MoonWard Demo Postmortem
Updated: Jun 20
Hello everyone! Mr. Slate is back! Well... I never left. Blogs are back, though.
For anyone new - I used to write weekly blogs. I stopped 4 months ago (to the day!). If you want to know why then you're in the right place!
But first some housekeeping, skip this paragraph if you're only here for the juicy stuff.
The MoonWard Demo is out for Android! It's free, it's got a lot of stuff to do, it's offline, it has no in app purchases or ads AND you can grab it here!
The website (you're on it) has also been updated! Feel free to have a look around when you're done reading!
And lastly. The blog is back! Oh, wait, you already know that...
In late September 2022 I realised that I'm spending all my savings and time on this project and I want people to play it. So I set myself two goals - I would have to make more people aware of the game and let them play it as early as possible. So I decided to comission and publish a reveal trailer and more importantly develop and publish a demo.
So far so good. I started planning and before too long I had the following loose work plan:
This image is taken from the Schedule task in the MoonWard Trello (yes I have one, no you're not invited).
Some of you will notice something missing from this plan. The trailer! At the time I was hoping it would have so little overhead for me that I wouldn't even have to add it to the plan. So I didn't. Smart!
The other thing you'll notice are the 6 hour days. I put those in so I can have dedicated time to do any work I hadn't allowed time for or tasks that take longer than estimated. Essentially a 20 hour buffer on top of the 20% overestimation I put on every (developer) task. 20 hours is plenty! Smart!
Also you'll notice the admin days. Those were meant to be for any kind of tech/environment/infrastructure research and setup. Things like setup for the Play Store, App Store and maybe even Steam for example. Yes, I was going to release on only 3 platforms, even though Unity allows me to do more than that. I was being realistic. Smart!
Oh and you'll notice there's no time for social media posts and marketing on there. That's because I do that in my out of hours time. And if I stuck to the schedule I'd have loads of that. Smart!
I know the whole "Smart!" things isn't funny but I really want to emphasise how sure I was of that schedule.
And So It Begins...
So as scheduled I began work on the 14th of November.
I started slow - the first day was going to be transferring tasks from the backlog to the newly created Demo backlog. Filling it to the capacity of time available in the schedule.
Immediately I began noticing problems - the old backlog was full of features and tasks that didn't contribute to a vertical slice very well. Not to mention a lot of final touch and polish tasks were just not made yet because the game wasn't going to be out for a long time. Also a lot of the content creation work was extremely vague and limited compared to what I was going to need. Regardless, I spent most of the day converting and building up the new backlog. I was pretty happy with the end result too. Obvious ominous foreshadowing.
The first couple of weeks went smoothly because I focused on development, more specifically the UI. My estimates mostly held up, with an average of about 4 hours off per week. That wasn't too bad and I kept up by working Saturdays.
Then I started thinking about the trailer. I did some research but while I was doing that I realised I needed to build some kind of mockup. I started building one in Unity and quickly realised it would add at least a week to my schedule. Regardless I added some tasks and cracked on. A week later I had the mockup along with a fairly robust Unity solution. You may have seen some of the results of that work.
After that was complete, in my time off, I did some research and found someone to do the trailer for me. They had solid references and had done similar work before so I mostly left them to their own. This was also about the time I started speaking with Alessandro an amazing composer who made the music for the trailer. Check his stuff he's good!
Meanwhile, I had started working on features and things were still going at fairly the same speed as before. About 4 hours over time per week. Working full Saturdays was at that point completely normal. When you add the time I spent for socials I would have been doing 50-something our weeks. Still fine, I'm doing what I love so it doesn't matter.
Moving steadily on, I reached the sound design and development stage of production. Now, if you're not aware of this, sound implementation time is usually severely underestimated in games development and I'm not ashamed to say that as it turns out I was about 3 days off with my original estimates. So that along with some work that was starting to pile up had put me up to another extra week on top of the schedule.
On top of that the image composition system and building the 3D environments for it had taken a few days longer.
In a surprising life-imitates-art fashion the next month and a bit was mostly bad times.
It was becoming obvious there were severe miscalculations in the original plan. I was now more than 2 weeks over and had at least 2 more weeks worth of originally estimated time left. So I sat down one day and re-examined the remaining tasks. I played the game as it was and wrote some notes on things I wanted to improve on or add. This was around the 16th of January by the way. So the plan was already long gone. Anyway, long story short - I came out of that with about 4 weeks worth of extra work. I also realised I would need about 2 weeks on top of that for QA and any bug fixes.
Because the demo was taking longer, that meant the full release would be moved indefinitely. Because of that the company budget was drying up and I needed to get funding from somewhere. Well, what better way of funding your hobby than good old hard work.
