Hell Week

Jack and I first met in a sketch comedy group in college back in 2010. In that group, and in theater troupes around the globe, the week before opening night is usually referred to as “Hell Week.” For big productions, some things can only really be done at the last minute. (Lights, sound, final props, rehearsing on a real stage instead of a temporary space, catering) That means the final week before “showtime” is often spent running around like crazy doing a bunch of little tiny things that have been put off until now.

Is it procrastination? Is it just how this always goes? Who knows! Jack and I have only ever done this once before, years ago, when we released SkyRunner on Google Play and the App Store. (It has since been removed from the App Store because we let the Jack and Frank’s Magical Cruiseline Developer License lapse. Whoops!) Back then, things were much more relaxed. No one was really anticipating our fledgling student project. And we were fairly certain it was never going to go anywhere – we were just proud to make a game. We built it on a Saturday, hit submit, and never looked back.

This time around, things are different. There are a lot of moving parts to game development. Everything starts off cool and slow when you’re first testing out an idea. Then, international partners become involved, and a real schedule is expected of you. For the past few months, we’ve been emailing Apple saying “don’t worry, it’s coming, we just need more time!” This past week, we made good on the most recent roadmap we sent them.

Early this morning, we submitted Where Shadows Slumber to the App Store for review!

To celebrate, let’s explore what Hell Week looks like for a small team of distributed indies collaborating online to finish a game…

 

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A Week Full of “Do It Later” Tasks

I must admit that I’m a severe procrastinator. My skill is to take something (like, say, a cutscene) and do a really great 80% job on it. Then, because there’s no one watching me to tell me to finish it, I’ll go: “Cool! Looking good. I’ll finish that later.”

As it turns out, the week before you build your game for the last time is what experts commonly refer to as later. This week, the tasks I put off for so long finally fell on me like a ton of bricks. I spent the majority of this week finishing the game’s remaining cutscenes as Jack optimized the game’s final Levels and cutscenes. Because my work wasn’t done, it held up his progress on optimization. For reference, optimized Levels look like the image above – they’re solid black since the lights work totally different in those Levels. That means it’s impossible for me to work in those Levels, so Jack needs to wait for me to finish my work and then duplicate the scene in Unity and optimize that. By Friday, I was finally able to get those done in time to review the text translation sent to us by Logrus IT. Jack put in the new text file and tested the game to make sure the final build worked as a cohesive whole.

Alba and Noah spent Hell Week adding the game’s final missing sounds and improving the cutscene audio. We neglected to put sounds into the game’s UI for a long time, just because there’s an unspoken rule that you do UI last because everyone forgets about it. Whoops! This is also the time to work on the “mix” – which they described to me as the audio volume of every different sound as they work in tandem together. Without this crucial polish step, sounds can crash on top of each other during gameplay. Alba and Noah worked to make them weave together smoothly.

 

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Hell Weekend

Everything came down to the two build days – two days, Saturday and Sunday, focused entirely on testing and small changes. We were in Jack’s apartment huddled around his desktop as Alba and Noah worked fiendishly from Miami and Queens, respectively. I counted a total of over 18 hours over the course of both days spent just optimizing the game and doing a bunch of final changes! (Shout out to Jack’s fiancée and her sister for bringing us food on Saturday :D)

Like I said, some things have to wait until the end of the project before you can really do them. The weekend was spent putting in Jack’s final optimizations so the game runs smoothly on all phones. Then, those changes had to be tested on all of our iOS devices to make sure they didn’t cause other problems. I didn’t work nearly as hard as Jack did in these final hours, but it was important that I was there to give the artwork a final check. During optimization, a lot of the art rules changed: lights that used to stack on top of each other now blend smoothly together, for example. That looks awesome, but some tiny tweaks to their intensities and colors had to be made before we could ship it. That’s just one example of many little things we did over the weekend.

(Shameless plug: if you want us to come give a talk at your school, organization, or church, email me at contact@GameRevenant.com! We would love to go into more detail about how hard it is to make games!)

