Developer Blog: Gone North Games
Sebastian Zethraeus, Project Manager
I wasn't really sure what to expect when I came to the university on the first day of the semester. I had been admitted into the design and project management branch of the game development program and almost immediately we were thrown into groups and got a brief introduction to scripting using a simple engine called Scratch. Almost no one had any prior experience of game development but we all shared the same enthusiasm and passion for playing games. The next step would be to make our own and the teachers expected most groups to crash and burn. Almost no one did.
A couple of projects into the education we got to choose our own groups and I found one that suited me perfectly. We liked to stay late evenings and to get really immersed in the projects we worked on. We also treated all our projects like they were live ones, which I believe is key to get the most out of a game development education. For the last game project of the first year we were given the task to develop a non-violent first person game in the Unreal Development Kit. It was our first time working with the engine, so after a one week introduction I started watching UDK tutorials on Youtube, trying to learn as much as I could.
We had 10 weeks spanning over three courses and our first idea was to play with gravity; to turn the entire world upside down using some sort of device to solve puzzles. With our limited knowledge of the engine we weren't able to do it, but something else caught our attention as we slowly gave up on that idea. One of our programmers, Oliver, had created a grappling-gun that he used to propel himself through a rough map made out of boxes and he was clearly having a really good time doing it.
The final result was a game about one hour in lenght, with three playable levels, a prologue and an epilogue. A Story About My Uncle landed us a Game of the Year nomination at the Swedish Game Awards 2012 and in the summer of the same year, we released it to the public for free. The feedback we received after that was overwhelming. The web services we used to upload the game crashed one after another because of the limited bandwith. I thought the web hotels limit of 500 downloads would be sufficient for at least a month. It took less than 24 hours to reach. Our free release was followed by coverage from many of the largest gaming websites such as IGN, Gamespot and Rock, Paper, Shotgun, as well as several large german print publications such as Chip and Computerworld.
Because we were still in school we didn't have the possibility to act on the success of our free release at once. Instead it took us almost a year before we could pursue our goal of making the game into a full commercial title. It was an entrepreneurship course in spring last year that finally gave us the push to plan out our future company. During that course we made a fictional case where we would pursue a publisher for our game. After the course was finished we did just that. We contacted Coffee Stain Studios, a company we had heard were looking for their first game to publish, and asked them for the opportunity to come and show them our game and the plan we’d made for it. Needless to say, our preparations paid off. The new product was to have two completely new levels, remade characters, refurbished levels, a rewritten and improved narrative, new and better voice over, most of the code rewritten, a save system and loads more options so that even The Cynical Brit couldn’t complain.
We set out to start the new project at the end of the summer of 2013, during our last year of school. At first in parallel with our courses, then woven into our final essays, exam work and internships. We got a room at a business incubator where we could work and put up a server (How had we survived without version control before?). A room usually used for two people now hosted a group of nine eager game developers. It might sound like a nightmare, but the small space brought with it some unexpected positives. Because no one could say a thing without the rest of the group hearing, it created somewhat of a filter, stopping bad ideas at once and enriching good ones with the help from the rest of the group. You could call it design by committee. Our group consists of project managers, designers, artists, programmers and a sound guy. But even if we have our individual roles within the company I believe that everyone can and should contribute to every part of the design process, even if it's something outside their area of expertise.
But you never really know how good or bad an idea is before you put the games in the hands of a playtester. During the production we frequently let new players try out the game and many times it lead to great improvements in the design of the levels. We've tried to let the flow of the players decide how parts of the levels are built, something I believe contributes a lot to the tempo and flow that players experience when playing the game. Opposite to that it also let us find places to stop the players, let them think for a while and create some tension before they could continue. Something that we noticed back in the early days of the prototype is that players love to outsmart the design. At first we tried to fight it, but then we realized that we should let players express their play-style by allowing them to find alternative ways to beat the challenges in the game, even if it's not the way we originally intended. Seeing let's players and speedrunners break your level design and utilize the mechanics in ways you didn't think was possible is one of the most satisfying things I've experienced as a designer.
Countless of late evenings were spent in the office during the production of the game. And just as with our first projects in school we didn’t stop improving the game, making changes until the very last possible minute. It’s like walking a tightrope burning in both ends, but I believe it's impossible for any team working on a passion project like this not to take that risk. When we finally hit the publish-button on Steam on May 28 just a month ago, we shipped a game I am very proud to have been a part of. The reviews so far have been great and the feedback and comments we get from the community is heart warming and makes us even prouder of what we’ve achieved. PC Gamer called the gameplay "some of the most tight and responsive first-person platforming I’ve ever played" and game journalist veteran Jeff Cannata has called it his ”Game of the Year so far”.
A Story About My Uncle has been a work of passion from the start and even in hardship and turmoil we have all loved working on the game. But we could not have done it without the support from you guys. When we released the early version of the game your comments, let’s plays, e-mails and reviews gave us the strength to work through any hardship to bring out the full release. And we hope that you’ll continue to be our traveling companions as we explore new and exciting ideas for future projects.
Day 1 | Gone North Games