Monday, January 7, 2013

2012 Retrospective

With the ringing of the new year, I thought it might make sense to look over the previous one, to get a sense of where I've been, and what that might imply about where I should go next.

January 2012

Twelve months ago, I was just becoming a Canadian permanent resident. After months of sitting on my hands, it was time to start making things official. I still had a lot left to do before launch, but I could finally submit paperwork and other requests, and start on the process of making my dream business a reality.

NEO Scavenger already looked pretty much like how it does today:
January 2012 vs. January 2013
January 2012 vs. January 2013
However, despite the shared map and item graphics, quite a lot changed under the hood. These changes are only hinted at by some of the UI differences shown above.

NEO Scavenger finally got its logo:

And it also received an overhaul to its scavenging mechanic. Prior to 2012, scavenging involved visiting a hex, opening the inventory screen, and hoping there were items on the ground. Not exactly the most engaging mechanic, especially considering it was the namesake for the game.

Skill selection was finally becoming more like what we see now, instead of this:

Nominated for most intuitive UI of 2011.
The inventory screen was changed to rely less on ctrl and shift clicking, instead using "modes" triggered by visible buttons. The UI also got hotkeys for the various screens and modes.

I implemented Playtomic for metrics, which was a partial success. The basic stats are still useful, though the more complex stats I setup are not very usable. A preloader was added, which is still used today. SecureSWF is likewise still pulling its weight as a code obfuscator. And save/load was in its infancy.

January was also the month when I decided on NEO Scavenger's final business model. Until this point, I was expecting it to be launched under the sponsorship model. I also decided on feature voting, as a means to gather measured user feedback.

The game switched from 1280x800 (arbitrarily chosen as half my monitor's screen resolution) to a more universal 800x600 (palatable for game portals). Finally, I added site-locking as I prepared to put NEO Scavenger out there for people to test.

February 2012

In February, I began piecing together all the necessary components for launching a business on the web. Quite a bit of time was spent on everything from creating a website to setting up a payment provider. It was a month filled with more business work than game, though I still managed to cobble together some new in-game items, new artwork, and a spate of newspaper loot with back-story snippets to read.

March 2012

March marked the public launch of both NEO Scavenger and my company, Blue Bottle Games. 9 months after starting development, NEO Scavenger was available for all to try and pre-purchase.

And with that launch came the stresses of running a public-facing service company. I had to quickly adapt my schedule to balance development with PR, and adapt my psyche to the ups and downs of public opinion. Fortunately, most of that opinion was positive. But it was still a bracing experience.

March also marked my first taste of revenue. It started small, then surged wildly with some press coverage, then settled back down to a stream. Fortunately, that stream continues to this day, and even had a few additional, albeit smaller, spikes along the way.

April 2012

In April, sales settled into their steady state, which was (and continues to be) a little less than cost of living. This shrinking of a major launch spike caused some existential concern. As it turns out, this question of "when is it 'done'?" never goes away. It just changes circumstances and specifics over time.

I was also faced with my first major public game design decision: permadeath and save games. I ultimately decided to keep the game more rogue-like in that permadeath means save games are deleted. Months later, I'm glad I did. It was a decision which could have drastically altered NEO Scavenger, and I'm glad that it was altered in a way that keeps it challenging, unique, and with some later tweaking, fun.

I also started to formalize my PR policy by the time April came around. Fortunately, I wasn't faced with too much internet hate, but the hate I did receive forced me to grapple with my rules of engagement. Put succinctly, ignore attacks, and focus on being constructive and responsive to those that are constructive.

In development of the game itself, the camping and night/lighting features were big items. They were the first major features, in fact. Lots of loading/saving fixes were required as well. And the website and order process had some growing pains to resolve.

May 2012

During the month of May, blog posts focused on more meta-topics such as tracking data and money-saving tips, to keep overhead costs minimized.

Development of the game, on the other hand, was in full force. As I would soon discover, plot is hard to do. For nearly a month, all that readers saw coming down the wire was "did more plot work today." I don't enjoy phases where there's little to share with fans, but I also don't want to spoil the fun by revealing the story out of order.

Encounter Editor

Fortunately, there were a few updates sprinkled in to keep folks entertained. One such change was the chase, which opened up various new gameplay tools for tracking and hiding AI. The oft-requested pockets were also added.

And May is also when I started working with my first collaborator: Cameron Harris. His input to both design and plot has been a real asset, and I believe NEO Scavenger is a better game for it.

June 2012

I was on the road for part of June, so activity was a bit limited. It did give me a chance to try out developing on the road, and to see how poorly I was prepared.

Still, a lot got done on NEO Scavenger in June. In particular, I made my second major decision: to work on improving combat ahead of schedule. Combat was pretty poor in early versions of NEO Scavenger. Its dependence on luck made it more frustrating than fun.

