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Why Was I Dead at Sea: Part 2 – Releases are Hard

In the last post I covered the larger story of developing and releasing Why Am I Dead at Sea.  One thing I’m looking forward to in this post-mortem is digging into the game’s mechanics/design and picking it apart, figuring out what worked, and what didn’t.  But before I do that, there’s some other ground I feel compelled to cover, if only to indulge myself – and that’s my intensely negative reaction to the game during its final stages of development and initial release.

Part of the reason I want to write about this before getting into more real analysis is because, in order for me to even start analyzing my own game and learn from it, there was a host of toxic half-truths and thought patterns that I had to cut my way through.  And similar to the game’s long-tail with exposure and sales, getting through all of that garbage came gradually, and over a long time.

I say I’m writing this to “indulge” myself because this is kind of a personal exorcism – to let the bad thoughts and ideas out.  But if anyone can recognize this happening in their own work, or if it helps anyone recognize or deal with these things more productively, that alone would make this extremely worthwhile.


Cause

We’re surprised when our expectations don’t meet reality.  This is a constant force in anything creative, and especially game dev – things always take longer than we expect, always involve more challenges than we expect, function differently than we expect, and are received differently than we expect.  Nowhere is this divide experienced more profoundly than in a game’s release, where all walls between expectation and reality are removed.

In my case, there were some factors that served to widen that gap between expectation and reality, which made the release even harder.

Lack of live playtesting

While I was abroad, I wasn’t in direct contact with people who could play the game.  The game has a niche audience, is extremely reliant on fluency in English, and covers dark themes – so that really narrowed down who I could get to play the game to remote volunteers.  I don’t mean to downplay the help that remote play-testers gave me – I tremendously appreciate it, and it seriously helped the game out!  But there really is no replacement for live play-testing.

When I returned to the states I did have live play-testing, which was immensely helpful, – but I didn’t have much time.  With the play-testing I got, I couldn’t see how the later parts of the game played out for people.  I only saw as far as someone would reasonably get to in a single short sitting.  And by this point it was fairly late into development, so I wasn’t in any position to make larger structural changes to the end portions of the game based on feedback I got anyway.

Not having regular live play-testing is a huge problem in itself, and feels like such an obvious rookie mistake in hindsight – but it didn’t just hold back the game’s design, it also served as a huge blinder for me in terms of how the game really functioned for most players.  In other words, I had a false perception of what the game really was.  When I get into discussing the game’s design, this false perception will come up a lot.

Time

What’s another way to create warped perceptions and perhaps unfair expectations?  Work on something for way longer than you initially planned for, and slowly but surely grow more and more emotional invested in it without reevaluating what it was from its inception!  That’s not to say I should have cut the game down and finished it sooner (though I’m also not saying I shouldn‘t have done so), or that I regret the effect this had on the game – but, similar to its predecessor, the goal-posts shifted a ton during development.  It feels strange to talk about this after having played solo-dev games with extremely long life cycles, but I think the general principle holds true whether it’s two years or…seven.

Cognitive Bias

A lot of information I was getting about game development and releases was filtered through the thick lens of survivorship bias.  I mentioned previously how this blinded me to the importance of the long-tail and an over-fixation on the period directly following release, but the full effect of this information bias was more profound.  Most of what was out there was either from very successful games, or very unsuccessful games (by the standards of the developer at least).  This led to a very weird binary dichotomy where it seemed like games either did fantastic or failed spectacularly.  A game just doing “okay” just wasn’t as eye-catching, I guess.

Faulty Comparisons

This point seems less important, but it was probably the most damaging overall.  Every game release is different, so I knew that it wouldn’t make sense to look at another game as a way to form my expectations of how things would work.  But without realizing it, I was operating with a different comparison in my mind, one that arguably made even less sense – I was using my experience launching the original flash game as a way to form expectations of my Steam release.

But I wasn’t using the flash game as a way to form expectations on success or failure – instead, I used it as a strong overall positive incentive to finish and release my game.  Ya see, when I released the original flash game, I had no real attachment or expectations to it, and so any success it got, however small in hindsight, was very validating.  I remembered how that felt, and how motivated I felt after releasing it.  I unconsciously assumed that this would repeat itself.  In fact, I assumed that it would be even better, since I had spent far more time and effort on this game.  This wasn’t just a trial project – this was my first “real” game.

But actually I had it backwards – the larger the project, the harder the emotional impact of the release can be, even if it’s a success!  Whatever experience I had launching the first game, there was actually no reason to believe that it would carry over to the next one: the two games were not analogous in any way: one was a free webgame, and one was a $10 PC Steam game.  Traffic and visibility work in totally opposite ways in both platforms.  A different distribution channel brings a different audience, and the way the game is perceived is very different. Oh, and also, three entire years had passed between the two, which is basically a century in game years.