I don’t know if Jack knows this, but the main reason I wanted to work on games with him is because of his determination. Going into this Saturday build session, it didn’t look like we’d be able to send the game to Apple. The optimization process caused an unexpected crash on one of the game’s middle Levels, and I was pretty certain we’d need to delay internally again. But Jack never gives up, so we handled that bug, found some more, crushed them, and got everything done in time!

 

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App Store Monday

Monday was another “put it all together” day, and it was technically the day Apple was expecting to receive the game. I spent all day putting our Store Listing together in iTunes Connect as Jack finished some tests and Noah and Alba worked on “mixing” the sound. Since I submitted the game early this morning at around 3:30 am EST, I guess it came in a bit late since that’s 12:30 am in California. Some things never change!

But even with all the stress, I can’t help but be astonished by what we’ve created. Look at the pictures up there, from our iTunes Connect submission. Seeing these beautiful images lined up like candies gave me a feeling of pride and accomplishment that I haven’t felt in a while! I’d totally buy this game if I saw it on the store… wouldn’t you?

At this point, our app is In Review, which means that the App Store employees are checking it for egregious errors or incompleteness. They’re strict about what they allow onto the store, but I have no worries that our app will be approved. Whether it will get promoted by Apple, or even the vaunted Editor’s Choice tag, is another story. We’re not releasing the game on iOS anytime soon, so they have plenty of time to look it over and decide amongst themselves. But the hard part is over – our game is fantastic, it’s uploaded to the App Store, and I’ve never worked so frantically before in my entire life!

This is also a long-winded way of saying you shouldn’t expect the game on Android anytime soon. Testing and perfecting for iOS took longer than we thought it would. (What else is new? LOL!) How long do you think it would take to test the game on Android while simultaneously not breaking anything we already did for iOS?

Please be patient with us! One of the coolest things about Where Shadows Slumber is that it is a labor of love created by hardworking indie developers collaborating remotely across the greater NYC area. That also means everything’s going to take a bit longer than you expect. You can send us nasty comments on Facebook about how Android owners are being treated like second class citizens, but that won’t help us make the game faster! (Besides, Jack and I both have Android phones, and we’d like the game on our devices one day too. Lighten up!)

 

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What’s Next?

Now, we enter an exciting new project phase. Jack and I are going down different paths now: I can only help him so much with the Android release. While he’s testing the game on tons of Android devices, I’ll help however I can with all-night testing sessions and really detailed QA reports.

But my job now is to coordinate our team’s marketing efforts and make the most of that iOS launch “bump.” We’re going to meet as a team to brainstorm ways to make the most of our upcoming release. We’re also working on a launch trailer that will make die-hard fans proud, and newcomers interested. It’s going to be epic! And yes, when the trailer launches, you will finally know our release date! Thank you for waiting so patiently.

This is the progress update I’ve been dying to write, and it’s finally here. The whole team is eager to show off the final game when it comes to iOS, and we’ll be working hard to make the Android version really awesome.

Next week, we’ll dive into our marketing efforts and the plans for our trailer. Or is it… trailers? Find out next week!

 

 

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Thanks for reading this project update! If you’re new to this blog, 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.

Going Gold

We’ve come to the part of the development cycle that no artist ever enjoys: the gold-stamping process. What is this mysterious “gold-stamping?” Why do artists despise it so? You thought it was just fixing bugs and making small tweaks, didn’t you? Well, read on to find out…

 

You’re reading the development blog for Where Shadows Slumber, a puzzle game coming to iOS and Android later this year. Check out our free Demo here.


 

 

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Gold Stamping: The Point of No Return

Every project must come to an end eventually. In order to make sure your game is ready for the whole world to see, every piece of it must be tested individually. Then, the entire game has to be tested as one unit. Before we can move on to that final testing phase, every Level, Cutscene, and Menu in the game needs to be approved by three teams: Art, Sound, and Development.

