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Postmortem: Arrowhead Game Studios' Magicka
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Postmortem: Arrowhead Game Studios' Magicka

August 30, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

2. Overambitious and Under-Achieving

Due to our milestone plan, we had this mentality of "having to pull together." This mentality resulted in not only our actually pulling together, but also our shunning existing technology, putting too much effort in things that didn't matter and just plain grinding -- MMO style.

It also made us never able to cut features that would detract from the gaming experience. We instead took it upon ourselves to work overtime for several consecutive weeks to catch up for previous misjudgments and attempt to reach new impossible milestones.

One of these ill-focused features was the magical menu tome. We spent several weeks designing and implementing this book, with careful attention to detail so that each page would curl realistically as the player flipped pages so that the previous page displaying correctly on the now turning one.

This feature went overboard to the point that we were worried about whether the players would be critical of the fact that nothing was rendered on the "filler" pages between two menu pages. I suppose this would've been an acceptable concern if we had an otherwise complete game and were just polishing it, but at that point half of the boss fights were non-functional.

Not only did we keep putting focus in the wrong areas, but one of the biggest problems we had during development was the lack of tools. Up until the first big DLC that we did (Magicka: Vietnam) we had no tool for merging animation files; The animator of the team had to manually open the ASCII .fbx file and copy/paste the takes into a bigger animation collection. This was, at the least, a time consuming and painstaking job.

Another problem we had was the inability of artists to view things as they would look in-game from an external program, such as a model viewer or some other application. Instead, they had to guesstimate and just travel to that point in the level where said piece of art would appear, evaluate, fix and repeat this process.

As for us designers, all scripting both for levels and enemies was done in plain XML, with the same problem -- if a trigger didn't execute properly, you just had to go through the XML file, fix what you thought was wrong, and rebuild the script, evaluate and repeat.

In our upcoming games we've decided to constantly take a step back and just think about which features are the most important ones. Tools -- while time consuming to develop -- will save so much time for artists and designers and in the end generate a much better product.

3. Poor Planning Leads to Doubt

"I love it when a plan comes together" - John "Hannibal" Smith

Unfortunately, we didn't have a plan. At least not a plan that had any reasonable way of tracking how we were doing, where we were, or how much we had left. All that existed was a timeline on the whiteboard with numbered weeks associated with levels and features. If a level slipped past the week to which it was assigned, we would just consider it "good enough" -- even though it was missing crucial gameplay features.

As you might imagine, having faith that a finished game awaited us on the other side of those months was nearly impossible. Worse yet, we had no idea of how much we had left incomplete as we went through each level, to the point that we could only guess that there was no way we'd be finished by the established milestones, and we were far too proud and afraid to bring this issue forward; We instead solved it as we did with all problems: crunch.

Sometimes in the middle of development, we realized the game was nowhere as fun as it had been in the prototype stages, and not even close to what we aimed for. The first time we had experienced such a problem, doubt filled the studio and it caused our productivity to decrease. Without any form of measuring, we kept wasting several weeks on sporadic, non-motivated, directionless development. We tried several different approaches for how to tweak different spells to deliver a more fun-filled gaming experience. It was, alas, to no avail.

All this uncertainty combined with doubt and created several moments of despair, along with an unforgiving feeling that we would never finish the game and go into bankruptcy. In some cases, this fact was so obvious that we could do nothing but to laugh.

At what was supposed to be our beta milestone, after submitting the build, we did a play test of the final boss: Assatur. Instead of descending from the top of the screen to do battle with the wizards, he for some reason turned around and ascended back to where he came from, never to be seen again. At this point, 6 am -- after a long crunch -- the entire team cracked up, went to bed and took a couple of days off.

The epiphany came from an article about SCRUM development, how it could help a team estimate tasks better, and how the data it provided could be used to track progress and estimated completion time. Of course, by the time we implemented our SCRUM solution, it was far too late, but it gave us a sense of direction, a sense of progress and a sense of control -- something that allowed us to focus on what was really important.

As for the fact that the game wasn't really fun -- we investigated what made the prototype so much fun. What we found out was, we happened to accidentally kill each other more often and everything was more "haphazard" -- something we managed to get just right by increasing the power of the spells and toughness of the enemies.

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