I’m not sure if ya’ll follow me on my facebook page or twitter but recently I’ve revealed a Steam Page of our latest project that we’re building together with Games Operators #gamedev publisher. The project is now in it’s prealpha stage and the aim of the phase we have just finished was solely to see if there is a demand for an Underground City Builder based in a generic fantasy world.
If you want to help us I strongly encourage you to add this game to your wishlist. Also I encourage you to give us feedback inside the Steam Discussions forum. We’ll be more than happy to answer all your questions.
This postmortem will only cover the technical aspects and issues we have encountered in this 6 months phase (2 months of preproduction, 4 month for actual milestone). Obviously some data is a subject of NDA between us and our publisher or between Steam so we cannot talk about it.
Here I’d like to give a cheerful shout out to our friends in Games Operators. It was a pleasure to work with you so far (which is a nice refresher compared to experiences with our first publisher). The cooperation, even though sometimes demanding, was and I hope will continue to be as good as it is now.
If you are new to working with a publisher then this article may help you prepare properly so that your project will run with even less issues.
This article will cover
- Low Pitch, High Pitch, Elevator Pitch: Why Underground City Builder?
- “Show me what you got” – Technical prototype.
- “Papers, please” – the better preliminary documentation the less issues later
- “Is it the vision or rather the hallucination ?” The art of not getting totally nuts while managing a team of artists.
- “Feedback is king… insane king.” How to get feedback and not get torn apart by it.
- What technical skills I’ve learnt
- Quo Vadis, Nanus ?- Where are we heading with this project
Low Pitch, High Pitch, Elevator Pitch
I’ve met Bartek, CEO of Jutsu Games and Games Operators during one of the gamedev meetups of local Warsaw KNTG Polygon group. He was sitting with one of my gamedev colleagues Mateusz (his team Ice Code Games is making an awesome cyberpunk RTS game called Re – Legion. Go check them out.) I spent some quality time with them drinking beer and listening to what my more experienced friends were talking about their games. Bartek seemed to know a lot and he made a great impression on me. He also mentioned they are about to announce their Games Operators initiative. I noted that fact. However I was not thinking about pitching anything at that point. I think it was in the middle of February or something and we were busy delivering Futurust and the project for iFun4ALL was just kicking in. We met during gamedev meetups several times, Bartek even wanted to recruit me but I made my choice to pave my own path and build my own independant company. However…. after some time I figured. Why not? Futurust project will end sometime. After some time I thought “Let’s do this. At least I will learn something”.
Important lesson here for you is rather obvious (I think) – Drink beer … errr … Socialize with other game developers. Be visible. I’m not telling you to go to each and every game conference or gamedev meetup (Actually I’m strongly against this so called “conference – cruising” phenomenon. Choose your spare time activities wisely.) but I wouldn’t be given the opportunity to start this awesome adventure by getting this deal If I hadn’t had drank that pint or two with lads during post-kntg-polygon meetup. Networking is key in every business.
So I’ve coined a concept doc. I thought – they made a 911 Operator. They are probably looking for something that will match their portfolio. I figured I’ll present an idea of coal mine manager simulator. In that concept You would be sort of a director macro managing the coal mining business. The game would start in late communist Poland period and your aim would be to keep it profitable. Guys did not like the idea of making yet another serious game. I saw that the long process of developing their 911 Operator got them a bit weary and they were really anxious to do something exciting. After brainstorming with tons of ideas we came up with this concept of being a dwarven king ruling over his kin under the mountain – word “Epic” and “Tolkien” was used almost in every second sentence. We used a codename “Moria” for this one. We fell in love in the concept. As you can see it came a long way from the original coal mine manager set in communist Poland 🙂
Clue here is: Don’t get attached to your game idea. Let your creativity flow.
“Show me what you got”
Our task was to create a technical prototype of several key features of this project. The prototype was sponsored by the publisher. Yes. This may sound weird but we actually got money to do the thing. Usually it’s the other way around. You usually make a tech demo for free. You show it to some smart-ass marketing wisecrack suit fellow in the publishing house… and you eventually get to do the project… or not. Here we had a totally different approach.
We have delivered the technical prototype which contained 4 basic features – procedural mountain, camera movement, digging in 3D space, hiding front room walls so that they do not cover the view what’s inside the hall. It was not perfect. We made a ton of mistakes but publisher was patient enough to let us finish it.
Next phase was to create a visual static mock-up of dwarven mines. The aim of this phase was to prove that we can deliver this from artistic side . This part also has been sponsored by the publisher. We made the thing, however we were all moderately happy by the results. This artsy part is really difficult especially for me – a coder who is almost colorblind. More about issues with art style later.
