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The Curse of Nordic Cove: A Postmortem of an Ambitious Indie Game
by Jamie Daruwala on 11/07/13 08:18:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

An independent studio, consisting of a team of people taking their first tentative steps into the world of game development. An original, multi-genre concept bringing together a plethora of gameplay styles under one insane plot. The stage was set, but how did it play out? What went right with The Curse of Nordic Cove? When went wrong? And which parts of development would we love to chase down with a trusty golf club?

Synopsis

The Curse of Nordic Cove is a multi-genre first-person title, which takes place over one particularly crazy night. You find yourself at the cursed Nordic Cove golf course, struggling to keep up with events that fast escape your control, as the long-dead and still-angry Viking, Helfdane, rises from the grave. Unfortunately, he’s far from alone, bringing a number of equally dead, angry friends along with him to wreak havoc on your unfortunate group.

In control of Paulie Chops, a punk-rock club owner, it is up to you to end the night of Helfdane before it’s the last night anyone ever has. If you need another incentive, he also has your girlfriend, Kayte Sparo. Over the course of the game, players experience a maniacal mash-up of genres. One minute you’ll be enjoying a mixture of golf and first-person combat, and the next you’ll be solving puzzles or driving a heavily-modified lawnmower named Mabel.

The variety doesn’t end there, either. Wield a plethora of bizarre weapons, including a tesla-fueled potato gun and explosive golf balls. Well, how else are you going to put an end to the teleporting Vikings, werewolves and napalm-excreting ravens that stand – or rather lurk – between you and your damsel in the distress?

Let’s take a look at the development process behind our ambitious debut.

 
What Went Right

Completed and Published – Spread Your Wings

First and foremost, The Curse of Nordic Cove, On The Level Game Studio’s entry into the world of game development and sleepless nights, was completed and published. This is something that a lot of independent developers never get to say, and it is with great pride that we managed to create something that actually reached the hands of the gamers.

In an age where games have begun to repeat themselves, and the most sought-after ‘new’ games are those attempting to fill the boots of annually released series such as Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed – both great franchises by their own right, of course – we wanted to create something different. There was an original storyline, original characters, unique weapon technology, and a slew of never-before-seen enemies. We made a point of placing a goose in the duck world of gaming, so to speak, and people took notice.

For a group of hardworking but inexperienced first-timers, these two years have been invaluable and will influence all of our future developments for the better. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a difficult feat, as you’ll grow to understand in ‘What Went Wrong’, but with our small team of dedicated developers, we have given life to our vision – our enjoyably bizarre vision – and no other studio could have made this game in quite the same way as us. Not every studio can say that either, and it is something else that we are proud of and will continue to keep at the heart of our games.

Different Game Mechanics – The Spice of Life

Considering the fact that we were completely new to game development, we could not have chosen a more challenging, yet rewarding game concept: a game that entirely changes its gameplay and mechanics each level. We wanted to do something unique - as far as we know, this game is the only one to utilize quite this many different genres and mechanics. This enabled - and forced - the team to gain knowledge of the many different skills, tools, and systems needed to create the nuances that bring each gamer to the specific genre and style of gameplay.

The first two chapters started out with a golf mechanic combined with a first-person style melee and shooting mechanic. We could have designed the entire game around this mechanic but felt we needed to add more to the story and utilize some of our other characters in order to help us create and build the beginning of a universe that would span multiple games. Therefore, the next two chapters changed to a third-person puzzle mechanic, which allowed the gamer to play as Dr. Bre, who felt best suited to this style of gameplay. 

For Chapter 5, we included a third-person driving mechanic. The rationale behind this was that we wanted this chapter to be completely different in comparison to the rest of the game. We feel that we succeeded, but found that players became frustrated with the movement controls we implemented and even had the perception that getting stuck or being flipped by spawning baddies were glitches or bugs. As a result of this feedback, it would appear that we failed to give our players the enjoyable experience we were hoping for.

Chapters 6 and 7 returned to a first-person style melee and shooting mechanic. These levels were certainly entertaining, but we did run into some limitations with the Unity Engine and its navmesh that sometimes produced unexpected results. Chapter 8 once again brought the player back to third-person stealth, and given more time and resources, we would have loved to further add to this mechanic. In the final chapter, we kept the third-person viewpoint for the last boss fight. Again, due to time and budget restraints, we managed to get this final fight to a working standard, but were unable to deliver the polished experience that we would have liked.

