Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Phantasmal Dev Log (Part 5)

Well over the last week or so things seemed to have been coming together nicely - the marketing has been tracking along nicely, and bug-wise we had the game down to a manageable level.

The marketing will be a like huge roll of the dice as per last time - I have no idea who will respond if anyone at all.  Even the people we've spoken to before won't necessarily help us again.  I've always struggled to understand how to keep in touch with the press and streamers we've spoken to before.

To make matters worse, GDC just happened which basically took 95% of game reporters out of action.  They probably all have clogged inboxes right now.  Not having made it to GDC probably hurt us a bit - otherwise I could have met up with some of these guys.  I'm really disappointed that  I wasn't able to make it - I was let down pretty badly for some of the things I needed to get there too.

All the key people that I've really made an effort to engage with just haven't even responded either. Marketing and PR has always felt like door to door sales - it's massively demoralizing to be ignored by 99% of people you try to talk to.

On top of this one of the core team I'm relying on heavily has been removed from the equation due to personal issues.  There couldn't possibly be a worse time for this stuff to happen.

Fate is so cruel - just when I thought things were coming together, I get thrown a spiky curve ball.  We're not totally derailed yet, but it's a crippling blow.  Fortunately for us, I've planned everything right down to the last detail so we're not doing any last minute bullshit.  We would be in serious, serious shit if we weren't on schedule for the technical side right now.

My life right now honestly feels like the Apollo 13 programme.

We will get to the finish line, but I don't know in what state.  I will have something to show on 14 Apr - I'm far too much of a stubborn asshole to fail a commitment like this, but hell if life would throw me a bone right about now I'd be so thankful.

I just hope that 2 year's worth of work isn't going straight down the flusher at this point.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Phantasmal Devlog: The last month (Part 4)

Since I started my tentative reach out to the press, I've had small trickles of responses.  The first day was horrid, despite me rationalizing that everyone was at GDC.  Irrational panic set in: "What if no one cares?  What if they know the game is total garbage?!".

Imposter syndrome was in massive overdrive for me that day.  Fortunately I was due into The Arcade Auckland the following day which allowed me to work on something completely outside of the game and talk to my fellow indies.

A couple of people responded, not a lot, but it was better than nothing.  If I can just suppress that terrified little voice in my head, intellectually I know that it's a numbers game.  

Just like door to door sales, you might go through dozens of houses before someone even answers the door, and even then they might still slam the door in your face, or shout at you to get lost.

Reaching out to game press, youtubers has always felt like that.  When I was in uni I had a door to door sales job and I gave up after 10 houses lol.  The humiliation and rejection just felt too much at the time.

Fortunately in this case, no one shouts at you to get off their property!

I guess the other part of the problem that I now recognize is that even though I have transitioned into 100% marketing now, I still feel like it wasn't early enough.  I think for us, this process has to be  started right at the beginning of the project.

However I don't regret our journey to date - this was our first proper game project.  I don't count those crappy mobile games I made in the past. 

I think we have learned immensely from all the mistakes we made.  I think the educational aspect of this project is worth its metaphorical weight in gold for me.  I don't think any amount of research or education would have taught me so much in such a relatively short amount of time.

Probably the most valuable thing to have come out of this project is the team.  I've churned through quite a few different people during the project, and the ones that remain are like diamonds - created via immense pressure.  This team is the sustainable one - we are all in this for the long game and for the love of gaming.

This is something that Morgan Jaffit echoed to me during his visit to New Zealand.  He is massively successful, and he attributes a significant part of this to his team.

It's kind of weird, but I find writing this blog/journal to be really therapeutic in itself!  This is something I'll do more of in future.  Even if no one else reads it, it will make for some great memoirs - I can come back it one day and see what has changed.

On the other hand, if other people and indies read it some day, and it helps even a little bit, then it will have all been worth it!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Phantasmal Devlog: The Journey So Far (Part 3)

I'm going to be a bit weird with the order and save Part 2 for another time to type up.

I'll jump ahead to Part 3 which is the present.

