(Note: the Ciikos Bridge postmortem was originally published on 21 August 2016. This blog post is a mirror of the original tumblr post without any further updates or edits.)
It's been about 4 months now since Ciikos Bridge was released, so I wanted to take a look back at the development journey for skyharborr's first visual novel release. This postmortem will cover the development period, asset creation, release, and a little bit of post-release. It's also mostly from my (blistered/rei) perspective as the lead developer.
This postmortem aims to pull double-duty as a record of Ciikos Bridge's development for my own reference (to compare later with future games), as well as providing some insight into the challenges the project faced, which will hopefully help other devs prepare for similar challenges in the course of making their own games.
In the course of writing this postmortem, I also gathered some questions from other VN developers on twitter which are indicated as "Audience Question!", which have been answered by either myself ("R") or teruki ("T").
Ciikos Bridge began as a NaNoRenO 2015 project. It was meant to be completed in one month as a short practice project so that I could experience the full development cycle, from concept to post-release, before returning to work on my long-term project, Theo.
I had a few creative goals in mind for myself when I started Ciikos Bridge:
Concepting for Ciikos Bridge took place in February 2015 and I spent one week on it with my teammate, teruki. I wanted to use characters from our established shared universe to simplify the writing and character design processes. teruki came on board as a co-writer and programmer. We quickly sussed out a high-level outline of the story/game flow, and some details of the alternate universe that would become the setting for Ciikos Bridge.
With these things in mind, we set off to make the first skyharborr game.
The Development Period
Our Communications Toolbox: Trello, Skype, Dropbox, Google Docs (at first).
We used Trello to keep track of tasks, prioritize, and record design decisions made while chatting over Skype. Trello allowed us to see each other's progress and see how the project as a whole was progressing. Using Trello also has the added benefit of having an Activity Feed, showing when tasks were added, completed, deleted, or moved. I used our Trello Activity feed to make a proportional timeline of Ciikos Bridge's entire development period (excluding concepting in February and post-release build updates past Version 1.0):
The ranges displayed on the timeline show the approximate time period when a task was begun, until the task was finished. For example, the "Sprites" bar shows when I began working on sprites (sketching, setting up files, etc) until I finished all the sprites (all sprites exported and ready to use in-game). Working on asset creation during each of these time-periods was mostly on-and-off because of our lives as students. I also spent a lot of time task-switching, which resulted in the "frequent task-switching" type of development progression shown below:
Ciikos Bridge's development began with daily task-switching. I would write during my commute to school and during breaks between classes, then in the evening I would work on art assets. This resulted in slow and steady progress on all fronts, until I injured my hand towards the end of NaNoRenO, which resulted in a drastic change of pace for development. After recovering from my injury and the NaNoRenO deadline had passed, I gradually shifted to a more focused development style, switching tasks every 1-2 weeks, then eventually staying with one task most of the time until it was complete, reserving task-switching for when I felt stuck on something, or if I was waiting on feedback.
Part 1: Writing
Writing was a joint effort between myself and teruki. We split up the writing based on characters: teruki was in charge of the scenes with their characters talking to Taku, while I was in change of the scenes with my characters talking to Taku. Since Taku was my character, we tried doing some scenes in a roleplay-like format in Google Docs, but as we got busy with school we opted for writing whole scenes individually and passing them back and forth for feedback/edits. This was the first time either of us co-wrote a story, and we had some disagreements on style and amount of narration at one point. We ultimately settled on something in-between our individual styles.
I was in charge of editing and quality control and tried to ensure the story read as though there was only one writer. After editing, I would do scene direction/expression coding and teruki would check my work and make changes to the scenes with their characters as needed.
✿ Audience Question! How did we come up with these unique & charming characters and dialogue?
Part 2: Art and Design
I am not the best at choosing colors, and Ciikos Bridge was meant to be in full color, so I decided to use a limited palette. I created a palette based on all the characters outfits, skin tones, eye colors, and hair colors. The result was a set of 30 colors which were the only colors I allowed myself to use for all the art assets. I found this to be very effective for myself and plan to continue using this methodology.
Sharm on the Lemma Soft Forums (LSF) inspired me to try a modular style for the background art. It looked like it would be a timesaver, since the original plan was to complete the game within a month. My backgrounds weren't nearly as modular as Sharm's, but I do think this method was effective for what I wanted to do. BGs were the quickest part of development to finish out of the tasks I was responsible for. Ciikos Bridge has a total of 8 backgrounds that use modular elements (out of ~14 backgrounds).
Using existing characters came as a double-edged sword for the sprites. Because I was pretty confident in drawing the designs and expressions for most of the characters already, I decided to push myself with multiple arm poses. In total there were:
✿ Audience Question! How does sprite creation compare to other kinds of illustration?
