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Postmortem: Halcyon Softworks' Slick

A detailed reflection on what went wrong and what went right in the development and marketing of my first game, Slick, on Xbox Live Indie Games and Desura.


It's been a little over a month since Slick was initially released on Xbox Live Indie Games, and I thought now would be a good time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong during its development and marketing, or lack thereof.

(The game costs 80 MSP, and its description is: "Relive the classic era of platforming. Hop, bop, and journey with Mick Slick through five treacherous worlds and one hundred levels ranging in difficulty from simple to hellish nightmare." It's also available on PC via Desura.)

What Went Right?

Exponential Increase in Scope

Whenever an aspiring developer asks how they should start out, they are always told to start small. This is great advice, but I am so glad I didn't take it. The original design document for Slick entailed a short game of about 30 levels with no enemies, only one world, no frills, and generally no thrills. This was completely overhauled and I decided to have a whopping 100 levels, 5 worlds, somewhere around 20 different enemies, and an original soundtrack.

Engine & Tools

Another thing that aspiring developers are always told is to not reinvent what's already been made, and of course I disregarded that as well and made my own engine and level editor, because I felt it was extremely important to learn as much as possible. A good reasoning behind doing this is that I now had control over everything.  Once the basis of the engine was made the rest was smooth sailing, and it was simple to add new enemies.

Originally, levels were made in text files, and various symbols would represent different tiles.  I quickly realized that this simply would not work for 100 levels and many tiles, so I made my own "what you see is what you get" level editor that handled multiple layers, collision, enemy, and object placement among other things. I also made sure that it would only take a day or so to make the level editor, and that it wouldn't become bloated with unnecessary features.

Another great thing about making my own engine and tools is that I'm now reusing them in my next game with only a few changes needed and many upgrades made.

Level Design & Difficulty

Having been a competetive gamer since an early age I knew from the start that I wanted to make a difficult game, and I also knew from the start that I didn't want to have any tutorials holding your hand that would slow down the actual game. A lot of the level design silently teaches the player how stuff works without blatantly telling them, and when I watched other people play the game, they never didn't know what to do or how something worked. Right from the start you can just play the game without sitting through an unnecessary tutorial. Even in the menus there isn't a lot of text explaining what options do, but instead there are symbols that are universally recognized (e.g. arrow means play) which makes the game more accessible to players who don't natively speak English.

Slick is a very difficult game, but the levels are only a single screen, the player respawns almost instantly, and there are no lives. The difficulty of the game and its level design isn't unfair, and when the player dies it is almost certainly their own fault for messing up, and not the game's.

Lone Wolfing

When starting independent game development, many people like to form teams to make games, but I decided that I would rather do it by myself until I have the credentials for people to want to work with me. It was a good choice to do this because I don't need to worry about revenue sharing, communication, and other problems that often come up with teams that are scattered around the world. Not to mention, by doing everything aside from the music I gained an immeasurable amount of experience.

What Went Wrong?

Not Listening to Testers

One huge failure point is that I didn't fix what my testers said was broken, aside from completely game breaking bugs. From the beginning I was constantly told that the collision on a few enemies and spikes was a bit off among other things. For some reason I had an elitist "well, what do you know?" attitude, but if I actually took my testers' advice I would've nipped any problems reviewers had in the bud.  I've since patched most of these problems, but I feel the game would have been much more well received if I had fixed these problems before the initial release.

Social Networking

I had this idea in my head that if I released this game then everyone would tell their friends about it and it'd become popular by word of mouth. This was far from the truth and I didn't even have a Twitter or Youtube trailer of gameplay. Not until a few days after the release did I make a Twitter, and I should have uploaded a gameplay video on Youtube prior to release. I also didn't have my own website, or really any online presence for that matter.

Lack of Game Modes

In Slick, the only thing you can do is play through the 100 levels one level at a time, and so if you can't beat a level, you're stuck. But looking back, the way the game teaches the player through its level design, it would be difficult to suddenly make the level selection non-linear, and so I should have included other modes for added replayability such as time trials with leaderboards. Modes like this would have been a great addition to the game because if a player got stuck then they could always go back to previous levels but with different objectives instead of quitting in frustration.

Post-release Infatuation

Even now when Slick has been out for over a month I'm still obsessive about constantly Googling "Slick XBLIG review" to see what people are saying about it, when a better thing to do would be to check once a week and instead focus time on my next game. While it's great to see people praising it, the time could definitely be spent on bigger and better things.

Final Thoughts & The Future

I'm most definitely proud of what I accomplished because it's something I've wanted to do since forever, and I now know for sure that I'll be making games for the rest of my life. Slick has left me with an engine and editor that my next game is based off of, and has also reaped an immeasurable amount of experience for me.

As far as the future goes, I'll use all that I learned from developing and marketing Slick to make sure the rest of my games are of an exponentially higher quality, and will also continue lone wolfing it for (possibly) quite a while.

Game Data

Developer: Halcyon Softworks

Number of developers: 1

Length of development: 3 months

Release date: July 24, 2012 (XBLIG), August 21, 2012 (Desura)

Platforms: Xbox LIVE Indie Games, Desura (Windows)

Development software used: Visual C# Expression 2010, XNA Game Studio 4.0, GIMP 2.6, bfxr

Cans of Mountain Dew consumed: Countless

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