Crunch and Burn(out)

If you’ve been following the development of Where Shadows Slumber, then you know that we’ve been working on it for a while. It was early 2015 when the core concept first came to me. Three years ago this month was when I put together the first proof-of-concept to show to Frank. The demo version of the game has been out for over a year and a half.

Game development takes a long time, especially with a tiny team, little to no funding, a full-time job, and, the biggest time-waster of all, life itself. As Frank discussed in a previous blog post, we are holding ourselves to a pretty high standard for Where Shadows Slumber, which makes development even slower.

Fortunately, after all this time, we’re finally closing in on the end. As happy as that might make you, the fans of the game, there are two people who are definitely happier about it than you are: us. As frustrated as you might be about how long it’s taking, we’re even more frustrated. Frankly, as much as we love Where Shadows Slumber, neither of us can wait until the moment it’s over.

“But Jack”, you ask incredulously, “if you love it, why do you want it to be over? You’ve managed to work on it for three years – what’s another few months?”

There are two phenomena that often creep up at around the same time in the development cycle of a game (or any project, really). Here they both are, followed by something I’ve said in the past week that represents each of them:

  • Crunch – “There’s only a little bit of work left, but there’s even less time left!”
  • Burnout – “I’ve spent so long on this game, I’m just sick of it!”

 

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Crunch

I’ve discussed before the “ninety-ninety” rule, so I’ll just summarize it quickly here, since it’s relevant: not only does software development take a long time, it takes significantly longer than you think it will. This is an issue when you first start your project (“it’ll probably only take 18 months or so”), but there’s no scheduled release date or external pressure at that point. Nobody really cares yet! However, it becomes a bigger issue when dealing with shorter time periods. For some reason, people have a hard time realizing that their estimates are wrong and adjusting (at least, we do). Because of that, we’re still making poor estimates for how long something will take!

This is the reason that developers inevitably end up in the dreaded state known as crunch time. We thought there were about 6 weeks of work left, but it turns out there were 12 weeks of work left. Too bad we already gave a bunch of outside parties a solid release date! Since they’re now depending on us to meet those deadlines, we have to do 12 weeks worth of work in 6 weeks!

This is the phenomenon that leads to crazy overtime, too many all-nighters, and an incredible amount of stress. If you follow game design, you’ve probably heard about it, because it somehow ends up happening to pretty much every game. If you’re involved in game design, then you’ve probably gone through it, and you know how awful it can be.

It’s a little better for us than for bigger, more established studios – we don’t have employees to pay, stockholders to appease, or a public release date to hit. That said, we don’t want Where Shadows Slumber to turn into an indie game for which development takes forever that people are perennially waiting for. It’s now or never!

 

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Burnout

Cascading into crunch time at full speed is pretty bad, but it’s not the worst thing in the world – we’re been working on Where Shadows Slumber for a long time, and we are both willing to put in a little extra time as we reach the end. However, one of the biggest problems is that crunch time is also usually accompanied by burnout.

When you’re just starting out on a project, everything is pretty exciting. You enjoy working on interesting problems like pathfinding and game mechanics, and you don’t even mind fixing any bugs that come up. On the other hand, once you’ve been working on a game for a long time, you’re pretty much sick of it. All of the interesting stuff is already implemented, so the only things left to work on are tiny quality improvements (“does this look better when the position is 0.4 or 0.41? How about 0.42?”), annoying, subtle, or hard-to-reproduce bugs (“this was working last week, but a change to a different piece of code is somehow causing it to break, but only ~10% of the time”), and tasks that you intentionally avoided because they aren’t interesting or fun (“how many setPass calls will this scene render when running on a 6-year old Android phone? Is that too many?”).

None of these tasks are really very enjoyable – so not only has your excitement about the work decreased, but so has the objective fun-ness of the work that’s left to do. This leaves you in a state of never actually wanting to work on the project. Combine that decreased drive with the increased amount of work you have to do, and it starts to become pretty obvious why the end of development for a game tends to get pretty hairy, and why we’re looking forward to being done with it.

 

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The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Don’t worry, though – it’s not all bad! We’re both still really excited about Where Shadows Slumber, because of the amount of work we’ve put into it. We’re both dedicated to the cause, and we’re not gonna let a little extra work put a stop to it (even if it ends up slowing us down).

The purpose of this blog post is two-fold. On one, more selfish hand, I want to offer up to our adoring fans an explanation for why we haven’t finished the game yet. We know a lot of you love the game, and are really looking forward to it, and many of you have shown us that by popping up and saying hi at various conventions. The past 8 months or so have been a real whirlwind, both personally and professionally, and our timeline has been shifting around quite a bit as a result. So I wanted to offer a bit of an explanation, as well as reassure you that we’re still working on Where Shadows Slumber, and we’re not gonna let it fall by the wayside!