IV. GUI Design
Canonically (in the shared universe from which the Ciikos characters were borrowed), Taku adores rabbits. I carried this over and this became part of the theme of the GUI design (the other motifs being hands and flowers, which are more related to the game's setting). The first parts of the GUI to be finalized were the in-game items: textbox, choices, quick menu, and the inventory. These set the tone for the larger, more complex screens.
For designing the larger screens (preferences, save/load, credits, help, etc), I turned to pen & paper thumbnailing. The advantages of this method for me were:
Part 3: Programming
This was entirely teruki's domain except for the menial stuff like dialogue, menus, sprite expressions, and the odd number fiddling on my part. We used Cute Demon Crasher's sprite code so a big thank you goes out to the SugarScript team for making that available!
✿ Audience Question! How did we decide on the design for the trading system?
✿ Audience Question! Were there any specific challenges in coding the trading system?
Part 4: Music and Sound Effects
All the music and sound effects used in Ciikos Bridge were found online and used under CC-BY, public domain, or another commercial-use OK license. I resorted to making one sound effect on my own after not being able to find anything satisfactory online.
Phew! All that asset creation (and hunting) is hard work! After 9 months of development and 4 months of me working on the guidebook, we were finally read for release.
Part 1: Preparing for Release
During September and October 2015, I set Ciikos Bridge aside for a little bit to work on art for a Yuri Game Jam entry. It was successfully completed and released within the jam's time frame. This slowed down Ciikos Bridge a little bit, but it was a good experience to collaborate with other devs.
It was also during Yuri Game Jam that I started closed beta testing for Ciikos Bridge. I gathered some Windows OS testers (friends and fellow developers) to give Ciikos Bridge a whirl. This first round of testing helped us to identify most of the major bugs in the trading system, and teruki was able to iron them out. In November, we finished up all the game content and I got a few Mac OS testers to test the full game. We were satisfied that all the major bugs were eliminated, and the game sat at Version 0.99 while we took a break for the winter holidays and all the big titles for Christmas were being released.
Part 2: Guidebook
After the holidays, I needed to finish the guidebook. There were many times I considered releasing the game first, then the guidebook second, but I ultimately decided against it because I figured my next chance to try a simultaneous game/book release would be far off judging by the length of Ciikos Bridge's development. I don't get the chance to lay out pages very often, so designing the guidebook was a fun challenge for me. I gave myself a CD insert size constraint for no reason other than I wanted it to be the same size as a PlayStation CD insert. (Some players said Ciikos Bridge gave them PlayStation 1 era vibes which I consider a huge success and honor..!)
Part 3: Going Gold!
We went gold with Version 1.0 via twitter announcement on April 22, 2016 at 9PM EST (a Friday night). I decided to release at night because it was a weekend and I wanted to do a soft release with a smaller audience in case there were any obvious errors in the build. We did spot some typos and minor errors, which were quickly fixed, and a new build was uploaded the next day before I posted Ciikos Bridge to LSF (a much larger audience) and tumblr (here). Releasing on a weekend seemed to be a good idea because we got a lot of traffic and downloads the first few days. I also released the game right before my final exam week so I got to stay high-energy and sleep-deprived for the first week of release, whoo!
I think the timing worked out pretty well and Ciikos Bridge had a modest but largely positive reception! I'm very proud of the work that went into Ciikos Bridge and grateful to everyone who supported the game's development and helped spread the word after release.
✿ Audience Question! How did we go about marketing Ciikos Bridge?
Part 4: Numbers
As of August 18, 2016, Ciikos Bridge had:
The one statistic I was interested in when Ciikos Bridge went live was the game/book download ratio for the simultaneous game/book release. As of August 18, 2016, the game/book download ratio was 40.0% which sounds pretty good, but I don't have much to compare it to.
Other than that, I didn't have many expectations as far as numbers go when I was developing Ciikos Bridge. It makes me incredibly happy that people played it at all. I guess these numbers will be the comparison point for other games down the line.
A hearty thanks to everyone who downloaded the game, shared, tipped, and supported skyharborr thus far!
Overall, Ciikos Bridge did its job as a practice game. Though the development period was much longer than I anticipated, I think the effort was worth it to run through a full development cycle, seeing where I stand, and how I can improve. I had fun working on it, and when players tell me they had fun playing it really makes everything worth it! Of course not everybody who played the game gave me glowing feedback, but I'm happy for all kinds of comments and grateful to the players who gave this small game a chance.
I definitely recommend new developers start with a small project to get their feet wet and help them learn about what kind of workflows work best for them. (Much smaller than Ciikos Bridge, btw.... 8 character sprites, 16 backgrounds, and a trading system for your first game is quite ambitious haha). I think in addition to learning about the full development cycle, doing something small and for fun will help you figure out the kind of games you want to make and the kinds of stories you want to tell.
Thanks for reading!