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Breaking Out of the Development Lull: The Results

We did it. Let's talk what we've learned.

We did it. Let's talk what we've learned.

A month ago, I said we’re in a “development lull” hell: despite everyone putting in the hours, we didn’t feel like the game was progressing. Our proposed solution was:

Instead of keeping on building the game, we’re dedicating August to building a demo. An internal one, focused on the flow of action, and the minute-to-minute, or even hour-to-hour experience. Something short, but also something you can actually loop-playtest for hours if it’s any good.

Here’s the report.

Short version, it worked!

Long version, it worked …in unexpected ways.

The main goal was achieved. You can feel it in the air that we’re out of the lull. In three years, I have not played more Witchfire than I did in the last month. The “Demo 1” is crude, and definitely of the internal use only quality, but it’s incredibly useful and fun.

An example of “internal quality”. We did three different Hand Cannons, but instead of using proper models, we just color coded one. This one is green, meaning “the highest RPM HC”.

But we only realized half the goals we set for ourselves in the beginning of the work. Some of what we missed is the same old game development story, we underestimated the amount of work for this or that feature. But some misses happened because we discovered things we either needed to or simply wanted to (indie life for the win!) deal with first.

So the way the development went is that we actually had a functional “Demo 1” after merely a week of work. I was impressed. It was super bare bones, but we had the bones! Now only add the meat and there we are, right?

Well, not really. The development slowed down for whatever reason and then, two weeks later, we actually changed direction. Not because we’re irresponsible, but because we realized with what we have, we got the answers to some core questions that we had for a long time, and we can now redirect our efforts elsewhere.

The timeline sort of looked like this:

  • Week 1: Holy shit, we actually got something playable fast!
  • Week 2: Soo… Where’s the progress? Week 1 was so good!
  • Week 3: Okay, we’re not moving that fast anymore but we got something!
  • Week 4: Wait a second, we actually don’t need to finish the “Demo 1” as assumed in the original plan, we have our answers, we’re on the roll, let’s focus on “Demo 2” right away.

(“Demo 2” is “Demo 1” but polished enough for the very first ever private playtest with some friends).

Here’s what are our major findings from “Demo 1”:

  • We have a much better understanding of what we want the top level structure of the game to be. Witchfire tastes better if it’s consumed in “bites” of the player’s preference. The total playtime will be a very decent number of hours, but it’s up to the player how long they want to spend in a single session, the minimum being a “bite”.

  • Note that this a quite treacherous solution. We found the sweet spot for our “bites” to be 10-15 minutes. But that doesn’t just mean it’s easy to jump into the game and achieve something, it also leads to “Eh, it’s fast, I’ll just do one more run” and “How is it 4am already?”

  • We understood better what “random perks” on weapons mean. It’s stupid easy to make a system where a preferred roll has a 1:10000000000 chance of dropping and which keeps you grinding for months. We hated the idea for our game to be a hamster wheel simulator, even if sometimes a bit of grinding with Spotify in the back can be relaxing. So we limited the RNG severely, and added an inherent core non-RNG perk per weapon.

    This is a huge change and I will explain and unveil it all in one of the future posts.

  • We finally understood what’s the preferred size of covers and their role both for the player and, partially, for the enemies. To be clear, Witchfire is not a cover-based shooter, but you do use the environment to your advantage, even if just to block the shots from one of the sides.

  • We now have a better understanding what an “arena” (a single combat area) is, how large it should be, what variety we can afford. We even came up with logical, lore reasons to lock the player inside an arena if need be.

  • Many changes came to the enemies: how many, what’s their behavior, what variety, should we go preset squads versus RNG squads, etc. I keep being shocked how hard it is to have enemies that are both challenging and fun and not just drones that charge at you. As with guns and their perks, I will write a separate post about it soon…

  • …but not until we take two steps back to jump five steps forward. “Demo 1” made us realize how much of the AI features we’re still missing: 1) grouping up, or the ability to protect an area or to choose a spot advantageous to the enemy, 2) hiding from the player if wounded and not killed or if unable to attack, 3) losing the player if they’re out of sight.

So these are the major findings. Quite a lot of progress for a month of work.

Right now, some of us work on new features needed for “Demo 2” (e.g. we only had one melee and one spell ability in “Demo 1”), some work on bringing what we already have to final quality, and some work on the AI. It’s clear that “Demo 2” will take us a bit longer than just September, but I hope we can keep the velocity achieved in August.

TLDR: The idea we had to break out of the development lull worked, we’re on the roll, 10/10, would break out again.

Question of the Week

We know that from the environment and enemies the game looks like a purely swords and sorcery kind of fantasy but the guns give it away that it’s not quite the case.

It’s an alternate world so it’s hard to compare the date to our reality. We’d say if that it was our reality indeed, it’d be the end of the XIXth century. The reason we sometimes refer to the game as gaslamp fantasy (not to be confused with steampunk which the game is not).

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