PyWeek12 SS3/NP PostMortem...ish

Note: Please forgive typos and things that only sort of make sense -- this was written on a plane while being pretty seriously sleep deprived

I kind of want this to be one but I simply haven't had the energy/motivation needed to write it after talking most of these things over with my team.  I'll try to hit the high points though.

General thoughts on PyWeek12:
First and foremost, to all the entrants: Good Job!  The quality of the games this time around seemed pretty phenomenal.  I'm not sure why but it just felt as if everything was noticeably better put together than in the previous two competitions I participated in.

My goal for this submission was to demonstrate that our team could be creative -- previously we'd basically done clones of classic games.  While this meant gameplay was a known good it required no real thought outside of a new plot to frame the same old thing.  This time around we experimented with (somewhat) strange plot, new gameplay mechanics, and (I thought) worked the theme in in a pretty neat manner.

Overall I'm super happy with our performance and our component scores fell as expected: Production > Innovation > Fun.  I am a bit surprised we did so poorly relative to previous entries with Production as this felt like it was the most polished of any of our submissions thus far.  So it goes.

We generally divide PyWeek into two phases.  Phase one is pre-competition and involves a lot of brainstorming about what possible games would be for each theme.  In the past we've started with "NES-style platformers styled after Wibbly Wobbly" or "Steampunkish SNES-Zelda centered around Caught."  This time we started with the theme and came up with a gameplay mechanic that fit the story we wanted to tell.  This was a reasonable success and our "innovation" ranking reflected that relative to previous submissions.

Phase two is the post-selection development and, honestly, not much went smoothly with it this pyweek.  Morale was lagging from day one, we never had a unified mindset about the game mechanics, three of our content people were not available for significant portions of the week.  On the plus side that means there was a lot to learn?

So... about those lessons?
Morale is key for us maybe as much as (or more so?) than having a solid game concept at day 1.  I was having a minor nervous breakdown for the first two or three days of the competition which caused me to miss the most important phase of my development -- weekend #1.  After that I was constantly behind schedule and generally less productive than I should have been until Friday of the competition (which for the most part was too late to make matter).

Fixception and I were the main drivers behind the concept for Shattered Silence and spent a good amount of time during phase 1 and the first couple of days of phase 2 trying to make sure our lead dev (Blake) had a good understanding of it.  We were successful to some degree but changes were made to adapt it to what Blake was familiar with and a non-trivial amount of the mechanics just didn't make it into the game.  In that regard the theme was a bit of an omen -- about 1/9th of what we wanted actually made it in.  To top those problems we really didn't do a good job selling the concept to our asset team which made it difficult for them to come up with content (music and pixel art specifically).  For a game to be developed in a week and do well it should have, if not buy in, at least team-wide understanding of the concept and basic gameplay.

This last bit isn't so much a new lesson but one we continuously learn: as a rule we will underestimate the difficulty of something important.  For SS1 (Shoul Shenanigans) it was (non-pixel) art, in SS2 (Shackled Stones) it was level content, turn around on enemies, and map scripting integration.  For SS3 we hit a bottleneck with level creation again as well as game mechanics and necessity of things like pathfinding.

My take away from this is confusion -- maybe we should try again but with more unity behind an original idea, maybe if we're going to do our own games we should be more "realistic" (but then the creative process is a bit less fun, for me at least), maybe we've reached a bottleneck on our current development style (I suspect this, if nothing else, to be the case).

Going forward:
While I'm not sure about it yet I suspect I won't be working with the NP team for PyWeek13 -- I'm getting a little bit burned out doing work so far removed from the actual game portions of the projects.  Most of those on the team are long time friends of mine and Blake is a fantastic developer so I hate to leave them hanging... but the difference in drive during a PyWeek run between Blake and I is 1) intimidating 2) makes me super hesitant to take a role I think I would find interesting. For the most part I don't expect this to make much difference on the NP team -- Blake is one of those types that can do everything from Art to Dev to Music if he needs to and I'm no better as a second dev than ikanread so shuffling people around should mean for only a minor distraction, if any at all.

I've also been super encouraged by the feedback we got.  Specifically whoever said "Wonderful intro. Fantastic immersive story. A bit lacking in the gameplay department. I don't know if I would call this game 'fun.' But it is a beautiful work of art." makes me really happy, thank you =)  There were enough things of this sort I want to see Shattered Silence built as the game it is in my head so I'll probably start development for it as a long term project outside of PyWeek (probably in C++ or C#)

 - Based on performance vs my personal goals for PW12 I think this was our best submission yet
 - I thoroughly enjoyed the theme and our concept and will likely start development on it as a new project and build out the other 88% of the game
 - I suspect I'm burned out on the team thing, depending on how the second edition (SS3mkii) is going I may not be in PW13 at all.
 - This turned out a little more post-mortemy than I thought it would be.  If you've made it this far you deserve a cookie.

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Thanks for the write-up, it's interesting to hear about what other people go through.

We had a similar teamwork fail this time around - for which I blame nobody as much as myself.

It crosses my mind to wonder whether it's workable to form teams *after* pitching game ideas, rather than committing to a team before an idea is made.

One way to do this is to have a firm idea about what game you want to make before the competition starts. I've always shied away from that, prefering to choose a game after the theme is chosen.

