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.


Realtime Board - An infinite digital white board for brainstorming ideas
The first thing that we needed was a white board. When we started pre-production, we spent a lot of time working out the story acts and its plot-points. While designing the game's storyline, we wrote keynotes on numerous post-it-notes and posted them on a white board. It wasn't long before the board became too small to contain everything needed. So we started looking for a possible white board online that could fulfill the following needs: First, it needed an infinite canvas. Second, multiple people should have been able to access it at the same time. A bonus would have been that we could have a few people simultaneously editing various notes. Third, it needed to support image imports, visual reference is a crucial part of our workflow. We had a high list of demands.

We were lucky enough to find Realtime Board. Not only did it have the requirements that we needed, it is being updated constantly, and more functions are being added over time. They have a free and paid version. Unlike many unpaid apps that only serve as a demo, the free version of Realtime Board is actually production ready. It contains everything the paid version has, and allows up to three people to work simultaneously. Not only did it solve the physical white board limitation issue, it's great for long-distance collaboration, which turned out to be crucial for our teammate working from Japan. Realtime Board proved so essential for us that we didn't hesitate to upgrade to the premium plan later on so we could have unlimited number of boards and have unlimited guests viewers. 

(Plotting out the game's story and puzzles on Realtime Board.)

OneNote, a place to store and share all our notes
After the game's story was done and finished we began drafting NPC biographies and diary documents. At that time we needed a place to store all developed content so that they could be shared among other members who were part of the project. It's here that we decided to use Microsoft's OneNote. There were other digital notebooks on the market that were as good or even better than OneNote in certain areas. However, we needed the following for our pipeline: (1) a collaborative note taking platform, (2) be able to support different types of note-taking, including handwriting and annotations when reviewing work, (3) have support for both Windows and iOS platforms, and (4) for it to be free to use. As we had a very limited budget, we had to be careful about our spending. For Realtime Board, we only had two people doing story development at the time so it did not matter much even if it only came with a paid subscription model. For OneNote, everyone from pre-production to marketing needed to access it, so for it to be free helped a lot, and what sealed the deal for us was some of the collaboration functions.

(Using OneNote to plan out the location of tPainscreek's tombstones.)

Managing production visually with Trello
When production went underway we needed a way to manage our production pipeline. We looked at several programs and sites before deciding to go with Trello. Little did we know that Trello would become one of the top essential utilities for us.

For our production we needed a place where we could categorize our work, such as things that were in progress, those that were being worked on, and those waiting for approval. We needed to assign tasks to teammates, set due dates, import images, comment on people's work, and cast votes on tasks. Trello delivered everything that we wanted in an appealing and intuitive way. It's truly one of the best project management apps available on the market. With what Trello offers, it excels at.

(Using Trello for our asset production pipeline.)

Moxtra, our real-time communication platform
Our team members were not always working at the same place. Sometimes, some of us snuck away to a cafe to get more inspiration and to just get out. Other times, a teammate might be working from home. And so, we needed a communication tool where we can interact with each other in real-time and get immediate feedback. Additionally, the tool needed to provide private and public chat rooms, share screens among teammates, upload files, store chat history, alert users whenever someone posted/commented on something, and, finally, it had to be accessible on computers and mobile phones. Fortunately, we stumbled upon Moxtra.

Moxtra just came out and was in beta phase, so we were able to test run the app for free! The more we used it, the more we grew fond of it. Moxtra allows users to create multiple binders which acts as chat rooms, store unlimited chat history (prior to the release of the paid version), import images and pdf files, annotate on them, and initiate meetings. At our workplace, "Moxtra me this" or "Moxtra me that" can be heard quite often. What surprises us most is that messages sent to a mobile phone through Moxtra never fail to alert the user, It's so much more reliable than iPhone's iMessage, and definitely much better than Skype.

(Created 'lounge' as our chatroom inside Moxtra.)

