Time Tracking, When Done Wrong, Is Useless

My good friend, this week you are in luck.

For starters, I’m going to forego my usual wordy style and cut right to the chase. I’m typing this well in advance of the deadline, because I’ll be on vacation when this is posted. That means I don’t have time to blather incessantly about artwork and other such nonsense. (Really, who has the time?)

The other reason you’re in luck is because I’m about to save you about 14 months of hassling when it comes to proper time tracking. They say that good judgment comes from experience – and that experience comes from bad judgment. Well, let’s talk about my experiences with time tracking. Then we’ll get to my bad judgment near the end.

 

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A sample time sheet from the veeeeeeery beginning of the Demo Phase.

 

Time Tracking: An Intro

Before we go on, a quick definition is in order. You’re probably wondering what time tracking is. (If you already know, you’ll save time by skipping this section.) Time tracking is the continuous project management process of collecting data on how members of a project are spending their time working on that project.

In theory, you’re supposed to do it for a few months and then look at the data. If you find out everyone is spending 5 times as long as they should working on some task (A), then you’ll change process (B) so that task (A) doesn’t take so long in the future. That’s the hope, anyway.

In practice, it means filling out time sheets (see above) like a madman every time you do anything related to your indie game. Done incorrectly, it will actually take time away from your project and give nothing back in return. Done properly, it gives you keen just-in-time insights that let you wisely cut features and move staff around before you hit that impending deadline.

 

Old Sheet

On the surface this time sheet may look good. However, on further inspection…

How To Do A Bad Job

I want to tell you how to do time tracking properly, but you won’t appreciate the correct approach until you see it done wrong.

For the entirety of our time working on the Where Shadows Slumber Demo, Jack and I tracked our time with a time sheet I devised. This Google Spreadsheet had an entry for every sprint (a period of 1 or 2 weeks, usually the time between team Skype meetings) with a bunch of headings: Day, Start, End, Total, and Task. Here’s what they meant:

  • Day – What day during the Sprint did you work on this Task?
  • Start – “Punch in” at a time to begin working on the Task.
  • End – “Punch out” at a time to stop working on the Task.
  • Total – The number of minutes you worked on the Task.
  • Task – What you worked on.

As you can see, this tells us a lot about how I spent my Sprint. But none of this information is relevant to project management in the long term. There’s no indication whether or not I actually completed the Tasks I worked on. (Some have percent complete markers, but those are just guesses anyway) Looking at this, I have no idea how the project moved ahead during the Sprint. Our only real metric is the number of hours I worked – nearly 19. But… who cares? It’s not like I’m charging anyone by the hour! Jack and I do this as a labor of love, with salaries to come from proceeds from the final game.

This time sheet makes the critical error of measuring the wrong metric. I must confess that some weeks, I tried to just work for a long time instead of working effectively so I could feel good about logging impressive hours. That’s a sign of bad project management. As a manager, you ought to offer incentives for behavior that gets the project completed on-time and at a high quality.

The results? Internally, we had a lot of arguments about this process as Jack felt it was unnecessary. Because I never returned to the data we created to analyze it, we got nothing for all our tedious efforts. Jack stopped tracking his time, and that was a warning sign that I needed to change things up. Our time tracking was costing us time to do, with no benefit to the team. Time for a change!

 

TimeSheet

Time Sheet: Version 2.0!

 

My Time Tracking Strategy

Here’s how I altered the process for the final project. Starting April 4th, I began tracking my time the way shown above. The headings this time are Task, EST, ACT, Error, and Status. Let’s deconstruct that jargon:

  • Task – One entry for the Task this time, no matter how long it takes.
  • EST – Short for “Estimate”, this is an educated guess about how many minutes this task will take to complete. You’re supposed to guess at the beginning of the sprint.
  • ACT – Short for “Actual”, this is the actual number of minutes this task took to complete. You’re supposed to fill this in as you go. It’s the only thing that requires active time tracking while you work.
  • Error – This is automatically calculated with an Excel formula. It’s the percentage of error between your guess (EST) and the actual time (ACT). You want to get 0%, meaning that your guess was perfect. The larger the number is, the worse your guess was. The formula I use here is =(ACT – EST ACT.
  • Status – The most important part! Each task is a discrete item within the larger project that is either done or not done. We want a full list of check marks at the end of this sprint. If a task is left incomplete, there had better be a good reason!