To highlight just how different both releases are, Why Am I Dead At Sea has been played by less people in these last several years than the original flash game had been in its first month.  The “real game” Why Am I Dead At Sea will never begin to touch the numbers that its flippant and ill-conceived prequel did, either in plays or in views.  It won’t even get close.  Ever.


Effect

A lot of this is to say that I had built up expectations of what the game’s release would be like, and how it would feel to launch it.  The thing is, launching can be an inherently draining and depressing moment, despite all its fanfare.  Developers behind very successful titles, ones which they had been very passionate about, have been quoted on how launch left them feeling empty or in a state of depression.

I can definitely relate to that.  Leading up to release, I was thinking about all the projects I would like to start after At Sea, and which ones I would start first.  At the time, launching the game meant freedom to work on other, potentially more fun and fulfilling things.  But when that time came, I found myself unmotivated to work on anything.  When I eventually worked on other games, months later, I only found it harder to finish things, as they weren’t as “good” or “valuable” as At Sea.

I found myself in a creative vice.  On one hand, Why Am I Dead At Sea was my most “real” project, because it was on an actual storefront, where people were buying it for actual money.  So when I worked on something for fun, there was a voice in my head saying that I was wasting my time, and that not many people would play that little thing, nor would it make any money.  And unfortunately those two things were and remain linked, as commercial products simply garner far more attention than free side projects.  We assign “value” to things in weird ways, basically.  I could still work on things for fun, but when it came to actually completing them – which takes some grit – I couldn’t take them seriously anymore, and so I didn’t have the same drive to see them through.

On the other side of the vice, the commercial game that was looming over me whenever I started a small side project…wasn’t even something I considered a success.  So while I felt like the games I was interested in making just weren’t big enough, the idea of making other big commercial games was even scarier and more depressing, because I had just done that, and it was extremely stressful and a huge failure.

And it was definitely a failure in my eyes.  Like I said, the original flash game has received and will always have received more views than its sequel ever will.  In hindsight this isn’t necessarily the most important metric, but at the time it wasn’t the only metric against me – the amount of people who had so much as seen the Steam store page for Why Am I Dead At Sea was smaller than those that had at least seen its prequel.  So not only was the sequel failing to sell, in relative terms – it was failing to be seen.


In retrospect, of course, the two are not comparable, so their metrics shouldn’t necessarily be used against each other.  But at the time, this was a real twist of the knife. If the financial side was underwhelming, then the general traffic was heart-breaking.  It hurt.

And I rationalized it very well.  My game did poorly because it was a bad game.  If the sales weren’t proof, and the traffic wasn’t enough, then there was the critical reception, which was as negative as it was nonexistent.  When I read people talk about the game, my hopes for what it accomplished were generally flipped upside down.  Although it seems petty to say, when I did hear critical opinions of the game that weren’t overtly negative, they still seemed tepid or didn’t talk about the things I was hoping would interest players.  By now I’ve built up a humble but respectable, and very positive, review score on Steam, which utterly flies in the face of this initial reception – but I didn’t have that when the game first released.

I’ve had years to process the reception of the game, but for some reason or another I’ve never been able to express what I really I felt after its release.  And this is the feeling that has largely driven me to write this long, rambling post, which I am still anxious about sharing (and thus, burying deep down in this long, rambling post!).  I’ve talked a lot about being surprised or disappointed in the game’s reception, but I wasn’t really disappointed – I was ashamed.  I became embarrassed that people would play the game and see just how bad it was.  It would only be able to trick people into buying it, and then they would realize how bad it was after they started playing.  At its best it could fully deceive people into not realizing just how bad it really was – an easy way to rationalize and ignore any positive feedback I did get.  I couldn’t watch people play the game without cringing, and if articles were written about the game later on, I generally averted my eyes.  In my heart I decided that expanding the concept of that flippant flash game to a fully realized story was a terrible mistake.  I couldn’t unrelease the game, so I was stuck with it, but I became convinced that it was at its core a very bad thing.  I grew intent on removing it from Steam to spare others (but really just myself), and if it was as simple as clicking a button, I absolutely would have.  It would, mercifully, be gone forever.


But this was wrong.  Or, this would be a really pointless post-mortem write-up if it just ended there, right?  I was being my own worst critic and putting my emotional reaction ahead of a more detached analysis of the game itself – which was unavoidable at the time, but a temporary thing.  Inexperience can, however, cause us to confuse what is temporary and permanent.  It’s possible that if I expected and planned for the “post-release depression”, as it’s called, I would’ve had a more…stable reaction.

Of course, I’m glad I wasn’t able to act on impulse and pull the plug when I wanted to.  As surprised as I was at the game’s lack of reception, I was surprised that people continued to play and enjoy the game long after I had written it off myself, and had ceased promoting it in any way.  To this day people are seeing the game and taking a chance on playing it, and I humbly have no idea from where or whom they heard of it, or for what particular reason they were interested in it.

