Tag Archives: production

Productivity tricks for Community Management

A programmer doing the Community Management?

I’m one of the main programmers here in ‘The Game Kitchen’, working in the point and click horror series ‘The Last Door’. But my roles in the company doesn’t end there, unfortunately! I’m also in charge of the management of the company, and recently, I’m also becoming the part-time community manager of the team.

In the past we used to a have a dedicated CM in the team, but had to leave for personal reasons, and since we are not really making what you’d call a lot of money, we can’t afford to hire one at this time. Being independently funded comes with a lot of challenges, and most of the time, for us, means to operate as cheaply as possible.

So even it’s not specially my cup of tea I’ve taken the responsibility of managing our community, social media presence,  press relations, online marketing, and a lot of stuff that has very few to do with programming.

‘The Last Door’ looks like a simple game, but it’s actually a really big IP that involves handling a complex social media presence, several forums, multiple platforms each one with their separated way to provide support, and like every other indie title out there, a constant need to be present in the media.

Since I took these responsibilities, it wasn’t so unusual to reach the end of the day without having typed a single line of code. That was causing me a lot of frustration, because for starters I love coding, like a lot. And it’s easy to perceive a day without progress in the actual ‘product’ as a waste of time, even though it probably wasn’t. So I know I needed a system to make this new situation work for me.

A daily schedule

My first approach was to split the day into two time zones. First zone, it’s only coding and work exclusively related to making the actual ‘game’. The second zone is about everything else. I usually take a pause for a coffee to help ease the transition between the two mental states.

This was an immediate improvement. Soon enough, I significantly reduced the frustration sensation, since now, everyday I was able to advance the production of the game at least a few steps, every single day.

At this point another issue becomes evident: I’m not as good as planning tasks when they are not development related. So I was often forgetting about approving post for new users in one of the forums, or maybe answering too late to a particular support request. I needed ‘something’ that remembered me of each one of the task that needed to be done, so I don’t forget about a particular one for too much time.

Putting the cloud to work for you

My first take on the subject was to make a huge list of all the things that required attention. Once I had the list, I needed a system that allowed me to secure the appropriate amount of time for each of those things.

I needed a couple of tricks:

  • I wanted a single point to look for tasks that needed to be taken care of each day. This would be my ‘What needs to be done today’ list. This would allow me a method: Everyday, at the beginning of my second ‘time zone’ I would check this list, and execute each of these tasks.
  • Then I needed something that would allow me to schedule the tasks of the big list of things to be done, into the daily task list.

After researching some options, I ended up with a combination of online tools: Trello (which is a well known task manager) and IFTTT (acronym for ‘If This Then That’) which is a nearly magical thing that enables you to integrate many different cloud services to work together. NOTE: Both of this tools has a free plan that’s sufficient enough for our pourpose here.

I created a ‘recipe’ in IFTTT for each of the things on my big list of things that I should care about, they looked like this:

IFTTT recipe

This particular rule triggers every Friday at 5.00 in the morning, and injects a task into my Trello’s Community Management’ board, with the text “Check metrics in Google Analytics”. This way, everything Friday I would check Trello, just like every other day, I would know that this particular day I must not forget about checking what’s going on in the website through Google Analytics. For me, the exact time when the rule executes, it’s not really important, as long as they happen before I come to Trello to check for what’s need to be done. In the end, I guess I’m just using the time as a way to control the order the tasks would appear in my board.

To create these type of rules in IFTTT you must choose a type of trigger called ‘Date & Time’ (first step) and ‘Every day of the week at’ (second step). Then you’ll program which days of week and at what time you want it to execute. Then, just choose Trello as the action channel, and ‘Create a card’ as the particular action to be performed. Fill in the name of the board, and the content of the tasks (tasks are called ‘cards’ in Trello).

Hope you guys find this trick useful. To me has been like night and day, makes me a lot more satisfied with the amoun of work I make every day, and improves a lot the time it takes me to respond to players!

cheers.

What’s so special about ‘The Last Door’ betas?

Don’t you hate when you buy a product and it turns to be nothing you were told it would be? I certainly do, that’s why I feel like I should explain in detail how the episode’s betas are in The Last Door for those of you who have not yet taken part in one.

