Top 5 games we didn't finish making in 2016
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
We at Necrosoft Games take a long time to finish things. And it's not only because we're polishing our games into our purest vision of what they could be, though we do try. It's more because we're always keeping a lot of plates spinning in order to say alive. Our development methodology is a bit different from other studios in that we develop and release our games in phases. Our typical development/release schedule looks like this.
Idea→rough prototype→ rough-polish prototype→ try to get money for the project
Then, if we've found some money, we go to the development/release phase:
Initial, sometimes rough release (small platform)→ Version 1.25 (small platform)→ version 1.5 (small platform)→ Version 2.0 (large platform – finished. This version is the “true vision” of the game.)→ Version 2.1 (port, small platform – this can continue as long as people give us money)
Why do we do this? Because we get a platform or publisher to pay for every single version of our games, and this is what keeps our studio alive. But these are small amounts of money, and with multiple games in different stages of this process, they cause us to bounce back and forth between each project, making each one a little better before we release it on a new platform.
We did this with our recent iOS/Android release of Gunhouse. It was first released on PlayStation Mobile in early 2014, then Windows Phone in Fall 2014, then Amazon devices in early 2015, before we finally put it on iOS/Android a few weeks ago in 2016. We are planning to port it to (at least) one more platform after that, with more slight improvements. Of all of those versions, only the iOS/Android one was self funded. We use the leftover money we get from bringing our games to new platforms to help push all our other projects a little further down the runway. This is how Necrosoft Games has continued to exist for 4 years without any big hits.
If anything, I hope this gives newer devs some insight into how and why projects can fall by the wayside, and makes more established devs nod in agreement. You're not alone!
So, with our odd development style in mind, and also stating that we didn't *start* all these games in 2016, here are our top 5 games that didn't make it to that final version this year. (Likewise, we also never give up on any of our ideas. We just find another time and place to put them out. So don't be surprised if these games eventually do make it out there!)
1) Oh, Deer!
Current state: version 1.0 released, 1.25 in progress.
Oh, Deer! is a game about hitting or avoiding as many deer as possible, on the road to grandma's house, with music by Motohiro Kawashima (Streets of Rage 3). We released it for PlayStation Mobile as Oh, Deer! Alpha, alluding to its “unfinished” nature. We put the game out during E3 2015, making it one of the last games on the PSM platform, and we were happy to see it get an overwhelmingly positive reception. Then PlayStation Mobile shut down, and nobody but the, shall we say, “X number of people” who bought it at that exact time can even play the thing now.
That PSM release is only part of what we wanted to do with the game. We got the core mechanic pretty solid, but it only has one stretch of 5 mile track, and is sort of a “score attack” driving game. But the full version is meant to have either bloodier and grizzlier, or and lighter and more unicorn-y track options arise when you hit or avoid more deer, as well as customizable options for your station wagon, and a whole bunch of other stuff. That requires a huge number of assets, and frankly we want to rebuild the engine from the ground up.
Why isn't it done, and what's next:
Oh, Deer! is a simple-looking game, but pseudo 3D takes a lot of work to get right. We fully intended for the first release of this game to be the final one, but we wound up completing about 1/3 of our vision, and had to release. We overscoped, and underbudgeted, in classic game developer form. But we released something people like, and that's what counts!
You can hit or avoid deer... people seem to like to hit them :\
It was largely the time consumed by asset creation (high end pixel art takes ages), combined with lack of funds, that made us unable to finish that right off the bat. But the core of the game is there, and solid, which is why the reception was good. We made sure that, even if it's short, it feels like a full game. But for us, it remains unfinished.
We're working on version 1.25 right now, a relatively straightforward port to another platform with a few extra features. I can't say where it'll go yet, but in a couple weeks all will be revealed! Unfortunately, without a Real Investor, version 2.0, our true vision of the game, is not possible. But when we do it, we want to redo the engine from scratch, make an editor, and essentially make the whole thing more human-readable.