What I do have, by this point, is a metric ton of data from playthroughs and reviews to evaluate the game on much more concrete terms, without bringing raw emotion into the mix.  The things I was desperate in seeing reaction to – what people thought of each character, how they reacted to the beats of the story, and how they felt about the different endings – all of this came much later, and in iterative layers.  And it took me a long time to accept these as the truth of the game, rather than my own negative knee-jerk reaction to it.

It took even longer to decide what aspects were worth emulating, and what were worth undoing or subverting for the future.

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Why Was I Dead at Sea: Part 1 – Overview

Well, this was a long time coming.  It’s been over three years now since I released Why Am I Dead at Sea, which is a bit disheartening considering what I’ve accomplished (or haven’t) since then – but what has been uplifting, and has largely inspired me to write a post mortem for it, is the fact that it’s still reaching new people and being played after being out for this long.  Some determined folks even managed to make a complete Russian localization of the game, which required not only translating the entirety of the game’s text, but also decompiling the game and rooting through its underbelly to translate some bits of text that were present in its code files!  Wow!

There are so many different aspects of making and releasing the game that I’ve had time to think about and reconsider – what worked, what didn’t, what I’d do differently – that I’ll probably need to split this up into several different posts.  Different people will probably also be interested in specific topics, so it makes sense to cut it up.

Disclosure: Every game’s story is different – mine probably more than most – and there are so many variables and unknowns for each game release that I wouldn’t try to turn my experience into a how-to guide (or even a how-not-to guide).  What I write should be taken at face-value, and not some sort of larger parable.  Later on I’ll probably go into what I might have learned, but this should all be taken with a grain of salt, and an understanding that I’m speaking for myself, not for what I think anyone else ought to do.

With that said, let’s dig into it.


Bird’s Eye View

Let’s start with the basics.  Why Am I Dead at Sea is a mystery/adventure game that was released in 2015 for PC/Mac through Steam.  I started working on it in early 2013, so it saw a little over two years of development, although there were several breaks in that span for multiple reasons.  At that time I wasn’t tracking my development hours very religiously, so unfortunately I don’t have any hard numbers for exactly how long I was working on it when accounting for the breaks.  It’s very likely that if I was able to work on the game at a consistent pace all the way through, it would have been in development for a shorter time, but that’s just a hypothetical.

The inception of the game is pretty straightforward, as it was a follow-up to the original flash game Why Am I Dead, which I released in 2012 as a free web game.  I didn’t take the game very seriously at all, as I created it mostly to familiarize myself with Flash/AS3, so I was surprised when it received positive attention and interest (and that surprise has been well-documented in this blog).  So, after a brief period of trying out other projects that succumbed to scope-creep pretty quickly, I decided it would be a good idea to try my hand at a sequel to the flash game, this time taking it more seriously.  My main goal was to jump from making a small freeware game to a premium game  – similar to the first, it was mostly meant to be used as a learning experience, although this time I was just upping the stakes and production a bit.  My initial timeline was six months – which, obviously, didn’t work out.

I blogged on and off during my development of the game and it has some of its history scattered through different dusty corners of the internet, but the short version of its development is thus: during most of the two year span where the game was in development, I was preparing for, or in the process of, living and working abroad in China as a part-time English teacher.  The decision to do this checked off a lot of boxes for me, such as wanting to travel, having extra time to put towards the game – but most importantly, it financially supported me through pretty much all of the game’s development.  I returned to America in the fall of 2014, and from that point on I used what little I had saved from that job to house/feed myself through the last stretch of the game’s development, up until the game was released on May 11, 2015.

SeeTheWorld


Doing the Dang Thing

That’s the synopsis, but there’s a lot more that could be said about pretty much every step of that period, and why I went the route that I did – but I don’t think it would be controversial to say that this was an, uh, interesting path I took to work on the game – and not one that I would necessarily recommend or use as a model for anything, really.  My decision-making was less focused on a larger plan for myself or the game, and more on a short term view of what could help me finish the game.  Once I missed my six month timeline and realized just how far off that estimate was, I began to have doubts of whether I would finish the game at all, which became larger and larger over time.  Although this wasn’t a game that I felt needed to exist, or that I had some deep personal drive to create, it was still important to me that I finish it, since that was my entire original goal.  It’s extremely common to see projects come and go, unfinished and forgotten, and I didn’t want that to happen to me in this case – I felt that if I didn’t finish At Sea, there was no guarantee that I would finish the next project I started, or the one after that, and so on.  So, a lot of my motivation was less focused on the game itself and more on my ability to fulfill the commitment I had made in the beginning.

Of course during those 2+ years, a lot changed about me, the game, and my expectations for it – when I thought I would be working on it for six months I obviously expected a lot less from it, and planned to sell it around the price point of $3-5, with really no expectations on its success, or any definition of what success would be, other than completion.  The side-effect of it staying in development for so much extra time was that I inevitably grew more attached to it, and despite all my best attempts, I grew emotionally dependent on the game reaching a certain level of success, which I hadn’t really set the game up for in its inception.

