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Postmortem: TOEM

TOEM developers Lucas Gullbo and Niklas Mikkelsen recall the development of the wholesome photography game from conceptualization to completion.
Game: TOEM
Developer:
Something We Made
Publisher:
Something We Made
Release Date:
17/09/2021
Platforms:
Steam, Epic Games Store, Nintendo Switch, PS5
Number of Developers:
2
Length of Development:
1.5 years (4 years if counting from the very first sketch + prototypes)
Budget:
$183k
Lines of Code:
47158 (Patch 1.08)
Development Tools:
Unity, Paint.Net, Odin Inspector, Super Text Mesh, AstarPathfindingProject (A*), Amplify Shader Editor, FMOD, I2 Localization, Rewired, SimpleJSON, xNode, + our own developed tools!
Extra:
Super Smash Ultimate KO's since 2020 -- 7266


Introduction

Hi everyone!

Niklas and Lucas here from Something We Made!

In this article, we'll explain as in-depth and thoroughly as possible about our process and the development of our very first commercial game called TOEM!

We've structured the article by sharing 5 things we did right as well as 5 things we did not do so well. Our aim is to give as much insight as possible so we will be sharing more information than we've done before! So that's pretty fun as well!

If you don't know what TOEM is, don't worry. To put it short, TOEM is a lighthearted photo adventure game, here's one of our favorite trailers: 

It's been a wild ride, so let's talk a little about it, shall we!!

⚠️This article will obviously contain spoilers⚠️

The beginnings 

The year was 2018, two friends from the same university were forced to have a long talk about letting go of game development. You see, these two students had just finished some really hard and also stupid courses and didn't know if game development was for them.

During that long talk, a sketch of quirky characters and islands was born.

_1_TOEM_Original_Sketch.png

This sketch would serve to be the catalyst for the two students as there was something in it that they simply couldn't get out of their heads. It had a vibe to it!

Filled with new enthusiasm the two students realized there was a local game competition coming up in a few weeks. After hastily putting together a prototype they called TOEM, the students sent in their submission and it went on to win 50 000 SEK (around 5700 USD) at the Game Concept Challenge competition. This gave these two friends the opportunity to join an incubator and to create their own company.


These two students were us two, Lucas and Niklas! And now, nearly 4 years later, it's so weird to think that TOEM started thanks to that little sketch and its trailer, of course, the competition was a huge contributor to our continued collaboration! TOEM had a shaky development that went through 4 major design changes, it was put on hold multiple times, and then, after all that, it made a fresh appearance in early 2020.

Lucas and Niklas pose with an Game Concept Challenge award

Game Concept Challenge 2018
Lucas to the left and Niklas to the right

Right 1: Kill your darlings

In order for TOEM to become what it is today we needed to completely kill the project to realize how to move forward. It might not be so apparent seeing the project today that it's gone through 5 major iterations.

Let us explain:

Since the initial sketch of what later became TOEM, there's always been an aesthetic that was interesting and had a vibe to it, but the game back then was not that fun…

In the early versions, TOEM was a mobile point-and-click game where the player was introduced to puzzles of different forms, such as connecting lasers to orbs, rotating bridges using a winch, talking to NPC's, and finding pillars with an eye on them. We never really felt comfortable about designing puzzles and it always felt like a struggle making them.

https://twitter.com/SWMGames/status/1026793646509703168

https://twitter.com/SWMGames/status/1019560974897111040

Very first TOEM Demo trailer

We still managed to get out a playable demo on Android where we collected feedback. Players reported that they thought of the game as a puzzle game and we didn't want it to be associated with puzzle games as that implies a steady increase in difficulty. We wanted it to be an adventure game!

We kept working on that version of TOEM, doing several iterations to move it more into an adventure game direction, but after showcasing the game at various events like GDC and European Game Showcase we realized that we could never explain WHAT you do in it. The development came to a full stop in early 2019. TOEM had now gone through 4 major iteration changes in design, looks, and atmosphere, the project ended up giving us too much anxiety as we didn't feel comfortable working. It was for the better that we stopped since at this point we were just treading water. TOEM, as a project, was canceled… for a time.

