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Taking a Breather

Hi internet!  It’s been a while – let’s catch up again.

Let’s see.  A while ago I launched my first commercial game on Steam.  The game was in development for far longer than originally intended, and its release was much overdue.

Unfortunately, though I say I “launched” it, I don’t know if that’s really the fitting word, as most of the traffic the game received (maybe 90%?) is purely due to its place on the Steam storefront, meaning I did not succeed at publicizing the game or getting it the exposure I think it deserves.  And overall, it has garnered a small fraction of the views that its much smaller and cruder prequel had (not talking about sales here, just hits), which is pretty discouraging.  After all, the main reason I decided to work on this sequel was because of the apparent interest that was shown in the original.

But now the game is out there, and I can say that I finished and shipped a product with a pretty substantial play-length, considering the game consists 100% of scripted content.  There has been a lot of positive response from the people who have played it, and some really glowing user reviews that have just been a joy to read through.

I haven’t been as productive after release as I thought I would be.  I had all sorts of ideas for projects that were crowding my head, which I thought I would just speed through after being caught up on such a large undertaking.  Nope, turns out I was completely burned out from development and all of the stress leading up to release.  I have been working on several projects and have participated in local game jams, but so far haven’t been as possessed to publish something else with my name on it as I had been with At Sea.

get it?  possessed?

Partially I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I can see a project through to its end, so I don’t feel the pressure or need to finish every little idea that I come up with if it turns out that it isn’t really as interesting as it seemed at first.  Which is usually the case.  The fickle developer who can’t complete anything is a cliche, but in truth I think it’s important to also know when to leave a project.  Yes, you can learn a lot by completing a project, and it is an important skill to be able to “finish” something.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned” – some dude

There are definitely diminishing returns however.  The skill of “finishing” is only one of many, many skills that are required in game development, and it may not even be the most important one in this era of early access and open betas and development live-streaming and twitter GIFs and oh man, things change really fast don’t they?

But one thing I have definitely noticed is that my productivity and general ability to make stuff is so much greater than before I had originally set out to ship a premium game.

When working on other things, it kinda feels like the training weights have come off.  I’ve just spent some time catching my breath.

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Launch Day

Just a quick little piece of news: Why Am I Dead At Sea is going to launch on May 11!  Woooo!

Yep, that’s all for now.

You Defeated the Boss!

Some pretty good news this time around!

Never change, Ferdinand.

This is Art with a capital A, folks.

Where should I start?  Hmm, oh yeah – maybe with the fact that my game Why Am I Dead At Sea is basically done.

It’s kinda insane.  I almost don’t believe it.  After working on it for so long, and continuously pushing the finish line further and further back, you kind of forget that finishing is even possible.  I’ve gotten so used to adding things to Why Am I Dead At Sea, that the thought of not adding another thing to it just seems crazy.  There’s something I’m missing, right?

Well…Not really.  All the alternate endings are finished.  The epilogues too.  The dialogue in the game has been rewritten three times over.  I must’ve redone the menus half a dozen times.  There’s even controller support!

This realization comes with two feelings – relief, but also anxiety.  When I admit that the game is finished, I start to panic because a part of me still wants it to be better.  Surely there’s other things I can do to improve it even more, just that little bit extra that will put it over the top, right?  Imagine how much better the game could be, if I’d only add ______ .

The bottom line is, I will be moving forward with distribution/marketing on the basis that the game is in fact complete.  Yeah, at the same time I will also be making small tweaks here and there, if only to satiate a compulsion to tweak.  But don’t worry, I can stop whenever I want to.

…Moving on.


 

SteamworksIsAGo

woah

I’ve gotten all incorporated and everything, and now I can work on putting my game on Steam!  Well, technically it’s already on Steam, but there several extra things I need to do.  Namely, I want to implement Steam cloud saves, achievements, and trading cards, and make sure everything is working smoothly with both Windows and Mac downloads.  It’s a bit hard to say how long this will take, but progress has been very smooth so far.

Speaking of all that, this post is doubling as a bit of a recruiting call.  You see, I want a final wave of testing with a larger group before the game goes public, and I also need to test and make sure the game is actually working with all these Steam features.  That means I need some new testers!

