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

September 13, 2018

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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