29 February, 2014

How we made a Zombie game and failed

Olga Shavrina
Finally I've found the courage to tell you my not very happy but highly emotional story about first game design experience.
The story began in 2012 I was a co-founder of a regional web studio. Things went fine, we had a respected name, customers found us via word of mouth. We treated every project as our own and we're proud of it.

But... we got bored. There were not too many creative projects on the regional market, customers were mostly conservative and not eager to experiment. We also had a bunch of technical support work – that was boring.
And one day Sergey Shavrin suggested "Hey, let's make a game". Bloody hell, it's a great idea! And we together with him and Michael Gasanov started thinking about it. Read game design books, met at the kitchen, discussed possible options and one day decided "We're making a Zombie game". It was an aha-moment. We were thrilled like a girl on a first date.

Game design theory tells – make a raw prototype asap and start to play. You have to have fun. No fun – no game. Working on the game further – proceed to play and monitor the level of fun, it shouldn't disappear so as a desire to play.

We decided to make an iPad arcade game with raster graphics. Sergey made the first prototype in few hours and it looked like this:
The main hero runs along the field dodging obstacles. The longer he runs – the higher the speed and the more score he gets. It was enormously fun. We understood that mechanics was fine and began to develop the story.
Store, character, graphics
The main character was a Necromantic who was running across the graveyard and raising zombies from the graves. The longer he runs – the higher level monsters are raising, and score increases with 2x, 3x... speed.

But if he hits a gravestone, a score incremental factor resets, and he can raise only first-level skeletons.

I dived into drawing monsters and locations. First concepts were awful and guys rightfully rejected them:
In some time my monsters looked pretty nice (read more about game graphics in Russian). For the first game version I've made six monsters:
They are not fully made heroes with a character and biography but still, each one of them has a name and a short story. It is reflected in the artefacts and appearance of the model.

Monsters names are Skeleton, Zombie, Drowned, Big guy, Witch and Vampire. Each monster can be raised from a certain type of grave:
I've made six locations. They were very simple, the only difference was a texture and different design elements on the border. Plus, for every location, I planned to make different stones for graves so they look natural in each environment.

It looked pretty dark and gloomy but at the same time cosy, I guess :)
The main difficulty was caused by the main character.

By the plot he was a dark lord, horrible necromancer who rose an army of zombies, but I could not help but make him look formidable.
A tricky thing was to animate him. We took as a working variant a guy on a spider and decided to change him later if we find the better solution.

We proceed to play the game but noticed that there was less fun than in the very beginning. You are running, rising zombies, so what?
And then we started to complicate things
Inspired by Dota 2, Diablo and Guild Wars, we decided to add abilities – skills that the Necromancer can use in order to rise monsters faster, avoid collisions or hurt an opponent.

Every ability could be simple and advanced. It looked like this:
A player gets a decreased growth of an aura from the monsters they rose during N seconds.
Shackles of light (advanced version)
A player can't rise monsters higher than 3rd level during N seconds and his aura decreases up to 50% if it had been larger.
In order to get an ability or open a possibility to rise new monsters a player had to get a recipe (they dropped randomly from monsters) and fulfil its conditions. Say in order to rise a 2nd level Vampire you had to gather a certain number of smaller monsters.
It was pretty easy to play but the game was addictive. You didn't feel the depth and
Something was missing. Maybe fun. And then we came up with # nbsp;.
Играть было довольно легко, но игра не затягивала. В ней не ощущалось глубины и остроты ощущений. Чего-то не хватало. Возможно, fun-а. И тогда мы придумали.
– Let's give him enemies!
Why not? Cool idea. That's how we invented Angels.

They were bad guys who interfered with the Necromancer – cast spells at him, blocked his abilities, made a fog so the user didn't see where the necromancer was running. Angels were horrible :) they evoked strong emotions and you really wanted to kill them.

A working version of the game looked like this:
At the top right corner, you see angels and their skills. At the top left corner – raised monsters. At the bottom user's abilities and score. In the middle – Necromancer under whom you can see the shining aura. Everything was animated, graves flashed when monsters appeared from them, the light realistic flowed around the figures. It looked epic.

It was good, but fun was lost completely :(
Problems and mistakes
Part of mistakes we have realised during the process, part – later. Now I can clearly formulate what went wrong and what we din't take into account:
We didn't understand who is our audience – made a casual game with a hardcore system of abilities.
Hadn't tested enough on people.
The main character had a lack of empathy. Monsters were charming but it wasn't enough. The necromancer turned out to be lethargic and expressionless.
Lost fun while adding functionality and didn't notice it right away.
The reward system wasn't valuable enough for users.
Emotionally the game turned out to be too aggressive. It was hard to play for a long time – you got angry at the angels, crashed into the graves, lost points.... was lack of positive reinforcement.
Haven't thought about monetisation at all.
How did it end?
We ended up complicating the game and got exhausted emotionally. We realised that have lost all the fun and didn't know what to do with it. So we decided to freeze the project but we didn't want to break the team.

But we still had a dream to make a game. We spent a lot of time discussing what went wrong and how to avoid mistakes next time. And... came up with a new idea of a new, kind, clever, emotional, logical, casual game. But that's a different story :)
Olga Shavrina
Product manager
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