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  • Postmortem: Eastshade

    [10.15.20]
    - Danny Weinbaum

  • What Went Right

    Going Indie

    If it's not obvious at this point, going indie turned out to be the best career decision I've ever made. It was only last year that true financial stability arrived from that, but the real change in my life happened when I quit the day job. Despite the uncertainty of not knowing if the game would succeed, it was still a much happier lifestyle for me. I love being able to make my own game, call my own shots, and work on every part of production. I also love working from home and having a more flexible schedule. There is virtually no part of being indie I don't like more than working in triple-A, except for maybe porting, business accounting, and taxes.

    Vertical Slice

    During the first few years of development, we focused on the first area in the game, and kept polishing until the chunk was playable and somewhat representative of the final game. It was probably 20% of the total map size (for those who played, it was the Lyndow area, all the way to the toll bridge). Having our vertical slice segment be the beginning of the game was great, because it meant we didn't have to tell people how to play, or try to get them up to speed; since it was actually the beginning, the game was already naturally doing that.

    I think this also helped us see how good the game actually was. I feel adventure games are never very fun when you pop into the middle without following the threads from the start. I've actually become a big fan of building things in the order they come. Sometimes when I'm lost and don't know what the most important thing to work on is, I find it helpful to simply start from the beginning, and work on the first thing you encounter that is missing or broken.

    Team size

    I really enjoyed developing the game with a micro team. I have found I'm not a fan of delegating or managing, and feel I'm bad at keeping others busy and energized. Additionally, the added pressure of scaling up the payroll is not something that appeals to me. You have to make sure you release that much faster, and sell that many more copies.

    Outsourcing things like porting and PR have worked fantastically, and we're hoping to go even more in that direction for our next title with adding QA to that list as well. But as far as core development, I feel just Jaclyn and I can move mountains, and don't feel particularly limited by our bandwidth there. I'm not saying we'll never try hiring more, but I'm glad we ended up keeping it small for the majority of Eastshade's development, and we will be very careful about expanding in the future.

    Outsourcing the Console Port

    I ported Leaving Lyndow to PS4 myself, and it was easily the most unpleasant 6 months of my career- possibly of my life. Jumping through hoops, reading documentation, filling out form after form, all while identifying proprietary unexplained vernacular and protocol is just not my strong suit. I felt very lost at sea during the whole process, and it took far longer, and was more frustrating than I ever could have imagined.

    DO Games was a lifesaver for us. Matt helped me with the loathsome admin side as well as spearheading the technical. Eastshade was not easy to port. Despite all the performance work I had done over the years, it was not enough for consoles. The fact that I had already gotten all the low-hanging fruit made squeezing that last bit even more difficult.

    I actually think maybe we did not outsource this task enough. Which is to say I think it would have been more pleasant for me if I had actually let our partner publish the game as well, thereby offloading any and all admin tasks. Even if we had given away a larger share of revenue to do that, it would have freed me to move onto our next title, and I think less mistakes would have been made due to my scatterbrained incompetence.

    Twitch Streaming

    I often streamed my work on Twitch, to an average of 30-50 viewers.I think this helped us grow some dedicated fans, who experienced a connection to the development journey. When we were ready to launch a closed beta, a good number of the folks who participated were regulars in the stream, and their feedback was critical. We are hugely grateful to them for taking the time to play through those rough early versions of the game.

    More than that though, I felt streaming actually helped me stay laser focused for hours at a time. It's easy to stay focused when people are watching, and the desire to make progress quickly for a more entertaining stream helped me work with even more intent, poise, and speed. I'm a little sad that our next project is too early to show, because I really miss streaming!

    Streamer Testing

    We only ended up doing one of these, but holy smokes was it valuable! We put out an application looking for small/mid-sized twitch streamers to do a private playthrough for us (paid). Streamers are perfect because they have the setup necessary and are accustomed to talking through what they're doing, which helps us take notes and learn. We will absolutely be doing more of these for our next title; hopefully throughout the entire development process. There is just nothing like watching someone with totally fresh eyes play your game in real-time, and with friends and family you use up your immediate pool of fresh eyes pretty quickly.

    Voice Acting

    The first time we tried adding a voice to an Npc in Eastshade, it was revelational. It made talking to the character hugely more exciting, and, to me, added a whole other dimension of exploration. Not only do you find new people with new things to say, but new voices as well. It added a ton of personality to each character, and picked up some of the slack of our stiff character animation.

    I initially thought full voice acting would be prohibitively expensive, but I found that to be completely untrue. We voiced all 50 characters (around 25k words) in Eastshade for around $10k USD. After a round of careful casting, we let each actor self-direct, and we were extremely pleased with the overall quality achieved that way. We have gotten a few complaints from players about the acting quality, but something I noticed: Every game with acting has people complaining about it. Even games with top tier talent seemingly have numerous complaints about it. Acting quality seems to be very subjective, and prone to being judged by its worst performance, and it's something players love to criticize-so I don't think the criticism we got is actionable or worth considering.

    Focusing on Characters and Quests

    At first we toyed with the idea of making the painting system more robust. Perhaps adding XP, upgrades, different kinds of paints and brushes-but I truly feel we served our game best by keeping it simple. It freed up our development focus (and the player's focus as well) for interesting quests with unique characters. We feel this is where all the personality of the game comes through, and is the primary reason why people love to explore our little island. I feel like the quality of our quests, in terms of novelty, player actions, and personality is up there with any of the great quested games I've ever played, and I aim to make that part of our studios brand.

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