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Postmortem: 11 Bit Studios' Anomaly Warzone Earth
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Postmortem: 11 Bit Studios' Anomaly Warzone Earth

January 28, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

2. Organized Production (No Crunch!)

Knowing from the past that chasing milestones could leave us with heavy crunch time, which was something that no one wanted at all, we made a production plan with solid buffers after each milestone, just in case we would slip. Believe it or not, right up to the moment of release, we ran into only one crunch period, when preparing a master build for Steam; in all of 2011, there were only a few days of crunch time.

However, these buffers were not the only factors that made the plan work. Firstly, we were experienced. If we decided to implement a multi-threaded resource system or local contrast post-processing shader, we didn't have to research the area. We just knew how to do it -- and the same about graphics and design. We knew exactly what assets are needed to make the game look good, and how to proceed with gameplay iterations.

Secondly, the core team had worked together in the past -- some people for more than 10 years. We've already been through good and bad together. We were a real team.

Thirdly, it was the first time we worked without a publisher -- and the first time we didn't have to pretend we created a triple-A title to grab publisher's attention. It brought a lot of positive energy to the team. We felt we created the game we liked, the way we liked.

Fourthly, we were aware that we had no money for delays, or to create a second game. We had just one shot. The game had to be made on time, had to be good, and had to sell -- so we stayed fully focused. No business meetings, no publisher requests, no other options: just the game and the plan. Vertical slices for presentations to possible publishers eat a lot of your time. Think about what you really need, and what kind of development should consume your time in the end.

Fifthly, our plan was a good one. We avoided feature creep, and we scheduled enough iterations. We had a full time pessimist onboard to question every detail of the plan until it was rock solid. If you are planning buffers, double them, and get the worst pessimist to look at the plan and then add more buffers to make that pessimist satisfied.

Despite that, we were not perfect here -- initially the game was supposed to have 21 levels and two additional modes. Eventually, at an early stage, we deleted seven levels, and thanks to this, the work went on quite well. Making games is cool, but not for 15 hours a day!


Anomaly Warzone Earth (prototype, top; final game, bottom)

3. Cooperation with PR

It's obvious that in order to get press attention for an indie production, you need to have a good game on hand. But having the good game, you need to know how to create some buzz around it and present it to people. Word of mouth is one thing, but visibility in game press is the other -- and the second thing can surely enlarge the first one. To this end, we decided to work with Evolve PR, because we're friends with director Tom Ohle; we had a couple of beers together, and we know he's a decent guy and does his work well.

We honestly don't know if using external PR is the right choice for every developer (certainly, some prefer to do PR on their own), but it surely was good for Anomaly Warzone Earth. To a large extent, the solid visibility of the game was achieved thanks to good cooperation between 11 Bit Studios and Evolve PR. We were too novice on the promotional side to do this all on our own.

When journalists saw the game, it caught their attention -- and this is surely due to the game itself. But the fact that it reached gaming press to a wide extent was mostly due to Tom and his people. I guess it's not common to point out a good PR in a postmortem, but, well, here we are.

Thanks to our external PR agency we didn't have to handle communications by ourselves. At the time the team was pretty small, and it actually takes a lot of time to spread the word about the game. Additionally, we didn't have any contacts at major outlets, so our emails would have landed in the spam box. Tom has those contacts, so he helped to reach a lot of outlets, including major media from America and Europe.

The game got a lot of reviews, gaining the coverage necessary to inform the gaming community that Anomaly is out there. If you're a newbie developer producing a hardcore game, I'd recommend a good PR agency to help to spread the word. If you are creating a casual game, this is pretty different, and I do not know a good solution.

4. Gameplay Innovation

Since the beginning, our core idea was to make an original game offering gameplay never seen before. Our design director -- who's pretty much addicted to strategic, tactical, and card games -- came up with the idea of reversing the popular tower defense genre and making out of it not only a strategy game, but one also heavily packed with action.

