This is a very strange post to be writing! It’s been nearly a month since my last post, and here I am writing the postmortem for a project that we’re not fully done with. I figured I’d give you a quick update about the project and then launch into what is a postmortem for the project without the actual information of how our game shapes up after our Release Candidate build today. But just know, there’s mostly only positive things to say!
So last time I posted, we were close to Beta. Well, now we’re close to release! Today is when we’ve fully locked all content in the game and nothing will be touched beyond bug fixing. The Senior Show is May 8th and will be our big showcase of the game as an academic achievement, but we will also be fully releasing the game on Steam at the end of May/beginning of June! The game is fully playable from start to finish with all final art, sound, and design in right now, and we will be spending our time leading up to release polishing the game as much as possible. It’s exciting knowing that our work is pretty much done, but I still want to improve the game in so many ways! But that’s for another day.
I think that Box Voyage has been an amazing experience for myself as a final test of my game development skills. Most of what I did during this project, I’ve done before. However, this was a time to refine my craft and show off all of the awesome design and programming skills I developed over these 4 years. I want to be a Systems or Technical Designer, and I definitely was in both of those roles here! I personally believe that I did well on the project, always completing my tasks and looking to help out whenever possible. When design became light, I took on more general programming tasks than a designer might be asked to do, but I loved doing it!
The biggest “new” thing here for me was team size. While I worked on a roughly 15 person team over the summer at Disruptor Beam on both of the projects I worked on, this was the most hands-on I’d ever gotten with a team larger than 9. There were certainly times where this became unwieldy, trying to figure out what everyone was doing and if something I knew needed to get done was on someone else’s plate. However, I got to learn from a talented and creative team and it gave me much better skills in juggling things on a larger team.
As for areas I could’ve improved, I believe the one major thing I fault myself with is becoming too producer-y during the game’s development. I have a habit of “just making sure” that I picked up from my mother somehow. I feel personally responsible to make sure every due date is remembered, every task in my head is taken care of, etc. It definitely isn’t an issue of trust, but I need to trust my producers more in these scenarios of just tell them so that they relay it to everyone. I didn’t have this issue over the summer, though, so it could’ve simply been the fact that I was working with such close friends! Not sure, but it’s an area I know I’ve improved on over the semester and will continue to improve on as time goes on.
Finally, the major thing I learned through this process is a lesson I’ve gotten closer and closer to learning with every project but haven’t really experienced until now: shipping a game. Granted, the game isn’t shipped yet. However, I think the process of going through alpha, beta, and release candidates was something totally different from previous milestones of similar names simply because we’re actually shipping this product. It isn’t just “work until it’s done and get everything in”; we’ve had the time to add content, polish it, and prepare it for the world to see. Actually finishing what you’re working on doesn’t happen often, and so it certainly feels like I’ve taken a major step in my career by actually finishing a game. I’ve cut things and left other things in not-the-best condition before, but something about this project was different! I understood the deadlines and what we had wiggle room to do on a different plane than before. Maybe it was the fact I wasn’t a lead? Who knows! But I am super proud to have gone through this process and I can’t wait for everyone to see what I’ve been working on.
As for a postmortem on the team itself, that’s a bit trickier without us sitting down and doing a team postmortem (and this post is due before we do that tomorrow). However, we’ve been doing retrospectives every week so I should have a general idea of what we’ll discuss tomorrow!
For what went right, I think a good majority of things went right! This is a team comprised of some of the most talented and passionate people I know, and when I joined the project I was much more excited about the people than the game itself (which I also loved, don’t worry). While everyone had a moment here or there where their motivation lacked or they had to focus elsewhere, we still actually created a full 45 minutes to an hour of fun and enticing gameplay that has elicited positive emotions from many players, which has always been a goal of mine. Our communication started off a little weak, but we grew into it and ended the semester masters of communication and documentation.
Something impressive about the project was how well we transitioned to online work due to the coronavirus outbreak. While we had our share of ups and downs and we certainly weren’t working as well as when we were in person, we picked up online work pretty quickly and made no major compromises to our vision, which is super impressive. We also managed to hit all of our milestones, including bringing the game to PAX and getting some valuable feedback that greatly improved the game.
Moving into areas we didn’t do as well in, I believe the largest area was the structure we were given for the semester. As stated in a previous blog post, this game is fairly difficult to fit into a normal alpha/beta structure for such a short time frame. Each room takes a lot of work to complete, and we knew that the feedback/polishing stages were crucial to understanding each room’s strengths and weaknesses during testing. Our original plan was to create 2 rooms at a time over several weeks, where design would work on testing and iterating on the previous two rooms while the next two were being created. This would’ve blended alpha and beta a bit, but we would have most likely ended up with more iterations on the puzzles. Puzzle games need a lot of testing to make sure they work as intended. Because we had to have all major systems done by alpha, we were unable to get any feedback systems into the rooms. As feedback is the main draw of our game, testing them was useless in this stage. Therefore, puzzles didn’t get the love that they needed to make them truly great.
On a more team-side of the issues we had, I believe early communication and documentation issues led to many unnecessary issues. Rooms would be documented differently depending on the designer doing it, and thus the quality and clarity of that documentation varied and led to systems and art being done differently from how they were envisioned. Animations would be completed and no one would be told, so they would simply not get implemented. Later in the game, we definitely got better at it with the use of our master spreadsheet, but it was an issue that still persisted somewhat. In my short time using Jira last summer and how easy it is to tag people and pass tasks along, a part of me thinks that we wouldn’t have had as bad of a time if we were using a better software than Pineapple, but I understand that it was also just our team’s dynamic that caused this struggle.
This leads into one of my learnings from working on this team! Basically, as a designer I know how important clear communication is, but I’ve never had so many situations arise from muddy communication/documentation before this project. While I believe I did well most of the time on this front (though I certainly had my moments), it was still a good thing to experience to understand how important clarity is when working in a large team setting.
The other thing I learned was that teams really need a strong-minded producer or lead sometimes. There were many times where dates or tasks would be forgotten or decisions wouldn’t get made because everyone on the team was friendly and no one liked to be “that person”. I believe working in a team of those you consider your friends is great, but not wanting to be mean to your friends is a side effect of that structure. I felt strange trying to put my foot down in some scenarios, as I am not a producer or a lead, but I felt it needed to happen at points for us to move on.
That was pretty long winded, but I am extremely happy to have worked on Box Voyage with this talented team of people, and I can’t wait for everyone to get a chance to play it!