NotThatGood

When I returned to America, I devoted all of my time to finishing the game and preparing for its release.  This involved going through the (now obsolete) Steam Greenlight system and contacting press about the game, with seriously mixed/underwhelming results.  The game ultimately did pass Greenlight, but not because it received the required number of votes – instead, I got the news that it was accepted onto Steam at what seemed like a completely random time.  I imagine my game was far from the only one that had this happen, and that Steam was loosening up the requirements of Greenlight to make the way for a self-curating storefront and the current “Steam Direct” system.

No matter the reason, being on Steam was very good news, although by that point it was no longer a guarantee of some baseline amount of sales.  And after what felt like an eternity of missed milestones and failed goals, I was finally able to pin down the game’s release date!

So, May 11 rolled around, I hit the big green button, and a nice chunk of my life was released unto the world.

PushTheButtons


The “Post” Part of the Post-Mortem

So…how was the release?  Well, considering how many of the comments/reviews of the game mention it being “unnoticed”, “underrated” or “not well known”, you can probably guess where this is going (or if you used Steamspy you don’t need too much guessing), but let’s put some numbers on it.  The game launched at a price point of $9.99, with a 20% discount for the first week, so basically $8.  In the first month it just broke $3K in gross revenue, with between 300-400 copies sold.  This at least covered what I spent out of pocket to produce the game, so, that’s something.  In the next four months it would go on to sell roughly an additional 100 copies, bringing it to $4K.

A bit later on I’ll cover my reaction to the game’s release and reception, but for now I’ll just sum it up as “not good”.  But the point I want to make right now is that, counter to all of my expectations at the time, the game’s release was a very tiny piece of the larger picture.  The overwhelming majority of the game’s revenue, sales, and general fan reaction or interest came a long time after its release, with comparatively little effort (if any at all) on my part.

WAIDAS_Sales.PNGHere is a quick li’l graph of the lifetime sales for the game with the hard numbers removed (I don’t think I’m allowed to disclose those, though I don’t think I’m really that important that I would get in trouble).  The game earned nearly twice as much in 2016 as it did in 2015, and only slightly less in 2017.  The game was released quite a bit into 2015, but even if we adjust for this, that would mean that the game’s revenue remained constant throughout the next year, and still held up reasonably in 2017.  We aren’t finished with 2018, but it’s looking to keep pace with its preceding year as well.

That’s the revenue, but you’ll notice that the units sold increased dramatically more than any change in revenue.  A lot of this was due to the game going on deeper and deeper discounts in later sales, but a lot of it was also my decision to cut the game’s base price down to $5 later in 2016.  I don’t have the math on hand to prove this, but I believe the price reduction did lose revenue, as the increase in sales wasn’t enough to offset the lowered price.

But my decision to reduce the game’s price had little to do with revenue, and I expected that I probably would lose money this way – my main goal was simply to try and get more people to play the game!  And looking at it from that perspective, it wasn’t the worst move.  There’s a larger conversation about how we value games and pricing in general that could be had here, but really I just wanted more people to play the damn game.

The delayed nature of the game’s sales can be seen by looking at days of note:

WAIDAS_Sales_tail

This is a chart of revenue/unit sold for the game up to 2 years after launch.  It’s obvious here how sales/discount has impacted the money/unit ratio, but there are some other things I really want to point out – the peak day for revenue was in spring 2016, a full year after launch, and the days for most copies sold are in summer 2016 and spring 2017.  The opening day is also only the 3rd highest in this 2-year span, with two periods in 2016 topping it – and even the deeper discount in 2017 gives it a run for its money despite the much lower selling price.

This is the “long tail”, a phrase and concept that I tragically was not fully aware of until after the game’s release – although in this case it looks less like a tail and more like a heart rate monitor, or something.  By now, this trend is probably well-documented, but believe it or not almost all of the post-mortems I had access to leading up to my release really focused entirely on the first few months of sales and spoke of nothing else.  So, experiencing it firsthand was kind of a surprise.  Oh, and that spike in spring 2016 which holds the record for revenue?  That was a steam sale that I started completely randomly.  There was no particular reasoning or timing behind it; I just scheduled it, and it happened.

To date, the game has sold over 10k copies and grossed over $30k, and it’s still puttering along as new people discover (or circle back to it?) it every day.  I could take this moment to compare it to other games and how much less it sold than them, but instead, I’ll compare it to its first several months of sales, the period that I previously thought was indicative of the game’s success.  But that ended up only accounting for 4% of units sold and 13% of gross revenue, and those numbers are getting smaller by the day.

So… is this how a sales chart should look?  Probably not.  Should it look like something else?  Maybe?  I don’t know.  Could it have done better? Or worse?  Could I have done things differently?  This is entirely too many questions.  All I really want to get across is that the game initially did worse than I expected, and then later on, it did better than I expected.  My main takeaway is that my expectations are not worth a whole lot, at least not when I’m doing something for the first time!