Development of this concept brought us, finally, to a game with original gameplay based on unique mechanics, which at the same time was a cohesive experience with ample tactical possibilities (as a strategy game) and the dynamic gameplay you see in an action game.

At the very start, we had one goal -- to reverse tower defense. With such a goal, Michal (design director) and Przemek (art director) created a few initial ideas about how the game could look. Those ideas were then presented to the rest of the team and heavily discussed. The team's questions and doubts allowed us to find quickly the holes in design and kill those concepts that did not arouse any enthusiasm. Thanks to this, they were able to create the general game scheme in a fast and efficient way and then quickly go to prototyping.

Before programming took off, we knew that the player would control a squad made of a few units, would have free choice in choosing their path, and move through a maze of streets defended by towers. With these general assumptions and with our base mechanics written down, we started to build the prototype. We wanted to build a dynamic game in which arcade elements would be as important as tactical ones, so testing a playable version was key.

Thanks to this, we could precisely analyze the feel and improve core gameplay ad hoc. We created a few versions with placeholder graphics one by one, modifying each subsequent prototype with new solutions. In the following iterations the Tactical View was added (that's where player sets a path for the troops), and then the on-field Commander (a little dude controlled by a player to run around the battlefield and use area-of-effect abilities), and then the possibility to get the abilities after destroying towers. During this part of the process, we created general rules for map size, level length, and tower density. There's a fact worth mentioning: from the very start, we were testing the game playing with both mouse and gamepad to ensure a proper user experience.

Becuase Anomaly is an inverted tower defense game, we played a lot of the genre -- both classics and twists on it. One major inspiration was surely the amazing Defense Grid. I need to note that we have played some simplified inverted TD games (mostly Flash games available via browsers), however none of them fully utilizes the idea of tower offense gameplay; in Anomaly, we have the hero, his so-called special abilities, and RTS elements -- like resource gathering, and management to buy more troops or upgrade current ones.

Later, in reviews and user feedback, this emerged as one of the key values of the game; the feedback underlined the freshness of the game -- "unlike anything I've ever played before." It's worth noting that the lead designer was determined and consistent in the implementation of his vision. Conclusion: innovation pays off (in this context, gameplay, but I'd suggest that any innovation will).

There's something I was asked at a game dev event in Kraców, Poland: "How would you recommend to work on new gameplay ideas?" What I said was: "Get your favorite game genre and flip it over, or add an unexpected element. Say you love FPS games. Get your hero's weapon and change it into magic wand, so you can cast spells on enemies to make them fly instead of being shot down." For example -- look at one of my favorite games, Puzzle Quest. They took the match-3 idea and added lots of RPG elements. It's an unexpected, weird connection, yet a genius one and brilliantly executed.


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Comments


Jose Resines
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This postmortem seems to be a bit incomplete. It seems like point 6 is missing in what went wrong:

6. Checkpoint system is broken, you can play a mission almost completely and due to very bad checkpoint placement lose it with no way to go back.

Also, point 7:

7. Fixing this was as easy as letting the player go back more than ONE checkpoint. This should be easy and was "promised" several times (by the end of *2011* if I remember correctly), but we're still waiting. Look at how Defense Grid does it, guys. Not that hard.

I love the game, but 6&7 made me lose a lot of progress, so much that I refuse to play the game anymore. There's nothing worse for a game than having to repeat the exact same half hour of play THREE times!

It's sad, but I had to stop recommending it, and I'll think hard before I buy another 11 bit game.

PS. Sorry if I'm repeating the comment, but it didn't appear the three times I tried using Firefox. Thank god for the Lazarus add-on.