New Combat UI
By the end of June, combat had a new face, and it was far more tactical and engaging. It also included some improvements to AI.

July 2012

In July, I started lamenting my poor work and exercise habits. While I feel my workaholism has improved (I took 2 weeks off at Christmas, despite the temptation to only take 1), I'm still short on exercise. I made my second, and more serious, dip into the world of business accounting. And I was approached by Desura for inclusion in their service!

With the new combat system launched, I began work on a wounding system that would integrate with the extant player conditions, and offer opportunities for resourcefulness and strategy in dealing with wounds. I would argue that this suite of combat and wounding systems was one of the more important changes to NEO Scavenger so far, as it greatly enhanced the game's uniqueness, depth, and fun factor.

July is also the month where I began working with my second collaborator, Josh Culler. Josh's music has added a wonderful sense of atmosphere to the game, and has been very effective in promotional trailers as well.

August 2012

August was the month of getting ready to launch NEO Scavenger on Desura. For the first time since March, the demo gets an update to reflect the new features and content. NEO Scavenger also got its first trailer. A lot of research goes into making NEO Scavenger downloadable.

With those fulfilments complete, I began the Desura application process. Coincidentally, Steam Greenlight launched that same month, and within 24 hours, NEO Scavenger was added to Greenlight!

NEO Scavenger also had combat fleshed out with new moves, terrain resources (e.g. water, wood), and a new encounter to allow players to return to the cryo facility and make a permanent base.

September 2012

With the Desura and Greenlight launches done, I decided to do a mini retrospective. In it, I look over some of the sales stats to-date, and how both launching on Desura and Greenlight affected them.

I also officially enter the Mac and Linux realm with my first Mac hardware. $500 netted me hardware I could create Mac binaries with, as well as dual-boot Linux for that version.

I also had a few hardware failures, which cost some time and money to isolate and fix, but were thankfully minimal in impact otherwise.

NEO Scavenger gets the ability to delete items, a new thank you postcard design, and work begins on random encounters. Josh's first batch of in-game music is also added.

October 2012

NEO Scavenger is featured in its first bundle. While a success by most standards, I decide that I'll probably wait until after v1.0 is done to do another, and turn down subsequent bundle offers accordingly.

Player frustration mounts, and the question of game design and permadeath resurfaces. I decide to take a long look at the game's design, to see where it might be failing. I still want to keep permadeath and NEO Scavenger's rogue-like qualities, but I also want to offer players the tools they need to overcome adversity. It is likely to be an ongoing balancing act.

The process of plot work remains slow and grueling, with little to show while in progress. However, I finally finish entering data for the random encounters. The Desura website gets the ability to connect owners there to accounts at

Work begins on one of the most deceptively difficult bugs in history: item stacking.

November 2012

With random encounters increasing the encounter node count above 750, the encounter editor fails to start anymore. I begin rebuilding the editor in Haxe NME, partially as a solution to the above performance issue, and partially as a test to see if NEO Scavenger is worth porting to NME. The results are pretty good, but there are a few stumbling blocks. I decide that NME holds promise, but I might wait a while before porting NEO Scavenger.

The stacking change continues to ripple bugs into mid-November, but finally works. The mouse is upgraded to take advantage of new Flash plugin features: hardware mouse and right clicking. Plot work resumes in the new editor.

DMC City Map v1
I also needed to take a step back to revise overall plot and mythology. And once course-corrections were in place, it was time to start work on opening the DMC to players. A lot of the work revolves around the map used to represent the city to players.

December 2012

As work continues on the DMC content, I focus the blog on more business related musings. I take some time to discuss my policy for customer relations, and how to avoid stressing out over release schedules.

Work on the DMC map continues, adding both detail and animated VFX for interest. Rather than releasing a full screenshot of it, I decide to do a teaser with one of Josh's new music pieces for the city.

I briefly start thinking about currency, then exercise some discipline and decide to focus on higher priorities: city encounters. Finally comfortable admitting the DMC will not be ready for Christmas, I decide to take a player's suggestion to release some wallpapers instead.

Desktop Wallpaper of DMC

Looking Back, and Looking Forward

It was a good year, overall. I had some good successes, made some mistakes, and learned some big lessons. NEO Scavenger earned more than I expected, but less than I hoped. It's poised for success, though, as long as I keep working hard.

The biggest issue I see, moving forward, is determining when to consider NEO Scavenger finished, and to move on to the next project. I'm resolved to release it this year, and have been telling myself and others that spring is the timeframe. Spanning that last stretch, and finishing with the right suite of features will be a big decision.

But as I go into 2013, I am more seasoned and confident, and I have optimism for the year to come. I'll no doubt make new mistakes, but also surmount new obstacles and claim new victories. Here's to acknowledging the past, and looking forward with hope!