Plans for 2021 & Retrospective
This past month, I've been thinking pretty hard about our plans for the year. Last year was spent entirely working on our new game engine, finally getting out a couple demos for Witch Doctor Kaneko and also porting Detective Butler to other platforms as well. So the good news is that we're starting the year with a fully functional game engine now, and it's 100% our own.
So with a completed game engine in hand, what will we spend our time working on this year? Generally we'll be updating the website and improving the engine, but regarding games? I've given this a lot of thought because I've realized how crucial it is that you have a solid plan going into things. If you're just a hobbyist developer, you can sort of do things at a casual pace, but if you want to run a game development business then you have to do a lot more. You need to hold yourself accountable to deadlines so that projects don't turn into vaporware or get stuck in development hell. But your deadlines can't be too soon, or else you end up with delays or rushed games, and those things aren't any good either.
Sometimes I get very tempted to work on random small ideas for games, and while maybe that would give me a short-term motivational boost, I don't think they would result in anything that people would actually want to play. Even if it's a good concept for a game, it would need its own dedicated amount of time.
I wanted to do something like "make a game every month" but I feel like those kinds of games just wouldn't be worth playing. Then I thought about doing maybe one game every three or four months, which might work. But then there wouldn't be any time for our unfinished projects Detective Butler 2 or Witch Doctor Kaneko, and in a year's time we'd find ourselves in the same situation again. So thinking about it that way, we're better off trying to make one really good game every six months, and why not with two games we've already started working on?
For those of you who have been following us for a while now, you'll know that we've been working on two projects for the past few years: Detective Butler 2, and Witch Doctor Kaneko. My goal for this year is to get those two games at least 90% done each. By that I mean having games that are fully playable, but just in need of some extra polish. Like having a rough draft of your English essay, and all that's left is to revise it until it's good enough for publishing. I think the right approach is to get the core of a game all the way done from start to finish, then iterate and improve over and over until you can't anymore. So my immediate goal is to just get them both to a point where I can actually present something, like screenshots and demos, and build up anticipation for them, without regard for how long it actually takes. But I'd like to think it could be done in 6 months each.
Previously, I'd just work on one part of a game at a time before moving onto the next part, and then once all the parts were finished, I'd release the game. But I've learned that you can't just do that and expect good results. There must be time between finishing the core parts of the game (i.e. creating all the levels) and release, specifically so that you can improve the overall experience of the game -- adding graphical effects and sounds, bug testing, and so on.
My plan is to stagger the work for each game in a way that makes sense. Most people who watch the streams enjoy programming, so streaming our puzzle-platformer Witch Doctor Kaneko should be fun to watch. Meanwhile, I'll write the story for Detective Butler 2 off-stream (it's hard to creatively write on stream anyway). By the time the first iteration of Witch Doctor Kaneko is programmed, the writing for Detective Butler 2 should be done and its programming can then be streamed too. I don't know which game will end up being completely finished first, but at this point I think the only thing that matters is that they get finished at all.
A Decade in Retrospect
Now I'm going to explain the history of these projects in more detail so you can better understand where I'm coming from. This essentially turns this post into a retrospective over the previous decade, from 2011 to 2021. Hooray for two blog posts in one!
When I released the first Detective Butler game back in 2013, it had gone through a two-year development cycle. But most of those two years consisted of going to school, so if I had worked full-time on the project, it should've gone much faster. The core parts of the story (the characters, settings, themes, etc.) were all decided upon within the first week of development. I had even gone with the idea of "visual novel without choices" just to increase the odds of success -- a story with choices and branching paths would be much harder to make.
Following the release of that game, I wanted to make a sequel, but had run out of story ideas. So I decided to put it on hold until I could think of something worth writing about. Instead, I wanted to make a different kind of game, so I started making Witch Doctor Kaneko instead. I realized I didn't want to use Game Maker and decided to learn Unity. Unfortunately, most of 2014 was just me trying to learn how to code a 2D platformer in Unity, as I was still going to school and could only work on it in my spare time.
