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 :)

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