And none of this is even mentioning how much more player reaction there was after the initial release period.  Sure, the game was written about in a bunch of online outlets and got a few reviews, and there were a couple of videos or lets-plays close to launch, but so much of player reviews, word-of-mouth, streams, lets-plays and general fan reaction has been spread out sort of evenly between launch and the present day, usually with spikes around the big sales.  To date, the most-viewed video of the game is…a Russian lets-play of the game starting in August 2017.  And by far the most thorough, detail-oriented and interesting analysis of the game is an hour and a half long video from early 2017.


Next Up

Well, that was a whole lot of words, way more than I was planning for just an “overview”.  But guess what?!  There’s still way more I can talk about!  For this post I tried to keep it a bit tidy and informational for those who really just want the facts, but later on I plan to descend deep into self-indulgent rambling about my feelings and personal take-aways from the game.

about-face : a post-mortem

It’s weird to go back to writing about smaller games, but refreshing.  As small as about-face was, it is a “finished” game (in quotations because I still have a patch that isn’t live yet).  Finishing things is pretty important – I don’t think it’s actually the most important thing, but it’s really high up there.  And every time you finish something, you usually learn some stuff, because it is one of the primary ways of getting feedback.  So, what have I learned this time around?


What went right

It’s always nice to start with the positive.  I think some things went well with about-face that are worth mentioning.

1. Scope was controlled

about-face never expanded in scope – there were some things that weren’t part of the original idea that made it in, but they didn’t lengthen the game’s development significantly.  There were huge delays in the game’s development, but more due to personal interruptions, losing focus and switching to different projects.

2. The mechanic worked

General feedback has been that people have had fun with the game and often play it to completion.  It isn’t a long game, but the mechanic was interesting enough to hold peoples’ attention and was a strong motivator for people to finish it.

The idea was to take a very simple mechanic that still had a lot of space to explore, and that didn’t require lots of other sub-mechanics to make it interesting.  This made the game very fun to design as well, because I was able to be laser-focused on that one concept and make everything around it.

3. The art/sound/motif worked

about-face palette

The game’s entire palette.

I wasn’t sure how people would receive the style of the game.  From a production standpoint, this game definitely isn’t my most ambitious work.  The game mechanics, art, and sound are all very minimal, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if that was counted against it.  Luckily though, people have appreciated it for what it is.

What went not right

1. The ending

I think this is a weakness of mine, because for pretty much every game I’ve made the ending has not been received as anticipated, for better or for worse.  In this case, some people were not even sure if the ending of about-face was actually the ending or not.  Granted some people liked what I did, but when something creates unintentional confusion that’s always a failure in design.  There are parts of the game that I had envisioned as cues for the game’s ending – the final areas of the game take a step back from the mechanics earlier in the game, and serve more as spectacles than anything else – to me, this was the game gearing up for an ending, but none of this was backed up by any other cues in the game.

I think ultimately, I made a lot of assumptions regarding what people would be thinking as they were completing the game, which turned out to be wrong!  I need to spend as much time with narrative cues as I do with the rest of the game’s design.

2. The resolution

This is a weird one.  The game was meant to be a pretty small resolution to complement the simple visuals, but what I ended up with was uncomfortably small and kind of a pain to look at.  The weird thing is that part of this is because my IDE was actually displaying the game at a larger resolution than I had configured and applying AA (despite my attempts to hard-code no-AA settings), so 99% of the time I spent playing/testing the game was with a larger resolution than it would be in reality.  This is particularly annoying, because without using AA, the only way to make the game larger is to just scale everything up 2X, which is unfortunately a bit too large.  So, the only real fix is to change the game’s aspect ratio, without messing up the gameplay by making the player’s vision too small.

I guess the take-away here would be to try the game out more on the actual platform it’s being played on, and not just in the dev environment.

3. The controls

Some of the feedback was on the game being too slippery, and the gravity being way too high.  The former was easy to fix, but the latter is tricky because all of the levels are designed around the player having a specific jump height/speed.  So obviously, changing the player’s physics can have consequences on level design.

These are pretty big deals, because moving left/right/jumping encompass all of the player’s controls.  If those aren’t on point, there’s a problem with the core of the game.  Ideally, I would identify any dependencies the game has – in this case, how the level design is very closely tied to the way the player controls – and get early feedback on those elements before they’ve become fleshed out.  In this case, the problem wouldn’t have been a problem at all if I had identified that gravity was too high before I designed and iterated through all of the levels.

Back, forth, back, forth

Yesterday morning I did the seemingly impossible – I finished one of those games I mentioned earlier!  In fact, it was largely because of the “Odds and Ends” posts I made a little while back, that I was reminded of how close I was to completion on some of those projects.  It made it harder to justify leaving them alone.

I added a bit more content to about-face, polished some issues around the edges, added some extra sound and tweaked the levels, and now it’s live on Newgrounds!

GameImage

The game’s logo, one place where I break resolution.  The horror!