When 2015 came around, I had suddenly announced I was working on a sequel to Detective Butler. Due to some personal events I had gone through at the time, I was too depressed to continue work on Witch Doctor Kaneko, a game I'd intended to be colorful and happy. I wanted to put it off until I could make it the way it should be (and to be fair, I probably didn't know enough about programming at the time either). Instead, I felt more inspired to write a dark and gloomy mystery story, and I figured it had been long enough since the previous game, so that's when I began work on Detective Butler 2.
I had been toying around with Unity and my mind raced with possibilities. At first, it was going to be a web-based episodic visual novel. Then as I experimented more with gameplay, I added features where you could freely investigate in a 3D environment. You could find clues, interrogate suspects, and get into battles with the culprits of each case. You can even read how excited I was about these ideas in blog posts from around that time. However, it seems obvious in hindsight that this was your typical "let's build a 3D MMO for our first game" type of thing. Despite my passion for the idea, I was trying to make something that was beyond the scope of my resources.
I didn't realize this until mid-2017, when despite all the time I had spent on writing a story and creating gameplay systems in Unity, that I was having trouble actually creating the bulk of the content. And what little content I was able to create didn't receive favorable feedback from the internal testing team. Honestly, even I didn't think it was good, and I was disappointed that the vision in my head was not matching what I was seeing on the screen, especially after all the time spent working on it.
In fact, so much time had passed that I wanted to catch up on Witch Doctor Kaneko. At various points throughout 2016 and 2017, when I got bored working on one game, I would switch to the other one. This isn't an inherently bad idea, but it does have a side effect that unless you have a solid plan of where you're headed, you won't get anywhere on either project. I was essentially running in circles, doing a lot of work but ultimately getting nowhere. And naturally, if you run in circles for a long enough time, you get tired and need to take a break.
So in late-2017 I spent some time making much smaller games. These ended up being "successful" in the sense that I had at least created some games from start to finish. Financially, I'd have been better off working at minimum wage, but considering it had cost me nothing to make the games, it wasn't that bad of a return. Looking back at those games now, they still seem full of potential and maybe just needed a bit more time to be polished up and turned into a solid experience. So at some point I'd like to go back and explore those games again.
The focus of 2018 was Snowball Saves Summer. I was starting to run out of money at this point and decided to work on something that I thought would be reasonable enough to handle. Although I am proud of the game, unfortunately it was not a financial success. I had spent more money making the game than what it earned me. From a financial perspective, I would've been better just taking that same money and investing it into Bitcoin while working on the other projects.
From 2016 to 2019 I had been applying to software developer jobs off and on. When morale got low, I'd send out some resumes, only to get frustrated with the rat-race and ultimately go back to doing my own thing.
You see, as any computer science graduate knows, there may be an abundance of software jobs, but there is an even bigger abundance of developers trying to get them. Furthermore, I fell into a bad situation where I'd prefer to be working on games, and I'd had the most experience working on games, but couldn't do that professionally without either moving thousands of miles away from home, and/or giving up working on Goldbar Games completely due to conflicts of interest. So the only jobs I could apply to were boring web development jobs, where I had no experience, and HR would dismiss me and condescendingly tell me to "just stick to game development." There is a lot more wrong with these hiring processes, but this post isn't really the time or place for that. But I do want to emphasize how messed up it was back then, and how I'm sure it's even worse now.
Fortunately, I got extremely lucky in early 2019, and was able to get a software development job at a place I enjoyed. Not only was I able to continue working on Goldbar Games in the evenings, but the people there actually seemed to think it was cool.
Shortly before getting that job, I had decided to work on Witch Doctor Kaneko over other games because I knew it would be a game concept that would be financially viable. I just had to put in the time and effort to make a great game out of it. But now with the financial troubles resolved due to the day job, money wasn't a pressing concern anymore. I could take my time to work on it and make it the way I always wanted it.
Six months into it, I decided to pause development of Witch Doctor Kaneko's Unity build, and restart the whole thing within my own custom game engine. I didn't need to rush things with Unity anymore, and I was getting frustrated with some of the processes involved with using it. Also, Witch Doctor Kaneko is fundamentally a game about programming, and if I was going to take the themes of the game seriously, then I would want to make it in my own game engine. I wouldn't want to rush it with Unity and then think about how it could've been so much better had I just taken my time and made it the way I wanted it.