Most people think of a “beta” version as a nearly finished product, where you should be open to experience some bugs here and there, but, overall, it will be very close to the final experience. This is not the case of The Last Door.

This game has always been all about creating a community. Since the very conception of the idea we knew that, in order to make an excellent game, we would need to assess the power of the collective creativity and imagination of the game’s players.

Letting you guys participate in the development has always been one of our main priorities. And The Last Door’s betas are possibly the most powerful way there is for you to leave your mark in the game.

A proposal open for changes

Our betas are not close to final gameplay. You have to think about it as a draft, for you to build upon. We reserve about 25% of the development time between beta and final, to be able to perform countless changes, based in your suggestions. Some will be shallow, details, but some other will be deep. Entire areas or characters could be cut or added during this process, and all will be done according to your feedback.

Blank descriptions for you to fill

Another thing we do in the beta is we leave ten to twelve objects in the game without description. Beta testers can then suggest a description during their playthrough using a simple form. The best descriptions will make it to the final version, and their authors will be featured in the final game’s credits!

Will playing the beta ruin the final game for me?

No, it will not. There are some measures we take to protect the final experience:

  • We make sure the beta gameplay is enjoyable by itself.
  • We avoid including any major spoilers in the beta: the opening and ending sequences won’t be present, and some important scenes will be cut out too. You will still have to play the final release to see what happens in this episode!
  • The overall gameplay of the final release usually feels very different from the beta version so it will be still thrilling to play through!

Most players enjoy playing both the beta and the final release:

  • You get to play two different versions of the game.
  • You get to discuss changes with us and other players.
  • You get to see those changes come together in the final version.
  • If you send us good feedback, you will get your name featured in the credits!

Sounds great, but does it work?

We’ve collected some feedback provided by players in the past about participating in the betas, hope this help get a better picture:

“I was kinda interested if you really put the changes community mentioned into your Final Version. Well..you did. And i think this fits just great. Everybody who played and finished the Beta knows what i mean and i as a player and a follower of your work (art) want to say thank you.” – Meatknife (forum post)

“I love how you guys altered the puzzles from the beta, and I really noticed how much you listened to your fans. This has truly been a fun adventure to be apart of with you guys and I would love to see this story reach the point to which it deserves.” – Jiveturkey (forum post)

“I too noticed how you took many of the forum comments and incorporated those changes into the game. I really liked the changes to some of the puzzles and surprises (you know which ones I’m talking about!) and the community input on some of the items (the teacups for example) really added an extra element of depth and imagination to everything.” – Mike1141 (forum post)

Planning Chapter 3

The meeting

Last 25th of June, the entire development team we had an internal meeting to assess the first six months of the “The Last Door” project life. The need to undertake this meeting is obvious since we had already reached an important milestone, the turning point where the release of second chapter made the first pilot to become free to play.

From now onwards, it is even more necessary than ever to invest our efforts cleverly, this is the reason why we needed to stop to consider up to now, all that has gone well and bad.

What went well?

Among the things that have gone well, for us one of the most obvious was the quality of the product. Yeah, we are pretty proud of “The Last Door”, it’s a really good game. And the best thing is that we are not the only ones who think it! Many, a really high percentage of players have spent their time to write us (through one channel or another) and praise the game. Thank you all!

One other good thing is all the good reviews and critics we have received from the specialized press and blogosphere. We managed to put “The Last Door” in several blogs and gaming websites and, to top it all, almost everyone loved the game! That’s great, we are in the good track.

Another source of satisfaction for us, it’s the high level of players’ participation in the development of the game. From the beginning, we wanted the development to be interactive and populate each chapter with as many community provided elements as possible. In the first chapter, we had no time leeway enough to implement this goal beyond a regular beta stage(that didn’t last long, and it was exclusively to fix gameplay bugs, texts, etc.). However, for “Memories”, we have done a great effort and we are sincerely happy with the final outcome. For instance, the experience on leaving objects blank for you to be described, really paid out, we’re totally doing more of this in the future!

Furthermore, having two weeks for beta testing, we’ve been able not only to fix bugs, but to perform relevant improvements in gameplay and, regarding the writings, Wow! In the end, we got almost 100% of the texts re-written by you, and best of all, the final result has been an outstanding second chapter, full of charm.