And there it will stay for a while.  I guess it’s sort of an unofficial limited-time exclusivity for Newgrounds, because I like the site…well, a flash game can never be truly exclusive, even when site-locked…but the point is I like uploading stuff there first, okay?  It also gives me time to gather user-feedback and adjust the game accordingly before I put it in other places.  After all, it’s easier to make 10 small changes in one place than 10 small changes in 10 places.

My plans for the game are extremely small, as it was a game I made for fun (and anyway I don’t have faith in how much traffic a flash game can pull these days).  I’ll make some changes to the game as needed, and then move on.  It’s not my most ambitious project, and as my previous posts have indicated, I have a couple other things that I’d like to continue working on!

Thankfully, people have largely enjoyed the game for what it is, and it’s sitting around 3.5+ stars at the moment which is about as much as I could ask for.  It feels really nice to put a smaller game out to the public and be getting more user feedback, and I’m glad I decided to finish this game before continuing on other projects.

I definitely learned some things through development/release of this small game, which might be worth writing up in a bite-sized post-mortem.

I could also talk about the message/theme of the game, but really, the whole point is minimalism, so it would be more fitting to let the game speak for itself on that matter.

Reflections on story/characters in “At Sea”

For a while I’ve wanted to post some reflections on the characters/story of At Sea: or more accurately, reflections on how players have reacted to different parts of the game.  It seems a bit weird to be writing about a game that I’ve released over a year ago, but the fact is it is still my largest released project to date, and chances are if you’re reading this, it’s because you saw Why Am I Dead At Sea somewhere!

Some of this might be interesting to those who have played the game all the way through.  Certain things that were intended but may not have been communicated to the player, remaining questions the player may have after finishing the game, and random musings.


NOTE, if you haven’t played the game yet, this will have SPOILERS so you should not read it if you care about that kind of thing.  I will “white out” some of the big stuff (select the text to see it) but the entire game consists of twists/reveals, so talking about the story in any capacity will contain spoilers.


1. People really don’t like Xu, huh?

One thing that I feel like I could have done better with was making Xu a more sympathetic character.  Watching people play the game, a lot of people really dislike her, I mean, a lot, and that wasn’t exactly what I was anticipating.

I mean, she’s not what I would call a great person.  Even in the very first conversation you have with her, there are clear hints that she is being deceptive/manipulative.  But the game’s overall opinion of her is meant to be roughly neutral – she has flaws, but is ultimately a good person.  Unfortunately, I don’t think her dialogue depicts this side of her as well as it could have.

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2. Alton hogs the early parts of the game, and was the hardest character to write

I’ve seen players grow weary of him and his character-arc, which is understandable.  To progress through earlier parts of the game, you have to spend a lot of time with him.  Personally, this is my least favorite aspect of the game from a narrative perspective.

In general, Alton has been the most difficult character to write, and his personality/story arc have gone through multiple dramatic changes over the game’s development.  Originally, Alton came off as a much worse person in the script, and reacted quite differently to certain events in the story (for the worse).  The initial conflict between him and Xu was meant to be, essentially, a re-enactment of the game’s larger conflicts/themes, on a very tiny stage.  But conveying all of this was difficult, because Alton is the first character you meet and play as, and is sort of the tutorial character.  He also seems like an okay person at the beginning – he has flaws, but they are flaws often given to an “underdog” protagonist.

So I was very worried that players would falsely interpret Alton as the underdog protagonist, and that his opinions were those of my own, or the game’s.  I ended up rewriting a lot of his dialogue to reduce the chance that he would be interpreted this way.  This ultimately made his dialogue less substantive – he simply has a lot less interesting things to say.

3. People wanted to know more about the protagonist (ie the ghost)

A common complaint is the lack of closure on just who exactly you are.  This is half-intentional, but something that I could definitely improve on.  There are obvious challenges – you are dead, you have lost all memory of your past self, and the other characters in the story didn’t know much about you even when you were alive.  So, opportunities for character-development are scarce.  One option would have been flash-backs as you recover pieces of your memory, but this was outside the scope of the game.  It could also disrupt the focus of the game – ultimately, the protagonist is not supposed to be the center of attention – that place is reserved to the cast of the living.

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Okay.  That’s cool…I guess…

I will say that the ghost does have a full back-story and character – it’s not for lack of these things that the ghost’s former personality is vague.  It was more of a conscious decision not to go too far into those details.  But there is something in-game that tells you a bit more about the protagonist, which isn’t laid out very clearly: when you go into the “minds” of Darryl and Gwen, and pose as someone they knew – the reason Smilla is able to speak as if she were these people is because she went through the same problems they did.  So when she poses as Darryl’s wife and speaks in first person, she’s not actually talking about his wife – she’s literally talking about herself, and something she went through at a previous point in her life.

4. What could have been

I’ve already mentioned that Alton went through some rewrites, but what else was planned and got changed/removed, or what wasn’t planned but made its way into the game?

