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  • Postmortem: The Painscreek Killings

    [11.07.19]
    - Fery Tomi

  • What went right

    1. We made a game that makes us feel like a detective

    TPK was a detective mystery investigation game born out of passion. It was made because we couldn't find any other game that makes us feel like a real detective (there probably are a few that we didn't know about). We kept that vision all the way till the end and never once had to compromise. That turned out well and we're glad that many TPK fans felt the same way.

    2. The game had as many iterations as it needed

    Despite working many late nights, we didn't rush the project out the door just because the deadline was up. We focused on whether the game would play as good as we had envisioned it from the start. From the first alpha test to the final release build, we had a total of fourteen iterations. The game evolved quite significantly during a few iterations, making it much better than when it was first conceived.

    3. Refusing to accept compromises

    When Act 2B didn't pan out the way we wanted, we went back to the drawing board and fixed it right away. Technically, the game was working. But it was soulless and a departure from the detective experience. Not doing anything to improve it would have been disastrous, and a betrayal to those who bought our game. Even though we couldn't guarantee a hundred percent that the newer version would hold up, we knew it has to be better and didn't hesitate to change it. Fortunately for us, the changes were worth it.

    4. Not giving up on the product even if it wasn't commercially successful

    When TPK didn't sell well at launch, we were disappointed, to say the least. It was what the industry considered ‘dead product'. However, TPK garnered 86% positive reviews (from launch till today). At some point, however, we decided not to give up on it. After all, TPK was the only product we have. So we started looking for publishers who would promote our game. Sadly, no publisher would invest in a game that's already out. We also found out that releasing a game in Q3 and Q4 of the year was a big mistake. Although one publisher eventually took us up for a year, their strategy was to simply have huge sale discounts as many times as possible, and asked us if we even considered lowering our price tag. We agreed with the former but declined the latter. The sale discounts helped in some ways but it wasn't going to last forever. So we took the initiative to localize our game.

    Our first localization was Japanese, which we did in-house. Because the translator was also one of the co-writer of TPK, she translated the game beautifully. Not long after the Japanese language was released, a Russian translation team, The Bullfinch Team, approached us and offered to translate it for free. Not only were they fast and their attitude professional, the translation was very well done. The Japanese and Russian languages accounted for most of our sales outside English speaking countries for quite awhile. We then went on with seven more localization. Today, TPK has 9 languages - English, Japanese, Russian, French, Simplified-Chinese, Traditional-Chinese, German, Portuguese-Brazil, and Hungarian - with Korean language coming out soon. About 35% of our monthly sales now comes from localization.


    (The number of languages currently available for TPK.)

    5. Focusing on customer service

    Another thing that we did was to focus on customer service. Whether the game was buggy at launch or ran smoothly now, we paid as much attention as we can to the gaming community's concerns and needs. It was a lot of work and sometimes stressful. However, we believe that good customer service is necessary in this day and age, and responding to them shows that we care both for them and for our product. Not only does this build trust between the developers and their fans, it also raises the value of the company and show the gaming community who we really are. In short, we want to invest in long-term gains rather than short-term profits.  

    What went wrong

    1. Going into production when pre-production clearly isn't done

    This was probably one of the biggest issue plaguing our development. Although the list below does not include everything, they are the biggest contributing factors.

    • We were still developing the story details and working on the design sheets when production started. Not wanting to keep the volunteers waiting, we sent out approved designs to them and have them worked on it. This resulted in more than 400 props that never made it into the final release.
    • The story went into numerous revisions, which not only increased the list of unused props but also churned out more props to be made. To make it worse, we didn't have a standardized guideline on asset creation. Since the volunteers were new to game development, they didn't know how many polygons is the right number to go with. While they had some foundation in CG and 3d modeling, everyone had their own take of the best approach for creating the assets, including the naming. By the time we imported everything into Unity for testing, the hierarchy was in a mess, the game was running between 5-10 frames per second on a gaming PC, and it took a long time to clean up the project file.
    • We switched game engines halfway through production. Going from Unity 4 to Unity 5 based on the promise of a better lighting and rendering resulted in lots of overtime hours and workarounds to fix the problems. We should have done more tests as part of pre-production's R&D before deciding whether or not it's beneficial to switch game engines.

    It all stems from our inexperience as a game developer.

    2. The game was not optimized before launch

    Although this was not the key reason for TPK's poor launch sales, it was crucial from the gamer's perspective. We did not know that games HAVE to be optimized until the game's disastrous post launch. Although we've read on the concept of game optimization such as poly crunching, object merging, texture atlas and LOD creation, etc., we didn't set time to really test it out. TPK relied on realism and immersion which mimics a real-life detective investigative experience. So when players fall through the world, or when bugs prevented objects from appearing in game, or when the game runs at 15 frames per second, this breaks immersion and frustrates players. Although we spent the next 9 months after launch to optimize the game, it was a bit late.


    (Screenshot taken by a player who fell through the game world.)

    3. There was no marketing plan

    TPK did not have a marketing strategy, nor did we understand how important that was. Here's what we did wrong:

    • We did not hype up the game before launch, nor did we have a social media presence about our product. So when the game launched, it was a game that no one knew.
    • We reached out to potential press and game influencers two weeks before the game's launch, hoping that they would take a look at our game. This was a big mistake because we didn't consider the number of games they have had to review prior to ours, and we didn't do follow ups with them because we thought it would be rude. We should have reached out to them months beforehand.
    • We launched TPK in Q3 of 2017 simply to push it out into the market as soon as we're done developing. Later, we realized from other publishers that Q3 and Q4 are the worst times to launch a game.
    • We invested about $10,000 to prepare for PAX South, but only sold 50 units in return.

    In the end...

    The 5+ years before the game's launch was us dipping our toes into the world of game development, and the 2 years after the game's launch was us learning the importance of marketing and customer service. If there's one thing that we got out of this, other than not to repeat the same mistakes as those listed in the ‘what went wrong' section, is that we were able to leave TPK with no regrets. The reason? We did our very best, and we made a game that makes you feel like a real-life detective.

    We are now ready to move on to our next game projects.

    If you would like to check out our game, please visit the Steam page. And you can follow us on Twitter as well. Thank you for reading.

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