I've been making games and uploading them (under the moniker "Pandaqi") for about 7+ years now.
At first, they were just a few hobby projects on some sketchy website.
But as it goes, you grow more professional over time, you create bigger games, more people find them and download them ... and then you realize it's all a mess.
For 6 years, I had been haphazardly uploading games left and right, without any clear structure. There was no central place for all my games, even though I'd made quite a lot of them at this point. (I was actually surprised people were able to find an email address amongst the chaos and successfully mail me about projects.)
That's why, when I registered myself as a freelancer (in the Netherlands, my home country), I decided to create a proper "game studio website".
I was a fool. I thought websites like these needed to be "flashy". I thought it was a good idea to make the website itself a game. I thought I was good enough, and big enough, to warrant a website with boatloads of pictures and GIFs.
At the same time, I thought "I've made less than 10 games these past 6 years ... surely this website will only grow slowly and I won't need to update it very often".
All of this led to a website that:
Was incredibly slow to load.
Had to outsource all its images to a free image hosting service, because my cheap server couldn't handle it otherwise.
- (Before doing this redesign, I had 400+ big images hosted and requested 24 hours a day from my free imgur account :p)
Only looked awesome ... some of the time.
- (I used "ColorThief" to read the logos when they were displayed and find the most common colors. Then I used those in the design. Needless to say, this doesn't ensure legibility or something that looks good in general.)
Was incredibly hard to navigate.
Got in my visitor's way by prompting them to "play the game" and go with that flow
- The game was simply "find the hidden pandas on the website". If you found one, you could click it and progress.
And was so hard to update that I even forgot to do it for my latest projects.
Yes, I only made a handful of games in that timespan because I was still studying and still learning how to develop games. Once I finished my degree, and became a full-time freelancer, I made 10+ games in a single year. Each of them bigger and more professional than all that came before.
Additionally, I implicitly built the website for video games. I had never thought I would be developing loads of boardgames in the year after it ... which subsequently never had a good place on the website.
That's why I decided to completely redesign the website and all its content. In this article I'll explain what I did, why I did it, and what you can learn from that. (For your own website, portfolio, game studio, anything that tries to showcase projects and wants to have a good user experience.)
Before doing anything, I have to ask the important question: "what should the new website do? Which problems am I fixing and how do I prevent adding more problems?"
Before doing this update, I also redesigned my portfolio
Such a website is, of course, purely designed to give an overview of all my work. Which means structure, navigation, and literal overviews are important.
This gave me my first clues for this website, which I somehow didn't think of the first time:
There should be a clear hierarchy. A few categories (video game, board game) and tags you might search for (free, paid, mobile, PC, etc.)
This hierarchy should enable users to get anywhere they want within a single click.
To do so, each game needs to be properly tagged, and this metadata should be displayed in a few consistent, easy-to-reach places.
Each project, without exception, should have a thumbnail, header, and logo.
Always use these images in overviews/lists. If space is at a premium, I'm okay with leaving out any text (even the title of the game), if it allows the visuals to come through.
There should be no case, no page, no screen size that makes the website (almost) impossible to read or navigate. (Sounds obvious. But the previous website had some really wonky colors and font sizes on breakpoints between "wide screen (desktop)" and "small screen (mobile)".)
These images should be as big as possible. Clicking anywhere on such an image leads you to the project page. (Nothing worse than clicking ... and nothing happening. Until you realize, 10 seconds later, there was some small button saying "visit game" somewhere that you actually had to click.)
The original design tried to do everything in one image. I would create single image with a (repeating) background and the logo on top. Then I used many (many) CSS tricks to make this look good on all sizes, and even allow it to swap sides (so if the logo was on the left at first, it now was on the right).
As you can expect: this was a lot of work ... for a system that only worked 60% of the time. Often you'd still see the gaps, or the image wouldn't scale correctly, or the text overlapped the logo.
That surely had to change.
