Post Mortem: Lair of the Evildoer

Now that Lair of the Evildoer has celebrated its two month anniversary (and dropped off all lists on the dashboard), it’s time for a post-mortem! I haven’t done a sales post yet, but suffice to say that they have been a tad disappointing. Nevertheless, the conversion rate is promising and I’m consequently polishing up the PC version of the game.

This post-mortem is a bit long, but it seems fitting given the length project. Enjoy!

What Went Right:

Making the game I wanted to make

First and foremost, this is the reason why I consider Lair of the Evildoer to be a success. I started out with a relatively vague set of features I wanted to include, and built the game iteratively according to what I felt would be fun. It meant I got to include things that I wanted to see in a game of this type. It also meant cutting things after they had been implemented simply because they didn’t end up being fun. The game may not have turned out perfectly, but it’s a game I am proud to have made.

Avoiding feature creep

With roughly 2 months left to go in the project, I started using PivotalTracker to maintain a list of work items and try to get a schedule under control. Doing so allowed me to easily see how over-ambitious I was being and make some hard cuts to features. Without this self-control, I would still be working on new features with no end in sight. It’s great to have a lot of ideas, but they mean nothing if you never ship.

Iterative playtestings

I experimented using the playtesting feature of AppHub to post weekly new builds of the game roughly two months before I planned on shipping. This gave me some great early feedback, as well as some priceless testers who tried multiple versions of the game. I feel there’s still some work to do here in order to get the most out of playtesting though – much of the later areas of the game were tested infrequently or else ignored completely. You have to be careful not to overstay your welcome and use up the goodwill of those helping you. I think some incentives, cheats to skip sections, and more focused testing (such as only including one specific level at a time) could improve results here.

Entering Dream Build Play

I finally entered the Dream.Build.Play. contest. This was more of a personal goal, but it was satisifying to be able to submit my completed, polished game by the deadline.

Winging it

The first month of development was filled with wild prototyping as I experimented with procedural generation, read up on loot systems, and tinkered with GPU shadows. Even for the next three months, aside from a few key features, much of my development was guided by spur-of-the-moment inspiration on what I felt would be a cool or fun addition. While this almost certainly ate into my development time, it was great to be able to code by the seat of my pants.

More press releases

For my first game, Zombie Accountant, I sent out a press release on the day the game launched. No matter how good your game is, it’s going to be tough to get any sort of attention that way. This time around, I sent a press release announcing the game, another a month later to announce the release date (and more details) and then a final “Go get it!” press release on launch day. This might not be the right balance, but it certainly felt like there was more “buzz” generated this way.

Peer review in 48 hours

Lair of the Evildoer passed peer review within 48 hours, which is the minimum amount of time that a game can spend in that process. I attribute this partly to having a greater presence in the AppHub forums as well as a better relationship with other devs on Twitter. The longer time in playtest may also have helped.

Doing everything myself (or else getting it for free)

Aside from some the music, which was provided for next to nothing by one of my talented and generous friends, everything in the game was created by me or else was used with a permissive commercial license for free. Total cost for the project, other than my existing AppHub membership and my time, was about $100.

Making dev videos

For a few weeks in late development, when features were coming fast and hard, I made weekly videos about progress on the game. They didn’t garner a huge amount of attention, but hearing even just a little feedback was enough to spur me on.

Coverage Get!

More press releases, emails, trailers and Twittering earned me quite a few reviews, articles, giveaways and “picks” on a fair number of indie gaming sites. My “big” breaks include getting picked for “Kotaku’s Favorites” (which came with a spot on an Xbox dashboard list for two weeks) and even a brief spot on Attack of the Show. Seeing my game on TV was a pretty awesome feeling.

What Went Wrong:

Development time

Nice feelings and satisfaction aside, spending 6 months on a project to see this kind of a return is simply not sustainable.

No co-op

The lack of co-op play was not mentioned as frequently as I expected, but I still feel this is the largest omission from the game. It was not an easy feature to decide to cut, and perhaps better planning could have prevented that.

Planning release for E3

Once I got a handle on the remaining work and polish that I decided I wanted to put into the game, I pieced together a schedule for announcements, trailers, peer review, and finally a release date. It took a while to settle on something realistic. It took a further two days for me to notice that my announcements coincided with the pre-E3 conferences by Microsoft and Sony, with the release date itself falling just as E3 ended. Whoops. Back to the drawing board.

Art takes a long time and requires direction

All of the art in the game was created by me. I had no real direction or style in mind when I started creating it. The result is a collection of half-hearted temporary art mixed with haphazard rushed art to fill in the gaps created by overzealous data creation. It’s really easy to add a new monster type to a spreadsheet when you don’t consider the art that needs to go along with it. In the end, graphics ended up being probably the weakest area of my game. Had I recognized this earlier on, I would have opted for higher quality and lower quantity – focus on a cohesive art direction and don’t skip “petty” things like animation due to time constraints.

