The Game Nook

What should we play on our Barnes and Noble Nooks? Here, I'll tell you about my favorite new, and unknown Nook games. Have a great game for the Nook? Drop me a line at support AT and I'll try to take a look at it!

On to Ocracoke

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Screenshot of Ocracoke taken in Unity editor

The first version of our new game/research project, Taxi Dash, was released on the Nook and Amazon Appstore about a month ago.  Since then, we’ve put out one major update to the game to add a daily challenge. In our next update (coming later in June), we’ll add a new town (Ocracoke) and a new type of vehicle (boating) along with some other minor improvements.

When I first started planning this game, I asked my children (ages 5 & 7 at the time) what we should put in the game. “Fish!” they said. After questioning them a bit, I realized that they wanted an undersea experience, complete with mermaids, seahorses and sharks. For a number of reasons (and mainly for our research project), I ended up focusing the game on cab driving, where your main challenge is to find your way through a town, avoiding obstacles and enemy cars. But, I wanted to come back to the undersea idea, and our next update is a step in that direction.

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Tugboat screenshot taken in Unity editor

Ocracoke is an island town, based on the real-life town found in North Carolina. Like the other towns in Taxi Dash, Ocracoke was chosen as a location that had personal relevance to my family, and to let us introduce a new type of vehicle. In Ocracoke, you still drive around a land-based town in your normal cars, but there are two locations where you can switch from a car over to a boat. You pilot your boat in the same way that you do a car, but there will be new obstacles (mines, sharks) to deal with in the water!

With the addition of boats, there will be several new vehicles to choose from in Taxi Dash. As with cars, you can buy new boats, such as our speedboat) and select which boat you want to use in a race.  As you move between land and water, your vehicle will automatically switch (from car to boat, or vice versa).

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Speedboat screenshot taken in Unity editor

Besides the addition of boating, two other important changes will be included in the next version of Taxi Dash:

  • Power-ups Currently, you can hold on to one of each type power-up (like a speed boost. or an invincibility boost) to use at a later time. But, if you grab a second power-up of the same type, it will be used immediately. I’ve had some players mention that they would like to be able to hold on to more than one, and in the new version you will be able to hold as many power-ups (multiple speed boosts, for instance) during a run. At the end of the run, the unused power-ups will be removed.
  • Blocking A new blocking ability will be added to the store. By purchasing this upgrade, you will have a random chance of avoiding damage (if your run into spikes, ice, another car, etc.). Also, enemy cars will now be able to grab invincibility power-ups, and invincibility will stop you from being able to block.

We’re still wrapping up the new update and testing, but we plan to submit a new version to Barnes and Noble and Amazon next week. If things go smoothly, look for a new version to be out on both stores soon! And, in our next town (to be named), I hope that we can take our cabs underwater, with new vehicles (and maybe even a seahorse).

Some thoughts on IAP for the Nook

Barnes and Noble announced this week that in-app purchasing was coming to the Nook, through a partnership with Fortumo. As a parent I have enjoyed fact that the Nook does NOT have  advertisements and in-game purchases.  But, I would expect that this will be a good move for the Nook, since tablet users expect to find a wide selection of high-quality free games on mobile devices and tablets, this move should bring the Nook more in line with its competitors markets.  And, while you may not think that the Nook needs games like Subway Surfer (which uses both IAP and interstitial advertisements), that is exactly the kind of game that is not on the Nook right now, and that kids (like my own) want to play!

As a developer, I also expect that the addition of IAP is going to have an impact on the Nook marketplace, though how quickly this will happen depends on how fast new free apps are added.  In general, this will development will hurt the visibility of my own games, and I would expect, those of other small, independent game studios.  Personally, I have found the Nook to be a great market: my strongest sales have been on the Nook, as have the vast majority of downloads of my free games (or of my paid games when on a temporary sale).

For example, in December I released a new game, Amnesia Island, on the Nook.  As with all of my games, Amnesia Island was part of a research study, and in this particular study I was looking to test some navigation tasks (based on classic animal tasks such as the Barnes maze, the Morris water maze, and the 8-arm radial maze).  These were tasks that I’ve been using for some time, and which I (and my colleagues) am hoping to bring to my research on mobile platforms that I’m hoping to use over the next few years.

As I was preparing Amnesia Island, I thought that the Nook would be a good market, as I was planning to release the game for free, and was willing to forgo ads (or any monetization).  In my past few releases, I’ve been working to combine research with games that are enjoyable.  But, I knew that Amnesia Island was going to be more “research” than it was “entertainment.”  Unlike some of my recent releases, Amnesia Island is not really a game: you get points as you complete trials in each task, and your high score is tracked for each task variant, but the game is not really intended to be entertaining, as I indicated in the product description.  It was intended to let people try out virtual versions of several rat tasks that are widely used in studies of memory, and which are regularly used in human memory studies.  So, I felt it was best to release the game for free, rather than charging even a nominal amount ($0.99).  And, since there are relatively few free games on the Nook, I thought this strategy could help me obtain enough downloads to help me develop a better version of these tasks for my research studies.