I began a contracting job with a local company. In all fairness that was by far the best part of this time as the people I worked with were all amazing and very understanding of my situation. I was only there for several weeks and I have nothing but good things to say about the experience. All of this did mean that that I could do no work on the game during this time. That was unpleasant. Either way in early March I was back to working on MoonWard, secure in the knowledge that I have the necessary extra funds to finish it.
I'm now up to March and you're probably wondering what happened to the trailer. Well, it turns out I was wrong about the contractor I'd hired. Not only did they delay multiple times by weeks but their work deteriorated sharpy after the initial stage. While I was contracting I had to cut my losses and let them go. Unfortunately I had spent half my trailer budget on them by that point. Nothing but some character concepts and the company logo were at all useable. So I went back to the drawing board and decided that if you want something done, just do it yourself. At least the parts you can do yourself.
I decided to use the Unity code I had from the mock-up, my years of mod scene level design and most importantly - in-depth cinema knowledge thanks to years of RedLetterMedia binging, to do the backgrounds and directing/cinematography myself. It was going to take another week or two but at that point I didn't have a choice. I just needed some high quality character art. This is how I found Lorenzo who swooped in and did an awesome job creating the characters I wanted. Definitely go check out his Instagram - he does amazing fantasy character art!
February was also when I stopped doing the blog. Between worrying about the MoonWard delay, the new job and the trailer I was frankly overwhelmed and dropping that particular commitment made my life just a bit easier.
Alright, it's early March, I've re-done the schedule and the new plan is to release the trailer in mid April and the demo in mid May. Great. What's the worst that can happen!
I start with some game features, then some design updates. I produce the trailer, do some trailer release research, write the marketing copy, prepare the marketing materials and the website, contact press and before I know it it's early April and everything is still going according to plan! I think I've done it. April 14th comes and it seems like I've got about two weeks worth of polish and content for the game left.
And then I hit the wall - the wall of content. I'd already done the items and enemies and all in only a couple of days. If you don't know - every item has a unique paragraph of world building. I managed 70 item descriptions in about 2 days. I was pretty proud with that, so I thought stories would be no different. I was wrong.
The bounties took me a week to write and then another day to edit, fix typos and get them in the game. There are 30 bounty templates in the demo. Each one has a unique micro story and type of enemy you can encounter. Each one can only be encountered in certain biomes and locations. Writing is hard, writers are amazing. I have no budget for a writer, so I just soldiered on. What's next?
Stories. There are 4 main (Campaign) and 3 side stories in the demo. Most with multiple adventures that need descriptions the size of the bounty descriptions and more or less dialogue depending on the story. I wish I could say something like "thousands of lines" but honestly I don't know. It's a lot and most of it is optional or based on skill checks. This took me another week of writing. I built a tool to help me import dialogue in the game which saved a lot of time later on but took a weekend initially. All of that took me another week and a half... plus the weekend.
On top of it all a lot of functionality tied to the dialogue and skill checks wasn't actually in the game yet, so I had to put some extra time into that.
Anyway it's just past mid May. The demo is clearly not coming out when I planned so now I'm aiming for early June. I've been working every day since the trailer came out and am starting to fall apart. But the demo is now polished enough and ready for QA. This was painless as I used a couple of friends from previous jobs. If you're reading this - thank you Harv and Henry. They did a great job, had a lot of good non-bug related suggestions too. Thankfully there weren't any serious bugs.
At the same time I tried reaching out to press for editorials or coverage but I was too tired and I barely kept track of this.
Honestly at this point I just wanted it to end. Get the demo out so I can take a break. The last few days are a bit of a blur.
I'm writing this on the 13th of June. Just four days later. Releasing the demo, the pressure and all the stress feels like it happened months ago. It's surreal. I'm taking this week easy, only doing socials and support with the demo. I feel better, but I'm already thinking about the next steps. I just want to get back to work. I think I have issues.
I've been doing some light planning on the side and the amount of content I'll have to produce for the full game is... a lot. But now I know how long it takes so I can prepare accordingly. There's also hundreds of hours of development left. Plenty of features and tweaking.
This was supposed to be a sharing of my experience and a bit of a postmortem of the MoonWard Demo but I'm afraid it's slowly turned into a therapy session. Anyway, let's do the postmortem thing where you list 3 things that went wrong and 3 things that went right.
UI, features and gameplay - the development side of the process was fairly well estimated and presented little problems.
By handling a large part of the trailer assets myself I managed to get exactly what I wanted and at a lower cost.
The fact that plans kept failing was ultimately irrelevant to the process. Because there was always a plan in place, goals and paths were always clearly defined.
Lack of experience in certain skills like writing was a major problem here. Not the lack of the skill specifically, but the surprising amount of time it took.
Crunch is never ok, no matter the reason or who's enforcing it.
Dropped the ball on Marketing. Considering exposure was one of the main reasons to go through this, I definitely could have done better.
Wow, I honestly didn't expect to have so much to say about the process but here we are. My apologies for the length. If you're reading this, then - Thank you!
I hope to see you next week. Have a good one.