A nice start, but not all issues are resolved. The second problem had to do with speed and website size. Obviously, faster is better, which can be achieved by:
Reducing page size, mainly by reducing number of images and their size
Sharing files across the different pages. (So it can be downloaded once, then cached, then reused.)
Being very picky about what I do or do not include.
Removing all the scripts that are now running on every page. (I have one that dynamically changes the colors of projects, another that loads the "game" portion of the website, etcetera.)
That last point illustrates something that's annoying me about many "modern" websites: they all add these fancy effects, huge graphics everywhere, dynamic widgets and whatnot.
The result? I have to wait 10 seconds before the whole thing is loaded. During that period, the page keeps jumping, changing in size, adding new stuff. And while it plays some cool animation (or asks my permission to show push notifications), I'm just trying to read the thing for which I came.
As such, I try to keep my websites minimalist. It should just be: click on something, it loads almost instantly, you can read/see/use it, boom -- done. No extra animations. No dynamic things that should update all the time.
In fact, if I can manage it, no scripts at all.
After all these years of designing things, I've learned that the hardest thing is not to create fancy and spectacular designs. The hardest thing is keeping things simple and streamlined (without making them look ugly or boring).
Hence why I probably failed on that part with the first design.
In any case, the new website should be minimalist and streamlined.
The website shouldn't just be good and quick to use for others, it should also be great for me to update and maintain.
Host all assets (mainly images) on my own server. This way, I keep total control, and everything is in one place.
For any "pattern" that occurs, create a module for it I can reuse. New game pages should consist like 90% out of things I already made and can just easily reuse.
The final folder structure should be one that is obvious and easy to navigate. (For example, it's easy to fall into the trap of placing all images in one big "assets" folder. But over time, you'd get a single folder with a thousand images belonging to many different projects. Not great. Instead, each project has its own folder which contains everything that's relevant.)
Use a "static site generator". (I'll explain that one soon.)
And lastly, I should be able to give each game its own unique page. Which might look completely different from any other page on the website. Which might be completely interactive or contain its own "digital component" that belongs to a boardgame of mine.
This was a hard one to fulfill. I had to research a lot to find a good way to do this.
But eventually, I decided to simply treat each game page as a blank slate. Almost zero markup or styles are copied from the "main theme" -- instead, I can create anything I want for each particular game.
But, I will still create some general patterns. Some "plugins" I can reuse anywhere I want. Some "general properties" I can set for each game, such as which color scheme to use when showcasing the game on the front page.
That's about it for the requirements. It should be something that showcases all my games in their visual glory, but still keeps a strong user experience and navigation to get anywhere with ease. Each game should have their own unique look, but behind the scenes I should be able to create that look with just a few "modules" (which I made myself).
And I should let go of the "naïve" implementation of a "game within the website" and other fancy stuff that contributes absolutely nothing :p
Most online hosting -- at least the cheap variants -- only support the PHP + MySQL databases.
After all these years, I've grown to hate these with a passion. The interface is slow, ugly, and dated. Their speed (when requesting info or updating) is nothing to write home about.
But at the time, it was the only thing I had, and the only thing I knew well. So the old website had all its content stored in a database, and almost every file was a .php file that included some other files here and there.
Since the inception of this website, I've learned about static site generators. I built two websites with them and it's just been a breeze compared to the old PHP/SQL/Database method.
As such, even though this is a game website and thus very interactive, I just had to use this system.
A static site generator works like this:
You download the generator software.
You work on the website locally, on your own computer, by writing content in files.
With the help of some tools, you can create templates to transform your content into good-looking websites.
When satisfied, you can tell the generator to "build" or "export" the whole thing, which gives you one folder that contains your whole website (as static .html files)
Drag that folder to your server (to upload it) and you're done!
These are the benefits:
Extremely fast. The end-product is just a bunch of small files. No databases, no other connections, nothing to be calculated dynamically.
Modular. For example, I can write a bit of code for a "screenshot gallery". Now, whenever a game wants to display some screenshots in a gallery, I just type the name of that code and it's done. No need to repeat myself. And if something drastically changes, I only need to change this one file, and it updates the whole website accordingly.