Though some would say this multitude of genres and game mechanics were detrimental to the overall outcome of the game, it challenged our team to quickly and creatively solve problems we had never encountered before. It served to give us a broader knowledge base for future games and genres, what their particular strengths and weaknesses are, and how well they fit within the larger scope of an adventure game.

It was this hybrid of genres that caught the interest of the public, and while it was an aspect of development that always kept us on our toes, we are glad that we chose to stick with our rather risky and different concept.
 
Great Audio – Say Again?

The level of quality and professionalism from our audio team is something that not many indie studios have access to and the final product, from this particular perspective, is something we’re immensely proud of. As a game that contains large amounts of dark humor that can only be truly enjoyed through extremely sarcastic dialogue, the audio of the game was equally as important as the gameplay, and something the team really managed to deliver on. Whether it’s the witty banter fired back and forth between the characters of The Curse of Nordic Cove, or the sound of cracking open yet another beer (it’s for your health, so it’s okay), the audio shines. However, getting it to this point could be just as difficult as other aspects of development.

This being our audio designer’s first experience making audio for video games, he was thrust into a world of ‘anything can happen at any time’ as opposed to ‘this will always happen at this time.’ From our game engine, to the audio, music and voice actors, problems can and did occur, but all furthered our knowledge and abilities of effective game audio.

Starting with our game engine, Unity has one of the most difficult audio engines to work with, in that there practically isn’t one. It’s set up to handle 3D sounds with its built-in FMOD engine and it’s got some nifty little tricks like pitch-shifting, doppler and reverb zones; but it doesn’t have any way to incorporate FMOD Designer or Wwise or any other commonly found audio toolkit. This meant that we had to creatively find the simplest methods for re-creating a dynamic audio listening experience. 

We used arrays in sound sources to keep sounds from repeating and ruining immersion. That, coupled with a slight pitch randomization took care of the majority of small sound effects like swings, hits, blocks and so on. For the engine sounds on Mabel (the lawnmower), we made a cage of sorts where the audio listener was attached to the lawn mower and the actual audio sources were fixed in space around the model itself. For example, if Mabel was tilted back, the audio listener was also tilted back and would hear the engine load that was always playing behind it in a 3D space. Using our simple system we were able to incorporate not only the engine but also the tires, the load and volume-based warning; the more you tilted, the louder those audio sources became.

We also used many terrain based triggers throughout the game, working in the same way as a tripwire, to set off certain SFX like stone weight plates or dirt falling. Another example is that getting close to a garage door in Chapter 3 would set off the sounds of wraiths pounding on the doors, and, a personal favorite, setting off musical stings when crossing door thresholds in Chapter 7.

For the more musical aspects of gameplay we used a variety of techniques to capture the tone of each level. Chapters 1 and 2 had many small musical and ambient sounds that were played on a random timer and pitch randomization. Chapter 3, which was time based, was recorded like a linear song but we used distance to control EQ, and the song itself went from 110 beats per minute to a blistering 220 as the five minute song progressed. Chapter 5 is a real song from a band called Roots Of Exile. After meeting with them we were able to get the instruments sent over as separate tracks, or stems, and from there we set up a distance-based mixing system. The closer you got to the end goal, the fuller the band music was, which involved one audio source playing four stems, mixed using curves. We were especially proud of that feat!

Finally, the last boss fight was plagued with technical issues that unfortunately snuck into the audio. As we wanted the music to become more intense as the fight went on, simplicity was the key, and we made three or four different mixes of the same song, bringing new instruments to the mix with every phase of the battle. A simple concept made very worrisome by the problems we had with Unity. Sometimes the song would play, other times it would just stop mid-battle when a new mechanic was instantiated. This was frustrating, to say the least - but the important thing is that it all came together in the final product.

Recording the actors was incredibly fun but far more difficult than we had imagined it would be. Everyone has an idea of how a reaction should sound, but sometimes getting several actors who never actually met each other in real life to act with one another through words on a computer screen was more than we were prepared for. It took several sessions with each actor, sometimes months apart, to get everything we needed. During those off months, there was a chance that they would completely fall out of character, and we had to start from scratch on Dr. Bre more than once. It made our job much easier that Paulie’s voice was authentic; if you met the actor in real life, he would sound exactly like he did in the game.

