The Future of Detective Butler

The previous post was a little vague, so I want to clarify one thing. What would need to happen in order for me to finish Detective Butler 2, and why is that not possible right now?

In the first place, the most important part is the writing. That's the main content anybody would want. Without the writing, there's basically no game. So I'd need to settle on the outline, and then go through and write a first draft, then edit, then a final draft. I already wrote one, but I didn't like it, and it made me go back to the drawing board. I have dozens of text documents going over multiple different outlines, so many that at this point I don't even know which one I would pick. They are almost entirely different stories, none of which I felt were worth writing (or reading) all the way through.

A major component of the writing is, of course, the mystery. This is the biggest setback, in that I am truly out of ideas for mysteries, and I have lost most of my desire for writing any more. There are definitely ideas for other types of stories I could write, but the genre of whodunnit mystery just isn't one of them. Any kind of mystery I would write would just rely too much on a gimmick, or would lack so much depth that I wouldn't consider it worth reading. This is also because mysteries (and stories) rely on their cast of characters, and I'm also out of ideas for characters. I've thought about this a lot, and good characters are derived from functionality in the story. In the case of the original game, the characters are formed from two groups: the in-group (Galvano's employees), and the out-group (the ship workers). All characters serve a function in the story. However, they also have distinct personalities and a diverse set of characteristics which make them stand apart.

Now, in a normal story, characters are hard enough, but in a mystery you need a certain number of characters because of the roles they must play. You need the culprit, and you need the victim, and maybe there's more than one victim and the culprit has an accomplice. So for each mystery, you need at least two characters, plus a few more innocent suspects and witnesses. Plus you need the detective, the watson, the police, and a medical examiner of some kind. So the cast size gets really big.

And this also impacts the art direction. If I want to make a mystery game that involves 5 cases, that's at least 5 characters per case, for 25 characters total. If it costs $500 per character sprite, that's over $12,000 on those sprites alone (not counting the art for backgrounds, promo material, UI, or CGs). And because in a typical mystery all the characters appear at the beginning, you can't offset those costs later for a demo. As in, you can't just make 3 sprites and then once you do a successful crowdfunding to validate your concept, you pay for the remainder. You have to pay for them all at the beginning, unless you do the drawing yourself. So the number of characters increases the art budget, so to keep that down we reduce the character count, but that in turn hurts the story. It's impossible to find a balance. And to have a demo, we need to have written the whole story, so that we don't give off the wrong impression. So first comes writing the whole story (100,000+ words) before even drawing the art for all the characters (20+) just so we can see whether anyone actually wants to read it.

So that of course makes me think that the best way to reduce costs is to just not have any art at all. Since the story is the main component, you definitely don't need any graphics. I could just write it all in plain text, like a normal book. Then the question becomes, though, do I want to become an author? My dream was to be a game developer, not a writer, and every moment I spend writing is time that could've been spent programming, which I enjoy much more. And then, if I get successful with one story, will there be an expectation tha I need to keep writing more? It seems like that is already the case, and I'm already at the point where I don't want to continue, so we might as well just cut to the chase and end it here.

However, I still have the urge to create the story, I guess because old habits die hard. But writing is scary to me, because I think about the massive word count involved, being forced to describe everything through text. I stare at a blank page and shudder at the thought of all the work I need to do. I don't think it would be acceptable unless I wrote more than 100,000 words. How am I going to ever get there? I'd need to write at least 1,000 words per day for 100 days. Which honestly might not even be that bad, if not for the fact that I'm out of ideas and can't decide on an outline. Even if I get 50,000 words in, I don't have enough ideas to fill the remaining gap. And even if I do, they probably aren't that great.