As you can see, now the spreadsheet is setup with the Task as the most important thing. We’re measuring whether tasks are complete ( ) or incomplete ( ) instead of measuring how many hours someone has worked. That’s important, because people tend to maximize whatever they’re being graded on if you observe them working.

It’s changing my behavior, too! Instead of acting like I need to fill my time sheet with useless “minute points”, now I feel the pressure to get my estimation right. Of course, I can only be right if I finish the Task. The incentive structure of this time sheet is way better! We begin with an incentive to make a good guess. Then we have an incentive to conform towards that good guess so we don’t get “mark of shame error percentages”. Finally, we have an incentive to finish each Task so it doesn’t remain a permanent “X of shame” forever. Perfect!

This will lead to actual progress on the project and helpful information about our estimation ability at a glance.

 

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In all seriousness, though – I did fail.

The Lesson? Get It Right The First Time

To conclude… I have bad news. If you’re a project manager, listen up! You need to get this stuff right the first time. Putting your teammates through a tedious process of time tracking gets on their nerves after a while. People can only put up with that for so long, especially if they don’t get anything out of it.

I’m still doing time tracking, but Jack has become disillusioned with the process. I don’t blame him, but it’s still a shame. Had I gotten this right the first time, we might still be on the same page.

Don’t reinvent the wheel like I did on my first attempt. Use a proven method that works, read some software management books, talk to an industry professional, and communicate with your teammates during the early stages of the project. If you do, people will find time tracking fulfilling. Otherwise, they’ll fall by the wayside. And remember – you can never force anyone to do anything, you can only offer irresistible incentives!

 

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Thanks for taking the “time” to read this “clock”. Have a question about time tracking that was not answered here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

 

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Paradise Found

Now that artistic development of Where Shadows Slumber has begun in earnest, I have embarked on a long journey – creating each of the game’s Worlds. Up until now, we’ve been making demo levels strung together with a vague theme (Canyon, Aqueduct, Tomb) and worked backwards from design to find some kind of artistic through-line. But for the final game, Jack and I are taking a different approach. First, we planned out each of the game’s Worlds. Then, we designed Levels for those Worlds that fit their theme and orbited around a single mechanic. Now I’m at the part of the pipeline where it’s time to actually create modular art assets that can be used to create Levels inside each World.

Let’s unpack some of the jargon in that paragraph.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog post discusses the final World of “Where Shadows Slumber”, which is still in development. Although the game is subject to change, this can potentially ruin your experience if you intend to play the game without knowing where your journey leads. If you don’t want to have it spoiled, do not continue reading.

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What Are Worlds?

Call us old-fashioned, but Jack and I grew up playing games like Super Mario, which was organized around a World/Level paradigm. You had to beat each of the Levels in World 1 in order to progress to World 2.

Defining a Level is easy enough because our demo has 9 of them – a Level is a single screen of the game, with a large puzzle to complete. Often it is comprised of multiple smaller puzzles. Some Levels early in the game are designed to introduce Players to new concepts. Levels that come later serve as final exams, testing the Player. Can you put what you’ve learned to use in order to solve a really complex puzzle?

If Levels are just puzzles, Worlds are the aesthetic glue that bundles them together and gives the game a story. A game with 30 grey, silent puzzles is going to rapidly become boring and repetitive. How can you tell a story that way? By grouping our Levels into Worlds, we can indicate to our Player that your character is traveling on a journey. You start in a Forest World – eventually, you get to a City World. The developers are making a clear statement: this game exists in a physical space, and your character’s success in his journey is based on whether or not he reaches his destination.

Best of all, we don’t need to use a lot of words to communicate this during the game. Once you realize you’ve completed a World and moved on to a new one that looks radically different, there’s a sense of accomplishment. Even better, curiosity drives the Player’s engagement from this point onward. “What other Worlds did they put in the game?”, one wonders. “I have to beat this Level. It’s the last one in World 4, and I’m dying to see World 5!”

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Inspirations For World 7 – “Paradise”

Now that we’ve defined what Worlds are, we can discuss my process for designing what each one looks like. For this blog post I decided to focus on my current project, World 7 – “Paradise”. Don’t get your hopes up here! I’m not working on these chronologically. I actually started with World 7. This is by no means an indication that I’m almost done with the game’s artwork. Not even close.

