Vector Unit Senior Programmer Steve Mariotti is a man of few words, but his professional history speaks volumes about his illustrious career in game development. He started writing games while in college at the University of Texas at Austin, and says, “Game development found me. There was never any question that I was going to do anything else after I was about 20.” He’s a bit sheepish now about the Shareware Sinistar clone he’d written back then, but it got him his first gig.
Fast forward, and after shipping over fifteen games later, Steve has held titles such as Technical Director and Lead Programmer at companies like KIXEYE, Nihilistic Software, Stormfront (where he originally met VU founders Ralf and Matt), Activision, and Atomic Games.
As a programmer, the best part about the job for Steve is the variety in working on new and interesting things, and not knowing what’s coming next (in a good way). At Vector Unit, he enjoys working with an awesome (and incredibly efficient) team. He also finds it refreshing to be at an indie developer that can be completely autonomous (without publishers, investors, etc.) so the quality of the games is never sacrificed for a schedule or crazy marketing initiative. He laments one time (at another company that shall not be named) when someone told him that the entire interface was the “wrong shade of green” … three weeks before shipping. It took him three solid days of working around-the-clock to redraw every bitmap. There’s none of that at Vector Unit!
Professional life aside, Steve is a funny guy who will undoubtedly give us funny stuff for our Twitter feed as time goes by. He’s a self-proclaimed nice guy, father to two girls (aged 15 and 12), loves heavy metal, and plays guitar. When asked about his band, he says, “Yeah … it’s not really a band. It’s a concept band called Please Leave. It’s a band that you hire when you want people to leave your party. We only know three songs, and they’re really bad.”
His advice to young aspiring game developers, especially programmers, is to dive in and just make games. “If you’re a programmer, always just program. If you want to make games, write your own little ones, download other people’s source code and experiment with it, get involved with the mod community, and read Gamasutra. For AI programmers, check out AIgamedev.com run by Alex Champandard.”
When pressed for Easter eggs in Riptide GP2, he hints at one but will only say, “It’s more literal than most Easter eggs.”
Almost every week we here at Vector Unit get a support email like this one:
I just received my credit card statement and realized that my child has made these purchases in your free game Beach Buggy Blitz. These purchases were made without my permission, and I don't understand how your application can allow this. I would respectfully request a refund on them.
Many parents are not aware that it is possible to make purchases within the "free" games they download for their kids. Furthermore, they apparently don't realize they can protect themselves against this kind of unwanted activity.
In the interests of human decency (and hopefully as a way of cutting down on a few support emails) we'd like to share some thoughts on why these purchases occur...and what you as a parent can do to prevent them.
Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
First of all, it's important to realize why these purchases even exist. Google Play and the iOS AppStore are crowded with hundreds of games that are free to download and play. Obviously these are very tempting targets for most parents, since ... well, they're free, right?
There's only one problem: They're not really free.
See, every so-called "free" game in the app stores has some built-in mechanism for making money after you've installed it. There's a good reason for this: game companies are businesses, and they exist to make money so they can continue to develop new games. It just so happens that by attracting players by making games free, and then charging players in game for stuff later, developers can often make more money than if they just charge once for the game up front.
There are 3 main ways developers make money in a free game. (Some paid games employ these as well):
- Show ads. These can be banner ads or full-length video advertisements for products such as apps, toys, or fast food restaurants.
- Present players with "offer walls" which prompt them to install yet more apps in exchange for, say, gems or coins in the game.
- Offer a selection of "In App Purchases" or IAP. These often take the form of bundles of in-game currency like coins or gems that can be spent within the game to unlock more content. Prices on such IAP can range from $1 or $2 all the way up to $99 or higher.
It's the third option -- IAP -- that concern most parents. (Although honestly you should be just as aware and concerned with #1 and #2). Parents are sometimes shocked to discover that these IAP are so easily accessible within the games. Indeed, many games repeatedly push the player towards the store where IAP can be purchased. Some games are particularly aggressive about "monetizing their players" while others (like our game Beach Buggy Blitz) take a relatively hands-off approach.
But make no mistake -- if you download a free game for your kids, it almost certaintly will contain IAP. It will try to encourage your child to click on those IAP buttons. And it will try to make the purchase as frictionless as possible. And once your kid starts clicking, there's nothing to stop them from clicking again, and again, and again....
So what can you do to protect yourself against a nasty surprise on your credit card statement?
Password Protect Your Account
This is probably the most basic way to protect yourself. Every app store has an option in the settings to require a password before somebody can purchase anything on the credit cards associated with the account.
