What I’ve been doing – March/April 2017

I find that after releasing a game, there is an adrenaline rush of fulfillment that makes me want to immediately release something else. It’s incredibly fun putting a game out into the world – watching people play it, seeing reviews come in, and even just absolving yourself of the responsibility to keep working on the thing. Just a few days after pushing the final(ish) patches for Bucket Detective, I began searching for my next project. I wanted to make another game, a bigger one, or so I thought. I made a bunch of paper prototypes and even built a digital one with a programmer friend of mine. It was a weird, experimental shooter, which you can see a screenshot of below.

I quickly realized, however, that I wasn’t ready to jump back into making games. There’s the ideal self and the self as you really are, and the divide is a killer. I needed time AWAY from making games, or at least away from my own games, so I decided not to pressure myself into working on anything I didn’t want to work on.

I’m in my final semester of a game design masters program, so lately a lot of my time has gone to that. I’ve been writing my thesis (a post-mortem analysis of Bucket Detective) and taking my final annoying required courses (professional legal skills, academic writing, Finnish, etc). On top of that I’ve been looking for jobs. I put together a portfolio of work done in the past few years which I felt was professionally presentable (this unfortunately left out a ton of student projects).

I’ve applied for a ton of level and mission design jobs and have had a few interviews and done some design tests. Luckily I’m employed full time making educational games until the end of October, so I have flexibility in finding a cool job. For the moment I’m looking for jobs in Finland, Sweden, and Los Angeles. I used to live in LA and currently live in Finland. If I don’t go back to the United States I’d like to stay in the Nordic region, because as far as I can tell, these countries are the future. Free education, free healthcare, huge tech industries, a big art scene, and everyone speaks English fluently. But I digress…

I had hoped Bucket Detective would make enough money that I could support myself, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. At first I was bummed, but I’m actually looking at it as a gift. Trying to make art and trying to make money… they just don’t mix. And after going through the process of Bucket Detective, I realized I’m actually not that interested to turn my personal projects into a source of income. I make things because I like to make them and I like the freedom to make whatever feels interesting to me in a given moment. If I were paying my bills with the games I make, that freedom would be diminished. Having a job, a guaranteed source of income, means that my projects will be a success even if they make no money. And luckily, it seems I’ll be working in games, albeit on other people’s games, so the work will still be interesting and allow me to deepen my craft. Maybe this is a way of deluding myself, but hey, constructive delusions are the secret to happiness.

Lately, I’ve gotten back into writing. I sketched an outline for a feature film. I’ve written random bits of a novel and a few half-baked short stories. I also have a cool game I’ve done rough designs for – a game which I imagine will be the thing I make after I get over my game development burn out. For now I’m content to experiment and focus on making things for fun. No big projects. No commitments or expectations.

Oh, and Bucket Detective will be in competition at AMAZE Fest in Berlin. I’ve never been, but it’s supposed to be one of the best indie game festivals in the world. I’ll be going with a bunch of friends, as well as the character artist/animator on the game. We’ll have a booth to show the game, so if you’re in Berlin from April 26-29, come check it out! (http://amaze-berlin.de)

j

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What I’ve been doing – February 2017

When I say “[such and such time period] was a blur,” it’s usually an exaggeration. But really, February was a blur.

On February 16th we released Bucket Detective. I came up with the idea for the game in April 2015 and started working on it around August 2015. Pushing the button to release was a strange mix of emotions. It felt simultaneously anti-climactic and like an incredible weight had been lifted. I’d never released a project on which I’d worked for as long, both in terms of hours (in the thousands?) and in the overall duration (almost two years).