I'm currently a month out from the full Steam Release.  Today I sent out a bunch of press emails to journalists and youtubers that I've spoken to before.

It's right in the middle of GDC, so I wouldn't be surprised if everyone is super busy right now.  I had one reply back but they weren't able to commit to covering the game on launch day because of the volume of news they had.

I know I shouldn't get too bummed out, but I can feel that elation I had last week from checking off a bunch of tasks starting to slide away, and I can't seem to grab on to it.

Being an indie is a horrible roller coaster of emotions sometimes - it is super easy to slip really quickly into depression.  It's happened to me countless times to the point where all of my energy gets sapped away and I'm unable to even get out of bed.

Another thing that I've allowed to get away from me lately is my physical health.  I've been eating horribly for the past 3-4 months and I've dropped 5 days a week exercise down to 1-2 now.

Even though the launch is a month away, I can't afford to be too slack with my physical health.  It's a vicious cycle really - the less healthy I am, the less energy I have, which means I will be that much more vulnerable to depression.  It's a downwards spiral that could easily ruin more than just the game launch.

I have to buckle up and really look after myself from tomorrow onwards - both physically and mentally.

Back to the game.  So from here on in, I've been waiting for a video editor to finish off the launch trailer, which I'll pass on to our music contractor guy who is currently at GDC.  He says should comfortably have that all finished next week, which will mean it will be ready for the 2 week out press release.

That will be the crucial one as it will essentially be a "media bomb" where I go through a massive list of hundreds of youtubers, twitchers, press etc.   Speaking of the list, it's about a year out of date, so I'll have to update it in the next week or so - oh boy no wonder no one else in the team likes to do marketing!

I feel like things are more or less on track with the marketing.  I haven't really been looking at the game itself, so I pray that the other guys have that all in hand.  I need to sit down with the team at some stage to look at the current status of the game itself.  I'm going to dedicate an hour tomorrow to look at it when I'm at MOTAT.

Being the team leader is pretty cool sometimes, but often times I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders.  The pressure is far more intense than my most trying projects in IT.

Another challenge is thoroughly stifling any hope of the game become an immense success.  It' pretty unlikely that will happen at all.  Consciously, success to me would be making back all the money we spent to date.  If we could compensate ourselves for all the time we've spent, then I would call that a massive success.

The problem we secretly have as game devs is that we sometimes allow a small speck of ourselves to secretly hope that the game will be the next Minecraft, DayZ, Undertale etc.  Media always covers the massive hits, and conveniently ignores all the failures.  I think we all subconsciously sometimes allow ourselves to thing "just maybe!".

But this is as unrealistic as it is dangerous.  Firstly if we even let that small speck survive, we will be completely spiritually crushed if is anything less than a hit.

Secondly I see many of my fellow devs go all in financially to get their game out.  If it is anything less than a hit then effectively they cannot sustain themselves which would mean effectively the team would need to look for full time jobs and break up.

I almost fell into these traps last year.

Financially, I went all in for more than a year, with the assumption that my wife would be able to sustain the household.  That went horribly wrong and almost put us under which would have meant the game would have been collapsed.

During the Steam Early Access Release, even though I made an effort to dissuade anyone who said to me that the game might be a hit, subconsciously I allowed myself to entertain that thought.  "What if" right?  Wrong.

The game didn't do terribly - it actually did really well all things considered, but because I held on to that ridiculous spark of hope, I felt completely devastated.

It was unrealistic and stupid of me.  I won't think that way at all for the Full Release - I'm going to keep my expectations firmly grounded.  If we make a modest amount out of it then I will be really happy.

Plus the household is now set up so that I'm not betting the farm if the absolute worst happens, i.e. the game makes nothing at all.

If that does happen, then all we will do is wrap up the game and rock right into the next one we have planned.  There will be no moping around.

This is a long term journey, and I won't forget that.  I have to remind myself that I'm in this for the joy of making games, not to be rich.  There are many easier ways of getting rich, but I wouldn't (didn't) enjoy it.

