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Back to Reality

Before starting to write this post I went back to read my previous post from October (that isn’t a call out to do the same). Writing posts of this nature are like check-ins, keeping me liable to show progress as it were. If you haven’t heard from me in two months, what did we talk about last? Where was my head at? Were things looking…. good? Bad? Indeterminate? Based on my last blog I was very optimistic, how couldn’t I be? On October 24th our team was on the eve of launching our first game. Early access or not, it was, and still is a big deal for No Sleep. The trick about running a marathon (not that I’ve ever ran one, but I can theorize) is that the finish line is the end. Once you cross the finish line, it’s over. I often refer to the development cycle of Radio Violence as a marathon run at 100mph, but if EGLX in October was the finish line, doesn’t that mean we’re done? It sure hasn’t felt like we’re done. I’m glad I took the time in my last blog to write about our journey so far, it was the best time to do so, and I don’t think I would have gotten around to it if I hadn’t. After the showing at EGLX… I suppose we haven’t talked about that. Perhaps we’ll start there.

 

The Show

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our team had a blast at the show. It was definitely the biggest show we’ve attended to date, and our booth was situated such that we got a good deal of exposure within the Toronto scene. Thanks to our shameless, mob-like self promotion that you can see in the image on the right, we’ve had a number of people recognize our studio at local meetups, and that’s been a lot of fun. The photo on the left was taken at a quiet moment on the show floor, as most of the event we had actual crowds of people checking out the game. The industry talks, of which I attended as many as I could, proved to be very informative and useful. They gave us all food for thought once we wrapped up the show. One that stood out as interesting to me was along the lines of “how to be a strong producer”. Producers get credited at the top of most major projects, in fact sometimes there are multiple tiers of producers, and yet I found I didn’t actually know what responsibilities came with that position. Funny enough, it turns out to be most of the things I’m juggling on a daily basis. Encouraging communication, motivating the team, clearing roadblocks so that others can work free of distraction, trying to bring out the potential of others, and other vague intangibles. There’s a lot of crossover between producing and project management, which is how I always classified my work, but since EGLX I’ve realized that producing is in fact my “role” on the team. I’m still waiting on the pay raise.

It was nice to finally breathe once we cleared out of the hall. The weekend had been the culmination of nine months of work, so to sit back and revel in it was a nice change. We had set a goal, a lofty one at that, and finished what we started. At the event we sold our first copy of Radio Violence, broke the ice so to speak. Despite technical errors at the hands of Steam our store page did indeed go live the following Monday, which we weren’t fond of at the time… but we dealt with it. From that point forward the game has been live, and once the dust settled reality finally set in.

 

So… Now What?

November was a weird month. The following weekend after EGLX we had another show called Next Level that we were on the bill to attend, which allowed for a much needed lull in activity, as our preparation for EGLX transferred directly over. It gave me time to do some planning, catch up on a business related course I was taking on the side throughout November, and really reflect on the whole development cycle we had just been a part of. The rest of the team took some time off, which was well deserved given the previous sprint, and to an extent I did as well. We held our carry over monthly meeting from October, which was delayed due to EGLX, where I laid out a fairly ambitious road map for the early access development of Radio Violence. Networked multiplayer, regular content patches, a single player campaign with AI opponents, all of these tasks and requisite goals to achieve them were laid out in a plan spanning the better part of a year. The project had come a long way, but there was still some housekeeping to do to begin preparing for some of the bigger milestones, namely networked play and a campaign. Leading up to Christmas the two main tasks were a UI refactor, which was needed badly, and a networked prototype, an area of development we had yet to dive into. There’s also the matter of regular content updates, requiring sustained development, testing, balancing, and promotion. Which leads to the first problem we faced in November.

5/7 members of No Sleep split time between our studio and either part or full time work. After the push to early access release most of the team needed to pick up loose ends at work, that’s just reality. That doesn’t mean development stops, but there was no way to maintain the pace we had set leading into October, certainly not for another 8 months. Content development struggled, both due to lack of availability and now finally, after 10 months, fatigue with the project. I expected entering early access to be a relief, after all, we had achieved what we set out to accomplish, but the fact is that early access is more of a checkpoint than a finish line. Reaching it opened our eyes to a lot of roadblocks that lay ahead, and also exposed a lot of problem areas with our project plan that we had been neglecting for a long time.

 

More Hurdles

There has never been a marketing and promotional plan for Radio Violence. It is a game that was conceived without a pre-production cycle of any kind, where many aspects of a project are planned well before execution. It helps to assess risk, aides in contingency planning, and highlights red flags to be aware of throughout development. Due to the nature of the project, we never had the luxury of planning any of these things. Our focus has been on one goal, achieving our ambitions for the game. A naive approach indeed, but relatively innocent given our lack of experience and our area of expertise. We are, after all, primarily a team of programmers, not business majors, logistical managers or otherwise. In 10 months we made a project from nothing, with nothing in terms of resources, and founded a business to support our growing ambitions. Unfortunately planning exposure and marketing for the game just wasn’t in the cards, hell our Steam page was visible for the bare minimum 2 week requirement leading up to launch (we’ve since come to understand this is, in fact, poor marketing practice). The release of Radio Violence was somewhat of a celebration for our team, but hardly one with industry fanfare. Our sales, unsurprisingly, have reflected that.

