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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 3 of 4 Next
 

5. Quality of Execution

Another thing we put a lot of focus on was the quality of execution. We focused on high quality visuals, and went through a lot of iteration. If you make a game, it's worth iterating extensively, because you not only notice bugs or shortcomings, but you'll also do something colloquially called "polishing." Of course, it requires time and work, but in this industry -- in our opinion -- polishing is absolutely necessary. As a result, in users' and critics' feedback, there was often mention of the game being "incredibly polished" or even "better polished than some triple-A titles." The iOS version reflects that clearly -- its Metacritic score is 94!

Until a game is a real breakthrough, with one particular feature bringing everyone to their knees, the quality perceived by the player is often defined by the quality of its weakest component. A game with beautiful graphics crashing every three minutes, or a super smooth game with crappy audio, won't be perceived a quality title. Because it's risky to rely on creating a genius game, if you're hungry for good reviews, you have to include a constant fight for quality as part of your development process.

The first step in assuring the quality was scoping the project correctly; for example, we didn't include multiplayer because we didn't feel confident we could do a good job with the time and resources available to us. We decided to do less, but make it better.

The second was having the right art director. Let's face it; a quality title needs a high quality, coherent visual style. A good art director can develop that style and lead the team to follow it. This is exactly what our art director did.

Gameplay-wise, it takes a lot of prototyping and playtesting. When we started an "inverted tower defense" project, we created the first prototype. It was boring. So was the second. The third one did the trick. Same with each of the gameplay mechanics: they were prototyped, played by us, and then by testers. We judged them by our feelings and our observations of others playing, and then decided what to do with them. If a mechanic was okay, we made it good; if it was good, we made it even better. If it was ugly, we threw it away.

So we iterated. A lot. And we constantly improved. Plus we paid a lot of attention to the details. Everyone strived to improve the quality of his area of the game. The programmers fought for the last frame per second, the artists for UI to show up nicely and smoothly, the audio engineer to balance the sound levels, and so on. We made tons of small touches here and there to make the game look expensive and feel pro. If you don't do it, expect feedback saying your stuff is "undercooked." It sounds obvious, but some indies don't do that.

Additionally...

In the early startup phase, our capabilities were limited. Luckily, we knew a few skilled programmers and graphic artists we'd worked with in the past. We outsourced different parts of the code and graphical assets to those people, which allowed the core team to focus on the big picture of the game. In this case, the outsource model worked really well, because we knew our external contractors well. From our experience, outsourcing is very risky when you don't personally know the contractors.


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

What Went Wrong

1. Dialogue

The script was extremely simple. This is a gameplay-driven game, and the story serves mainly as a natural initiation for new targets and missions. And that worked well -- no one complained about the story itself, despite the fact that it was based on that ancient theme of "Aliens invading Earth." Nonetheless, too often we encountered opinions about the audio dialogues being "cheesy but tolerable."

What's interesting is that the complaints came from the UK (the actors and our proofreader are British), while in U.S. and the rest of the world, we saw the opposite opinion, as some gamers and critics expressed their approval of the British voice acting.

Anyway, this is one thing that didn't go too well. The story may be simple, but the dialogue needed more attention, so it would sound more natural, especially considering the fact that we're from Poland and none of us is a native English speaker. Conclusion: not enough testing of dialogue, not enough iterations, not enough work to make them sound natural.

2. Additional Modes for PC and Mac

Most of the players were interested only in the story campaign mode. Steam stats show that only about 15 percent of players launched additional modes (like our Squad Assault mode, which is something like a survival mode). It means that most players got what they wanted out of the main campaign and didn't want to jump back into the game quickly.

What's interesting here is the stats are pretty different for the iOS version. The additional mode in that version had more-or-less similar stats, but another that we added sometime later as a free update brought a bigger number of primary users, and again increased average daily sales. Conclusion: a well-done base campaign is enough of a satisfying experience for a player. The player is willing to jump back into the game, but only after some time -- when he or she is offered new content.

3. No Updates to the PC / Mac Version

This point follows on from the previous one. By launching additional modes with the first release, we ran out of content that could have been added to the game later. Being busy with other platforms, we didn't have manpower and time to prepare updates with new missions for PC and Mac (additional content was brought to Steam during the Holiday Sale).

For this reason, the interest in Anomaly on PC rose when the game was on sale on Steam, while our experience with the iOS version shows that it could have bounced back again when new content was delivered.

New content doesn't have to be a new level; for example, it could be enhanced graphics for iPad 2 and iPhone 4S (both devices utilize the A5 chip, which allowed us to render much more demanding effects and animations for 3D objects) or enabling iCloud features, which increased sales on the App Store, too.


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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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