I think that's super important to keep perspective, I mean what I'm doing now is what I've dreamed of doing since I was 3 years old.  I just have to remind myself continually that I'm living my dream!  Wanting to be super rich is just greed on my part - I don't really need to be.  If can make a living and have a roof over my head from doing this then that is real success!

If one day in future I do make some moderate amounts of money and have some semblance of success, I think it would enable me to help all the other indies around me (e.g. in The Arcade Auckland).  I've always dreamed of empowering our indie dev community - there are so many amazing and deserving individuals around.  It would be an honor to have the ability and credibility to help these amazing people.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Phantasmal Devlog: The Journey So Far (Part 1)

I've been contemplating putting together a proper dev log for sometime that covered the personal journey of indie game dev for a while now, and I thought to myself tonight surely I can give up 30 mins of Heroes of the Storm to start writing one up, even if it's just for my own benefit as a memoir! :)

There is something deeply therapeutic about chronicling one's own journey through tough times, but if it has even the slightest possibility of helping someone else out there one day, who is going through what I am at the moment - it will be totally worth while.

I'm a huge believer that as indies, we're all in the same boat.  We aren't rivals, we're companions in a sea of indifference, struggling to stay afloat, and perhaps make a boat to sail off into the sunset.  I think the vast majority of indies I've met to date have the same attitude and as such recognize it is very much us against the rest of the world, they're always keen to help and support each other.

Coming from an corporate IT background, which can be very much dog-eat-dog, the indie mentality of community and support was a refreshing attitude. It definitely fit well with me personally.

So coming back to my journey so far!  I wish I'd been making a journal sooner so I could look back and map my progress.

As a summary this has been the order of events thus far:

The 7 Day FPS Game Jam

A couple of years ago I entered into the 7 Day FPS Game Jam.  It was my first proper game (called Infinity Castle) with Unity, which I had just picked up, after being hired to develop a test strategy for a MMO company.  I decided to learn how to use Unity as that was the company's main game engine.

Along the way, I absolutely fell in love with how easy it was to pick up Unity!  I really dug the way that I could learn each area at my own pace, and leverage the multitude of assets on the Unity store.  I found with very little knowledge that I was able to copy scripts/assets and put together a game very quickly.

Although I was still a novice game developer, the two skills I'd developed over the years in corporate due to the nature of my job was the ability to learn rapidly and use whatever I had around me at the time.

So I combined a couple of my favorite assets at the time together to create a game and submitted it to the 7DFPS.  I felt that the game was quite fun personally, but had no idea if anyone else would like.  Oh well, if not, I'd had tons of fun just making it!

Within a day something bizarre happened: people started liking the game!  Furthermore, youtubers started playing the game and didn't absolutely hate it!

I didn't realize it at the time but Klicktock aka Matt Hall had liked my game too - I only noticed that after looking at the page again.  He'd made his own roguelike that looked amazing.

Expanding the Game

I felt that the game had some substance and as a bonus got some validation from my peers as well as youtubers.  I decided to take it further, and began to integrate other environmental assets into the game, also from the Unity Store.  I started off wanting to turn the game into something based on the original Alien movie, specifically the part at the end where Ripley sets off the reactor to destroy her ship and the alien along with it.

After a couple of months, I found out about Alien: Isolation :)  Of course nothing I would make would be even slightly competitive to Creative Assembly's work, but I didn't want my game to look like a cheap knockoff attempt.  I decided to change the setting and fell back to another favorite setting I had in mind from a board game I've always admire: Mansions of Madness.

MoM was a Lovecraftian game that featured constantly changing maps.  When I first read about it, I tried to make a basic version using Construct 2, the first game engine I started working with 2 years prior.  I ended up biting off more than I could chew that time and had abandoned it.

This time, I felt I had the tools to make the game properly, especially with all the assets I had at my disposal.

I carried on working on the game, and started posting it up on social media.  Before long, I started attracting the attention of a few select people, which motivated me to carry on.

At one point, I decided to take it down to the New Zealand Game Developer Meetups.  During one of the meetups I put out a call to see if anyone would be interested in working together.