We initially weren’t concerned about this, the plan had always been to get the title to early access and then to grow its exposure from that point on. The realization that we weren’t likely to get grant funding for the game changed our thoughts on that. The state of the project is well into production at this point, which doesn’t exempt us from production level grants, but it certainly doesn’t do us any favors. Marketing level grants (typically the final phase) are not out of the question, but the fact of the matter is that this project still has a significant portion of the production cycle outstanding, whether the current state of the project indicates it or not. Networked multiplayer development faced immediate hurdles due to the deprecation of Unity’s Unet functionality, which was the back-end we anticipated using and had put in preliminary design work to accommodate for later in the project cycle. Transitioning to an alternative solution isn’t out of the question by any means, but it adds more work and extends development. We can apply for marketing grants all we want, but its not going to reduce our development load.

Lastly… lets talk about artistic talent. It is limited on our team. I’m very confident in our programming ability and gameplay design, and I’m growing more confident by the day in our business and organizational skills, but art direction is a major facet of development that we don’t have internally. Things like 3D modeling, texturing, concept art, rigging, animation… the things that users actually see. We’ve been fortunate up to this point to get help from interns through George Brown to step up our game in this department, and have managed to tactfully convert programming into “art” wherever possible (our entire game board is programmatic, generated at run-time, there are no assets)… and we’ve made it this far! But its no replacement for actual art talent, we’ll need to contract it, or dare I say hire for it. That’s a great opportunity for us, as we want to start working with a bigger team with access to resources previously unavailable to us, but that requires funding. As I mentioned, we aren’t likely to receive significant funding for the remainder of this project.

So we have a project with a soft launch in early access, with no promotional backing, facing technical, artistic, and financial hurdles, maintained by a team that is currently splitting time (which in most cases equates to overworking), that has now begun suffering from project fatigue. Who is this producer and how do I hire him?

 

Perspective

At this point I’m sure you can see where this post is going. When I first wrote the early access blurb for our Steam page there were many things I wanted to convey to our potential players. I feel like that section of the page, the section dedicated specifically to our team’s perception of early access, is a vehicle to be both informative about the upcoming development cycle, and to portray the ideals of the studio behind the project. The section I felt was most important was How long will this game be in early access? There are two important lines in this section that I think reveal a level of caution and skepticism I felt with the state of the project at the time, but didn’t have the perspective to come out and say.

“The priority for us is releasing a complete, enjoyable game. If this requires us to extend our time in early access to achieve this, then we will be transparent throughout the process. … We have no intention of remaining in early access for an indeterminate amount of time, and will do our best to update our community each step of the way.

There is a stigma in the game development community around early access born from lack of communication by developers. The inability to accept what is in front of you, to be honest with your community regardless of the size, and to keep them informed with the progress of your project. This has led to countless projects launching in early access state with great ambition, and due to any number of reasons never leaving it. Optimism led us to believe that we would do what needed to be done to ensure this game gets out of early access. If that meant extending our time in early access, then so be it, but we would tell everyone involved the state of affairs every step of the way. The question we asked ourselves throughout development was always can we do this? I now have no doubt that we can, but the second question that was never asked is turning out to be more important.

Is it worth it?

 

Another Step Forward

I’ve enjoyed every step of the journey that our first project has taken us on. It has opened a lot of doors for our team, taught us many valuable lessons, and grown into a game that I’m proud to have contributed to. In 2017 all of this was nothing more than a collective dream of 7 hungry students. In 2018 we proved to ourselves, and to others, that we are ready to step up and turn that dream into a reality. I hope that 2019 will provide us with another year’s worth of opportunities, lessons, and ultimately steps forward. This week we break for the holiday season, which for me will amount to the first real mental break in a long time, and I’m very much looking forward to it. There are big decisions coming up for our team, and I look forward to being able to share them when we pick things back up in the New Year.

Until our paths cross next.

 

PS. Still awake? Thank you for taking the time to catch up on No Sleep’s state of the union. You’re reading this on our website, fancy that. Did you know you can create your own accounts on our website? Such novel tech! It’s a relatively painless process, what’s one more obscure website account to throw on the pile right? With that, you can even make your presence known in the comments section below! Even if its just to check in and say hi, you’d be amazed at the confidence we get from hearing from you. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

Mark Miller
About the author

Executive Producer, Co-Founder of No Sleep, and a programmer when I have the time. I'm into collecting vinyl, sipping whiskey, and playing hockey. In a nutshell: a proud Canadian.

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