Boxart + Name = No Trials!

I’m still a bit unclear as to how to avoid this next time, but I do know that my combination of boxart, title, description and screenshots were quite unsuccessful. I have some theories, but the important part is the result: gamers browsing the indie games market were not enticed by what I was selling. Zombie Accountant pulled in over 15000 trial downloads in its first 10 days. Lair of the Evildoer earned just over 5000.

Making dev videos

Making development videos takes a lot of time! I found that a good chunk of my Friday ended up being spent recording footage, making a voiceover, piecing together a video, uploading it and then making a blog post/tweeting about it. Considering the only viewers were other devs, the return for this effort was rather minimal.

Git (and 200mb of hosting)

Having cut my teeth on Perforce in the industry, I was using Git to store both my code and game assets. Towards the end of the project, I ran into issues with disk space and came to realize the horror that is storing large binary files with Git (and expecting to keep disk usage reasonable). It was a gotcha that I managed to avoid having to throw money at to solve (i.e. buy more hosted space), but it did take me about a day to learn more about Git’s internals and resolve it with my provider. On the plus side, the distributed nature of Git allowed me to keep developing while I did so.

What Went ????:

Releasing on a Friday

The Xbox Indie Game marketplace is governed by lists. Stay on the lists and you stay visible, getting downloads and making sales. One of those lists is “New Releases”. Ideally, you will be at the front of that list during the peak period of Friday-Saturday. I scheduled my release for Friday, which guaranteed me a decent position on that list. The downside is that the press tends to go home on weekends and thus you don’t necessarily get the attention you hope for. Press releases go unread, trailers go unwatched and emails go unreturned. If you’re lucky, you’ll be picked up the next week. But when dealing with the press, you don’t want to give yourself any unnecessary disadvantages.

Designing the trial experience

Lair of the Evildoer has a slightly modified “campaign” for players who start the game in trial mode. The dialogue is different, reflecting the fact that you have not purchased the game yet, and the balance is weighted in the player’s favor to prevent dying and wasting time. There’s even a special ending to deal with the player who manages to race through the limited content of the demo. All of this took time to develop. There’s also no way to tell if it made any difference at all to players and their decision to purchase (or not).

Not waiting for DBP or Summer Uprising

I chose to release Lair of the Evildoer when I had completed the features I decided I wanted to include, and once they were polished. Had I waited another two months, I could have been sure that I wasn’t affecting my chances in Dream.Build.Play. by releasing the game on XBLIG before the winners are announced. Officially you are allowed to do so, and the competition is steep this year anyway, so I don’t regret my decision. I also could have entered into the Summer Uprising, though inclusion in that promotion would have been a tough fight too.

Focusing entirely on one project

Like most developers, I have a habit of wandering off with ideas to make prototypes and leaving behind a mess of unfinished games. I decided early on that this game was going to require a significant investment of time and thus I should focus my efforts entirely on this one project in order to minimize delays. While this was probably the fastest way to finish the game, it’s also the slowest way to finish the next game (provided I don’t make a sequel immediately). I think I’ll be attempting a few projects simultaneously this time around to prevent fatigue on any given idea and hopefully have more frequent releases on average.

Lair of the Evildoer in playtest

Quick update to say that Lair of the Evildoer is in playtest over at the AppHub. You need to be a premium member to view the thread or download the game.

I found the previous playtests (under the name “Project Splice”) to be very successful both in terms of feedback and motivation. I feel like I’m on the home stretch for the game now, so hopefully these “beta”-esque playtests will be equally useful.

No video this week, purely because they take a lot of time to produce and that time is currently going towards development. It’s been a while since my last video though, and thus there’s nothing really representative of the current state of the game that I can show anybody. I hope to change that next week with a trailer and an official announcement. Maybe.

Why aren’t you following me on Twitter? That hurts.

Here’s a screenshot for being so well-behaved:

Do Indies Crunch?

I happen to have a convenient two week block of spare time and a game that needs finishing. I plan on crunching.

But wait you say! Crunching is bad! Yes, I’ve heard that too – here’s a good article detailing why. I’ve also experienced the fun that crunching for a big publisher isn’t.  And yet, free of the shackles, I’ve got my Red Bull on my desk ready to go.

As an independent developer, you basically get to control your own destiny. You pick what game you make, the genre, the platform, the price point and even the release date. You don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck threatening to take away funding. On the other hand, you don’t have that funding to begin with. And you need to eat, so shipping isn’t really an optional part of the job. Crunching to get there is up to you.

My reason for crunching is obviously to accomplish more in a shorter period of time. But I also know that I can afford to take it relatively easy after this stretch. I figure that if I’m following agile methodology and sprinting all the time, shouldn’t I jog at some point? Maybe the interval training analogy is flimsier than I thought.

So indie developers, do you crunch? Why?

Friday Update

It’s Friday! Update time!

