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Permanent decisions and infinite variety. Create a nomadic tribe and guide them across a randomly generated tundra to meet its God.
Permanent decisions and infinite variety. Create a nomadic tribe and guide them across a randomly generated tundra to meet its God.
2,212 backers pledged $78,017 to help bring this project to life.

Still at the Helm

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Note: although most posts are written from the whole team’s perspective, once again the following post was written by Joe alone due to his personal connection to the events of the past month.

Three years ago in October my daughter was born three months premature by emergency c-section. What relevance does this have to our ongoing project? Not long ago I would have thought, "not much"; however, this month our family was unexpectedly revisited by complications from that difficult time in our past. Although I can't go into specifics, not to worry: all involved are on the road to a full recovery, with special thanks going out to those that are in our wonderful support network of friends and family. It probably goes without saying that my attention was split mightily from the project, and obviously Unwritten Passage has yet again failed to meet the beta deadline we set out for it.

A positive side effect of all this is that the past weeks have caused me to re-prioritize and re-evaluate, both in my personal life and on this project. The "easy" update to post here is "understandable delay, see you next month". However, although we certainly can't be held responsible for predicting a future of personal misfortunes, it's safe to say that three delays in a row (emergency or not) show that the project just isn't really in the "imminent release" phase. As a professional game developer on larger projects I've seen this kind of pattern before, usually in so called "crunch culture". How long have I worked overtime on a project with "just two weeks left"? Months in some cases. Deadlines move and move, but the end result is a game 6 months late that feels like it was cobbled together in, fittingly, two weeks.

After taking an outside look at the project, I am more excited than ever to see Unwritten Passage realize its potential. I feel a responsibility to the project, not just because of our commitment to our backers, but also because of how so many people I talk to react to this game. This is why I've decided to make some changes to how we're developing the project, to ensure that we get where we need to go.

Much of these changes are totally internal to the project (changing up some roles, finding creative ways to delegate work, etc). However, a big change is that I'm setting the beta release date as "to be determined", giving us the time to respond to unseen challenges as they show themselves. Essentially I'm slowing down the frantic pace we've been trying to maintain (and failing at amidst all the instability in indie life). Again, not to worry: the project is still focused and is as committed to completing as ever. There are many reasons to change our scheduling strategy, and making this decision involved taking a hard look at our current state in order to make some tough calls. Check out the rest of the update if you'd like a peek at the good and bad of where the project is at right now, but otherwise we'll see you all again next month for the usual dev update.

The Good

This last month, in an effort to get an objective look at the project, I brought a developer friend into the code-base to look around. A bit to my surprise, his initial reaction was glowing over the state of our tools and underlying technology. Outside opinions are so important in this way, since after so much work and compromise we tend to only see the things we have yet to do.

Hot and sexy editor action
Hot and sexy editor action

 Our decision to create our own technology has always centered around our commitment to give the tools away with the game, something that just wouldn't have been possible in the same way if we had used an "off the shelf" engine package. Looking back over what we have, it's very clear that our tools are going to add value not just for the mod community that we hope springs up around Unwritten Passage, but for budding game makers everywhere. For example: we have fully featured tools for rigging together complex 2D sprites and then animating them from start to finish. Since our game "component" files have a simple text format, any project that is capable of writing a text parser will have access to a game-ready animation tool that is essentially free.

The animation editor
The animation editor

 Tools and engine tech are just one aspect of the infrastructure needed when making a game, but Unwritten Passage is similarly strong in other places. Our game has a unique art style and quirky design, which makes those elements hard to figure out because of how "new" they are. However, at this stage we've arrived at designs for the various elements of the game and not just in concept. We've translated each visual component into actual game assets and have proved that we can deliver on what we saw in the concept art.

From concept... to editor...
From concept... to editor...
...to the game
...to the game

 Similarly our latest version of the game has all the elements in place in a skeletal form, we've identified all the cuts and changes that need making, and we can feel "the fun" inside the game. In this sense, Unwritten Passage truly is "about to be": the hardest work, constructing a solid foundation, is finally finished.

The Bad

Despite this strong position we're developing from, the project is also what I would consider unstable for the actual people working on it. I like to give credit to the successes of the project to Roxlou Games (the company), as it's a more convenient way to talk about the team, friends, and family that contribute so much in little ways that I couldn't possibly keep track of. However, from a practical perspective, Unwritten Passage is my baby. I fill literally dozens of roles on the project, and while I find success much of the time, being a bottleneck does come at a cost.

  When one aspect of the game or design is floundering I have to steal time from some other role. The biggest problem here has been in "production", i.e. my role in scheduling, assigning tasks, and following up with contributors. Because of months of minor personal catastrophe (for all the team members) the production schedule has been in ruins. This means that I've been creating new strategies and task lists every few days, trying to hit increasingly aggressive deadlines. And one cost is that when it comes time for me to design, write, and program the game (and in a schedule that is tight enough that I'm not afforded any mistakes) I find that I've spent most of my time and energy solving other people's problems.

