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Going to Church: A Pillar Postmortem

A postmortem for Pillar: a collection of minigames, each with unique personalities and challenges. Developed over two years in numerous locations, including a church.

Michael Hicks, Blogger

May 26, 2015

17 Min Read

Developed over two years in locations including Florida, Illinois, Portugal, Finland and inside a church, Pillar is a passion project I started in August, 2012 while finishing up college. The game is a collection of minigames, where each game represents a different type of personality we find in people. For example, there are introverts that lose energy when around others for too long and extroverts that expand energy when interacting with others. The game was meant to incorporate ideas from the Myers-Briggs personality test and tie them into other themes. I wanted to express all this solely through the gameplay mechanics, without dialogue or cutscenes. It launched February 17th for PS4, Xbox 360 and PC. We're launching on Steam this Friday.

All too often, we try to change people who are different than us, especially if they're polar opposites. We like to debate and tell them they're wrong and we're right... but what if there's a purpose for both extremes? Pillar is essentially about dualism - that should have been my elevator pitch, but I'll get into that more later. For now, let's start with what went right with the game.

What Went Right:

1. Development Locations

I started Pillar back in 2012, while attending Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. There's an upper class part of Winter Park that has some cool chapels, and also a Christian school with cool architecture. On weekends I found myself taking my camera and traveling to these places to take pictures and be alone. The whole area gave off this beautiful feeling of isolation, something I wanted to convey in Pillar. I remember on one of my last trips, I went into a chapel while they had open prayer hours and upon entering found a lady crying in front of the altar. I looked at her and smiled but she awkwardly ran out.

I know it's strange I wanted to soak in things like this, but while working on Pillar I wanted to understand why there's so much suffering/"evil" in the world, and report my findings back in the game... or at least provide comfort to people who are lost searching for similar answers.

In a way, I reconnected with a "spiritual side" of myself while working on this game. I don't consider myself religious, but going on trips like this and then exploring these ideas in the game helped me figure out a lot of my own personal philosophy in life. I walked away from working on Pillar changed, and a lot of that had to do with the subject material and going to locations like this to reflect.

After graduating, I moved to Illinois and finished the game inside a church there. Isolation was a big thing while developing Pillar, and I feel absorbing these locations helped that feeling come through in the final product. The artist, Gonçalo Antunes, worked from his homeland Portugal and also Finland while he was a foreign exchange student.

2. Project Naturally Unfolded

The game started with me wanting to express how relationships I had with certain people felt - I could never verbalize it, but believed a video game could express it if I set up the systems and interactions correctly. Soon after following this idea, I started to add in ideas from the Myers-Briggs personality test. Not long after that I watched the movie Magnolia and got the idea for having a bunch of smaller games that add up to a bigger idea being conveyed.

I always had a list of design ideas, but never followed a strict design document. It was amazing to watch the game naturally unfold, and I was surprised to see where it ended up going. In a lot of ways, I feel like my job as a creator is to plant a seed and then follow it as it grows and voices it's "needs" back to me. All too often we bend games to fit our original design ideas, and I don't think that's a good way to make things. Pillar ended up being a lot different than I originally planned; the original idea is still there but it grew into something much larger than what I expected. Rami Ismail has a nice post on this idea here.

3. Game's Design

I'm proud of the fact every interaction has something to say to the player. Since there's no dialogue in the game, I wanted to put players in a position where they're forced to examine and experiment with all of the mechanics. Since the game's story is supposed to formulate in the player's mind, it's vital people play around with the mechanics to understand why they're there for that particular character and his/her personality.

So essentially I wanted players to start off feeling lost: there are no written tutorials, mechanics are introduced by laying out very stripped down puzzles that need to be solved before progressing. As players continue with their chosen character, they start to learn more about their personality through the mechanics, eventually playing as polar opposite personality types and seeing the pro/cons of each one.

It's been validating to see players pick up on a lot of the details, and take away similar things I did while working on it. I wanted to spark some discussion afterwards and it seems to have achieved that. Overall, reception to the game has been mixed, but some players called it one of the most meaningful and enjoyable games they've played in a while, making me feel like the design did its job. I'll go into the negative side of the design in a bit!

4. Music

I was inspired by a lot of ambient music for the game's soundtrack (mixtape of some of it here). I wanted the music to be wintery sounding and provide a good environment for players to think in. Since I was in a neat position to compose the music and design the game, I took advantage of this by making the music hand in hand with the levels. Sometimes the music would influence the design decisions I made, other times the game design would influence the music.

It's hard to verbalize how this happened, it was a very intuitive thing, but I think the music and gameplay ended up being very cohesive; at times the music leads you in the right direction for the messages I'm trying to convey.

