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.



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!



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”.



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:


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.



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, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook,, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at

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.



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!




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!



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 with the GDC hashtag, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook,, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at

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!


“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!


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 ( what you think. Be honest!


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?





Great! Send your information to 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

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

How To Not Die at Conventions

I’m typing this one day after returning from a productive Mr. Game! trip to San Antonio, Texas for PAX South! My brother Paul and I are terribly ill, exhausted, and jet-lagged. Our reintegration to polite society is moving at a snail’s pace. The snowstorm outside isn’t helping. If I recall, the aftermath of our trip to MAGFest 2017 for Where Shadows Slumber just a few weeks ago was pretty similar.

If you’re an indie developer, independent craftsman, musician, speaker, or entrepreneur, you’re aware that there are many conventions that happen every year around the world related to your trade. But you’ve probably asked yourself an important question before every single one: how do I go to a convention without dying?

Since I already mentioned how sick we got at PAX South, I’ll go ahead and tell you that I don’t always take my own advice. There are best practices, and then there’s real life. Here are four things I would do if I wanted a stress-free convention exhibition where no one dies.



1. Reserve Hotels A Year In Advance

“One entire year in advance! This is madness! I don’t even know what I’m having for dinner tonight!”

~ You

Listen, hotels fill up fast. If you’re traveling to a convention, there’s a good chance you’ll need a hotel. I lucked out with the upcoming New York Toy Fair because I’m in Hoboken – all I need to do is hop on a ferry and I’m at the Javits Center. But this is not common.

If you’re not in the main convention hotel, you’re missing out on the action. This is where people network. It doesn’t even feel awkward – it just feels like a big party. You can hang out in the hotel with everybody even if you don’t have a room there, but you’ll still need to waste a crucial 30 minutes in an Uber going back and forth every day.

Do you think I’m crazy? OK – try to book a hotel for PAX South 2018 right now and see if you have any luck. I bet they’re already full.



2. Prevent Disease At All Costs

When I usually pack for a trip, there are a lot of things on my “short-list” of items to bring. But I think it’s time for some new items to make the coveted must bring list. Those items are:

  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Throat Lozenges / Cough Drops
  • DayQuil (or other day-time cold remedy)
  • NyQuil (or other night-time cold remedy)

I usually end up buying this stuff anyway. Jack and I had to make do with whatever cough drops they had at the hotel convenience store during MAGFest… but in the future, cold remedies should just be part of show preparation. You will always get sick with some kind of “Con Crud” at these things – the human body can only handle being around strange other humans from other parts of the globe for so long. But you can stave off the effects of the cold long enough to survive the convention. Then you can die at home, which is much more convenient!

Also, for you hardcore survivalists, consider wearing gloves and a SARS mask. This can be part of your cosplay to make it seem less weird. When I see someone with a surgical mask at a convention, it’s always a little off-putting, but I have respect for their dedication.


3. Drive If You Can

Driving is 100 times easier than flying, especially when you have a lot of booth equipment to bring to a convention. Packing your stuff in the trunk of your car and leaving whenever you want is more time consuming than hopping in a plane, but way cheaper. The biggest unexpected cost of these shows is shipping things back in forth.

Fortunately, at PAX South this past weekend, I sold out of my stock of Mr. Game!, so I didn’t have to ship games back. Between you and me, I only brought 4 cases just for this specific reason! I brought 11 to the Chicago Toy and Gaming Fair and had to bring tons of it back.

If your booth setup is super simple, you might get the best of both worlds – flying to a convention with your stuff in a checked bag. For the most part though, I recommend you drive. Figure out parking ahead of time. You’ll be happy you have a car in a strange place, especially if you grew up in an urban area and you aren’t used to everything closing early or having to drive far for basic needs.

Driving lets you set your schedule and gives you important freedom abroad. You may think it takes longer, but let me ask you this – what takes more time? A 4-hour car trip, or a 2-hour flight? When you consider the time you need to be at an airport and the time it takes to leave and get to your hotel, flying sometimes take longer. Save it for really long journeys, and maybe plan to do only local conventions before you have more money to burn.



