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What I Learned From a 14-Year Passion Project

It was October 9th, 2007 - I was in my first Intro to Game Design class in college when I got a call from my aunt that my mother had passed away after a four-year battle with cancer. It was time to make a game to honor her life and memory...

Intro

It was October 9th, 2007 - I was in my first Intro to Game Design class in college when I got a call from my aunt that my mother had passed away after a four-year battle with cancer. I just lost my best friend and greatest supporter. When our six-week winter break started in November, I was grieving, numb, destroyed inside and it just kinda hit me that I need to make a game to serve as a metaphor for her passing. I was 14 when she first got sick; that year my favorite movie The Last Samurai was released and I first played my favorite game of all time, Shenmue 2, that same year - renting it from Blockbuster on the way home from my mom's Chemo. She would always take me to Blockbuster to rent a game as a thanks for being with her at treatments. I knew those two pieces of media completely changed my life path, so I knew I wanted to form a world of samurai war with a clan representing her and another representing cancer and death.

 

 

For the next two and a half years, I worked until 6am every day on the project outside of class work, tried to turn in assets from it as class projects and ultimately turned it into our senior project. We formed a team of artists and a programmer from Georgia Tech, across the street (we were at SCAD-ATL) and we made a thing we thought was awesome.

 

 

Fast forward to now, here we are staring at a September 15th, 2021 release date. A date I never thought would be so far from the start, nor did I ever know for sure the project would get done. All I knew was I enjoyed working on it, and had a team that stuck by me for years and years, with no instant (or at this point delayed) gratification whatsoever. So here we are, and here are my words of wisdom from such a long journey split into a bunch of Top 5 lists:

 

 

The 5 most important lessons learned

  1. The importance of mental health and balance. You have to take care of yourself, get adequate sleep, drink lots of water and eat healthy food. The late nights added up over time and it gets more difficult to do so as you age. Be efficient and work smart so you can be healthy. Go outside, go on trips, don’t live in your project in a life-dominating way. I wish I had that time back sometimes.

  2. The impact of listening, a wide pool of ideas, and taking feedback well has on team building. We couldn’t pay our dev team, so listening, valuing and helping your team members was the only way to encourage and incentivize sticking by the project. Our best ideas came from respectful debates or spur of the moment ideas from team banter that was certainly better than the original plan.

  3. SCOPE, SCOPE, SCOPE - know what your team is capable of. Our original game was about twice the maps, twice the characters and a huge feature set that a six to ten person team working ten to twenty hours a week after jobs just were not capable of. Scale back and get your ONE THING right, perfect and polished - then build off of that.

  4. Keep it simple and keep it clear. Similar to above, your mechanics should be easily understandable to players and not cause confusion or make them cognitively over-taxed. Make sure they get proper feedback for doing the right things - proper UI cues, audio, effects can make a good prototype mechanic into an amazing one. Conversely a great mechanic can be ruined by poor or confusing feedback.

  5. Enjoy the process, treat it one brick at a time. Even if your end date is unknown or seems forever away, taking it “in the present,” is paramount. You just have to enjoy the day-to-day journey and find some peace in the process. I loved just texturing a helmet or set dressing a map and living in those minutes almost like meditation versus stressing out about “Are we going to hit our date?” or “It’s been 8 years…”

 

The 5 things I would do differently

  1. I wouldn't have spent 14 years on one project. Indie is too saturated; developing one really good mechanic, solid art style and doing something you can do in 1-2 years is a better level of risk and personal health impact.

  2. Designed the messaging/feedback directly with every mechanic/game mode/etc. It wasn't until the last few years of the project that we realized the mechanics or game rules weren't flawed - they just weren't messaged right. Great messaging and visual feedback can make a mediocre mechanic great, and the lack of it can make great mechanics bad. This would have preserved a lot of great ideas and modes we had working that we canned. Our UX design was somewhat limited but once we got it, almost magically, all our mechanics suddenly were way more "fun".

  3. Consider how much cognitive energy it takes a player to figure out your game. It should be very simple to learn, remember, and experience your gameplay loops. This all ties back to UX and a lot of testing.

  4. We should have waited 2-3 more years to release to Early Access. We thought it would help fund staff gaps since we were $0 budget, but it simply didn't. There was no exclusivity for future outreach because it was too accessible, if that makes sense. The game we had in 2019-2020 would have been a solid Early Access game. Doing your own closed alphas/betas would have been better for us growing a multiplayer game. We always thought the game was way further ahead than it ever was.

  5. We wouldn't have done multiplayer. In college, when it started, we all thought multiplayer would be easier because VO and cinematics would be too hard (and to be fair in UE3 they were). But multiplayer has its own technical challenges as well as the absolute hell of trying to grow a player base with no money to facilitate that process. We always thought MP would pay for SP so we could tell meaningful, impactful stories, and maybe we'll get that chance still.

