or: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Apocalypse"
“A young man discovers through a series of hallucinations that he will grow up to become a violent psychopath…”
I will trim out the months of wallowing in self-pity and cut to the core take-away I discovered from my failure: I began to realize that perhaps the best way to "find myself" was to create something just for me. Something that wouldn’t be a “traditional” game. Something personal. Masochisia was that project. The objectives for this new game were simple:
- Less horror, more horrific. Make the player uncomfortable with their actions.
- Simplistic mechanics and gameplay. Anyone can play the game from start to finish.
- Simple art, animations and events. A “Less is More” approach to design.
- Complete the game in 6 months or less. Don’t waste 2 years on an experiment.
- (a) Be okay with the fact that it may never sell. (b) Find and please a tiny audience.
Deciding to kick off the new year in style, I officially started work on January 1st, 2015. Let’s take a look at what worked (and didn’t work) during the game’s development and find out how I did on achieving my goals.
WHAT WENT WRONG
1.) Poor Marketing During Development
Beginning development under the assumption that no one will ever play your game is... oddly liberating. A lot of the core "experimental" features to Masochisia were rooted in the fact that I knew the game would never appeal to a mass audience, so really, I could do whatever I wanted with the game.
Of course, the downside to this outlook is that for more than half of the game's development cycle, there was no focus on marketing. I ran a very transparent devlog on TIG Forums and I of course posted about the work I was doing on Twitter, but there was no REAL marketing. No regular development videos, no trailers, no press releases... Just development. This is obviously a common issue with small indie development as its hard to have the time and resources to be both creating your game and actively marketing it. But regardless, it's a known issue...
I didn't really begin to actively start promoting the game until I decided that I would do a Steam Greenlight (after the public alpha demo was positively received). Unfortuantely, the Greenlight didn't occur till about two months prior to launch so there was almost no marketing during the game's development and my late pushes and press releases seemed to have almost no impact as the game because: 1. I didn't have any previous coverage & 2. I didn't have much of a following.
2.) Better Communication On What The Game Is (And Isn't)
As I progressed deeper into the development of the game, I quickly began to realize that I didn't know how to properly describe what Masochisia was becoming:
Is it a horror game?
Well, it has horrific elements and a few jumpscares sprinkled (very sporadically) but overall- if you were expecting Slenderman or Five Nights at Freddys, you were going to be really dissapointed.
Well, is it a Point & Click game?
There are some point and click elements to it, but generally these types of games are very heavily focused on puzzles and Masochisia only had a few scattered puzzles but was primarily just focused on it's own narrative.
...So it's a visual novel?
No not really, but it is text heavy... So what is Masochisia? And who is it's target audience? It's been a tough question to answer.
The dark content of the game was also concerning. The game puts the player through some very dark situations that they have to endure and eventually begins forcing the player to commit darker and darker acts. It was very much intended for mature audiences and not for children (despite the cartoonish style artwork).
I eventually decided to label the game as an experimental "narrative horror" game that relies on some very disturbing content to drive home it's objective. To combat concerns with content, I put an age-gate on Steam's store page, a warning on the Storefront page and another warning before you begin the game about the disturbing content. Sadlly, I've still had refunds that cite they werent properly warned about the game's dark content so perhaps the messaging struggled in some cases?
Additionally, the game still has no real "elevator pitch" and while some players really enjoy the experience, others don't understand it at all. It continues to be a challenge to highlight exactly what kind of game Masochisia "is". I'd much rather clarify that a game is very experimental and miss out on a sale than mis-represent the game and end up with an unhappy customer (and perhaps a refund and negative review). Unfortunately, that has been challenging to nail down.
3.) Relying Too Heavily on Visual Programming
I'm a bit of a "jack of all trades, master of none". There are a lot of parts of game development that I'm simply not good at so I was forced to get creative with some features. Programming is definitely an area where I knew I was going to struggle with certain aspects (as simplistic as the game is).
Creating a Progression System for the game was certainly my biggest challenge and I decided to use visual programming (e.g. finite-state machine) to create the game's progress system. I used the Playmaker asset for Unity and was really happy with the results. It was simple, clean and very easy to use.