4. Don’t Let Anyone Kill You


I hope this advice was helpful! Like I said before, this isn’t stuff I do – it’s stuff I wish I did. It takes a full year of jet-setting before some of these lessons sink in. To date, the only thing on this list I’ve done consistently is #4. But the year is young… perhaps my assassin is just around the corner?


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Follow this advice and you won’t die at conventions. I might have missed something, though – so if you’re looking for more sage wisdom, message Game Revenant on Facebook or Twitter. I also have a Twitch game development stream and an email for you email types (

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant, the creator of Mr. Game!, and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

MAGFest 2017 Rocked!

Jack and I have just returned from a wild weekend at MAGFest 2017, and I have nothing but positive things to say about the experience. Back in late September, we applied for MIVS – the MAGFest Indie Videogame Showcase. After multiple rounds of judging, we ended up making it all the way! We were one of many indie game studios that were invited to demo our game at MAGFest.

By invited, I do mean invited. One of the best parts of this convention was that there was no booth price for indie developers. Ticket sales from the convention were used to pay our way, and it meant a lot. MAGFest ended up being one of the less expensive shows Game Revenant has done so far… by comparison, my dalliance to Chicago for Mr. Game! cost me a number that rhymes with gour-gousand.

The most valuable part of these events is getting feedback from players. It isn’t always easy to hear constructive criticism from your fans, but it is necessary. (Jack is going to be writing about this subject next week!) We specifically asked people at our booth to give us “tough love” as we near completion of the demo and move on to production. Without hearing some negative feedback, you’ll never escape the indie thought bubble.

“My game is the best game that’s ever been created. My game. Me. Haha… everyone else must be stupid for not making it first. Not me though. Hahaha…”

– The Indie Thought Bubble

So just to show you we’re listening, here’s three big lessons we learned about our game’s demo (which you can download) that we’ll keep in mind as we start final production this month.



A blue-haired tester at MAGFest plays Level 3, “Canyon” on our iPhone.

1. Make The Game More Difficult

Right now, the demo is a bit too easy. This was something 90% of our testers told us. People would marvel at our cool idea, beautiful artwork, immersive sound (for those that could actually hear it in the crowded convention hall) but stop short before discussing the puzzles.

The most common feedback was that it felt like we had 5 or 6 tutorial levels instead of the 3 we were aiming for. Players don’t like feeling “led” by puzzle games, whether that leading is overt (tap HERE to move! HERE! Right over HERE!) or subtle. We’ve got a subtle thing going on right now, where there are too many easy levels in a row. Players find that to be boring.

We vow to make the game physically relaxing, but mentally challenging! Just because the game is supposed to give you a “moment of zen” on your daily commute doesn’t mean it can’t really make you think. Harder levels, and more compact tutorials, are on the way!



The booth got so packed we had to use our phones to demo the game as well!

2. More Narrative Elements

This feedback usually came in the form of a question. “Will there be a story?” It was always a hopeful question, like “I really hope you guys have a story planned.” We would tell people that although the demo won’t have too much (we’re working on a final cutscene for it now) the final game definitely will have a cool story.

Our goal is to tell a story without using words. My passion is animation, and I think body language is an incredibly useful tool for communicating ideas. I don’t think we need dialogue bubbles or text to tell the story of a man’s solitary journey through a dark and strange world. The other reason is because avoiding the use of text will make it easier for our game to launch in other regions where English is not the official language.

So, don’t worry! A story is on the way. Once it arrives, maybe the 18+ rating on the game will seem a bit more obvious…



Jack stares off into the distance, permanently scarred by a two syllable word: Grongus.

3. Rename The Game To…

Not all feedback is good. Sometimes, you need to let criticism go. People gave us lots of good ideas, but of course the constant refrain was to rename the game to Where Shadows Grongus. This won’t happen, so I hesitate to even mention it. However it was requested by about 105% of our testers and it seems dishonest not to say something.

