Producing Home Bear – A Post Mortem

Ah producing video games, it’s a funny old job. Every day something new blows up or a huge new problem arises. It’s crazy when leading a team, you’re usually the first one that has to jump on a problem and make sure it stays fixed or have to make the horrible decisions other people can’t.

It may sound like a hell and some days it can be, but Jesus I love it! The madness is a small price to pay for working with extremely talented and creative people it such a fast paced and emerging market, I’ve had my first taste of being an actual producer in the games industry and right I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

For those that don’t know I was recently bought on at Dojit Games as their new producer on their first game: Home Bear. This started in October with a deadline of just before Christmas and so for the past couple of months I’ve been busy as hell getting the game made, ready and shipped.

Obviously with such a short deadline, a new team and my inexperience problems did happen and thankfully I’ve learnt from them. The following is an analysis of what problems I faced and how they can be dealt with, I’m not gunna slag anyone or the company off, these are my thoughts and feelings on problems we encountered. Hopefully this can be a short article for others to learn from or use, be it a fellow producer who’s just started or someone hungry to get into the industry.

Knowing your team

We had a bit of an odd team make up on Home Bear; we had a core group made up of myself, an artist who currently worked for Dojit and a good friend of mine who was on programming. We were aided two interns who helped with anything and everything as well as having two different freelancers: my housemate for additional art and another good friend of mine and his partner on audio.

Although an odd make up I was lucky to already know who was in my team and what they could generally do, as time went on I really got to know who could was capable of what and the things people would struggle with, however this kinda came at a later time then I would’ve liked. Things were getting on and I’d put people on tasks without knowing if they were actually capable of doing so, it meant some tasks were a little slower to be completed which may not sound bad but when you’re up against the clock every hour does count.

During production we had a few interns from a local college join us and to be frank they really didn’t do anything, they took up space in the office and used computers we needed. They were brought in to help with testing and simple tasks but I often found myself asking them to hold tight and wait until we had something for them to do (which never happened), the college did try to get us to take some more people on board and we had a few people volunteer but I had to turn them down due to the simple fact we didn’t need them. The thought of a large diverse team may be nice but in practice it usually causes much more hassle and can easily distract you from the bigger picture, really think about your team and who you actually need, do not be scared to trim the fat and let people go if they can’t help or offer anything.

TEST! TEST! AND TEST SOME BLOODY MORE!

I’ve said it before but I will say it again: Test as much as you possibly can!

On Home Bear we did try and test as much as we could but with a small team and tight deadline implementing features and assets took priority over thoroughly testing them. I know this isn’t much of an excuse but when your team is worrying over a million and one things to do with creating content having them then test it and fix and bugs is not the most motivating thing in the world. In hindsight I could’ve been the one to do all the testing but since I was also the one who had been on the project to begin with I had quickly built up tunnel vision and wasn’t able to catch as many bugs as I would’ve liked. Be sure to test early and test with as many people as you can kidnap.

When we were able to test the game I quickly discovered something very odd with the way we did it, the team and myself were very quick to test the newest feature to see if it worked and if it had any problems but we were a little hesitant to text out existing features to ensure that they still worked and didn’t have any problems with the latest addition. As time went on I was able to go back and look at the basics to ensure that no defects remained but I wish I had done sooner so as to totally make sure fewer bugs slipped through.

My final bit of testing related advice is to never assume and take anything for granted when designing. Although I was billed as the product I also did a lot of design on the game, mainly in level design. I would plot out each level in Excel, play through it over and over in my head to ensure it would work and then when I had the time build them in Unity. So of these levels were then tested in game, but due to the massive volume of them (there are over 250 of them in the game) and tight deadline we weren’t able to give each and every one a proper play through. This came back to bite us in the ass come release day as we found that the interior levels I made didn’t have enough space! During their design I had taken into the account the distance each in game item would move the player’s avatar but not the height, this caused massive collision players as the avatar would become stuck due to low ceilings.

Thankfully I was able to fix this in time but that scary revelation serves as a reminder to myself that you should never assume something works until you’ve had a chance to actually test it in game.

Be prepared for setbacks and problems

The main thing I found being in charge of a team was that any-time anything could happen. Disagreements with fellow members, problems with hardware or the budget or just software blowing up can really cause a headache and it’s that team leader’s responsibility to be first on scene to assess the situation and find a solution.

When a problem does arise to do with the game or how it is being made (massive gameplay change, hardware, etc) take a step back to assess the whole situation, this is vital as it lets you calm yourself down and makes your less likely to act on impulse or emotions and more on logical thinking and facts. Let your team have input on potential fixes and then decide on and go with the best one as either an individual if it’s just a quick fix or as a team if the problem is much larger. Ensure the team applies itself to ensuring the problem is fixed in a timely manner and make sure other know about it and any changes that have been made.