Unfortunately, as the game progressed and the number of progression points began to grow- the FSM quickly became a very unruly beast. Below is a screenshot of the final version of the FSM with all of the progression points linked in compared to my initial test (above).
As you can see, the simple system grew to be incredibly large. While it was (barely) manageable, the game became incredibly difficult to backtrack through. Particularly, in the event where you needed to add a new progression point to a previous period in the game. Sounds simple, but this involved re-wiring all the subsequent events in that act. If one event wasn't setup properly, all corresponding events were broken.
I could jump into the many other pain points related to this, but suffice to say that it was a learning experience for me and I'm still very surprised that the game launched with as few issues as it did (thank you to all of my beta testers who were so patient with all those issues).
WHAT WENT RIGHT
1.) Sticking to the Vision
Early into the development, I started to become concerned that the game was very quickly becoming “narrative heavy” and had very few “gamey” elements to it. Early testers of the alpha prototype were conflicted as well, with some suggesting the game needed more traditional game-play mechanics, while others suggested that being focused solely on narrative (with more limited puzzles and gameplay) would better fit the game's themes.
I had to very quickly decide if I was going to focus on a game driven by its story, or decide if I wanted to make a more traditional point and click horror game. I stuck with my gut and kept the gameplay mechanics to the bare minimum with just a few puzzles sprinkled throughout to keep the player engaged in between the core narrative pieces. This decision was hard as I knew that many players could (and will) be turned off by the lack of control and lack of “meat” in the game itself.
I always wanted the game to be more of an experience than a traditional game, so I embraced the risk of sticking to my initial vision. In the end, I decided to keep the game built around the premise of being “narrative horror”.
While this decision may cost me sales and may lead to some bad reviews from users or press outlets, I feel that sticking to the original idea helped make the game more cohesive as I embraced the "narrative horror" approach.
2.) Less is Sometimes More
Because one of my original goals was to create a game quickly, I had to cut back a lot of areas that I hoped originally to include. Things like voice-over work were cut due to both time and budgetary concerns and some aspects of the story needed to eventually to be trimmed down to keep the scope contained.
I will admit that some of the limitations of the game (such as limited animations) were self-imposed simply because I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m not a very good animator. Early in, I decided to limit the character animations to ONLY idle. No animated conversations, no attack animations, no walking... simply, idling.
The game also features several incredibly dark scenes of violence and gore. I knew that making these scenes would be incredibly challenging for me artistically.
I opted instead to “show” some of the most climatic scenes in the game with the screen going black and simply playing the sound effects. With the exception of a very violent (and pivotal) scene very late in the game, almost all of the games “violence” never actually appears in game.
With rudimentary animations and “cutting to black” during violent scenes, I was definitely concerned that people would find the game to be completely boring and be turned off by the lack of visuals.
Now, I hoped that the players imagination would kick in during these key scenes and their brain would fill in that huge gap between a black screen and what was occurring in the story, but, I had no real way of knowing how they would react.
Luckily, it appears that for most players, these simple cut-to-black scenes created some very emotionally charged moments. Their imaginations did all of the work for me and they ended up feeling like Masochisia was one of the most violent and disturbing games they’d ever played- despite the fact that (most) of the violence is never actually seen by anyone.
3.) A Public Alpha Demo
I’ve always been very averse to the idea of public game demos, particularly early into the game development process. I don’t want potential players to see what I’m doing until I feel the game is “perfect”. Why? Because I don’t want to turn them off to my game before it’s ever even completed.
On paper, this concern makes sense. But the reality is that player feedback early into your game’s development cycle can be the difference between success and failure.
Much to my own surprise, I released the alpha demo of the game in March of 2015, just a few months into the development. I didn’t know what to expect. The demo was placed on itch.io and a few weeks later it was put up on GameJolt. Both demos were eventually featured by their sites and by release- the demo had been downloaded over 5,000 times and had a user rating of 4.7/5. I was blown away…
The early feedback reiterated for me that the simplistic style I was going for was actually working with players. It also confirmed for me that perhaps there was a market (albeit a small one) that had an interest in horror that was driven almost entirely by narrative.
Additionally, YouTube videos began to appear (as Lets Players regularly scout sites like Itch & Gamejolt looking for demos or games to play).
