The VERY early game.

The Cow Game is a long and exhausting road heading to its end in November. It is our first commercial title and we did so many mistakes during development that I cannot count them! I think it is exciting to talk or write about them since we are not ashamed to share our experiences with you. It is always okay to make mistakes since you can learn from them and make progress. Here, I am going to write about the early beginnings, the chaos, the mistakes and the personal successes of our first commercial indie game title.

It all started in November, 2020. We participated in the 48 hours Franken Game Jam („Anticipation“). So, we started on Miro and just wanted to have some fun. There was never the intention to further develop the game. We decided to make a fun little game about a stolen calf. It was supposed to be very dramatic and short and we laughed a lot within the 48 hours. (I still love our original end made by Yasmin.) We created the very core of the game: The cow must follow the callings of her child and the butcher takes it away. The game was supposed to be only in a small forest and you needed to rely on your „call and listen“ mechanic. That’s it. No Cowthulhu and definitively no strange enemy AI’s or multiple endings.

Our early game version only had some trees, a field, cows and the butcher with animations. In the end, we really enjoyed the idea. Why? I still don’t know. Maybe we wanted to finish up something. So, we started without a proper Game Design Document and without any plan. It became simply a pet project next to university since we were all busy with other things. (We all still needed to graduate and wrote our bachelor thesis.) This was our first mistake, I think. I would never ever again start any project without a well written GDD.

The game after 12 hours.

I know – some of you think these documents are outdated – but for me and my team it works. We really do like our traditional Game Design Document with hundreds of pages! Another problem was that no one worked regularly on the game. Our 3D artist, Antonia, was busy with her graduation project. Therefore, our 2D artist, Natalie, tried to do on the side the game assets. During this time, I experimented a lot with the low poly style. We used The Cow Game to gain experiences and experimented with Unity and its possibilities. I wouldn’t call it game development since the day we decided to really work on the project. And there was our next mistake: We should have just made an empty project with a clean cut. Rethink. Redesign. Instead we took the (kind of) prototyp-ish game and expanded it. Sometimes, it is better to start fresh. Back then, it seemed a bad idea since it would have costed time to redo everything. Now, I think we should have taken the time.

We tried 2D grass with wind shader, but we didn’t like it.

We started the real game development for all the wrong reasons. We just wanted to quickly finish a game. We came to the conclusion that our beloved game concept of Insomnia: Fall of Pompeii was way too ambitious and we were not ready for its development. It’s hard to finish up a game when you truly would love to make another one. So, our next problem was motivation and fun. After such a long time, we run out of steam. The project wasn’t really started and we already wanted to finish it up.

About a year ago, we decided to either really work on The Cow Game or stop the production. We were tired and annoyed. Something needed to change asap. As you can see, we decided to make a plan and really tackle the project. We started to work with SCRUM methodes and created tickets. We decided to have serious meetings on Monday (Planning) and Friday (Review). That changed everything.

The project received a further boost with our first NightinGames intern Natascha. She was like a breath of fresh air. She had the enthusiasm and the motivation we needed and she set the project on fire – in a good way! You can still see her influences since she determined the final artstyle. She redesigned most assets and created a bunch of new places. Everyone got excited and motivated. And then – everyone became incredible productive because you cannot let your intern do more work than you do yourself. This fire is still burning and The Cow Game became the most important project for us.

We experimented with floor textures and Unity tools. This is the worst picture I could find.

Soon, we realised another problem. We didn’t had a deadline. We wanted to take our time and make everything perfect. So, it was destined to be a neverending story. We realised quickly the problem and tried to come up with a realistic goal. We set up a Steam Page with the date. We thought: This is it. In June, our game must be finished. Back then, we were sure it was a realistic deadline. („But on your Steam Page the release date is marked for November!“ – Yes. Wait a second, I will talk about that soon enough.)

An early version of our Main Menu before Natalie redraw everything and made it pretty.

Yasmin started crunching. She is our only programmer and there was still so much to do. Next to game development, she is studying and working on a part time job. We realised that Yasmin had way too much pressure. Now, there were two possibilities: We make the scope smaller or we take more time. Everyone loved the new features, so we needed to reschedule. And we rescheduled again. And now, we rescheduled to November. We are planning to start Insomnia: The Eleventh Legion prototype in December. So, there is no way of rescheduling anymore. That’s it. The game is going to be released in November.

Currently, we are struggling with wishlists and range. We know the answer: Marketing. I can now really relate to other indie game developers that are having a harsh time with marketing. We are now participating on the Steam Next Fest in June with our Demo.

We grew even more ambitious. We are planning to go to the Gamescom in August with The Cow Game. We know that we won’t get the money back we are spending to promote the game, but we would like to connect with the players. We hope that the Gamescom is going to let us have a booth in the Indie Game Arena. So, knock on wood, guys!

Everyone was happy with this style of the game.

Next month, we are going to have a new playtesting round and we are confident that the players will like it. Now, our game became a real Cowthulhu Adventure. Stay tuned!

Oh – I’d like to summarize our learning for you guys. Maybe you can take it with you on your own game development road:

1. You might need some kind of pre-plan to begin with because it saves you time and trouble. You don’t need necessarily a traditional Game Design Document but you might need something to write down the ideas, teams decisions and game structure as well as mechanics. Maybe you come up with another good and creative idea how to capture everything about your game vision. For us, we are using a traditional GDDs because I really love seeing the slow growth of my never ending document.

2. You should make sure that at least one person is regularly working on the project and organising the tasks. Your team might have at least one meeting per week to come together and talk about the progress. So, everyone stays motivated and goes on with their work.

3. Don’t let some people in your team do the work of others. If you have, for example, an incredible talented 2D artist – don’t waste the potential for poorly made 3D assets that additional drive your 2D artist into madness. You should find out the strengths of your team and use their resources wisely.

4. Sometimes and for some projects it might be good to make a clean cut. You can dump concepts if you feel like this is what the game needs right now. Sometimes starting blank might be a good decision and more productive than holding on to old features.

5. You might come up with a deadline or your game could become a neverending story because you will always find things to polish, bugs or new features to implement.

6. Don’t crunch. Don’t you ever crunch! It’s not worth it. Your health is so much more precious. Nothing – not a single job – is worth your mental health and happyness.

7. Work – Life – Balance. Sometimes it is hard to separate work from free time especially when you love your job, you are part of a small team and your team mates are also your friends. Nevertheless, you need to push away work talk during your free time.

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