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postmortem - xoEl empire

In this article I wanted to explain the decisions made to create xoEl empire, our first game for PC, from conception to what we learnt in the development process.

Introduction

Greyman Studios was founded by people from big companies. We were at charge of the technical parts of a wider pipeline involving people from marketing, QA, PR, production, finances, etcetera. But when you try to create your own products, everything changed.

We started with small to medium project for third parties. You know, a big company wants an advert-game, so they hire a PR company, and then, that company hires you to develop the real game. Even then, it’s a profitable business model. So we though, “Can you imagine making our own game without intermediaries?”.

In our first tries and we realised that the budget needed is bigger even for the smallest game you can develop if you want to reach a minimum quality. Ideally you need a lot of specialized people in their respective fields… artistic design, modelling, animating, interface design, gameplay design, technical direction, coding, music,  PR,  QA, production, marketing, finances, there’s any role left?. So, we need at least 13 people to make a decent game. Do we? Well, we are 6 people, we needed to do more than one role and for some aspects of the game, rely on external services.

But you grew up reading stories about Indie developers that made games with one or two people and got half a million players in one week. Or that meeting… that meeting that saved Rovio, all the crew members designed a game in a week and showcased them each other and voted for the best idea. That’s how Angry Birds was born. So let’s make our own Angry birds game. In one week we had 6 prototypes.

There’s one thing I love in Greyman, we all are nerd who love videogames, each one with personal preferences that together cover every genre in the industry. We play games every weekend, and we spend every monday telling the other members why we played one game or another

So we had 6 original and simple game concepts, and we voted for xoEl. the name is Box written backwards because… well, it’s a game about boxes. We started to make the game with zero budget, relying on the team to cover as much roles as we can, and as you may know, we made a soft launch on mobile first to be able to test the game levels, we started coding a full level editor, so we could make hundred of levels and we realised that we needed to order the puzzles to give the player a reasonable learning curve, and OMG that’s difficult. We published the game for mobile, so we can obtain analytics of every gameplay, see the player’s performance through levels. And why not, get some money back.

The analytics gave us lots of information, the time they spent playing, the number of Yabbies they rescued, their scores, their bank accounts, and their DNA, well, maybe this two last metrics are not real, it was just to keep your attention.

Greenlight, Mobile Ports and Nazis

The mobile version did not give us cash enough to sustain our structure, we were financially walking a tightrope as we focus into the desktop version. The first step was to Greenlight the game and we thought in a Kickstarter campaign to give us visibility and SEO. So we made a cheap campaign, recorded a video in two days, added some nice to have features and we paid the price.

The Kickstarter campaign was a complete fail, we barely get the attention of family, friends… and trolls. Some people tagged us as “Effortless Mobile Port”, but others called us nazis, what? So we couldn’t get any money to hire those great graphics assets, new mechanics and really cool animations.

The project was about to get discontinued. But then it happened, we got greenlighted. It was a small pat in the back to finish the game, so we decided to continue with the development of the game. 

 

We had to make the improvements by our means, by 5 techy guys and a young 2D artist, making the puzzle adventure that’s xoEl Empire. Adventure? Yes, at this point we had the puzzles well balanced thanks to the mobile version and we had to add the narrative layer. The idea is that you’re in some kind of spaceship-prison and you managed to move in your box-cage and you will have to find a way to free your people also imprisoned there. We wanted to broke the classic menu > level scheme and mix the exploration and puzzle solving experience in a portal like style, adding some secrets here and there.; right now one of the bigger secrets remains undiscovered, that secret is the only way to reach the last level of the game. The Level 25.

We hope someone finds out some day because we put a lot of work in that secret

Conclusions

So technically we had two projects in one, a mobile test version called xoEl, and the desktop version called xoEl Empire. Half a year for each one, but taking into consideration that most of the game core was reused in the PC version.

What went right

  • Game finished and published. We have our game in Steam, and people likes it. We learnt a lot from that process, from the bureaucracy of the platform to the dynamism of the community hub. We would love to go on and add the rest of the stuff from the Kickstarter campaign so, if you’re reading this, please share! ;)
     
  • It generated interest in other platforms. When planning the full version of the game we tried some experiments like a VR version, and the controller support. We are now working in the console port of the game, starting from Xbox ONE.
     
  • Better performance than expected. We started with the mobile version due to our experience in that platform. We used techniques like vertex shading instead of high quality textures with bump and reflections and that benefit the PC version, having a product with great performance.
     
  • Agile methodologies got the power. The development of the game has changed a lot in the last months, so it was mandatory to have several meetings during the week, that helped to keep the team in the same direction, some hard decisions had to be taken on the fly, I think it’s better to fail all together as a team, experience points will go for the whole team.

What went wrong

  • Trying to reach all public and platforms at the same time. You read it lots of times, but it’s easy to think you can reach everyone, you tend to see your game as an all appealing product, but it’s not possible to have a game for neophytes and at the same time for hardcores, there’s no point in adding narrative for narrative lovers and brainless exploration for casual gamers. You can’t have a cute character for kids and try to convince adults that the game fits their tastes too. The same occurs with the platform, even when Git served us to develop a technically great shared code base, the users in each platform will expect different inputs, aesthetics, etc.
     
  • You definitely need to invest money in marketing. At this point we realize that we spent so much time polishing the game mechanics and no one noticed because no one know that the game exists. Spending more time or budget into market research, PR and other tasks to focus and reach a wider and more precise audience.
     
  • One man's meat is another man's poison. xoEl was my concept, but I  wanted to keep the rest of the team happy, and I started to modify my concept adding ideas from the team, so many times happiness based than design. For example, aesthetically talking some of us love Portal and others hate it, and we ended in somewhere between too neutral, and that is not good because the audience will not be attracted to a neutral aesthetics, you can be right or not, but decide a direction and keep true to it.

 

It’s great to have such confidence between team members, we can say each other, “Dude, this texture is a piece of shit”, and we still love each other. But you can easily fall in a spiral of death, feeling that the project doesn’t go forward, and well, one of the crew members was the production guy responsible of that “deadline”.

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