The name of the game is final. It performs well on search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing and DuckDuckGo, just to name a few. We have a real ownership of the string Where Shadows Slumber and a new logo has even been created for that title.

Please stop asking us to change the name. Don’t tweet at Game Revenant about it, and leave our Facebook Page alone. This debate is over.



The two of us eagerly awaiting the announcement of awards at the end of MIVS.

Thanks, MIVS!

The MIVS Staff deserves a thank-you for giving us this awesome opportunity. You won’t find this kind of sweet deal at other shows, but MAGFest is a strange animal. Here’s the staff members that worked on this year’s show. Thanks, everybody!

Lexi – layout, hotel & badge handling
Joel – judge coordinating, hotel & badge handling
Nate – map artist, video editor, web content
Kat – MIVSY maker, volunteer scheduler
Marc – Awards spearheader
Kotey – Tournaments
Paige – External entity coordination
Peter – LEDs, new Obelisk lead
Nichole – Press, coordination with internal social media

Tronster – coordinating everything!


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Do you have feedback for us? Did you play the demo of Where Shadows Slumber? Please try it on your Apple or Android device and then leave a comment for us below! We’d also love to hear from you on the official Game Revenant Facebook Page, or on our Twitter account.

Frank DiCola is the founder and CEO of Game Revenant, a game studio in Hoboken, NJ.

2016 Year In Review

Christmas is behind us, and the year is coming to an end. For the final blog post of 2016, we decided to recap the major events in the lifetime of Where Shadows Slumber that occurred this year.

When we began 2016, the game’s demo (currently available on iOS and Google Play) was only 2 months into development. As we created and refined our 10 level demo over the next 12 months, we also had the opportunity to attend some incredible game industry events. Here are some of our favorite development milestones!



Jack got cropped out of this picture, as punishment for being too darn tall.

April / IndieCade East

At the very end of April, we had the great fortune of attending IndieCade East. This juried “Show and Tell” event required us to submit an application and go through an approval process before being allowed to showcase the game. We’re so glad that the judges were impressed with our game, even during its infant stages. This was the earliest feedback we got from total strangers, and it was positive yet constructive.



Dan Butchko, the CEO of Playcrafting.

July / Playcrafting Summer Expo

Throughout the year, we attended two of the gaming nights hosted by Playcrafting at Microsoft’s offices in New York City. These intimate gatherings are great for indies looking for a foothold in the industry – lots of people go to them, admission is free for developers, and there’s even free pizza! Both the Spring Expo and July’s Summer Expo were excellent opportunities for us to show off the game and get some candid feedback from strangers.



September / Studio Madness

After a busy summer, we finally got a chance to sit down with Earl Madness, a photojournalist we met at IndieCade. Our long form interview is available to view on YouTube – in it, we discuss our hopes and dreams for Where Shadows Slumber, as well as some general thoughts about the game industry.



October / Website Launches

Web developer Caroline Amaba pulled off an incredible feat in October – creating a website as beautiful as our game! The site launched in October and has been a massive source of subscriptions to our newsletter, which means traffic is high as well as interest. Keep up the good work, o Mistress of Webs!



October / Gameacon

We attended Gameacon 2016 in Atlantic City, NJ for the first time in October. For a new convention, we were pleasantly surprised by the crowd that came to our table to see Where Shadows Slumber. To top it all off, we were nominated for a Crystal Award – Best Mobile Design! Unfortunately, we did not win. But the experience really helped shape the future strategy of the game, and for that we are thankful!



November / The Demo Launches

On the first day of November, we launched our game on Google Play! Shortly afterward (November 2nd, or midnight on the 3rd…) we launched our game on the App Store. We don’t like to talk about that scheduling mishap, but we should.

A word of caution: when you schedule an app to “release” on the App Store at a certain time on a certain date, the game is not available at that time on that date. Rather, it begins processing at that time and date and will be on the store a solid 24 hours later. The good news is, it happened to the demo and not the final game’s release! We won’t make that mistake again.