Here's the apex of the 4th iteration just before canceling:

https://twitter.com/SWMGames/status/1113360180950052865

At the end of 2019, after we've done some consulting and Lucas had completed his bachelor thesis, we did some talking on how to move forward with the studio, "What are we doing next?”

Out of nowhere, TOEM came up!

This time we tackled the project with a new mindset and spent time actually figuring out what to do before moving forward. So the enjoyable things from the earlier versions were grabbed and the rest was YEETED to the bin where it belonged! During this process, we remembered a telescope from one of the earliest prototypes where the perspective changed from "top-down” to a first-person one.

_3_TOEM_Old_telescope.jpg


A gift of a simplistic black and white. 3D world from toem. The square map rotates 90 degrees, then the player uses a telesope to change from top down to first person perspective.

The telescopes from the 2nd or 3rd iteration

From that, an idea grew from using a camera with a photo album, to traveling by bus, meeting funny-looking characters, and listening to cassette tapes. This was now the5th iteration and a complete overhaul from what TOEM used to be. It was being reborn and things started to look brighter again.

Several idea sketches are laid out on a page next to Swedish text documenting different objects like a bus, water, map pamphlet, and journal that could be used for activities in the game.


The result of this new idea and some weeks of work, this is how it turned out: 

https://twitter.com/SWMGames/status/1216009408238452736

Funny note: the character always reacts with "Great photo!” and he says that when you close the camera and not when he's photographed. We just wanted to nail the concept so it was super faked!

Finally! We really liked this new camera idea and how it was shaping into a more flesh-out idea. Suddenly TOEM had gameplay that actually emphasized slowing down and looking at its aesthetic that we love so much. From this point we "just” had to figure out what we could do with the camera mechanic and the rest of the game, and believe me, this was nothing compared to what we've been through in earlier versions!

More on how the ideas were shaped under Right 3: Playfulness

Right 2: The team

During TOEM's four iterations, the team consisted of just the two of us, we magically got connected with everyone by just naively and stubbornly trying to get TOEM to work. Our friend Viktor Eidhagen helped us with some SFX for the first prototypes, which he did for free. We later managed to hire his audio design company "Rumsklang" Somewhere along the way of posting gifs on Twitter, we connected with both Jamal Green and Launchable Socks which ended up composing the astonishing soundtrack for TOEM later on!

This is going to sound generic but it's quite hard and unfair not to say that these people massively helped TOEM's development. They are core members of the development and have contributed countless times with ideas and endured stressful times throughout.

We also randomly got connected with the wonderful people at popagenda which we heavily relied on for guidance and counseling in releasing our first game. Without them, TOEM would probably not have reached as many people as it has. They pushed for key opportunities like Day of the Devs, Steam Next Fest, and Nintendo's Indie World Showcase. Also, Nick Verge pushed the idea of changing the player character to more resemble the key art (made by Indiana-Jonas), which was a VERY GOOD decision!

_6_TOEM_Character’s_looks_change.png

Before and after changing the player character's look

It was very important for us to welcome everyone into sharing ideas, as well as concerns during development. We were all in this to make something we could be proud of, so it was important that everyone felt comfortable!

One contributor to this was our Monday meetings where we shared progress that each of us had made, but most importantly, everyone we're asked how they felt and how they were doing. The Monday meetings usually had a 20 percent update and 80 percent chit chat, talking about our feelings, or things we've done in the last week. It really helped create a solid team where we knew each other well.

Eight members of the toem dev team pose for an informal black and white photo. Googly eyes and fake eyebrows have been added over their own features.

Top row from left to right: Tom, Joost, Jamal, Viktor & Lucas
Bottom row from left to right: Marcus, Elias & Niklas

Even though we were only 2 people from Something We Made, TOEM couldn't have been made without everyone from the team.

And that leads us into the next thing we got right!

Right 3: Playfulness

Pretty much everything in TOEM came from a funny discussion or team members just chipping in with various ideas! If it was within a certain scope it could be implemented pretty much directly.

