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  • Postmortem: Untold Entertainment's New School Blues

    - Mike Doucet
  •  [In this illuminating postmortem feature, producer Mike Doucet outlines the challenges a team of recent graduates faced while creating the multiplatform adventure game New School Blues.]

    New School Blues and its development came from an idea: introducing 3 newly graduated game designers to the realities of developing a game in an indie studio atmosphere. Untold Entertainment president Ryan Creighton took it upon himself to give three greenhorns a shot at building something in the Untold office. Artist and animator Jonathan Phillips, programmer Amir Ashtiani, and myself, producer Mike Doucet, got together with the purpose of building a game and launching it for the web, iPad, and Android Tablet, in a bit less than two months.

    The original idea was to start in mid-October and launch by mid-December. Being the first intern on the scene I placed postings online and screened candidates for the team, wrote up an initial design doc based on Ryan's specifications and when the group was settled, off we went.

    By specifications I mean two things. The first was the type of game and its target audience. Untold is a family friendly studio so the game had to be suitable for kids in case Ryan decided to publish it himself (he held that right). The second was it had to be developed using the UGAGS engine (Untold Graphic Adventure Game System), which Ryan was gracious enough to let us use knowing we didn't have much time and could use the hand. UGAGS also meant the game would need to be a graphic adventure created in Flash. We were happy to make the game kid friendly since the school setting lent itself well to that audience. And as for UGAGS, as you'll read later, we were definitely grateful to have it.

    The deadline was extended to mid-February for a thankfully awesome reason: Ryan had decided to publish the game and its ports himself! This meant, however, a delay in launching since Untold had its fair share of commitments for the New Year. The good news is that gave us an extra month and a half to playtest, fine tune, and polish the game so it ended up better than ever. That extra time also gave us the opportunity to look into and perform extra promotional duties we had to sideline in getting the game done on schedule.

    We launched on February 25th, 2013 and that week alone managed to get just over 750 downloads on the App Store, not including Android downloads and online web players. It's hardly breaking records, but for the three of us it was a great start and we're proud our little game made it to that many hands in its first week out. Obviously, none of this would've been possible without Ryan Creighton's understanding, tutelage, and time; so if he's reading: thanks Ryan!

    Now that you've got the brief rundown on how NSB came to be, let's look a little deeper at its development, specifically at...

    What Went Right

    1. Audio - POWER PONY!

    Early on in development it was abundantly clear that we'd need someone to take care of the audio assets needed for the game. I had dabbled a bit with it in past projects but we were all hoping for something a bit more professional and polished. We sent a call out across various social media outlets in the Toronto game development community for audio designers who had experience composing and recording voice work. After a few interviews we decided to partner with Ryan Roth (@DualRyan - also IGF nominee for Starseed Pilgrim!) and held a few quick meetings just to make sure everyone was clear on the type of audio design and score we needed.

    To say audio went well is an understatement. Not only was communication, regular, fluent, and professional on both sides, Ryan delivered his audio assets on schedule and was receptive to any comments or feedback we had to give. Everyone knows sound gives off much of the game's personality, and without a doubt Ryan's ideas and work gave NSB a ton of its character. Dexter Howe (@DexterHowe) provided the vocal talent and he was a delight to work with as well as an excellent narrator to our game. We couldn't be happier with how NSB sounds and it is one of the most commented on and complimented aspects of the game.

    2. The Dev Diary - Keeping things real

    Very early in the project we had decided to start and maintain a development diary on the processes needed to complete NSB. This idea isn't anything new, but rather than the standard "here's a pic of what we did, see you next week" sort of posts, we wanted to make regular and daily entries into the dev diary, as well as describe in detail the process in question that day. It added up to a lot of extra work, but the rewards were threefold.

    First of all, in researching and writing about each step of game development in an indie studio setting, we were that much clearer and more informed on the tasks that lay before us. We engineered each post to be as if we were describing the process to someone unfamiliar with the games industry. Simply put, typing something so anyone can understand it, means YOU have to understand it, so the dev diary kept us informed and on task.

    Second of all it was a great way to get the word out about the game and get people both in and out of the industry to see what we were doing. Having updates every single day, as well as updating our Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitters with each entry, really lent legitimacy to what we were doing and showed other devs and the press we were serious about creating something polished and fun. Finally, it provided a road map to wherever we were in the present and served as a great reference piece after the game had launched to see where things may have gone right or wrong.

    3. Teamwork - Ego checked at the door

    This one is probably the most important, and the one we are the most proud of getting right. Communication all during the project was fluent, regular, and most of all professional. Anytime there were disagreements regarding design, story, puzzles, heck - anything at all, we discussed it without any kind of egotripping. Every change, cut, or tweak was for the good of the game and we all knew it.

    We held meetings every Friday in a Scrum-like fashion, listing what was done, what would be done next week, and what might stand in our way. These light Agile practices, combined with our trust and commitment to the game and making it great, made for a very smooth development experience in terms of professional relationships.

    So three perfect strangers get together in a foreign setting and build a game from scratch, dealing with whatever new obstacles or tasks that get thrown at them. And when all was said and done what came out of it? A game that's fun and finished on schedule, and a team that got along the entire time and never wanted to kill each other. Sounds like a win for teamwork to us.

    Hi-fives to everybody!


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