The other reason for this post is to serve as a sort of warning, albeit a likely redundant one. For anyone working on their own game (or any project, really), it’s very important to take time management seriously. Ending up in the crunch time/burnout trap is an awful place to be. Despite this, most developers (indie and AAA alike) end up here, because it’s hard for people to grasp how time-consuming the last 10% of a project can be. So, if you take away anything from this post, I hope you do your best to allow enough time at the end of development to get your game out without ending up there. You’ll end up there anyway, but maybe by knowing about it ahead of time, you won’t be there for long.

 

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You can always find out more about our game and how freaking long it’s taking us to finish it at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, join the Game Revenant Discord, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

State of the Art – July 2018

Welcome to the State Of The Art, July 2018 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

Before we reach the spoiler part of the article, I’ll give you a brief update about the state of the art, and how much work is remaining on the aesthetic side of things. There will be no pictures, GIFs, videos, or bulleted lists, so don’t worry about seeing spoilers! (Just don’t scroll down too fast. You’ve been warned!)

Missed last month’s State of the Art? The June edition is right here.

 


Spoiler-Free Progress Report

When June began, 5 out of 10 cutscenes were animated and World 7 was less than half complete.

As of July 3rd, 7 out of the game’s 10 cutscenes have been fully animated and World 7 is finished! (There’s a tiny amount of work remaining for these two cutscenes, but cut me some slack here) I also did something I don’t normally do and programmed the cutscenes to have a pause menu where you can skip the cutscenes. Does that count as “art?”

What’s next: Later today, I’ll finish the two cutscenes that are nearly complete. This month will then be dedicated to finishing the final 3 cutscenes and putting the finishing touches on the game’s artwork.

You’re all caught up. Now, if you want a sneak peek at some of the artwork I did this month, read on… but beware of game spoilers!

 

 

 


SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this article contains screenshots, GIFs and videos of later sections of the game. If you want to experience them in all their majesty for the first time on your mobile device when the game launches, don’t read on!


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Paradise is Complete

My work on World 7 is officially done! It took longer than I would have liked, but the Levels came out great and it will serve as a proper final sendoff for those who complete the game. Here are the full screenshots from the three Levels I had to finish:

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There will still be GitHub Issues to address in these Levels, so I’m not completely done. However, the same is true of every Level in the game at this point, so it doesn’t matter! I hope you like the look of these Levels. Since you’ve journeyed into spoiler-land, you may as well tell me what you think in the comments below!

 

 

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Two More Cutscenes Are (Nearly) Complete

Once I finished World 7 about halfway through June, I moved on to two more cutscenes. I do these chronologically, so check out last month’s blog if you’re trying to piece the story together through short GIFs. Here are some teasers from these cutscenes:

 

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Obe runs into an old friend on his way out of the Aqueduct…

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“Can I interest you in a golden circle, by any chance?”

At the beginning of this month, I had a long sound recording session with Alba and Noah. You can read all about it here. The short version of the story is that we recorded voices for all of the characters that “speak” in cutscenes. (By speak, I mean “loud unintelligible grunting”) For the past month, they’ve been working on implementing those into the game, so the cutscenes I completed in May are going to have finished audio soon.

 

 

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Back to Work

Sadly, this blog post reveals that I didn’t get as much done in June as I’d hoped. Because World 7 took a long time to finish, that delayed my progress on the cutscenes. Being behind schedule is a slippery slope!

As soon as I finish this post, it’s back to work finishing those two cutscenes I mentioned. I’ll record them and send them off to our audio team for scoring. Then, there are three more cutscenes that need my love – and one includes a full credits sequence that may just be too ambitious to put into the game. I’ll also need to take some time just to address the mountain of GitHub Issues that Jack logged as he played through the entire game. Some Levels require artistic changes to make the shadows look better. I can save those for later, but we’re running low on “later” – and I don’t want his progress to be stopped because I couldn’t take a break from cutscenes for an hour to read all these emails. Finally, there is a Level Select screen for World 7 with my name on it. Those tableaus are beautiful but each one takes a few hours to complete.

The tweet above, from William Chyr of Manifold Garden fame, is appropriate. I always expected the end of development to feel like less and less work as we neared our goal, but it’s the opposite! There is so much to do, and so little time.

Back to work!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.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.

The Triangle of Truth

Hello again, everyone! It’s Frank again. I know you are all eagerly reading our weekly updates to find out when the game will be finished, but this week you may be disappointed. Rather than announcing a launch date, I’m going to explain to everyone the project management principles behind why Where Shadows Slumber has had such a long development cycle. We’re going to discuss the Triangle of Truth!

 

 


 

 

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The Triangle, Explained

The “Triangle” refers to a project management principle that has gone by many names, visualized in the image above. This diagram has been used to describe everything from project strategies and economic models to government healthcare systems and construction projects. It’s one of those mantras that just always seems to hold true, no matter the circumstances. When you are creating something, such as a mobile video game, you’d ideally like for it to be as good as possible for the cheapest cost and have a fast development cycle. Sadly, the edicts of being demand that you must sacrifice one side of the triangle to achieve the other two. As the desired two metrics increase, the sacrificed metric must decrease. Let’s define these bolded terms first, and then talk about Where Shadows Slumber.