For Android devices like the Galaxy S4 or Nexus 7:
- Open the Play app (aka Google Play) on your device
- Click the 3 dot menu button in the corner of the screen
- Select Settings
- Scroll down the list to the "User Controls" setting and turn on the item that says "Password: Use password to restrict purchases"
For iOS devices like the iPad or iPhone:
- Open the Settings app on your device
- Click on "General"
- Click on "Restrictions"
- Click "Enable Restrictions" and set a password
- Once restrictions are enabled, you can turn on password protection for lots of different behaviors on your device. You can restrict all of iTunes, or just In-App Purchases, or even exclude particular ratings like "mature content".
- You may also wish to change the re-lock time limit from the default 15 minutes to "immediate".
For other devices like Kindle and BlackBerry 10, please see the support pages for those particular devices.
Once you have a password protection set up, any time your child tries to buy something, the service will bring up a dialog requesting a password. Then your child can ask you for permission to make the purchase, and you can chose to allow it or not.
WARNING: On those occasions when you agree to unlock the device for your child, be aware that on some systems (like iOS), the device will stay unlocked for a period of time and allow subsequent purchases without re-entering the password. On most systems you can change this time or even eliminate it.
Use Gift Cards
If you have older kids and you want them to have a budget or allowance for games, gift cards can provide another option.
You can use your Google Play or iTunes account without a credit card -- just go into your profile settings and remove the credit card on record. Then if you want, you can buy $10, $25 or other gift cards and refill your account to some set limit. As long as your kids don't exceed that limit, they can make whatever purchases they want.
Play in Airplane Mode
Switching your device to Airplane Mode disables internet connectivity and thereby diables unwanted downloads and purchases. This can work well as a quick fix for smaller kids, but don't be surprised if your three year old already knows how to turn the WiFi back on.
Educate Yourself and Your Kids
If you've read this far, you may have already realized the single most important fact about giving your kid games to play on your phone or tablet -- there is no such thing as a free game. Unless you've played the game yourself and have verified otherwise, you should assume that every free game on the market has IAP in it. Just knowing that is half the battle.
Spend a little time to read the game descriptions and user reviews before you download them. Maybe even search the web for a few reviews on blogs and websites. Most responsible developers will tell you in the game description if the game contains IAP. On the iTunes store you can see a list of the top 5 most popular IAP if the game has IAP. On Google Play it's harder to know without actually downloading the game and trying it.
It would be nice if all app stores had a little badge that alerted you whether a game has IAP or not, but we're not there yet.
Random thought: Of course there are other benefits to knowing more about the games your kids are playing. Not all games are age-appropriate for all kids, regardless of what they're rated. Plus, let's face it -- some games are good and some games are lousy. Just as with books or movies, you probably would rather your kids play high quality games. Right?
The other half of the battle is explaining to your kids how these devices work, and that clicking on buttons in the game can cost you real money. Just like you wouldn't allow your child to take money out of your purse without your permission, explain to your child that they are not allowed to make purchases or download games or stream movies or do anything on your tablet or phone without your permission.
Although even if you do explain all this, it's probably still a good precaution to require a password. Not only will this act as a backup for your kids, it will protect you if your device is ever lost or stolen.
Although I firmly believe that the responsibility of monitoring and protecting children's digital activity ultimately lies with their parents, game developers and publishers can and should take steps to aid and assist parents trying to make educated choices.
First and foremost, developers should always clearly state in the game description whether a game contains IAP.
Second, when parents do realize that there have been charges on the account they didn't expect, and request a refund, developers should give it to them. No hassles, no hoops -- just give it to them.
At Vector Unit, we already take these precautions with our games. But maybe we could do more. If you have ideas or thoughts, please comment below or send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to hear them!
So yesterday I finally -- FINALLY -- had the chance to dive into the future of gaming with Oculus Rift.
Let me say first of all I have a huge crush of the idea of virtual reality. You kids might not remember this, but back in my day -- hold on, let me get out my corn cob pipe -- back in my day we went to places called video arcades to play video games. And in one of those arcades way back in the early 90's I had the chance to play Dactyl Nightmare, one of the very first VR games.
It had terrible flat shaded polygonal graphics, head tracking slow as molasses, and a giant helmet that weighed down your head and filled your face with moist public-utility smells. And after I played it for the first time (for the first time, note), I totally barfed.
It was awesome.
Well OK you had to stretch your imagination a bit. OK a lot. It's hard to believe it now, but back then to my fevered teenage brain it really seemed like true virtual reality was just a few years away.
And then a few years stretched into 20 years.
And then Oculus Rift showed up.
If you've followed all the hype, like I have, and if you're a huge VR nerd, like I am, then Oculus Rift has basically reignited your hope that totally immersive VR gaming and entertainment is here. Or almost here.
We don't have a Rift dev kit here at the Unit, and I've been dying to try it. They had it at GDC last year, and E3, but everywhere we went there was a massive line and I couldn't spare the time. So yesterday at the Gaming Insiders Summit, I jammed over to the Oculus VR booth to try it out as soon as I could.