Up until February 16th, Bucket Detective had been, at different times: an idea, a prototype, a cobbled together but somewhat functional game, and a complete game in need of polish. And more than anything, up until that point, Bucket Detective had been mine. But by pushing that button, Bucket Detective was no longer mine. It belonged to everyone else. While I archive the project files and move onto new things, everyone else begins to experience it for the first time. And honestly I’m not even sure what that means, just that it’s a strange experience to take something so personal and private and release it into the world, saying, “here, look at this.”

hanging with the Bucket Detective team on the night of the release!

a blurry apparition dropping dry ice into buckets

When you release a game, you obviously want it to be well received from an artistic perspective (do people like the game? do people UNDERSTAND the game? are people moved by the ideas you presented in the ways you wanted them to be moved?). But what’s funny about releasing a game, because it’s as much a technical achievement as a creative one, is that mostly you just want the game to fucking work.

In the days leading up to release, I tested the game on as as many machines as I could, and given the less than inspiring performance on some machines, I worried the game might run poorly on on mid/lower end computers. I talked about this in the in-game audio commentary, but I’ll touch on it again here.

For a variety of reasons (mostly attributed to newbie mistakes made by me), the game is quite performance heavy. From not using texture atlases, to not using baked lighting, to having game objects not properly grouped together, the game requires a more powerful machine than it should. Luckily, it seems that the game runs well for most players. Though we’ve had some bugs, we haven’t had a single complaint of sluggish performance.

We’ve had a few crash bugs (which we’ve mostly fixed) and a few strange movement bugs (which seem to be caused by faulty game controller drivers, not Unity or our game), but overall the game runs fine!

A few words on some of our bugs…

After release, we discovered a bug that occurs when players alt-tab out of the game, then return to the game, while in either windowed mode or while using two monitors, which causes the cursor to appear outside the screen or on the second monitor. At the time, however, we didn’t know what was causing it, and there was a particularly stressful moment when our FIRST Let’s Player got the bug. It was the night of release and I started watching his Let’s Play, excited to see the game played by a “real player” for the first time. Within four minutes he had gotten the bug, so I dropped everything and ran to my programmer’s apartment and we spent the next 24 hours fixing various bugs (there was, sadly, more than just that one bug).

Another bug was that I had the wrong date on the first “Quest Card” prompt and two of the Gwen notes. In the birth room Gwen Box narration it says that the genderless child was born after a seven month pregnancy. Originally, I had it written as a nine month pregnancy, so the date of David Davids’ appearance was still written as nine months, not seven months, after the baby’s conception. This was something that absolutely nobody noticed and that we got fixed within 24 hours, but if you watch some of the very first Let’s Plays, you can see the original, incorrect date https://youtu.be/SUgu502nb04?t=3m3s (you can also see that other, much more painful to watch, mouse cursor bug at around 4 minutes).

Ok, so back to what we were doing BEFORE release…

Mostly it was a ton of bug testing/fixing, performance testing, and fixing super small things: misaligned seams, handwriting the gwen notes, tweaking a few lights. One of the major things to complete, though, was music.

Music is incredibly important in defining the feel of a game, especially a game like Bucket Detective that relies so heavily on mood. Music provides a context for the emotions/ideas you experience in the game. For example, we have the intro cutscene that is sort of funny/goofy, but we use music that creates a sense of dread, creating an interesting contrast. Because I use music in this way, it’s important that before we start making music, the other elements of the game are set in stone. So, music was one of the last things we did for the game. I’d argue that I even started a bit later than I should have on the music, because it ended up that we were pretty much waiting for just the music to finish before we released the game.

For the last two weeks of development I was emailing with Shawn Jones (my composer) almost daily, sending him notes about what did and didn’t work for me. I’ve not seen how other developers work with their composers, but I have to believe I’m on the far end of the annoying spectrum. After Shawn got the general melody/feel of the music right, I must have sent him fifteen rounds of feedback with notes like “can you soften the piano key at 1 min 23 seconds?” and “am I crazy or is the tempo misaligned from  45-50 seconds??” Shawn, however, was very patient, and the music turned out great and does exactly what I wanted.