2) Unnamed tactics game
Current state: rough-polished prototype
(Prototype name: “gunhat.” It's important to name your prototypes something you won't get attached to!) This PVP tactics game was created as a design exercise for myself. I wondered - what's the smallest tactics game we could make? It started out as a simple game of rock paper scissors with added complexity. The core mechanic boils down to matching the classic Chinese hierarchy of elements against each other, with some additional modifiers.
As it stands, we've got some quick, rough art, we've got the PVP mechanic solid, and a rough single player mode. It's nearly done on the mechanics side, but there's lots of window dressing, and – dare I say it – “juice” to be added.
Why it isn't done, and what's next:
We initially made this when we were thinking of applying for some grants that required a prototype. We knew we could make this fast, so it seemed a good candidate. As usual, the game got a little more complicated as we started making it, and the requests from the people we were pitching got larger and more involved. This is what led to us putting in a single player component as well, though it's rough, and not as expanded as we intended.
Project Gunhat prototype. You can see where the name comes from.
Ultimately what put this project on the backburner was two things. First, when we got some mockup art from the awesome Junkboy, we realized… uh-oh, this game needs to play as complex as it now looks. The art he gave us just screamed “real tactics game,” when we were actually making “tiny light tactics game.” There was no way we could make *this* game look like *that* art.
Second, the grant fell through, and the very enthusiastic publisher we were talking to changed their mind, and decided to only fund million dollar projects from bigger studios. So this got put in the storage locker. Money is the killer!
The Junkboy art that made us realize we needed to make a different game.
But!! We're hoping to revive this game soon, as we prepare for our larger tactics game, which resulted from that Junkboy art. It will look nothing like the current iterations. And so it goes!
3) Demon School
Current state: 50% finished with rough-polish prototype
Wooo, we are excited about this one. This is a much larger tactics game, inspired by that junkboy art for the smaller tactics game. I don't want to give away too much about it, but it has a kind of neat tactics idea, a bunch of story across two different gameplay layers, some raising elements, and a suuuuper cool composer that will surprise probably everyone. And lots of other stuff! This is a big project that we're really looking forward to!
Demon School. All that text UI is placeholder, obviously!
Why it isn't done, and what's next:
This one is basically super early! Also it's been extremely slow going as we do things like release Gunhouse, and finish Oh, Deer! version 1.25, et cetera. Got to pay the bills! But what's interesting here is the demo we did make really attracted publishers. Looking at the art, hearing the music, and feeling the vibe, publishers “got” what this was right away. This has been a continued lesson for us. Oh, Deer! and Demon School are both tell you basically what they are from a single screenshot. This has really resonated with publishers (hell, kotaku mailed us when they saw us tweet a teaser image).
Some of our other games, like Gunhouse and Gunsport, require explaining before you know what you're looking at. That resonates less, and presents a much greater challenge. We've learned from this, and Demon School is pretty much the result. The battle system isn't in a state to be shown right now, but when you see it, you get it.
Character sketches by Catherine Menabde. We went with something close to the Xed one.
Unfortunately, without significant publisher investment, or us striking it rich on one of our other games, Demon School just won't ever get finished. But since publisher reactions have been very positive, we're optimistic. Also, we'd really like to be only working on one thing when we do this, which means we're going to have to change our way of life. Big decisions!
Current status: 75% of the way to version 2.0
Gunsport is our 2v2 “cyberpunk volleyball with guns” game, which we started back in late 2013. We've been working on it for some time, off and on, with more “off” in 2016 than “on.” It's a competitive esports sort of game, so requires a lot of polish and care. This means we're ignoring our usual method of releasing a rough version, then polishing it up on new platforms. We're going straight for the polished version, as best we can. I mean, since it's a PVP game and we don't have scads of testers, our best effort is probably going to be a bit unbalanced anyway! Nature of the beast.
Gunsport, all about shooting that ball.
Why it isn't done, and what's next:
We split with our publisher in late 2015, which made it pretty tough to keep working. We had no more funding, and I'd already put something like $30k of my own money into it (which was 120% of the money I'd started the company with), and we were one month from dead. Through contract work and perseverance, we managed to keep going and release a finished product (Gunhouse), which was important for our morale and cashflow.
