How we screwed up

There’d been no new posts here for almost half a year already. This is mostly caused by the fact that writing about your failure is kinda hard. Still, I think I have to write this – I owe that to everyone who were interested in Xenos; and maybe this tale would prevent someone from making the same mistakes.

We stopped working on Xenos sometime in December. It was not a single decision we’ve made: rather, it just happened organically. Working less and less, diverting into side projects, saying things like “next week I’m gonna work on Xenos at last” – gradually, we just stopped making any progress whatsoever. It was disheartening to realise that; but at the same time, somewhat liberating.

In January, I did some full-time contract work. When that ended, I’ve “officially” pulled the plug on Xenos. We were spending a lot of effort, but not making any progress – so it made no sense to continue.

I’ve been thinking (obviously!) about what went wrong, and here’s what I’ve got. The turning point was my decision back in June to switch to a new, better and more detailed art style. I was overexcited then, seeing other people get interested in my game and offer help; and in this excitement did not think clearly. The problem was not the art itself (although even that did not live up to expectations). The problem was that more detailed art resulted in increased complexity across the board.

When I was first envisioning Xenos, I settled on a game that was just complex enough so that I could pull it off. A little more, and it would become impossible… new art added more than a little. Most of this added complexity happened because of tiles. Old version of Xenos was tile-based – all objects were placed on a strict grid. New art required objects with different sizes and rotations, so the grid had to go. With it, a lot of simplifying assumptions were gone: no more “only one object per tile”, no more easy pathfinding, etc. New art was also more detailed, requiring much more complicated physics. Suddenly, floors and walkways that were flush with the ground weren’t cutting it – I had to add elevation. This complicated the pathfinding even more, and animations… well, animations were a pain in the ass even without that. And so on, complication after complication arised.

All this stuff required a lot of coding. And a lot of arguments with artists – as they wanted the game to be prettier, while I was fighting to keep complexity low. The development was getting too slow – which is bad for motivation. And on the other hand – the new art was not good enough to inspire. I mean, it was technically better than my voxel creations. Way better, even. But, even compared to ugly voxels, it was plain and generic-looking. I had some talented artists working on different pieces, but no one to coordinate that work and ensure that all of these pieces form a stylish whole. This did not help motivation either.

To top it off, while struggling with all these problems, I’d lost my vision for the game. The mechanics that made sense in the old version had to be re-worked, and they, too, did not form any coherent whole. I finally decided to stop working on Xenos when I noticed this. You can possibly overcome all difficulties when you know what you’re doing; but without any vision, continuing just made no sense.

So, where does this leave us? I’m not yet ready to throw the towel on this “indie development” thing, even if my first project failed. We’ve spent some non-insignificant money on Xenos, but still have enough to continue (thanks to some contract work I’ve done lately). Notice that I’m using plural here: Chaos Cult Games now consists of two people working together, helped by some friends and contract workers from time to time. Xenos is not completely dead either. We’re not working on it right now, but we did a lot of work, and might well use it later. Xenos would have to change, if we ever return to it, but it is still possible.

In the meantime, we took part in a game jam, making a quick little game that some people loved. We’re not going to develop it further, but you can play it here: http://chaoscultgames.com/play-darwins-paradox/ This taught us some lessons about rapid development and prototyping, which we’re going to apply to our next project. We already have a prototype for a dungeon-crawl game, some ideas for a space sim, and more. We’re gonna settle on one of those (or maybe some completely new and wild idea!) soon. And once we do, you can expect to see a playable demo as fast as possible – that’s actually one of the lessons from games jam. So, see you then!

One response on “How we screwed up

  1. Jesse Comb

    Very sorry to hear about Xenos. I’ve been there a couple of times in the past – never fun, but good lessons learned.

    Not to be a vulture, but I sent you a PM on the Unity boards, wanted to discuss if you might be open to collaboration on a new project.

    Cheers,
    Jesse

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