You can work completely offline, locally, without any issues. Deploying the website simply means uploading the final folder to your server.
Creating content is just creating content. I make a file, I type my words, I tell it to use images in a few places, and it all works out.
The downsides are:
Can't be used for very dynamic websites. (For example, one that has user accounts and shows different pages to different users. Or one that is updated 100 times per hour.)
You need to learn the specific concepts and syntax for your generator.
For me, there was no easy way to transfer the old website to the new one. The systems are so drastically different that I had to manually copy-paste most of it.
The first website I created this way took a long time. I needed to wrap my head around this "new" way of thinking, designing, and deploying.
That's why I saved this website (Pandaqi) for last out of all my websites. Because I knew it'd be the hardest, with its many interactive components.
For this website, I chose Hugo. It's one of the most popular, it has great documentation and help forums, it has all the features I need, and is super fast. Nevertheless, I've done research on many different static site generators, and they all seem more than able to do the job. So don't feel like you have to choose Hugo.
The old design was great! But the way I made it happen -- using all those CSS and markup tricks I mentioned earlier -- was bug-ridden and messy, to say the least.
Fortunately, I'm a wiser man now, and the internet has grown.
This is how I will design the same thing ... but better:
Nothing uses the CSS "background-image" property.
Why? I can't optimize their loading, making them slow, especially when you have many huge background-images on a single page. They are also sometimes hard to position/scale correctly.
Instead, I use regular pictures, wrapped in a \<picture> element.
Each game has a background pattern that scales the full width. This, too, is a regular image I designed beforehand.
On top of that, there's a flexbox with two components: text (on the left) and logo (on the right)
- By adding one CSS class, these can easily be reversed.
On smaller screens, both logo and font-size shrink to fit the space.
- I've experimented with "wrapping" them, so the text appears underneath the logo on small screens. But it just looked weird and ugly.
The actual images and colors to use are set directly in the entry for this game.
At the top of markdown files, which Hugo uses, I can set "frontmatter". Which basically means "any property I want to give this game".
There I can just say something like "bgColor: #FFF" and then use that in the template that renders this thing.
Most importantly: I do not dynamically determine these, but input them manually to look as good as possible.
This recreates everything the old design did ... but much faster, cleaner, better-looking and easier to maintain.
Well, everything except for one trick: the wavy borders separating entries.
The trick I used back then was a complicated idea with pseudo-elements and background-colors. Fortunately, some new (CSS) properties are now well-supported, which make this much easier.
I'm talking about mask-image. I can just draw this wave in my design software and use that as a mask. Boom, done.
(In fact, it was so easy and nice, that I wanted to experiment with other patterns. So I ended up spending a few days trying to find interesting masks I could use throughout the design. I'll talk about that near the end.)
And if a browser doesn't support it? The entries are just separated by a straight line, which is fine as well.
By now, it's obvious this website needs images. It already had a lot, but with the new design this amount will only increase.
Some of these images, like big banners/headers across the full width of the website, are huge. Despite my best efforts back then, I could only get them to a 500-700 kb .png file, before it started looking too pixelated.
But now ... now we have new image formats! The webp format has huge compression bonuses over the jpg and png formats. And it's supported everywhere now.
The upcoming avif format is even better, and it's getting there, but not quite supported enough to use it fully.
So, I use both and let the browser pick the one they understand.
With such a conversion, a single game page (that might've been 2-3 MB before) is reduced to 200-300 kb. And, to my eyes at least, the difference is only barely noticeable. Faster load times, less server stress, win-win for everyone.
Remark: and the images are now on my own server. Which removes the need for an external connection, which should be faster on a decently fast hosting.
Because the website showcases games, there are many GIFs. These are terrible for performance. Even extremely compressed and optimized GIFs can easily run 3-4 mb. And I might need multiple of the on a single page!
These are converted to video. (The webm format is optimal. It's often at most 20% of the original GIF size.)
