Jay talks about what’s been happening and demonstrates a work-in-progress port of SMBC to HTML5.
Super Action Squad (SAS), previously known as Super Retro Squad, is too big of a project for us to handle right now, so we’re putting it on hold to make some smaller games first. We will resume development on SAS once we are in a better position to make it. The reasons for this decision, including why the original Kickstarter was a bad idea in the first place, are explained in detail below.
I made a fan game, so I thought, “How much harder could it be to make a real game?” A lot harder, it turns out. In Super Mario Bros. Crossover (SMBC), I didn’t have to worry about art, music, sound effects, level design, enemy design, or much game design, and the levels were very small with no vertical scrolling or slopes. The originality in SMBC came from piecing things together in an elegant way, and I didn’t realize how much more difficult it would be to come up with compelling ideas from scratch. We eventually did come up with an awesome design for SAS, but it took a very long time, largely due to persistent opposition from some team members.
SMBC was made completely on my own besides some help with graphics and level building later in the process, so I had never even worked with a team on a game before. I had very little experience with the game engine, Unity, that we were developing on, and I thought it’d be better than it was (explained in more detail below). Originally, I thought I was going to be able to save a lot of time by porting the SMBC code to Unity, but Unity is such a different platform from Flash that it was not possible. Pretty much everything had to be rewritten from scratch.
I promised a big project without realizing how big it was. I guess I kind of figured that with a team, I’d be able to handle anything (this is also explained in more detail below). I said the game was going to have 45+ levels (because a stretch goal was reached), 9 worlds, 9 playable characters with unique abilities and playstyles, an equipment system with upgrades and customizeable abilities, online multiplayer, two graphical and musical styles (8-bit and 16-bit), and a story with dialog and cutscenes. I even said SAS would be a series of games instead of just one. I was really getting ahead of myself.
When I look at all of that now, it is staggering. I clearly had no idea how much work all of that was going to be. It is obvious in the video that I was excited about the project and was dreaming big, but I was too ignorant to realize that what I was promising would cost way more money than I was asking for and would take a very long time without a more experienced team.
We realized this scope problem after a few months and decided to release the project in parts. However, even making part of the game was taking a long time, so we decided to break it up into even smaller parts. The problem with that, is that to even release a small part of a game, you still have to have the majority of the engine built, and you need to have a lot of stuff planned ahead.
No matter how we approach it, making a small game through which we would try to eventually fulfill the Kickstarter rewards is too much work for our current team, so we have deemed it best to just make a small game that is not trying to be a part of something bigger.
This is tied to not understanding the scope of the game properly. When development takes a long time, cost goes up. Money buys people and time. We were able to afford our expenses by having people work at other jobs, but this meant that they didn’t have as much time to work on the game, and this was a significant problem throughout the entire process.
I don’t think having more money in the beginning would have helped us a lot because we probably wouldn’t have known how to use it properly for development, and I also didn’t know which people were worth investing in. A lot of time near the beginning was spent learning things, and some of the money was invested in people that didn’t end up producing output. If I had more money now, I would know exactly how to use it, but that knowledge only comes from experience.
It is difficult to motivate people to work when you are not able to pay them. Most people on the team got paid nothing the entire time, but a few got about $250 a month because that’s all we could afford, and housing expenses were also covered. I gradually reduced payments to $0, since I was getting little or no output from some team members. Our situation was difficult because we were living together. I kept asking problem team members to work harder, and we would have weekly meetings to discuss it, but nothing worked. Paying people gives you leverage, so I do not expect to work with anyone else in the future until I can afford to pay them.
The team not working out is fully my fault, though. I think everyone had a different idea of what I was expecting from them before they met me. I assumed that people that did not have skills would be able to learn them quickly, and I thought everyone would work more without requiring a lot of management and personal attention. It was also hard figuring out what everyone should be doing all the time since it was my first time making a game from the ground up.