Overall, we learned how to keep our crazy ideas from becoming the stuff of coders’ nightmares, and we’re proud of the results.

What Went Wrong

Many Different Gameplay Mechanics – Too Much Spice…

Getting serious deva-ju right now? Yeah, you did see this in ‘What Went Right’ too. This factor of game development was something of a double-edged sword, and features prominently in the minds of the team as something that gave The Curse of Nordic Cove the bizarre charm that we strive for, while also creating numerous issues with both marketing and the overall polish of the finished product.

Beginning with the creation of the game itself, the risky multi-genre idea that we dreamed up in our little studio in Texas was much more problematic in reality. With the large number of game mechanics and elements we had to create (golfing, combat, driving, shooting, stealth, enemy A.I. etc.) and limited time frames, we were not able to put the amount of polish and balance into the game that was needed.  It is not so much that we – and the public – didn’t love the idea of different game mechanics, keeping gameplay fresh from one chapter to the next, but rather that we included too many. This meant that no one area of gameplay was perfected, but that all were developed to a working standard, which is not something that we enjoy having to admit to ourselves for our first game.

When each game mechanic is under close analysis, these issues become especially clear. The first-person combat, for example, is somewhat ‘clunky’, and this can be accredited to our studio’s inexperience of developing real-time combat, hit-detection and AI. Though much was learnt in the process, with a number of other mechanics still to implement and deadlines approaching there was never going to be time to get this gameplay, or any other, to the standard that we would have aimed for if we had focused on that mechanic alone.

Again, this multitude of genres became a problem when trying to get word of our game to the public. When your game combines aspects of many different styles, which kind of gamer do you target? Will the hardcore golfer be interested, or will the inclusion of FPS gameplay sour the cursed 18-hole course for them? Will lovers of stealth feel discouraged when they have to leave the safety of the shadows to solve puzzles? It was a real concern and something that may have harmed the total reach of the game based on gamers’ feelings towards each mechanic. 

In reality, it is fair to say that The Curse of the Nordic Cove is a collection of unrelated mini-games with only the story tying it together. For players that have completed the game, we believe it worked, but there’s a very real – and saddening – chance that many people will play until a level that does not suit them, and quit. 

This possibility may have been reduced by having a prototyping phase, which is crucial in choosing the game mechanics you want to implement in a game, and how you want to implement them. However, due to lack of time, we forewent this important process, and as a result included mechanics that public feedback could have helped to improve considerably. For example, we could have set up a couple different golf and combat systems and played around with them to see which was more fun or fluid.

On future projects, we need to ensure that there is time for a prototyping phase and to limit the number of game mechanics we implement so we can put plenty of time and focus into perfecting the ones we use. With everything that we have learned over the past two years, we feel confident that this issue is one well-understood by the team as we are well underway with development of our next game, Boo Bunny Plague, which only focuses on two main elements: hack ‘n’ slash gameplay mixed with musical theatre.

Not Enough Transparency

At times, a lack of communication between members of the team also hindered game development. For example, with so many different game mechanics, and each person working on something different, it was essential that everyone was kept up to date on what was being done and who it was being done by. This wasn’t always how it worked out. Occasionally there were times when one person’s changes to game script would affect a different part of the game, and created many unexplained problems that could have been easily avoided with a little more communication.

From this the studio has learnt that constant communication of changes being implemented is detrimental to a smooth development process. One idea we’ve had within the team to encourage such communication is to create a wall of levels in the break room. It would be full, from the floor to the ceiling, with points and documents from the game bible. Many times the script and the level and the game bible all clashed against each other, and as already mentioned, this could have probably been avoided if everyone at every level was made aware of any changes.

Steep Learning Curve

At the beginning of the process, our inexperience meant that everything came with its own steep learning curve. In fact, this can be shown by how long it took to develop Level One compared to the later levels of the game. Level One, which combined an 18-hole round of golf with first-person combat, took one year to get working properly whereas the other six levels took the same amount of time in total to complete. Where possible, we tried to learn from our errors as we went along, adapting and improving our development processes step-by-step.