I met a rigger who was looking for work at the time who was keen, and he introduced me to a couple of other of his artist friends who had industry experience.

Pretty soon, the game had a significant upgrade in terms of visual quality.  People at the meetups started to notice which was a nice development.

The Kickstarter

I spoke with the team and we decided to try our luck at Kickstarter.  I had just attended a speaker at the meetups called Bill Borman, who had just completed his own Kickstarter for a game called Scraps.  I was blown away by how humble Bill was and how hard-working and driven he was to create this game that he was so passionate about.

It was massively inspirational, and I feel it was a real turning point in my career as a game dev. Something that had been so unobtainable for me before now felt achievable. I spoke to Bill, who I became good friends with eventually, and I decided to push ahead with my own project.

I did a bit of research, and discovered that there was a local crowdfunding coach, Kat Jenkins, who had just started up her own business.  I approached her, and she very kindly took me on as a mentee for no charge.  She shared with me every secret and trick so that I could form an effective plan.

I learned from research that the key to crowdfunding was all in the preparation.  The plan I put together initially felt good.  I had zero clue on what I was doing, but I felt confident.

The Kickstarter was a pretty wild ride too. I had just finished up with an IT contract and had decided to dedicate 100% of my time to running it.  The beginning and end stages definitely required my full attention.

During the time that I reached out to all the press and youtubers I could.  The vast majority ignored me, but one did respond - arguably the most important one of all: PewDiePie himself, the undisputed King of Youtube :)

As with everyone else I had done some research, but PewDiePie really stood out to me.  He seemed genuinely thankful to all of his fans - even dedicating entire videos just to thank everyone for supporting him.  He didn't need to do it, he wanted to.  That really struck a chord with me as I myself was never in this purely for financial gain, but for the love of games.

He ended up playing Phantasmal - which was totally surreal.  Never in a million years did I imagine the most popular Youtuber would be playing the game of some noob-ass game developer like me who had not even clocked in a couple of years at that point. I'll always be thankful to PDP that he played my game - he didn't have to.  He did it out of his love of games and indies.

Ultimately, after a lot of hard work and support, the Kickstarter was a success.  Not a massive success, but still a success.

Kiwi Game Starter

At the same time that the Kickstarter was going, the New Zealand Game Developer Conference began.  One of the main events was the Kiwi Game Starter competition, which was a contest for small studios and indies to pitch a game idea.  The main emphasis for the initial part of the competition was the business element of the game.

Although I considered my skills as a game dev at that point to be noob (maybe just barely intermediate) at stage, one thing I was very confident of was my ability to write up a decent business case from my time in IT.

I easily made it past the qualifiers, and then prepared for the final stage at NZGDC, which was the pitch/presentation.  The finalists, which included Frogshark with Swordy, and Redriver with Vector 36  had the opportunity to demo our games in the morning as well.

When I got there, my heart sank.  The other guys' games looked and played extraordinarily.  My game looked and played like a dog in comparison.  To make things worse, I had borrowed my friend's laptop to demo the game which was severely underpowered.

One of the judges (who I didn't recognize at the time) popped by to play, and the game FPS dropped to sub 20 frequently - rendering it barely playable.  I was embarrassed but the judge was really nice and even helped me to configure my machine!   

Later as the keynote speech started for the conference, I saw the president of the NZGDA at the time stand up and announce the speaker.  For the second time my heart fell to the floor!  The honored first speaker was the judge that had come by earlier.  It was none other than David Brevik: the original co-founder of Blizzard and the brains behind Diablo and Hellgate!  

I composed myself and prepared for the presentation later in the day.

Although my game had presented like garbage in comparison to the other ones, the other skill I had honed over the years was a subtle but important one that I didn't realize would have so much of an impact in my indie career path.

That was in the area of public speaking.  At that point, I had invested a good deal of time with the Varsity Toastmasters club.  Early on when I had first started working after graduating from Engineering School, I realize I was lacking in the area of public presentations. I hated it at the start, but over time I grew to not only tolerate it but love it!  