Jessy and Catie are the only people remaining on the team. They were able to get more done on the game than some others, despite having full-time jobs and receiving no compensation from me. We also have similar tastes and we get along well, so I expect them to be part of Exploding Rabbit for a long time. Working with them has been one of the most rewarding parts of the project, and I can only imagine how much better things would have turned out if they had more time available.
After this experience, I am not sure it is even possible to form a strong game development team without being able to pay everyone a liveable wage. I personally feel that being on an ineffective team is the most detrimental problem we had, and we spent quite a lot of time trying to make it better, but the ultimate solution was to dismantle it.
Edit: I created a public thread for former team members in case they want to add anything.
We were locked into Unity as a development platform because we promised to release on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, and OUYA, and Unity is one of the few game engines that supports all of them. I assumed that since I was experienced in Flash, which is a tool that is not made specifically for game development, that it would have to be a lot easier for me to make games with Unity, because it is a game engine. Making some types of games might be easy with Unity, but it is definitely not the ideal tool for 2D platformers.
After Unity announced it was supporting 2D, I thought it would fix the problems, but their implementation of Box2D is missing features, they do not allow full access to properties of sprites, and their animation system is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen for sprite animations. I eventually came up with a solution for the physics problems, and this is demonstrated in this video, but that is only one of Unity’s many problems.
I think Unity is probably a good tool for new or amateur developers, and some professionals may like it, but it certainly did not live up to my expectations, and in some cases made game development a chore. After using Unity for about a year and a half, I can honestly say that I was happier developing in Flash. However, I learned a huge amount from working with Unity, and I do not feel that my time with it was wasted.
Since I had never designed a full game before, I didn’t realize how little design work had actually been done on the game before launching the Kickstarter. I had the basics in my head, and I figured it would just work, and whatever didn’t work would be easy to figure out with the team’s help. However, even the basics I imagined didn’t end up working like I expected, and we had to change them later. Also, that small amount of design was done before the team was fully formed, and some team members were able to improve upon our original ideas.
One thing that I learned is that backers do not like change. The game we pitched was the game we wanted to make at the time, but since the team and the tools were new, no one actually knew what we were capable of. If I were ever to do some sort of crowd sourcing in the future, I would have a fully working prototype of the game before doing it. I would, of course, do a lot of other things differently as well.
I am a man of my word, so not being able to fulfill the things I promised has made this a very painful process for me. Some of the unfulfilled promises, e.g. the documentary, weren’t even my fault, because their fulfillment depended on other people. Despite that, I still feel pain and disappointment from these unfulfilled promises.
Before starting this project, I was very excited to have backers. I thought it was going to be great building a project with a community and getting everyone’s feedback. This is how we did things with SMBC, so I thought it would be fun to build a game from the ground up with a community around it. I was very excited to have a positive, encouraging group that would support us along the development process.
This, like many other things, did not turn out like I expected. I did everything I could to provide honest, frequent updates, but when I didn’t have good news to share, things quickly turned sour. I wasn’t motivated to give updates when I didn’t have news, because when I would do that, I would get mean-spirited comments. I would also get such comments if there was too much time between updates. Here is an unedited comment from one our backers:
Trolling criticisms flowed in whether I posted updates or not: It was not a fun position to be in. I know that I did not handle things perfectly, but I did the best I could. (Feel free to look at the list of updates we did if you’re curious, but keep in mind you cannot view the content unless you are a backer.)
It started to get to the point where writing backer updates would take a huge emotional toll on me. I would think of everything I could to write about or make a video about, and I would start to get more and more stressed as I got closer to posting it. Then, after posting the update, I would spend a day or two getting stressed out from comments, and this of course did not help development of the game.
Things started to get very strange when it seemed that some of our backers were actively trying to stop us from succeeding. Here is one such comment:
I was incredibly shocked to find that one of our backers was writing a blog that is all about us running a scam. Even after being personally offered a refund, he still continues to write negative things about us. (I’d prefer not to link to the blog, but you can find it if you search for it.) Here’s an example from the blog, referring to a FAQ I wrote:
Eventually, I stopped reading comments, and I had to have other people read them to me so that I would still know how backers were feeling about things, while suffering from less emotional distress.