And so, I continued working a day job and then coming home to stream development of the game engine. This lasted for almost exactly one year, as I ended up quitting the job mid-2020. I don't need to get into the reasons here, but coincidentally a lot of my investments (which I had poured my savings into) had dramatically gone up around that time, and I knew I'd be able to live with my expenses covered without worrying about money for a long time. I had actually quit my job before that happened, and was just hoping that I'd get lucky, and it turned out I was right.
I'm still not making any profit from Goldbar Games, though. From 2011 to 2018, I'd invested thousands of dollars into the assets for Detective Butler and Snowball, but haven't made enough back to justify those costs. This is getting to be a tangent onto a separate topic entirely, but after 2018 I started doings lots of research into marketing and business (which I should have done during college). One of my goals for 2021 is to finally figure out how to be cost-effective with game development, and get my games in front of a large enough audience as well.
In order to stand out in today's highly saturated indie game market, you need to have a high quality product first and foremost. Which means that you can't cut corners. It also isn't all programming -- you need polished art and animations too. So I have to leave my programming comfort-zone and get back into the art side of things (or hire someone to do that). And also, it can't just be something that you really want to make, but it needs to actually solve a real problem that people have. Usually these things overlap in game development because you are your own biggest fan (i.e. "we need more detective games" -> you make a detective game). But it also might not overlap if the idea that's in your head isn't actually that great in reality. You need to be able to prototype ideas quickly to see which ones are worth pursuing. That's been a key goal behind the game engine, and now I'm in a position where I have a level editor that can rapidly prototype all kinds of gameplay. So now that I have the right tools, and the right mindset, I'm ready to get to work on these projects again.
One of the key themes of the Detective Butler Choices DLC was that you shouldn't overthink what happens, because the alternate paths could always be worse. In other words, things do happen for a reason, though I think the exact reason is for you to decide.
I've spent many hours thinking about how I could've done things differently in order for things to work out better. During the past decade I've seen many indie games go all the way from start to finish. Technically sure, I did make a few games of my own, but you see the success of others and it really weighs on you heavily. You could spend 5 years on a project and have a worse outcome than someone who spends 5 weeks on a project. There is no real correlation -- the only thing that matters is the result. It's whether or not you've made a game that people actually want to play, regardless of how big or small it is.
One other thing I've learned is that time spent is not necessarily time wasted. If you've learned from mistakes, then that makes you experienced. The time that I've spent working on these projects will in some way contribute to their quality, because I've actually spent the time considering what is the best way those games could be made. Which should ultimately make those games worth playing, at least to the right audience.
My goal for this year, and perhaps even for this decade, is to demonstrate what I've learned and put it all into practice. That given this unique opportunity to work on my own projects again, I can make games that are worth playing. Due to the sheer length of time that has passed, it feels like a lot of hype may have faded away for these projects, but I know that there are dedicated fans out there eagerly waiting for more, and I don't want to make them wait any longer. We'll build the hype back up again and make it go even higher -- just like Bitcoin!
Thank you again for your patience and support. I'm sorry it has taken this long, but I'll be doing my best in the coming weeks and months. Posts like these should be more frequent too, though maybe not as long as this one. I know I need to start marketing far ahead in advance, so I'll be posting regular updates on both projects as they happen.
My goal for January has been to get both projects on the same page again. I had to take a good look at all my ideas over the past decade and see which ones to keep and which ones to cut. And the answers to some of those will have to wait a bit longer so I can prototype them and see what's fun. But I think I'm close to having a solid vision for both games, and come February I should have enough to start going into more detail again in these posts.
As a final side note, I've learned that the longer you need to think about a game's core vision, the worse its development will turn out. This has been true for all of my games -- the best games were the ones where I spent almost no time debating what the game will be about, and kept that core vision right from the start. You want as little friction as possible between you and progress, and so early on you need to know what your game is about, and never waver from that core part of it. If you overthink things too much and never set anything in stone, then you'll just run around in circles trying to do too many things in one game.