Pawel Miechowski
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Hi Jose,
I agree. The checkpoint system did not work well in certain situations - like the moment when your damaged squad got to a checkpoint overwriting previous state where it's been not-that-damaged...
Unfortunately we had no enough powers and time while changing of the save system was actually a bigger work. However, we won't be using this model anymore.
thx

Jay OToole
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Thank you for an excellent postmortem. I thought I would offer a few questions and comments that remained with me after reading your postmortem. Feedback from you or other readers welcomed.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

1. Why specifically was having a team of people who worked together for a couple of years in the past a “real asset?”

I can infer some reasons, but would love to hear more about your thoughts. You reiterate this benefit in section 2, point 2 but do not offer additional insights. I read about how important having a good team is in most postmortems, but most also lack detail that might answer the “why” certain characteristics of the team are important. Sometimes I chalk it up to a type of writing I would describe as “it should be self-evident,” but if it should be self-evident, then why even write about it?

Additionally, were there any times when having worked together in the past made development more difficult? Answering this question might also help me and other readers understand potential pitfalls of working with the same people for a long period of time.

2. I thought your comment “the key to quick and efficient development was to enable gameplay programmers to work on the actual game almost from the start” as very informative and helpful. Thanks.

3. Adding slack (buffers) to your plan makes a lot of sense. Is that something you have figured out over the years? Have you seen other studios include “buffers” too?

4. Also, having a devil’s advocate (full time pessimist) seems to be great advice.

5. You choose your PR based on a couple of beers with a personal connection. Not all start-up studios have the luxury of those personal connections. Besides your friendship with Tom Ohle, what did Evolve PR specifically offer you that helped you feel comfortable deciding on them?

6. Love your recommendation at the end of section 4 on gameplay innovation: difficult to accomplish, but very true.

WHAT WENT WRONG

1. I was left wondering what you would have done differently. Every project includes choices because of the constraints placed on them whether through budgets, time, or personnel. The things that went wrong seemed to mostly reflect outcomes because of your choices to devote most of your time to the things that “went right.”

You acknowledged at the beginning of the article that you focused on gameplay rather than story because “it’s not our strong point.” However, in your conclusion your write “in future projects, we’re going to put more attention toward these (story and dialogue) elements.” There is an obvious risk in doing so—other parts of the game may suffer because you are bounded by your resources. I suppose one answer is 11 Bit Studio will have more resources for future projects and thus can attend to gameplay at the same level as Anomaly while also attending to story. I guess I am just curious if your concluding comments were simply a reflection of what could have gone better or a genuine interest and belief that the cost-benefit calculation of actually investing more in story and dialogue would generate a net positive.

Really enjoyed the postmortem. Thanks.

Pawel Miechowski
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Hi Jay,

Let me share some thoughts and put more light but first of all excuse me for grammar and language flaws.

What went right:

1. Basically, the team that has been working together for several years has some proven schemes or procedures (or even I'd say behaviors) and solutions to certain problems. For example - when designing the renederer lead programmers already knows what techniques would be used by the lead artist to achieve certain visual feel of a game and what shaders and tools should be given to him at his disposal. And the lead artist knows how to prepare graphical assets in order to make a scene being rendered efficiently. The amount of necessary discussions / communications drops down, people understand each other "without speaking", the amount of misunderstandings drops down, the efficiency of the work goes up.

There's something that just came to my mind when thinking about certain characteristics of the team. I'm sort of affraid it may not answer your question well but I'll try. There's this story about Gilmour and Waters from Pink Floyd that they have been struggling all the time to make each one's vision of the music dominant (progressive rock operas vs classic hard rock). And this conflict actually has had a positive influence on the music because each of those creative minds has added an element both have believed would be the unique one while the uniqueness came from joining 2 elements. Now, what I mean is that this probably would ruin a game development process, becuase it is technically far more complicated project and the team needs to have one common goal and one creative vision. If the team is made of people who have trust one for another and they like each other enough to go for a beer after hours, then probably the work would go really faster. And that also means (referring to your question how it was in the past) that sometimes you need to "divorce" some creative person just because he/she might be a conflict triggering one, because he/she has a different vision.

3. & 4. Every developer adds buffers to the plan, but the key is I guess very cleverly named - devil's advocate. Double the buffers because you're gonna slip. Always :) That's what devil's advocate says.