If you want to get the game a bit earlier than everyone else, you want to get it for free, but most importantly if you want to help a solo developer in their hour of need, please email me at “pmcgrath@peltastdesign.com”.  Things to include in your email (for fun, but also so I know you’re serious about testing):

1 ) The operating system you run / will play the game on

2 ) Where you originally heard about Why Am I Dead At Sea

3 ) If you played the original Why Am I Dead – who do you think was the serial killer?

The last time I made a call for volunteer testers I was really impressed by how many people responded, and how dedicated many of them have been.  If you volunteered before and I didn’t get back to you, I apologize – but also know that this test phase will require much more people, so feel free to volunteer again!


 

Thanks in advance to any volunteers!  Next blog update I may be releaseing a date of some import.

Hello Steam!

Sorry everyone, no long blog post this time – just a short update for a bit of news.

But oh, what news it is.

AMiracle2

Why Am I Dead At Sea is going to launch on Steam!!!  Talk about a boost!

Thank you everybody for your votes, support, and kind words.  Now, I have a game to finish!

GreenlitButton

Influences

When people hear what Why Am I Dead At Sea is about and how you play it, they generally have a similar reaction: that’s like Ghost Trick!  Or some people will less frequently say, oh, it’s similar to Murdered!

Looking at those games, the parallels are obvious.  The funny thing is, I wasn’t even aware of Ghost Trick when I started on the original Why Am I Dead in 2012.  And Murdered came out two whole years after Why Am I Dead, so that clearly wasn’t an influence.  In truth, the real sources of inspiration that led me to make this game came from entirely different places.

What are those places?  Well no one really asked, but I’m about to tell you anyway, so get ready!

Free Flash Games

You were murdered, and you’re a ghost trying to solve their own death.  Hmm.  That must be from Ghost Trick, right?  Or Murdered: Soul Suspect!  What about that Ghost movie with Patrick Swayze?  Or is it The Crow?

Nah.

About two-ish years ago I wanted to practice programming in Flash and put something small online, so I was thinking up a little project to motivate myself.  The idea was to make something in a week that would teach me the basics.  Something really simple, but still interesting and unique.

So you know what I looked at for inspiration?  Other simple, interesting and unique free flash games!  These were the games that taught me you can create a truly memorable experience with hardly any visuals or assets – that you can leave an impression on people even if the playtime for your game is as short as 5-10 minutes.  And there are a couple such games in particular that gave me the little idea that led to today.

 

I Wish I Were The Moon

This is a small experimental game made by Daniel Benmergui in 2010, more well known for his games Today I Die and his upcoming Storyteller.  In it, you have a camera of sorts that allows you to take snapshots of certain objects in the game and move them around.  Depending on what you move and where, you can change the little story the game has.

You can play it here.

So in this case, there’s a girl on a boat looking up at a boy on a moon.  The girl likes the boy; the boy likes the moon.  This strange love triangle can be played out in all sorts of ways, and the game will respond to pretty much all interactions you give it.  For example, you can immediately dump both the girl and the boy in the ocean.  You monster.  Or you can swap their places, so the boy is on the boat and the girl is on the moon, so she is now also the object of his affection!  Yay!  (don’t think about it too hard)

If you’re quick, it takes maybe five minutes to discover all the possible permutations in the game.  So why am I still talking about it four years after it was made?  Because it was a completely different system than anything I had ever seen before.  I was able to manipulate pieces in the story and directly change it in a way no other game let me, and as short-lived as that experience was, it was very impressionable.

Oiche Mhaith

This is actually some of the more tame writing in the game.

Another experimental flash game made by Increpare and Terry Cavanagh, the latter of which is well known for VVVVVV and Super Hexagon.  You control a small girl who, well…I’ll link to the actual game before I really get into it.

You can play it here, but be warned that it contains adult language and themes and is very very dark.