The Art team is just me – and the Development team is just Jack. Alba and Noah work on Sound together. That means we need three approvals for each Level, Cutscene and Menu. Approval means “I’m done working on this Level forever – there is absolutely nothing left to do. Put it in the game.” (See the screenshot above for a look at our spreadsheet that has each Level listed as well as the “Gold” stamps)

There’s a specific order we have to do this in, as well. I need to put my “Gold Stamp of Approval” on Levels before Sound does, because I’m in charge of the game’s visuals. If I add a blazing torch to a Level after Sound has “gold-stamped” that Level, they’ll need to come back and give that torch some kind of looping audio. Art and Sound need to gold-stamp the Level before Jack takes over, because he’s duplicating each Level in the game into a separate file and running an optimization process on that Level.

This optimization process takes time, and destroys the editability of the scene. (By way of analogy, consider what happens to a Photoshop file when you Flatten it into a JPG file. The JPG takes up less space on your computer, but you lose the editable Layers from Photoshop) Jack is able to lower the time it takes your phone to render a frame of the game by “crunching” these Levels. If your phone can render a frame faster, the game will feel smoother. Players hate lag more than they hate bad graphics or design, because it interrupts the flow of play. Everything we’re doing now is to make the game run smoothly even on older devices.

But you can see the problem: if Art or Sound has to tell Jack that they made changes to a Level, one of two things happen:

(a) We need to make that change in both the original Scene and the crunched Scene

(b) OR… Jack needs to start the optimization process for that Scene over again

Option A introduces the possibility of human error. Have you ever made a mistake copying something down by hand over to another sheet of paper? Imagine that with a bunch of tiny numbers and sliders in Unity! Unfortunately, Option B wastes time we don’t have. And since “crunching” makes these Levels unable to easily edit, there is no Option C.

In the late stages of the project, we’re in a mad dash to finish each Level and hand them off to Jack. We’re a bit on top of each other at the moment, and tensions are high. Some of our beloved changes won’t make it into the first release of the game and may have to be stealthily added as a patch later on. (Shhhh don’t tell anyone I said that, blog reader)

Those are all the downsides of gold-stamping. Enough complaining: let’s talk about why this process makes the game so much better!

 

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iPhone X Stretching

We began working on this game long before the iPhone X was announced. Since we designed the game in portrait mode, we planned for it to work in 9:16 resolutions as well as 3:4 resolutions. The plan was simple: we would assume you had the tiniest screen there was (9:16) and make sure you could solve the puzzle using everything you saw. And then, if you had a large screen, your screen would show more of the artwork surrounding the puzzle… but not any more key information. (Our demo works this way. Download it for free on a few devices to see what I mean.)

The iPhone X dashed our hopes when it launched, since it has a very thin and tall screen. When we booted it up on an iPhone X earlier this year for the first time, we noticed that key puzzle information was being cut off! Furthermore, there were sections above and below the Scene that I never planned for human eyes to see. We had to fill those sections in with art, or iPhone X users would know the game wasn’t made for them.

Here’s another analogy: imagine if you were designing the set for a Broadway musical. You do all your work, and then a week before opening night your director comes to you and says: “Listen, we’re lowering the stage by 2 feet and extending the ceiling by 2 feet above the stage. Do you think your set will still look good?”

The correct answer is: “yes, but I need to extend the artwork so it doesn’t cut off!” It’s ok if your art bleeds over into a section that human eyes will never see. But you can’t have your screen bleed over into artwork that isn’t finished or cuts off arbitrarily!

Fortunately, Jack solved our width problem by writing a Camera Resizing script that adjusts the Orthographic camera size to the proper width depending on your hardware. (Thank God for Jack, lol. Just that script alone would take me the full 3 years we spent working on this game to complete) I am solving our height problem by extending the shadowy silhouettes on each Level where appropriate, and adding more art where it’s necessary.