5. Simply the trust we have for Evolve PR is based on their record of good pr campaigns.

What went wrong:

1. Feeling strong in doing gameplay-driven games we will be still focusing on it but that does not mean a simplified story should not be improved. Better story/dialogues would strenghten the feeling of immersion. But is there a risk other parts of the game would suffer? Always, but you made the point right - we have more resources now. The team grew up - PC/Mac version of Anomaly was made by 12 men. Now we're almost 30. 29? I need to count :)

---------------
Hope this gives you wider spectrum of this post mortem.
thanks!

Jay OToole
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Thanks Pawel! I found your additional insights extremely helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write the postmortem in the first place and taking the extra time address some of my questions. Good luck with your future projects!

Jannis Froese
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Hi Pawel,
first I have to say it's great that you take so much time answering questions.
Now that tha't out of the way: You mention the importance of prototyping your game multiple times. As you were also building the engine from ground up, I'm interested how exactly your prototyping process worked.
Did you build a prototype and then start over from scratch with the real thing, or did you incrementally exchange prototype code with real code? Or did you keep the prototype code and improve and extend from there?

Also, the postmortem was great and just three days ago I started playing your game the second time.
thanks

Pawel Miechowski
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Hi Jannis,

At the beginning the engine was capable only of rendering flat "dots" that served as any objects in the game prototype and it was operated by lua scripts. So the gameplay programmer was coding the system for controlling and moving the "dots" squad. In the meantime the engine programmer has added the possibility to use meshes instead of those dots. And so on and so on.
This way the prototype fluently evolved into the game.
thx

Tulio Soria
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Hi Pawel!

Very nice postmortem. We are creating an indie Tower Defense as well. The name is Tank Invaders https://www.facebook.com/tankinvaders

I have one doubt about your launch on mobile devices. Do you release the game with Chillingo? What you could say about them?

Thank you so much in share these informations.

Best!
Tulio Soria
m.gaia studio - www.mgaia.com.br

Pawel Miechowski
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Hi Tulio,

The game was released on iOS App Store with Chillingo and the guys are good at things like QA process or on-release marketing. I'd recommend Chillingo to work with unless you want to do everything on your own. Please remember that in the end the game is the key value but it'll need certain activities like getting press visibility etc.
thx

Jane Castle
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H thanks for writing this postmortem. Was the engine also multi-threaded as you describe in the DirectX9 version as well? If so, this is VERY impressive as the Direct3D API as I recall does not work well multi-threaded. That in itself is an incredible achievement.

Also, based on your descriptions, is all game logic, animation skinning, scripting etc. running on the windows main execution thread and then you have a separate thread for the rendering?

Or is it that you have the main execution thread, another thread to run game logic jobs and another thread to do the rendering?

Thanks

Pawel Miechowski
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Hi Jane,

Different tasks were divided into different threads. Separate one for rendering, separate one for game's logic, separate one for sound, separate one for reading files and another one for decompression of the files. All threads were set up in the pipeline. That was multi-threaded way. But indeed DX is single threaded and we couldn't make much about it.

Thanks

Javier Sanchez
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Hi Pawel,

Very good read indeed!

I am specifically interested in the PR part, as I've read here in gamasutra tons of advices about self-promotion. The thing is, was the external PR a costly investment, or could it fit into a small indie budget?

Thanks for sharing such a good postmortem!

Pawel Miechowski
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Hi Javier,

(let me note first that this is my subjective point of view)

I think there are really good hints and tips about self-promotion or low-cost promotion here but this way needs (maybe not a full-time but still) lot of time to execute. Hiring external folks for pr will save your time but it will cost you money. I wouldn't recommend any pr agency. Instead of this I recommended one I have trust for. The rest is totally up to you. Costs are also dependant on the range of services you will need. So just ping the guys at info@evolve-pr.com and maybe you'll find what you need.

Thanks!


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