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  • Postmortem: The Painscreek Killings

    [11.07.19]
    - Fery Tomi

  • A year later, three high school graduates joined our team. Two of them helped with environment/prop asset creation while the third became our level designer. Similar to the first volunteer, the three of them were learning the ropes on game development while helping out at the same time. We also had someone helping out with the design sheets. Now our development team consisted of seven people: one game designer/writer, one programmer, one on design sheets, one level designer and three asset artists. From there on, we implemented some form of project management. Using Trello, we were able to structure our production pipeline more efficiently and help reduce chaos. Later on, we included Moxtra, Asana, Evernote and Microsoft OneNote. They proved indispensable to our workflow and pipeline, and were free to use.

    After creating approximately one thousand props and twelve game locations, it was time to test the game. The lighting wasn't setup yet, and there weren't any audio. Hundreds of warnings and errors that filled the console window when running the game, and we spent more time experiencing bugs than actually play-testing the game. We did a total of three alpha tests and by the end of it, we could see how the game was shaping into. Almost 60% of the initial build were altered or revised, 20% were scrapped, and only 20% of the original design remained. Nevertheless, we have a functional, playable game on our hands.

    It would take us another year to build upon what we have from alpha - scripting, asset fixing, game re-designing, setting up in-game lights, implementing sound effects, bug hunting and fixing, etc. It was during this time period that we were introduced to the concept of game optimization. Despite understanding its importance, we were unfortunately unable to achieve it and had to abandon the idea of game optimization, which turned out to be a problem post launch.

    Four years after first initiating the project, we entered beta phase. This time, the game was in a pretty good shape for play-testing. There were many factors to consider how the game was faring, but our top few priorities were as follows. First, was the game fun? If it's not, we returned to the design board to fix it immediately. Second, was the atmosphere fitting? To achieve this, we focused on lighting and background music. At this time, the music used were still commercial soundtrack used as placeholders. But it helped provide the feel of the whole game. Third, were the puzzles logical, with the hints/clues well planted, and was the game well paced? This was where we spent most of our time tweaking. Fourth, were there any assets that were too high in polygon and affecting the frame rate? I believe we spent as many months fixing and re-doing our hi-res assets as we did beta testing. Lastly, were there any game breaking bugs? With each iteration, the game came closer to completion. We did a total of nine beta tests.

    It wasn't until four months before release that we realize Act 2B (the second half of the game) was not working. How did we miss that all along? The design worked on paper, and it worked in the beta tests (the alpha phase was too rough and too early for us to spot this problem). Yet Act 2B felt like a complete roller-coaster ride. All players had to do was to pick up all the keys, connect the dots, and all the red herrings will fade away with the real killer revealed by itself. We didn't feel like we were playing detective at all. By then, the release date has been announced and we had to decide fast: to leave it the way it was or redo Act 2B altogether. We went for the latter. So we went back to the design board and spent a few weeks changing the design to the following: each NPC now would possibly have a motive to kill Vivian, and the player is free to suspect any of them. Only by going down that NPC's path can the player know whether it's a red herring or not. It took many sleepless nights to accomplish but we believe that was the right decision to make.

    We worked on pre-production and production at the same time, and found ourselves changing the design a number of times, resulting in lots of wasted production hours and hundreds of unused props. If we could turn back time, we could have focused more time on pre-production, then we'd be able to gauge production time much better. The only areas that we didn't waste time on were lighting, music composing, and the ending cinematic. For those, we planned well before attempting production. The only area that we couldn't make it work was game optimization and unfortunately, that came back to bite us later on.


    (Going back to the design board to fix Act 2B.) 

    Game launch & post launch

    TPK was released on September 27, 2017. We failed to market the game and there were no press mention. A small number of YouTubers streamed the game during the week's launch and after that, everything died down. We sold about 800 units in the first two months of launch, which included a Steam Autumn sale. After that, the game sold a weekly average of 50 units. We were artists focusing on making the game as good as it possibly can and didn't understand the importance of marketing or how to go about it. We assumed that if the game is good, streamers will pick it up, the press will cover it, and gamers will come to buy it.

    It wasn't like that at all. To make things worse, right after the game launched, we received complaints from gamers about falling-through-the-world, game crashing and not loading, bad frame rate that caused motion sickness, etc. We weren't sure what to do about it. Prior to releasing, we tested TPK on seven machines, from decent spec PCs to end-of-the line gaming machines. Other than long loading times on a decent spec PC, we didn't experience any crashing, and took that as an indication that the game was ready to go. But when a number of people experience technical issues with the game, it was a sign for us to look into optimization. Thus, the journey into understanding optimization began.

    It took us nine months to finally complete optimization. Although it was a long time, the results were worth it. The optimization completed right before 2018 Steam Summer sale. The game ran smoothly, the frame rates were running twice better and loading time reduced by up to ten times faster, especially when the game ran on an SSD. Gamer complaints also reduced quite drastically. Although a small number of players still encountered bugs, they were mostly non game-breaking. At last, we could declare that TPK was done. We thought there's nothing else we can do for TPK.


    ("TPK Fully Optimized" announcement made on Steam.)

    Little did we know that three months later, we started tackling localization for the sake of our fans. TPK has a total of over 30,000 words. Finding people to translate it properly was a challenge, mainly due to the small budget we had. Fortunately, the process turned out pretty well.

    One thing that we prioritized since launch was customer service. We knew we had to provide service and feedback to anyone who bought or played our game. We addressed all negative complaints as apologetically as we could, and tried to be positive in the face of troll comments. We tried to understand their situation and put the problems they encountered on our fix list. When players commented on the game's grammatical error, we asked someone to proof-check our content, which resulted in an almost complete rewrite of the game content.

    When some attendees at PAX South play-tested our game and expressed that the game wasn't interesting enough for them to continue playing, we added more interesting content to the beginning of the game. Lastly, we created a demo which included the complete 1st act of the entire game (which is about 2 hours long), so players can try out TPK before deciding whether or not to purchase the game.


    (The demo was launch on Feb 13, 2018 for a limited time.)
     

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