One example of this is the goat choir for the mountain region. The player can find 3 mountain goats to assemble a choir and the idea for this, like most of the things we've made, came from just asking each other for help:

_8_TOEM_chat_representation.jpg

This approach resulted in us making custom tools that allowed us to quickly and easily prototype all these silly things. It could be anything, like NPCs reacting to you looking in their direction or staring at something for a period of time resulting in an event happening. It's also quite interesting to look at your own limitations when working on new ideas, to restrict the things you can do in order to innovate on the concepts you want to make.

A sketch of a yodelling goat next to a sketch of mountain peaks with goats silloutted at the top of each.

The yodeling goat sketch

To make sense of all the silly ideas that were generated Lucas sketched them out, this helped a ton for the rest of the team to fully understand how it could look. A lot of these ideas made it into the game, and some things were never tried due to time constraints.

Cute sketches of ideas for a city setting, including

First sketch for the city region

(Rascal Kidz became Ratskullz. There's no subway and only one bakery in the final game)

We also just took a whole day to brainstorm out ideas and things for the various regions! This was more or less made into practice after 50% of the regions were done, so it was a late addition, but a good one!

Cute sketches for a harbor setting, including a dock, a fishing rod and camera hybrid, fish, and a food cart.

Harbor region brainstorming

More cute sketches for a city setting, including a newspaper building and several townspeople.

City region brainstorming

Cute sketches of ideas for a mountain setting like an owl, snowman, igloo, person frozen in ice, and blocky tiered mountain levels.

Mountain region brainstorming

Early on we also had the idea of certain characters having a special close-up whenever they became "calm" The initial idea used the skeleton character (internally called Sune) to prototype this. A terrifying mockup was used for a while…

A terrifying mockup of a human skull with no lower jaw and round eyeballs in its eye sockets wearing a black baseball cap.

What even is this?!

The idea and reactions from our friends were so fun that it was made into a thing where each region had its own close-up photos to take, so more proper photos were made. 

Closeups of various characters in-game plus sketches of each design. Sketches include a less terrifying skeleton wearing a baseball hat, a cool bird wering goggles, and a cat in a nice sunhat.


Keeping this approach when making TOEM has been a lot of fun and generated lots of funny moments both in the game and within the team!

Right 4: Our polar opposites

We (Niklas & Lucas) are complete opposites from one another but in a good way. It means that our ideas and thoughts bounce a lot more of each other than they would otherwise and we have more thorough discussions when we don't understand or agree with each other.

A lot of good ideas have been generated from this and we have quite a vast coverage in different fields because of it. For example, Lucas is way more into the creative side of making a game while Niklas is more on the technical side.

Another funny thing we realized during a podcast interview is that our personalities flip during development and outside the development. Niklas is more outgoing and loves talking, but in development, he's more into the backend where no one sees him, Lucas is the vice versa! Pretty fun.

Having these opposite personalities can be a blessing sometimes.

Right 5: Incubator

Back in 2018, Something We Made was fortunate enough to get a spot at an incubator called Blekinge Business Incubator (BBI) after winning the Game Concept Challenge. We got a ton of insight into how running a company works and what resources we could utilize.

In hindsight, we owe a lot to BBI for our survival but here are the major factors that contributed:

1: Incubator verification grants

The incubator has a specific grant focused on verifying one's products, with this we managed to attend GDC 2019 and spend a week in San Francisco. This trip was a big motivational boost and it felt surreal being there. We met devs and made new friends that we couldn't have made otherwise.

In conjunction with GDC, TOEM also got a spot at European Game Showcase which made us work hard to get a new demo ready. The EGS trailer can be seen under the Right 1: Kill your darlings chapter.

2: Office space

The incubator offered small office spaces that were available for free when paying the incubator's small service fee! It was a small space, but it was our small space.

_16_TOEM_Initial_Office_photo_1_of_3.jpg

_17_TOEM_Initial_Office_2_of_3.jpg

_18_TOEM_Initial_Office_3_of_3.jpg

I think a lot of our success comes from this little office. We made many videos, we spent many late nights, and the office slowly grew to a more polished space, just like TOEM.