November / Accepted Into MIVS

After an arduous submission process, Where Shadows Slumber was accepted into MAGFest’s Indie Videogame Showcase (MIVS). We’ll have the good fortune of attending this event in just over a week (Jan 5th – 8th) at National Harbor, Maryland. This is our first time attending the Music and Gaming Festival in any capacity, so it’s going to be a wild ride! We’ll keep you posted on how that turns out just after we return.




December / Playcrafting and 16 Bit Awards

Our previous attendance at two Playcrafting events made us eligible to apply for a ’16 Bit Award. We had no idea at the time, but apparently Playcrafting holds a massive award ceremony at the end of every year! Our submission was accepted and we were officially nominated for Best Mobile Game. Although we didn’t take home the grand prize, we had a blast at the ’16 Bit Awards. They went all out for this thing! The event had free food and a live band, and we got to hang out with some really cool developers. 10/10, would go again!



That’s All For Now!

We’re going to save the “look ahead” for a future blog post, where we’ll discuss what to look forward to in 2017. Some major events are just around the corner – and there is at least one morsel of news that we are legally barred from publicly announcing. (Don’t worry, it’s good news!)

This year has been good to us. We hope it has been good to you, too. If not, well… just wait longer! 2017, here we come!


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How was your year? We’d love to hear about any cool projects you’re working on. Maybe you’ve made progress on your game in a significant way – or perhaps 2017 is the start of something new? Whatever the case may be, feel free to use our comments section as a way to get the word out about your game! See you in the new year.

Frank DiCola is the founder and CEO of Game Revenant, a game studio in Hoboken, NJ.

Process Spotlight: Three Phases

Last week, Jack described the creative impulse that drove him to invent the game’s unique shadow mechanic. This week, I want to go in a totally different direction. We’re going to zoom out and look at this project – all of Where Shadows Slumber – from 1,000 yards away and see what it looks like. From this distance, we don’t care about beautiful art, clever mechanics, stable builds, or challenging puzzles. All of that is assumed. We only see a calendar. Days turn into weeks, which become months, and then years.

Wait a second – this article won’t make much sense to you if you’ve never played Where Shadows Slumber before. The demo is available on both major app stores, so download it and give us a review before you read on:

The App Store  |  Google Play

Out here, we are 100% focused on project management. This blog post is for anyone who’s ever wondered “How do you make a game? Where do you start? How do you know when you’re done? When does everything that happens, happen?”

To be honest, we’re not entirely sure. This is only our third collaborative game project, and it’s the first one we’ve done with serious financial goals in mind. So take our advice with a grain of salt: it might not work for your game project, and it might not even work for us.


Doug Lombardi Shows Us The Way



Doug Lombardi schools the Stevens Game Development Club via Skype.

In my final year of graduate school at Stevens, the game development club hosted a truly awesome event: Doug Lombardi, the Vice-President of Marketing at Valve Software, Skyped into our weekly meeting to give us sage game development wisdom. I had the honor of attending!

His full talk can be found here, but I can give you a mangled, shortened version. When asked about the game development process, he said that if he had to make Portal all over again today he would start by finishing the first three levels. “Make sure it looks incredible and plays like butter – then, send it out to any journalist that will pick up the story.” The idea was simple. Your first priority ought to be creating a polished, perfect snippet of your game that you can show the public. While they get excited about that appetizer, share it with their friends, and begin engaging with you, you can develop the final game. By the time the finished product launches, everyone is excited for it because they’ve had a taste and they want more. Additionally, websites like Polygon love to be known for covering interesting indie games before anyone else.

Doug Lombardi knows what he’s talking about. This is his job! But this strategy is not something that young developers ever think of. “Why would I show someone my game before it’s done? Why would I only work on a portion of the game instead of the whole thing?”

In today’s culture, the hype surrounding new games is just an assumed part of your marketing plan. Games that have been released are fun to play – but people enjoy speculating about games that aren’t out yet even more. Gamers love to theorycraft about what a game is going to be like before they know all the details. It’s a coping mechanism to deal with the anticipation of waiting for launch day.

