Friday, November 11, 2011

UM: A Cancellation & Post-Mortem

What was canceled? This lady! Regardless, she seems pretty upbeat about it!
So, after almost a year and a half of late nights and stressing about what players want and worrying about how the market will be and deciding on different gaming portals, it’s been decided to cancel the indie game I have been I have been working on with a coworker in Unity. The project’s name for this was Urban Mages; it was a 2.5D -- think Street Fighter IV -- fighting game where all the characters controlled elemental-based magic. The project evolved over time going from a simple one-on-one fighter with 9 characters and 10 environments, to a story-heavy rpg-like game with fighting game elements. This, I could say, was my first real indie endeavor that I initialized. I did Convextrix, which was a simple, poor-performing XBLIG game, and there is Battle High, but the characters aren't mine, and that is really what I wanted, something with an IP that I helped design from the beginning.
I guess there are many mistakes that were made, and I want to write them down, so that when I try this again -- and I will -- I don't make a lot of these mistakes.

Don't Be Afraid to Spend Money

Alright, so maybe my bills aren't as bad as this elderly couple's, but my reaction to most things is...
I went into this project wanting it to be one of low financial burden. I quickly found out, however, that no one likes to work for free and that convincing others that your vision is strong and that you are dedicated is not enough sometimes to get the work you want out of other individuals. I thought that some people would be excited enough that At the same time, time is important, not pay a bartender 6 minutes of your life for a shot of tequila important, but if a project seems like it's going to take you four years and you have other obligations and ambitions, continuation may not be the best choice. I felt strong about this project, yes, but it wasn't my opus or going to be my final project.

Help Wanted...Kind Of

About halfway through this project, my coworker and I felt we needed help to finish a project of this magnitude, particularly with rigging characters and animating them. Now, I felt confident in doing both of these, but with doing a majority of gameplay programming with this as well as Battle High work at the time, my schedule was getting very packed, so I agreed that we should try and find help, which became a mixed blessing.
Finding others is definitely a help, but only if you can guarantee that these individuals will have the same passion as you, which is rather difficult when concepts and general design are finished. The difficulty is increased when you bring long-distance -- like other country long distance -- and when you set the precedent that you won’t be able to pay anyone as stated earlier.
This particular incident started with making the characters in Maya and having someone rig them with a bunch of scripts that weren’t inheret to Maya. We then found a very talented animator who worked in Maya. My coworker and I were very excited and we waited...and waited...and end up getting about 5 animations when we probably needed about 70. Again, needing 70 animations was probably the first problem.
Anyway, I started to do some of the animations, and I got almost half of them done to find the rigger was taking up contract work and couldn’t continue. This was frustrating, because rigs should be consistent between characters so animations can be recycled and shared between characters with similar hierarchies.
We then posted “wanted” adds on various art sites for help, but these seemed to cause more problems. Even when specifying that we would not be able to pay people, we would get artists who still wanted to be paid or someone who would seem excited and then suddenly disappear altogether. Also, there were tons of managerial time put into making sure people were doing the right things, scheduling, answering their questions, and other things that people like producers and project leads do.
Overall, the lesson I feel that can be best taken away from this is contingency. Have contingency in case people start something and disappear, and if that contingency involves such a big change that you have to end up redoing work, such as how I had to rig and skin the Maya character in 3DS Max, maybe don’t bring that person on to begin with. In fact, the lack of contingency is part of the reason the project is going on indefinite hiatus.

Hype your game up like this guy probably hypes all aspects of his life! Why Google Images? Why...

Hype It Up!

One problem, mostly on my part, that hurt this project is we didn’t hype the project enough, which is hard to balance. You don’t want to shotgun everyone and give too much away, in my opinion anyway, but I think we were giving too much slowly -- partly because we didn’t have enough. We didn’t have super nice environments done to make a demo alluring, and I should have taken more time to make nice animations for a demo -- probably by starting with rigs and animations in 3DS Max though, this could have been achieved.
Regardless, the importance of this hype was to get confident re-enforcement from our peers but to get confident in the project ourselves. One reason we’re kind of canceling it is because we both we were losing faith for the amount of time it was taking to produce work, and maybe with more confidence we would have produced work faster, but this is impossible to know and in the long run, it’s probably better to stop now so we can move on to other things than waste time and lose more motivation.

Seal it with a KISS

Did the designers of this cheap Valentine's Day gift keep KISS in mind? Possibly...possibly...
KISS is a pretty cliche acronym -- Keep It Simple Stupid -- and is something that can probably say wasn’t kept in mind as much as it should have been for this project. The original idea, in itself might not have been simple enough for two individuals with full-time jobs and other commitments, and when the project changed from a fighter to one with RPG elements, it became even more complex and the scope didn’t decrease as much as it should have, if at all.
There were some strives to simplify such as converting from XNA to Unity and creating a shader that allowed for the use of less detailed textures, but these really only skimmed the surface of the simplification really needed to get this done in a reasonable amount of time.
The most obvious solution would have been to cut the number of characters, but the only problem with this, of course, if we lowered our scope, could we have still made a game or would it just have been a dinky demo? 9 characters and 10 stages might have been too much, but cutting those numbers I don’t think would have been the answer and changing genres wouldn’t have helped either. There are not many games I can think of that lack in the number of characters without making up for it in a large variety of environments or using abstraction for most of its art like a puzzle game. A more feasible answer would have probably been a really simple style for character models and cut down a rather intimidating animation list; however, as stated earlier, full-time jobs and other commitments may have been this project’s doom from the start.

In Conclusion

Mystic Ray!!!
What does that image have to do with this game and the conclusion of this post-mortem? Not much, but it was my Shuma-Gorath Halloween costume this year and an example of the things I would like to get back to now that the game is canceled. Well, I say that I’m canceling the project, but in reality it’s being cryogenicly frozen. Will we ever come back to this game and try and finish it? Maybe. What’s the likelihood of this? Pretty low. I enjoyed the time working on it, and it was definitely a fun project to attempt, but it was also pretty ambitious, alright, really ambitious.
In some aspects I feel like I failed: I wasn’t able to get the game finished and was unable to motivate people. Sometimes I feel like the whole thing was a waste of time, but that’s not true and it’s not fair to my coworker and others who have worked on it, even myself really. I feel like I learned a lot: skin-wrapping, animation exportation and handling in Unity, keyboard and controller input for Unity, integrating the ICE library from IndieCity into Unity. The list is much bigger, but even if it wasn’t, it can be aruged that learning anything at all made it worth it. Regardless, this learning experience has motivated me to continue working hard on new projects and hopefully when I start a new project I won’t make these mistakes.