3: Quarterly check-ups and general guidance

We had people to hold us accountable for our work. Neither of us (Lucas and Niklas) valued these meetings in the present but looking back, they had their purpose. They forced us to try looking forward and try to plan things out.

Wrong 1: Not expressing how we felt

Unfortunately, we had some darker periods during the development resulting in a lot of unnecessary fighting and stupid arguments. It got so bad once that we even talked about splitting up and dropping it all.

It's not hard to imagine tension building up when you're working so close to each other, spending almost 50 percent of our days in the same space. For example, one of our biggest fights we had was when we both felt that we were working harder than the other, which was a really rough fight as we both had irritations that had built up for a long time and everything came out at once. A big fight..!

Since we don't have set work hours, it resulted in not knowing what the other one is doing while not at the office. Eventually, the bubble popped and we started arguing over who worked more. After a long talk, we ended up fixing this by making sure that ALL tasks: answering emails, brainstorming, rough sketches, etc. all got written up as tasks. Before, only the ones that would end up in the game would be displayed on our task board. But now everything was written up in plain sight and once that was done, we saw that we both work a lot, but not necessarily more than the other.

Another key thing we made into standard practice was to be very clear with how we felt, being upfront and hurting sometimes. It can be hard but it's always for the better.

There have been two sayings during the whole project and those were

1: "Make or Break” (Bära eller brista)

This one is mostly used by Niklas but in Swedish, "Bära eller brista” is a reminder that you must say that very thing you want to say, even though it's tough. Cause in the end, that thing you want to say will come out, if not in words it will be in irritation, anger, or as mentioned above, a big fight.

So it's way better to go for it, be honest, and say what you want to say cause it will Make or Break us further down the line either way. If it comes out as words and not in another form there's a way bigger chance of actually handling the issue without having to fight.

2: "We only fight cause we care”

This is a good one. That said, it's hard to remember it in the heat of an argument.

Imagine working on something you don't care about, if someone suggests a major change or disagrees with whatever you have contributed, it won't really affect you. But as soon as whatever you are working on becomes a bit personal or if it's somewhat of a passion project, then all criticism hurts.

ON THE OTHER HAND, if you do care as we did for TOEM, oh boy will there be fights and grumpy looks for a while. But in the end, this phrase reminds us that the fights are a sign of caring for the work we're doing. We simply want to do our best, and sometimes that's challenging.

Wrong 2: Underestimate how much time certain things take

As we tend to freeball our ideas, we usually overshoot at the last second, so when things get complicated or pressed on time, things easily slip out of our hands…

Our planning went something like this: We sat down talking about each of the areas that we wanted the player to visit, and once we closed in on development (for that specific area) we brainstormed ideas and quests that could take place in that region. This works for us and we felt confident that we could finish the majority of the ideas for launch!

Now here is where things didn't work out: So in the Harbor Region, called Stanhamn, we wanted the player to get an attachable honk for the camera! We knew that we wanted a lighthouse (or in the world of TOEM: A Honk House) that the player could visit and get the honk from. The initial idea was to let the player control the big honk tower, aiming at boats at sea, honking at them, and saving them from a giant tornado making sure they got back to shore. The initial idea sounded fun, but when we started prototyping we never got the right feeling. It felt clunky and too disconnected. So we put the idea on hold for a while and moved on to other things.

And when we say that it was put on hold for a while, we are talking about the last minute! The final idea that is in the game today was made around 2 weeks before going gold… It was something that was lurking in the back for a very long time and it turned into a panic frenzy once we realized that it wasn't done. 

_19_TOEM_Honk_Master_Panic.jpg

We also ended up doing overhauls on certain quests, such as the "Monster Spotting” quest, first called "Monster Fanatic”! We struggled a bit when coming up with fun ways to find monsters. But as soon as things went into testing, things became clearer!

Sketches showing the progression of the Monster Spotting quest with explainations for each step in Swedish.

The old monster spotting quest required you to feed a monster cage with candy. It was later changed to the monster hiding if they could see the player, utilizing the usage of the tripod and camera more!

