Archive for the ‘Developer Diary’ Category

Shadowhand postmortem – Top ten takeaways

Monday, July 16th, 2018

We recently did a detailed postmortem of our RPG card game, Shadowhand. Going over every aspect of the project honestly and in depth generated 23 pages of notes about what we got right, and, importantly, what we got wrong and how we could improve next time.

We have distilled our findings into a checklist of ten points, which we can use for future projects. We are sharing it so that you can avoid making the same mistakes with your indie game project (or, hopefully, reassure yourself that you are on track.)

1 Pitching
Pitch your project to more than one publisher and/or funding body.

Listen to their feedback and think about it carefully. You are entering a long-term business relationship with them. As well as securing funding, your pitch and design document (yes we had one!) are part of the process of clarifying to yourself what you are offering and why players should care.

2 Budget
Pay yourselves and your contractors properly.

Ensure that you genuinely have a big enough budget to do this for the duration of the project. When it comes to contractors, you get what you pay for. But conversely, don’t be tempted to pay more than you need to, or can afford, for assets or services. Be realistic about the scale of your project, and how likely the extra spend is to make a difference to sales in the long run because you could just be wasting money (and time) on unneeded content.

3 Schedule
Make a realistic schedule and try to stick to it.

In our case our schedule was unrealistic and with hindsight, revealed that our project really needed an art director (or a different scope, see below).

We should have built in a lot more contingency time for predicable things, such as attending shows and conferences; and for random curveballs and disasters, such as a runaway moth infestation and a very sick child.

4 Scope
Have you got the scope right?

How long do players expect your game to be for the price? How much content does it really need? Does your team have the skills and capacity to deliver this or do you need to pay contractors who can help? How big is the market for your game?

Speaking as a tiny team who delivered an incredibly rich and complex game that we are extremely proud of, but which is probably twice as long as it needed to be, we suggest you think very carefully about this. Your reasons for making a game, financial and emotional resources, and potential market will vary.

5 Publisher
Find the right publisher for your project.

Try to find a publisher who gives you a fair deal in terms of advance and recoup, and is great at marketing support. It is also worth considering the other products in their portfolio. Are they a good match for your game and therefore likely to drive their existing customers to you?

It also goes without saying that you need a solid contract that covers all eventualities.

6 Testing
Test when ready and allow time to process the results. In-house testing can also be a powerful development tool.

Taking your game to a show early in development and having the public play it is a great way to get feedback and test that the core loop is fun.

Taking the time to code a dedicated testing system may also be worthwhile. In our case, a rapid simulation of thousands of duels proved invaluable for balancing the RPG elements of our game.

Consider the timing of testing carefully. Don’t rush to pay for testing – wait until your game is at the correct stage to make the most of the results and feedback you will get. Conversely, towards the end of the project, make sure you leave enough time after getting results from your beta testers to make full use of them before you ship!

7 PR & Marketing
Know your strengths and plan ahead

If you plan to attend shows, think about timing, and whether the spend is worth it. In our case, a show early on in the development cycle was actually very useful in proving that our concept and core gameplay were fun and marketable. However, we attended too many shows at an early stage, and they were all UK-based. Exhibiting at shows closer to launch or across different continents may have been a better use of that budget.

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses in PR and marketing, and be prepared to ask for assistance. Our PR reach is good for an indie microstudio and our publisher has considerable expertise in marketing. But there were still things we could have improved upon, such as connecting with streamers and the American press.

8 Launch
Plan this in as much detail as possible.

Launching will probably be a stressful time so keeping a cool head and having good checklists is a must.

Don’t make changes to the build hours or minutes before launch…(yeah, we did this and it screwed up.)

9 Sustaining post-launch momentum
Make yourself available

Remember that if your PR efforts have been successful, you can expect to spend the next few weeks helping various media professionals to discuss your game via podcasts, streams, written interviews and so on. Also you’ll be fending off a huge volume of fake Steam key requests.

Despite the huge effort of getting the game finished and the understandable desire to take a break, this is when sustained promotion and making yourself available pays off.

10 Customer support
Be responsive but also selective

Scheduling time post-launch to keep up with discussions, forums and reviews is important. We have made a number of updates to the game post-launch to fix various minor issues or add things to the game based on player feedback. Go for the changes that give the “biggest bang for your buck” though. The amount of time you invest in this should be proportional to the number of players who will benefit, and the likely effect on future Steam review scores.

A final note on decision-making
Our project took over two years and involved a great deal of decision-making, both at the meta/business level and at the micro/game design level. As we were taking these decisions throughout the project, the majority of them seemed to be logical, sensible business decisions backed up by numbers and facts.

