• Register
Post feature RSS Disastr_Blastr Post-Postmortem

From the wasteland of Greenlight to the nirvana of Steam release—a year in the life of an indie arcade shooter about a block that shoots blocks at other blocks in a world made of blocks. Experience abstract minimalist destruction in Disastr_Blastr!

Posted by on

Disastr_Blastr Post-Postmortem

Whats up friends! My premiere indie project Disastr_Blastr launched on Steam this week, and I just wanted to say a very sincere thanks to everyone who supported this game and offer a few closing thoughts on what is now almost a 4 year development cycle. Here is the Steam page if you care to take a look:

I composed a rather long and detailed Postmortem Analysis last year when I first released an early version of Disastr_Blastr on itch.io, you can check it out here if you like: Gamasutra.com

I guess maybe this article was more for myself than the GamaSutra community. Stuff I just felt I needed to write for whatever reason. Maybe I was looking for a kind of closure. Just trying to finish strong and end the project on a high note, you know? Anyway, it has now been about 1 year since Disastr_Blastr passed through Greenlight and a lot has happened in that time, so I thought one more blog post about this little project would be a good call. I promise it will totally be way shorter (well, maybe a little shorter) and vastly more interesting than last time! Deal? Ok let's do this.

Surviving Greenlight Hell

I suppose no Steam postmortem would be complete without some discussion of Greenlight, so let's get that out of the way right now shall we? Disastr_Blastr spent 6 months wandering in the desert of Greenlight, and probably it is some kind of minor miracle that it got through at all. After scoring nearly 700 page visits on day one (June 20, 2015), activity on the Disastr_Blastr Greenlight page quickly dropped to near zero. And there it stayed. Here are a couple of key Facebook posts from this rather bleak chapter in the life of Disastr_Blastr:

Check out the reach difference on these two posts! Ironic isn't it? The lowest point of Disastr_Blastr's Greenlight nightmare was the highest post reach ever in the history of the game's Facebook page.

So if things were going so horribly you ask, how in the world did Disastr_Blastr finally get Greenlit? After 6 months of minimal progress I had to face the reality of the situation—that all of my best efforts were not enough, and this was clearly not going to happen without help. This entailed swallowing some pride. But there was nothing for it—obviously giving up on Steam was not an option. Drastic measures were in order.

To give you fine people an idea of what it was really like running a first ever Greenlight as a solo indie dev, I have collected some of the best and worst comments from the Greenlight page, and presented them here along with my responses. I would say these encapsulate the overall experience pretty well. Let's start with the bad ones!

So yeah, as every indie creator knows it is not unusual to read some pretty harsh things about your work on the web... As a game designer (or creative person of any type) you quickly develop a thick skin for this kind of thing. When I respond to these guys I am not just talking to them, but to the game's entire audience—so the wise play is to accept criticism graciously, and take the opportunity to mention some unique and interesting points about the game.

On the other hand, there are bound to be at least a few players who genuinely love your game! Here are some of the friendlier comments on Disastr_Blastr:

There is a zen saying: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear"... I just happened to meet (through Facebook) a community manager from France who offered his services to help Disastr_Blastr through Greenlight, and hiring this gentleman turned out to be one of the smartest moves I have ever made as an indie creator. Within a couple days we had completely rebuilt the Greenlight page, and 1 week after first meeting Ben Disastr_Blastr was in a Groupees Bundle and the campaign concluded successfully.

The games of Groupees Build a Greenlight Bundle 36! I feel a real sense of camraderie with all of these great indie games, and still keep in touch with one or two of the other designers from this bundle.

Life After Greenlight

By the time Disastr_Blastr cleared Greenlight in December 2015 I was already hard at work modifying the game in anticipation of the upcoming Steam Release. I intended to wrap everything up within a few weeks and proceed with launching the game in early 2016... Seriously, I did. That was my plan. Probably should have been wise enough after 2 years of working on this thing to know that a major update would be far more involved and take vastly longer than anticipated. But I wasn't.

Power to the Players

Based on player feedback, I determined that the core gameplay was pretty much ok. And by ok I mean: ridiculously fun and addicting. :) The biggest problems with the design had to do with difficulty balance. I needed to provide the player with more power, both offensive and defensive. To that end, I built in a third layer of ultra-powerful weaponry and a set of 4 special items that drop randomly upon enemy destruction. I also made the option to play in Normal mode easily selectable from the title menu (previously this game mode was only accessible by cheat code).