Towards the time of the NZGDC, I was at the height of Toastmasters - competitively speaking.  I had enjoyed a string of successes recently, including making it all the way to national (district) level for one of my speeches.

As such, the pitch/presentation for me was a piece of cake.  I delivered it both enthusiastically and confidently.  I felt I had nailed it by the time I had finished.

Apparently so did the judges!  3 out of 4 voted for me, and I won the inaugural Kiwi Game Starter decisively.  That was another hugely surreal experience for me - I was dazed and couldn't believe what had happened.  This was another important milestone.

PAX Aus and Steam Greenlight

Pretty soon after NZGDC, we had a few of important expos: Digital Nationz, Armageddon, and most importantly PAX Aus.

PAX Aus was probably the biggest expo I'd ever been to.  It was a bewildering experience with hundreds of people playing our game constantly.  Fortunately at Digital Nationz Gav, one of the team at the time, convinced me to port the game to the Oculus Rift.  As a result, droves of people wanted to play the game.   They didn't care about Phantasmal, they just wanted to try the Oculus!

It was a hugely successful trip.  We met some key people, such as the XBox ID director, which led to us getting on to the XBOX ID programme.

Another thing that really opened my eyes was the vibrancy of the indie scene in Melbourne.  It felt like Auckland x 100.  Just the sheer number of studios and medium sized indies was staggering.  The positive attitude and open/friendly nature of the Aussie devs was a welcome discovery too!

The one other thing that took my breath away was my visit to The Arcade Melbourne.  Here was this building that had an entire floor of indies making the coolest games!  They had an open day and my jaw just dropped at the community they had developed.

On my way home, I spoke to some of the other guys, and I said to them: "The Arcade Melbourne is the most amazing thing I've seen!  I don't know how we can do it, but I want The Arcade in New Zealand!".

The other guys weren't enthusiastic, but I suspected they just felt like the challenge was insurmountable.   So did I in all fairness, but that's never stopped me having a go at stuff in the past.  I've always been a firm believer of setting crazy, seemingly unobtainable goals if I was really passionate about it.  The mind has a weird way of subconsciously pulling you closer the more hungry you are. 

However, at that time even I was not prepared for what would actually be achievable in a years time!

Towards the end of that year, after we'd come back home, I was pleasantly surprised to see that our game had been greenlit in Steam - another box was ticked!  We could now sell our game :)

Well, I've ended up typing up far more than I'd originally planned to - I think I'll have to break the story up into multiple posts!  Originally I was going to summarize, but I've ended up enjoying this process far too much!  Stay tuned for the rest of the story soon :)

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Visit to the Arcade from one of my Indie Dev Heroes: Morgan Jaffit

A few weeks ago, we had the huge honor of having Morgan Jaffit pop by Auckland.

Morgan's story of how he survived the collapse of the Aussie game industry and then went on to found Defiant Developer was a massively inspirational one for me.

His most recent game Hand Of Fate is a technical and financially hugely successful game.  What's even more amazing about Morgan is just how down-to-earth he his.  He has an open door policy for other indies who are wanting to create a sustainable business like his, and he has been massively active in the indie dev community over the years.

Morgan spoke at our NZGDA meetup, and also dropped by The Arcade Auckland to give us a talk about how to create a sustainable studio as well as general insights into the industry.

I interviewed him myself, and learned a ton!  The key message I took away was that as indies we need to treat the business as part of a long-term game plan.  It's unrealistic for indies to expect their first game to be a hit and so they need to have at least have the ability to make "two good games".

If they throw everything they have into the single game, and it isn't a hit, then they have no way to recover and create a new one.

This leads to the importance of building a good team.  Morgan's view is that the team is critical.  As the team works together they gain experience collectively.  If a team is sustainable, then over time success is only a matter of "when" not just "if".

Conversely, if a team is unsustainable and falls apart after the first game isn't a hit, all that collective experience is lost.

He gave an example of Infinity Ward who started off with the moderately successful Call of Duty series.  It wasn't until Modern Warfare that they really hit their stride, and the franchise was propelled firmly into a gaming mega-success story.

Massive thanks to Morgan for being a true indie hero!