At the same time, we were implementing the rest of the sound effects, and once the music was done, we mixed the final audio. Mixing audio involves separating all sounds into related groups (carpeted footsteps, wood floor footsteps, and stair footsteps are put under a footsteps group, etc), then balancing those sound groups in relation to each other. If your sound designer is good (ours is) the sounds in each sound group will be the same volume, so you basically just have to tweak levels from an artistic perspective (and not a “shit, this all sounds terrible” perspective).

For special situations, there were tricks we used to make the sounds work together properly. For example, our Gwen Boxes play audio in a variety of scenes, some with background music and some without. To make the Gwen Boxes audible whatever the circumstances, we used a technique called “ducking”, which is a built in Unity feature, to lower the volume of background music whenever a Gwen Box is played.

Ok, now back to release…

Once we released (and fixed the most obvious bugs), I spent a few days in bed or on the couch watching dozens and dozens of Let’s Plays of the game. It was a strange feeling, seeing all these people play the game, and for a few days I got a bit obsessive about it.

One interesting thing I observed is that almost everyone (among Let’s Players) used the default, lower quality graphics settings. This might have been because they didn’t feel they had a computer that could handle the higher graphics settings, but I actually think that, as the developers, we over-estimated how much time a player would take to investigate (or even just already be familiar with) the graphics options we provided. Players don’t want to toggle on/off v-sync, anti-aliasing, realtime shadows, to see how the game looks/performs. They simply know the approximate power of their computer and want to push a button that matches the quality of their system so they can start playing.

For the next game I’ll provide a more simple “low, medium, high” graphics quality button at the start of the game, then allow players to tweak individual quality settings if they want. This is something Unity provides by default, but something we chose not to use, thinking it would feel cleaner.

that’s a lot of chaos to sift through when you just wanna play a game

So, how has the game been received?

Well, it’s a complicated answer… On the one hand, players have mostly enjoyed the game. We’ve had a number of glowing, enthusiastic player reviews, and the game currently has a 90% positive rating on Steam. Players are also enjoying the developer commentary, which I was pleasantly surprised to hear. Since the commentary is focused on craft/technical aspects of game development, and is not an explanation of “where the ideas come from,” I suspected it would only be interesting to people who also want to make games. But no, many Steam reviews specifically mention how much they enjoyed the commentary. Given how easy it is to implement relative to the difficulty of everything else in game development, I’m surprised more games don’t do it.

kind words about Bucket Detective

Buy! Buy! Buy!

😉

As for press reviews of the game… they’re a bit mixed, which is to be expected, because it is obviously not a game for everyone. Most Let’s Plays have been positive, or at least vaguely positive/confused/intrigued. There are a few Let’s Players that very much didn’t enjoy the game, but when you read the comments, there are several (although they are vastly outnumbered) viewer comments defending all the things that the Let’s Player disliked, didn’t understand, mis-interpreted, or whatever.

To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone who didn’t like the game actually misunderstood the game, just that it’s great to see players write beautifully articulated comments about core elements of the game which I find important – the satire, the explorations of misogyny, the tragedy buried within the humor, etc. Among players that like Bucket Detective, they definitely “get” it.

Though the game has been well-received by most people who have played it, the honest truth is that it hasn’t yet sold enough to support me full time. I’m hoping/expecting the game to get more press, since there are a few big press outlets that gave glowing reviews to ‘the static speaks my name’ and which seem interested to write about Bucket Detective, but for now haven’t covered it. It’s hard to predict what will happen, but as I finish up graduate school, it seems that getting a fulltime job is in my near future.

That doesn’t mean I’ll stop making games (obviously), just that making my own games will have to remain a side project. Which, in a way, is nice, because it means there is no pressure to make things that sell. I can continue to make games which are 100% the games I want to make/play.

So, going forward! I’m excited to get back to playing games that AREN’T Bucket Detective. I want to finish playing Dark Souls and a bunch of other games. I’m also excited to start working on new projects. I have a ton of game ideas in genres I’ve never worked in. I’m hoping soon to start building prototypes, doing game jams, making small 2-4 week projects, collaborating with new people, and generally just being creative again.

