Some thoughts about a 4 year game dev cycle

As I’m starting to write this post I’m on my way to my home town for the holidays, so I may not post it in a couple days.
It’s been a crazy year(s)(?) and I’m taking these near 4h of travel to write down some things. I’m sorry if it’s incoherent, this is mostly a dump of thoughts.

For those who follow my work a bit more closely you probably know that for almost 4 years the project I dedicated more time was Quest of Dungeons, which started development in 2013.

Right now I still have one more platform to release, on Playstation 4, 17 January 2017, it passed certification, ready to be released, so for the first time in years it feels that my QoD journey is finally completing. I still intend to patch the Android port with all last updates and sure, there will always be patches and things to take care of, but it will be in a whole different way now. Until now it always felt incomplete and a never ending task that extended for months, years.

Working for so much time on the same project can be incredibly frustrating, especially if working alone, so one thing that I’m proud of myself is that I actually finished it. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times that I said “F** it, is not worth it”. Things went good with the game, in a sense that I was able to put it on a lot of platforms and it was well received for the most part.
I think I was able to find a good “niche” of players that understood what QoD was all about, with all its flaws and good things.

The game was never meant to be released outside of PC, heck, during the first month of development it was a Tablet only game. That led to decisions that I regretted later when porting to consoles, but also allowed me to cut corners and not caring about things that weren’t meant for a PC game early on, thus speeding up development time. I spent a lot of time just rethinking the whole interface for each new platform (except PS4 which is identical to Xbox One) and that is time consuming, not to mention specific console features, on the other hand players do feel like it was hand-crafted for their device, so there’s that. Each new platform was made possible with the previous one, so it’s not something that I can say it was a total mistake.

Technology wise, I’ve kept using my own tech for all releases, stubbornness perhaps? And that is not without it’s caveats. With engines like Unreal 4, Unity and Gamemaker these days if feels almost ridiculous to consider building your own tech for many, but not for me, not yet anyway. I used other engines in the past, I did release my first 2 games on XNA, and after that I decided that it was time to build my own tech, so I could be more flexible and not caring if an engine is discontinued or not, that was the goal. And on that part it succeeded, the same code runs on all platforms, except for specific render, input, etc. It took work, a lot, and after so many platforms I have a better idea of things that need better abstraction, in fact for the past week I’ve been just cleaning up code for future projects, feels more robust now. But I have a bit of regret of platforms that I ported the engine and possibly will never use it again, like Wii U, maybe even Nintendo 3DS. While the others, now that the work is done I can reuse for future games, it’s possible that I’ll never use for some again, so it was an effort for a one time only, and that is a problem, one that could have been prevented by using an existent engine.
I tried using Unity for 3 weeks, did some tests with GameMaker, and it was a cool experience, knowledge doesn’t hurt right? But haven’t made my mind yet about switching away from my own tech, mostly because I know it well, I can quickly changes things around for each project and mostly because I love working on that part as well, it’s fun, even if it’s just for me. I’ll revisit this if/when I need to switch to a “full 3d” game.

So many platforms!!
It’s a game that’s on a lot of devices now, and there are several reasons to do so, more audience, chance to make more money, get the game more known, etc, brand recognition and proving the studio is capable of delivering. I also made it because I had the chance right now, I don’t know the future, may not be able to pull that again, also it was a chance to establish a relation with Steam, Xbox, Nintendo and Sony. My idea is to keep making games for platforms that each makes sense, but trying to cut down time between each release. It was too sparse now, because of the reasons mentioned above.

Marketing is still something I suck at, I do have a twitter account where I talk about my games, but also about tons of other stuff, mostly movies and general day things, is that even called marketing? Too late I decided to setup a newsletter list and put it on Upfall Studios website, should have done it earlier, I got 100 people to subscribe in the last year and half, I could have way more in these nearly 7 years as indie dev.
I also created a twitter account for Upfall Studios, so it’s basically a cleaned up version of my own, just news about the games and launches, a more “professional” account I call it. Taking care of so many social stuff, twitter, facebook, etc is time consuming and doesn’t come to me as naturally as using my personal account, so that is still a problem probably. For the most part I follow devs and not “companies” even when they are indies, so that’s mostly what I like to do, chances are there are more people like me.