Most of the Worlds in our game are inspired by real life locations. The Forest World is obviously inspired by large wooded areas in temperate zones. Some Worlds have even more specific inspirations, however. World 7 is supposed to be a paradise – a floating garden in the clouds where your journey ends. I wanted to make it feel heavenly and relaxing without relying on tired mythological tropes like pearly gates and clouds. What to do?

“You go to heaven if you want to — I’d rather stay right here in Bermuda.”

– Mark Twain, during his final visit to the island shortly before his death.

I decided to use the unique architecture found on the island of Bermuda as a template. The tropical island is quite beautiful due to its crystal clear blue water, pink sand beaches, and lush vegetation. But in my many visits to the island (my family loves to travel there) I have found that the human architecture adds to the island’s beauty, rather than detract from it.

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Since Bermuda is an island in the ocean, fresh water is scarce. They must collect rain water from whatever storms pass by and hoard them in water tanks underneath their homes. Because of this technology, every single roof in Bermuda is made from white limestone and has a ridged pyramid-like shape, optimized for water collection. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, and I find the uniformity soothing – like small white mountains popping out amidst the island’s trees.

I’m not sure why, but home owners in Bermuda have also taken to painting their stone houses with bright pastel colors that really stand out. Everything from dark cerulean, pink, yellow, light red, teal, and even bright green can be found as you glance at a Bermudian city. It’s a welcome departure from the reddish brick of Hoboken, New Jersey – not to mention the grey steel glass of nearby Manhattan. The entire island of Bermuda is brimming with life, and the island’s human residents don’t mire the look of the tropical paradise one bit.

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On a separate note, I’ve always found the Japanese cherry blossom to be both vibrantly beautiful and soothing. In full bloom, they have dazzling pink flowers at the tip of each branch. They fit better into this “Bermuda as heavenly paradise” design than palm trees do, so I’d like to include them as well.

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Picking Crayons – A Color Palette For Paradise

Once I decided that this tropical paradise would become our game’s final destination, I set out to capture the beauty in an organized fashion. I asked myself two important questions:

  1. If you could use no more than 10 colors, which ones best represent Bermuda?
  2. What is the best way to create a modular set of pieces that can be used to build similar architecture?

The result of the first question is found below. This is the color palette for World 7. It’s a bit like picking out only certain crayons from the box and sticking with them. Deciding on a color palette is a good way to rein in my creativity and make sure I’m not just picking random colors when it comes time to make the real game.

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I created this by using some images of Bermuda from Google Images and picking out colors with the eyedropper tool in Photoshop. It’s a good way of breaking out of my shell in order to use tones and hues I might otherwise not select from a color wheel. Snaking from top left, to bottom left, and then to the next row:

  • Limestone White: This white color will be used for rooftops in this World.
  • Limestone Blue: This blue is actually going to be used for when the limestone is in shadow, for a stark contrast.
  • Yellow, Purple, Green, Red: These four colors are going to be what houses are painted with. I picked the most Easter-ish ones I could find.
  • Sky Blue: Since this World is floating, you’ll be able to see the sky in the background. This solid color will serve that purpose.
  • Dark Green: The grass and trees in this World are a lush green.
  • Cherry Pink: I want to have cherry blossoms in full bloom in this World.
  • Cherry Brown: The cherry trees need to have a bark, after all. But not too dark!

There’s no way I’ll stick to just these colors, but it serves as a good baseline. You can tell just by looking at the grid of 10 above that this World is brighter and more peaceful than the ones preceding it. I hope it will be a welcome sight to Players who have reached the end of our game.

3DSMAX

Modeling Modular Members of Paradise

Say that 10 times fast.

Once we know what the final result will look like, and we have colors and reference images to guide us, it’s time to model some pieces in 3D. To build a Level in this grid-based puzzle game, we need 1×1 pieces that can snap together to form walkways, obstacles, and doorways.

As you can see from the Autodesk 3DS Max screenshot above, each piece is modeled separately and laid out in an organized manner. They are precisely the size they need to be, and their rotation is preset so that we don’t have to mess with them in Unity. With an organized set of tiles like this, even a non-artist member of the team can snap them together like jigsaw pieces.

It might not look like much, but when they are combined together in Unity, they can form complete shapes that resemble Bermuda:

Bermuda

Assembled in Unity entirely from modular World 7 pieces.

This process is not yet complete, but I feel confident in the direction I’m heading. The floor tiles all have beautiful banisters on them. The roof tiles (purely decorative) mirror the strange step-like quality of Bermuda’s. The open shutters give a sense that the island is prepared for the worst, but enjoying the calm before the storm.

