Sea Friends Post-mortem

I released my first Facebook app Sea Friends in February, and at first it looked like my friends were the only ones adding the game. Pretty soon, strangers started adding the game as well. It is a good feeling when you find that people are enjoying your game. It validates what you’ve accomplished and shows that people find value in it.

If you are familiar with my game development, you’ll know that Sea Friends is based off of my recently released game Walls, which in turn is based off of Minimalist. Minimalist was created for the 11th Ludum Dare 48-hour game programming competition. I wrote a separate post-mortem for it. Sea Friends took the same simple game play, applied a theme, and added a ranking system to a social networking site.

What Went Right:

  • Setting an aggressive schedule. My business colleague in this endeavor convinced me that it should be possible to get this project done in two weeks. Considering how long I spend working on a single project outside of 48-hour game dev competitions, I liked what I was hearing, even if I wasn’t sure how to get it done. We scheduled one week to make the Facebook app, and another week to tweak it. I figured the worst-case is that I learn a lot in a short period of time, so I went ahead with the project. I’m glad I did, because I was right. I got so much out of this experience, and I was able to put together a game much faster than I would have done before.
  • Leveraging the work of others. So how do you work a full-time Day Job AND get a complete Facebook project completed in a short period of time? You pay other people to do it for you. I didn’t have the time to learn new languages and write all the code, and while I am a decent programmer artist, I still create programmer art. I needed other people to do the work for me. Essentially, this project taught me how to be a project manager. I only did a few hours of programming, and it was mainly to update Walls with a few new features so I could have the Flash developer see what I wanted in the Flash version of the game. While I was at the Day Job or sleeping, someone else was still getting work done. By leveraging the work of other people, I fit 48 or 72 hours into each 24 hour day. That isn’t to say that I didn’t do anything myself, though. My work was less direct product development and more coordination, planning, and design. I was still exhausted by the end of this sprint.

    Before starting this project, I had been reading The 4-Hour work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich which focuses a lot on the benefits of outsourcing to free up your time to do more of what you find important. One of my favorite moments during this project? Finding out that my car was buried by the previous day’s snowfall and knowing that I would need it to get to a meeting with my colleague on time. I needed to spend my evening looking for a Flash developer. I didn’t have time to dig out my car! So I went to Craigslist and found someone to do it for me. It cost me $20, and the job was done in less time and in a higher quality than I would have done myself. Most importantly, I was able to use that time to do higher priority things, like work on my aggressively scheduled project!

    You probably outsource some things without even realizing it. Dry cleaning and automobile repair are two good examples, but why stop there? I haven’t done my own laundry in over a year since I started dropping it off at the laundromat. You pay by the pound, and pick it up at the end of the day. They even fold it for you! There are grocery shopping services, cleaning services, lawn care services, research services, and many other services that you can take advantage of, all so you can focus on what you “don’t have time to do” now.

  • Theming an existing game. Walls is a fairly abstract game. It is based on Minimalist, after all. While I think the game play should be enough to compel people to play it, I can also accept that having something cute and fun-looking helps. People argue about the importance of high quality graphics to a game, and I’m one of those inclined to believe that they aren’t nearly as important as some people think they are, but I suppose a blunt way to put it is that players will generally like attractive games more than games that don’t appeal aesthetically.

    The good news is that the game itself was already finished, so I could literally swap out the art and have a different feel for the game. Check out these screenshots to see what I mean:

    Sea Friends Screenshot

  • Finding a good “team” I found one fantastic Flash developer named Brennan through FlashKit.com’s freelance forums, and he was able to port Walls to Flash in less than a day and did great work putting together Sea Friends. I found a great artist, Jessica Garibaldi, through a coworker at the day job. She did incredible work and was able to give me great looking art daily. Together, these two people helped me have a good experience with outsourcing and put a together high-quality game. If you would like to get in touch with either of them for your own work, feel free to ask me through my contact form.

What Went Wrong:

  • Finding a good “team”. In order to find the good, I had to go through a bit of bad. On the first day, I found one company to do the Flash port, and I thought everything was going to go smoothly. Hours later, they found that the project was more complex than they initially thought and told me that they couldn’t get it to me on time. I found another developer who was doing decent work, but he wasn’t able to get me the work at the times we agreed. It was almost two weeks into the project, and I still didn’t have the initial Flash port completed! And then, to top it all off, when I tried to bring the project to a close, the relationship fell through, so now I was two weeks in and with nothing to show for it! It was a frustrating experience, but rather than give up, I tried to take whatever benefits I could get out of it and move on.

    And the main lesson is that I need to communicate my intentions better.

    What’s embarrassing is that I already knew how important clear communications are when dealing with other workers, and yet I still sent out emails and messages that had the potential for misinterpretations. For one thing, Walls looks deceptively simple, and I could have done a better job of conveying how involved it actually is. I had a number of people tell me that they could do the Flash port for $20, and I believe the first company thought they could do the work in a matter of hours. When I finally found the developer who worked on the full project, I learned that I needed to be very very clear and specific. Just because you give the original C++ source code to people, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will read it and know what the game is meant to be. I took every feature, design decision, and mechanic, and explained in detail what was expected. Once I was able to do so, things seemed to go much more smoothly.