Good: The product stands out among the crowd as something special. We want quality to be as high as possible.

Cheap: The cost incurred creating the product. (Not to be confused with the price a consumer pays for the final product) We want our cost to be as low as possible.

Fast: Time is money, so the sooner the project is done, the better. Life is short! We want our development cycle to be as short as possible.

When you see how Where Shadows Slumber lands on this diagram, everything will start to make sense.

 

We Chose “Good” and “Cheap”

Jack and I are two recent college graduates who teamed up together to make video games. The development of Where Shadows Slumber is not too dissimilar from the development of SkyRunner, our previous mobile game. We decided not to spend a truckload of money on the game, so that it could be as good as we can muster at the lowest personal cost. Essentially, we decided to spend time on the game rather than cash. This is because we have no money, so it was an easy decision.

That’s not to say that I’ve spent $0 on this game! It’s fair to say tens of thousands of dollars have gone toward the development of Where Shadows Slumber, easily. But our budget is a pittance compared to large indie studios and AAA development houses. The sides of the triangle have been chosen: we want a good game, and we can’t spend a lot of money, so we’ll just have to spend as long as it takes to get the job done.

What would Where Shadows Slumber look like if we sacrificed a different portion of the triangle? Let’s analyze where we are now, and then look at the others. Right now, we’re sacrificing time.

 

SACRIFICE: TIME  / /  GET: QUALITY, LOW COST

Time: We’ve been working on the game since the spring of 2015, and we’ll continue to work on it over the next few months. That’s a 3 year development cycle!

Cost: Game Revenant has spent ~$25,000 to pay our audio engineers, travel to conventions, and equipment. We work from our apartments and meet in coffee houses, so we don’t spend money on rent or utilities. Jack has a full-time job and I mooch off my generous, loving and forgiving family.

Quality: The game is superb, beautiful, and time-tested. We even created a free Demo that went through extensive user testing and has stood the test of time. This informed our approach to the final game, but it took a while to get to this point.

 

SACRIFICE: QUALITY  / /  GET: TIME, LOW COST

Quality: We always knew we wanted Where Shadows Slumber to be an awesome, premium mobile game. But if for some reason we decided to release a poorer quality version, we’d be done by now. What would happen if we sacrificed quality by having fewer puzzles, no meaningful story, and low-quality audio produced by Frank making noises with his mouth?

Time: We already created a rudimentary throwaway version back in 2015 when we first begun work on the game. We could have cut it off right there! Also, our Demo has been available for download since November 2016, so that gives you an idea of how much time we could have saved.

Cost: Obviously you don’t need to spend a lot of money if you don’t care about the final result. Jack and I could have just created a shorter, worse game and it only would have cost us a few app store developer fees (Apple, Google Play) and the cost of buying development devices for building and testing.

 

SACRIFICE: MONEY  / /  GET: QUALITY, FAST DEVELOPMENT

Cost: It is possible to get investors for indie games, either by getting a loan from the bank or by appealing to groups like Indie-Fund. Jack and I briefly considered this a year ago, but by that point we had put in so much of our own time, we felt like reaping the full benefits. (Remember – investors don’t give out money for free, they want a cut of the sales!) We could conceivably have gotten $500,000 – $1,000,000 to work on this game if we put our own money in and also got some investments. If we did…

Quality: Along with our personal efforts, we could have hired a small team of veteran developers to aid me and Jack. Veteran programmers would help Jack organize his code, and veteran artists would produce work superior to mine. With Jack and I to guide their efforts, we could take a management / visionary role and let the experts do the hard work. I think the quality would be the same it is now, but it would have gotten there faster. Speaking of which…

Time: My work would be cut in half if we paid an Animator / Character Gui* to handle all of the cutscenes and humanoid animation in the game. That would free me up to work purely on environments with Jack. On the development side, we could hire a full-time Quality Assurance Gui to test the game on various devices. A full-time Marketing Gui would handle our social media efforts, press relationships, and business travel. We could have also brought Alba and Noah into the fold a lot earlier, meaning most of their work would be done by now. Every gui we hire is another hat Jack and I don’t have to wear!

*Gui is a gender-neutral version of “guy” that we used to use in Off Center

 

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There Is Always A Drawback

It should be stated that when you sacrifice a portion of the triangle, you don’t get it back. There is always a cost. If you spend money, it’s gone. If you sacrifice quality, your game suffers. And if you spend three years working on a game, you suffer.

I’ve lived in isolation for a period of three years ( ! ), all the while neglecting personal relationships with friends and families, turned down jobs, rejected business opportunities, let my body grow fat, and forgone other personal life goals in order to work on Where Shadows Slumber for as many hours a day as possible. (Imagine my surprise when I discovered that women are not eager to date a man who spends 10 hours every day in front of a computer and rarely leaves the house. Shocker!)

