PROTIP: Are you in a hurry? Read only the yellow words so you can pretend you've seen everything in the "Hell Yeah!" postmortem!
PROTIP: Are you in a hurry? Read only the yellow words so you can pretend you've seen everything in the "Hell Yeah!" postmortem!
- I - A short introduction to this PostMortem
- II - The HY genesis
2-2 - Two prototypes, different reactions from publishers... Why?
- III - The main HY production challenges
3-2 - Writing jokes in another language of yours
3-3 - Taking risks on Game Design
3-4 - See the bright side
3-5 - Production value VS readability
3-6 - The same game on different platforms.
- IV - Let's learn to delegate!
4-2 - Learning to delegate Arts: the control freak total nightmare.
4-3 - Learning to delegate Level Design.
- V - Small studio / Big Publisher
5-2 - When let the professionals do their job, and how?
- VI - Conclusion... What's next?
I - A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO THIS POSTMORTEM
Hi, my name is Aurelien Regard, and I'm the game director of “HellYeah!” (video trailer). I've made most of the game design, graphic design and level design of the game.
As you will definitely notice it, I'm trying my best but my English is not that good, and to make it worse, it's my first PostMortem ever. I hope you'll find this kind of readable anyway.
So, why this Post Mortem? This came out from a Game Connection in Paris, where I was asked to talk about my work for nearly an hour. Then I felt like people still have some questions about “HellYeah!”, like "How did you make this particular thing I like? Why is this other thing not that great? What are the next projects?". Well... Let's honestly talk about it!
Note: You could sometimes find this document being a Mea Culpa or something. This is not. I really feel we gave all we could to make a super great game. I'm proud of the team, and I think some parts of HY are really, really good. But we (and mostly I) made some mistakes too, and for the future it's important to take notes about it, in order to improve and make better games.
If you're a small studio, and wonders what could happen if you were suddenly on a bigger project than your actual ones, let's say with a very big publisher, maybe it could be interesting too.
II - THE HY GENESIS
2-1 | Business as usual?
As a tiny studio, Arkedo has always made very small games, with people having small expectations about it because of the genre. The first one was "Nervous Brickdown" (a breakout on NDS), the second one a casual shoot'em up ("Big Bang Mini" on NDS), and the next ones were very small neo-retro games on the Xbox Indie Channel (the Arkedo Series like the classic platformer "Jump!").
Every time, we tried to promise small things, and deliver more than that, to make people happy. "HellYeah!" started like that, a very small game, but then became a real, big, XBLA project with a giant on our side (Sega). Let's see how it happened.
So "Hellyeah!" started as an Arkedo Series for the Xbox Indie Games channel as well. It was a very small project of two people, me and Dimitri, the main coder of the game. It was a drilling game mostly inspired by "I Dig It" on iOS. You had to check your fuel gauge, explore caves, and come back to the garage to refill and avoid game-over. The level design was very vertical, organized in bands of clay, rocks, lava, and you had to dig till the center of the earth.
Then Camille, the Arkedo boss, took the risk to make it an Xbox Live ARCADE prototype, and tried to find a publisher for it. That's where the story really begins.
2-2 | Two prototypes, different reactions from publishers... Why?
Of course, at Arkedo, we love arcade games, so we quickly added monsters and enemies to the first prototype. As we knew there will be a lot of blood, we chose a rabbit for main character to make it clear how the game doesn't take itself seriously at all. By the way, he was way cuter than now.
We came to something like a sandbox, where you could go anywhere with your driller, avoid falling rocks and explore the underground to look for 6 ou 7 monsters. You still had to look very carefully at your fuel.
The prototype was OK, showing the gameplay mechanics, but it was not that sexy because a) only us could play it and b) the graphics were still meh, with some realistic textures here and there. We were not really ready to show “HellYeah!”, and the few publishers who saw this early demo, or screenshots of this demo, were not that interested.
Useless trivia: Ash had a real driller, not a wheel, and the story was about a mighty pants from hell, and a king being spanked... then we saw Deathspank.
Here Camille took one more risk: to let us polish the demo, then show it to the next Game Connection.
I reworked all the graphics from scratch to something more cartoonish, and we realized how the game has to change to become a real XBLA game. We wanted to add a real adventure feeling, and have a great variety of situations like in the fantastic Tiny Toons Adventures on Super Nintendo.
So we decided to make the demo more straight forward at first, then add some Metroidvania elements and storyboard it with a bit of dialogs.
With this storyboard, we knew exactly what the publisher would see.
