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  • How I Built A Game Studio From The Ground Up

    [03.31.20]
    - Quilly Chang

  • Role 5 - Product owner and creative director

    So many roles have been discussed above, but surprise, there are more! I did as much as I could on my own, but to create a shippable software product, I wanted professional quality art and music. Even though I can draw and play several instruments, I decided that attempting to improve those existing skills to professional levels would dilute the efforts of my previous 4 roles. So, as the product owner, I provided priorities, requirements, and vision to those that contributed to the following.

    Art

    One of the key attributes of a game is the style. Once, in a game developer event I attended, there was a discussion of if programmers' generally higher pay, compared to artists', was justified. I initially agreed, and as someone in the audience said, "without a programmer, there is no game". However, one excellent point was brought up - you don't buy Nintendo games because you know what their source code looks like. Often, what comes first and foremost to a player's mind with Nintendo games are the characters and memorable art style. Without artists, Nintendo would not even have a brand. This understanding shaped my vision that my game's art should be distinct and unique.

    I set out to find an artist on online forums. This is where my inexperience showed - I actually had to commission two sets of art. The first artist produced lovely and high quality art, but later on, I happened upon the work of another artist that made me immediately think, "I need to have this as my game's style". The second artist came with a much higher price range, but I have no regrets, as her work created the memorable painterly style of A Summer with the Shiba Inu.

    Communicating with the artists was another test and growth of me as a product owner - I needed to communicate my vision while leaving the creative expertise in another's hands. In fact, there were some cases when, after I received the concept art or complete art, I was inspired by some details the artist came up with, and "persuaded" the writer self to rewrite some parts of the story to fit. This is where this project really benefited from me having full creative control - imagine having to wrangle these changes with the PM, and then talk to the writer, in order to make those changes in the story.

    User interface

    Similarly to the point about artists above, the UI style is a large part of the visual aspect and the "front line" when it comes to a player's impression of the game. I found a very talented GUI (graphical user interface) designer, who has created UI for many games that I enjoyed playing.

    Again, due to my inexperience, I actually had to trouble this designer more than I needed to - as I was coding the UI there were some parts I had to ask to change or add. One cause of this was scope creep, for example, if my developer self wanted to add many features, and my PM self hadn't really questioned the necessity, it caused some asks to the designer that were seemingly on a whim. Next time I develop a game, I'll be able to communicate much better with UI and graphic designers, as well as formulate my asks more clearly, helped by what my developer self learned about OOP.

    Editing

    After my writer self finished writing the game's script, I did end to end editing myself at least twice. However, I decided to commission an editor and search for proofreaders. It's hard to look at one's own work with a fresh eye. Sure enough, the editor found typos that I was surprised existed, but of course, because I was used to reading the text again and again, my mind had built up heuristics and skimmed over typos instinctively. An editor was completely worth it!

    Music

    While I can write music, and play several instruments, it just wasn't the right time to be using music as a creative outlet when I was so overloaded with writing and game design. In addition, soundtrack scoring is a very different type of endeavor than writing music only to express my feelings - it needs to capture atmosphere and story in a more holistic way. I looked on a great site called Purple Planet for some placeholder music (they have very high production value, royalty free music which you can purchase a license for commercial use). Luckily, I have a friend that is a producer and musician, who ended up composing for the game, replacing most of the royalty free music. You can listen to several tracks, including one with a fabulous sax solo, on his SoundCloud.

    Playtesting and quality assurance

    I'm very grateful to my friends, in real life and online, who spent their time playing my game. However, as I've learned from many developers before me, playtesters often cannot commit fully. Hence, it's better to ask more people, and follow up many times. Another thing I was worried about was if people hated the game - would I change it? Thankfully, this did not happen, because I was making a game with the purpose of showcasing my full creative vision; I worry that I might have changed my vision, if my focus was on revenues.

    All roles coming together to ship the game

    In the end, after much trial and error, I managed to ship the game. In reality, there were many hiatuses I took, and many, many dark moments when I felt that I could not carry on. I worried many nights about if the product really could launch.

    For this, I am grateful that with somewhat miraculous, sheer willpower, I was able to shift between all my roles, all requiring different mental models and skills, and get them all to collaborate. I had to be in touch with both my creative self and logical self - much easier said than done. I am grateful that I was able to let life come first at times - I completed a Master's degree and found a full time job, all the while continuing to work on the game over the course of 2~3 years. I'm consistent, I'd like to say!

    I am grateful to many individuals, which I can write another full article about, but for this article, I'd specifically like to point out something Henry Faber said, which felt like the sun had rose again, during a particularly dark period of writer's block and extreme unmotivation. I can't find the exact quote now, but my takeaway was that "this game is not going to be [your] life's work." In other words, I needed to stop fretting about my huge backlog of ideas to add into the game. This mindset shift broke me out of the paralysis of perfection I had - my product owner self had been suffocating under some of the expectations from just about all of my other selves.

    Another nugget of wisdom from the gaming community that helped me was that, sometimes, it's better to release a game that's not fully "finished" (but playable, and not broken). It's just that oftentimes, the writer self wants more story, the developer self wants more features, and many other ideas on the backlog simply cannot be completed. As long as the player can experience it, it's fine to just release it. This learning really pushed me towards the lean product mindset, and focusing on iteration from an MVP, for any new features I pushed out.

    Top learnings list

    This is a summary of my favorite learnings from this experience, across all roles. I covered as much as I could in this article, but honestly, I feel I could write multiple pages for each of these roles - it was a lifetime of roles and effort condensed over only 2~3 years!

    • Git or some type of version control to work across multiple machines, and to scale up any software development
    • Vastly increased empathy and communication across multiple roles - for example, as a PM to a developer, and as a developer to a PM
    • Being able to walk up to anyone at a conference and start a conversation
    • Being a product owner, managing requirements and helping the team execute the vision
    • There will be times where it feels the project has no end; but keep in mind the MVP mindset - this is not going to be your life's work, a released game is good

    You can find the game on Steam here: A Summer with the Shiba Inu

    Follow us on Twitter: @quill_studios

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