 

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Low Poly Means Low Poly

When you set out to make a low-poly game, you aren’t just deciding on an art style. You’re also setting boundaries for how much the game will need to handle. This is why you’ll see a lot of cartoony artwork on mobile games and MMOs. Both of those are situations where you want the game to run on low end devices like old phones (mobile games) or old computers (MMOs). Cartoony graphics let you show what you want without having high-resolution textures or incredibly detailed model topology. It isn’t just an artistic decision – it’s also a marketing, business, and programming decision.

However, just because I said that I would do low-poly art doesn’t mean I kept my promise. There are a lot of Levels that go wildly above our Triangle / Vertex budget. (See the screenshot above, with emphasis on the Tris and Verts) Unity counts the number of Tris and Verts that are displaying on the screen at one time. Jack wants us to be well under 100k of each. That may sound like a high number, but you’d be surprised by how even simple scenes can skyrocket to 150k. When he finds Levels that are egregiously “over-budget,” he sends them over to me so I can make reductions.

Fortunately, Tri / Vert budgets are not like monetary budgets. If Jack told me not to spend $100,000 dollars, and then I bought a yacht, we’d be $100K in the hole. (But, we’d have a boat. Jack, I urge you to reconsider this proposal.) With polygons, as long as I cut down on fatty models before the game launches, no one will ever know. Except for the readers of this blog, of course. But you’re sworn to secrecy! Don’t share this post.

There is one more thing about this I discovered: Unity’s lighting system counts polygons in a very strange way. You can’t always trust their readout. I discovered that multiple lights require Unity to count the same object multiple times. If a cube has 8 Verts and one light is lighting it up, Unity will show 8 Verts. If there are six lights on it, Unity will show 48 Verts. So there’s some Levels that Jack will reduce once he does his big crunch, since he rewrote how our Lights will work to make them all act as one super-Light. (More wizardry, I’m sure.)

We’re doing all we can to make the game run fast on your phone. If it’s still lagging, get a new phone!

 

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File Formats and Compression

This is the kind of boring stuff that puts artists to sleep, but it’s important. Unity imports textures, models, and audio files according to a standard. You can set the standard somewhere, but we never did. Instead, I am going through every file in the game and asking the had question: does this really need to be as large as it is?

The answer is usually “no!” which is good. I’m crunching a lot of textures down from 1024 x 1024 to 32 x 32 pixels, Unity’s smallest maximum size for images. Noah and Alba also did a bunch of audio crunching that I can’t really explain properly. You’ll have to wait for their revealing tell-all novella (Where Shadows Is Grongus: Nightmare Stories From Development Hell) for all the juicy secrets!

One more thing about textures: it might not be super necessary for me to make these textures smaller after all. Jack is actually doing this crazy optimization thing where we have every texture on one big image called a Texture Atlas. This image is as small as I can make it and has every texture in it laid out like a grid. We have one of these for every Scene in the game (Levels and Cutscenes) and when the game wants to render an object that uses a texture, it’s going to go to this image and pick from the proper coordinates.

This is insane and Jack explained it to me once and it’s insane and I’m sure it will make the game run super fast. If I’m remembering correctly, Jack told me that the rendering system needs to pause and switch gears every time it has to render a new Material. (So if the grass is GreenMaterial and the tree is TreeMaterial, the renderer needs to pause and switch) If it never has to switch like that, the rendering process should go way faster. The way to do that is to make one Material with the Level specific Texture Atlas called “Scene-0-2-Atlas” or something and put that on each object with the right coordinates. We’ll have fewer batches to render, and you’ll never even know what’s going on under the hood!

I’m going to stop giving the layman’s explanation here before I embarrass myself by showing my limited knowledge. But look forward to Jack’s upcoming tell-all blogella (Life With Frank: The Man Who Knew Nothing) for all the juicy secrets!

 

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See You In Hell

This is going to be a rough week. This lengthy process is taking longer than I would have liked, and I’ve been pulled away from animating the final cutscenes. I desperately want to get back on track so Alba and Noah have enough time to work on the audio score for the final cutscenes.

Thanks for reading this blog post – I have to get back to gold-stamping!

 

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s development. 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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.