Community (love you guys)
I like responding to people, I don’t mind getting asked questions and I’ve answered to 100% of emails I got, either about the game or gamedev in general. I’ve taken time to meet other developers in person when they wanna ask me questions. Treat others the way you wanna be treated, easy right?
I’ve been extremely luck with the players and community surrounding QoD, they are nice, active in recommending the game to friends and I couldn’t have wished for a better community. Goal is to keep incrementing the amount of course =)
Never lie or go on radio silence regarding customers. There are tons of Early access games that suddenly stop and not even a goodbye post, that’s the worse part, the waiting for months to see if project is alive. They won’t trust you again, even if you switch to a different studio, they won’t forget. So if project fails explain it, if you are delayed on a patch say so. Almost all the time players will understand and be supportive. When I was making the Xbox One and Nintendo ports I had to delay the PC updates for a couple months and players were really supportive, as long as they know why you are late on some promise.

It’s never just “X more months of dev”
NEVER, ever, if you think it’s just 2 more months, odds are that it’s 4 more. We suck at calculating time for the most part (or at least I do), because we conceive the game in your minds and you can see it, mostly complete, but making that happen takes much more time. PC version was delayed, both Xbox and Nintendo ports took much longer than I expected, the PS4 one was shorted, because I counted with worst case scenario but things went well at first try. In my experience completing the game 1-2 months before the release can have a positive effect, especially for a 1 man team. I finished the Xbox One version 2 months before, full approved on certification, and spent that time just trying to promote it, and was able to gather some awareness for the game. I finished the Nintendo versions just 10 days before, and even had to delay the game once, I regret now that I didn’t calculated/handled things better. Lesson learned, let’s see if I don’t make that mistake again.

Everything else
I made that mistake in the past and I still do, I can’t separate well development time and actual life time, so I end up working too many hours, and it’s addicting.
QoD was made partially at night when I still had a day job, and the last 1 and a half year in full time, but that doesn’t mean I was able to do twice as much work unfortunately.
When you work for someone else you have a schedule, but if you work on your own time, it’s harder. Most people tell me it’s hard to stay focused working, and I have that problem too, but not in a way that I can’t work, but mostly because I blend in leisure time with work, and working from home doesn’t help. It’s easy to get distracted, then you feel guilty and spend a couple more hours working. And while I don’t think I’m super slow, I could be using my time better. That’s something I want to change, I don’t thing strict work schedules work well, but not having clear boundaries doesn’t either. If anyone is managing this well please let me know. Open to suggestions 🙂
It’s easy to find people saying this, but I’ve now experienced it myself, when you have a problem that you can’t solve don’t spend hours on the PC, take a walk, go do something else, the solution will come to mind, seriously, it works very often. You trick your mind into something else and the other problem keeps getting solved in the background.

What now?
In approximately 3 weeks the PS4 version will be released, I don’t any plans for more ports so I intend to move to a new game, and honestly I’m scared, I don’t have a solid idea yet, been mostly sketching ideas or trying some prototypes, and the thought of deciding “let me spend 1-2 years” in this new game is a bit scary, “can I come up with all the money?”, “will it be good?”.
I wish I had a small cool idea to try for a couple months instead of a bigger one, but as I mentioned before, QoD was also supposed to be a 6 months project that turned out into 4 years so better not force anything. I’m trying not to think of “this is gonna be a cool idea that everyone will like” and instead trying to come up again with something that I would like to play, even if others don’t like it, development flows more naturally like that.
Oh and I want to take 2 weeks of proper vacations after the PS4 release, haven’t had vacations in over two years, thinking of backpacking a couple countries, it’s cheaper and it’s good “mind food”-

Still there? thanks for reading – David

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