During this process, however, I noticed I went a bit overboard with GIFs. So many of the were simply removed and it made the page better.
Which means that many optimizations were done by simply removing things I don't really need.
A screenshot gallery with 5 screenshots is fine, I don't need 10 of them. Displaying one gif that shows the core gameplay is enough, three of them that look kinda similar just adds noise.
Native support for "lazy loading" has also arrived!
Lazy loading means: only load an image after the rest of the page has loaded and/or when they actually come into view.
On a typical page, you'll only see the first 2-3 game entries, or just the header + trailer for a game. This means that 80% of the images on a page are not in view.
By not loading them yet, pages become much faster.
Remark: I've experimented a bit with the "content-visibility" CSS property. This allows lazy loading for any block on the website, not just specific images. But it's only (well-)supported in Chrome at this time, so I'm not betting on this doing anything for me.
Remark: I also ask Hugo for the dimensions of each image, so I can hardcode them into the width and height parameters on the image. This makes browsers and search engines very happy, but also makes users happy, because it reduces those "jumps" or "content shifts" that happen when a new image gets loaded.
Most of my performance increase, though, comes simply from using a static website. It removes the need to query a database for things and do calculations/operations on the page itself. This saves a lot of time.
It also makes each page (and asset) easily cacheable. After a few page views, visitors should have most of the website cached in their memory, reducing any requests from the server.
But the other main factor is of course server quality. I use relatively cheap hosting. At times, it might take a second before the server responds to a new request. I can't do anything about that except upgrading to a better server.
This redesign was my first experiment with making a website really modular.
This was the idea:
Each unique game page can be built from modules ("templates" or "shortcodes" in Hugo) I designed myself.
Each different component receives its own CSS file. These are combined into a single CSS file when deployed.
One module is the "critical CSS". This is loaded before the rest of the webpage loads, hence "critical". All other CSS is loaded after the content is already showing.
Why? Because I've learned that modular methods ...
Make development itself more efficient. It's way easier to find where something is, update it, and get the precise result you expect (because nothing else is affected).
Make me more productive. A new web page is nothing more than chaining the correct modules together, instead of writing all that HTML myself from scratch.
Reduce the chance (and severity) of bugs. It's just easier to reason about issues and spot errors with your code.
Create a nice structure/hierarchy to the whole project.
Again, this required me to "think differently". I had to find patterns and common blocks among all the pages I'd created thus far.
And when I found something, I had to ask myself: "is this common enough to justify creating a module for it?"
And even when I didn't find anything, I often had to ask myself: "but I might need something like this in the future -- how likely is that?"
In the end, these modules were created:
Video => shows the trailer for the project + its banner behind it (as background)
Section => creates a section with header + paragraphs of content
- Section-centered does the same, but now it's centered with a specific (consistent) maximum width.
Gallery => shows a gallery of screenshots
- Figure => shows a single (full-size) image on a game page, in the optimized way
BuyLink => shows big, bold links to the official page of a project (where you can buy it or play it)
There's a BuyLinkContainer as well, as some projects have multiple links/locations of interest, such as something released on both Desktop and Mobile.
A variation is DownloadBtn, which is used for boardgames where you can download files.
Metadata => creates clickable buttons for the categories and tags related to the current project
DigitalComponent => holds the form (with settings, input, etc.) I use on almost all boardgames for launching the digital component
All of these are shortcodes in Hugo.
This means I create a file for them (like "embedvideo.html", which shows a YouTube video over the game header) which holds their code:
Then, when I want to use it, I call it by its name and feed it the right urls:
As such, what used to be 20 lines of identical code on each page, with 40 lines of identical styling on each page ... is now just one line.
Remark: I've written all these modules to support adding any number of CSS classes I want. This way, I can still style them differently, even if their functionality/markup is the same everywhere. For example, some games have the "darkened" class added, which darkens the background image. In some cases, this just looks better and makes the text on top more legible. But not all cases.
Again, each module had its own CSS file. (Which means these files were often only 20-30 lines for the whole thing.) And these are all combined at the end.