(Note for developers: You never know who will have a look on it. Don't forget to join a video capture of the full demo, so that very business guy can say he played it, even if he has not.)
This demo was more or less the actual trial of the game, with more glitches, areas with retro tiles instead of full textures, and less parallax/wow effects.
This time, A LOT of publishers were interested, and we so happily chose Sega!
Party time, MISSION COMPLETE!
III - THE MAIN HY PRODUCTION CHALLENGES
3-1 | Designing 100 unique monsters
Because of the amount of work, it could sounds like an unclever idea. Well, it was a very good one. But maybe it was mainly a good idea for the team.
That way, we always had new things in the game to make it fresh for us.
Designing the monsters was always the fun part, and it's very important to have fun when making a game, to keep everybody motivated for 18 months. Of course, I couldn't recommend enough to speed up your drawing process (see this previous post) for this kind of tasks.
For the players, I believe it really adds something to the game. You never know what to expect, and when looking at the monsters, I picture gamers saying "what the hell is this new ...thing...?" or just smile. It really adds some surprise elements compared to more generic enemies.
In the same time, it made very difficult to add additional animations like "the monster is preparing to shoot, 3, 2, 1..." because I would have 100 of them to make, one for each monster. Sometimes the game can lack of these warnings while using only particles, shaders or HUD elements, making the enemies actions less clear. (Noted for next projects.)
3-2 | Writing jokes in another language of yours
Nobody in the team is born American. So we had our dialogs and jokes in our language, and had to make it translated, or adapted, or completely changed so it actually makes sense in this futuristic language called English.
Some of the texts come from Camille, the Arkedo boss (he speaks English way better than me), and most of it come from someone external, that the whole team couldn’t really check because of our English level, and mainly because humor is a delicate thing to share.
Some reviews said we're trying too hard with jokes, that it can be irritating. I think this really is a lesson learned here: we will never precisely know what has been wrong on some parts, because our control on it was kind of limited. Texts in games are very nice, but maybe don't play too much with these things if you're not a pro. (Noted for next projects.)
3-3 | Take risks on Game Design
HY has been designed from the start to be a tribute to the 16-bit gaming era. It doesn't mean it had nothing new to bring to the genre.
Some of the reviews like how classic and efficient is the gameplay, some others regret it, and I definitively can understand that too. On a lot of production steps, we (and mostly I) chose to take the fewer risks possible. Often we were late, and didn't have the time to try and retry gameplay twists. I played it super safe on some parts, knowing it could be more inventive, but knowing how difficult to reach the next milestone was, too.
I still don't regret it now, as I'm not sure how everything could have ended without these precautions. Iterations are the key for brilliant stuff, AND to completely burn a team before the end. That said, I'm for sure willing to try very new ideas on next projects.
3-4 | See the bright side
As a developer, you always know someone who is too busy, or concerned, to see the bright side of his job. Not partying after getting a nice award because of the next delivery, big coming reviews, or others bad reasons.
We will talk a lot about what went wrong, but let's not forget how we received tons of love by websites and gamers from everywhere on earth. That's the super cool thing with digital games, instant love directly in your mailbox. And that's so easy to forget to take it when it comes.
Most of the HY reviews are very good, even if metacritic says the opposite because of their selection and ratio system. I will publish the full list of reviews soon, so everyone will see ALL the good and ALL the very bad ones. The bigger part of it is good to very very good, and most of them are writing the same thing: "HellYeah!" is a game like no others, with a lot of flaws, but memorable moments, so they just don't care.
Of course, some other reviews just hate the game, and when reading it I have a lot of regrets on this title. But I'm quite proud of what we achieved. Some gamers won't forget the game anytime soon...
They talk about the stupid song in the cute world, how they disguised themselves with ass suits, how they laughed when reading the monster index, how the game feels like a mix between Contra and Itty and Scratchy, how colorful is the game, how cool is the OST (get it for FREE!)...
If you have 2 minutes to waste, have a look at this video. Watching people having fun like this filled my brain with dancing bananas.
As a small development team, if there is only one bad review, it really punches you in the face. But “HellYeah!” reviews starts from 2 and end to 10. It's was everyday like a rollercoaster with torture and hugs, and more torture and more hugs. Even if, like a rollercoaster, I'm glad it stopped at a moment, I will never forget all the love we had from many gamers...
3-5 | Production value VS readability
The HY psycho-cartoonish style is like every colors at every moment, and weird funky eyes on everything but the HUD. It gives a lot of personality to the title, but tons of details can be bad for game design codes. It's a trade, as shown in the picture bellow.