Now, if I had released Amnesia Island on Google Play, or iTunes or the Amazon Appstore, I expect it would have had a few downloads, but without investing a substantial amount of money in advertising, Amnesia Island probably would have yielded less than a 1,000 total downloads on any of those platforms (based on my experience with my previous releases).  And, that at that rate, it really would not be worth my time.  But, on the Nook, Amnesia Island did much, much better.

In the three months since the game was released (from December 20th, 2012 to March 25th 2013), Barnes and Noble’s sales reports indicate that Amnesia Island was downloaded by 55,230 Nook users.  Many of these downloads came in during the first week of sales, which included the Christmas holiday in the U.S. (and 18,957 downloads were reported for December 20th through the 31st).  But, even after the holiday rush, the game has been drawing in respectable numbers: so far in March, the game has had 7,521 installs.  For a small research study, this was wonderful performance: I was able to collect data from a large sample of users in a relatively short period of time (more on that in a future post).  That is not to say that the game was well received by the users, however.  Early  user ratings of the game(in late December and early January) were polarized (with most users either giving it 1 or 5 starts), but over time the average rating has slid to 2 stars, and currently 56 of the 102 ratings logged were 1-star.  That was to be expected, given that the game is, in the end, basically a research study.  I am encouraged, though, that currently the review rated as “Most Helpful” is a 5-star review acknowledging that the app is not a game, in the sense that we might usually expect, but that the game is an interesting adaptation of classic animal memory tasks.

So, what do I think will change with Barnes and Noble’s announcement?  Well, I think that only reason Amnesia Island (a game with weak user reviews) has been able to attract +50k installs is that there are relatively few free games for the Nook.  I expect that if I had tried to release the same game after IAP gets established in the Nook market, I would have seen very few downloads.  As IAP gets off the ground, visibility in the market will change quite a bit (though, I’m curious if the lack of advertising options will continue to hold the market back), as the number of high-quality, free apps (and games) increases.

And, for the long-term viability of the Nook, this is great news.  IAP would seem to be a critical part of an Android app store (or any app store) in the current market and without it, I would expect that the future prospects for the Nook look grim (not that some are not already worried!).  But for developers, especially independent developers, the erosion of visibility on the Nook market (which is already underway simply as the number of apps released increases) is going to be greatly accelerated by IAP.

So, the end is coming, and there is no need to wait until it’s too late.  Let’s come up with some creative strategies to maintain visibility, and I’d be happy to hear your ideas (What about a homemade cross-promotional campaigns across developers, if that would be allowed by B&N?) to help us get our games in front of eyeballs.

Doodle Hangman

Recommendation: (3 out of 5) Straightforward hangman game for the Nook.
Pros: Runs well, and uses a wide range of words.
Cons: No scoring system or levels of difficulty.

Since Christmas, there have been a handful of new Nook games released (most notable among these was Temple Run: Brave, which has rapidly shot up to the top of the bestselling chart on the Nook).  I avoided the slot machine games, and what appeared to be twelve different koala-themed bubble popping games (which I did not realize was such a large genre) and picked up a copy of Doodle Hangman by Chris Martone (AppHappy Studios).

Doodle Hangman is a basic hangman game, and Martone indicates in the description that the game uses over 2,500 words in the game.  In each round of the game, you start with 8 guesses (and each incorrect guess is penalized by drawing in another piece of the doodle character.  Overall, I thought the game ran well on my Nook, and I found it to be rather challenging.  However, the app is listed in the Children’s Game category, and for ages 4+, which I would not recommend.  As a relatively literate adult, I struggled with some of the words (“whereat” for instance), and I doubt even the above average 4 year old would find such a game rewarding.  And, in the end, I think that is the biggest limitation of Doodle Hangman: it would greatly benefit from separating the words used into levels of difficulty.  For younger kids, words like cat, dog, fish, etc. could be very challenging.

Also, the game would be improved with some type of scoring system, perhaps based on the number of incorrect guesses, and the overall time required to solve each puzzle.  Or, even something as simple as keeping track of how many puzzles are solved correctly would give players a reason to struggle with each one.  All in all, I would recommend Doodle Hangman to anyone who likes word puzzle.  But, I would recommend you get it while it is on sale (currently the game is advertised as being on sale for $0.99, and is presumably going to go up to $1.99).

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