Hundreds of videos began to appear, most of them were small- but some had 10,000 to even 100,000+ views. The exposure was completely unexpected! Watching the videos on the Lets Plays was also crucial to me. It allowed me to see in “real time” how people were responding to various aspects of the game demo. These early videos and demo feedback became invaluable to me and had a huge impact on helping shape the final game.
I realize releasing an early public demo isn’t always the right move for every developer, but I’d highly encourage you to give the idea a 2nd glance. Masochisia seems to be a terrible fit for a public demo:
A.) Narrative Heavy
C.) Non-emergent Gameplay
BUT- the rewards were great. Videos that helped shape the final experience. Validation I wasn't wasting my time and I met some great YouTubers along the way who would eventually go on to cover the full game on its release.
4.) Staying (mostly) On Schedule
Two months into development, I knew my goal of 6 months was quickly becoming a pipe dream. It was a sad reality but one that left me with two alternatives: 1.) Admitting failure and just finishing the game “when it’s done” or 2.) Revisiting my pipeline to figure out if I could create a new schedule that was still aggressive (but more realistic).
There is a fine line between rushing a game out the door to meet an arbitrary deadline we’ve set for ourselves and getting lax with your schedules because you can’t rush art and it will be done when it’s done.
In the end, I decided to revisit the schedule I had and create a more realistic schedule. This new schedule added about 3 more months onto the game (pushing me up to around 9 months total). And while the new schedule was aggressive and would require a lot of work, it was also realistic.
In the end, the game took about 10 months. So technically, in some ways I failed my goals for the schedule but overall, I’m happy that I managed to keep development to under a year without feeling like I was jeopardizing the quality. It was a lot of work to meet the deadlines but it was also very rewarding to be able to rapidly move through the development of the game.
HOW DID THE GAME DO? (FINAL THOUGHTS)
Better than expected...
The launch was very smooth and the game ended up selling approximately 150 copies on launch day with zero press coverage. It also finished the first day with a 100% positive user rating. The response from users ranged from shocked & disturbed to moved and insanely positive. In summary, the general consensus was surprisingly positive!
Almost a month after launch, the game is currently sitting at a 92% user rating on Steam and has generated a little over 750 sales during its first month on Steam.
Is that life changing sales?
Not at all. In fact, I'm going to need to keep my deskjob and continue to make games part time. But am I dissapointed with it? Not at all. As I alluded to previously, you can't help but hope your game somehow takes off and exeeds your expectations (or at least positions you to go "full time") but finishing the game and pleasing my niche' audience is very rewarding at a personal level.
While the game did not generate any press at all on launch day, it eventually got picked up by several larger websites about a week after launch when positive user reviews (and a follow-up email from me) helped kick-start some press coverage. Here are some press snippets on it's reception:
"...A narrative-heavy horror adventure that places you in the role of an abused boy who may be on the path to becoming a brutal killer. It's spooky, effective and well done." - Polygon
"This game is not for the faint of heart... Masochisia is a refreshing change of pace for the point and click horror genre." - The Escapist
"Masochisia seeps bleakness, and for good reason. It sets the tone of what is to come – there is no room for hope in this story. All it yearns for is understanding on the part of the player, and it goes about it in a fashion that exerts brute force. While this is not a “fun” game by any stretch, it’s not meant to be; it certainly is important. Masochisia will make you understand, whether you want it to or not." - This Is My Joystick!
"...When you realize that many of the events portrayed in Masochisia actually happened, the more uncomfortable you’ll become. Art imitating life may prove a little too much for some to stomach." - The Digital Fix
Overall, it's been a great experience. I really never anticipated that a game like Masochisia would ever be played by anyone other than myself, let alone positively received.
Is it worth making an "alternative" or "experimental" game in 2015?
I suppose that depends on your definition of "worth" and how you determine what makes a game successful. While it's definitely hard to "survive" on low sales for an experimental game, there is certainly some rewarding elements that come from being able to bend and break the traditional rules of what makes a game and its really rewarding to able to truly connect with a small audience.
For me? Yes. Masochisia was a resounding success...
If you'd like to see what I will be doing next, check out my Twitter. If after all this talk of how morbid the game is, if you're SOMEHOW still interested in checking out Masochisia, I definitely won't stop you. You can check it out here. Thanks for reading!