Failing Like A Champ
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
For the last few years it feels like all I thought about was this game. Development started on Kerfuffle back in December of 2014, and it ended in April of 2017. In the almost two months since its cancellation, I feel as though I’ve thought about the game just as much as I had during the entire time it was in development. Thoughts and ideas running each other down, climbing over one another in a giant pile of chaos. It has been exhausting, demotivating, and depressing. Partially for my own sanity, and hopefully to help even a few people, I’m writing this to put my thoughts in order. Why did the game fail? Where did I, as the project lead, screw up? What could have been done to prevent this?
Why did Kerfuffle fail?
First things first. The failure of Kerfuffle had two major contributing factors. The first, was poor leadership. The second, which is attributed to poor leadership, is scope. When I started development I wanted to make a simple 1 hit 1 kill game with unique characters, and a handful of game modes. I thought that having unique characters in this setting would give rise to new play styles and more varied matches. Given the simplicity of the design, we had all of this extra development time to dedicate to a great art style. Later, due to poor planning, this came back to bite us in the ass.
After a few months we had a working prototype. People played it, said it was fun, but the look in their eyes when playing was… not a great one. We had a game that looked one hundred times better than it played. There were a number of contributing factors to this, and the overall design of the game isn’t the focus of this post, so I’m going to skip over that. Just know that the game wasn’t fun out of the gate. This is a really common thing when making games! I didn’t worry about it too much at the time. I had decided to redesign the game to make it more exciting. In theory this was the right move. In practice I believe that these redesigns lead the game to ultimate failure.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t redesign your game. You absolutely should. I’m just saying that my redesigns lead my team and I down a precarious path. Essentially, a lot of my design decisions ended up being sort of flat, and uninteresting. The game changed over and over, something that is again, totally normal for a game in development. The changes weren’t drastic, but the way the changes were communicated, and the way the team was lead to meet these new goals, was poor. I would come up with a new design idea, tell the artist, and hope that he would understand enough to create the required assets. I put all of the responsibility for creating assets on the artist, the only other team member, and simply waited for results. Not a good move.
My communication skills were less than desirable, to say the least. I thought I was doing something good by allowing the artist to have free reign, and let him design whatever he wanted. I trusted him to create something amazing, and he absolutely delivered on that, but at a huge cost. Not a monetary cost, but this put an immense amount of pressure on him. He had to be a full team of artists by himself. Concepts, animations, art for all characters, stages, UI, menus, logos, the website, and anything else was placed on the shoulders of one guy with no clear direction to head in. Eventually this, along with erratic design changes, lead to his early retirement from the project, and putting the final nail in the Kerfuffle coffin.
Where did the leadership fail?
For weeks after the cancellation, and even as I write this, I am heartbroken by the death of this project. Not necessarily because I really wanted the game to come out, or that I was really happy with the design (I wasn’t), but because I had failed. I failed myself, my team, and the people that were looking forward to the release of Kerfuffle. The game was in development much longer than it needed to be, the design of the game changed time and again, and our milestones were never clear. We never really had a solid plan. Flying by the seat of your pants works well enough for small projects, but in my experience, not so much on anything that takes longer than a month or two.
Having a solid plan is not a new concept, but really, you need a solid plan. I had no solid plan. I had some ideas that mostly didn't work out, and I adjusted as needed. That is the cornerstone of how games are made, but without any real goals in mind, I was digging a grave. Kerfuffle never had a true design document. Even if it did, I’d have re-written it at least five times to keep up with how dramatic the design changes ended up being. I had gone from simple 1 hit KO brawler, to a Smash Brothers like fighter, to an MvC like tag fighting game, and finally to a much more traditional 2D fighting game. Each change bringing a whole new set of tasks, and stress, to other team members, with no clear direction on how to achieve those tasks. Obviously had I known ahead of time that I wanted to make a traditional 2D fighting game, that would have saved us a lot of headache. But things change. They change all the time. Its how you handle those changes that matter.
As the head of the Kerfuffle ship, I should have had clear plans, documentation, and designs before I ever assigned a new task to a team member. If the animation that was made did not meet gameplay requirements, then I did not accurately communicate the requirements. If a song or sound effect didn’t match the feeling of the stage or animation, then I did not accurately communicate the what the sound needed to be. If a team member was confused about a design decision I had made, then I did not accurately communicate the reasoning behind the decision. I thought I was being a good leader by allowing everyone to have full artistic freedom. I was wrong.
The artwork, easily the greatest asset of Kerfuffle, is gorgeous. It is some of my favorite pixel art ever! I’m probably biased but damn, I really love the way this game looked. Martin Worister is a beautiful genius. He stepped up and created something truly amazing. Eventually we had to hire some additional artists, and this became a bit of an issue. I failed to communicate a lot of things, and trusted these new hired artists to just be able to pick up our art style, and replicate it. That was not the case, and lead to a lot of wasted time. Additionally, the art was so high quality, that it became almost impossible for one person to do it all himself. As a leader, I should have been able to identify this bottleneck early on, and help make the necessary changes to prevent it. My inexperience really kicked my ass on this one.
Had this been a simple jam game, or very short term project, allowing people to sort of do whatever would probably have worked. However the project evolved beyond that and my communication did not. We ended up with some incredible artwork in the end, and a lot of really fun gameplay mechanics, but ultimately it was too difficult to get to that point. If I had to release Kerfuffle right now I wouldn’t be happy with the end result. I don’t think anyone on the team would. When the plug was pulled we were still very far away from the finish line.
I learned a lot making this game. When I started I wasn’t a very good programmer, I had never tried to make anything of this size, and I had never really worked with a team. I learned an incredible amount about game design, and most importantly, about communication. I learned how to fail, how to own that failure, and how to move on. This is not the end of the road for me as a game developer. It's not the end of the road for any member of the Kerfuffle team. I feel much better about this now that I’ve written it all down. I hope that my failure can help someone else who may be struggling. Failure is important! Just do your best to fail fast, will ya?