If the problem is HR based, get the person out of the room to a more private area  as soon as possible so as to not cause any further problems. Then calmly discuss and find the root of the problem and to what effect it is having on the team and ultimately the game. Come up with a solution that you both agree on and make sure it sticks, your team is your most vital tool on any production so make sure all disputes and problems are dealt with effectively and quickly.

Problem solving is a key attribute to any leader/producer so make sure that you able to cope with them and know how to solve them as they are never going to stop.

Monetization

Games need to make money so that the developers can stay in business; it’s a harsh but realistic truth sadly, that’s why it is crucial to choose how people will pay for your game at an early stage and ensure that it can be implemented in time.

In the early stages of Home Bear we built the game to be a “Free-to-play” title, players could download the game for free and it would only contain a handful of worlds, players could then buy additional worlds as DLC. We kept this model for a long time during development and built around it, creating level packs and marketing plans for them.

Sadly as the deadline loomed we found that getting in-app purchasing working would take a lot longer than we had originally planned and so after an emergency meeting we decided to make the game a paid app with DLC planned for later in 2013.

I can’t exactly tell you what effect this had on the game as it has only just been released, one could argue less people will buy it but from what I’ve seen F2P titles are starting to die out in favour of the “classic” pay up front and get the whole game model.

Time will tell if we luckily were forced by time to make the best decision or if this setback will majorly hurt us but for now I will warn anyone making a game right now to double check how they are going to sell it, make sure the system is in place ready and that you have made sure that the price is right.

Communication

I learnt about the importance of communication in business during my time at college and ever since I’ve seen how crucial it is time and time again, in short: Communication is THE most important thing to get right when working on a project. Without clear and constant communication your project is going to suffer along with your sanity.

When working with a team on anything you have to ensure that decent lines of communication are open and that people are getting the correct message, be it by email, instant messaging, phone or simply by talking. You need to make sure that people understand each other and know what needs to be done.

When giving a task to someone you must make sure they know what is expected of them and the best way to go around it, keep repeating the task to them and ask them questions about it. You may think this is tedious and annoying for the person hearing and yes you are right, it is. But isn’t that a small price to pay to make sure the person understands what is required of them and make sure they don’t cock it up?

We had a few problems like this as we had people working out of office, if I could give one tip it would be to make 100% sure that you can contact anyone who isn’t in the office during working hours quickly and make sure that anything you tell them is totally understood. Like I said above with knowing your team, knowing how to talk to and communicate with your team is just as important.

Advertising

I always thought that I know how to advertise a product, I excelled in school and college when I had work to do with it as well as my two modules on it at University. I could see how adverts on TV and on websites worked and how they didn’t . . . but fuck me, advertising a product is hard work, and I’ve still got a lot to learn.

What you need to know is: Advertising your game is JUST as important as designing it. You could make a brilliant game that is packed with fun and fresh ideas with beautiful art and gorgeous sound, but if you’re not showing it off to the world and letting people know then you’re not gunna sell. The same goes for the other way around (see the Call of Duty series).

When working on your project take some time to think about how your gunna market it: draw up a plan, make some mock adverts, hell ask friends for their input. Just make sure your thinking about it before the game is released and that you know what you are going to do for people to know about it after you release.

You may think social media is the best answer when a little strapped for cash, and I will agree with you it is a great way to get your name out there. The problem is, no one actually tells you how to actually get hold of and retain followers and likes, and that isn’t even the start of it. You can have a bunch of likes on your game’s Facebook page but still little to no sales, it is important to engage with your audience as well so that they feel valued causing them to spread the word and buy the game.

Marketing on social media comes down really to exposure versus engagement and it’s a horrible balance to get right. You need to make sure you are exposing your game as much as possible (why do you think I’m hyper linking to the game everywhere) while making sure that potential customers absorb what they see.  I’m still not entirely sure on it and will hopefully be posting up more about it in the near future.

 

Wow that was quite a lot wasn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, my team were fantastic during production, we had a lot of good times and made a lot of progress considering the restraints we had. Hopefully in the New Year Home Bear will get even better and be even more fun for people when they play.

I hope my rambling has helped you in some small way, don’t take it as what you must do to make sure your own game is successful but more as a bit of advice from a guy who really jumped into the deep end and survived.
And one last bit of exposure! (O come on, it’s my site after all)

Home Bear for iOS

Home Bear for Android

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