Why We're Slowing the Project Down to Speed it Up

Because production bottleneck is our primary problem, there are a few ways to get the project where it needs to go. The most obvious is to delegate more: find some people to help lighten my load. Here is where we hit a problem related to the nature of indie game development: our budget really doesn't allow us to take on any help at a fair price beyond the few regular team members we have. Although we have friends that might contribute for little to zero compensation up front, that comes at the cost of long deadlines and inconsistent commitments (people squeezing in work between the stuff that pays their rent).

The other possibility is to do what we've decided to do and make our time frame more open ended. Not only does this gives our production schedule time to absorb all the bumps in the road and stabilize, but it also allows us to take on those extra indie helpers that can't help us make a two week deadline, but might help us make a two month deadline.

On a personal note, one of my major moral values in life is one of honesty, and I believe strongly in bringing that to my work as well. Looking at each project, gauging where I honestly believe it's at, and then reacting to the situation is something I find vitally important. Although this exposes the weaknesses in the project, it's this process that increases my confidence rather than diminishes it. I also think that this value is something I need to pass on to the backers, the people that are putting their faith in me and my team members. I'm often counseled by friends to hold more back in updates, but when in doubt I will still relay the realities of this crazy journey, deferring to my faith in all of you.

You have to give trust in order to get it in return. I'm only sorry that it has to comes at the cost of long, boring-ass updates.

Thanks as always,

Joe (and Roxlou Games)

Comments

    1. Creator Thomas R. Moen on October 30, 2013

      Sorry to hear about your misfortune, but happy to hear that you are making a reasonable decision instead of going for unfulfilled promises. I'll gladly wait longer to get a great game than getting an unfinished product early. I've tried a lot of alpha-releases these days and I'm not impressed. Keep up making a great game!

    2. Creator Davemonkey on October 29, 2013

      I find the crunch culture of the gaming industry a ridiculous thing and I would rather you worked hard, honestly and with a decent work life balance. We will get a game, but I don't want that quickly at the cost of your team. Keep going, look after your families and we'll be waiting a little longer. All good.

    3. Creator Sam Brian on October 29, 2013

      Thanks for the update! It'd be nice to hear more from you guys either via facebook or smaller KS updates. Best of luck with the new time frame. Best wishes to y'all and your families.

    4. Creator deleter on October 29, 2013

      Yep, you could even use twitter or fb, allowing the "vocal few" to follow you and enjoy all the nitty gritty details, while allowing anyone annoyed by the updates (although tbqh this seems such an easy thing to ignore) to not even be aware of it. Just food for thought. Planetary Annhiliation is a game kickstarter that I think is being executed very well (granted its a fully funded and successful studio), one thing they do is video streams and such, again following the idea of off-kickstarter media for the interested backers to enjoy. Whether actual video streams would be worth the time+cost for a smaller indie dev is up for you to decide (PA got north of $2mil off KS, not just $78k). Either way I'll support+understand your decision, just figured I'd throw it out there.

    5. Creator Martin Celander on October 29, 2013

      Thanks for the update! No need to rush things! :)

    6. Creator Roxlou Games on October 29, 2013

      @Donald, @Matt, @deleter
      We're open to the idea of more frequent, low pressure updates, but part of the reason we don't do them is because Kickstarter backers are a diverse group. We have a vocal few that are really into the game and want to know all about how it's made and give us a ton of feedback. These backers are great, and they're the ones we're thinking most about when we have to make a big decision, since they're most likely to be part of the discussion.

      However, we also have a silent majority that either want less frequent updates, or actually want to hear from us as little as possible until the game is done. At one point we were getting angry messages from people because the Kickstarter survey was sending them reminder emails that they hadn't filled out their info (the nag emails weren't actually coming from us by the way). These people are also important to us as they've also given us their trust (and their money), and we don't want them to just start ignoring our update emails in case we need information from them for their rewards.

      So we're trying to find that "sweet spot" where everybody gets a little something. Maybe this is an opportunity to use RoxlouGames.com for a "developer diary". I know many people don't want to track a bunch of different sites (especially if they back a lot of projects), but we could link the diary entries in the KS updates so at least those that are interested could go check out all the little anecdotes that had piled up over the month.

      Food for thought!

    7. Creator Hmm-Hmm. on October 29, 2013

      Thanks for the update, moreso for the honesty. While the road may be long and winding, we're all hopeful for the destination.

    8. Creator Roxlou Games on October 29, 2013

      @Donald M Pollack
      Yes, it's probably safe to say that our original estimates were naive, despite the fact that I (Joe) already had experience with making games both in large scale and all on my own. I think this is pretty common, and a side effect of allowing creators the opportunity to take their projects to the next level. The fact is that, unless they're not putting any creative or personal risk out there, creators are going to be doing something new to them and usually in a brand new way.

      That said, I do find that many game KS projects are way, *way* low for what they're promising. Maybe they have a killer strategy that I can't grasp, but I suspect it's just inexperience.

