The postmortem that follows is a reflective look at the development process, obstacles and successes for a game project undertaken by a group of students at Bloomfield College. Located in Bloomfield, New Jersey, the college has run a very successful game development program for the past 4 years, and coordinates both programming and design tracks in a collaborative, experiential learning environment. It is built on long-standing programs in graphic arts, animation, digital video, multimedia, audio engineering, and computer information systems, and collaborates with other disciplines such as English, humanities, and the social sciences.
Students from both tracks come together during their final year to work on a substantial game project. The goal of the project is not necessarily to complete and entire game, but to create at least 15 minutes of highly polished and fun gameplay. Very often this results in a functional demo piece for larger game concepts, but can produce a complete game for smaller, more casual games. When they are done, the students should have a top-notch portfolio piece that they can hand to a potential employer that can be played for 5-10 minutes and that will showcase the specific skills of the student. They can say "I did X, Y, and Z on the game. What do you think?"
While the idea of creating a demo piece doesn't sound like a serious project to some people, these are in the very least slices of a complete game, and require a significant amount of time and effort to complete. Just think of what it would take to create just one complete level of a game you've played recently. The typical project is a group of five people working for eleven months through 3-5 development cycles. And they have to deal with many of the same development obstacles experienced by professional developers. All while finishing up their final year of coursework, which often includes an intensive Internship as well. This culminating experience is a true test of the students' abilities, and the projects have all been extremely impressive. This postmortem is from one the best groups to graduate from the program.
Assistant Professor of Game Development
Creative Arts & Technology Division
Bloomfield NJ, 07003
Lori Cerchio, Producer
This was the first game for the Dark Utopia team and we all approached it with some fresh and new ideas. At our first design meeting in the summer of '07, there were several genres we had talked about. Making a Massively Multiplayer Online Game would be too much work in the little time we had and working in all 3D was too advanced and "hardcore" for us. Eventually, we decided on a 2D side-scroller action game, with some key elements in 3D. But it wasn't always easy as pie to make and there were many things that went right and wrong.
There are five of us on the team: Thomas, the programmer, was in charge of coding and was basically the backbone to our game. He used a game engine already built so he had more time to work on the gameplay itself; Mario was the artist and he came up with the concepts and drew every background. He worked long hours and many days to get the right look and feel to each of the levels; Cory was the 3D modeler and was also in charge of the music and sound effects. He modeled the main character, along with the boss character, in 3D to give it some substance in the 2D world. He also created sound loops that play in the background of every level and the title screen; Josh was in charge of promoting our game and designed the plushies and t-shirts that we gave away; Then there is me, I was in charge of making sure everyone did their tasks on time so we weren't behind on any of the work. I updated the production schedule and game design document every week that we met.
What Went Right
1. Artistic Feel
We knew that if anything changed throughout the programming or storyline, that the art of the project would drive us home. Mario did such a great job with the look and feel of the whole game that players wouldn't need to know the storyline to finish the game. By just playing the game, you can tell the setting (medieval) and understand what kind of environment the main character, Percival, is in.
Throughout each level, the look and feel has been the same. It is still medieval but in some cases, with a variety of different backgrounds to it, such as a dungeon, towns square, and an eerie lake. To get this look, Mario had to do a lot of research. He researched online for medieval castles, weapons, people, landscapes, and even clothing. We tried to be as accurate as we could with the timeframe we had, making sure this wasn't just a big "fantasy" game.
2. Clear Goals
There were many changes we had to make in order for us to get this game done on time. Not only did we need to have clear goals, but the adjustment of changes was key to finishing any aspect of the game. There were originally three different bosses and two different locations we took out of the game. There were many reasons for this; for one we felt like we wanted to polish up the three levels we had instead of making five levels that were sub-par. Secondly, we basically couldn't finish all that work in the given amount of time we had. By having three polished locations and one final boss, we are excited to show it off, even if it is a demo for the larger version.
Since we did make a lot of changes to the game, the production schedule and Game Design Document had to be updated constantly. Even issues we didn't take into account, such as marketing and the Behind-The-Scenes video (which can be found here, along with the game) were last minute. Originally, we were going to put a dream cinematic in the beginning of the game to help move the storyline. This got replaced by the Behind-The-Scenes video because it was a quick and easy project to do. The dream sequence would require a lot of 3D and art time taken away from the game, which we weren't willing to sacrifice.