Using Skype for group conferencing and multiple screen-sharing
And yet, Skype is still one of our essentials tools. Every now and then, we'll need to conduct group conferences and share our screens. This is because we have our members spread across Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Dropped calls are unavoidable and lag does occur, but they are dependent on the bandwidth speed. We are still on the look for a possibly better alternative on group conferencing, but for now Skype is our best option for voice chatting.


Asana, the indispensable tool for a project manager
Despite having all the above tools, we found ourselves having difficulty keeping track of our production. One of the main reasons is the struggle to hit deadlines and be on track with our schedules. We realized that since everyone was busy hitting their goals, someone needed to step back and be able to see the bigger picture. When we first started, we hung wall calendars marked with important dates hoping that everyone would notice it as they come to work everyday. As time went by, however, the wall calendar lost much of its impact and blended in with the working environment. That didn't go well for us. Next, inspired by Unity's roadmap, we implemented a 'Roadmap' column on Trello where each card's headline summarized that particular milestone. It looked great and sounded fine in theory. However, as with the wall calendar, we started to miss deadlines and our schedule was delayed over and over again. And when the deadlines were missed, there were no repercussions. This went on for a few years to the point where missing deadlines was a norm as long as everyone was working hard. It became our bad habit.

Then came Asana.

When we came across it two years ago, it was neither intuitive nor appealing, and there was a steep learning curve compared to Trello. We gave up on it very quickly. It wasn't until recently that we gave it a go again and stumbled upon the calendar view that we realized it was perfect for keeping track of our production deadlines. We could also assign a project manager to keep tabs on the progress and have everyone be on track with the schedule. Lastly, we turned to a goal-based system while keeping a 9-5 base schedule and it made a difference in achieving our goals. With the help of Asana, even with a heavier workload, we were able to be on schedule more consistently.

(June's goals and deadlines shown in Asana's calendar view.)

Quick Plan Pro, Gantt chart on the cheap
(Okay, so this isn't free, but our game director got it when it was on sale for $5.99, so here we go.)

Gantt chart is a productivity tool that looks amazing and yet had little impact on our productivity. Someone once said that the Gantt chart will be remembered as the most important, useless tool in history. And yet, we tried it. Why?

The Gantt chart was a way to measure how much time each task would take. Taking account into all the tasks' estimated time, a calendar graph was charted to informs us of the estimated time needed complete the whole project. It could work if each task was completed on their respective due dates. The problem was that the further the task was from completion, the harder it was to estimate or maintain anything. From our experience, the most we could track our progress, without slipping too much or guessing wrong, was one quarter of a year. Anything longer than that would be almost impossible to keep track of.

When we start using Asana, we were able to keep ourselves on track on a weekly basis by focusing on the deadlines. With that, we found confidence in hitting our milestones. Armed now with our better understanding of game production and improved skill set that we cultivated, we came to a better estimation of how much time was needed to accomplish a certain task. This is where the Gantt chart came back into play, we could now more accurately plot the project's timeline. Other Gantt chart apps available on the market have a pretty steep price and the free ones are often cumbersome to use. Asana has a timeline system in their paid version, which acts as a Gantt chart. However, the free version that we are using doesn't have that function. So we used Quick Plan Pro on the iPad instead. It's extremely intuitive and user friendly, and provides enough essential tools for the way we work. When the time comes where all our team members needs to use a Gantt chart, we'll probably upgrade the free Asana to a paid version.

(Planning our 2018 roadmap. using Quick Plan Pro.)

We are living in an era where many things are very affordable or even free. There are probably many productivity tools available on the market that others find more suited for their work. Throughout these years of working on The Painscreek Killings, despite having all these wonderful tools to keep the production moving, we've realized that the most important thing was the group of people that we've worked with. For that, we feel extremely blessed.


  1. interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you.
    collaboration tool

    1. Hi, sorry for the really late reply. We'll try to do a more in-depth explanation on it in one of our future blogs.