My fellow developers and I we had a great time developing Big Time Monkey. Two months have passed since the release and we got quite good responses from the people who played our game. Now it is time to look back on the whole project and to realize what lessons we have learned. I’m writing this not only to make a final stroke but also to record those experiences for future projects.
Also, if you want to read the short version of my gibberish, scroll down until you see “Concluson” written in big letters . As the title suggests, it concludes the previously written text in a handy set of bullet points.
So, sit down, have a tea and let me answer following questions:
- What went wrong?
- What went well?
What went wrong
Just to make it clear: Big Time Monkey was a success. It even surpassed our expectations. However, there are always things which could have been made better for the sake of optimization. Those things are mentioned here.
For three people Big Time Monkey was a hell lot of work. In our first meeting in October 2010 we recognized that four months were far too short to realize all our concepts. Also, most concepts were not written, yet. It was clear that we had to cut away a lot of stuff if we wanted to finish the game. And still, it was not enough. We did not finish the final game in time. But we managed to deliver a demo version of the game and present it at the MediaNight.
Big Time Monkey is a German game. That’s good for Germans but not so good for the rest of the world. We would have increased the number of people playing our game by making it international. If we’d had developed the game in English it would have increased the audience drastically.
Then again, we had not enough experience to write all the jokes and wordplays in English. And finding professional native speakers who fit the characters in the game and did not charge a cent for a day in the recording studio would have been impossible. So actually we had no other choice. The game would not have the same quality if it had been developed in English.
We have chosen Visionaire Studio to develop Big Time Monkey. It helped a lot and it took away much work from us. But as every technology it needs to be evaluated and understood properly before it can be useful in its whole extend. We didn’t use features of Visionaire which would have made our lifes much easier simply because we didn’t know they existed. For instance: We didn’t know about the debug console inside of Visionaire’s testplayer until I discovered it by accident… after the release.
Visionaire also had it’s own bugs and problems (like every software) we did not encounter until we used an affected feature. Some of those problems were not documented by the developers of Visionaire. Some I believe weren’t even known at all.
To mention an example: We used certain types of actions (provided by Visionaire) to trigger voice-over playbacks throughout the entire game. In the Testplayer of Visionaire those voice-overs were played correctly. But in the release build of the game those voice-overs did not play. It was a bug in the deploy function of Visinaire Studio. This bug has been discovered by another user of Visionaire about one week before we encountered it. He reproted it in the Visionaire forum. The developers fixed it but the fix would have been applied in the next release of Visionaire which was one month in the future. But we had our release date in two weeks. So we had to sit down and apply workaround solutions in the entire game. We had to move all affected actions into another area. But the Visionaire GUI did not support copy and paste for list of actions, only for individual actions. This has worsened the entire situation. We had to copy one action at a time, navigate though the whole GUI, paste it, go back and proceed with the next action. It was quite an ordeal.
Another point was platform dependency. I’m a PC guy, it was ok for me that Visionaire was a Windows-only solution at that time. But we have a lot of Mac users walking around at our university who were quite interested in the Big Time Monkey. I ended up putting all of them off saying it would be possible to play the game on a Mac in a distant future. And I didn’t like that. I wanted to see as many people as possible playing our game.
I’m still struggling with the thought of developing an own engine for Big Time Monkey. But then, I’m sure it would have meant much more work which would have resulted in an unfinished product.
One month after we released we were contacted by a games magazine. They wanted to release our game on a DVD with their next issue. That was a big deal for us. But it included signing a license agreement with them. The problem was, I was not the only one who owned rights on Big Time Monkey. There was one musician and six voice actors who owned the rights on their individual parts because we didn’t sign any contracts with them. It was a student project and nobody had seen the necessity to do this. We had to cantact each of them in retrospect to obtain their permissions. Next time I would handle such things in advance.
What went well
Quite a lot! To begin with: the constelation of the team.
I would have never expected that the three of us would complement one another so well. Frankly, I expected tensions inside of the team at some point in the project progress. Not because I thought the team members were tension prone but there are always some sorts of conflicts and misunderstandings among people. Maybe two people want to take the lead at the same time or somebody is unsatisfied with the work of another team member. But not in our team. Everybody was in charge in the same way. Every decision has been talked over with the team and in the end everybody was satisfied with the result.
Why? The first advantage we had: we were a small sized team. So this is about the upsides of a small team. You don’t have to introduce complex structures. The probability that two individuals conflict is much lower in a group of three people. It is easier to stick the heads together and sort things out. It’s easier to define milestones and come to an end with a discussion.
Last but not least we were lucky. Somehow we were a good match. Each of us is open to criticism. Nobody tried to force through his own ideas and contributed constructively to the product. This is not always the case and it is almost never controllable what type of people come together to accomplish something. During the development of Big Time Monkey I’ve heard of other student projects which suffered of problematic team constelations.
