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Alien Star Menace Post-Mortem

The making of Alien Star Menace, including background, lessons learned, and lessons still to learn.

Preamble

Alien Star Menace is available now for iPhone & iPad on the Apple App Store and on Android in the Google Play Store.

Background

Alien Star Menace started with a simple goal (if you’re a dumb person) - make 7 small games in 7 days. There was some downtime at my day job, and I was itching to put another game out there; I hadn’t released my own indie game since Cuddle Bears three years ago. So I browsed the net for some art assets I could use and jotted down some designs.

The more I looked over the list, the more “strategy game in space” stuck out at me. I knew it wasn’t a 1 day task. But it was interesting me more than all the other ideas I had. So I decided to throw out the original motivation and instead undergo a more ambitious project.

I grabbed the art from Oryx Design Lab, prototyped some early gameplay in Unity, and Pixel Space Horror was born. Obviously, that name changed later in development. But we don’t need to go into that.

What Went Right

TIGSource Forums & Early Web Builds

The initial design of the game had some fundamental flaws. The Action Point system - which was modeled after Hero Academy’s - didn’t work for this kind of strategy game. It encouraged standing still and letting enemies come to you. Units couldn’t move or shoot through allies. Hallways were too narrow. All things which seemed OK as I was developing but which very much weren’t.

I was using Unity, so even though the game was targeting mobile devices, it wasn’t terribly hard to push out a web build for public feedback. The folks at TIG immediately rallied against the game’s obvious flaws. I fixed those issues, and through a steady stream of feedback polished up other pain points in the game.

Flexible Milestones

My mindset on milestones has always been to try to respect them vehemently. No new major features after alpha, certainly none after beta, Time leading up to an RC candidate should be all about bug fixing.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a game where these rules actually held, and Alien Star Menace was no exception.

Case in point #1: I didn’t have a finished title screen until a week before submission. I had some very pixel-art looking text. I wasn’t even sure there *was* a title screen being worked on until the artist surprised me with it. What’s there now is much, much better than what used to be there.

Case in point #2: Two days before RC, I decided I absolutely hated the banner ads. They made the entire game look hideous, and they were almost certain to make no money. So I switched to Unity Ads - interstitials. Which were, by the way, scary easy to implement and have been giving pretty good return rates for the number of players I’m seeing.

What Went Wrong

Content Heavy Design

I’ve come to accept that level design is not a strong suit of mine, and it saps away energy like nothing else in game development. I gradually learned which things in my levels worked better than others, but it was hard learning and not terribly rewarding personally.

I’m not unhappy with how the levels turned out, I actually think a lot of them work really well, but I think a talented level designer could’ve done better and had more fun doing it.

Writing was also stressful. It was something I enjoyed initially - I like telling jokes and crafting stories. My enthusiasm came and went for this; I think I would’ve benefitted from having another person punch up the text some.

Art Direction

Sometimes I trick myself into thinking I have an artistic eye, and then I try to use it and quickly realize I was horribly, horribly wrong.

I had a huge struggle trying to get the later levels to look good. Once you touch down on the alien planet (spoiler), the background changes - a starfield didn’t make sense anymore. And I had no idea what to do.

I hacked for days trying to get something that looked good. And I was never satisfied. I’m still not satisfied. I came up with a neat, creepy visual effect, but the backgrounds still feel flat overall.

What’s Undecided

Task Tracking

I signed up for a bug tracking system over at Axosoft. I used it for about two days before I nixed it. Instead, I either fixed bugs as I went or jotted them down in a notepad. It might’ve helped if the project had more people, but for a one man game it didn’t do much for me.

Marketing

I put together a pretty comprehensive Press Kit. I wrote over 160 e-mails/messages to various reviewers & YouTubers. I kept running dev logs on Tumblr, TIGSource, and GameDev (that last one not as frequently). I posted almost daily on Twitter and less frequently on Facebook. I talked to everyone I met about my game, including a few dates who couldn’t have been less interested ;). I attempted community involvement wherever I could fit myself in.

It’s hard to gauge the impact this has all had. The initial launch has been slower than I’d like, but there’s time for it to build. 

Conclusion

It’s still a little early to determine if Alien Star Menace was a success or failure. I’m writing this while everything’s fresh in my mind, and the game hasn’t been out long enough to get a good impression of its performance.

I’m pleased with how the game came out. It’s my largest independent work, and in some regards my best. I think it brings a type of strategy game to mobile that was previously missing or underserved.

I’d like to thank owmywrist for her constant support, testing, and for listening to my endless gamedev babbling, multitude-ofcasualities for her naming help and press kit advice, pythosart for her fantastic title screen art which I used in a ton of different unintended ways, ua86 for some really solid gameplay advice / feedback, and missmesmer for basically being my #1 Tumblr fan.

I hope you enjoy the game, and I’d love to hear your feedback!

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