Remark: I use SASS for writing CSS. It has loads of functionality that I sorely miss in the basic CSS ruleset and it can combine multiple files.
I hardcoded support for an extra CSS file (literally called "extra.css") on each page. This would hold all the unique adjustments they wanted to make, which often ends up longer than the general styles. (Because, remember, each game page has a unique layout, with unique fonts, colors, dimensions, etcetera.)
And finally, I hardcoded support for Google Fonts. All game pages use it. In the past, I copy-pasted the code (with the new fonts I wanted to use) between pages. Now I just specify the font names in the "frontmatter", and it loads them when deployed.
Remark: it might be faster to download these fonts and place them on my own server. But this meant \~200 kb extra space per game page, a lot of extra work, without any certainty that it even is an improvement for me. So I left it for now. I can always do this later.
Well ... this was an annoying job. To say the least.
I ended up limiting myself to 1 or 2 projects per day. Because they sometimes took hours. I had to:
Copy the original HTML file and its files.
Convert all images, rename sensibly, put in the correct location, then link to them again in the new post.
Remove all styling, extra markup, etcetera from the original HTML file. So I was left with just the content itself. (To replace it with my new modules. Or simply because it was messy or unnecessary.)
Place it at the right location in the new website.
Then test if it all worked => realized some things didn't work (they looked bad, links stopped working, etc.) => fix them => and restart the cycle.
I really tried finding ways to automate this. But despite some mild automation on the image conversion part and the stripping HTML part, I didn't find any.
The hardest part was making the digital (interactive) components work. They often involved
That used the Phaser.io framework for many things
That needs to communicate with the main page in certain (mostly identical) ways
Which requires something to be on a server and will not work when testing from the local filesystem
And often hardcoded the URL to assets used in the component
So, I first had to come up with a "general script" that would allow this communication between main page (where you input settings and click "start game") and the actual interactive component. Now, all pages use this script and can use its functionality, which greatly simplifies (future) code.
When creating my old Phaser games, I always had to boot up a local server on my machine, otherwise the images wouldn't load.
I thought this would be the case here. I thought I had to do some hacky tricks to combine the hugo website with my local server.
But I didn't!
Hugo itself already runs over a websocket and is viewed as a local server (by the Phaser framework). I didn't have to do anything to make testing these games (directly) possible!
Which isn't just great news now, but also for the future, as it means development of these interactive components will be much faster and smoother.
Remark: I also learned the Phaser simply supports "whatever formats the browser supports". So, I can use any audio and image assets that I want, without requiring any other change. This prompted me to convert (almost) all the old assets to .webp as it's supported everywhere now. This made the interactive components 2x-10x smaller than they were before! Which is awesome, as it means load times (and "time until play") are much faster, without losing anything.
If you want to execute PHP code or read from a database anyway. (I can think of a few reasons why you'd want PHP functionality in a static website anyway, it's not that strange.)
If you want to do that, here's how you do it:
How do you boot up a local server? I have installed the free software "XAMPP". Just download it, install it, then run it. By default, it serves websites from its own directory (C:\xampp\htdocs).
How do we connect it with our hugo folder? But we want it to serve from the directory in which I'm working (with Hugo enabled).
To do so, you go to Apache => Configure => httpd.conf => and change "DocumentRoot" to the root of your hugo folder. Also change the "Directory" after that! (I forgot that at first and spent 30 minutes pulling my hair out why it didn't work.)
It doesn't work? Restart the xampp server! Then build your website (to the directory you just linked), and your project is running on a local server.
The lesson here? Many actually:
Don't hardcode URLs
Don't have external dependencies => keep everything local, on your own server, if possible
Future-proof your websites before you start adding tons of content
Be consistent with naming, folder hierarches, etc. Even if you think it won't matter, it will.
By now, all original content had been copied. The interactive components worked again, their images were loaded (from my own server now), great.
But now it was time to improve the old content.
