In July 2009 me and my classmates got the offer to try out our dream of creating games. We had previously been studying game development at Stockholm University in Sweden. Getting our own office, paid salary as well as getting to make our own games sounded like a dream. Not trying to get delusional about what we could create we settled on making games for the iPhone.
Trying to play it safe we opted for making a puzzle game with well-known game mechanics. After some deliberation we ended up with Bust-a-move gameplay and the twist we put on it was to make it inside a story world. Basically you had to puzzle to advance the story and make something happen in the game level. This is the post mortem of that game: Fall of Atlantis.
What went right
1. Getting the puzzling down
It may not be surprising but the best part about the game is also the core of the game, the puzzling. It may not seem very difficult to just take gameplay from another game and put it in your own games. But we put quite a lot of thought into this.
The first thing we did was to look at the original that we found ported as a flash game on the web. What we noted was that the difficulty was quite random and somewhat inconsistent. In fact a lot of levels were just too hard. Presumably this is due to the more arcade gaming that was in place back then where you had to design a game to make the player put in more coins into it. For our game however we opted for a more progressive learning experience where we didn't require the player to know much about the game to start playing.
Secondly we also looked at similar games on the iPhone and they had two major pitfalls: either they were very laggy or they had terrible input. As a result of this research we decided to make the input as easy as possible by letting the player shoot exactly where they point with their fingers. Even this proved to be quite inaccurate however it was the best we could do with the time we had. In hindsight it might've been nice with some aim assistance.
In the end the puzzle mode of the game is probably the most fun.
2. The bug board
I can't stress this enough. If you are developing anything with other people you are going to want a whiteboard. After trying several solutions of keeping track of features and bugs we finally settled on something as simple as this.
Most people on the office just couldn't use the more esoteric bug trackers and other things that are available these days. You may ask why and the only answer I've come up with is that people have a lot of habits when it comes to computers. Especially people who have used them all their life. It is hard to make them start doing other things. Putting something physical in the room that they can see when they take a pause or walk by however is totally different.
If you still cant get people to look at the whiteboard just hang some nice artwork with a girl to draw some attention. Yes, I'm serious!
3. Boss fights
Since we decided to do the puzzling in a story world it was quite obvious that we were going to need something to happen in the world. I must say that most of the world is void of any actual action but something that we almost tried to cut from the game was also what made the game stand out.
In short it is basically consecutive puzzles you play but since you can get hurt as well as hurt the boss it adds some tension and is a good climax for the level.
Now boss fights aren't just there to be thrown in. It requires a lot of work from all disciplines ranging from graphics to programming to game design as well as lore and music. I wouldn't say that our boss fights are amazing but it really does add to an otherwise bland game.
4. Music track
This is what we got the most praise for. I'm actually not sure if it is cause everything else is bad or if it is really that good. Personally I think it is good but maybe not THAT good. But hey people liked it and that is what's important.
In total I think we had quite a lot of music for a puzzle game totalling up to 8 tracks with a unique track for every level of the game. I guess it is this last part that is important. You never get the time to get tired of the music.
5. Background story and setting
Something that affects the game as a whole a lot is story and setting. We chose a mythological approach trying to make our own depiction of the day when Atlantis is sunk by the gods. Basically the player is Atlas the king of Atlantis who returns home from battle. He is met with a deserted city and eventually he finds out that the gods have decided to sink Atlantis for their arrogant and warlike behaviour.
The plot is built up so that you have to confront Poseidon in the end. He was the patron god of Atlantis and throughout the game you meet other mythological creatures with direct connection to Poseidon such as Medusa.
However this plot is barely seen in the game and the most you can get is a glimpse of it in the Biograpy section of our game. We wanted to get more of it into the game but there was just not the time for it. It would most likely also have detracted too much from the game. However it wasn't wasted effort at all since it helped with production quite a bit with keeping a coherent experience for the player.
What went wrong
1. Marketing is god
I can't stress this enough. As a group of ex-college students getting their feet wet we had absolutely no clue about marketing and how important it is. This is evident in the game as there is a clear lack of target audience. We were basically making a game for ourselves that would also cater to our imaginary version of the rest of the world. This had quite the impact on the quality of the game.
First and foremost the graphics weren't made to be as impressive as it should've been to sell the game. The gameplay also became rather wonky as we couldn't decide on what the difficult level should've been at. We did decide on progressive difficulty but not how fast it should increase or what level it should begin and stop at.
The marketing nightmare didn't stop there. Our biggest problem with marketing actually came after we finished the game. Who was going to buy it? Hello? Reality quickly crashed upon us right before christmas and we realized we had a decent game that no one knew of.
As of today we are still fighting with this problem. If you think you have a proper market plan... YOU DON'T! You can never have too much marketing. It is not cheap, it is not a dumb way to trick people to purchase your game. You have to let people know you have a game or they will never find out!
This is probably the only part that looks decent. Particles, Thank you!
2. Don't be too ambitious
This is probably what is always written about in a post mortem. Don't be too ambitious! Originally we had planned to have a lot of fancy cutscenes and god knows what. We did end up with a lot of the features we had initially planned for but it was far from polished. Instead of cutscenes we should've put a lot more effort on level design and instead of fancy GUIs we should've opted for something more simple and actually make it not crash the game on every build we made.
As a rule of thumb: Your game can never be polished enough. Don't add too many things or you won't have time to polish them. Think really hard about if every feature you are adding actually makes any difference for the game and the experience it delivers.
3. Testing isn't just for bugs
Here is the next problem that comes from our seclusion from the rest of the world. We never tested if the game was FUN for other people. The only testing we did was to find bugs as well as some internal testing. Internal testing is only good for creative input and bug finding. You will never know if it is actually fun until you put it in the hands of people who are intended to play it.
We also completely forgot to add in proper GUI since we ourselves could play the game just fine. Instead we realized this mid-production and had to throw it in. The GUI game out half-baked and also extended development time by two weeks or so. Not only that, it only ruined a lot of the game since suddenly we had something taking up 10% of the screen space. Lots of cameras had to be moved and adjusted as well as the positioning of things. SCREEN ESTATE! Important!
4. Pre-production is serious business
This isn't much about actually having a pre-production phase. You really should have this. But it is about what to put in it. We really had no clue and were mostly just playing around. We did produce some prototype games but they weren't very useful as we weren't really prototyping our more risky features (the story world) instead we had prorotypes of the less risky features (puzzling).
Pre-production is for elminiating risks! Nothing else. When you begin with a project always list your risks and if you can't find them then you have a really really big risk.
5. Buffer time!
As much as we would like to you can't plan for everything. Our overall plan on how much time things were going to take was quite spot on but as we should've known that a lot of things don't show up until later in a project. If you don't have buffer time to take from then you are essentially screwed.
Yes, you NEED buffer time. But ONLY use it as buffer time. A lot of our features were delayed and we ended up pushing them back to time that was alloted for polishing and soon we ran out of scheduled time for polishing. If you notice that you are starting to eat away at other scheduled tasks' time then you need to quickly call for a meeting and cut some features or something else equally drastic.
All in all the project was quite a disappointment for us as we had hoped to at least make back what we invested into this. However we learnt a lot for our next project and hopefully we can make the next games good enough to keep us floating.
If you have any comments, questions or concerns please post them. We are constantly trying to improve and we feel that we won't be able to do that without proper feedback.
Spearhead Entertainment: http://www.spearheadgames.com