3. Presentation Display
One last hurrah before our game came to a complete finish was to decorate our presentation display in the art gallery for the final demo night. We had so much fun picking out decorations and what merchandise to hand out, at times we focused more on this than the actual game. Some of the merchandise such as the plushies, t-shirts, and swords we planned on handing out to people that have played our game. I also ordered some decorations to spice up the area by purchasing medieval decor for an old fashioned look. We took a lot of the game elements and added them into our space. Stand-ups of Percival, the hero and Astaroth, the demon lord, will be on each side of our display to give people a 3-D look of our game. If we had character costumes, which were mentioned, we would definitely have been the talk of the night.
Personally, out of everyone's display, we had gone above and beyond the look and feel of the game and really made people feel like they were there in the medieval times. It might not sound like much but I will try my best to describe the display. Our section was in the corner of the room and we had two walls to work from. One wall was covered completely by a stone wall "look-alike" plastic covering. We needed this to cover up the existing white cement-looking wall on that side so instead of feeling like you are in a school, you are in a castle. On top of the stone wall covering, we added in big pictures of a dungeon door and windows. (Side note: I had purchased a medieval set of decorations so we put most of them on display.) Half of the other wall was covered by a big black sheet which displayed some pseudo-torches and our game's t-shirt. The other half was blank (all white) and here is where we displayed our game posters and landscaped screen shot of the city's background. Cattycornered between the two walls was a table with two computers on it. Our game was playable on one computer and our Behind-the-Scenes video was on the other. In-between, there was room to put our design document and art bible for people to browse. To top it off, we had two cardboard stand-ups on each side of our display, one of Astaroth and one of Percival.
What Went Wrong
1. Slow Start
We first met as a group in the summer of 2007 and thought we had made clear goals for ourselves. With many people not having time that summer to work on it, we initially started the game the following September. The start of the whole project was very slow, we figured we had enough time to get everything done. With this being my first project as a Producer, I set realistic goals in the beginning of the semester. I didn't know anyone's level of talent or how far they can be pushed. I put a lot of the work to be finished within the first semester, knowing that if nobody did their part then we would be in crunch time in the Spring. However, some aspects of the game I knew would have to wait until we were almost done in May (such as Marketing) and that things kept getting pushed back in the schedule.
Initially, I decided nothing can get pushed back for more than two weeks since we had a lot to do in a little amount of time. In the beginning of the Fall semester, things were working out as planned but soon after that in the January '08 break, projects took longer to complete. We had a solid game to present for the mid-term in February but we wanted as much of our initial vision to be complete. Even though we had taken some levels out of the game, I am proud to show what we have accomplished for our final display back in May.
2. Not Enough Beta Time
During the Alpha stages of the game, we found a lot of glitches and issues that needed to be worked out before we could call it complete. The Production Schedule had testing scheduled in it but it slowly got replaced by more features getting placed into the game. Third parties rarely played our game and every time they did, we found more problems to fix. There weren't enough players to test the game as I would have liked but it was enough to find and fix the glitches. Also, since the players' testing time was limited due to class schedules, they couldn't give in-depth feedback and only focused on the surface of the game.
3. Different Schedules
One of the major issues that our group faced is the scheduling of meetings. If it weren't for our weekly meeting, we would rarely see each other and solely rely on online communication. With everyone doing internships and their commitments to other classes, weekends used a big chunk of time to work on the project. This is why the Production Schedule was crucial to our objective in finishing the game. I made it clear so that each member kept a close eye on it and they knew what needed to get done in what amount of time. Of course, there were times when members didn't show up to our weekly meeting. This threw everyone off course because we each rely on one another and it would seem that week was a complete waste.
Occasionally, working outside of the classroom has also helped. For instance, we did a presentation for a local chapter gathering of the International Game Developers Association, showing them (professionals in the industry) our game and pitch. The feedback we got was phenomenal and has helped us improve our presentation and speeches. If we all weren't there, I don't think we would have done such a great job. Back when we presented the game at the meeting, it was pretty much a solid game that was almost finished. Looking back, there were a lot of changes I would have made regarding scheduling and input into the game but all in all, I love what we did and how it turned out.
The whole project took about a school year to complete. It started in September 2007 and we finalized everything May 2008. With five people in my group and that amount of time, I figured we would be able to get a lot more stuff completed. But one thing that really slowed down the development process was that everyone had other priorities and kept putting this game on the back burner. If we had to start over with the same resources and time, I would have pushed for a casual game. There practically is a guarantee that it will be completed and polished way before the deadline. But since I can't turn back time, I hope this post mortem will help others making games so they can learn from our mistakes. It isn't easy to develop a game but you can have fun doing it.