This page from the Disastr_Blastr pitch document succinctly breaks down the 4 weapon classes and 4 types of special item in the Steam game. Once I started testing with the items in play, I wondered how I ever got by without them!

At first I was a bit concerned about arbitrarily amping up player power like this. The WeaponUp Item is available in any level (by random drop), so theoretically the player can acquire the most powerful weapons in the easiest levels. This is a big, big increase in attack power, but so far it doesn't seem to be a problem for game balance. Even with the really burly weapons it is still pretty easy to slip up and get killed. I observed similar results while watching players spawning with a Shield in Normal Mode. This is a two-fold increase in defensive power, but even so it did not appear to unbalance the game—beginning players still found the challenge to be adequate, even in the early levels.

Zen and the Art of Drawing Blocks

Addressing the obvious balance issues with the game turned out to be the easy part of gearing up for Steam. Graphics, in my experience, are always the hard part. Yes, even in a minimalist game. Especially in a minimalist game.

The big conundrum with the Enemy colors was essentially: every Enemy block needed to be distinguishable (by color) from every other Enemy block—but every color also needed to harmoniously complement every other color. This was a thorny problem, and took a lot of careful consideration to work through.

At the top are the original Enemy colors (from the Xbox 360 game), and below is an alternate red-orange color palette. Ultimately all the graphics for the Worlds and Enemies were restricted to a red-violet-blue color scheme.

With respect to the level graphics, the players had spoken. And what they said was basically "It's like somebody forgot to put in the graphics for the levels". Ok, fair enough guys! You made your point. :) This is how I learned that even in a minimalist game there is still a risk of being too minimal.

The hardest part of creating detailed wall blocks for Disastr_Blastr was imbuing each block set with a distinctive style, while still keeping them fairly simplistic... Like everything with this game, it took weeks of careful thought and experimentation before I started getting results I was happy with. One comment that appeared over and over in my dev journal was: "Lots of small details on the wall blocks don't look good". I would spend hours making really intricate, finely detailed wall blocks and when I dropped them into a level they would look horrible. Eventually it dawned on me that you need some smooth spaces in there where the eye can rest a bit. Looking back now this shocking revelation seems pretty obvious, but this was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. And I learned it more than once in the course of developing Disastr_Blastr.

Completing the Square

Ok enough talk about the blocks! Here are a few "before and after" images showing the final results of all this thought and effort.

Players can now see the boundaries of each World on the master level select grid, and plan their lines of attack accordingly. Plus the detailed blocks just look way cooler.

The shift in mood and atmosphere upon dropping in a different color of wall block is massive and immediate.

On the left is the so-called "Big Block of Cheddar" (that name pretty much demanded a color change).

Here we have the iconic Monstr (aka Tentacle Boss). Many a bold expo player has challenged this guy! One or two have survived. Usually they get totally crushed, but seem to have fun anyway. :)

That One Thing that is so Horrible it Ruins the Entire Game

Ok indie designers. Here is a situation that I have come across a few times, and I still find puzzling every time it happens. You get some play test feedback something like this: "Hey pretty fun game but... there is this one thing about your game that is the worst I have ever seen in any game, and it makes me totally hate your game beyond all bounds of sanity and reason. HOW COULD YOU!!!" Ok, ok... I have never literally gotten that exact response from a tester. But you see where I am going here. The player is fixated on some minor detail that has only the very slightest impact on the play experience, and can't let it go. Here are some places where this odd phenomenon occurred while beta testing Disastr_Blastr:

My Greenlight Consultant Ben absolutely hated the title logo, and had no problem being honest about that fact. It's never fun to hear strong negative feedback on your work, but unfortunately it may be the only way to improve areas of your project that happen to fall in your game design blind spots.

One beta tester really hated the stylized font made of tiny blocks. Hated it with a passion. Only after switching to a more standard font did I start to get positive feedback from other testers, who apparently also hated the blocky font on a subconscious level.