    9. Creator Donald M Pollack on October 29, 2013

      I am fine with delay on this game. This is a unique game in my eyes and I know it only just achieved the kickstarter goal. I sort of feel like alot of these projects are getting delays and I wonder if designers shouldn't allocate more time. Another project I have backed last update was in late May... Silence since then, dead forum, does not respond to official messaging from kickstarter or contact link. So little sign of progress or communication.that I worry it has failed.

      If you were totally silent on progress and challenges then I would be upset. But when you communicate with your backers I feel this is when kickstarter is working at its best. Ultimately I believe everyone wants a fun product in the end. Take your time where you can afford to and don't worry about me getting mad over a delay of beta.

      Just stick to your vision, wanderer.

    10. Creator Matt Giuca on October 29, 2013

      I'd like to echo @deleter's sentiments. Hang in there Joe, I'm happy to wait. But it would be cool to see more content updates, even just text updates discussing how the game mechanics are changing, or whatnot. What really convinced me to back this in the first place was the idea behind the game mechanics, and telling a story as you go across the desert, as well as the art. Any small updates that might rekindle my imagination of what this game will be like would be appreciated!

    11. Creator Devon Cimini on October 29, 2013

      so long as you release a game, take the time you need to do it right!

    12. Creator deleter on October 29, 2013

      Echo most of the sentiments here, I'm a software engineer as well and I appreciate the honesty. Obviously when you drop or lax the deadline now budget becomes your biggest concern. I assume by hard decisions and tradeoffs you mean you've reduced scope (either permanently or temporarily to be released in a patch once you have release profit), just want to say this is understandable. The honesty is refreshing and much appreciated, this is the kind of update I like to read on Kickstarter because I know that if you need funds for another project I can trust you with them. The one request I'd make is maybe for you to make slightly more frequent updates (not so much that it eats out of dev time!) with happy status stuff, even if its minor, just so we can follow and appreciate the development of the game. "Fixed bug with tribe mechanics causing bloody revolt after picking up xxx artifact and implemented shadow puppet movie pause feature this week" would be cool. Anyway thanks for the update and hope from here on out your personal stuff all goes well!

    13. Creator Roxlou Games on October 29, 2013

      Thanks all for your comments. It's never fun having to delay the project (let alone having to publicly announce it), especially following a shake-up in our family lives. Your understanding makes it that much easier to keep the project on target.

      @Gerald Koll
      That's a fair question. We've reduced our burn rate way down in order to make the budget stretch further, which means we're able to make the time frame we're proposing. Of course this did require some hard decisions and trade-offs, but for the moment we're optimistic about our long term chances.

    14. Creator cpt_freakout on October 29, 2013

      Thanks for the big update. As others have said, we're all here to support the project, and while deadlines are good to make things concrete, they can also be a hindrance to the work itself, so take it slow and make the game you want to make. :)

    15. Creator Justin Wieneke on October 29, 2013

      Thank you for the update. I don't know how much it's worth, but you have my support.

    16. Creator Mike Mudgett on October 29, 2013

      Keep communicating. Stay honest with yourself, your team, and your backers... and in the end, deliver the product closest to your vision as possible, on a schedule you can regularly meet. Hang in there and keep up the good work.

    17. Creator Kain Shin on October 29, 2013

      Take as much time as you need, Joe. Your well being coming out of this is more important to me than the game.

    18. Creator Gerald Koll on October 29, 2013

      Hi,
      I backed many games on Kickstarter and none of them (so far) came in on time :-).
      But my concern is (always) that a project will run out of money before it is completed.
      So while I understand that delays happen, my question is:
      Can you afford it?

      Thanks

      Gerald

    19. Creator Chris Haddad on October 29, 2013

      Nothing sucks more than a burnt out team stuck in crunch hell. Take whatever time you need, we'll be here, just keep us in the loop.

    20. Creator Paul Evans on October 29, 2013

      A brave update and heartfelt update. I wish your family a speedy recovery.

    21. Creator Barry on October 29, 2013

      And let's not forget that half of Kickstarter'ed projects is the process/journey of building these ideas from idea to product. This is just one more step on that road. Thanks for the update, and things will happen when/as they do.

    22. Creator Michael "4ier" Telford on October 29, 2013

      I don't find your updates boring at all. :)
      In general, Kickstarter Backers are an understanding group, who would rather have something awesome than something right now. As long as you're up front about delays, that keeps a lot of good-will.
      And, in my experience, trying to hurry just ends up slowing things down. Take your time, keep us in the loop, and everything will turn out great. :)

    23. Creator Tim Gilbert on October 29, 2013

      As a software engineer and a backer, I'm 100% in favor of you working at whatever reasonable pace you think is necessary and taking the time to get it right. I'm sure it will result in a better game, and help minimize the chances of burnout as well. Besides all that, your family and your health should absolutely be your first priority. I appreciate you being up-front about it, too. Good luck!