Another way to do it, instead of forming game ideas earlier, is to form teams later. Wait until after the first day of the competition, everyone who has a game idea pitches it, and then people decide which game idea to coalesce around. Presumably with more than half a dozen people involved, this would result in more than one game idea successfully recruiting people, and every single person would ostensibly then be working on their favourite of all the game ideas they have heard about (apart from the people who pitched an idea but didn't recruit anybody. They could then go solo or join someone else's team.

It's not for everybody: some people already have strong teams or at least team-forming processes, and there is an implied lack of control over who joins your team, which perhaps some people perhaps wouldn't be comfortable with. But does anyone other than me think it might be workable?
I was actually thinking exactly that myself, tartley. Playing through the games this pyweek I kept feeling "Wow, I love this concept, and I could have offered so much to that team."
Wait until after the first day of the competition, everyone who has a game idea pitches it, and then people decide which game idea to coalesce around.

I think this would not work at all for pyweek. For one thing you're using up a good fraction of the first day picking teams. But more importantly, as my team saw when we were picking ideas, it's extremely hard to pitch a game idea effectively in a short amount of time. Think about one of the best games from this or past pyweeks, condense it into a brief description that you could post on a message board, and chances are your pitch completely fails to explain to others how good the game is. What happens with idea pitching is that everyone has a mental image of their own idea that's much better than what others are imagining, so people tend to get attached to their own ideas.

Yes, it's easy to see which concepts have a lot of potential once someone has mocked up a demo, but this is absolutely impractical in the first few hours of pyweek.

We really didn't do a good job selling the concept to our asset team which made it difficult for them to come up with content (music and pixel art specifically).  For a game to be developed in a week and do well it should have, if not buy in, at least team-wide understanding of the concept and basic gameplay.

I failed to get my team to buy into or understand our idea until the last couple of days of the competition. As it turned out, our musician was able to work quickly, and our graphics artists were absent for the beginning anyway. For the devs, I basically had to say, "Trust me, this will work." If there's a better way to do this, I'd love to know about it.
Actually, I was daydreaming about a competition where the pitching phase replaces the theme voting phase.
>>  I think this would not work at all for pyweek.

Hey Cosmologicon. Thanks for the thoughts.

I don't think it's a problem that you spend the first day 'picking teams', because what you're actually doing during that process is discussing game ideas - which is only what you'd be doing anyway, so I don't *think* time is wasted. The only difference is that an expectation is set that people will drop in and out of the conversation as different ideas appeal to them.

You're right that pitching is difficult, and often the pitcher hasn't even had time to clearly formulate their idea until several days into the contest.

I guess the problem I was trying to work around was situations like the one mauve and I had, where, for example, I kept pitching game ideas which really didn't match his sensibilities or expectations at all, then we had a similar impedence mismatch when he pitched his ideas to me. We'd formed a team before having any idea what sort of things the other person wanted to spend their week doing.

It's cool if you're not into this idea. You might be right that it wouldn't work out. But I'd fancy giving it a go, and I think it still works even if only a subset of pyeek people decided to do it. (even a tiny subset!) To my mind, it's anologous to the way open souce projects work - people sign up to do the work they want to do, not simply to work on a particular team. If the work in question doesn't 'sell well' - if it isn't intrinsically attractive or being pitched well - then it doesn't get done, that part of the project withers, and the whole moves in a different direction as a result.

Best regards,
I agree the art, sound, and story guys play perhaps the biggest part in setting the mood so it is very important to to get 'em on the same page. As a coder, I put faith in the idea guy to tell me what was needed from my little corner. I only needed enough of the big picture to have in mind the end state for the parts I was working on. As long as someone held the vision, produced the specs, and made sure the various parts integrated as intended there was progress. Eventually it all came together, and when I saw it I was fairly amazed. I was pretty okay with working under those conditions. :)
Interesting to hear gummbum. Generally speaking, I don't suppose any team has had a formally assigned 'idea guy', have they? I presume that's just a label for 'whoever happened to come up with the game idea that we decided to run with' ?

The reason I ask is that I think the teams I've been on have suffered from lack of leadership, and that's often derived from forming a team based on 'we all live in London', even if many of us have never met or worked together before, so it's harder for someone to step up and assume a leadership role (because they have neither the earned authority, nor a rapport that would allow them to be comfortable with imposing that on everyone else)
As I recall, Richard, I hinted at the start that someone should lead. Cosmologicon was feeling adventurous, I surmise, and volunteered. :) He did such an awesome job setting up the PyWeek team, repository, wiki, discussion group, enlisting other members--he was a dervish--that no one questioned it. It also happened that he was our story and level design guy, so I don't imagine anyone was better suited for the role.

That is not to say we had an officer and the rest were grunts. :) We had a ton of open dialogue, planning sessions, many game ideas for the themes, and plenty of freedom for creativity. We just had someone who managed the 1000 foot view really well for us, and gave good direction without crowding folks.

I expect that not everyone would work comfortably like this--e.g. if someone is passionate about his/her idea and doesn't want to work on someone else's idea. And some teams work just fine as a loosely organized group. But organizing should not be difficult if a healthy team dynamic can be maintained for the duration, and I think Multiverse Factory would agree there were definite benefits this time around.
Forgive me, that was in reply to tartley. I had just been reading something from Richard, and his name was on the brain.