Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When game projects die.

Welcome to another installment from one of those crazy indie game dev guys.  Today, I'd like to talk about when a project goes awry, and ends up being nixed.

About a year ago, around September of 2012, I began designing a tower defense game.  I figured it was going to be "easy enough" to design and develop.  Now remember, I'm basically working by myself and on top of the proposed game itself, I also make my own game engine, which is, of course, a never ending task.  Anyone with a decent amount of game industry experience (indie or otherwise) already knows that these are red flags, but hey, I'm stubborn and persistent.

The design seemingly went ok, the theme is to take control of plastic soldiers and defend human living spaces from pesky animals and things like that.  Once I sat down and wrote down everything about the game that I could think of; stuff like the player's pieces, the enemies, the general gameplay, etc, I decided I needed an artist to make the project come to life.  My lacklustre art talent was several years lacking to be "good enough" to do it myself.  So offloading the art would free me up to actively start programming the logic and game system, while still working on core game engine features in the background.  Now mind you, my game engine had already been in development for around 9 months at this time and had quite a bit of features "ready-made" (and published products using it), so I wasn't starting from scratch, but at the same time also put a technical limit as to what the game could be designed to handle.

Knowing that the budget is tight, the only real options I could consider was working with local college students that needed portfolio work, or outsource to Asia.  I generally like to try to keep things local and to support our own citizens, so I opted for the earlier option.  This turned out to be quite problematic, as with all things, apparently.

I may sound like a terrible person, but the people I met had some combination of no motivation to get anything done, couldn't follow directions, simply disappeared off the face of the planet, or just didn't have the required talent to make it happen.  The people I met and talked to just simply were not qualified.  Now, what did I expect, I was scalping college students.  Eventually I did meet up with 2 or 3 potentially qualified people.  After going over the plan, we drafted up a monetary agreement -- any "good" talent is worth money.  The amount of money offered, of course, couldn't be much, relatively speaking as compared to, say, established art houses, or even asian production companies, but hey, what do these guys expect, I'm an indie game dev with barely enough cash to survive with.  This conundrum is worthy of its own blog or even book so I'll leave it at this for now.

While there are other arrangements, like profit sharing, etc, that I have entertained in the past, I wasn't at that point with this project and tried to emphasize a cash payment, *on release of the product* to potential artists.  Some of the earlier failures with contracting ended up with some work being done and having the artist disappear, leaving me high and dry, so to protect myself, I insisted heavily on "no payment until release".  The game project wasn't something that could be done in a week or two, I understood that, so it definitely warranted some cash.

The amount of cash, of course, becomes the problem.  However, an agreement had been made between myself and an artist that seemed to have the right skillset.

The first couple of months went by with an acceptable amount of artwork production (definitely better than earlier contacts), and development proceeded in a fairly smooth manner -- but artwork production soon tapered off after about a month and a half.  I understand people have other commitments, but this was starting to get a little alarming.  I try to give people slack and not push *too* hard, but hey, things can only go so long, and plus, I'm not offering a huge cash payout, so I could see how and why my project would lose priority.

However, things got more complicated.  I had been in contact with Kongregate (a publisher) over the project.  This could have been the money infusion I'd been looking for, but this has its own ups and downs, dealing with publishers that is.  If we were to go this route, I'd have to increase game production, and art, several times over... something I don't think went over very well with the artist.

So, I ended up losing a bit of credibility here, and told Kongregate that we wouldn't be capable of producing something for them in any reasonable amount of time.  At the time, I was also pushing to release a demo of the product, or gameplay videos, but they told me not to as that could jeopardize our potential arrangement.

Time for alternative plans. An indie dev competition thing that was happening a couple months away came to my attention.  The dev builds of the game were going pretty well, but I'd need to get the game to an almost releaseable status to really be able to compete; the development was fine, but the art was slacking quite far behind.

I asked the artist for a status and estimate for how long it would be before I'd get "the rest of it".  He mentioned a time, but I almost laughed.  I had been tracking rough production time and my number was *vastly* different than his for artwork.  He mentioned something like a month, whereas my numbers suggested potentially 6 months.  Apparently, he didn't appreciate the discrepancy notice.

I think I got one additional piece of art from him since, and that was almost 6 months ago.  So, rewind the clock to that time, I pretty much knew his number was never going to happen.  Knowing that, I went ahead and did what any programmer would do, bury himself with more coding to "get it done".  I kept plowing away at the core game and the engine itself when a potential tech change occurred to me.

The entire game, at this point, is using 2d technology.  Yet, there was a lot of convoluted zooming in and out, with complex scaling, floating point stuff, strange math, things like this to produce a mock 3d-esque type player experience, using a core 2d tech system.  In the background, I was already toiling with 2.5d tech in the game engine and thought, hmm, this could be the perfect chance for me to incorporate this 2.5d stuff in to the game since I'm not going to be getting art anytime real soon anyways.

"It would be so much easier if I changed over everything to this new stuff".  This line alone could probably sink entire projects, and it certainly didn't do ours well either.   3 months later, most of the game had been transitioned over to the "new" 2.5d system, utilizing more of the game engine, which was also under heavy development, especially in this area.  There now exists a mostly broken game using new tech, old art, tattered nerves, little meaningful communication, and little funds.  I'd say time was short also, but there's never enough time, so that's a constant problem.

At this point, I had to sit down and ask myself where I was at with the project.  I had gotten so far to see over the peak of the mountain to realize I've gotten myself in to a bit of a pickle.  I had to reflect on myself where did things start going wrong.

Ultimately, failure rests on the project leadership, which lucky for me, was me.  The only way to grow was to reflect.

I personally believe that it all started back at the design of the project.  I described the game with words, not with concept art.  I didn't DRAW what the game would look like, I described it.  I used reference artwork, sure, but I didn't give explicit visual direction to what the artist was to create.  I didn't understand what the difference between what a game artist did versus what a game designer did.  I (wrongly) thought I could pass descriptions over to an artist and they would make the game come to life.  I was wrong.  When questions came up over intention and meaning of things, I'd answer with words, not drawings.  Visuals speak more clearly than words, especially in the media, and artists apparently are no different.

It wasn't really until I was working on other projects during this mess that I had realized that working with designers is what I was missing here right from the get go.  Two designers (unrelated to this project and each other) had sent me conceptual art for their own projects to develop and what they sent to me was visuals.  Artwork mock ups.  I could envision exactly what things would look like on a screen.  We had a hard, set, requirement for what displays and aspect ratios we would target.  I had basically no questions about what to do or how to go about doing it, and this, became quite apparent that this is where I was so sorely weak in my own project.

In fact, I don't even really blame the artist I was working with; sure, there might have been a bit of his own motivation issue at hand, but as a project lead, that's also my problem.  I think it probably didn't help that there wasn't a solid plan and design he could follow to find his own success, and again, this was my fault.  It would have been easy to just say "he sucks" and call it good, but it is more complicated than that, and there's no way I would grow from here if I did that anyways.

So, here we are about a year later from the very beginning with almost nothing to show for it. It is quite the sobering experience.  I'd like to get this project out the door one of these days, but I think I need to send it back to the drawing board and redesign it from essentially scratch, this time with a proper design.  It's hard to let something like this go; especially after "wasting" almost an entire year on it, but I guess this is one of those things that you have to love enough to let go when need be.

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