While building the new website, I noticed it was hard to navigate quickly to specific pages. Thinking about it, I realized that game stores always show this big block of information about the game:
How many players does it support?
Offline or online?
Yes! That's what I needed!
Every game page received a "metadata block" at the bottom, which is filled with all this information. It took quite some time to edit all the gamepages to contain this data, but it's certainly worth it.
Now you can scroll down to see info about each game, in a predictable and clear way. Then you can click on any part of it to find an overview of all games that share this trait. (For example, click on "Playercount 2" to get all games you can play with two players.)
I needed a general list of "color schemes" which could be applied. Sometimes randomly, sometimes given a specific input.
Because each game page does receive this standard metadata block (and a small footer). These need to look good with whatever is on the page, and can't have "one fixed style".
Because overview pages (e.g. a list of all genres) don't have images or thumbnails. Therefore, I need some colors for their background and text color.
In the end, the website received 10 color schemes. (Which are just all the different colors along the color wheel, with one "light" variant and one "dark" variant for contrast.)
Each gamepage has a specific color set. (This is used in all locations where no image is present or it isn't overridden by the stylesheet.)
Overview pages pick random colors, ensuring no color is used two times in a row
The general header and footer of the website also pick a random color.
Again, it took quite some time to find the right color (and set it) for every project. But it's more than worth it. The website looks bright, colorful, playful, exciting!
This does have the issue of, sometimes, creating a color combination (two color schemes near each other) that is a bit "meh". The way I chose the colors, it will never be ugly or downright terrible, but it can be a bit mediocre.
I decided I can live with that. If needed, I could always write a script to say "when picking colors, these combinations are never allowed"
The idea with the "mask-image" (creating a wavy underline underneath each game banner) worked so well, that I wanted to use it more.
At first, I wanted to try different shapes (curved, sharp edges, triangles, etc.) ... but that looked messy. Maybe for a specific game, or for another design that's completely about shapes.
Instead, I drew eight "sketchy rectangles". (Which is my term for rectangles that are mostly perfect, but also have imperfections, such a rounded corners or angled edges. A rectangle that looks like it was loosely sketched.)
These are used as the background for (almost) all links on the website. The header, the footer, the metadata block.
Maybe in the future I'll use them for literally everything. But for now, there were issues with that I couldn't quickly solve, and I kept it the way it was.
As always, there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of small choices and additions to make the site work and look better.
I won't list them all. But here are some interesting ones:
On narrow (mobile) screens, the text in the header is replaced by icons. This way, you keep full functionality (without needing to "expand" a menu or something), without becoming ugly/illegible/too big.
A small "go to bottom" icon floats on top of every page, in the top-right corner. Pressing it will immediately scroll you down to the metadata block. When navigating my own website, I just felt that such a button was too useful not to add. (Even if it means an icon hovering on every page.)
Because my mask-image is set to cover the whole element, it scales with the size of the element. This was a problem with the footer. On narrow screens, it can be quite long (as all text is stacked underneath each other, instead of side by side). Which caused the waves to be HUGE. As such, on smaller screens, I remove the mask image from the footer, and add a "divider" element that has a fixed height, then give that the mask-image.
Many elements are (not so) subtly animated. When visiting other game (studio) websites, I noticed they had loads of animations and moving parts. And that it was quite fun. So I wanted to copy it, without adding the complexity (and thus making the website slower again). An example of this: those sketchy buttons are slightly rotated and will snap back to 0 rotation when you hover over them.
Let's hope I profit from it :p
The website is much faster, prettier, more consistent (on all devices, even the most terrible of phones), easier to navigate and easier to update, has more information and images, the list goes on.
Looking at it now, and comparing to the previous website, it just feels like an "upgrade to professionalism". The earlier website was fine, and okay in many departments, but showed its amateurism after a minute of navigating. The new website looks and feels like a professional website, from a serious game studio, who has loads of experience under his belt.
I'm quite sure it will bring in more gamers, shine a better spotlight on my games, and lead to more opportunities in the indie game dev business.
That's it for today, until the next devlog,