RIP Medical Necessity

Bad news regarding the most important video game project I’ve been talking about this year. I only mentioned it once on this blog, but it’s had more of a presence if you follow my other communication channels, and it was definitely the most difficult of the many assignments. But it has come to something of an inglorious end.

I am talking, of course, of Hurdles, which got only 25/30 on Google Classroom, including a teacher comment that I’d made a classic rookie designer mistake of making the jumps too pixel-precise, leading to nobody being able to make them except myself. He is absolutely right; I’d needed to make the jumps easier because nobody can see the rest of the game which I’d painstakingly balanced so no jump was possible that shouldn’t be. The intention was that the player progress through the life stages of the main character, crafting their life story through making decisions at each stage of the character’s life, and that failed jumps would signify failing at said life choice, leading to lesser options and locking off parts of the map. When the jumps are too hard, this is all really difficult to see. Alas.

Bad news for the other game, Medical Necessity, too. The final hurdle in pre-production was to convince a panel of judges that we’d finished adequate work on the project to justify continued development next quarter. We failed.

First, let me say that their criticisms were 100% valid. Medical Necessity just wasn’t fun. It had been fun at first, and people really enjoyed the early prototypes as we hammered out the foundation of the project, but as the game came together, it lost that spark. We’d marketed it as a fast-paced puzzle game, but it was neither fast-paced nor tactical. We’d lost sight of what our playtesters had enjoyed in the early builds, with each design decision slowing down gameplay even further.

Part of this blame falls on the programmers, which constitute the other 3 people on the dev team, but I firmly believe that the buck stops with the leader, and I was creative director. My premise was called out for being part of the problem, and I’d also failed to provide my team adequate directions, as I’d feared would happen. I was too tentative; I hated having to tell a tea member that something about their work wasn’t perfect. Worst conversation in the world is when a teammate comes back on Monday with his weekend work and I’m staring at it, and I have to find a way to say, “This work is well-constructed, I have no particular complaints or criticisms I can point to, and it fulfills the requirements I gave you, but it doesn’t work for the project. You need to make changes.” I always copped out and avoided telling them, instead I fell back on my common strategy of praising its positives and trying to pitch my request as “That’s really good! Can we add onto it by doing X?” More than anything else, I favored their contentedness and ensured my teammates felt like they were contributing to the vision of the game, as these were qualities I’d always wished to see in my leaders. However, this led to my team having inadequate guidance, and contributed to the lack of focused identity the game perpetually suffered from.

I can’t decide whether we didn’t playtest enough. We playtested with multiple people each week, and most of them enjoyed it. The high schoolers in particular thought it was a blast. The seasoned panel of game developer judges and program directors were the only playtesters who flatout disliked the game, but I don’t consider this a case of Critic-audience dissonance because multiple factors nourished the divide. Playtesters are subtly encouraged to be nice, and most are affiliated with the program and/or knew us personally. That being said, I’m not sure what we could have done to alleviate the problems. We took what playtesters told us, analyzed their feedback for useful kernels of enlightenment, and improved our product thusly.

One of my biggest regrets was listening to a piece of feedback the program directors gave us two weeks before the vertical slice. At the time, our gameplay looked like this:

The levels were segmented into individual arenas, which the player defeated or restarted upon failure, and progression to the next level happened with the spacebar. This was the design we’d envisioned from my first pitch, as it allowed the player to move at their own pace and ensured the gameplay remained fast-paced. But for that same reason, the program directors disliked it. They mentioned that good gameplay is supposed to have “peaks of intensity and periods of inactivity” that let the player take breathers after particularly intense moments. Everyone on my team, myself included, resolved to fix this problem by revamping the levels into connected campaigns, where the player progressed physically to reach the next level. See the below GIF, where we’d successfully reached this goal after two weeks:

I was the only one who didn’t like this new system, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It felt like an unnecessary lull in the gameplay; forcing the player to physically march upwards between rounds took a lot more explaining than “Press Space to start the next level”, and the benefits of the new system felt incredibly minor compared to the effort of making it. A friend later added another good point, that it conflicted with the mobile-based gameplay we were gunning for, where users enjoy constant little levels that can be left at a moment’s notice, not long PC-styled campaigns with checkpoints. Even worse, we were going to use those two weeks for polish, to make our game look better and improve the gameplay we already had. Instead, by spending those two weeks implementing this system, we entered vertical slice looking significantly less flashy and put-together. If I had to name a single choice that most resulted in our game dying, it was the decision to implement that campaign system instead of commit to the bite-sized levels.

We were not plagued with any of the typical problems besetting a cancelled game. The four of us are good friends and worked hard every day creating new features, improving the old and remaining on schedule. Week after week we completed everything on our to-do list on time and under budget. I personally spent over $400 securing commissioned sprites and music, something we’d been told is an important step in passing vertical slice. Shame I couldn’t afford to spend more, as Tyler took our environments directly from the Unity Asset store, and they looked bland and generic as a result. This problem wasn’t completely our fault: the university had initially told us that we’d be cooperating with graphic art students at the University of San Jose, and it wasn’t until a week into pre-production they’d admitted the deal had fallen through. I’d leaned heavily on building my team around programming rather than artists for this reason, but I should note that we weren’t the only group severely-affected by this, and every other game survived vertical slice. Several other groups had artist/musician friends who agreed to work for free on their projects, but I paid mine market rates because I feel like professionals deserve to be paid for their work. Every freelancer, myself included, has found themselves in the situation where friends are begging them for free work, and it sucks. Harlan Ellison was the focus of a documentary called “Dreams With Sharp Teeth“, and he has an amazing scene where he explains why artists who work for free are negatively hurting the entire creative industry:

So I guess I can be proud that I wasn’t part of this problem from the contractee side. Medical Necessity paid for it, though. But honestly, in the long run I can’t help but feel a little relieved. Sure I’m disappointed the project got canceled, but I’d never wanted to be a creative director, and it was really difficult trying to lead other people. And it was really stressful to watch as the game slowly transitioned away from what I envisioned. Honestly, I didn’t even find the final product fun, and if I ever reattempt the premise, I’ll be tackling it from a completely different perspective. (Probably an arcadey, unrealistic shoot-em-up with powerups and no reloads.) And more importantly, I’ll be doing it alone.

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