Simply put, you control a small girl who is charged with the task of putting the minds (souls?) of her mother, father, doll, and dog back into their respective bodies.  The game doesn’t really make it clear which is which, and you have to figure things out by trial and error.  The cool thing is that the game has an outcome for every permutation – put the mind of the dog into your father’s body, and one thing will happen.   Put the doll’s mind into your father’s body, something else will happen.

Similar to I Wish I Were the Moon, this game allows you to manipulate things in the game in a strange new way.  In the former, you could actually move them around – in the latter, it’s much more abstract.  And both games allow for experimentation – you are encouraged to move things around in certain ways just to see what the result will be, even if it isn’t the “correct” interaction.

The defining thing in these cases is that you feel like you are creating meaning in the game.  You aren’t simply picking up and moving blocks – you are manipulating actors in a story, and creating what feel like emergent scenarios.

Creating Meaning

So I thought, giving the player the ability to manipulate story objects was cool…what if I allowed the player to do so by directly assuming control of things in the game?  Like in I Wish I Were the Moon, you could move them around to do different stuff.  And like in Oiche Mhaith, different combinations of characters could lead to different results.

Except in this case, it wouldn’t be a combination of mind/body pairs – it would be a combination between the character the player is currently controlling, and the character they choose to interact with.

This was the core that I started with, and at this point there was still no ghost stuff going on.  Instead, I was thinking of just arbitrarily giving the player this power to control people, without having a narrative explanation for it.  I also wasn’t entirely sure that you would interact with people by really talking to them – the interactions might be more abstract or exaggerated than that.

I believe it was my sister who came up with the narrative idea first.  I had voiced an incredibly vague and ethereal concept to her, and she thought it would make sense if the player was a ghost.  And since they have to solve some sort of puzzle, they could be a ghost detective, charged with solving a mystery.  I then made what now seems a somewhat inevitable last step – how about you’re a ghost solving the mystery of your death?

And the rest is history.

The first playable build.

The first playable build.

About Multiple Endings

I’ve been trying to put together a post focusing on the time where I was less active on the blog/online, and as a bit of an overview for the past year…but writing it out in a way that fits the nature of this blog has been difficult.  It’s a lot of material, so it’s a bit hard to decide how to organize it, and it’s a bit of a departure from game development.  Meanwhile, the days keep ticking away, so I thought I’d give an update on the game just to get a post out.


I’ve been more active than ever in development, and things are moving along quite well.  After taking a lot of time over the past several months to update visuals, add support for game options/configurations, and work on Rebirth, I’ve returned to filling out the game’s story.  Over the past month I’ve added in all of the art, dialogue, and scripting for the game’s story, all the way up to the ending.

The ending is done?!

Well.  One of them.  As I’ve opted to have multiple endings for Why Am I Dead At Sea, I’ll have to finish the “ending” to the game several times before I can say that it’s actually been completed.  However, what I have finished is the basic framework that the separate endings switch off from, which means that the remaining work is a bit simpler than what I’ve already done.

Given that all of this progress takes place at the game’s finale, it’s hard to show things I’ve worked on without immediately and blatantly giving away important details about the ending.  Like its original, there are some revelations and plot twists at the final hour – and they can vary, depending on the ending you get.

But I can speak in generalities and talk about the structure of the endings without giving away details.

Lifeboat

An object used in one of the epilogues.

I can be a very compulsive person.  As a result, I am all too familiar with player paranoia: when a player feels anxious about if they’re missing some content.  If you’re walking through a maze and find the exit, only to turn around and check every last dead end so you know you didn’t miss anything – that’s player paranoia.  When a game overwhelms the player with choices and gives them a clear right/wrong answer, it can be an unpleasant amount of pressure.  I recall playing the acclaimed Metroid Prime for the first time.  I was having a lot of fun with the game, until I learned from somewhere that there were multiple endings, and that they were determined in large by the amount of hidden upgrades you collected throughout the game.

…I never played it again.  That knowledge turned the game, for me, from fun exploration into obsessive item-hunting.  It’s exactly the kind of system I don’t want in my game – I don’t want to burden the player with the worry that they made the wrong choice or missed things early on and unwittingly doomed themselves.

