Shadowhand postmortem – Top ten takeaways

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

2 Responses to “Shadowhand postmortem – Top ten takeaways”

  1. Joonas Laakso Says:

    A very good list! I’ve thought and talked about and given lectures on decision making in game development over the years, and there’s three things I’d like to highlight:

    1) there is usually no absolute right call in creative work. You can “safe” your way to a soulless product that on paper should appeal to everybody and in practice appeals to no one. Especially don’t think you can find the right answer by eliminating all the other options. If you can, the problem probably wasn’t actually a problem.

    2) I love how you talked about emotion. I feel it’s easy to read this as a negative. It’s not! If you’re excited about something, it usually means you’re onto something that can excite others. When you find excitement, take care to hold onto it, even if there are good reasons not to.

    3) avoid committees like the plague they are. I always encourage discussion, but the final say on how something should be solved must always be with the person making the thing, be it a game designer or a programmer. Do not vote your way to a conclusion, because while you may feel like that now everybody had their say and democracy is great, in practice it leads to no one taking on the responsibility for the result.

  2. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi thanks for your reply and thoughts. I agree with them for sure!