01 Jun After the Vertical Slice, what’s next?
We have just finished wrapping up the vertical slice, our first playable section of the game. Most team members took a few days off and returned fresh to put down their thoughts on what went well and what didn’t.
Making a AAA quality game with a small team and a tiny budget seems unlikely but that is the challenge we have set ourselves and I know we can crack it, but not if we only rely on sheer brute force. Instead, it will take a team that values collaboration, mutual respect, lateral thinking, critical honesty and a lot encouragement. We have this in place and so I feel like we are up to the challenge, no matter how daunting it seems.
So how did it go and are we happy with the results? Undoubtedly, a large amount of work went into it and we learnt a huge amount from making it. There is a lot we are happy with. Particularly on the art, the enemies, the general atmosphere and the core combat. But exploration gameplay was hit and miss and much harder to make work than we anticipated.
We initially created a level which felt linear so we opened it out with multiple paths and open sections. Yet what we ended up with is a world that encouraged the player to explore but then punished them for not exploring in the order we expected them to.
We resorted to patching this up with VO and visual markers to encourage the player to find their way but the fundamentals were not right to begin. You can’t design an open level with a linear mindset. We’ve learnt our lesson in a small controlled playable section of the game and so we’ve avoided a great deal of future pain. Glass half full.
And so it goes with every area of the level. We know what worked, what was easy, what was hard and how to deal with it going forward. We don’t have the luxury to throw more resources at this game so we have to design the game around what we can achieve. Now I’ve seen some people comment and ask why we aren’t throwing more people at the game or aren’t asking for publisher money.
The reason is simple: if you take someone else’s money, you give up control and freedom. Grow the team too big and it becomes inflexible and hierarchical. Everything we are able to do on this game is a result of being independent and nimble. Those are strengths, not weaknesses, and they are far too precious to give up.
The fact we are not going to Kickstarter also raises people’s eyebrows. We still haven’t proved that we can make the independent AAA model work. Common wisdom says that there is no middle ground between indies and AAA blockbusters. I believe firmly that there is but we need to prove the model before even thinking about risking the goodwill of our fans. We want you to be at our side for the long term.
If you have been following our diaries, you will have seen how we employ a strategy of divide and conquer throughout development. We take each area, brainstorm, form a strategy, execute, iterate and review. Rinse and repeat for art, characters, effects, concepts, combat and so on.
Now we have just put together most of our ‘conquered’ knowledge into a playable which gives us the core minute-to-minute gameplay we want. Some of it isn’t quite there but we now know why and how to fix it in future. More importantly we know we can achieve a AAA quality experience with what we have so it’s time for our next challenge: scope.
The Horizontal Slice
We still need to give players a compelling value proposition and we cannot do this is if the game is too small. The vertical slice is great for finding the experience you want but it won’t help you figure out how the overall game will feel in terms of scope and progression.
We will address these issues in what we call the horizontal slice. Broadly speaking, it involves building the entire game to a shallow level to get a feel for the structure and scope of the overall experience.
Things like cutscenes may be represented simply by storyboards or scripts in game. The gameplay and enemies may be represented by the same sections repeated over and over and art may be fairly rudimentary. But having the bare bones skeleton of the full game gives you a bird’s eye view of the gameplay, the variety, pacing, story and progression. Editing the experience at this stage is cheap and allows for iteration. Once happy with the flow and scope, the production phase becomes all about filling it out.
So once again, we are going to hit this new challenge hard and it will involve a bunch of experiments, leaps of faith and hard work over the next few months. I’m pretty excited to see where it leads us and we will keep you up to date along the way.
Until next time!