Admittedly, there is a lot of story-telling potential to having the game remember the things that you do.  And I plan for that to be an element in the game.  However, the factors that influence the game’s ending will follow this pattern:

1) The more drastic a factor changes the story, the later in the story it occurs

2) Conversely, the earlier a factor occurs in the story, the less significant it is to the overall direction of the story

Some more objects used in the latter parts of the game

Some more objects used in the latter parts of the game

What this means is, essentially, there will be two types of variables that change the ending/epilogue that you see.  Conversations that occurred in the early/middle parts of the game could change additional, flavor dialogue at the end.  It would give a nod to some of the choices you made earlier on, but does not itself decide the direction of the story or the resolution of the mystery.  On the other hand, there are larger revelations and clues you can find, which will be available all the way up to the end of the game, which will decide the ending you get.

To reference what has to be probably my (and many other peoples’) favorite alternate ending design to date, the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2 has lots of smaller factors that decide who amongst your crew lives or dies – but ultimately, that isn’t what decides the climax of the story.  At the end, there is still a big choice you can make at the end regardless of what you’ve done beforehand, which means you don’t feel shoehorned.  It’s a good blend between acknowledging the player’s previous choices and allowing them to make new ones, and the ending of Why Am I Dead At Sea attempts to achieve that effect.

Greenlight!

In my last post I talked in detail about the reboot of my very first flash game. But what about its follow-up game, which I’ve been pouring way more time and resources into making? It’s been forever since I had a proper update about that!

First off, I’ve finally put the game up on Greenlight! If you want the game to be on Steam, I’d like to ask you to go onto its page and vote “Yes”. I mean it. Right now! You can read the rest of this post after you do that.

Greenlight Page

If you somehow didn’t know, getting on Steam is pretty important. Most indie games report that something like 80%+ of their revenue comes from Steam, and that’s not even considering the sheer amount of publicity you can get simply from being accepted onto Steam. And there are still plenty of good games that don’t necessarily get on Greenlight, so really, your vote is extremely important!

Okay.  That’s enough groveling.  Just kidding, did you vote yet?! Go vote now! I mean, unless you really just don’t want to buy the game, it’s not like I can force you. But otherwise, vote!

It’ll only take a second!

Alright, now that you have voted, I’ll continue. The only real barrier to getting the Greenlight page up was having a serviceable trailer to put up on the page. Having the right trailer is actually really important and very much worth being a perfectionist about, so I took my time putting one together. Since I have no experience or natural talent in editing videos or doing anything like this, it was a learning process. Here’s the final draft that I used for the Greenlight page:

I still feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement with it, but I was worried that I would just keep redoing it until the end of time. I’m also thinking about throwing together another trailer which shows off the cast of the game more. Any trailer should have a simple message, and this one aims to lay out the basic premise of the game: “You’ve been murdered, and you have to possess people to figure out why.” But to me, the most interesting part of the game is really the cast of characters you’re possessing, so it might not be a bad idea to have an additional, more optional trailer that showcases that.

We’ll see.

In other news…last time I talked about the game I mentioned that I would be submitting it to Indiecade. Well, I did, and bad news, it didn’t win anything. It was a bummer, but I sort of expected it after not hearing back for a while.

I have to say, though, that I was blown away by the sheer volume of feedback I received from the judges who viewed my game. They all clearly played through all of the content I had finished at the point I submitted the game, which I can only guess took hours and hours of playtime. In one case, I found two emails from a judge: the first one asking me how to get past a certain point in the game, and a second one, sent an hour and a half later, letting me know he figured it out!

In addition, there was a lot of very positive feedback. There was also a lot of criticism, but not only was it very helpful to hear it, it was also very fixable – the biggest areas of improvement were usually problems or bugs that were unintentional, or issues with the design that I didn’t originally notice but could improve without much work. And some of the positive feedback was extremely positive – the sort of positive that’s even a little inspiring! So all things said and done, I’m extremely happy I submitted my game and very grateful to the judges that reviewed it.

Next blog update, I’ll probably get a bit more personal and talk about development of the game in relation to the rest of my life, both looking back and going forward. Until then!