After a brief vacation, work has resumed on the action RPG twin-stick shooter game known only as Project Splice. No alpha playtest or video this week because most of the work has been largely cosmetic. Animations, actual art, particles, oh my!

Cosmetic? That sounds like polishing!

Sort of. I’ve set a target roughly corresponding to one more month of development (give or take several months). The laundry list of remaining work is pretty daunting, but it does appear to be complete and thankfully finite. There will be more playtesting and more balance work in the near future.

Stay tuned next week* for the dramatic reveal of Project Splice’s final title!

I’ve heard that if you tell people to follow you on Twitter, they are more likely to do it. Follow me on Twitter @benkane!

To whet your appetite, here’s a picture of your nemesis:

Follow @benkane you fools!

* – give or take several months

Project Splice Weekly Alpha 4

Another week, another alpha build plus video!

Feedback in the forum has slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t completely stopped so I’m still pleased. I’ll continue to do weekly builds, both to keep it available for people to try as well as keeping me somewhat accountable for making progress.

This coming week will hopefully be focused on art and balancing. The game still can’t realistically be played all the way though. Now that the majority of the planned enemy types are in, I can flesh out the distributions, levels and start tuning difficulty. I also need to drop the Project Splice moniker pretty soon. Exciting!

Here’s this week’s video:

As usual, if you’re an AppHub member and you want to try out the latest build or check out the forum thread, you can find it here.

Did you follow me on Twitter? It’s @benkane . You should do that right now.

I’ll wait.

Project Splice Weekly Alpha 3

Wait, wasn’t the last alpha build on Monday? Yes, yes it was.

I feel Friday is a better time to release these builds though. It gives people a chance to play the latest build on the weekend, which is the time when I feel most playtesters are active (I could be wrong). That means the feedback I get is based on the most recent build, not the week-old build that I’ve already been modifying.

The downside is that I’ll miss being included on George “Why Isn’t He Community Manager” Clingerman’s weekly XNA Notes (or at least it’ll be a week behind). This is a risk I’m willing to take.

On the experiment front, I continue to get more and more feedback in the playtest thread. This is good news, because it means I haven’t overstayed my welcome yet. The feedback is also really, really helpful. A lot of it is also very positive, which is encouraging to say the least.

The other experiment, narrated dev diary videos, has had a bit more mixed results. While I never get a lot of hits/views, my last video and post were well below average. However! I did receive some direct feedback from a few people that they would like to see more. I plan on sticking with this for a little while longer regardless, but it’s nice to hear that others are interested. So! Video!

As usual, if you’re an AppHub member and you want to try out the latest build, you can find it here.

Follow me on Twitter! @benkane

Do it.

Project Splice Weekly Alpha 2

I’m happy to report that my little experiment with XBLIG playtesting has been going well. Well enough that I’ve put together another build for this week that incorporates almost all of the feedback I received, plus some additional new features.

A handful of community members posted some very detailed comments and suggestions about the initial build, all of which were very helpful. My hope is that this enthusiasm can last for a few more builds and that it will endear rather than annoy.

In an unprecedented second experiment, I also made and narrated a video showing off some of the changes that have been made. I really enjoyed the game dev diary series that Stegersaurus Games put out, and while I’m not ready to do daily videos, I figured I would give it a shot. Like it? Hate it? Feel totally indifferent? Let me know, here, on Youtube or by email.

If you’re an AppHub member and you want to try out the latest build, you can find it here.

An Experiment with XBLIG Playtesting

Just yesterday I posted an early gameplay video for my current project. I’m pretty happy with where the game is at, but I’ll be the first to admit that there is still a very long way to go.

Today, I put the game up for XBLIG playtest.

What gives? There’s clearly not a whole lot of content for people to try out. Numerous key pieces, such as story and progression, are completely absent. However I feel that enough of the core gameplay is present and stable that I can begin getting feedback on it. I’ve often heard of playtesting “early and often”, but that was something I ignored for my previous title, Zombie Accountant. For that, playtest was more of an informal check to see if there were any glaring bugs. It was still worthwhile – someone found a showstopper bug, and I added a much-needed last-second instructional diagram.

But I feel playtesting can be much more useful than that. Hence, I’ve submitted my game as early as I’m comfortable doing. Any sooner and I’d be wasting the time of other community members. The plan is to keep a build in playtest from here until release, meaning I’ll need a new build at least once a week. I think weekly is a good target to incorporate significant improvements with each new build.

Will it pay off? Will I use up the goodwill of other playtesters and have nobody willing to play my game by the time I want to release it? Stay tuned!

Oh, and if you’re an App Hub member, feel free to check it out here, under the laughably temporary name of “Project Splice”.

Early gameplay video for upcoming title

Oooh, generic post title! I’m not yet ready to announce the title of my next game, but I figure I can start showing off some of the progress I’ve made. Here’s a quick video:

Bear in mind that most of the assets are placeholders. I’m working on honing the gameplay and progression mechanics first and foremost. More to come!