It's about 1 year since I left my home in Sweden, I'm in the middle of a grand adventure doing what I consider the opportunity of a lifetime. Doing the indie dream of traveling and working on games, little did I know how difficult it would be to finish a product. It was my third prototype of the year. All previous efforts ended for one reason or the other. Finally I told myself this needs to stop!
At the time, I was playing a lot of Devil Daggers, a very simple but addicting game. I realized could do something similar myself but put my own twist on it. An old project I did for school 2 years earlier about shooting tacos and listening to mariachi music was the starting point. It's small fun game that I thought I would finish in 3 months. It would not require much programming so I could focus on learning new traits, such as 3D Modeling and Sculpting while improving my design skills. It is extremely difficult to take something simple and still make it interesting. It is something I'm still trying to learn.
Ideas are nothing - execution is what makes a product good or even great.
Issues during production
6 months into the project I realized that I had no idea where the project was going. I felt like my design was missing something. Some of the early ideas that I tried prototyping was adding movement into the game but in a sense this caused the game to lose its identity. Another crazy idea was adding RPG elements to make it more of a rogue-like game.
It wasn't until I went back to the basics, removing all the crazy changes that I knew what was missing. What was missing is what most designers would refer to as the design pillars for the game! I heard talk about them before from different sources, however I never truly understood.
Design Pillars of El Taco Diablo
Accuracy and Speed
Soon after this realization, the enemies and mechanics started to take shape. In the initial 2-3 versions, you simply had to shoot at the enemies to destroy them. Instead now you had to hit specific small spots on the enemies, with the basic enemy quickly moving away once you aimed at them. Some enemies give you a negative status effect if you hit anywhere other than the correct spot, making you "deaf" for a short period of time. Without hearing where enemies are coming from this can prove a fatal mistake for the player.
Discovery was the sensation of learning how weapons and enemies work. A true master of the game would plan a few seconds ahead. For example throwing dynamite in one direction and a few seconds later make it explode at the optimal spot by shooting at the dynamite. This gives a great sense when the player managed to pull off some of the more advanced moves.
In the middle of the production things still felt like a total chaotic mess - Players could get killed by enemies coming from any direction. Piñatas would run toward the player and kill them without players noticing. Even with a warning sound, this was extremely common. The solution was not to reduce the amount of enemies, but instead set up internal design rules:
Only tacos is able to kill the player by running into them. This forced me to come up with more interesting other ways enemies could "hurt" the player, such as the tequila enemy making you drunk. The Piñatas would now be an optional enemy that gives the player some much needed, specialized Ammo. The Pillar would eat taco souls that are normally collected by the player and respawn them into Devil Tacos.
Spawn point for all enemies were also altered and placed apart from each other so high priority enemies could not spawn behind low priority. This was essential to making it feel less of a mess.
Some enemies also had to be removed that felt more like puzzles, the game was never about solving puzzles so they had to go. One of the puzzle enemies was a cube that could be rotated when shot. The player had to continuously shoot and rotate it into the right position, in order to find the weak spot and destroy it.
What went right
The project was never about making a game for the mass market, I knew this when I started. This was about showing I could finish making a game and improving my experience as a game developer. When doing everything yourself, you need to pick your battles carefully - mine was to learn modern 3D modeling techniques and improve my design skills. (I decided not to learn Animation or Rigging for this project.)
From the start of development, I decided I didn't want the game to be about upgrades or rewards. It was about the feeling that you as the player are improving, becoming faster and more accurate as you play. On releasing the game, I heard from players that this is what they experience after overcoming the first big difficulty wall movement in the game, 150 seconds in.
The game has gotten a lot of good feedback on its art style and how nice it feels to play. Something I spend a lot of time trying to get just right. As an artist, I improved very fast and reworked the graphics in the game 3 or 4 times, I'm happy I kept the environment art to a minimum for this reason.
Different versions of game
Some of the players who got very far in the game are surprised that there are still new things they discover.
The intended audience really like the game, they are however difficult to find. So far my best success has been within the Devil Daggers community and some Counter-Strike players.
What went wrong
Player feedback, I had a really hard time early on finding the correct players to help give feedback on the game. I tried posting on various forums and groups but got very little response. The game suffered from this early when it was released. At first, most players didn't understand you could even destroy the UFO's. It wasn’t enough to have bullets bouncing, bright dots and punishment for shooting at the wrong spots. Players continued to just frantically spray bullets all over the place until something was destroyed by pure luck. I had to bite the bullet and just make a small tutorial for first time players within the first week of launch.
The pacing of the game should have been better, with more enemy types appearing after the difficulty wall at 150 seconds. Some only appear very late in the game. Due to the difficulty of the game, most players didn't think there was more to it and thought the game only contains 2 types of enemies. Going back I would like to redo the level and introduce other enemies earlier. This would also give more players a chance to experience some of the other mechanics currently later in the game.
Difficulty and objectives, most players now are so used to games holding their hands and telling them exactly where to go and what to do, they don't want to discover mechanics for themselves. This is something I most likely will write another article about in the future! My design philosophy is opposite of this. Unfortunately, this backfired when I sent out keys to any streamers or reviewers that wanted to try the game. Many played for 5-10 min, were confused about what to do and didn't express any desire to try and discover the mechanics of the game, leading to the inclusion of a tutorial.
With a mechanic like the dynamite that is highly skilled based. I made it very powerful when used correctly, I however overlooked making them at least decent when used incorrectly. Some players hardly even used dynamite because they didn’t realize you need to shoot at it so it explodes at the most effective point.
I did very little in terms of marketing for the game during production, the Steam page was set up very late in the project. People just didn’t know about it. This was I choice on my side to instead focus my efforts on other areas for this game.
One week before release I started sending sending out keys for influencers with very mixed results. However this was some of the best feedback I gotten on the game, I could actually see when people played the game and what they were confused about. Earlier when trying to find playtesters, I had gotten little to no response.
For about 1-2 weeks after release I spent all my time doing marketing and realize how much effort this requires. Doing this full time at the same time as trying to fix issues is a massive undertaking. Thankfully I got some assistance on the marketing side from Karin Cederskoog!
One idea to try and promote the game and get a community going was to create a contest where the winner would get 300 USD. I got a few new players using this method but overall saw little in terms of sales. In hindsight this was not a bad idea for a game about competition but the execution could have been a lot better. I should have started the contest right when the game went live and was most visible on Steam, and ask competitors to do Steam reviews and share on social media.
Focus more on marketing early on. Set the game up on Steam and other portals as early as possible. It’s great for acquiring playtesters by just sending them keys!
Have a marketing plan ready to go when the game is released.
Know your audience and select people from your audience. Send keys to anyone and you will get you bad reviews.
For my next project I will look for publishers who can help out with marketing and provide feedback.
Figure out what your game is about before going into production. Setting up design pillars ASAP. Stick to them no matter what.
Modern 3D Modeling techniques takes an insane amount of time. Unless you have a big team, it’s not worth it.
Look outside the game developer community for playtesters, as long as they are recording while they are playing.