Jack has been working his fingers to the bone every day at not one, but TWO tasks: his full-time work at a startup in NYC and his passion project Where Shadows Slumber. He’s written about this before on our blog, and I encourage you to read his past writing. I was particularly mortified at the mention of how he has to find small scraps of time throughout the day (30 minutes in the morning, 25 on the train, 45 between arriving home from work at night and making dinner) just to work on the game. I have no right to complain – in light of his sacrifice, my life is a breeze. What kind of person would lead their friend into this kind of a life?

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but the point of this blog post is that the toll is real. Choose your sides of the triangle carefully, because the side you scorn will stop at nothing to seek revenge.

 

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Where Shadows Slumber: Eventually Good

Miyamoto’s famous quote that “a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad” may not be true anymore in a world where games can be patched and DLC can be sold. In a world where software is now a service, rushed games might eventually become good, given time.

However, this is also an industry where you live and die by your first impressions. Users don’t ever return to write a second review, and journalists move from game to game quickly. Jack and I are making a sacrifice of time to ensure that Where Shadows Slumber makes a splash when it hits the market. We can’t spend money we don’t have, but we can always put in just a bit more work.

Are you a game developer, artist, musician, writer, or creator working on a passion project? Feel free to share this blog post with your friends and family, especially if they have ever asked you “gee, when are you going to be done with this darn thing?” Let me know what they say in the comments below!

 

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This has been a project management blog from the creators of Where Shadows Slumber. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.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.

State of the Art – May 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, May 2018 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

It’s hard to believe the past month was just 30 days – everything feels so long ago, from our hilarious April Fool’s Day post to my trip to PAX East. As we wrap up production on the game, I find we have more work to do, not less. Not what I expected, but Jack and I are up to the task!

Missed last month’s State of the Art? The April edition is right here.

 

 

 


SPOILER WARNING: This post contains screenshots, GIFs and videos of later sections of the game. If you want to experience them in all their majesty for the first time on your mobile device when the game launches, don’t read on!


 

 

 

 

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More Gorgeous Menus

The GIF above is a little teaser of what I have for you in this update: two more Worlds have been polished and are now App-Store-ready. As I hinted at last time, I completed World 5 (the Hills) and World 6 (the Summit). Check out their Level Select menus! I know it seems weird to show these off, but I always love how they come out. It’s so cool for me to get an opportunity to visualize the game world from a different perspective. This 2D view allows you to appreciate the scale of Obe’s journey as he climbs to the top of a massive mountain towards the game’s end.

 

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The Rainswept Hills

These two Worlds posed a unique challenge to me because they take place in the wilderness. Up until this point, I tried to stick with my modular tool-set for as much of the game’s artwork as possible. However, sometimes you just can’t do that. When it comes to mountains, valleys, and rocks, they demand a jagged unevenness that just can’t be achieved by cookie-cutter pieces. Every Level in this World has a custom ridge that is 100% unique!

Jack will kill me if I show off every Level in this World, so I’ll have to settle for my two favorites. Level 5-2 has always looked great, but now that it’s raining like hell the Level has really come to life:

Then, towards the end of the Hills, we transition to a snowier climate. Obe is getting to the top of the mountain. He sees a cottage at the edge of the cemetery where he can rest for the night. Here is the last Level in this World:

I love doing weather effects because they really challenge me to think of how every tiny thing in the scene ought to change. Leave a comment and let me know what you think of “the Hills!”

 

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The Forgotten Castle at the Summit

Obe is making his way through a blizzard to a lonely, abandoned castle at the top of the mountain. Once again, I got the opportunity to polish the weather effects here and I think they look incredible. I can’t show off everything, so here’s a quick look at two different Levels.

The first is Level 6-1, “Pass.” Obe is making his way through the snow as he attempts to cross this old bridge. Thanks to Jack’s terrain setup, Obe will actually use different animations depending on what terrain he is standing on. Notice how he interacts differently with Buttons and bridges.

In the shadows, another kingdom is revealed. Are we looking into an alternate dimension? Perhaps the shadows are a window to the past? The future?

Level 6-4 takes place inside the castle. Now, a snowstorm rages outside as a lonely sentry patrols the entrance.

This World does some amazing things with shadows, so I don’t want to give too much of it away. It looks a million times better than where I left off a few months ago, so I appreciate the chance to come back and punch it up.

 

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Next Up: Cutscenes, Cutscenes, Cutscenes

Rather than move on to the final World of the game, I’m going to take the next few weeks to animate the game’s remaining story cutscenes. World 7 needs a bit of love right now, so Jack is going to spruce it up a bit before I make my glorious return to polish. Cutscenes are tough because every minute of animation is roughly 40 hours of work ( ! ) so I’m going to be nerding out in my room for a few more months, it seems. Two of the cutscenes have been animated and shown off at festivals, but they need sound. The other eight have not been started, although their scripts were written long ago.