  • Slipping the schedule. Unfortunately, my first two weeks were more about learning lessons than about making a game. I had to take another two weeks to get all of the work done, meaning it took about a month from start to finish. I was still a bit new to the aggressive schedule myself, and I was learning how to set expectations with the people I pay to do work for me. When you’ve never been in a management or leadership position before, it can be a bit foreign to set expectations and act on those expectations. If someone promises you completed work in a day, and 24 hours later he/she make excuses about why he/she couldn’t fulfill that promise, it is perfectly fine to cancel the arrangement. I actually found myself trying to be accommodating to one of the first Flash developers’ schedule, only to have it bite me in the end later. It’s my project, so I should be the one setting the pace. It sounds obvious, but again, if you’ve never done it before, it’s a new skill you need to learn. I never had plans to hire anyone full-time, so I never paid attention to the business books about management, and I wish I had.
  • Feeling like I’m standing still. The problem with not personally knowing the technology involved is that you can’t easily dig in yourself. I did not know Actionscript or general Flash development, and I’m not familiar with PHP or MySQL. There were days I spent waiting on contractors, and I felt like I was idling in the meantime. I spent some of that time working with my colleague on potential design decisions for this and future projects, but there were a few times when I wanted to dig into the code and get my hands dirty, especially when I knew what little changes would be needed to improve the various releases I received. I had to remind myself that I’m paying these people to do these things for me.

    I still want to learn these technologies since I can’t always rely on someone else to do the work for me. I have a finite amount of cash, after all. Sometimes it is fine to let others do the work you asked them, but I still would prefer it if I can take what they have and tweak it. Waiting for them to send me back small changes I could have done myself should save time.

  • Using proprietary formats. Of course, if I can’t actually make the change even if I had the source, what good is it? With this project, I’m referring to the Flash part. The source was provided as an FLA file. I don’t use Windows or a Mac, and Adobe hasn’t released a way for me to open FLA files on my Linux-based system. It’s funny because there are Flex tools available for writing something new, but I have no way to take work someone else did and modify it. Or if there is, I couldn’t find it.

    And no, I really don’t like the idea of using a completely different OS just to use one tool that I don’t actually need to use. Again, there are tools available to create Flash files, but even separate from that, I could have used Java to create applets, or AJAX technologies, or any number of open technologies, and any of them would have been less of a hassle for me.

  • Marketing the game. Aside from ads in my colleague’s own games, the only way my game would spread was by the players challenging their friends. And it seemed that they were doing so, although the growth seemed to drop off after a bit. I wanted it to be a quiet initial release to ensure that there were no show-stopping bugs, but I’ve only recently been adding links to the game on the GBGames main website. As much as I know that marketing is important, I feel that I dropped the ball here. Press releases, submissions to major game websites, and paid advertising could probably do wonders.

What I Learned:

I learned that you can create complete games in a very short period of time. Now, it isn’t really all that new as far as revelations go. I participate in Ludum Dare, after all, but I usually do so for fun anyway. If I don’t have a working game at the end, it can be disappointing, but it isn’t the end of the world. When you’re making a game that you intend to base part of your income upon, it can be more daunting. It seems like it should take longer to make a “real” game. I found that the greatest breakthroughs came when I thought, “If I HAD to get this done, what would I need to do?”

I learned that when you are going full-steam ahead on a project, the rest of your life can start to deteriorate. Dishes don’t get washed. Paperwork doesn’t get filed. Bills don’t get paid right away. And this is fine! You’ll catch up with everything later. It sounds like a common enough occurrence. You just have to accept that being busy with important stuff means the less important stuff piles up and waits. You’ll get to it when you’re done with the project, or if something else becomes more important AND urgent.

I learned that no matter how much you may want to peacefully and mutually come to an understanding with someone, you can’t always see eye to eye. You can’t get everyone to like you, and you shouldn’t spend too much time trying. You have important work that needs to get done, and if someone isn’t helping you, it’s your job to find someone else. You can’t whine, and you can’t give up. It’s just another obstacle to get past.

I learned that outsourcing work is accessible and affordable to an indie. All told, I spent about $1,175 for Flash work and art creation, which is actually a little higher than it had to be, I’m sure. Even if Sea Friends never makes that money back for me, I think the cost was well worth the experience. I don’t expect to spend so much money on each future project, but if I need work that someone else to do faster and better than I could, I know I have the option to trade my money for their time.

Sea Friends was an exercise in outsourcing more than anything else, and I thought it worked out well overall. On that topic, I would highly suggest reading Outsourcing Art: Ten Steps to Success by Jon Jones for great advice for working with contractors.

I had a lot of fun working on this project, and it was great to see it all come together. And seeing real people in the rankings? It’s very satisfying.

Please check out the game at http://apps.facebook.com/seafriends, and let me know what you think!

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