And I have to say -- after all the hype and build up -- I was a little, just a little, disappointed.
The potential is so there. It's really close. Obviously the 3D has improved a bit since Dactyl Nightmare. And the headset is about a million times more comfortable.
The big problem is the head tracking latency. The demo guy told me it was about 15 ms but it felt like more than that. What it means is when you swing your head around to look at something, it takes a little while for the view to catch up. So every time you move your head, you're reminded that you're looking at a screen and not a world.
Latency also by the way is largely what's responsible for the motion sickness that people sometimes feel in VR. (Remember my little issue with Dactyl Nightmare.)
The good news is the folks at Oculus VR know all this, and they have a ton of really smart (and well funded) people working to solve this and other issues. In his talk at GIS CEO Brendan Iribe said their goal is to get the latency down below 10ms. And oh by the way their CTO is John Motherlovin' Carmack, and HIS goal is to get it down below 5ms.
There are other issues too, screen resolution, spatial tracking, etc. But I think all this stuff is solvable once -- if -- they work out the latency. And while I know this is a Herculean technological task -- c'mon, it's John Carmack.
So, OK yeah I was a little disappointed. But I had 20 years of expectations built up.
Mostly I came away with the feeling that we actually are close this time. And the huge amount of money and interest that Oculus is generating right now are the magic ingredients that potentially can push it over the edge. It's just technology. It's a completely solvable problem, and once it does get solved...
One of the most common questions we get is what advice we have for people who are thinking about getting into the games industry.
Here's what I usually tell people:
1. That thing about parachutes and colors
First, realize that there are lots of different types of career paths into and through the games business. There's game design, programming, art, animation, audio, marketing, advertising, testing (QA), project management, etc. Even on small teams like ours games are usually made by multiple people, each contributing something unique.
Identify your area of interest: What skills do you already have? What are you passionate about? What do you think you could be good at? If you feel like you have options, you might also want to consider how hireable/desirable different professions are. Programmers have an easier time getting hired and typically get paid more than, say, game designers. But of course it takes more time to train up your skills in programming.
It's not a bad idea to get a college degree. I know you hear stories all the time about people getting into the tech business without a degree, but trust me, it's easier if you have one. Recruiters and interviewers will just take you more seriously, and in a competitive industry like ours every little bit helps. It doesn't have to be from Harvard or anything -- there are a lot of vocational schools these days that have great game design departments.
Your degree doesn't have to be game-specific. I have found my B.A. in English to be extremely useful to me throughout my career; it helped me move from production artist to lead artist and creative director. I would not be where I am right now without it.
3. Show your skills
Equally as important as a college degree (maybe more important) is your portfolio of work. Of course that makes sense if you're an artist, but it applies if you're in other disciplines as well. Looking to get into programming? Roll your own rendering engine or physics demo. Designer? Create level layouts and spreadsheets with ability/stat balancing for an RPG. Marketing? Write up analysis of a popular game franchise and create marketing plans for how you would launch the next iteration in the series.
One piece of advice I have about portfolios: It's better to have just a few really high quality examples, than a bunch of mediocre examples. Be a ruthless editor and don't include anything that doesn't measure up.
When you're first getting started, you won't have a lot of on the job experience, so you need to create your own experience. The best thing you can do is team up with other people from other disciplines and try actually making some small games. Mobile, PC mod, whatever. Don't be too ambitious, just concentrate on small, quick, fun games that you can learn from, set aside and start a new one. Every game development experience, even the bad ones (sometimes especially the bad ones) is a learning experience. And employers in the future will love to see that you're motivated and creative enough to do stuff on your own time.
4. Job? I don't need no stinkin' job!
You'll probably ask yourself at some point: Do you even need to get a job? There are a lot of opportunities for small indie game developers these days. You can make your own stinkin' job, right?!
Technically this is true. But remember that are 1000's of games released every day on mobile and PC, and 99% of them don't make any money. Of the remaining 1%, 99% of THEM maybe make enough money to buy themselves a coffee every day. I know it's tempting to skip getting a job and go straight to founding your own mobile development studio. And that might work for you. But if you can manage it, getting a job at a major company like Zynga or Kixeye or EA or 2K is an invaluable experience, and one that will give you a big leg up on the competition if you ever do decide to try the indie thing.
When you do get a job, here's some random bits of advice:
- Be humble and realize that there's a lot to learn even from the most basic or mundane-seeming gigs in the industry.
- Look up from your desk and absorb as much as you can about the process of making games that's happening all around you.
- Meet people outside your discipline or department. Learn what they do.
- Ask questions.
Above all be patient, it's a competitive industry to get into but it can be an incredibly rewarding one!