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Indie Pre-Mortem: one year prototyping a side project

I explain the global steps and progress of the first year working on my first post studies project: Astre.

I have finished my Game Design studies in Montpellier (France) in November 2015. I am searching for a Game Designer job since the end of October 2015. I am also designing and developing a game mostly on my own since June 2015.

This blog post is here to tell you the main steps of my first post studies project.

  • March - May 2015: beginning as a UE4 project

During this period, I was also working on my last student game: Justice Simulator. I was kind of bored by this project so I wanted to do a quick side project with two other students: a developer and an artist.

We wanted to create a technical demo on Unreal Engine 4. It had to show our design, development, artistical skills and be created in a few months.

Quickly, I came up with a pitch: a third person action game taking place in space where you can travel on a little ship, land on little planets and encounter mysterious species that can be friendly, defensive or agressive.

The idea was pretty much liked for the space travel and choices of approch of the species. The third person view isn't liked that much for the fact that it will be really harder to do than a first person.

Ignoring the third person remark, I began a Unity prototype on my own. At this time, I wanted to prototype the mechanics while the developer and artist would dig into the UE4 to begin testing and implementing some parts of the prototype. But, like a lot of side projects I have tried to do during these studies, my team mates quickly began to quit the project. No real work on UE4 scripting but a few 3D assets that I quickly put in my prototype.

By the end of May, we "released" Justice Simulator on Facebook and Android. My studies were almost finished. I had a beginning of Unity prototype. I was heading to Switzerland for my end of studies internship. 5 months as a Unity developer and integrator at Kaïnoo.

  • June - October 2015: prototyping aside from my internship and find new collaborators

Right from the beginning, I knew that I wanted to try out what it is to work during my lonely week-ends. During the previous period, I hadn't work a lot on the prototype because I wasn't used to work on week-ends. This time I wanted to force myself to work on something I love.

I have succeeded to work each week-end I was in Switzerland. So it makes 2 week-ends per months. It was always hard to begin but, like a game, when you're in the flow it's hard to stop. It had enabled to test ideas way faster than when I was waiting for a programer to integrate them.

I also had succeeded to create a simple random aspects for the rocks (collectibles) and species (enemies). Each time you restart the scene, the rock location and the species type change.

So mechanics are going in the right direction, good. But the game also needs a lot of work in sounds and visuals. I can't do it on my own so I began to search for some new collaborators on the famous Facebook group: Indie Game Developpers. I posted some artworks made by the artist before leaving the project and also some prototype screenshots.

Thanks to these artworks and an awesome space assets plugin, I succeed to attract a few people to help me out on the project: a composer and two 3D artists.

  • November - December 2015: prototyping, meetings while searching for a job

At this moment, I had finished my internship and I knew I didn't wanted to be a pure developer anymore. I also wanted to work on games, no more gamified app. The best point of my internship was my work on Oculus Rift DK2 and Samsung Gear VR. This has made me a VR fan and will maybe make me create a quick VR game experience someday.

Aside from that, I knew I had to find a job. I wanted to take the time and risk to aim a Game Designer position while it's one of the least searched position and I had very few profesional experience in it.

The composer introduced me to a concept artist that immediatly joined the team. So we began to do a Hangout meeting per week. The project progressed really faster, it get two quick tracks and the character artworks were really convincing.

Before leaving Montpellier for good, I get the chance to pitch the project at a monthly indie game developers meeting: Push It. People seems to like the concept and I am welcome to come back later to present it as game of the month. After this moment, I set a little goal, release a prototype demo before the New Year's Eve.

I begin to put aside my work on a target lock system to concentrate on two other important aspects: UI and Tutorials. I also come up with a quick 2D introduction scene. It is made with inspiration pictures and quickly tells the main goal to the player.
Finally, I add a free Unity plugin to translate the texts in French and German. Like this, all the team members can quickly understand the prototype and it will help me perform playtests with my friends in France.

On December 31th, just before going to my New Year's Eve party, I posted a free prototype demo on my itch.io page.

  • January 2016: first playtest sessions

Few days after New Year's Eve, I began to perform playtest sessions with my friends and family. They came at home, tested the game. I watched and took notes on what they understand or not. At this time, there was no direct tutorial, just some hints included into the base UI.

After this first playtest series, two main things came out: the game needs "real" tutorials and I should record each session to better analyse it and share it with the rest of team.

Next playtest session have enabled me to add and improve the tutorial windows. They pop up when the player use a mechanic for the first time. It explains the mechanics in details but let the player try it in the order he wants.

  • February 2016: big break and 3D beginnings

I have almost done nothing on the game during this month. I was too busy with some Gameloft level design hiring tests. I have failed the second one but I'm happy to have worked on different projects.

During that time, character concepts were great and the 3D sculpt began. One of the 3D artist quited the project.

  • March 2016: back to it and still searching for a job

After this break, I had to focus on this project again. It was a bit hard to go back on it at the same rate in the beginning. During this month, I also got a pretty complete and interesting feedback from another Game Designer. He showed me that I need to really improve the game feel and also try to have a more step by step tutorial to better make the player understand each mechanics.

This feedback helped me focus again and fully go back to this project. I began to add a target lock system thanks to a great Unity plugin: Lock-ON RPG Camera Kit.
It made me change the character. See you animated Ethan, hello responsive Human Rig. The character isn't animated but is far more reactive than the Unity default third person character that I have used since the beginning.

Then, I made the species move thanks to the Unity NavMesh system. I had first used it in the second Gameloft test. I also added a sprint feature and I played with values to make combats feel better.

In the end of the month, I decided to focus on creating the global game loop: explore a level, encounter species, activate the energy source, use energy left to gain new abilities and then go the next level. So I added 4 abilities: jump, dash, shield and invisibility.

Last but not least, the original 3D artist came back and created a few environments assets.

  • Things to come and early access goal

As April ends, I have changed the Human Rig character with the first version of the character model. It stills needs a lot of work but it's better than the default Lock-On character. The game begins to gain more personality as the artistical assets begins to arrive.

I now aim to work on the abilities unlock UI, improve these abilities integration with the other mechanics, create a tutorial level and a few new levels. This will let me test the game understanding again.

The game is set to release by the end of the year in early access. I hope to be able to have a few levels and all the graphical elements.

Then the game will be improved, balanced, some new levels and environments will come.

You can try it out here: conkerjak.itch.io/astre

And let me know about your overall experience.

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