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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