So what is a game designer to do in this bizarre situation? I hate to admit this, but many times I will go ahead and make a change to my design if I get very strong feedback like this. Now I know what you are thinking: wait a minute Joel, doesn't that policy just encourage even more totally unreasonable feedback? Maybe it does. And that is a potential concern. But what it comes down to is—do you believe your testers are being honest with you? If yes, then you should probably listen to them. If no, then there probably isn't much point in letting them play test your game.

Embrace the Expo Insanity

Showing Disastr_Blastr at game expos has been incredibly valuable on so many levels! Many of my best friends in the indie game world (gamers, YouTubers, journalists, artists, authors, musicians, developers, the list goes on) are among the thousands of awesome people I have met at these events. A significant percentage of Greenlight support for Disastr_Blastr came from players who had a chance to meet me in person and actually play the game (imagine that right?). It was through a 2014 game expo in Dallas, TX that I met Chase Pond, who introduced me to Disastr_Blastr composer Joey Schmidt. And it was at this same expo that I discovered the Dallas Society of Play—a fantastic collective of some of the smartest and most talented creatives I know, my indie dev family, and favorite DFW hangout. So do the expo thing every chance you get. At least the local ones that don't charge $1500 for a table. You never know what you will take away from the experience, but usually it is something great, and often something you never expected going into it.

One small downside to watch out for with these events is post-expo depression. For a long time I thought I was the only one to hit a slump a day or two after an awesome convention, and then one of my Facebook friends posted about it and I realized this is actually a common thing. Probably it is normal to feel a bit depleted after all the excitement and activity of a big show, particularly if you are showing a game. Don't let it catch you by surprise. Allow yourself a little time away from your project to recover and reflect on the experience (and follow up with all the rad people you just met). Always be kind to yourselves guys! :)

Final Reviews, and "Final" Final Reviews...

There were several points during the project where I thought to myself: "Ok! Game done! Nothing left to do now!". And by several I mean I lost count of how many. Each time I would silently promise not to make any further changes to anything unless absolutely necessary. And every single time it turned out to not really be the end. Even as late as 6 weeks before Steam release I was messing around with the design of levels that I had literally not touched in years. And (despite my best efforts to resist) I continued making small adjustments up until 1 week or so before release. Maybe it was pre-release nerves, or just perfectionism plain and simple. If I noticed the smallest detail out of place, I found it impossible to ignore. Even now (roughly a week after Steam release) I am not really sure I can call it done. I made it the best I could, that's all I can really say.

So I guess my point is this: finishing a game (especially one you have spent years on) is a little like finishing a long distance run—but not quite. Finishing isn't just stepping across a line. You have to decide to be finished with it. And that is an emotional decision. You are saying "Ok, this is my best work", and preparing yourself emotionally to accept judgment on the quality of that work. As hard as it is to stick with a project and keep chipping away at it for months and years, this step is the hardest. A martial arts teacher told me once that there are two times when a student will quit—either in the first few months, or right before reaching black belt status. This happens with indie game design as well.

Why does it take so long?

I want to close out this article with a Facebook post I wrote in response to a question from a friend. Basically he wanted to know why months of painstaking work are needed to accomplish what seems, from an external viewpoint, to be a very straightforward update and release of a simple indie game. After thinking it over for a couple of days, I posted this:

"This is really hard to answer. But it is a fair question. I'm sure a lot of you out there are probably wondering the same thing. Why does it take 4 years to finish what was supposed to be a 6-month indie project? I have given this some thought over the last couple of days, and I don't have a perfect answer, but I will give you the best answer I can.

It takes so long because in the beginning the game isn't sure yet what it wants to be. It has to figure that out, to find its way through a maze of possibilities, and it will take a lot of dead-end turns.

The game has a personality, and like a person it needs time to grow and mature. The indie designer loves the game. We want what's best for our games. We want them to reach their full potential. They are a part of our selves. In some ways they are us. We want them to grow up, but we also have trouble letting go.

If we feel we can improve them by giving more of ourselves, we will give more. To give any less than our best would be self-defeating, it would betray all the reasons we decided to make games in the first place. It takes so long to make an indie game because we care. We really freaking care about what we are making."

Disastr_Blastr Facebook Page:

Dog Theory on Twitter:

Post a comment
Sign in or join with:

Only registered members can share their thoughts. So come on! Join the community today (totally free - or sign in with your social account on the right) and join in the conversation.