I’ll post more process pictures as I complete more 3D models. But until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this in-depth look at how much work goes into designing a single World of the game. Hopefully this front-loaded design work makes it easier to create beautiful Levels later down the road.

 

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Got a picture of Bermuda you’d like to share? Have a question about aesthetic design that was not answered here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Art Spotlight: Cutscenes, Part II

I’m happy to report that as of today, the demo’s final cutscene is complete. This signals the end of an era – we won’t be updating the demo much more after this. You’ll be able to see the cutscene when you beat Level 9, right before we roll the credits. The next time we update the demo will be when we add language support for multiple regions – and we’re only doing that so we have some practice before we do it for real in the final game.

You can watch the cutscene below, using this YouTube link. Forgive the resolution, but remember – this will be playing in portrait mode on phones and tablets. It’s not meant for a wide screen like your computer.

 

I suggest you watch it before reading the rest of this blog post! It’s 90 seconds long and includes sound, so get your headphones. It may be “safe for work”, depending on where you work I guess… more on that in the next section.

 

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Why Is The Demo Rated “M” on Google Play?

You’re looking at it. The story of Where Shadows Slumber is rather grim, and includes some violent imagery. For this reason, I chose to give the game’s demo an M rating when I uploaded it to Google Play. It’s entirely possible that I overshot things. Perhaps this is more of a “T” level of violence, or possibly even “E” for cartoon violence. I’d rather err on the side of caution. We took a chance with Apple by going for 9+ under the label “Infrequent / Mild Horror / Fear Themes”.

This is a bold step Jack and I have taken, and it remains to be seen whether or not it pays off. Many fans have told us that their young children (4 to 9 years of age) really enjoyed playing the demo. We may alienate those users by having such violent story elements in the game. It’s possible that the final game will include a Safe Mode where all of the game’s movies are instantly skipped without alerting the player. Or maybe we’re being too cautious.

The reception we get to this cutscene will greatly impact the game’s final story. Right now it’s a bit violent, with few hopeful moments along the way. If an official from Apple or Google warns us that this will turn off large groups of users, you may see a more sanitized version of this story appear next year when we release the game. My hope is that we actually attract people by giving them a narrative with teeth that tells a meaningful, adult story. Time will tell if I am wrong!

 

Cloth

When you examine the edges on the skirt, it becomes clear how it can’t deform properly.

This Cutscene: What Went Wrong

Many close friends of the developers have asked us why we bothered to make this cutscene at all. As I stated in Part I of this series, this was a huge endeavor that required over 40 man-hours to complete, over a span of a few weeks. Since it will not be included in the final game, why spend all that time on it? Most players will never even watch this cutscene, and it is only tangentially related to the final game.

I’ll tell you why – it’s because it was a darn good learning experience, that’s why! The process of making this cutscene was grueling, and it showed me a few ways I could improve my process in the future. Since we want the final game to have somewhere around 16 cutscenes, it’s important to work efficiently. Otherwise, you can expect that number to drop to about 3. Without further ado, here’s three things that I could do better in the future:

Cloth Simulation: The protagonist is wearing two robes. One is a white cassock that has sleeves and a skirt. The other is a blue priestly-looking mantle. For the most part, this cloth is controlled by following the character’s bones. That is, when his right arm moves, his right sleeve goes along for the ride. But his skirt is controlled by 30 separate bones, which is stupid. I hate that I built him that way, and I have resolved to change him for the final game. I’d much rather have 3DS Max simulate the skirt as cloth, and then bring that animation into Unity. I’ll sacrifice control, but I’ll gain time. It’s worth it!

Footstep Audio: Most of the effort that went into recording sound was spent creating the sound of footsteps. I’m not really pleased with how they came out, because they are very loud and a bit too prominent. Regardless, it struck me that I ought to be able to automatically generate these “footfalls”. Jack set up a system to do this in the game itself, so we could have done it in the cutscene with different parameters. Alas, I only just thought of it, so I spent a ton of time painstakingly matching footstep sounds with the animations on screen. In general, having an audio expert who is a part of the team (and receives a cut of the game’s proceeds, or some kind of salary) would save a lot of time.