What didn’t go so well?

First of all, we have suffered an appreciable delay in the development of the second chapter. “Memories” was planned (and budgeted) to be executed in two months and it finally took us three months. One month delay may seem not a big issue, but we failed to establish the right development speed since we hoped that we could do it faster that we did it with the first chapter, and not end up being even slower.

This delay was due to two factors. The first one is the fact that the two youngest members of the team (Daniel and Mateo) are studying and they had to attend their courses (assignments, exams, classes, etc.) which precisely finalised during the same period we’ve been creating Chapter 2. Both of them have had to make a superhuman effort to carry both responsibilities forward and at the same time, not affecting the quality of the chapter.

On the other hand, we underestimated production costs for the new gameplay features we wanted the second chapter to have, like: refactoring the engine, support for NPCs and dialogues (including the integration with ChatMapper, a very cool tool to create conversations).

To follow up the thread of things that could have gone better, we honestly hoped to be capable of start offering translations to different languages at the moment chapter 2 released. But, to be honest, in the end there was no way we could achieve that.

Finally, the most important of the inconveniences we faced, it has been that we didn’t raise the funds that we needed to cover all development expenses of the chapter. In fact, we have only reached 50% of the total. Needless to say, this is a serious problem, since this means that all the team members we’ll get paid less than expected, jeopardizing our personal finances and which in the end compromises the sustainability of the project.

In any case, having obtained 50% of the total amount should not be seen as a failure but as a challenge: we have just started to run the way and we still haven’t done everything we should do. We’re not “there” yet. In this sense, the team continues to move forward with the development of the next chapter, with conviction, but we have to work harder in some aspects, especially those related to marketing and communication, to bring The Last Door to as many people as possible and make it profitable.

Making decisions

This in-depth analysis, should be followed by some serious decision making, especially to establish changes and improvements, trying to find a solution to our current weaknesses and at the same time, empower everything that has been done well until now.

First, regarding the scope of Chapter 3, the most important decision we made was to limit the amount of new features that we would incorporate in the new chapter.

The team agreed that the engine has practically everything we need to build the next chapter, and given that the weaknesses of the project are more focused on marketing and communication, it is compulsory that we focus the developing efforts to strengthen these aspects, especially leveraging that the art team will be busy for a few weeks finalizing the script of Chapter 3.

Keeping this in mind, we established the following priorities for this first month of work:

– Script and Art for Chapter 3
– Localization support (Chapters 1 and 2 must be opened to non-English speaking players)
– Hall Of Fame (reward users who donated 25 €)
– Make payment easier by supporting different payment options and not just PayPal.

Other tasks, less heavy but equally necessary at this first stage:

– Game Trailer (as we are no experts with motion graphics, we are counting with the help of a great professional: Mary Kish, from IndieViddy.com)
– Improve our development with more frequent posts and videos about the game creation process.
– Wild release of Chapter (we want “The Letter” to be released by hundreds of free flash games portals, so everyone who likes it could subscribe and donate for the project).
– Implement tools within our website to facilitate sharing The Last Door on social networks.

In summary, our idea is to invest all the programming efforts in tasks that could directly impact the collection of donations, while artists are busy writing the script and designing the next chapter.

The challenge

Given all these analysis on the situation, and and in order to reassess if we are making the right decisions, we have set the goal of reaching the amount of € 6,000 by the end of the month of July. Do you think we would make it?

“Pilot Chapter” Post-Mortem (Part 1)

This is my first post in the development blog, so let me introduce myself to all of you. I’m Mauricio, programmer of The Game Kitchen. For The Last Door I’m in charge of website programming and project management. In the following series of articles I will be guiding you through the development of the first chapter, and if everything goes well, will continue to do the same for the following chapters from here on out. Later, I’m planning on sharing with you other aspects as well, such as our business model, statistics and other stuff that I hope would be of your interest and even use.

So without further ado, let’s go!