For example, we made this rule: if an enemy is made of flesh, you can drill it. If an enemy is made of metal, you have to use weapons on it. It could have been better with "red enemy this, blue enemy that". But we had to show high production value to reach the targeted standards, which meant sometimes to make things less simple to understand.
3-6 | The same game on different platforms.
Arkedo made its first "big" (for us) game on PC and Xbox at the same time. We let other companies handle the other platforms. Our friends at Pastagames made the PS3 HY version, and other studios worked on a mobile spin off.
Of course, it becomes a vortex of problems if the lead version is a bit late, like in a domino game...This maximum pressure could have been avoided with different release dates. But gamers don't like that, and marketing campaigns cost less and are more efficient on a short period. As we will see later in this document, you can't always play with your own rules when working with big publishers.
IV - ORGANISATION, LET'S LEARN TO DELEGATE!
4-1 | Why mixing Graphic Design, Game Design and Level Design in one guy is a very good AND a very bad idea.
It’s very important to have a daddy for your games. Everything is much simpler when everybody in the team know who has the final cut on the game. They follow someone confident, smiling, and knowing where he goes. Of course, you take the time to listen to the team feedback, but, at the end of the day, you’re in charge and it’s your game. This work very well with small games: no long meetings, no democracy, way more efficiency. I’m all for it.
...THEN you make a medium sized game like "HellYeah!". Much, much bigger than your games before. GIANTIC for us. And in the middle of the production, you, the happy dictator, you’re late on your schedule. Because you have way more things to check than usual. Because you spend more time on graphic production, game design, level design or even managing the team to reach a higher quality. And that way, for the first time, you say “it will be ok, you’ll have it on your desk tomorrow”, and for the first time in years, tomorrow there is nothing on the desk of your coworkers.
One time, two times, and even if your team still like you, they feel you’re not in control anymore. And you will never get this confidence back, once it’s broken, it’s broken forever. It’s very stressful for them, and you feel more and more guilty, even if you spend nights and nights on the game and everyone can see it.
One more lesson learned: a game of the size of "HellYeah!" means you need to DELEGATE, even if you’re a control freak. You have no choice. I did it too late, and I’ve not been smart at all when I did.
4-2 | Learning to delegate ARTS: the control freak total nightmare.
You have to find efficient solutions, thinking a way with minimum egos collisions.
I do not like to argue with people, and if you expect things made by others to be like you would have done it, you only can be disappointed, or pissed, or both.
Have a look at it, this image exactly shows the problem. Sega brings a good agency specialized in 3D animation to produce the teaser video. I don't want the teaser to be in 3D, because I fear gamers will believe that "HellYeah!" has a 3D gameplay, and then will be disappointed. So they try to make it 2D.
I spent weeks and weeks to check things and ask for corrections with our producer Nicolas. At the end, the teaser is just OK, but not that great. And it's the very first thing seen by everyone, before actual game shots or arts, and it's still the first results in google images forever.
Now that "HellYeah!" is far from us, it's clear I should have done this: the game intro, the island mode, the cartoon teaser, all of this should have been made in completly different styles from mine. I had real trouble to get others to draw with my style. It just didn't work, and the result in the game is meh in some parts.
Not because they were bad, each times they were talented people, but because MY BRIEF was not smart at all.
-The teaser? It could have been made of clay, or Southpark paper.
-The intro could have been made with a real Ash puppet, like the cool ending of the game made by Stephane.
- "The island" mode could have been made in an 8-bit style or something.
That way, we would had more chances to get great things, and we would have get even more craziness for the game. But I've thought about it way too late...
4-3/ Learning to delegate LEVEL DESIGN
For the level design, we found something (yay!). I made the whole level design on paper at first, and our producer Nicolas transformed these drafts in real levels with our tools. Then I added the decorations and all the visual stuff after him. That was efficient; Nicolas just saved me on this one during the whole production, without losing control on something I cared.
On a side note: the more you work with your own tools, the more difficult it is to ask for help in emergency.
I had this problem with our particles editor, it took quite some times to others to get into it, because it was not a commercial product, but something less user friendly, only made for internal usage.
The same goes for every tool, I guess, and it can be something to keep in mind when looking for help: will you spend more time to explain things than actually just do it? If you know you're heading for a bigger project than usual, couldn't be possible to work with more simpler or generic tools on some parts, just in case?