In hindsight, it is much clearer to us how many of those decisions were in fact based on emotions – both positive and negative – that largely fall into two categories: being very excited for our project and putting too much into it; and trying to avoid tasks or situations that we found difficult.

Going forward, we will come up with a stronger logical framework for approaching our decisions, and simultaneously acknowledge that emotion plays a large part in the choices we make and so reframe our discussions accordingly.

A big takeaway for us is to make time to understand the emotions that drive or hinder a project. We hope this will make us a better and more productive team in future.

What key takeaways did you have after completing your last project? Let us know in the comments.

Helen Carmichael @bchezza &
Jake Birkett @greyalien

Shadowhand dev diary #31: Looking back

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

We announced Shadowhand in September, 2015 and rapidly put together a demo to try out on the public at EGX.

The concept was something of a prequel to Regency Solitaire, featuring one of the older characters from this Regency Romance in her wild youth, 40 years earlier.

While I was getting immersed in the history of the 1770s, with masquerade balls, highwaymen, smugglers and tricorns, Jake devised a novel game mechanic: turn-based combat driven by solitaire rather than dice rolls. As far as we could tell, this was the first time this had ever been done.

Testing the concept
Positech Games arranged for us to exhibit Shadowhand at EGX in Birmingham. So we spent four days cosplaying as highway robbers and demoing our game.

It was an exhausting time but the super-positive reception we got from players and press gave us confidence that we were on the right track with the game.


Photo credit: Jason Alan Dewey

We were hoping that Shadowhand would take maybe 12-18 months, but in the end we have spent over two years developing the game. Some of the extra time had to do with fine-tuning art and adding a lot of content, such as a multitude of enemies, items and collectible cards.

But the other factor that has taken longer was building and balancing a turn-based RPG. This is very complicated! There is a huge amount going on behind the scenes and we really wanted to get this right and provide a good level of challenge, choice and strategy to the highwaywoman experience.

The final weeks in the run up to launch have been exhausting as we have been working around the clock to make sure everything is ready.

Now we are finally at the finish line with launch day tomorrow – December 7th. We are really proud of what we have accomplished and are already getting great feedback on the game from those who have tried it.

It really is time to stand and deliver!

Shadowhand dev diary #30: Game complete!

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

We’re done! (almost)

It’s been a super-intense week with some extremely “crunchy” days but finally the game is done and a beta version has been uploaded to Steam, and a build has been sent to GOG! We still have to add Steam achievements and maybe tweak a couple of things before launch on Thursday but that won’t take long.

Hurrah!

Added in levels for Chapters 11-22

The game has got 22 chapters to play and over the past month we added in the levels for chapters 11-22 which is 12 chapters x 8 levels = 96 levels! As you can imagine, that took a while because each level is edited and balanced until it behaves how we want it to feel.

Then we playtested them all, and even got our publisher and sons to help – and now beta testers are testing them as well! This way we can spot any issues that automated tests don’t reveal and fix them but luckily pretty much everything was fine.

Balanced Weapon Groups C, D, E

There are 5 distinct weapon groups in the game and Jake balanced the last 3 groups by testing them with the automated AI test system and then tweaking them as required.

We also finalised all the gear (bombs/potions) item drops throughout the whole game. You can get gear from enemy loot, the shop, and crates on some of the levels.

Balanced Duels from Chapters 11-22

This was a big task that took a long time. Each enemy needs testing with different weapon and outfit combinations, and their stats must be adjusted to be the right level of difficulty. Generally enemies are hard but fair. Some are deliberately a bit easy (trash mobs) and of course the bosses are hard (but possible!)

Mid way through this task Jake discovered that the reality of the test results began to diverge from his mathematical design models as the enemies began to get too easy. So we had a rethink about how to make them tougher in a variety of interesting ways and then implemented that. It was an unexpected bump at the last minute but we solved it.

Edited the story from Chapters 11 to 12

We also edited the story and made various pre-duel and post-duel dialogs pop up for various characters. Plus we added in some pre-duel story sections and selected relevant music and gave everything one last continuity check.

What’s next?

The game has been sent to beta testers and press/streamers. If you need a review key, please go here and get one via keymailer.

Now we need to add the Steam achievements which we’ve already planned. There is code in place from Regency Solitaire for achievements that we’ll reuse plus we’ll add in some new ones. So it’s not a giant task luckily.

There may also be the odd tweak here and there before launch based on beta feedback and our own list of things we’d like to do. Also, there are things we can’t add in time for launch that we’ll do in the coming weeks in between collapsing in a heap from exhaustion and eating mince pies.

Misc Tasks

As per usual we’ve done a ton of small tasks covering all aspects of the game. This time I won’t bore you with the minutiae, suffice to say there was a LOT of it.