The SeeThrough Diaries: The Hour Of Pain

A week ago, SeeThrough Studios began their game-making challenge: one indie team making one game in 96-hours with the hope to earn one dollar. They are now six-days into their project and things have already started to go wrong.

It’s the evening before Day 6 of the project, and I’m tired.

I haven’t slept much this week. Thoughts and plans rush through my head as I lie in bed, and I’ve been unable to get past a light doze most nights.

This is the second time I’ve written this article, and the second time I’ve written it late at night, desperate to get some of my thoughts out of my head and onto a page.

It’s been an amazing week and a half.

Here’s the plan

The SeeThrough Studios timetable contains an interesting pattern: each week, we have a large break from work between Monday and Thursday, a short break between Thursday and Saturday, and then a long run from Saturday through Monday. This means that on each of these Saturday to Monday runs, we go through a full quarter of our project time, and it’s really important that that time is used efficiently. It also means that we end up more exhausted during that period than at any other point.

If I were to use a cliché to describe what happened on our last weekend run, I’d say “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. In this case, the closest thing we have to an enemy is the clock, and the plan was to have an early version of the game ready for play-testing by the end of the Sunday.

As you may have guessed, things did not go according to plan. I’d be lying if I said I kept my cool. It’s been a long time since I’ve sworn that many times in a single half-hour period.

To sum up what went wrong: software didn’t do what we thought it would. Saturday and (more so) Sunday turned into a long slog to simply keep things together, and by the end there were drawn faces all around the table.

In retrospect, there had been some red flags. For the first two days of the project we had simply raced towards two goals: basic gameplay and an understanding of our goals. A low-planning approach was good for this phase, and I thought we could just ride that wave until our first release.

I was wrong, but I don’t think our predicament really hit me until Sunday afternoon.

The tech problems and the confused non-coders

We’re developing on the Unity platform, and one of its strengths is the wide array of user-made plug-ins that can be downloaded to streamline the development process (especially on such a tight schedule). We needed a short-cut to building geometric shapes for our characters and buildings. We also needed to be able to export to Flash. We had already discarded two plug-in tools before finding RageSpline – it cost us a bit, but it did the things we needed it to do. It looked like we’d dodged all the javelins the day was going to throw at us.

Then RageSpline stopped saving our settings. Absolutely nothing we built was sticking! And if that wasn’t enough, the version control software that we use to integrate the work of the various team-members stopped functioning properly.

This was the start of the hour of pain. The non-programmers in the room looked on in a combination of worry and bewilderment as we gnashed at keyboards and swore at computers. Valuable time was wasted before Thomas (who had the afternoon off) came to our rescue. He sent us a line of code via Twitter that fixed about half of our problems. We ended up rebuilding our entire project structure before we could fix the rest.

We’re down, but not out!

Overall, we lost about a day this week, and there’s still some fallout to come. We’re down, but certainly not out, and I’ve come out the other side having learnt a lot. Pro -tip number one: on Day 3, do some more planning. And tomorrow, I’m going to break out the index cards.

That’s a bigger deal than it sounds. It means we’re going to take a couple of hours in the morning to completely scope the rest of the project, build some milestones and figure out exactly what is necessary for us to finish the three weeks with something special.

I mentioned above that this is the second time I’ve written this article: the first time, I wrote more about my journey to the start of this project, like Saul did in the last instalment. But that makes little sense as a Week 1 update. I talked about the revelation I’d had that the team we’ve assembled has the capacity to make the kind of games I’ve always dreamed of making, but always imagined I’d have to shelve. I talked about the advantages of a strict, reasonable work day and how having days off to let ideas evolve had been a great boon to the project (both of which are still true).

Most of all, I talked about how I felt that this was an ideal way to work on a project, that I wanted to do it more, but was worried that it wouldn’t work on a long-term basis for any number of reasons (including, but not limited to, the approximately $11,500 we’d have to spend each fortnight if we were to pay everyone on our team a baseline wage for their work).

None of those issues have gone away, but in some weird and twisted way I’m far less worried about them now. Things went wrong on the weekend, but we survived. We fixed them. And we now know what to do next time. Whatever happens with this game, every other project down the line will benefit from that experience.

And so I sit here, exhausted yet exhilarated, with about nine hours before the countdown timer starts ticking again. Just nine hours before I get to rejoin the world of Flatland and work with five other amazing people on bringing that world to life.

No wonder I can’t sleep.

You can follow the development blog here. SeeThrough Studios are making a game called Flatland, based on the novel by Edwin Abbott Abbott. You can read their first Kotaku diary here. Tune in next week for part three of SeeThrough’s diary.

Photo credit: David Molloy

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