At some point I may enlist Alba and Noah to help me input the sounds into the animation, because I think we can cover more ground that way. But as far as character animation goes, it’s just me and the keyframes. Some people at PAX East asked me if I ever use motion-capture for these short films. The answer is: No way! We don’t have a crazy setup like that at Game Revenant (read: at my apartment or Jack’s apartment). It’s all animated by hand, baby.

Wish me luck as I make my descent into animation hell. See you next month!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.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.

State of the Art – March 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, March 2018 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

Missed last month’s State of the Art? The February edition is right here: click me!

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains screenshots, GIFs and videos of later sections of the game. If you want to experience them in all their majesty for the first time on your mobile device when the game launches, don’t read on!

 


 

 

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A Whole New Aqueduct

Like the other unfinished Worlds in Where Shadows Slumber, the Aqueduct used to look pretty dumpy. It was passable, but the colors were lifeless and the geometry was too perfectly straight. There was nothing about it that made me love it. As the game’s artist, that’s a pretty bad feeling. I never want any section of the game to make me recoil in disgust. My goal, as I’ve said before, is to make every Level my favorite Level. When it comes time to add screenshots of this game to the App Store, I should think to myself: “How can I possibly choose!? All thirty-eight Levels are so perfect and photogenic!”

If you read last week’s piece, titled Creating a Level: From Concept to Finished Product, the GIF above will look familiar. I chronicled the entire development of this Level (called Noria), from the time it was just a pencil sketch in Jack’s notebook all the way to our finished awesome Level. Here’s a look at the rest of the Levels in World 3, the Aqueduct.

 

 

 

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Level 3-2, “Tradeoff”

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Level 3-3, “Anchor”

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Level 3-4, “Torus”

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Level 3-5, “Island”

I won’t return to the Aqueduct before launching the game, but if you really have a critique that’s valid and you absolutely must make your voice heard, comment below this post and I will read it! Who knows – you may change how the final game comes out!

 

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The Dust Storm Is Here!

They say you should never have a favorite child, and I think that’s probably good life advice. But I think I do have a favorite World, and it’s the City. I really wanted to include something like this in the game, and I put a lot of love into these Levels. It’s a crazy World where we go through a ton of locales in just five Levels, from the “bad part of town”, to a military tower, to a luxurious palace. And this is all during a sandstorm!

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Level 4-1, “Slum”

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Level 4-2, “Alley”

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Level 4-3, “Tower”

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Level 4-4, “Fountain”

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Level 4-5, “Labyrinth”

What do you think of these Levels? We are bringing these Levels to SXSW, so your advice is more than welcome! Slam that comment section with your sweet, sweet critiques. I need them to survive o_o

 

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Hell Revisited

I’ve just begun polishing World 2, the River. We aren’t bringing this one to SXSW next week, so I won’t get a chance to keep working on it for a little while. But so far I think it’s really cool! It needed a modest redesign in order to make the aesthetic work and I believe I finally nailed it.

The biggest change is that the ugly Lincoln Log wall setup I had is now going away. I was never really in love with it to begin with. There was something too neat and orderly about it. This is a swampy river that leads right back to the hell-jail you just escaped from! It should feel gross, a bit disordered, and disorderly. To achieve that, I’m working with a toolkit of gnarly trees, rickety boardwalks, and custom ashen rocks.

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Here’s a sneak peek! What do you think… too much vignette, or not enough?

Still to do: redesign the Walkers to look like swamp denizens, add more motion to the clutter and plant life, and finish the remaining four River Levels. Expect that and more next time, in the April edition of State of the Art.

Thanks for reading!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.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.

Creating a Level: From Concept to Finished Product

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a post about how we make Levels when working on Where Shadows Slumber. The only problem was a lack of documentation. I forgot to take screenshots of the early stages of the Levels we’ve completed so far. What I really wanted to do was show our audience the growth of a Level, from it’s earliest conception and then show the various stages of the design process along the way.

When I thought of this idea, I tabled the blog and decided to wait until I started on a new batch of Levels… and here we are! We’re going to take an inside look at Level 3-1, Noria, the first Level of the Aqueduct World.

 

Maker:S,Date:2017-8-17,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E:Y

Step 1: Draw The Level

Every Level has a reason for being in the game. Noria is the first Level in the Aqueduct World, which makes it extra special. Whenever we design the first Level of a World, we like to communicate to the Player:

  • Why the World is going to feel different from the other Worlds in the game
  • What mechanics you’ll be dealing with in this World – especially new ideas

For the Aqueduct, we wanted to make it all about mechanical devices, switches, rotating things and whirring machines. Our game doesn’t exactly have a precise historical setting, but it’s fair to say it isn’t modern day. This gives us some leeway with technology. It has to work, but it can look really old.