The idea of making a “press release” version of the game was not something we ever considered before, but the idea informed our thinking so much that we planned our entire development effort around this idea. Because of Mr. Lombardi’s excellent advice, we decided at the outset to structure the project into the following 3 Phases:

  • The Throwaway Phase
  • The Press Release Phase
  • The Production Phase

Using this strategy, our complicated game is actually broken down into three small projects, each one larger then the next. This lets us take on selective parts of the game as we are ready for them. Unfortunately, I failed to put timeboxes on these Phases, which sets out expectations about how long each Phase should take to complete. This was a big mistake, and it meant that we (ok, mostly just myself) were allowed to procrastinate, stretching the Phases for a bit too long. Since there are no estimates on these Phases, I’ll just show you how the project is shaping up based on the data we’ve collected on ourselves during the course of the project:

  • The Throwaway Phase (May 11th, 2015 – November 9th, 2015) 6 months
  • The Press Release Phase (November 9th, 2015 – January 10th, 2017) 14 months
  • The Production Phase (January 10th, 2017 – December 31st, 2017) 12 months?

Let’s talk about each Phase in some more detail, and then we’ll analyze where the project is at right now.


The Throwaway Phase



The Throwaway Project used the basic Unity shadow system, where lights dim at a distance. Notice that the player model is the same one that is currently in our demo.

This was the first Phase of our project, and as the name implies it was “thrown away” once we finished it. The purpose of the Throwaway Phase is to work on the game in a safe environment where you can try stuff out without worrying about the public ever seeing it. Our Throwaway Phase ended last November, and we have not released it to the public. It was never designed that way. Save for a few screenshots, you’ll never see the Throwaway project.

That’s because we made it for ourselves (and a select group of testers) and not the general populace. It was a Unity project where Jack could write and rewrite code, create test scenes, and nail down tricky mechanics. I used it as a way to refine my artistic pipeline and answer some of the more fundamental questions about the game’s art, like “what is the visual style of the game?” and “how does artwork get from my modeling program into Unity?”

Answering these basic questions saved us from dealing with some big headaches later. No one wants their engineer to build an entire game in a game engine only to find out that the artist can’t import their work into that same game engine. A mistake like that could cost you months – better to do a quick test during the Throwaway Phase and get that risk out of the way.

The dirty secret of the Throwaway Phase is that the game could have died there. In fact, the Throwaway Phase is meant to be a “proving ground” for the game. Is it a fun game even when it doesn’t look pretty? Is there something unique about it that makes it worth creating? In my life, I’ve thrown out many game designs at this stage because they were unworthy of more of my time. Don’t be afraid to do this! Time flies – remember death. Life is too short to work on bad games.

Obviously, we knew right away that we wanted to keep working on Where Shadows Slumber (which was called Light / Shadow Game at the time), so we migrated from the Throwaway Phase to the Press Release Phase. We kept some of the code and one 3D model, but from here on out we recreated everything from scratch. That might sound like a real waste of time, but it’s not. People learn skills quickly. I’m a better artist than I was a few months ago just because of my time working on the game. I prefer to start over rather than use shoddy files crafted by the inferior Frank of the past.


The Press Release Phase



Level 7 of the ‘Press Release’ Demo of Where Shadows Slumber.

Don’t be fooled like I was – this Phase is not meant for you to advertise your game or begin talking to customers. That was a mistake I made early on. This Phase is when we created the demo that is available now on the store through the App Store and Google Play. It’s a development Phase designed to prepare you for the Production Phase, where development and marketing combine until they crescendo into a record-breaking app launch.

We focused on creating something worth releasing. We decided on a 10 level demonstration of the game’s mind-bending mechanics, haunting ambiance, and beautiful worlds. Doug Lombardi suggested 3 for Portal, but levels in Where Shadows Slumber go a lot faster than the puzzles in Portal, so 10 made more sense. The production quality of this “Press Release” project is meant to reflect that of the final game, so it’s a huge step up from the Throwaway.