I've considered instead to just make the story as more of a graphic comic or video series. That's a perfectly good way to tell a story. I've noticed that I enjoy consuming videos far more than books, and especially that in videos you can do certain things with storytelling that you can't in pure text. Like utilizing a camera, gestures, or the way words sound when spoken out loud. The idea of cinematic storytelling is something I tried to aim for in the early builds of DB2 using the Unity engine. There's also something special about artwork, like when you watch a Disney movie or read a panel of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. You're experiencing a piece of art, not just in the sense of an illustration, but you're seeing the value that the artist brings to the world. Experiencing those types of works as a visual novel, or even just a novel, would be a completely different experience, arguably inferior to the original work. The medium is extremely important, and I think visual novel may not even be the right medium. Especially since games are all about interactivity, and streaming makes it unprofitable to make a story-based game, it seems like at least by making it a video series it would be easier to monetize too. The only issue is that the amount of artwork would increase substantially, so I'd basically have to do it all myself to not go bankrupt.

Music and sounds was never really an issue, but voice acting gets super expensive. Most games just have a few lines here and there, but imagine voicing an entire novel. That gets costly fast. And then think about translations. Again, most games just have a small amount of text (the rest is conveyed through images) but think of what it takes to translate an entire novel. Those costs are just so enormous that we can't possibly consider them, or at the very least saved for a stretch goal of a crowdfunding campaign. Even if we do, we can't take them into account until the game is finished anyway, because any changes in the script require us to re-do any of the work for those, too.

After all this, and I haven't even mentioned gameplay. I've learned that story and gameplay sort of exist in opposition to each other: the more gameplay you have, the less impactful the story, and vice versa. The player's unpredictable actions take meaning away from the story, and a linear story takes meaning away from the player's actions. You must choose one, and cannot have both. So the above discussion is assuming that there is no gameplay at all. But even when I tried to implement gameplay, everything ends up being needlessly complicated, so much that even I can't understand how to play. And we come back to my goals as a game developer and programmer, not a writer. So to make the best story, I must get rid of the gameplay. Or, I can make it all gameplay, and mostly eliminate the story. Maybe I would feel better about that, but it's hard to do a murder mystery without a story, because that's the entire setup.

Indeed, creating a murder mystery story is mostly all setup. How long does a person want to read about the setup for a mystery that they ultimately know is coming? How long before they get bored? You can have puzzles without this kind of thing -- you see it all the time in other types of puzzle games. The setup is the layout of the level. Everything needed to solve the puzzle is there, laid out for you. In a mystery story, you need to pay attention to the text leading up to the murder, which hopefully isn't too dense (because that's just obfuscation and isn't really a puzzle). Minimalism is key to a good puzzle. So in my mind, I find that out of those 100,000 words, maybe 40,000 are just pointless filler leading up to the actual story. There are also many more words not actually written -- the backstory of each character, specifically what happened leading up to the murder. Although I kind of appreciate stories that go into detail on those parts, such as a flashback during the culprit's confession. Just to show that the author really had an answer and to show everything happening with dramatic tension and detail.

Ultimately, the process of writing it ends up being so redundant that I get bored of it too quickly. I can't come up with all the characters needed for multiple mysteries. I know that whatever I create is just something I created in my own mind, and doesn't necessarily represent anything in the real world. Contrast with puzzle games where the rules are formed from mathematical systems built into the game engine, and you can't get any closer to real truth than that. The process is so tedious and boring to me that I really just can't get anywhere, unless the story I write isn't even a mystery at all. A mystery is just too predictable: a murder happens, a detective shows up, and solves the crime. There is no actual mystery as to how the story will go, which makes it just too boring for me. I have already written one, and so it already feels like I have written all of them.

Also, so many mystery stories have already been written in the past that I barely feel like I would be treading new ground. I could maybe write stories involving modern technology, which I think would be a neat attempt, but it's hard to do. And although technology might change, the human issues behind any type of murder remain the same. Maybe that could be worth it, but I feel like there are more effective ways of communicating those ideas. Oh, and the nature of murder mysteries is such a dark topic, that it gets depressing to think about all the time, and I don't really enjoy that. You get stuck thinking about how and why a person would do such a thing, and honestly there just aren't any good reasons (surprise). Which means no reason I can imagine is ever good enough for a motive to be compelling or interesting or new, which just makes me think there's no real reason for the story to have happened at all. I'd be upset to sit through the whole story only to find out the reason behind the killer's motive was garbage, and I'd just be bored if it was a cliche.