MVIMG_20171025_141620.jpg

Jack’s notebook!

The Aqueduct World is all about Buttons. Buttons are Nodes that do something when you step onto them. There are all kinds of Buttons, but the most basic Button does a thing every time you step on it, no matter how many times you step on it.

To show that off, Jack designed a Level (above) where the only way to cast shadows and move the light was with a single Button. In addition to that, there are Buttons near each light in the Level to turn them on and off. The proximity of the light to the Button it’s attached to is an intuitive connection. These Buttons work like regular domestic light switches too, so it’s a cheap way of using existing Player knowledge about the real world and transmuting it into knowledge of our game.

When a Level exists in this form, the only thing we can really do is discuss it. Jack will attempt to guide a very confused Frank through the mechanics of the Level. I’ll try to poke holes in it (literally, with my pencil) and find problems with the design. We’ve never shown these sketches to testers because it’s too high-level for them to understand. If we like the idea of the Level, Jack makes a grey box prototype of it in Unity for us to test.

 

Noria-Greybox

This Level doesn’t look too special yet, huh? Just wait!

Step 2: Make A Grey-Box Prototype Level

With a design solidified, now we’re ready to make a version of the Level that can be played and tested. It doesn’t need to look pretty yet, so we use basic template cubes to represent walkable space. Affectionately called grey box prototypes, this technique is how we prototype every Level in the game. Watch a video of me beating the Level below:

As you can see, it’s playable in this stage, and everything works. You can solve the puzzle, which means testers can assess the strength of our design. (We just tell them to ignore the visuals.) We brought this Level, in this format, to AwesomeCon 2017 looking for feedback from players. When we show grey box prototypes to people, we want to make sure they can complete the puzzle. More than that, we want to make sure that they solved it on purpose instead of just by brute force. If we get good feedback, we proceed to Step 3.

 

Noria.png

Step 3: Draw Some Concept Art

This might seem backward, but this is the time when I draw a concept image of the Level. Why do I do this after the Level has been prototyped, and not before? It’s because Jack knows best which Nodes need to go where, and I don’t. I need to take cues from him about where everything must be, which often includes the actual length and width of shadow casting objects.

This is actually beneficial. It gives me good constraints to work with. I draw a paper sketch and say, “OK, if everything absolutely has to be in this location, what can I do with it? What makes sense for the setting [Aqueduct] whether it’s man-made or organic?” As you can see in the drawing, the following ideas have been spawned:

  • Obe should enter from a pipe (bottom right) to match the cutscene that plays directly before this Level.
  • The pillar now looks like it belongs – it’s a crumbling structural element of the Aqueduct, a man-made structure in disrepair.
  • The mechanism by which the lamp moves left to right is not just a magical back-and-forth switch. Now it’s a waterwheel! Why a wheel? Google “Noria”…
  • The lights need to look like actual man-made lights since they are powered by Buttons on the ground. Why not lamps?
  • There are stone pathways going horizontally that have crumbled over time. Those need to be repaired by shadows.
  • The bridges going vertically are metal grates that allow water to pass under them. This is an Aqueduct, we can’t just have standing water blocked in!
  • There’s a back wall with a door. I like to give the Player as many visual cues as possible that the finish line is an actual exit.

The concept art phase is another chance for us to critique the design. If we know the puzzle is good, but it produces an awkward-looking Level, we have the opportunity to reconfigure things. Perhaps the exit needs to be in a different place? Maybe objects should be closer or further apart? Now is the time to match the design to the intended context, the Aqueduct. Once I have good concept art to work from, I proceed to Step 4!

 

DesignBlog-Noria-FirstPass.png

Step 4: First Aesthetic Pass

Now it’s time to take that ugly grey box prototype (sorry Jack) and make it look and sound beautiful! I’m ready to apply my toolkit of Aqueduct paths, walls and bridges to the design. Once the art is laid down, Alba and Noah have their first chance to put some audio effects into the Level and set the mood. It makes a huge difference: now the Level doesn’t sound like it takes place in a silent death vacuum! Creepy chimes and rushing water converge to give the Level a sense of place. Here’s a video of it all in action:

The Level doesn’t look grey anymore! That’s awesome. But… it also doesn’t look finished, does it? This kind of art would pass for a student game or something in a game jam, but we want to be an App Store Editor’s Pick and win a ton of awards. That means the art needs to be worth the price people paid to download the game. It needs to be extraordinary! It needs to be… polished.

 

DesignBlog-Noria-Polished

Step 5: Aesthetic Polish

Polish is a game design term for taking your finished product and finishing it again so it’s even better – much like shining a shoe with shoe polish. You want to make your Level shine! If you’re making an island paradise, it needs to be the most relaxing paradise the player has ever experienced. If it’s a scummy slum in a city, you need to make that slum as dirty as possible. Everything needs to be pushed to the extreme.