Our conception phases were fun. And that’s the point! If you have fun doing your work you most certainly to it right. It was like sitting at a round table and throwing hilarious ideas and catchphrases at each other trying to make the other laugh. And if they laughed you knew it could work. If not, you tried at least and maybe you inspired a similar but working idea. Of course, we always had to take our time management into account. But the best ideas emerged from such discussions.
Also, during work it occured that one of us stuck his head out and came up with something the others had to evaluate. If it was good, it has been included into the concept.
Beside brainstorming, we had to record and structure our output somehow. So we used a graph to visualize the scenes of the game and how they were connected. Marius who was mainly responsible for story and concepts maintained all concept documents and wrote dialogs. He used simple screenplay writing for static dialogs and flow charts for interactive ones.
Voice Acting and Music
It really paid off to take some time searching for voice talents. Our first thought was to do the voice overs by ourselves but now we are glad we didn’t do that. It would have destroyed the whole experience. The voice actors gave a fair amount of depth to the characters in Big Time Monkey. They also incorporated own ideas into the characters and made them more alive.
The first people we were casting for character voices were professionals who did moderation, ads, documentaries etc. We quickly realized that we need real actors… like in theatres! And after some searching we actually found people who were able to understand and impersonate a character. Especially Torsten who did our main character Gordo was a perfect match.
Marius knew everything about every character in the game. Even stuff which is never being mentioned in the game. He developed elaborate background stories and played with stereotypes to add depth to them. Most characters in the game have less then two pages of dialogue. But they were so well developed that those lines sufficed to transport their depth to the player. Marius’ knowledge about every single fictive individual inside of But Time Monkey made him an essential source of information and inspiration for each voice actor.
As for the music, well, that was another case of luck. I don’t know how Marius found our musician and sound designer Ingmar. But what I can tell is that the process we established between Ingmar and the rest of the project was a good one. At first, we described the moods of the different scenes in the game as good as possible and provided mood pictures to Ingmar. He then came up with some demo bits of music and athmospheric sound and we told him what to change. It was quite straightforward.
Here come the promised conclusive bullet points:
- Always define milestones. Having the roughest plan helps.
- Get sure to have enough people to get the work done in time or cut the concept down to the essential parts
- Try to get stuff done on a regular basis; one small finished piece a day. It’s not easy to have a constant productivity level but once established it’s one of the most precious things you can have in a project.
- Getting things done and presenting progress to the team increases overall motivation and thus productivity.
- Grant yourself breaks! You won’t come far when you’re overworked.
- If you want an international product do it in English first.
- If your English isn’t good find somebody whose English is good and who would understand your project (and your humor if necessary).
- A bad translation of your game can destroy the whole game experience.
- Know the technology you’re using.
- Build prototypes to try out features and workflows.
- Familiarize yourself with the technologies documentation.
- Never use undocumented technology.
- When working with external contributors, always work out some sort of contract to define who owns which rights over the product (even when the product will be free of charge)
- Even if you intend to do a non-commercial product, think about the sitiuation when your product gets commercial; just to be prepared. There are many legal cases where a free product becomes commercial without the creator having thought of it (e.g. release on a print magazine’s DVD)
- Try to keep your team small as long as it is able to get the work done.
- Don’t make your team too small. Recognize when you need another pair of helping hands.
- Meet your team on a daily basis.
- Try to be on a par with everyone. Show respect.
- When working, try to sit close to each other (e.g. not in seperate rooms).
- Always know and understand what the others are working on and inform them about your own work. That’s good for both motivation and organization.
- “Kill your babies”: throw away ideas which you can’t convince your team members of, even if you think “this is the best idea i’ve ever had”. Maybe your team members have a different point of view on things and see weak points you don’t see. Also, if your team is not convinced of an idea it most probably won’t be satisfied with the implementation.
- Cut parts of the concept away if you realize you won’t make it in time. Even if the parts of the concept were promising.
- Try to understand how ideas of your team members work. Listen to them! Give them a chance to convince you! You’re not the only creative mind in the universe.
- Express your doubts, but do it politely.
- Discuss details. It’s good for the product and for the motivation. But always return to the big picture.
Voice Acting and Music
- Never underestimate voice acting. Trained people are always better than laymen.
- Prefer actors. Professional speakers are ok as long as they can act (e.g. change their voice, impersonate characters)
- Choose your main character’s voice very well. An inapropriate voice can annoy players and make them quit the game after the first few bits.
- Know your characters well! You need to understand them and how they actually think.
- Know the mood in your game. You need this knowledge to choose the music. Without the music the mood will remain in your head and never reach through to the player. Music is a very important and often underestimated component.