Character Rigging: This is kind of related to the cloth comment above, but it’s worth mentioning that these characters were measured and found wanting once I really began animating them. Their left arm broke and began bending oddly. Their shin bones contorted out of proportion. Their faces are weird, ranging from expressionless to cartoonish. These things are all my fault, and I need to retrain myself in 3D rigging before I redo the character model for the final game.

 

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If you’re investing in a sound recorder, the Zoom H4n Pro is a good choice for indies.

This Cutscene: Strategies That Paid Off

It wasn’t all bad, though! There were some strategies I employed that paid off in the end. Either they worked better than expected, or they allowed me to create a passable product so I could move on from this. 10 / 10 would do again:

Zoom Recorder: I recorded the sound for this demo cutscene using a Zoom H4n Pro field recorder. It’s a lightweight microphone the size of an old Gameboy that I used a lot in college. Now that I have my own (or rather, the company has its own) I have to say I’m quite pleased with it. If we don’t hire a dedicated sound team member, I’ll have no qualms about recording everything myself using the Zoom.

Audacity Mixer: Audacity is a free sound mixing program, and it got the job done. It has its quirks and I’d happily switch to another free program if I could find a better one. But for now, I know how to use it and it didn’t give me too much trouble. The final game’s audio will be made in Audacity unless I switch to an Adobe sound program since I’m paying for that whole suite anyway.

3DS CAT and Unity: The pipeline from 3DS Max to Unity worked as intended. I never experienced any problems getting Finale.FBX out of my animation program and into the Unity scene. This is promising, and it means 3DS Max will remain my tool of choice as we head into the final game.

 

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Coming To A Build Near You

I can’t exactly say when, but this cutscene will be added to the demo build at some point in the future. We’re trying not to do too much more to the demo build since it won’t make us any money and may not even guarantee future sales of the real game. Still, it should put to bed any questions people have about whether or not Where Shadows Slumber will have a story when it is released next year. It will hopefully also give us insight into how people might react to the final game’s narrative. If we see a massive spike in bad reviews right after we patch this into the demo, we’ll get the message loud and clear.

Thanks for reading this series! I hope it was an informative look behind the scenes. Feel free to send in any questions you may have – it’s possible I’ll do a third one of these at some point where I just answer questions from fans.

 

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Looking for something about cutscenes that wasn’t addressed? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Big Changes Coming To The Game [April Fool’s Day!]

Just earlier this morning, Jack and I sent out some bare bones level from the final game. We wanted players to try them out and let us know about their design. Aesthetics aren’t important at the moment, which is why the levels look blocky and have no sound. Right now, we’re just trying to settle on the best design for the game’s first few levels. This is a critical period where players generally make up their mind about a game. Hero, or zero?

Well, Jack and I have been floored by the response we got! Almost the instant we sent out the levels, we received a tsunami of feedback. After a quick brainstorming session, we’ve mapped out our dazzling new plans for the game.

 

 

A New Way To Pay

The “premium” model is going the way of the do-do bird. People just aren’t buying it anymore, if you’ll excuse the pun. One of the biggest pieces of feedback we get constantly is to modernize our payment model to adapt to a changing marketplace.

We couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’re dropping the planned premium price of the final game all the way down to $0.00. That’s right — Where Shadows Slumber is going free-to-play!

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Our new in-game currency, Gold, can be found on the ground during levels.

After downloading the game and completing the first few levels, you’ll notice our new in-game shop module that we’ve been working all morning on. A new currency has been added to the game called Gold. Gold can be found on the ground during levels, and you collect it by simply walking on it (see image above). Of course, it can also be purchased with real money (USD or regional equivalent) if you have a credit card associated with your App Store / Google Play account.

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The Shop can be pulled up at any time during the game.

The main purpose of Gold is to buy Silver. Silver is mainly used to buy Gems. Gems are used to purchase Jade, which is the only currency in the game that can get you Card Packs. Card Packs, when opened, have a chance to give you Riot Points. Riot Points are important since they can be used to buy Rubies. Rubies are the main currency the game will be using from now on, as they are used to buy Energy.

 

Energy – Balancing Player Anxiety and Fun

But what is Energy, exactly? Energy is a new way to play that adds gritty realism to the game. It also adds an important anxiety-checkup cycle to the game that urges players to keep checking their phone habitually to succeed in Where Shadows Slumber.

In order to move a single space in the game’s grid-like path-finding system, you need to spend 3 Energy. When solving a puzzle, you need to ration out your Energy. Spend too much time walking, and you’ll run out of Energy for the day.