Here. we. go.

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Bucket Detective released!

Buy it on Steam here and itch.io here.

Nothing more to say than that. Enjoy 😉

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What I’ve been doing – January 2017

This is the first entry in a monthly “What I’ve been doing” blog post. These blog posts will, as the title suggests, let you know what I’ve been doing for the past month. Since I’m just starting, I’m not sure yet the tone or content these should have, and it will probably change after I’ve done a few of them. The idea is to provide “behind the scenes” info on what it’s like to make games, market games,  find funding (or fail to find funding), build a small company, and anything else game development related that I’m doing. I’m not sure yet how deep or technical to get, so I’m just going to start writing and see how it feels. If you’re reading this, send me feedback and let me know what you find interesting or boring, and let me know if there are topics you want me to cover.

Art from our Steam/itch.io store pages

January was an busy, exciting, and stressful month! I’ve been finishing up Bucket Detective and preparing to launch, which involves an almost unbelievable amount of tasks. In the past month I’ve created and launched: this website, the Bucket Detective Steam and itch.io store pages, the Bucket Detective trailer, the presskit for my company (the whale husband) as well as for Bucket Detective and the static speaks my name (I never made a proper one), and a Patreon. And all of that in addition to actually finishing the game. I’ve been keeping a daily journal to remind me what I did every day and I have several entries with lines like “I have a monstrous headache today after working for 16 hours teehee lol.”

One thing we were concerned about was the game’s performance, since we’ve been developing on high-end gaming computers, but want the game to run properly on mid and low-end machines. A big drain on performance is lighting, and we debated between using realtime and baked lighting. Baked lighting is almost always faster because you take all the light information that exists in your world and pre-render it into a giant image file BEFORE the game even ships. That image file is then, basically, laid on top of the world to create the light and shadows. Baked lighting has a few advantages: 1.) It looks nicer because, since it doesn’t need to be rendered in realtime, it can render in a way that is slower but more realistic. Here we could also take advantage of what’s known as “global illumination.” Global illumination is the way light works in the real world. When you shine a white light on a red ball and a white wall, the white light hits the red ball and bounces red light onto the white wall. 2.) Baked lighting is faster. As I mentioned above, since baked lighting isn’t computed in realtime, it allows the graphics card to work on other things.

Baked lighting in Unity, however, has disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage for us is that it requires a significant amount of computation to actually bake. Baking the lights in just one area of the house in Bucket Detective takes, on average, ten minutes. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that EVERY time you want to change a light, you have to rebake to see the changes. And since baked lighting doesn’t look the same as realtime lighting, which is what appears by default in the Unity editor, there is a significant amount of time needed to guess and check. Given that I’d already lit the game with realtime lights in a way that looked how I wanted, and using baked lighting would require probably a week of tweaking to get the baked lights to look how the realtime lights already looked, we decided to use realtime lights.

And since casting realtime shadows is a major performance drain with realtime lights, we created a quality setting that the user could toggle to reduce the number of shadows. “High quality shadows” turned on shows realtime shadows for all the lights, while turned off shows shadows on only the lights for which I considered it essential (there are around eight of these which are in “aesthetically dramatic” moments). The rest of the lights have no shadows, which doesn’t look as pretty, but is passable given how dimly lit the game is. We tested on several mid-range machines and were satisfied when we were able to get at least 60 frames per second with “High Quality Shadows” turned off.

I spent about a week working on the Bucket Detective trailer. Ninety percent of the trailer was done within the first eight hours, but, as is my style, I spent the next fifty hours obsessively watching the trailer, adding things, subtracting things, and adding again until I was satisfied. Overall I’m happy with it, but one concern I have is that the trailer only shows the dark, moody aspects of the game, and not the comedy. I considered putting a few lines into the trailer to show the humor of the game, but it didn’t fit and made the trailer too long. I think it’s better to have a consistent feeling trailer than to cram in everything. Word of mouth, reviews, and Let’s Plays are, I believe, much more important than the trailer, and in all three of those the humor should be right out the front.

