Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Rebooting The Johnson Files

On January 21, 2019, eleven months after the initiation of The Johnson Files and three pre-alpha builds later, we have decided to return to the drawing board and reboot the project. Here's what happened and how we ended up with the decision.

The initiation of The Johnson Files
It was supposed to be a short development project, no longer than a year to pull off. The idea for it first started when we felt TPK needed a demo. After coming up with initial drafts for it, we deemed the process of making a separate game just for a demo time consuming with little return, so we abandoned the idea and decided to make the TPK's act 1 a complete playable demo. With the demo released on Steam shortly after and a possible game idea sitting on the side, we decided to develop it into a DLC. It was then that The Johnson Files was born.

First sign of problem: unable to translate a working story into a game that's fun to play
As with TPK, we prioritized story over everything else, focusing our effort on building the 3-act structure which went through a few iterations. Then came the first pre-alpha build. It did not turn out well. The game did not hook us and it wasn't fun. We went back and looked at what might have gone wrong with the story. However, nothing major popped out. The story seemed fine, the 3-act structure built up properly, and the plot-points were all there. It might have been the assets that's missing from the first pre-alpha that needed to be there to make it work (quite a number of important items were not in the first pre-alpha, and you could not play until the end). Yet when the second pre-alpha build was out, the game felt equally bad. We went back to the story, had serious discussions on why it wasn't working and made substantial changes, hoping to improve it. By the time the third pre-alpha build was out and tested, we knew the release product would not be a good game.

Second sign of problem: limitations of using existing environment and game mechanics
As we delved deeper into what could have made The Johnson Files struggle as a game, we realized it's partially the fact that the design stemmed out of TPK, both in terms of the environment and the core game mechanics. Using locations from TPK and running the game with a similar design was actually limiting what The Johnson Files could potentially be. Although it consisted of new locations outside of Painscreek and new game mechanics were added to it, the overall game flow felt a bit too similar -  a walking simulator filled with diaries and keys. To make it worse, the game was missing interesting hooks, the open-world feeling, and a clear focus on what players were supposed to do when compared to TPK.

Third sign of problem: in order to proceed, we have to find the keys rather than we want to 
One of the things that worked well in TPK was that it made players want to find out what happened in Painscreek, whether it was the NPCs' backstories or the truth about Vivian Roberts' murder. In The Johnson Files, however, we found ourselves finding keys and codes in order to progress through the game just to find more keys/codes. Although there were NPC backstories to be read and game lore to be found, the whole experience wasn't very fun and playing it felt more like a chore. We found ourselves forcing through the game because we had to, not because we want to. The design became more of a 'how can I go from A to B' rather than 'why would I want to go from A to B'. The self-created-goals that should have emanated from within the players themselves did not happen.

The decision to reboot
After the unsuccessful pre-alpha builds, we went back to the story design phase and reflected on why the game was not delivering while, at the same time, considered different ways to improve the storyline. Time passed quickly and by January 2019, eleven months after its initiation, we realized that The Johnson Files would not work, at least not without reworking it from the ground up. It was then that we decided to scrap everything and start all over again, so that when The Johnson Files is finally released, it can be worthy of the players' time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What we have been doing since releasing TPK 14 months ago

It's been a few months since we posted our last blog, and that was before we released the Japanese localization of TPK. So what have we been doing since? Specifically, what have we been up to after releasing TPK? Quite a bit actually.

September 2017 - June 2018
The Painscreek Killings was released on September 27, 2017 and right after that, we realized one of the biggest problem players faced was falling-through-the-world issue. We tried to find out the reason but could not replicate the problem. We did narrow it down to a few possibilities. Nevertheless, it was a big issue and we decided to try and fix it. In doing so, we tackled game optimization, fixed the issue, and made the file size smaller, something which we were unable to pull off prior to the game's release. The good news is that our game can now be played even on computers with decent specs. The bad news is that it took us 9 months to make it happen. By then, we were told that our game was a 'dead product' from a marketing standpoint. Dead product or not, we did not want to give up on our game.

(A player's screenshot showing falling-through-the-world issue.)

July - September 2018

As game optimization approached completion, we started doing localization. A few languages were considered but due to funding and translation costs, we were unable to go forward with it. Instead, we decided to translate to TPK into Japanese on our own. It was a slow process having to translate the 30,000 words and it took us three months to complete. Fortunately, our translator was also one of the story developer, resulting in her being able to translate not just the words but the meaning and emotions of the characters in the game. After release, many Japanese gamers really appreciated the depth of the translation.

(Japanese localization finally released in September 2018.)

