Save money while you're making it. (Knowing something about the topic is also helpful.) Consulting is always flood or drought. Fortunately, we already knew this when we started consulting, so when we switched over to working on our indie game full time, we had some savings to pay a lot for things we needed for the game and a little for salaries. I'd say that lasted for a year or so. Then we were really, really broke, and the game wasn't done.

That left us with several options:
  • Go hungry. That would have been okay for a day or two, but it wasn't a long-term option.
  • Get a job. This one would have brought us back to time=money, seriously delaying the game.
  • Beg.
We decided to go with begging, although apparently I was the last person in the universe to learn about Kickstarter. One of my sons showed me the (very glossy) campaign for some sort of real-motion sword-fighting game engine called "Clang", but at first I had no clue how this related to my need for cash. When I finally got it, and when we had been broke for quite some time, Madison and I decided to try a Kickstarter campaign of our own.



09.08.16 You want to build an indie game?

You've seen the warnings: "We're professionals. Don't try this at home." You probably don't have to be a professional to build an indie game, but you do need a modicum of skill, loads of stick-to-itiveness, and either a big team or a lot of time. I'm going to walk you through the process that we followed to fund, create, and market "A Picture Perfect Murder." You may decide to go for it, or you may decide to work for a living, which -- I'll be honest, here -- is more reliable and less time-consuming.

The first problem, of course, is eating. It may come as a surprise that until you are already selling games, no one is going to pay you to build your indie video game. If you're living at home with mom and dad, no problem, but otherwise you need a job, and at first we had contracts designing and developing software for a client. This provided the money we needed, but as you know, time = money. Therefore we didn't have the time we needed, and for a while progress was very slow. When the contracts ran out, we suddenly had more time. Then the money ran out as well. Tune in tomorrow to see what we did about that.

MadDavid's Programming Tip: Fund your game by giving up haircuts.


09.07.16 "A Picture Perfect Murder" makes a sale on Amazon!

Yay! We've sold "A Picture Perfect Murder" on Amazon! Since virtually every relative, friend, and acquaintance we have contributed to our Kickstarter campaign, initial sales have taken a little while to get started. Our good friend Cynna McLaughlin has three books out, and she says she gets a little endorphin rush every time she gets royalties, even if it's her mom who made the purchase. But we're excited because apparently a stranger to us has bought our game. Whoever you are, if you're reading this, thanks, enjoy the game, and please leave a review on Amazon!

09.02.16 Driving traffic to your website: A Baker's Dozen Hints.

Let's summarize:
  1. Driving traffic to your website is hard work. Unless you are made out of money, you're the one who has to do it.

  2. Even if you are made out of money, SEO offers should be viewed with scepticism. You can do it yourself better and cheaper.

  3. Add material regularly, even "daily," although I add occasional large chunks of material to my other website, and that seems to work fine.

  4. A good solid first sentence, in a good first paragraph, reflected in a good description of 155 characters, is essential.

  5. A title telling what each page is about in 55 or 60 characters is one of the few things you actually control.

  6. Search engines don't look at comments, but people can, so be careful what you put in them.

  7. Don't obsess about keywords. Google and Yahoo don't use them and may penalize you for spammy ones.

  8. Do obsess about backlinks. Get on directories. Ask for links from related pages. Post useful comments on other sites.

  9. Traded links are of lesser value, but not worthless. Paid links are of almost no value.

  10. Link out to related sites, but check your site regularly for broken links.

  11. Create an RSS feed.

  12. Figure out what you can give away for FREE. It's the most powerful word on the web, aside from "cat."

  13. Use cats.


08.15.16 "A Picture Perfect Murder" is on Humble Bundle!

We're pleased to announce that you can now buy our game, "A Picture Perfect Murder" on Humble Bundle as well as here in our own store. I haven't completely figured Humble Bundle out yet; Madison is the one who has been working with them. It is clear that they are an established store for computer games and digital comics, at least. They apparently run specials where a few games or comics are bundled for sale together. Part of the purchase price goes to charity. As I learn more about Humble Bundle, I'll let you know.


07.15.16 2:00 p.m. This just in: "A Picture Perfect Murder" is for sale on the Amazon Digital Game Store.

In addition, there are two books titled Picture Perfect Murder and one titled A Picture Perfect Murder, not to mention numerous other books titled A Picture Perfect [Something]" or [A] Perfect Murder. Now, I distinctly remember checking the title at the time without finding much of anything. I guess this title is just an idea whose time had come.


07.15.16 "A Picture Perfect Murder" is finally finished and "on the market."

What this means, in practice, is that instead of spending our days doing something we know how to do - software development - we spend our days doing something we don't know how to do - selling software.

There are a number of online game retailers, and so far we've been in touch with seven of them. Two have not responded at all. One said it wasn't their kind of game. One said they need "Steam keys," which means you have to be on Steam. One said they "wanted to like it" but thought it would be too difficult for their customers to play. One is taking a long time between steps, and one seems to be in the process of accepting it.

We haven't tried Steam yet, because as near as we can tell, Steam is now crowd-sourcing the decision on what to accept, and no one has heard of us. Which brings us back full circle to doing what we don't know how to do: marketing.

All that said, obviously you can and should buy the game here!


07.16.16 One of our Kickstarter rewards was a signed certificate with unique art work from the game. One backer immediately framed his certificate and hung it in his den! While we were creating the physical certificates, I decided that "next time" we will do digital certificates that people can use as the desktop wallpaper on their computers. After this backer's reaction to the paper certificate, I may have to rethink that. Kickstarter reward certificate

More News and Views

August 2016 - Driving Traffic to Your Website
June and July 2014
May 2014


Accessibility

All Storm DragonTM games are tested for use by red/green color-blind players.

Our beta-testers play the game both with and without sound. Hearing-impaired players can enjoy the game in its entirety.