We could probably have spent more time on the planning side of things, not only for the scope of the game but for our own sanity as well. During the end of development, there were a lot of things happening all at once and it quickly became a "do 100 things at the same time” situation.

So more future-proofing planning in the future!

Wrong 3: Our polar opposites

As we briefly mentioned in Right 4: Our polar opposites, both of us are complete opposites from each other, and just like a coin, there are two sides to it.

Looking at the bad side of our opposites shows that it took us so much time and energy to simply understand what the other one is talking about… It happens all the time when discussing something and we get frustrated that the other one isn't understanding.

We also end up clashing a lot when moving forward with design decisions or gameplay elements because the other one isn't seeing the fun in it. Having these opposite personalities can be a curse sometimes but we became honest about how we felt and persevered!

In the end, our differences were for the better. It makes us reevaluate our own ideas and forces us to figure out why we think a thing will be cool or not. TOEM would not have become what it is without the stupid stubbornness of both parties haha!

Wrong 4: Missing out on more playtesting

As development went on we created a Discord to update people on the game as well as hosting an alpha-playtest where we could communicate with playtesters. In the beginning, it was a great way to check if people enjoyed TOEM or not, to find bugs, etc. It helped a ton to see what was unclear or too difficult to understand. There are some very dedicated players out there who want to help out, so utilizing that early on was great for the game!

At the early stages of development, TOEM was only playable using point and click. Testers on PC were fine with it but since we aimed to release it on consoles we needed to reevaluate our controls a bit. We added in a cursor that could be controlled with the joystick as that seemed like the easiest thing to do at the time. Think of Destiny 2's menus. This resulted in a bad gameplay experience which our testers and platform holders flagged! Changing to control the character with direct input instead (steering the player character entirely with the direction of the joystick, typical third-person movement) resulted in a much better user experience and has been an essential feature for the development of TOEM.

So what did we miss out on? As we closed in on release there were too many balls in the air at once and we pushed back on a final playtest. If we had managed to host a final playtest before going gold we could probably have sorted out some of the more tedious bugs that occurred on release, like getting stuck inside a wall and then having autosave lock you inside… Whoops! (This has been patched of course.)

Wrong 5: Finances

TOEM had the fortune of being partially funded by HumbleBundle which allowed us to go 100 percent on TOEM back in the summer of 2020. That said, we still struggled financially even though our budget contained a 31 percent rainy day fund in it. Here's why:

The first issue was that our budget was initially written in Swedish SEK (1.5 million SEK) so when we started talking more seriously to Humble we didn't fight to have those 1.5 mkr converted directly to USD or getting paid in SEK, so we got $150k which is 1.3 million SEK. In other words, we immediately lost 13 percent of our budget, then the USD started to sink drastically during the pandemic and we ended up losing 20 percent on several milestones due to dollar conversion. This forced us to cut down on things like our salaries to make ends meet and delay paying the team, which sucked.

Adding to this, TOEM was planned to release in July 2021 but was delayed until the 17th of September 2021. This was mostly because of the contractually obligated Switch port that we didn't have money for because we'd lost 20 percent of the money, so we had to do more adjustments to things. The Switch port was completed in August so delaying until September was a conscious decision as we received a grant from PlayStation to help us port to PS5, a true honor. Thanks PlayStation!

Luckily for us, TOEM has sold enough to pay every party and for us to barely survive until the next prototype is ready.

In hindsight we really should have increased the budget, taking into account the USD conversion, porting costs, lawyer fees, and of course, fought to see our Swedish budget not get converted into USD! 

_21_TOEM_Budget_Piechart.jpg

Conclusion:

The whole team is proud of the reception from players around the globe but most importantly, what we've accomplished together. As of 11th of October 2021, TOEM sits on 99 percent positive Steam reviews.

Making TOEM has been both challenging and pure bliss! Battles have been fought and friendships have been made. What made it, in the end, was working with the people that we did and enjoying the little things together.

We hope our fun times spent making TOEM will show in the game and that you'll smile while playing!

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