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Never fear, however. Within 24 hours, your Energy bar will be refueled back up to 24, and you’ll be ready for another exciting few minutes of puzzle solving! If you’d like to speed up this process, you can buy Rubies in the Shop.

 

Challenge Your Friends In Multiplayer

The final piece of feedback we hear constantly is to add multiplayer to the game. We think this is a fantastic idea, so we’re proud to announce that the final game will allow you to solve puzzles with friends and strangers alike! Advances in technology have allowed us to create a real-time multiplayer solution that we hope everyone will enjoy.

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Work with your friends to solve the puzzle, or trap them behind a veil of shadows forever! We hope multiplayer will expand the replayability of the game and the amount of money players invest. We’re also well aware of the criticism that this completely breaks everything about the game’s shadow mechanic, and we are working to remedy that.

 

We hope you enjoyed taking a look at our bold plans for the future. Our goal is to produce a game that appears free, but costs close to $1,000 to really enjoy. Due to these changes, we expect we’ll have to push the game’s release date back to the year 2020. We appreciate your understanding!

 

This post was last updated on April 1st, 2017.

 

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We hope you believed this satirical post! If you’d like the truth, starting tomorrow you can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is a professional Grongus, and the artist for Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Art Spotlight: Cutscenes, Part I

For the past few weeks, Jack and I have been working on transitioning from the Demo Version to the Final Version of Where Shadows Slumber. One of the finishing touches I’m committed to adding to our demo is a short cutscene that plays when you beat the game. Our fans are always asking us if the game will have some kind of a story. The answer is yes, it absolutely will! But the nature of mobile entertainment and puzzle games in general dictates that we tell a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way.

 

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Screenshot from one of Monument Valley’s cutscenes.

Why Cutscenes?

When we decided we wanted the game to have a story, we looked at other successful mobile games (see Monument Valley, above) as well as the games Jack and I usually like to play. It seemed that short cutscenes, placed directly after the player “achieved” something notable, were the best way to hold people’s attention. Jack loves listening to all of the audio books in Diablo 3, and I loved reading entire libraries in games like Morrowind and Skyrim. However, for a casual gamer, massive amounts of text can seem like an information overload. Not to mention, that creates a lot more work for our translator – which translates into a serious cost for us.

It’s also worth mentioning that mobile gamers don’t often play games with the sound on. Clearly, investing our time in fully voice-acted content wouldn’t be worth it. Who would ever hear it? When you think about it, given these constraints, we didn’t have many options.

  1. Mobile gamers can’t hear your game
  2. Casual gamers want a story, but not an epic saga
  3. Mobile gamers play the game in short bursts
  4. The more voice over work and text we have, the more we need to translate

Since the above four points are a given, we decided to have short cutscenes at the beginning and end of every World in our game to serve as end-caps. The action in each of these animated scenes will be completely wordless and textless, and tell a story through body language alone. Sound will be present, but it won’t be important. The cutscenes themselves each tell a unique piece of the story, and may even seem disconnected. This is all by design!

 

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3DS Max is used to animate the actors, and the file is then interpreted by Unity.

The Technology Being Used

All of the artwork in Where Shadows Slumber is done in a program called Autodesk 3DS Max. I’ve used many studios in my years as an animator, but this was one of the first I ever tried and something about it called me back.

3DS Max is used to create characters (modelling), paint them (texturing), give them bones and animation handles (rigging), and make them move around (animation).

Then, these animations play in real-time within Unity. So when you’re watching a cutscene, you’re really watching the game – not something that was rendered ahead of time as a series of images and played back like a film. It was important to me that we use Unity to its full potential, and always kept players “in the game world”.

 

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Within Unity, the actors are given color and lighting.

Process: The Inverted Cone of Cutscenes

When working on a large project like this cutscene, it’s important to work in stages and have clear checkpoints. And make no mistake, even a cutscene that is 1 minute long is a large project! I have spent close to 30 hours on it so far, and I’m not even finished. The problem with stuff like this is that if you want to change something, usually you have to undo or throw out a ton of work. It’s important to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that you start with a wide range of possibilities but eventually focus in on what the cutscene is going to be.

For some insight into how a cutscene begins wide and then narrows to completion, look at this graph:

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The further you go down the inverted cone, the more work you lose if you change something.

See the arrow – I am currently at the end stage of Principal Animation. That means the actors all have their general motions and you can tell what’s going on in the scene. But it still isn’t finished! Look at all of the other stuff that has to be done.