 

The 5 best parts of doing an indie project for so long

  1. Coping mechanism - this project has been the greatest sandbox of self-therapy and working through the grief and loss of my mother. Many of our dev team members have since lost a parent to cancer as well, and really diving into the personal themes of the art, game world and the whole purpose of the game has been amazing. Our whole mission as an indie studio is to inject personal meaning and purpose into our games, via metaphor and storytelling to get through whatever it is we're trying to get through.

  2. Absolute creative freedom. No random pivots or "put a robot at the end" or any corporate mandates. We had the freedom to explore, grow, fall, get back up, try things, freely and with lost time as the only consequence.

  3. Limitless practical learning - I can attribute most of my career skills as a Technical Artist to this project. I had to learn UI, animation blueprints, blueprints, localization, all these crazy game engine systems as just an environment artist. It helped me understand how all the pieces fit together and I was able to get 10,000 hours horizontally and vertically between working in the industry during the day and working on this at night for so long.

  4. Team camaraderie - Having the core of the team together for so long, all of us doing this in our free time after work, forms a special kind of bond and respect. It's more than just being colleagues. These are people you root for, support, respect deeply and for me personally these are people I couldn't have possibly got anywhere near shipping this game without them.

  5. Seeing the growth and change - Projects like this move forward incrementally. But you get to see and experience every bit of it, and it was the life force of the project. On the personal side, seeing the team's growth, seeing the skillsets grow, expand and mature was rewarding. So was bringing on recent graduates that needed mentoring and being able to see them get their first industry jobs from experience on the project. I couldn't pay people, but one of my deepest, most satisfying aspects of leading this project was knowing that almost every person that joined the team without an industry job, ended up with one with the project as a big reason why.

 

The 5 worst parts of doing an indie project for so long

  1. Trying to market, promote, raise awareness of an indie game is a level of hell I'll never ever miss. It's an incredibly saturated market, and also a market that costs A LOT of money to break through. I get messages almost daily "Just get streamers" or "Just get [insert giant youtuber]" to play. It's nowhere near that easy, it's hard to even get a response with a PRICE QUOTE, let alone asking them to play out of the kindness of their heart. I feel that an indie game hitting it big is almost entirely luck for the most part. It's just the right theme, mechanic, gimmick or w/e at the perfect time to immediately catch on, and if it's not, it can be very challenging. See Tip #1 of "things I'd do differently".

  2. Sacrifices - This type of project came with significant sacrifices along the way, and maybe that's just on me. But this project is so personal, making progress on it was non-negotiable. I've lost many friendships, relationships, opportunities to enjoy years of my youth and travel, enjoy and live a balanced life. A huge majority of my free time went into this project, and that's time I can never get back and reflecting on that can be very painful. There's some kind of twisted irony in doing this project to atone for not being better for my mother when she was sick, yet choosing to make these choices. The silver lining is the people that stick by you during this type of journey are the ones that were meant to.

  3. Career impact - While you're learning and getting better and even if you compartmentalize very well, it can skew perception at your actual workplace. Indie projects can be seen as threats, or you can be seen as a threat by employers and colleagues for doing indie projects and it can hurt your career, even if you handle it extremely well and overcome all the hurdles to handle that professionally and with a high level of standard. The irony of that is a huge majority of the skills you can pick up from an indie project, usually are pretty darn valuable to your employer. But there's some huge positives in that too, the right place can REALLY value indie work and think it helps you be a better you.

  4. The long-term rollercoaster - The project wasn't always perfect, incremental process. We went through all kinds of ups and downs, getting greenlit in 9 days to a failed Kickstarter the next month that almost killed the project, to winning an investor conference to getting an Epic MegaGrant - it's been a rollercoaster of the biggest disappointments of my life and some of the biggest triumphs. Now we're about to face our biggest of trying to see if our 14 years of work turns into something that allows us to keep it going. While the project was therapeutic most of the time, it was also a gigantic burden at others. It's taken its toll, I never had anxiety issues and some other things before this project and they kinda made their way in from not balancing things out more. Always take care of your health first in indie development or at a giant studio. Staying up hours into the night to work isn't worth it. Have the discipline to get 7-8 hours of sleep.

  5.  What to do next - For most of my adult life, from age 19 until now this is all I've known. What comes next? That unknown is a beautiful thing and a terrifying thing.

Conclusion

I hope this information dump can be of use to other developers. I tried my best to be very real and honest about the good and not-so-good aspects of this journey. Ultimately, I am proud of what we accomplished. I did the math and despite it taking 14 years, in terms of manhours we put into the project is the equivalent of a 100 person/40-hr per week studio putting about 14-20 weeks into a project. I don't know many games that were at a release state after only that short of actual manhours.

At the end of the day, for better or worse, whatever happens once we press that release button - a lot of people got great opportunities from this project, I learned more from this as a developer, person, etc. than I would have anywhere else. I wouldn't give it up for anything. I think that no matter how long it takes, if you have conviction, tenacity, and the passion to seek out your dreams that it is perfectly fine if it defies common logic, timelines, and people's expectations. Brick-by-brick…

 

 

-Matt Canei

 

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