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Postmortem: Sundae Month's Pupperazzi

This is the cycle of chaos, which became the core problem of Sundae Month for years, which was exemplified most clearly by Pupperazzi.

June 27, 2022

11 Min Read
Three very good boys sat on a bench about to get snapped

Author: by Sundae Month

Pupperazzi is a first-person dog photography game created by Sundae Month. Between 1 and 12 people worked on it and it launched this year on Steam, Epic, Itch.io, Xbox, and Windows Store via GamePass. It’s the largest 3D game we’ve made, and a lot changed at Sundae Month during its development.

We’d like to note that this piece doesn’t necessarily speak for everyone at Sundae Month. So we can’t claim this is a comprehensive postmortem, but this is an honest look at how and why we made this game the way we did. Spoilers: we wouldn’t do it this way again.

Before Pupperazzi (The Context)

We started up Sundae Month when we were in college around the goal of making great games. And during our college years we released Petrichor (2014), Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), and Dad Quest (2018) among a bunch of other games before Pupperazzi in 2022.

Since we were college students skilled at making video games, we were a bit egotistical about it, with vision and initiative, but no experience of any kind (video game related or otherwise). It was always strange that as a student-run indie game studio we were so large, with 3 owners and 12 collaborators that would cycle between part-time and full-time workers–plus interns–but we ignored all the advice we ever got during that period.

Looking back, it’s clear we only barely survived because we were full-time students, with access to lots of "free" resources, including office space, mentorship, creative and supportive environments, nearby on-demand cooked meals, etc. This helped with both finances and time management.

In 2016, following the success of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor and after a successful Kickstarter for Dad Quest, we realized that our "success" wasn’t really making us money, so we turned to contract work to fund our studio. We call this era the "Cycle of Chaos". Theoretically we managed to put ourselves into a financially stable position and set ourselves up for success due to our contract work, but half of our team were students and the other half had massive student loans that we were very motivated to start paying back. We tolerated this situation for one or two years until the release of Dad Quest in 2018.

The Two Week Game

By fall 2018–after Dad Quest’s weak launch–half the team was burned out and the other half were all desperate to finish and ship something new. Our morale was low, we canceled a project we had been hopeful about, and half the team rallied to come up with a concept that we thought we could ship "in two weeks." That was an early version of Pupperazzi.

As you’d expect, it actually took us two months just to finish the prototype. This first version was a competitive dogspotting game where players would go head-to-head in an arena to get the best photo. It was cute, it was fun, we had a good time playing it.

It wasn’t really "finished," but since we wanted to ship something, we made itch and Steam store pages and got ready to release it, including 2 more months of launch preparation. Before launch it went into hiatus due to some internal strife about its quality and particularly about the potential of it being a larger experience. Everyone thought Pupperazzi had a ton of potential, but where that potential was, was strongly disputed–especially by the Sundae Month owners.

Four Months Later

By early 2019, about half of our team was working on Pupperazzi. The rest were working on two longer-term client projects, and two-three internal projects, which we called Barista Witch and Autumn's End. Part of the problem here is that we never actually called the first stage of development ideation or pre-production–we just said we were making a new video game. We had to fulfill ourselves creatively, since our "two week Pupperazzi project" was technically done and we stopped working on it.

In spring 2019 we decided to reboot Pupperazzi. There were fewer and fewer folks working on it, but we felt it was the most marketable concept, and something we could finish if we started over from scratch. We started with a solo mode (something to play if you didn’t have any friends nearby), and added a social media theme of posting pictures of dogs to get internet-famous.

Narrative design started getting complicated, on paper, while we developed the basic features (interface, movement, photo saving, dog A.I., etc). Meanwhile multiple artists were already on the team and had nothing to do, so they started building environments that were later completely scrapped. (In other words, progress was slow.)

Huge shout-out to Alexis and Campbell for making such beautiful art, but in spring 2019 we realized we had gorgeous pieces but no core game loop to build off of. We also had several "playable" levels, but with the core gameplay unfinished, they were being designed for game mechanics that didn't exist yet.

The Existential Crisis

This is the cycle of chaos, which became the core problem of Sundae Month for years, which was exemplified most clearly by Pupperazzi.

We never crunched. We worked 32-hour weeks. Yet somehow we had one creative project per owner, plus two contracts, all at once. With our attention split like this, there obviously wasn’t a lot of other time leftover to make centralized processes and have effective prototyping, greenlighting, or production habits.

We’d have plenty of meetings, but meetings alone are not a production process. Each time, we’d decide to just keep going as we were. Our internal game production lacked focus and obviously wasn’t making us money, but we kept a steady 50-60 percent load of contracts.

Dad Quest (2018) was in development for four years, and it took a lot out of us. We’re still very proud of it, but it didn’t succeed financially, so it hurt our confidence. The money we got from our publisher jumpstarted us out of college, but when sales were disappointing, we asked ourselves whether we’d end up doing contract work forever. It added to the pressure to find and create the "perfect" next game, and made us question what was wrong with our process, that we were able to make more money and win awards via contracts but not via our own developed projects.

