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Postmortem: Arrowhead Game Studios' Magicka
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Postmortem: Arrowhead Game Studios' Magicka

August 30, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

4. We Are Making a Game For...

We knew right from the start that our target players were creative nerd/geek gamers of all ages. With that decision we had won half the battle. There were no delusions of making Magicka more accessible than we ourselves thought reasonable. We didn't want to maximize the number of players that would get involved with the game at the cost of the gaming experience for those who would like it in the way it was intended. Once again, something for everyone is something for no one.

As Magicka was developed to be a niche game, it was easy to filter and dismiss "incorrect" feedback from certain well-established people that knew the industry better.

"You'll have to remove friendly fire," "you can't let the player begin with all elements, he should have to find them throughout the game," and "players should be able to hotkey their favorite spells so that they don't have to press several buttons just to do one attack," were several of the suggestions we heard.

All of these suggestions directly interfered with the main design philosophies at Arrowhead and would've diluted our vision for Magicka and made it a carbon copy of so many other titles.

This is also one of the main reasons why we acted the way we did just after release. As the game went live on Steam, a huge number of people bought it the first day. The number of severe bugs and crashes became painfully obvious -- to the point that a problem-free game of Magicka became a joke.

Even though the game had so many problems, we had a large amount of gamers playing and loving it. Many expressed their sadness that the game was nearly unplayable. At that point, we made a split-second decision that we'd patch the game every day for two full weeks, just because we knew that if we had bought a game in that state, we would have expected the same. Not only did we bring all our guns to bear, but so did our publisher, Paradox Interactive, who focused all their efforts to soothe the discontent of gamers and convey our plan for two weeks of unyielding support.

Due to this quick response, we gained a crowd of hardcore fans that continue to stand by us and help us moderate the forums and help new players with the problems they're having. This was, of course, a time where we demanded much of our employees, but in the end it turned out well and everyone at Arrowhead Game Studios can say that they are proud of the way the studio acted during those two weeks.

5. Soul Searching

About three quarters through the development period, we were still grappling with the original adventure design where the player would be allowed to unlock different paths depending on how well he performed in certain levels.

We never really got this to feel right and as we cut levels from the game, the goals the players had to achieve to unlock these "hidden paths" were thinned out to the point that our branching structure had essentially boiled down to two different campaigns running parallel to each other. We learned the hard way that when you're struggling to make one campaign, don't ever make two.

So just a couple of months before the final milestone we rewrote the entire script for the game during the course of an evening, reusing all the assets and levels that had previously been part of the "second campaign" to include several plot twists, time travel, and just wrap up the whole story in a neat package instead of the mess it previously had been.

Without this change the story would, for most people, never have included dragons, SkiFree references, the Tristram spoof song, or the scene where Vlad reveals that he in fact is... Well, I won't give away this spoiler for those of you that haven't played the game, but it's a plot twist that is crucial to the whole feel of Magicka.

So, the lesson that can be learned from this is that self criticism and soul-searching will reveal parts of your game that are working as intended but aren't fun or fitting. The tricky part is realizing when to just say stop and muster up the courage to make the decision to cut or redesign.

With all that said, we did make some mistakes... so many that we were, in fact, close to just giving up. So, let's venture into the dark side of this postmortem.

What Went Wrong

1. Optimism

Back in the days when we crafted our first budget and milestone plan we had the development of Magicka ironed out to five full-time developers working for six months.

Fact: Magicka took eight full-time and between two and four part-time developers 24 months to barely finish. Our initial estimate was off by more than 700 percent. One would think that an estimate that's so horribly wrong as this one would've been caught and adjusted.

And sure, after three months of development we realized that the estimate was very wrong and we adjusted it accordingly, by doubling the months required and adding two full-time developers. This was of course also a misjudgment by about 200 percent, but at the time we were so blinded by our initial deadline, our financial situation, and the faith in our own efforts and work ethic that we thought we'd manage it anyway. This behavior continued throughout the development process. We were always having 16 hour/day crunches weeks before milestones that we would, in the end, miss.

This is of course one of the most common mistakes for software developers, but guesstimating milestone schedules for a creative process is very tricky. Game development is very much a creative process that is not at all compatible with how the business is actually handled around fixed deadlines. In the future I would hope that the games industry evolves to become more flexible, and realize that the creative part of the process won't conform to deadlines.

... I wonder if Michelangelo had a milestone schedule for his Sistine Chapel?

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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Andrew Grapsas
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Awesome post mortem!

I can say, many experienced developers constantly are hobbled by the same pitfalls. Bravo! I'd love to hear a post mortem on your DLC and see how your process is evolving.

Great work guys. Also, as a former tools programmer, never forget the tools! From a programming perspective, I'd rather make content creation & iteration faster than have to constantly flip switches, debug segments of code "broken by content", etc.

Enrique Hernandez
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“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening my ax”

- Abraham Lincoln

pretty smart guy

Chris Remo
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Great postmortem, very informative. It's also really encouraging to see how well Magicka has done for itself.

Ted Spence
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I appreciate this postmortem. Too many commercial products have postmortems with bland "what-went-wrong" sections written carefully to avoid offending anyone; this kind of brutal honesty shows that the developer has a clear handle on what they need to do.

I look forward to steady improvement from this team as a result ;)

Joe Program
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A "what-went-wrong" Magicka postmortem is so meta, as making horrible mistakes is the game's main feature.

Mark Venturelli
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"At what was supposed to be our beta milestone, after submitting the build, we did a play test of the final boss: Assatur. Instead of descending from the top of the screen to do battle with the wizards, he for some reason turned around and ascended back to where he came from, never to be seen again. At this point, 6 am -- after a long crunch -- the entire team cracked up, went to bed and took a couple of days off."

Now this I can relate to! =) Thank you for sharing these, it`s always so good to read such an honest and open piece like that. I`m sure that a lot of small start-up guys around the globe are inspired by your postmortem and by Magicka`s history.

Courtland Brower
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I agree, I was gonna post the same copy/paste, I laughed with them after reading that. As a startup guy who I know this Post Mortem does raise my spirits and makes me want to keep digging.

Thomas Engelbert
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I'm still fascinated by your success and your story. This, and what you write in your postmorten, really encourages me in my decision to get into the industry. I wish you the best of luck.

Jheng Wei Ciao
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A really touching and encouraging postmortem. In spite of all obstacles and despair, you persevered. Hard-working eventually pays off.

Congratulation to your success!

Andrew Williams
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Thanks very much for this postmortem. It was most informative and very entertaining.