While building the technical prototype I also had a task to prepare a concept and a content document. I strongly recommend you to do the same thing.
For concept doc we used this general format:
- Core foundations (Genre, Platform, Business Model, Play Mode,Target Audience, Main Mechanics)
- Hook (game concept in one sentence)
- Pitch (game feeling and concept in two sentences)
- Marketing text (the text you sometimes see on the back of a book, brief and catchy description)
- Main Features (or USPs)
- Core Gameplay: main challenge, win and lose conditions
- Written description of first 30 minutes of gameplay
- Games, Movies and Literature references
For content doc we listed all systems, all locations, items, characters, monsters and such in a excel spreadsheet. Example below:
|system_terrain_generate||procedurally generated mountain||Prototype||Ready|
The aim of this step is to clarify the scope of the project. This will help you and your publisher plan the budget for your game.
“Is it the vision or rather the hallucination ?”
I’m a coder. More over I’m colorblind. I see all basic colors and in normal day to day life it’s not a big issue but if you show me two different bars with similar hue, brightness and saturation I will probably get confused. Now I had to manage a team of artists who were responsible for something I had zero clue about. You can see that in the final trailer. Players generally like it (or so they say) but I don’t. You can say I’m a perfectionist but let’s face it. If we had an skilled art director who could magically read people minds, things would look better than this:
The problem was that we neither had a skilled art director nor we had a AAA budget to spend on countless months on a quest to find the proper art direction. At some point we had to make a decision we must show it – now or never.
In the mean time my art team changed 3 times. I lost weeks on finding proper people willing to work with us.
Speaking of which: if you are looking for an artist – give them a test for a start. Only spend time on talking with them if they manage to deliver a small task. This will prove if they can stick to deadlines; if they keep discipline; If they are creative enough. We asked our candidates to draw a concept art of a balista which we already had in game.
The lesson here is that sometimes you just have to work with whatever pieces you have. You may not like it… but such is life. It’s an art of compromise.
More about the future of art style in the section 7 “Quo Vadis, Nanus ?”
“Feedback is king… insane king.”
We’ve conducted 4 internal feedback rounds (5 people each) and in the end with help of our publisher we ran a survey and got answer from around 100 people. At this stage it is important to know what you are looking for. We used mainly feedback from other game developers who focused on technical issues. Unfortunately we also got some feedback that was rather useless. The point here is that each and every developer would do their own version of their game. Not your game. Sometimes you have to close yourself to such feedback. It’s important to know where you are headed.
The most valuable part of this phase was the surveys. It told us several key pieces of information: people like the concept, music is awesome (Made by Piotr Surmacz, great guy, hire him), graphics are so – so (players either loved it or thought it was meeeeeh), they generally got the game-play big picture however the trailer should convey more pieces of information to be more clear.
If you are a dev as well I strongly recommend you to build your own large group of beta testers or people who don’t know you personally and are willing to answer your surveys. The best and the cheapest way to get feedback…. or You can always go to a conference, spend a lot of money on a booth to lose time with people who will never buy your game… but it’s all up to you 😉
What technical skills I’ve learnt
Our team was small, the budget was really tight, the only thing I was not doing in the team was drawing concept arts and building models in 3D Max.
- I’ve learnt how to use Unity Cinemachine Timeline and Recorder module (You can check this tutorial)
- I found out that you don’t need to buy Adobe Premiere to do some basic video editing – you can use an awesome totally free software called HitFilm Express,
- I’ve learnt how cathedrals are built and designed and why they give a sense of an awe and being totally epic (check this 360 video)
- I found out that we almost had a dwarven kingdom here in Poland in Wieliczka Salt Mine. Just take a look at it yourself
Quo Vadis, Nanus ? (Where are you heading, dwarf?)
Right now we are validating the concept business-wise. The steam page is out there and we closely observe the increase of people wishlisting it.
We have a certain target to reach to be sure that we can continue working on this project. Publisher has certain marketing plans related with this to help us get there. Obviously they don’t want to spend money on something that does not have a commercial value. We will learn more about their decision sometimes in January or so.
If we get to continue working on this underground city builder there are some challenges that we must face later. The most important one is:
Finding a proper art style. The one which will not be to costly to make but will be consistent with game-play and will enforce the main feeling of the game – the feeling of grandeur and epicness of your kingdom.
I hope you liked this lengthy analysis of this project’s phase. If you are interested in the future of this underground city builder then please follow us on Steam and add it to your wishlist here