Throwing out work that has stagnated and changing direction can feel necessary and invigorating in the moment, but it has a serious human cost. The uncertainty and fear that it causes have a huge impact on company culture. Even without crunch, an unrealistic, constantly-shifting plan erodes faith in the project, and ultimately leads to resentment and perpetual burnout. You don’t want to take ownership, you don’t want to invest yourself creatively into the game when you can see the schedule is unrealistic and the game will probably get canceled sooner or later.

By the middle of 2019 this cycle was poisoning our company culture. People didn’t even know why they were making in-house games instead of just doing 100 percent contract work. The people who were doing the most contract work were often then funding these other activities that ended up feeling extraneous, like audio or levels for Pupperazzi that were then thrown out.

When we finally (slowly, painfully) realized this was happening, we decided we wanted to dedicate all of our resources and money from our canceled projects and pour them into the game that was furthest along: Pupperazzi. But this consolidation of focus led us to asking, "What exactly is a Sundae Month game?" because two of the three owners no longer felt creatively fulfilled by The One Game that the studio was now focused on.

We navigated this by saying we’d add subversion and deeper meaning to Pupperazzi, similar to our previous games (ahem Dad Quest), but what we really meant was that we wanted something from our new game that it couldn’t provide.

This conflict ultimately led to the two big cancellations (Autumn’s End and Barista Witch), and many long and tough meetings where we had to untangle our relationships and address the built-up resentments.

Meanwhile, Ryan (as a Black man) realized during a period of political upheaval that he was living in a place with relatively few Black leads and as one of the few Black indie leads. He split out his own contracting company as Weathered Sweater to take on contracts and improve his visibility.

As soon as we figured this out, we talked to everyone about the obvious next step when an income stream starts winding down: potential layoffs. We gave people 4-5 months of notice, including company-wide discussions, and tried to operate with as much good faith as possible.

In keeping with that, we decided to extend revenue share from Pupperazzi to all full-time members of Sundae Month, whether or not they were working directly on Pupperazzi (since their contract work would then be funding its development).

Finally, Proof of Concept

Finally, in early 2020 we had a complete game loop! At this point, we had been working on the game for over a year, and only now were we able to begin playtesting in earnest. We still lacked realistic plans and deadlines, and to top things off the pandemic had set in.

We started doing remote playtest sessions via Discord, which would be recorded and put unlisted on YouTube for reference. At this point we realized there were 10 different menus required to be used in order to complete just 1 game loop…. Which was too slow and confusing for players. So suddenly it was clear that more development was required than we’d previously thought.

Due to our decision to focus the company, we could only dedicate one developer to the rest of the game’s development -- Isobel. They would become a solo dev, with a handful of the previous team later returning on a part-time as-needed basis.

Flying Solo to the Finish Line

We knew we had a project with high potential. Cute dogs, players loved to pet and play with them, and there was a functional game in there. Somewhere.

With fewer team members to communicate with and manage, there was finally time to fix deep UX problems and Isobel could be much more efficient in improving the game. There was still some chaos of course, but that chaos was more contained and harmed fewer people.

At this point we also joined up with Kitfox, the game’s publisher, who gave lots of invaluable help as mentors and UI development! Thanks Kitfox!

We still ended up completely redoing the interface at least three times. Fisher, our designer and writer, re-wrote all of the missions twice. It took a long time to escape what I call "secret pre-production"... we basically didn’t realize we were still in pre-production until early 2021.

At last, we launched on January 20, 2022.

Takeaways With Hindsight

What went well:

  • It’s a great game! 96 percent positive reviews on Steam!

  • Extremely wonderful community response, with players sharing their in-game photos on social media

  • The team is still on good terms with each other

  • Kitfox was a great partnership

  • Financially successful*

What did not go well:

  • * without GamePass, it wouldn’t have been

  • We were unprepared for our first console porting experience

  • Performance & technical issues

Launches are always stressful of course, and this was one of our most emotional. But our communication and transparency and emotional maturity thankfully helped us get through it with mutual respect intact.

Lessons Learned

Juggling multiple games and contract work is challenging and risky.

  • Understand how your studio’s priorities might conflict with the priorities of each project. If they are in conflict, projects will suffer and you’ll risk burnout!

  • Building anything requires uninterrupted focus, so always seek out ways to maintain the team’s momentum.

  • Beware the "musical chairs team"! Moving people on and off projects frequently isn’t sustainable and it’s worth strategizing to avoid this.

Know your production process. Have one.

  • Are you constantly slipping deadlines, making huge redesigns, and/or throwing out work? You might be in secret (permanent) pre-production.

  • Learn what concrete steps you need to escape pre-production (UX design? Technical systems? Tools development?) and complete that checklist.

Build a culture of balanced confidence

  • A Cycle of Chaos magnifies every small stress and erodes collaboration and trust, so take responsibility for keeping your company culture healthy and supportive.

  • Celebrate and take pride in your team’s work. It takes time, but it’s important, even (especially?) if you’re panicking.

  • Look for ways to de-escalate the pressure on the project. This might mean adjusting goals and expectations, but it’s definitely worth it.

Thanks to everyone who supported us and helped make Pupperazzi happen!

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