The reason things like cloth motion and sound come last is because, should we decide to change some of the Principal Animation, we would have to throw out all of that “detail work” anyway. So it just makes sense to save it for last and only work on it when the work at the top of the cone has been checked and locked.

 

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The player’s cassock (the white tunic) is animated using 30 individual bones!

Regrets So Far

You don’t work on a game without having some serious regrets. Every regret I have so far regarding this process has to do with time – something I did, did poorly, or did not do, that cost me precious time and made us push our deadlines back.

Giving the character cloth robes: I love robes. I love cloth. But I foolishly decided to give our main character cloth robes that must be painstakingly controlled via spider-leg-like bone tendrils. This process is maddening, takes forever, and never looks good. I regret not using Cloth simulation, something 3DS Max provides and Unity supports.

His dumb hand bones: This is something you would never know from watching the in-game cutscene, but the main character’s hand Bone (an invisible puppet-string object) is stupid, dumb, too big, and I don’t like it. I should have made them smaller. Also I think his left arm bends the wrong way. Let’s just say I ought to re-do his entire rig.

Link To World broke everything: I used a parent-child relationship to allow the characters in the scene to hold objects (i.e. the lantern, the urn, the chest, the scepter, the bowl). This worked perfectly! Except… for some reason, the first time I set up linking on my character’s IK hand setup, it wigged out and sent his hands flying off screen for every single frame of animation I had done previously. This was clearly some kind of offset error, but I never found a good solution. I ended up reanimating his hands halfway through!

People would rather have more levels anyway: The sad truth is, this is a puzzle game. People want puzzles. (“More levels!” – The Proletariat) As much as they may say they want a story, the truth is we’ll get more mileage out of working hard on puzzles instead. It may be that the cutscene is there for a different purpose. My own ego? Winning artsy indie game awards?

Everything mentioned here made me lose time and work on this far longer than I should have, making us weeks (if not months) behind schedule for a demo that was supposed to be done already. Perfect is the enemy of good enough! Live and learn, right? That’s the beauty of working on a demo first. I now know what not to do for the final game! Let’s just hope the damage hasn’t already been done by now.

 

Next Blog Post

By the time I have to write Part 2 of this blog, I should be finished with the cutscene. I can show it to you in full and we’ll do a bit of a postmortem on it. I can give you the short version of the postmortem now: the cutscene is a lot of work, there’s very little payoff (I assume), and the subject matter is controversial. Nevertheless, here’s a sneak peek at it to tide you over until then…

 

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Interested in hearing about the game, now that you’ve peeked behind the scenes? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Heading to GDC 2017 Today!

As I type this, I’m packing to go to GDC 2017 – The Game Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California. The convention actually already started, believe it or not. Monday and Tuesday are incredibly expensive lectures and talks, with an expo that runs Wednesday through Friday.

Since I’ve never been to this before, I didn’t want to break the bank. Transportation to San Francisco was expensive enough, especially when you consider I’m staying in a hotel near the convention center. So I’m just going to the expo, where indie devs will be showing off their games and large companies will be holding meetings with business partners.

I have three main goals in mind for GDC 2017: scope out the convention for 2018, meet publishers and distributors, and plan the future of my company.

 

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Case The Joint for 2018

This is a huge show, and it always happens right around this time of the year. I predict Where Shadows Slumber will be released at some point next year during this time, so it’s highly likely we’ll be attending GDC 2018 as exhibitors.

I want to ask these indie devs if they feel like it was worth the price, the trip, the time, and other costs. You never know which shows are going to give a return on your investment. This also gives me a convenient excuse to actually have fun at a trade show!

I’m so used to going to these things as an exhibitor, I forgot what it was like to be able to freely move about the show floor and talk to people. What a treat!

Also I need to make sure I get details on how to sign up for contests. GDC has a few award shows that run (two, I think?) and I know next to nothing about them. But I know that I want Where Shadows Slumber to win everything forever, so it’s time to get some information. I’ll return next week with contact people!

 

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Meet Publishers and Distributors

 

It can be difficult to make a connection to someone completely online. But Jack and I need people to distribute our game in China, Japan, Korea, Russia, India, and other foreign countries. We don’t speak the language or understand the market. For a cut of the proceeds, these publishers can make our game a hit in their region.