This conscious effort to be flexible came to nothing though when faced with the frustratingly inconsistent engine behaviour that plagued some of our days. Many times when a bug had been written up and squashed, it would re-appear, usually with no explanation anyone could communicate. The best way we can describe this is entering ‘1+1=’ on a calculator 100 times to get 2, but on the 101st time getting a 3. It was the purest form of insanity in a digital world. This made testing the game extremely difficult, unnecessarily time-consuming, and may have allowed for very strange discoveries still to come. 

Summary

What Went Right

  • Jumped into game development at the deep end of the pool, went under the surface a few times but managed to stay afloat for the two years it took to finish the game, in which we gained invaluable experience.
  • We can take pride in the fact that we created a game that stayed true to our vision, as unique as it was, and managed to use the collective talent of an in-house studio of first-timers to see The Curse of Nordic Cove through to completion.
  • Impressive audio for an independently developed game – perfect for the dark humor of the game.
  • People! Support from family, friends and the public are what kept us ticking over, day-by-day.

What Went Wrong

  • The sheer number of game mechanics implemented may have harmed the overall polish of the finished game, but it is also the hook that caught the attention of gamers looking for something other than the mainstream series.
  • No clear player type to target, which resulted in slow initial sales and a lack of public word-of-mouth.
  • Inexperience led to a time-consuming and steep learning curve, including the complexity of audio and voice acting, along with the disadvantages of Unity.
  • Lack of communication between team members when changes were implemented, leading to unnecessary development issues.
  • Inconsistent engine behavior, creating problems randomly.
  • Prototyping phase missing from process due to lack of time.

Conclusion

The development process of The Curse of Nordic Cove, On The Level Game Studio’s first game, was somewhat of a bumpy a ride. From day one we were creating a game with our personal indie flavor, which resulted in both positive and negative aspects of the game life cycle, from production to distribution. 

All we can say for sure is that, from the beginning to the end, we could not have gone through the daily challenges that game development threw at us without the never-ending support of family, friends and fans. These people were as instrumental in this game’s creation as the very coding behind it, and this - and every other game that we make in the future - is for you. 

Thank you.

On The Level Game Studios, LLC.     @onthelevelgames     Houston, TX


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Comments


Arqam Gadit
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Interesting read. Thanks for sharing your experience. These days I am pondering over whether I should be creating my own game or not. I already have the basics in place. Can you tell me about your team size and total costs incurred?

Jamie Daruwala
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Arqam Gadit - Thanks for reading! We hope it helped in some way. Our team started with owners Jeff and Carolyn who hired a team of 6 to work with them. There was a designer, lead artist, a programmer, one audio engineer, office manager, and a marketing person. Several people were changed or added later in the game development to help finish up including an animator, and another programmer. Since we were relatively well funded, the idea was to make something bigger and better than typical one or two person indie teams could make. In some senses we succeeded, and in others, we learned a ton as you saw in the article. I give Jeff and Carolyn much credit for giving some of these folks their start in the business and supporting them to make a career in video games. That said, we recommend not cutting corners when hiring personnel. I also heard this advice at GDC Next last week from developers. You are often better off waiting to fill spots until you find the right people who can add value. While I am not at liberty to discuss salaries, I can say that there are certain fixed cost items that can vary depending on what you want to do. My advice is to start simple on your first game and work within the limits of what and who you have at hand to work with. We really reached far on the first game, and we would have kept it simpler if we could do it over. It is very important to get that first game out because a large percentage never get that far. It paves the way for future endeavors. It also teaches you what the obstacles are, and can act as a calling card in the future. Good luck to you! Cheers, Jamie

Ron Dippold
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I'll have to check this out. I remember fondly some of the old games (Beachhead, Raid Over Moscow) that would consist of different sequences, but those fell out of favor for the reasons you list. The screenshots make me think 'N64 if N64 had been a lot more powerful' - probably because of the cartoony font and UI elements. Was that intentional?

Jamie Daruwala
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Ron - Yes the team did intentionally go for the cartoon style. They are huge fans of comics, and you will see more of that in our follow up game, Boo Bunny Plague which will be out in 2014.


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