  • As far as rewrites, Darryl also saw the large majority of his dialogue get replaced over the course of development.  He initially was a more upbeat, personable character who cracked jokes to everyone on the ship – then in chapter 3 it would be revealed that this was a facade.  But it never really felt convincing to me.  It gave his arc a twist, but it didn’t actually make sense.  The whole point is that he’s apathetic, so the idea that he would spend energy pretending to be anything else didn’t add up.  So, wise-crack Darryl was replaced with dour Darryl.
  • I had always planned on full possession, but the implications of this mechanic from a story perspective were unpredictable and at some points I felt I had written myself into a corner – or worse, into a situation where there were too many possibilities to account for.  Most of the events in chapter 4 were changed in development as a result of the diverging possibilities.  The entire section where Gwen is put under suspicion and has to be proven innocent was added very late as a means of re-focusing (or limiting) the player’s agency.
  • On the other side, I had never planned on being able to “upgrade” your ghost form so that it looked like your former self, or the possibility of interacting with people while in your ghost form.  This means that I also never initially planed the instances where you go into the minds of Gwen and Darryl and fully unlock them by assuming the role of someone from their past.  In retrospect, the game seems like it would be really incomplete without these parts, and they actually didn’t take very much time or energy to create, so I’m very happy that I added them.
  • You probably wouldn’t know it if you didn’t play through the game multiple times, but the epilogue for the game is different not only depending on what ending you get, but also some of the decisions you make earlier on.  The same characters will have a conversation, but the direction that it goes can vary based on how they’ve interacted throughout the game.  This was another last-minute addition to the game that almost didn’t make the cut.
  • The “bathroom ghost” was yet another last-minute addition to the game.  I wonder what % of players have actually found this part, and what they made out of the ensuing dialogue.

Sweating the Small Stuff #2

Today we finish our look into the projects that didn’t quite make it to the finish line. Given that some of them are pretty old and didn’t take especially long to finish, you might wonder what else I’ve been doing.

For one…life.  It’s pretty intense, and this past year most of all.  But I’ve also done some work patching/updating Why Am I Dead At Sea with small features and fixes, and will continue to as much as I am able.  Lastly, among all the craziness I’ve started prototyping an idea that I’m really interested in. I don’t say that lightly, as the last idea I was really “interested” in turned into Why Am I Dead…and we all know how that ended up. So, hopefully, I’ll have some progress to show in the near future, and this can become a real dev blog once again!


#3: Invisible Maniac

Winter 2015 – 24 hours of development

This was another game jam submission for the Philly Game Forge, and this time we had 24 hours to complete a game from scratch! I’d done a couple of Ludum Dares in the past, but this would be my shortest jam ever, so I was pretty excited to enter it. It was 24 hours onsite, so we were able to stay overnight at the Forge and work through those magical hours where your body goes through the seven stages of grief as it slowly realizes that you aren’t going to give it any rest.

I came up with a little 2D stealth game where enemies can’t see you, and can only catch you via direct contact. But there’s a catch – you can’t see yourself either! Using only contextual audio/visual cues, you have to navigate through the game’s levels and past enemies.

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As the levels become more expansive, losing track of where you are becomes more of a threat. To assist the player, there are objects that react to when the player walks over them, and sounds for when you hit a wall. There is also the ever-present sound of your foot-steps, which change based on the surface you’re walking over.

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Thick grass will help you keep track of your location, and you don’t even have to worry about running into wild Pokemon!

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It gets pretty hectic later on, but using water and rock paths to “hear” your location will help!

Truth be told as much fun as I had working on this game, by the time 24 hours was up, I was quite sick of the thing, and had grown bored of the concept. I even considered not submitting it. But it’s good that I did, because people seemed to really like it! In fact they liked it so much they elected it the winner of the jam and gave me a nice wooden plaque for the occasion.

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You can also pick up hoagies and use them to murder people, you’re better off not knowing why.

Despite my misgivings at the eleventh hour, I got a huge charge out of creating this little game. You can play it in-browser or download the whole thing on my site, but note that the download will let you play at a better resolution.


#4: about-face

January 2016: ??? weeks of development

This was a little platformer that I had the idea for way, waaaaay back, over a year ago. I did a tiny amount of coding for it eons ago, which I ultimately re-purposed for the other platformer I talked about in the last post, but finally picked it back up in Jan 2016. Given the haphazard way I worked on it, I really couldn’t say how long it all took me.

It’s a minimalist retro platformer – really genre-breaking, I know. I wanted to make something small and neat, so I did just that. It’s a platformer where every time you jump, the world inverts, and previous…oh, well, a GIF will explain it faster than I can.

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So, the world switches between white/black every time you jump. Platforms, spikes, and obstacles will phase in/out based on which color you’re in.

The idea was pretty simple – what is the core mechanic of platformers? Jumping. On platforms. What if I made it so that every mechanic was tied to jumping – every mechanic was tied to your decision on when and how to jump. The result was a game with very few mechanics but many interesting scenarios to design. This was probably the most fun I’ve had designing game environments by far!