Reviews aren't everything, but it feels good to see people compliment the music after working on it off and on since 2011: Game Informer said it has a chance of being one of their favorite game soundtracks of all time. That's insane considering I made it rather unprofessionally in my bedroom. I put it up to purchase on Bandcamp, and generally each purchase comes with a nice note from the buyer... which raises my spirits for the day.

5. Sony

I signed on with Sony in 2014 and haven't regretted it once. Everyone I've worked with is extremely passionate about video games, and pushing innovative games forward. They've provided the development tools I needed very quickly and not to mention feedback on the game, marketing advice and support, fast email responses, and I have complete creative freedom on what goes in the final version. To put it plainly: I'm in heaven. I'm looking forward to working with Sony on my next title.

6. Pre-Release Press

Pillar had a nice feature in last December's issue of Game Informer in an article talking about innovation in games. It was neat to be featured next to Lucas Pope's new game, and a lot of people saw the article. Random people I've talked to in public have recognized the game because of it.

The teaser trailer for Pillar went live around the same day The Interview got pulled from theaters... so we got extra attention from that. After @Sony retweeted the trailer, people started tweeting calling me a coward for pulling the movie, and even commented on the blog posts I was doing complaining! Maybe this ended up helping because the trailer got shared quite a bit and currently has more views than any other trailer I've done.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the amount of people talking about Pillar before launch. I probably should've announced the game sooner (we revealed it in August 2014, two years after starting!), but announcing six months before launch had the benefit of staying fresh in people's minds; we had a steady stream of press come out over those six months. However.....

What Went Wrong:

1. Press After Launch

Note: When I say writers, I'm including YouTubers and Twitch players.

I've had pretty bad luck with PR around launch. While we got great write ups on many smaller sites and three major ones, we generally didn't get a response from bigger websites. This was strange, considering the pre-release press was decent, and multiple writers told me to follow up closer to launch. I followed up multiple times and with different writers at the sites, confused why I was getting no response. To put this in perspective: we get tweets from players saying they can't believe more sites aren't talking about Pillar. I felt I was doing something wrong.

Now, I know some writers are quick to say "we get hundreds of emails every day, we can't reply to all of them." If we're talking generic BCCed press release blasts then I agree, but I'm specifically talking about personally addressed emails from developers you've talked to and covered in the past. I know some bigger writers that spend time responding to everything addressed to them personally, so I know it's possible... what this boils down to is I don't think many place developer relations high on their priority list.

I don't think this is a controversial thing to say, because almost every video I've watched trying to help indies with emailing press literally has the person saying "we're lazy, keep the email concise, send us a review code immediately; don't do an interest check." I understand where they're coming from, but it's a nice courtesy to hear if you're interested or not so I know where you stand and can update what I'm doing accordingly.

I've personally written hundreds of hand crafted emails to writers I've had previous communications with, and out of the batch that responded, many asked for a code and then never replied to any follow up email. I've talked to a dozen other indies that report the same thing, so I can safely say this isn't just me. If this were a real life relationship, I'd think this was rude, but somehow we've accepted this as the norm for PR. It's hard to have a relationship with websites when only one side shows interest in communicating. Even out of the larger websites that covered the game, few emailed back saying "thanks for the email, stay in touch!"

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what it means to do PR. What I'm striving for is a working relationship with websites: I don't want to spam out press releases and never talk to anyone human! I hope this doesn't come off hostile, I just think there has to be a better way to do this. I haven't tried dodistribute(), but it'd be nice to have a system that shows if the message was read, and then give writers a list of pre-written responses they can send back with a click of a button.

Throughout my career I've had great experiences with the press, in fact they are pretty passionate and awesome people... but I get bitter when I feel like I've made a huge mistake and can't get enough of a response to figure out what it is and how to fix it. Other indies are feeling the same, so I feel it's a point worth making.

2. Announcement Too Close To Release

Related to the last point, I'm going to assume this was the problem. I announced Pillar a week or so before it came out, it was planned I'd have review codes sent to me a day before launch. Unfortunately, there were some issues and I didn't get codes until several days later.

For my next release I'm going to announce the game's release date a month ahead of time and get review codes early, that way I'm giving the press a good chunk of time to play and write about the game. I talked to one writer that said it was too late to cover the game, as they were moving on to other things coming out.

In the back of my mind I was thinking it'd be fine to get coverage a week or so after launch, but wasn't considering that some websites can only write on so many things a day and tend to focus on upcoming releases. I didn't think the game was big enough for an embargo date and to send out copies early, so I just banked on coverage after release. I still don't think an embargo date is the right choice for Pillar, but I'll definitely be sending out copies earlier for future titles.