But ultimately, Gunsport needed a lot of work, in a few arenas.
a) Some of the game was difficult to understand at first. Plenty of polish needed all round, and this was one of the big points our publisher made.
b) In some ways, the polished prototype was more fun than what we wound up with later (we're working hard on that!)
b) Our netcode was a disaster and needed to be restarted with someone new after almost a year of work.
So with all these daunting things in our way, plus no actual funding for the game, you can understand why we might put it on the backburner. But I'm actually happy we did, because it gave us time and space to think about it. We were able to do some user tests, try to polish the core and get that “just one more” kind of fun back in there, and also finish up all the art tasks that hadn't been done yet. We did this using the money we got from the other ports and contract work. It might sound like we're banking hard on Gunsport's success – really, we just want to make the best thing we can, no matter how we do it.
We have cutscenes now!
So, while the game has been proceeding incredibly slowly during free moments, 95% of the art is now done (did I mention that properly detailed pixel art is extremely time consuming!?), and we have someone lined up for net code.
On top of that, when we started making the game, a lot of local multiplayer games were coming out. It was this crazy zeitgeist, and at first, it was cool to be a part of it. Then it all started failing, and you couldn't give a couch multiplayer game away for free, basically. So now, I'm happier we've passed the zeitgeist by, and these sorts of games are “a game that comes out sometimes,” rather than a “thing” as such.
Anyway. We're marching forward, we have a specific plan for how to get the game in front of people, and we've got our online code in the works. We begin to see the light at the end of this particular tunnel.
Current status: rough-polished prototype
Magicops is a vs puzzle game, in the vein of 90s favorites like Tetris Battle Gaiden, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, or Puyo Puyo~n. (Okay, maybe that last one is just a personal favorite.) This is the kind of puzzle game that has powerups, characters, story, and the whole nine yards. It stars magical girls in space, who are training to be intergalactic police, with an art style influenced by Dirty Pair: Project Eden, and a unique combo mechanic. I mean… don't you want to play that!? I want to play that. Maybe it's just me!
Magicops teaser image by Mariel Cartwright.
The game had an auspicious beginning – Mariel Cartwright (Skullgirls, Indivisible), Shane Marks (soon-to-be Necrosoft Games programmer), and Daniel Rosenfeld (C418 / Minecraft) and I were sitting in a hotel room during GDC, playing Tetris Battle Gaiden. I talked about how much I wanted to make one of these, and basically pitched Magicops on the spot. Mariel said “I'd like to do art for that.” Shane said, “I could code that!” Daniel said “I'd love to do music for that!”
And so we were off to the races. This was made even easier by the fact I had a prototype of the mechanic on-hand, from a former attempt to make a similar game.
Magicops WIP screen. Project Eden influence not yet super visible.
Why it isn't done, and what's next:
Well, there's a big problem when you get a bunch of talented and busy people to work on your game; talented people are busy! So we couldn't get a lot of Mariel's time and Daniel had his own things to deal with, and on top of that there was no funding coming from our end, so we couldn't afford to put in that much time either. We pitched it to a half dozen publishers, but nobody was giving us those Contract Eyes we were looking for.
We'd like to work on this again, but everyone has so much to do that it won't be for a while. You'll have to wait for Lab Zero's Indivisible, and our own Gunsport to be out, at the very least!
On the bright side, you can listen to all the music Daniel made for the game. Everything in his “2 years of failure” album that has “90s” appended to the front was initially a sketch of a Magicops track, as we casted around trying to find the vibe (which we never quite did).
Here's that old prototype! It was for XBLIG back in the day.
If all goes well, you'll see a couple small releases, and at least one larger one from us this year. But I can't necessarily promise I won't have another article like this to write in 2017! Video games are hard!! Perhaps the scariest thing about this article is this is indeed the *top* five, not everything. To all you out there facing similar issues trying to finish your @$!#@(%) projects, we at Necrosoft Games salute you!
(If you want more updates from us, we're here on Twitter, we have a web site here, and we also have a discord channel! We enjoy talking to other humans.)