Some technical info about the trailer – I recorded the in-game footage with a piece of free software called OBS Studio and edited it with Adobe Premiere. I had issues with OBS dropping frames, which made the footage appear jittery, until I figured out that I needed to lock the game’s framerate to the same framerate that OBS was recording at. I recorded the game at 60 frames per second and at 720p. I meant to record at 1080p, but had set the output size to smaller when I was having issues with frames dropping and forgot to set it back. By the time I realized I still had it set to 720p, I had already recorded most of the footage and had no intention of re-recording everything. Sometimes you have to make those kind of compromises to keep yourself from burning out, especially near the end of a big project like this.

the Bucket Detective trailer in Adobe Premiere

the Bucket Detective trailer in Adobe Premiere

For the trailer music, I decided to use free stock music (which is also used as the in-game credit music). Our original in-game music is still being composed, and I didn’t want to wait on the music to release the trailer. After the trailer launched, I began reaching out to press. I started with press who wrote about the static speaks my name. I figured they would at least vaguely remember me and would have a higher change of looking at Bucket Detective.

This month we’ve also worked a lot on sounds. Denis Zlobin is a friend/Russian guy who is doing the sound design for our game, and it’s turning out incredible. So far he’s done about two-thirds of the sounds for our game, and we’ve implemented many of them. Implementing the sounds means me, Denis, and Samu (the programmer), going through sound by sound and putting them into the game, adding the necessary functionality and/or effects. For instance, making sure a spoon dropping sound plays when the spoon his a floor and wall, but has a delay before it can play again so it doesn’t spam the sound effect. Or having a fly sound effect only play when you are within view of the flies. There are lots of little tweaks like this to make sure things feel natural.

Bucket Detective’s music is being composed by Shawn Jones, who did the music for the static speaks my name. I’ve gotten rough versions of all of the tracks, and it’s also turning out really great. I’m excited to finally play the game with the final music, since for months I’ve been using temp music by Trent Reznor from the Gone Girl soundtrack.

Besides that there have been a ton of tiny things. I did subtitles for the in-game narration. I did contracts for everyone involved with the game to make sure we actually have the proper rights to release and sell the game. I made particle effects for things I don’t want to spoil ;-). I playtested the game with several friends, looking for bugs or design issues I might have missed. I fixed a bunch of z-fighting issues (z-fighting is when you have two game objects that occupy the same world space, and because of that, the engine doesn’t know which to draw on top, so it flips back and forth between drawing each one, which causes an ugly flicker). We implemented “partial controller support” which means the game, but not the menus, is fully playable with a controller. I made Steam achievements and art for those achievements. I started making Steam trading cards, but it ended up being too much work since trading cards require something like 20 pieces of original artwork (emojis, Steam backgrounds, badges, and the card art itself). I looked into other indie games, and a lot don’t do trading cards. Even The Witness, with its ~$7million budget, didn’t make trading cards, so I don’t feel so bad.

Ok… so that’s what I’ve been up to in January. February will definitely be an interesting month, as we’ll release the game on February 16th to wild success, mild indifference, or something else entirely. I know this blog post is a bit scattered, but like I said, I’ll figure out the best way to do these going forward. Again, if you like or dislike a topic I wrote about, lemme know. And let me know if there are other things you want to see discussed!

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welcome!

I’m launching this site ahead of the Bucket Detective release so that new players have a way to find us and the things we make. I’m terrible at promoting myself and my work and this site is one of many steps I’m taking to change that.

I’m planning a monthly “this is what I’ve been up to” blog post, which you’ll find here. I’m also open to other content, so let me know if there are things you’re interested to see/learn about.

Check the other pages for more info about us, our games, and ways to keep updated with what we’re doing.

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