V - SMALL STUDIO / BIG PUBLISHER
5-1 | Arkedo signed with Sega!... Please don't panic, creative guy!
The first thing to know is how Sega let us completely free for 6 months. They know it was our IP and how we needed creative control to provide what they wanted to buy. Camille did a great job to preserve the team from too much external producing. From this first months came the greatest things in the game, and of course a bit of delay.
Then, the panic feeling. I don't know if it can be useful or not, but let's try some advices:
- At start, your publisher, and maybe even your boss, says "It will be the best game ever!". Hey, they paid for it. Japanese companies have even a name for it: "ichiban", a major title supposed to be very important in the company strategy...
I hated this word; it's like a superpower to freeze every move of yours. That's not the right way do make things, thinking everyday (and night) "I just can't fail, everything must be perfect, the world will explode if I let something go just OK instead of perfect". You'll just think way too much. No sleep, no good vibes, no fun game. So, remember to have fun making your game. Say every people talking about "ichiban" things how they're nice, but so counterproductive. If you say it gently, they will understand and stop.
- Do everything possible to control the content of the game on a creative side, but on a business side too. In the middle of the "HellYeah!" production, we realized we had 2 full worlds and a game mode COMPLETELY USELESS. Even worse, the game would be long enough without it, and in the same time, we missed some time to polish the game and make it better on dozen of very important parts. And we had DLC to add before launch... (...< You're seeing the dots here, right?).
As indies, we would have switched tasks in the schedule, to make the important parts better. But we couldn't, because modifying the amount of content would have been too complicated to negotiate quickly. Now we have some weak areas in the final game.
Let's be clear: this situation happened only because we were beginners on a game that big, and because we've been late. I am absolutely NOT saying it's Sega's fault. I'm just describing how serious business with big serious companies has rules, and how you really have to think of it at the beginning of your game production and deal negotiations. Speaking in terms of "8 playtime hours" in the contracts could have saved us, instead of "X number of worlds and X game modes". Sadly, it's not that easy to write in a contract when things get real.
5-2 | When let the professionals do their job, and how?
Big publishers start announcements and teasing very early. All is chopped in small pieces, and every two weeks websites HAVE to write about your title. Is it still relevant today? Maybe, maybe not, but the classic method is where the publisher show how powerful he is.
Announcement of the collaboration / teasing / name of the game/ logo / first screen / first screenS / first world / 2nd world / game modes.... In bad or good words, you know somebody will talk about your game. What it means for the studio: you have to provide assets and videos when in the middle of the game production. Let's get back to advices. (Note: As for every other advice in this document, I'm only talking to small studios without specialized departments like marketing ones.)
- By experience, you KNOW the firsts assets will be FOREVER the first results on google. (ex: the cartoon teaser of “HellYeah!”). If you give something weak, you'll pay it for the very last day of the promotion. Make it great! As a creator, it's the first and last time you really can control the communication of your game!
- Don't play against your publisher, give all layered characters and poses you can. Negotiate to delay the delivery of the assets, till you have a real and classy full package. If you play it safe, like I did, and give only one by one things, marketing guys won't update their folders for months, and you'll see the same picture used again and again, making the communication boring for everybody. You want love from the gamers, but getting love from the marketing guys could be very useful too.
- Let's learn! From a marketing point of view, listen to them, even if you do not agree at first. They have more experience than you, so there are chances you can learn some good points. For example, how a game logo in 2013 is made not only to look great on a title screen, or on a box art, but as well on a super tiny web banner on mobile phone. Or have your game reviewed by a legal department to check if everything is ok? Here come some examples of the interactions between the studio and the publisher:
VI / CONCLUSION: WHAT'S NEXT?
This closes this post-mortem. I hope some of the topics here can be useful for other developers.
I really can't wait to make more games, but smaller ones, with more control on the amount of content. Our previous games promised not so much, being breakout or old-school shoot'em up, and people were surprised by how polished it was.
"HellYeah!" on the other side was a bit too big for us, and people can be surprised how it's super cool in some part, and how it plays safe or is absolutely not polished enough in others. That the most important lesson I've learned from this "HellYeah!"experience: to give more than expected is the key.
Now the small HY team is split in even smaller parts. Dimitri and I have made a tiny arcade game for Arkedo, it's in Beta now, I think you could hear of it very soon. I'm learning new things on my side too, like scripting in Game Maker to be able to try new or weird game ideas. With all these lessons learned, I can't wait to see what every person of the team will do in the future, and I'm very confident some new cool stuff will be made soon.
...Thanks for reading!