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Twice the jumps = twice the complexity in design!

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Chasing enemies were added to turn the game from a slow puzzle-platformer to a faster paced action-platformer.

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It gets really hard.

I’m pretty happy with this thing, and at this point it’s basically done. The only thing it lacks is an ending (as of now you’ll just run into an incomplete level that can’t be beaten), but once I pop that in there I’d love to upload it to any channels I can. Until then, you may not be surprised to find out that you can play the current version on my website!


Well, that concludes this mini-series. At some point I’d like to redesign my website and include a section for these kinds of things – it doesn’t feel right putting them up side-by-side with something as large as Why Am I Dead At Sea. But I would like for them to have a space of their own.

Sweating the Small Stuff #1

Hello again internet.  Quick life update: I’m in the process of moving (again) and have gotten a full-time position as a software developer, so I’m back to the develop-on-the-side life like I was before.  Which I’ve been enjoying so far.  That whole full-time indie thing was more successful at burning me out than anything else.

I think I could’ve written 5 long-winded blog posts around that, but I like condensing it down into one sentence better.

It occurs to me that I’ve worked on a bunch of stuff since At Sea that I haven’t published or really talked about (at all).  This is either because they were jam submissions, or because I simply didn’t complete them.  In gamedev, we place a premium on full, finished games, and for good reason – it’s kinda important to be able to finish completed games (and really hard!), so it’s a skill everyone wants to cultivate.

However, the small experiments, the unfinished prototypes…these are valuable too. So I thought I’d take some time to talk about the smaller stuff that hasn’t been shown to the masses.


#1: Bzzz Out

Spring 2015 : 1 week of development

This was a small project that I worked on almost immediately after releasing Why Am I Dead At Sea – about a week after its release, I believe.  It was for a game jam that I was (lovingly) pressured into participating.  It was part of the Philly Game Forge‘s Dev Night – basically, a game-development-oriented shared space that runs lots of jams, and has a weekly meet up.

This jam in particular was called the “Juice Jam”, and the idea was simple and interesting – give everyone a template for Breakout in Unity, and make them create the “juiciest” version of it that they can.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of “juice” in a gamedev context, I would highly encourage you to watch the Juice it or Lose it talk.

Bzzzout

I teamed up with local artist Carley for the jam, and we had a week to create something with this Breakout template.  It was an interesting challenge, since I had never done anything in Unity prior to this.  From a development standpoint, I got to tinker with a lot of things I hadn’t previously used, such as tweening and particle effects, and I was able to laser-focus on a really interesting design challenge – juice it!

Although I could critique my work on this jam submission for several pages, ultimately I’m happy with what we came up with (especially the art!) and had a ton of fun working on it.  You can see or play our jam submission on either Carley’s site or my site.


#2: Dandan Man’s Super Dream Place

Autumn 2015 : 3-4 weeks of development

It’s a bit hard to evaluate exactly how much time I put into this project, as it was scattered over a longer period of time, but I was most productive, and did most of the work, in a period of about a week.

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This game was meant to be an experiment in fourth wall breaking.  The idea goes like this: there’s a super cute and colorful platformer reminiscent of SNES games (especially Kirby) – but it’s not quite finished.  The writing has typos, there are little bugs in the game…and even one of the main levels is missing.  Then you get to the end and see a “warp zone” feature which can take you to that missing level you saw earlier but couldn’t access – huh, I wonder what’ll happen?

Well, now you’ve gone and done it…the game takes a darker turn and you have to navigate through an increasingly broken/glitchy/horror game to get to the bottom of the implied narrative.

Or that’s the idea anyway.  I mostly implemented the actual platformer, felt that nice sense of accomplishment, and called it a day.  The game as-is does already exhibit a bunch of different action/platforming mechanics with lots of different levels: you have a stomping attack that can be used to steal certain enemy’s abilities, and use those to get through various predicaments (like I said, reminiscent of Kirby).

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Although I didn’t finish the game, I found the work to be really fun.  This was the first platformer I worked on, and the most level-design-intensive project for me.  And while the art style is still not really very unique to me (it still wears its influences on its sleeve), doing the pixel art was fun and I like how it turned out.

InDev Cap Projectile

So why didn’t I finish it?  Well, to be honest, I still find the idea fun – but “fun” doesn’t cut it for me.  There was a particular feeling I was trying to express with the game when I originally came up with it, but without getting into specifics…I don’t really have that feeling anymore.  Maybe if that feeling returns I’ll happily return to this and finish it in one swoop!

You can try out the prototype here!

I know that in order to finish projects, you can’t depend on silly things like feelings – trust me, I very often didn’t “feel” Why Am I Dead At Sea when I was working on it.  But as this was a side-project that I just wanted to do for fun, I think it’s okay to recognize that my motivations for starting it are no longer present and move on.