3. Excessive Multi-Hatting
One of the principle joys of indie development is the involvement that you end up having with a great many aspects of the development process. The wearing of many hats is something that I've had a deep love for on previous projects, but there is definitely a point beyond which it becomes unwieldy. This is a point that we not only crossed, but continued to sprint past in Forrest Gump fashion, without pausing to consider the implications.
As the Okabu project was considerably more ambitious than our previous games, and as we were also taking on the publishing role for the game, this meant that there were a whole lot more hats to wear. However, the team size hadn't adjusted proportionally to accommodate all this new headgear.
For a project of this size, it's important to have a natural tension between key decision-makers from different disciplines. The game director might suggest a feature, the lead programmer might consider the implications from a tech standpoint and the resources it would take to add to the game, the producer might consider what impact this would have on the schedule, and the studio head work out the feasibility from a financial standpoint based upon any required changes in schedule and resource requirements.
When these roles start to be inhabited by the same individual, it's easy to lose perspective on the implications on all disciplines, and the decision-making process becomes infinitely more challenging. Decisions can frequently be made based only on internal deliberation. This is considerably less effective than the Mel Gibson / Danny Glover-style discussion that you get when two team members without cross-vested involvement can openly explore the implications of a decision.
Our biggest takeaway here is that our structure had become unwieldy from too much multi-hatting of roles and we'd have really benefited from at least one more team member to split those roles up. In particular, another member taking on production responsibilities would have been a real boost to the team.
4. Tools and Art Pipeline
As mentioned in the tech section, we decided to roll our own engine for Okabu, and as part of that we ended up rolling our own tools. We spent a fair bit of time delving into the level editing tools for a number of other engines, making a list of the features that we'd like to have, and those that we felt we really needed to craft levels around our desired feature set. Top of that list was the ability to rapidly switch between "Play" and "Edit" modes, as capably demonstrated by CryEngine and Unity (not to mention the amazing in-game tools for user generated content-focused titles like LittleBigPlanet).
We wanted to maintain a very playful, flexible development process and making level creation as dynamic as possible was key to that. Being able to pause the game, make a couple of tweaks and try out the results immediately has some great benefits -- it encourages rapid iteration and can potentially make the creation process much more efficient. Being a small team, we really wanted to ensure that we were maximizing the resources that we have, and removing any time-consuming steps in the level building process (compiling/building assets) really helped us achieve this.
While the tools started off working pretty well for sculpting terrain, placing and manipulating objects, and writing simple scripts, we started to encounter issues as the scale and complexity of the levels increased. As we started to add additional features and systems to the game, the simple editor began to creak somewhat, and this definitely cost us in terms of efficiency due to an increase in stability issues and some exotic workflows that we had to develop for some of the game's more complex features.
Our main takeaway here is similar to our takeaway from tech -- to consider if the benefits of rolling your own tools outweigh the resource cost for your project. In retrospect, there would have been some real advantages in going for an engine/toolset like Unity. While it would have incurred a considerable up-front cost, the amount of time it took us to develop the tools and engine were very significant and we would have seen a major boost in productivity if we'd not rolled our own.
As mentioned previously, an additional advantage of using a popular engine/toolset is familiarity when people join the team. Whereas our tools and engine were bespoke and somewhat eccentric (and required several days to get comfortable with them), by using an engine like Unity we could have hired designers/programmers on short contracts towards the end of the project that could have been effective almost immediately.
5. Core Audience
Coming from an iPhone/casual background with our previous games, our focus has been developing games that can be enjoyed by a really broad audience. This focus is something that we really wanted to bring to our first console project and from the very beginning of Okabu's development, we designed the controls to be as pick-up-and-play as possible.
My brother has been playing games with my nephew since he was four years old and this was a big inspiration during preproduction. Right from the start, we wanted to create a game that could be enjoyed by gamers with a wide range of abilities and experience. We also wanted to build upon the art style employed in our previous games, creating a bright, warm, charming world begging to be explored and appealing to all.
While we feel we catered well to the casual audience, we definitely underestimated the proportion of core gamers on downloadable console platforms (overwhelmingly male 18 to 25 and primarily interested in core experiences). The pace of the early sections of the game didn't cater well to core players. In retrospect, we definitely should have offered an alternative play mode that provided additional challenge and less hand-holding during the early sections of the game.
Although there are still some parts of the game that we'd love to have had more time to refine, we're amazingly proud of what we managed to create with our small team. While there were some significant challenges along the way, Okabu gave us a wealth of experience. From the publishing side of the business, to the production process for an expansive narrative-led 3D game, there's so much that we've learned during the game's development.
That experience is going to be invaluable to us -- whether targeting mobile and tablet gaming or creating a follow-up to Okabu on PS3, the lessons learned and processes adopted put us in a really strong position to move forward in an exciting and ever changing marketplace.
The work that we've done to build the Okabu IP will also serve as a solid foundation for our future titles. The war chest of assets, characters, stories and landscapes will allow us to create new properties in the Okabu universe quickly and effectively. The hard work of the past couple of years has really paid off.