Hopefully some of this is useful to other noobie PR people like myself. However, this doesn't explain the lack of response from YouTube and Twitch players, as they aren't bound in the same way as traditional games press. I sent around 200 emails to streamers and got about three back. My guess is puzzle games aren't their thing, but if anyone has other theories I'd love to discuss in the comment section!

3. Burnout / Worked On Game Too Long

After graduating I worked on average 12 hours a day for several months. Needless to say I burned myself out and learned a lot of lessons about managing my work hours and forcing myself to go do other things. I wrote an article last year detailing what I took away from this, read it here.

4. How I Described The Game

When talking about my last game I described it in an artsy way, which seemed to make a lot of people roll their eyes. So I decided to describe Pillar in terms of the mechanics, hinting at the messages I was hoping to convey. My original elevator pitch (the first paragraph you read in the intro) is good, but I feel it's a little too open to interpretation. A lot of people have thought the game is a literal reconstruction of the Myers-Briggs test, and that's not accurate. All of the ideas from the test are represented somehow, but sometimes it's more metaphorical instead of literal.

My goal wasn't to recreate a personality test, but to take those ideas and tie them into larger ones... So in retrospect, I should have used the second paragraph about dualism, I think that's the better elevator pitch even though it sounds a little more artsy; it's clear cut and to the point.

I was talking with a journalist friend about this and he thinks it's useless to pitch your game in terms of mechanics, unless you're reinventing a whole new genre. We both agreed it's better to tell the "why" you made the game, and let the mechanic stuff be third or fourth paragraph details.

It's exciting to see the industry move away from this product-like way of talking about our work. All too often we get caught up in feature lists and engineer ways of describing things, and after years of that I think it's kind of boring. The "why" will typically make your game stand out more and in Pillar's case, describe the game better!

5. Openness In The Design

Negative response to the game typically fell into two categories: 1. People who didn't like the lack of traditional tutorials and 2. People who found the game boring and drawn out.

The levels in Pillar are pretty long, the idea was that people would swap around to different characters to play different mechanics if they started to get tired of a certain one. This links into the biggest mistake I made with the design: I made too many assumptions and left a lot of things open. What I mean by this is, if you're expecting people to swap around to different characters, I should put something in the game that manually swaps them or encourages players to do so. When I leave things open and assume people will take a certain path it leaves a lot of room for people to experience the game differently than I expected.

I also found I made this mistake in the game's story. For instance, in the introverted levels there are two different routes to get through the level, you need to come back and do both to understand the character. I hoped people would ask questions like "why does this event happen when I'm around the NPCs for too long?" Questions like that aren't guaranteed to be asked though when so many different things can happen in a level.

One of the reasons the messages in Braid and Jason Rohrer's games (my biggest design influences) work so well is because there's a lot of restraint in the design. A lot of the time Pillar is really open, leaving people unsure of what's going on. I don't think I failed with my goal of conveying story through the gameplay, but overall the game is very esoteric and requires a dense understanding. Most players will have to play the game a few times to understand, and even then I can see how some don't get it. I don't think this is bad necessarily, I'd like to see more games disregard the "game design status quo" and experiment, but I'd like to make something a little more accessible in the future.

Another reason I wanted the levels to be long is so players could see all different outcomes of the mechanics. Each outcome has something to communicate, but I don't think many people saw that... it just came off as I ran out of ideas and the game is dragging on too long.

I'm at peace with what Pillar is but I'll keep this in mind for my next project and hopefully keep learning and growing.

6. Cancelled Xbox One plans

I wrote Pillar in XNA and started the game before the new consoles came out, so I was unsure what tech would be supported on the new systems. I figured Unity would be supported, so in retrospect that was probably the better decision, but I have a nice codebase built up in XNA so it was hard to say goodbye to that.

There was a bit of a crisis when I found out my code wouldn't work on Xbox One... because it looked like I was stuck with no way to bring Pillar to new consoles. Luckily MonoGame announced support for PS4 a few days later and saved the day!

Players have been disappointed Pillar isn't coming to Xbox One, and it's hard to explain to them it's a tech issue, but if MonoGame becomes supported I'll definitely bring it over.

The Pillar is Built

I look forward to continue supporting Pillar in the future, it looks like it has a longer life ahead of it compared to my other titles. I've learned so much working on the game: not only about game design but also myself. It was a good game to work on as I leave one chapter of my life behind and start a new one after graduating college.

I hope you enjoyed reading and would love to hear any comments you have! Please tweet me @michaelartsxm and check out the game at www.pillar-game.com.

                - Michael Hicks (@michaelartsxm)

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