I’m not looking to promise these people anything just yet. Mostly I want them to take a look at the game and get a conversation going. If the game is “on their radar”, then my follow up email over the summer might get noticed.

But first they need to see it. I’ll shove my iPad in their face if I have to! (I swear to God I will do this once before the show ends) I already have a hit list on my phone of who I need to hunt down at GDC, and I won’t rest until I find them!

This took a violent turn… so let’s go to the final section!

 

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Plan For The Future

I already talked about GDC 2018, so why do I need to plan for the future? Well, you can’t work on one game forever. Even Blizzard will need to say goodbye to its beloved properties one day. Where Shadows Slumber is a beautiful game, but I have a lot more game ideas in the pipeline. Planning for what comes next is important. We may be talking as far as 2019 or 2025 here, but I plan to build this company into something great. That takes foresight.

I want to make a good first impression with some big-wigs at the largest game companies and bluntly ask them what it takes to make third-party games. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening around VR (which I am still skeptical of), Nintendo’s Switch, and the growing PC gaming market. Now is the time to forge some professional bonds to be used at a later date. There are some technology companies in particular that I want to visit, so I can ask them some “is this possible with your tech?” questions.

I’ll try to do a recap of all this when I return, but PAX East is next week so… gah! It’s going to be a busy life, I suppose >:)

 

I have a taxi to the airport to catch, so see you next time! Thanks for reading.

 

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Don’t miss updates while I’m at GDC. Share our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com with the GDC hashtag, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Calling All Testers!

I speak now to our legions of adoring fans. *ahem*

Lend us your talents! Your eyes that see microscopic faults, your ears that hear the lies in the truth! Lend us your hands that stumble over screens and fingers that are too large! Lend us your tongue that licks the phone for some reason (??), and most importantly your mind, which is not satisfied until there are 999 levels in the game!

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“Ask not what Game Revenant can do for you, but rather what you can do for Game Revenant!”

[The crowd goes wild]

The call has gone out to Android Revenants and Apple Revenants alike. Your Supreme Chancellor has need of you!

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Part of a paper concept for the upcoming level “Ramparts”.

Jack and I have been hard at work the past two months designing every level in the game on paper. Now we need Volunteer Revenants who are willing to take 15 minutes out of their day to test these new levels. We’ll be sending you an early, near-prehistoric version of the final game. Levels will be blocky, ugly, and impossibly grey. They will have either no sound, or limited sound. You probably won’t enjoy playing them.

Sold yet? Listen, we need your perspective. We think these levels are perfect. Do you know why we think that? Because we designed them! Of course we think they are perfect. They are not. We need you to download the test version of the game and then tell us via Facebook, Twitter, or private email (contact@GameRevenant.com) what you think. Be honest!

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I played the demo available on the App Store. Does that count?

Thanks so much, but no. We’re moving past that now — we’re talking about new levels for the final game. Not many demo levels will make it to the real game.

How do I become an iOS tester?

You’ll need the app “TestFlight” on your modern iOS device (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) and you’ll need to send us your email address to opt into the program. We’ll add you to the list and send out levels in waves, probably one World each month.

How do I become an Android tester?

You must send us your email address so we can figure something out. TestFlight does not work with Android so we need a different solution. We may just email you an .apk file with some levels in it.

What’s the deal with Kindle Fire?

I don’t really know… we aren’t on that store yet, it’s a long process. Hang tight!

I have a Windows Phone…

Windows Phone is kind of a small market and we don’t have one of those devices to use for testing. We will probably not publish on the Windows platform for a while, if at all.

You guys get free quality assurance from this. What do I get out of it?

You get the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping us make a great game! You get to see the game early, before anyone else. You get to tell us what you think and make a real impact on the game. Plus, if you pester us enough and your feedback is helpful (instead of just annoying) we can probably put you in the Credits as one of our “Worldwide Quality Assurance Experts”. Play games in your pajamas and get into the Credits… what’s better than that?

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OK

OK?

Yes

Great! Send your information to contact@GameRevenant.com. All we need is your email, device operating system, and device version/name. You’ll be sorted and placed in the appropriate email list. Expect a brief from us soon about how you can be a Test Revenant!

 

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Although I don’t recommend it, you can also give us your email through the Game Revenant official Facebook Page or Twitter Handle. I also have a Twitch game development stream, so I guess you could hop into the chat and message me? Don’t do that, though. Spammers are always looking for information in the chat! Email the official address at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.