An exhausting crowdfunding campaign

To pull off a successful crowdfunding campaign, Kickstarter or any other platform, is no easy feat if you’re lacking a certain reputation to precede you. The Game Kitchen is a relatively young team. Back in 2012, we didn’t even break our third year of existence yet, and of those, the first two years was exclusively dedicated to carrying out projects for other studios and companies. We didn’t have a successful project to call our own and, because of that, we didn’t even establish a regular fanbase. All of that makes getting visitors to a crowdfunding campaign really hard.

December of 2012 was one of the most stressful and busiest months in my life. That’s actually not a bad thing, considering the project got funded and hey, it’s just thirty days! But there’s something I didn’t expect, and I think none of the rest of us did either, and that’s the amount of work and stress level involved in just thinking about ways to make the project more visible and attract an audience to Kickstarter.

In our ingenuity we thought that part of the team would be enough to handle the campaign while the others would start working on certain aspects of the game to have them ready once we were up and running (and more importantly, funded). But that wasn’t the case as most of the resources were spent on the campaign, only exception being the creation of the playable prologue. Even though we barely reused any lines of code or assets from it, it turned out to be a good prototype and gave us a real and concrete vision of what we wanted to achieve in the first chapter.

Eventually, the campaign ended up being a moderate success and we were able to breathe easily again for a week or so while charging our batteries during the Christmas holidays (which in Spain last approximately until January 6).

The real work begins

We began the pilot for The Last Door in January 7. Ahead of us was one of the greatest challenges we ever faced: develop the whole game engine, the first chapter of the adventure and also the first version of the website. Everything in a mere 60 days.

On top of that, we ran into an unexpected bump on the road. Our colleague Alejo told us that, due to personal reasons, he wasn’t going to be able to continue in the team. He directed the crowdfunding campaign and also took a primary role in the project’s birth, but sadly we had to separate our ways for the development of the pilot chapter.

Our first step was setting up a rough planning of all the work ahead of us, and the team’s configuration if we wanted to carry it out. Soon, we decided some of the KS rewards and main features of the website would have to wait until the next stage of the development because we didn’t have enough resources to tackle them at the time. Luckily, the episodic, iterative nature of the project gives us a certain freedom: we would focus on the most essential features during this first stage, and then we could continue adding the rest, along with the following chapters.

Where to start?

From the point of view of production, which is an unassigned role that we all share using our collective intelligence, our first decision was to make a first sprint that would last for a little less than a month. We did it like that because we had to build a clear-cut, well-defined basis for every aspect of the game, and we thought it would be convenient for us to have a 30-days schedule where everyone could focus on their task.

The team in charge of the script and general design of the game, formed by our artists Enrique and Mateo, would be creating the main storyline, script and gameplay of the first chapter, all from a basic argument Enrique had going on in his head during December. Obviously, it had to be a script that would somehow “hide” the lack of features that would be entirely missing from the game because of time constraints, such as tree dialogs (that’s why there’s no other character to talk to in the first chapter) or navigation grids.

For the programming team, formed by Javier and Daniel, the top priority was to create the game engine. The coding of the prologue was done rather hastily during the campaign, so it was obvious it needed a deep and thorough analysis and refactorization if we wanted it to hold up a much longer gameplay and the potential inclusion of even more features in the future. Considering the script and design team would need a few weeks before finishing up the story, we decided it would be best to test our newly coded engine features creating a replica of the prologue.

The team in charge of the website, formed by yours truly up to this moment, would create a good basis that supported user profile management: people needed to be able to register, log in, edit basic information and identify themselves as KS backers to access their individual rewards.

Finally, we had to deal with some other production issues during this first stage. On the one hand, we had an ARG going on since the KS campaign and we wanted to keep it alive. Our partner Alejo, even though we knew he wasn’t going to be part of the development of the first chapter, showed a genuine interest in continuing in charge of this experience, one he himself had conceived and created in the first place. So that was settled. On the other hand, we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to satisfy our players’ communication needs for two main reasons, the first being the huge amount of workload ahead of us and second and foremost, no one in the team really has enough command of the English language. So we thought it was imperative to get into the team some sort of “community manager” if we wanted to guarantee a fluid channel of communication with you, without linguistic limitations. So we started the search of the right person for the task.

To be continued…
The next part of this post-mortem will be available next week.