My personal philosophy is that I want to turn every Level in the game into my favorite one. Obviously, I know that can’t happen. But at least while I’m working on it, I can take something boring and give it life. Speaking of which, this is usually where animation enters the picture.

animate (verb)

1530s, “to fill with boldness or courage,” from Latin animatus past participle of animare “give breath to,” also “to endow with a particular spirit, to give courage to, enliven,” from anima “life, breath”

Animation is the most time-consuming part of aesthetic design, and it requires a lot of setup as well. It makes sense for this to come last. But it’s definitely the most important artistic layer. Bad video games tend to feel frozen and stale: great games are always in motion, even when everything appears still. I think our modern brains are conditioned to assume that a screen containing no motion is frozen, as if the app crashed. If you look at games with a high level of polish (Blizzard’s Hearthstone comes to mind), there’s always something moving around to give the player the illusion of life. The goal of polish is to make your game appear to crackle with the spark of life. See for yourself:

Pretty different, huh? Our water shader adds some much needed liveliness to the water, and makes it feel like a rushing stream. Buttons now move and bounce under Obe’s weight. An animated glyph on the ground lets you know where you’ve just clicked. The lamp posts are now chains dangling from the ceiling, which lets them sway gently on a loop.

The other perk of animation is that it allows you to add a third sense to the game: touch (or, feel). In a very real sense, players can only experience your game using their eyes and ears. But if you do your job right as a game designer, certain elements in your game will make the player feel things. Have you ever gotten hit in a video game and exclaimed out loud “ow!” after seeing what happened to your avatar? You didn’t actually feel pain, but something about the experience was immersive enough that it made you connect with your character. That’s what polish is for. That’s how games rise to the top!

 

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forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever

Step 6: You Never Finish, This Goes On Forever

Here’s the dirty little secret about my strategy for artistic polish: I’ll never be finished. I will never finish this game. I will work on this game every day until I am dead. It doesn’t even matter if I’m improving the artwork, even if I’m actively making everything worse I will never finish anything in this game.

Whoops! That’s not what I meant to say. Where was I?

Eventually, you need to stop working on a Level so you can move on. This is always a heartbreaking moment in game development. If I could choose any superpower, I would choose a very specific one – the ability to do things on my computer without time slipping through my fingers like grains of sand into an endless void.

[  . _ . ]

You have to move on so you can finish the rest of your game, so when do you do that? It’s at the point where your hours of input are only reaping very marginal gains. People won’t spend an eternity looking at your Levels, so you shouldn’t spend an eternity working on them either. If anything looks truly awful at launch, you can always sneakily patch in fixes that you missed. Just say you’re fixing bugs. and blame the programmer!

Besides, I can always improve the artwork again when we remaster Where Shadows Slumber for BlackBerry…

 


 

I’ve been working on this blog post for too long, and now my hours of writing input are reaping only marginal gains. Time to end this post. Thanks for looking at this inside scoop into our process! If you’re wondering why game development takes so long, imagine doing this for all 38 Levels in the game. That’s not even including the cutscenes…

Say, that gives me an idea for another blog post!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into our development process. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter directly using the handle @GameRevenant, find us on Facebookitch.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.

 

Just Do It

No, Where Shadows Slumber hasn’t received any funding from a mysterious shoe company. Rather, I want to discuss an aspect of working on a personal project that I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with, and that I’ve had trouble with in the past. Yes, this post touches on a few of the topics that I talked about in a previous blog post about ‘drive’, but today I want to focus more on a specific facet of the process: forcing yourself to work on something that you don’t want to.

Every project is difficult. In particular, every project begins to drag as you get closer and closer to the end. You find it more and more difficult to keep working on it. At the beginning of your project, there’s a whole bunch of stuff you’re excited to work on. As you reach the end, you find that you’ve done all of the fun things, and the only things left are boring tasks and difficult decisions. This is the point where you’re really being put to the test, and in this situation, I have one piece of advice for you – buckle down and just do it.

Let’s take a quick look at the different kinds of things you should just force yourself to do, and how to actually do so.

 

Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do

The most obvious kind of thing you don’t want to do is, well, something you just don’t want to do. These things are different for everyone, and come up for various reasons. For me, these are the cleanup/polish kinds of tasks. For other programmers, it might be the mathy, trig-related stuff. For an artist, maybe it’s animating hands or something (I hear that’s really hard…). Whatever it is, everyone has something they consider ‘dreg work’, and those tasks start to pile up.

taxes

Tax  season is coming up, and I’m already putting it off

If you’re anything like me, when you come upon one of these tasks, you briefly consider doing it, and then you move on to something easier or more interesting. After all, there’s no shortage of work in your project! This happens a lot with teams as well, especially less organized teams – “if I go work on something else instead, somebody will probably take care of this by the time I get back to it”.