October - December 2018
Towards the end of September, we took a small loan and visited Japan in search of a possible location for our next main project. We wanted to create an authentic feel to our game, something that we couldn't do with TPK. So we chose Shizuoka, Japan, hometown to one of our game designer's family. We focused mainly on finding inspiration, searching for possible locations and understanding the Japanese culture. It was a really great experience!

(Visiting Mount Fuji World Heritage Center in Shizuoka, Japan.)

(Gundam, contributing to one of Japan's biggest pop culture, is being showcased in DiverCity, Odaiba.)

(Scouting Awashima Island at dusk in Numazu for design inspiration.)

(Passing through a countryside before checking into our resting place at Yoshida, Shizuoka.)

(Hatago Inn, a really nice hotel with 10,000 manga to read for free in the lobby.)

January 2019 - present
We've learned a lot for the past fourteen months and have gained a lot of insight into game development. Our fans have also given us a lot of constructive inputs on how to improve TPK. We could not be more grateful and appreciative to them! 2019 is a new start for us. Although our next project should have been The Johnson Files, we found ourselves having to reboot it, which we'll explain the reason in a later blog. We do, however, have something brewing so not all is lost.

Stay tuned on our blog for more updates and information!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Japanese language for The Painscreek Killings is almost here

We have been hard at work localizing The Painscreek Killings (TPK) into Japanese. It took us a few months to translate approximately 30,000 words and it's almost here! We are currently making sure the game runs without a hitch and at the same time looking for Japanese gaming press who might be interested in taking a stab at it. With the inclusion of the Japanese language, we hope more mystery detective gamers can have the opportunity to play TPK!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Painscreek Devlog #7: Collaboration Tools Essential To Our Team

(In-game documents categorized inside Trello.)
Throughout our five-and-a-half years of developing The Painscreek Killings, we designed 9 custom buildings, developed 20 characters, constructed more than 100 documents (consisting of diaries, newspapers, flyers), produced more than 900 props (half of which were not used for the final build), and wrote about 26,000 words. Along the way, our team grew from two to seven members. Yuri, our one and only programmer, worked from Japan while the rest of us were stationed in the United States. Looking back, we could not have managed it without a few, essential collaboration tools. Surprisingly, most of them are free.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Painscreek 6/21/2018 Patch Notes

Hi everyone. As of today, we've finally finished optimizing the game. This includes the Mansion, which is the heaviest scene in the game, as well as all other smaller and medium-sized scenes which were not originally part of the optimization but we decided to include them as well. Improvements to the game are as follows:

1. Reduced the game's file size from 18GB to 10.6GB, a reduction of about 40%.
2. Reduced RAM usage by approximately 40% when accessing the Village scene.
3. Reduced RAM usage by approximately 30% when accessing Mansion and Hospital scenes.
4. Improved Unity's batching process by about 40%, which is the number of files needed to be read by the CPU, especially when accessing the Mansion and Hospital.
5. Improved load times when switching between scenes during gameplay.
6. Improved prop textures for some locations.
7. Lowered the system requirements to run the game (as shown below).

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Painscreek Devlog #6: Designing The Menu & UI

(An early design of the Painscreek's grading system. Background image taken from 'The Secret World'.)

When first designing the user interface, we decided to go with a minimalist design, for a number of reasons. First, we couldn't understand how to use Autodesk's Scaleform. Second, we were new to Unity and didn't want to spend a lot of time on implementing a complicated UI. Third, we thought that an immersive experience meant placing on the screen only what was mandatory. Fast forward 5 years later: Although more UI elements were added as the development progressed, our end-product embraced much of what our original design set out to be. It was rough in areas, but it got the job done.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Painscreek 5/31/2018 Patch Notes

Hi everyone. We've finished optimizing the Hospital, which is the second heaviest scene in the game, and revamped textures for a number of props. Improvements when accessing the Hospital are as follows:

  1. Reduced Hospital loading time.
  2. Reduced RAM usage.
  3. Slightly reduced GPU usage.

We are currently working on the Mansion, which is probably the heaviest scene in the game, followed by a full game optimization shortly after. Once that's done, the game should run much better. More information on that later.

Hot Fix 1:
Some users were having issues on loading into the game after the latest patch. The problem was hunted down and the game should be stable now. We're sorry for any inconveniences this may have caused.

We're going to be doing an additional fix very soon to patch another small problem.

Hot Fix 2 (June 1, 2018):
Certain UV maps had some issues. These were sorted out.
Some objects were missing their colliders, and others were accidentally made hidden. All of these have been fixed.