Currently, it’s taking a bit longer than we’d like. This is on me – the art for a game like this tends to take much longer than the coding, and I’m the only artist on the team. We’re not moving at a good pace, so I’m planning on restructuring my life a little bit to spend more time each week working on the game.


Google Play aggregated ratings as of December 12th. (Source)

There is good news, though – the glowing response to our released demo has motivated me to work harder! Believe it or not, this is actually part of the project management plan. Keeping developers motivated is difficult. If you release your game too early, you’ll get critical feedback that will make you want to quit. If you wait too long to release your game, the developers might get anxious that they’re working on something horrible that no one has had the chance to openly criticize. Engaging the community at the right time isn’t just a good marketing strategy. It’s also part of keeping morale up!


The Production Phase



The final designs we’re considering for the official logo. Credit: Zak Moy

We have not yet begun this Phase in earnest, although Jack has been working on some preliminary narrative designs. He’s also got a notebook chock full of level designs, just waiting to be put into Unity. Above, you can see the logo designs our talented friend Zak Moy has been working on for us.

This is the most straightforward Phase to explain because it’s what everyone assumes – you build the game that you’ve already started and engage your audience along the way. Using Facebook, Twitter, blogs (spoiler: you’re reading part of our marketing plan right now), Reddit, and anything else you can get your hands on, you drip information out to the community as development progresses. The desire to have new content to show them acts as a motivator, causing you to actually produce new content.

Marketing and development coincide on launch day. A terrible crisis happens (one always does!) and then the launch goes well from there. I’ll have to write about this Phase again once we’re finished. The picture I’m painting right now is a bit too rosy and it’s actually getting me worried.

We’ll have the most work to do in this Phase, but also the most clarity. There’s no more room for wiggle-room. We know our game won’t have jumping, multiplayer, shotguns, real-time strategy base building, or MOBA mechanics. With a clear idea of what we’re building (and what we’re not building), development can go smoothly without taking us down the rabbit holes of scope creep.




Let’s look at our estimated Phase times again:

  • The Throwaway Phase (May 11th, 2015 – November 9th, 2015) 6 months
  • The Press Release Phase (November 9th, 2015 – January 10th, 2017) 14 months
  • The Production Phase (January 10th, 2017 – December 31st, 2017) 12 months?

There’s a big problem with this. Can you see it? The Production Phase is estimated to take less time than the Press Release Phase, even though the Press Release Phase is just 1/10th of the effort it will take to make the final game. How do we account for this?

Part of the reason we’re confident of our delivery date is that, as the project rolls onward, we make concrete decisions about the game every day. Each decision we make means there is less uncertainty in the work we do, which in turn allows us to move on confidently in our plan. Ideally, by the time we begin the Production Phase in January, we are moving full steam ahead at a rapid pace. We’ll know the story, the characters, the setting, the levels, and the mechanics. The code will be finalized for the most part, and the artwork will follow from our concrete plan.

It’s an ambitious goal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we get delayed by a month or two. That’s why I want to stress that this is an estimate and not a promised release date.

Would We Follow This Plan Again?



Patcha approves. If he approves, then so do I!

I think this is a great way to make games. It gives you room to experiment and even trash the project if you don’t think it’s a winning idea (during the The Throwaway Phase). It allows you to get a build out to the community early and build excitement for your game (during the Press Release Phase). Finally, when it comes time to develop, you can do so with a clear mind (the Production Phase).

Big budget game studios have their own way of doing things, but if you’re a small team like us I can’t recommend this process highly enough. For projects with a larger scope (blockbuster FPS games, RPGs) you may want to consider having numerous Press Release Phases so you can take miniature steps toward Production while keeping your growing player base happy.


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Thanks for taking the time to read about our process. Are you a game developer or software management expert? How have you structured your projects in the past? Let us know in the comments below! Next week, Jack will post a detailed overview of how he implemented the game’s shadow mechanic in Unity, so get your software engineering hat ready!

Frank DiCola is the founder and CEO of Game Revenant, a game studio in Hoboken, NJ.