Unfortunately, these two base assumptions fall apart when it comes to indie game development (or any similar venture). In most cases, your project has to come to an end eventually, which means that you can’t simply keep putting these tasks off. And with a smaller, indie-sized team, it’s unlikely that you can just put that responsibility on someone else. It’s pretty cool to be the arbiter of your own success by taking charge of your own game development project, but it also involves other responsibilities.

I know quite a  few people who check their email regularly – until they see that one email that prompts them to do something. They know they have to do it, but they simply don’t want to. Rather than just doing it, getting it out of the way, and having some peace of mind, they close their email and proceed to ignore it for the better part of a week. Inevitably, this doesn’t cause the task to go away, but just gives them less time to do it, and a boatload of stress while they’re avoiding it anyway.

The bottom line is that these tasks must be done – you’ll come across them, and you’ll simply have to do them. The most important thing is to have a positive attitude in these instances. You come upon a task that you don’t want to do – acknowledge that you have to do it, take a deep breath, and just get started. Once you’ve begun, you’ll probably find that it’s not as bad as you thought – simply starting the task is usually the hardest part. And hey, if it ends up being an awful task, at least you got it out of the way!

 

Committing to an End

Another area where it’s very important to embrace a “just do it” attitude is when it comes to actually finishing your project. As an indie game developer, it’s perfectly natural to be apprehensive of your eventual release. After all, you’re just a small group of people (or even just one!), but your game will still have to compete with games made by giant studios. It makes sense to want to make sure your game is absolutely perfect before committing to a release.

The problem with this plan is the use of the word perfect. Your game will never be perfect. In fact, your game will never even be “good enough”, especially considering your own perfectionist perspective. Waiting for perfection leads you to a phase of endless polish, which can delay your project for years, or even indefinitely. The only thing worse than releasing an imperfect game is not releasing one at all.

There’s a pretty common attitude of “I’ll release it when it’s done”, or “I’ll know when I get closer to the end”. While these make sense at first blush, and are good mentalities to have toward the very beginning of a project, they quickly turn against you, causing your project to become more and more delayed.

duedate

Red marker. That’s how you know it’s serious.

Unfortunately, as introspective as we may consider ourselves, there’s a significant amount of stuff going on under the hood that we’re not even aware of. One of the more annoying of these is that, if there’s no “due date” for your project, your brain will subconsciously de-prioritize working on it. Similarly, there’s a well-known adage that work expands to fill the space its given – if you have twice the time to do something, you’ll just subconsciously work half as hard at it. For example, at the end of November, we were on schedule to release Where Shadows Slumber by April. We recently pushed that date back by a few months, without increasing the project’s scope. You would think that this would give us some breathing room, but the new “deadline” feels like it will somehow be even harder to meet!

Managing the timeline of an entire project is an incredibly difficult task. One important piece of advice I would give would be to pick a target release date. Even if it’s not public, picking a date, committing to it, and doing everything you can to meet it will definitely help you prioritize the work you’re doing, frame it appropriately, and avoid the project stretching into infinity.

Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t choose a release date willy-nilly; you should realistically estimate when you can complete the project, and choose accordingly. Similarly, there’s no need to have a specific end date in mind when you start the project. Your target date is a great motivational tool, but it only works if it’s at least somewhat accurate. Even if you miss your release date (or realize you’re going to, like we did), it’s not a problem. You just have to reassess the work that’s left, and choose a new date. As long as you don’t keep extending the project, you’ll be fine.

 

Decision-Making

While there are tasks that you don’t want to do because they’re difficult or time-consuming, there are other reasons to not want to do something. In particular, making decisions is a real sticking point for a lot of people. If you implement something incorrectly, you can always redo it, but many of the decisions you have to make for your game have an irreversible effect. This is really daunting, and since decisions themselves don’t take a lot of actual physical effort, the natural response is to simply put off making the decision for a bit.

DecisionMaking

When faced with a choice between success and failure, I hope you’ll always choose Where Shadows Slumber!

This is similar to the “end date” discussion above. While many of these decisions are very important and require a great deal of thought, they still have to be made. It’s important to never forget this fact, as decision paralysis is another great way to destroy your game.

When you find yourself facing one of these decisions, make sure you don’t back off, at least not repeatedly. You have to make the decision eventually, so you might as well do it now. In fact, in the case of some difficult, important decisions, you might even lock yourself in a room until you’ve made the decision. That’s exactly what we did when picking out the name for Where Shadows Slumber – Frank and I sat down, and neither of us was allowed to leave until we had picked a name. It ended up taking a few hours, but we had managed to nail down the answer to a very difficult decision.

 

Just Do It

There are a lot of places in game development where you find it hard to do what you have to do. These moments are gateways to stagnating development and endless work. When the time comes, you often must act. Don’t make half-hearted decisions or poor implementations, but really force yourself to do what needs to be done. Just do it.

 

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If you have any questions about any of our development struggles, or if you have any other questions about Where Shadows Slumber, feel free to contact us! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, join the Game Revenant Discord, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.