So that is the slightly deeper analysis into why it's been such a struggle to get anywhere on this project. It's just a matter of requiring way too much time, money, and effort, while getting hardly anything back out of it. It was a fun project when I started it, back when I used Unity to experiment with how I could build an inventory system, investigations, battles, and such. But it was never a viable prototype because a lack of the main component: the story. I did have a story, but it was not enough of a mystery, it was more of an action story with drama than a mystery. I'm not sure if it would make sense to use the Detective Butler universe for that type of a story. If so, then maybe I could do it, but otherwise I'd have to dive deeper into the mystery genre, which I'm not really interested in doing anymore. Ironically, when I started I wanted to develop a system where I could easily upload new mysteries if I ever thought of them, but so much time has passed just trying to get it off the ground that I wouldn't want to spend any more time on it even if I could.

If I did want to come back and finish it, here is what I'd need to do: first, write a complete outline. If I want to just write a novel, I can publish it as plain text online or as an e-book. Or I could draw a web comic or animate a video instead. I'd need to use photographs or 3D models for backgrounds. If I put it in a game, I'd need to get 3D models working in my game engine. Or maybe the game could work with a different aesthetic, like an RPG or side-scroller rather than a visual novel. I'd also need to settle on any type of interactivity or gameplay, and program that as well. I'd want to prototype the gameplay before writing the story so that I can use them both together in a fun way. So I almost think I'd need to split it up into two games: one that is story-focused, and one that is gameplay-focused, for maximum effect. If I could solve all of these problems, then I could finish the project, but we are obviously nowhere near that point, even after multiple years of on-and-off trying. All of it rests on me, as a solo developer, which makes it even more intimidating, especially when I'd rather be doing other things. If I could hire other people to do the work, it could be revived sooner, but that can't be done on a shoestring budget.

Speaking of budget, one final point on that. I've made an observation regarding the fact that the original game was free to play. While it's nice that it's easier for people to experience the game, there's also a major downside: responsibility of customer support. As more players download the game, they might have issues running it on computers or hardware that are unique to them, and so even this many years later, I still need to answer their customer support questions despite not being paid anything from them. And on top of that, I might get fans who enjoyed the game for free and really want a second game, yet because they paid nothing, are not actually contributing to a budget for a second game. So demand for a sequel goes up, yet the ability to create a sequel stays the same (or goes down). This increases the pressure I feel to make the game, without actually obtaining the means to make it happen. If I had made the game pay-to-play, fewer people would have played it, but those that did would at least provide me with a means to create a second game at some point (probably by now). So I am sure that I will continue to see this occur for as long as the game is available for free, and for as long as I still haven't finished a second game. Even if I did finish a second game, some would probably not like the fact that it would be paid, unless I went with some type of freemium model (which I considered a few times) that they probably would like even less.

I have seen a lot of games, especially visual novels, turn into vaporware stuck in development hell. So I guess my situation is not unique, and almost expected. But I don't see too many just come out and admit that they've actually stopped working -- I think I've only seen one. There's usually either total silence or some kind of repeated "don't worry, I'm still working on it" every six months with still nothing to show for it. Perhaps that is the result of the sunk-cost fallacy. I might be the only one to admit losing interest and no longer intend to finish it, though. That's because if I want to keep making other things, which I do, I can't just go silent, and I also can't act like I'm working on something I'm not. I can only hope that most of my fans are fans of me more than they are fans of any particular work of mine.

I feel bad for the people who I let down with this project, because it was all 100% my own fault. But I don't want to let my past mistakes impact my future success. It is better to put this project behind me and work on something more meaningful to even more people, than to continue to struggle just to satisfy a few (who perhaps wouldn't even want to see me struggle anyway). I also wouldn't want to release a poorly made game just for the sake of finishing it (potentially ruining the characters and setting) -- I'd rather people remember the successful first project and pretend I didn't start a second one. Maybe one day I can come back to this project with a fresh perspective and more resources, but for now, I'll be spending my time on other things.