I don’t know if this is because I am too sensitive, or I just really care about making the backers happy. I take feedback to heart, and I have done everything within my power to make these people happy, but there was nothing I could do to succeed.
At least all of the backers that wrote such mean-spirited things can feel good knowing how badly their comments hurt me. This concept is called Schadenfreude, and based on comments like this one, some backers seemed to enjoy when the project was not going well:
Many backers seemed to have no patience for anything going wrong, and to me, it seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what Kickstarter is all about. Here is an example:
I am not saying that everyone was negative. Most of the mean-spirited comments were from a few persistently negative people. Many of our backers have been supportive, and their kind words have been appreciated. Here’s an example of a nice comment we received:
I guess I have been more affected by the cynical backers because these people gave me their money, and I want them to feel good about doing that. I do want to thank everyone that has been supportive though. Your encouragement is greatly appreciated.
Before ending this section, I want to make it clear that I encourage and am motivated by constructive criticism. However, comments without substance that are only meant to spread negativity have no place on Kickstarter or anywhere. I am genuinely sorry that these people polluted the commenting environment for everyone else, and were it within my power, I would have offered them refunds in order to remove their backer status and negative attitudes. Unfortunately, Kickstarter does not allow me to remove backers, even if I have refunded them (some of which I did). I feel that having this ability would have made the project a more positive experience for everyone.
Once the project was launched, I was pretty much screwed, although I didn’t realize it. It became more clear as time went on. I think everything after the Kickstarter was launched was handled very well, considering our circumstances, and I’d do that pretty much the same way again. I’m sure some backers will find that alarming, but I really did do my best with what I had, and I don’t have regrets about it. Everything I would do differently would have happened before launching the Kickstarter.
The thing is though, knowing what I know now, I would never have launched a Kickstarter for this game as my first project. It makes little sense for a team with little to no experience that has never worked together to try to make a big game. It would be much better to focus on something small and simple. After getting experience releasing small projects, we would be able to work our way up to bigger ones.
The other big thing I would change is the team. Having a team that cannot do what you need is worse than not having a team. Also, it is better to have a small team of full-time people than to have a large team of part-time people. I would have had more success making the game by myself and contracting people only for art and music. With such a small amount of money though, it would be really hard to find skilled and hard-working people.
To be completely honest, I think I would have just not done a Kickstarter until after I had experience releasing at least one original, commercial game.
Despite all of this, I don’t feel like this project has gone badly or is a failure. Going through all of this was necessary in order for us to learn the right way to do things; I feel like it was equivalent to getting a bachelor’s degree in game development, albeit with more real-world application. I am now much more grounded in reality with my expectations of both other people and myself in the field of game development.
We could keep trying to make this game work right now, but I think our current plan of making some smaller stuff first will actually give us a better chance to complete it. We still believe the game will be awesome, and we would love to take another shot at it when we are in circumstances that will give us a better chance of success. This will ultimately result in Super Action Squad being a better game, and it will be more fun for us to work on if we actually have the resources to finish it. To reiterate, there are only three people on the team right now, and I am the only one able to work full-time. Making this giant game basically by myself is possible, but it would take forever.
We will not be asking for more money because we feel it would be better for us to earn it ourselves. Believe it or not, I hate asking people for money. I prefer to earn money by giving things to the world, so that is what I will be focusing on.
I do not know exactly what to do for backers of this project. Feel free to give us your suggestions. People that invested a lot of money should contact us to see what we can work out. We are very reasonable people, and we want to help everyone to feel as satisfied as possible, but we are also limited in our capabilities. Please do not expect miracles, but understand that we will make an honest effort to make people happy. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you want to try to work something out. Please understand that it is impossible for us to offer a significant amount of refunds right now, but we expect that to change in the future.
We will be doing a live Q and A on Thursday, March 20th at 7:30 Eastern time to discuss what we have written here. We will be responding to comments and questions during that time. If you want us to answer something, just leave it in the comments here or ask it during the broadcast. It will be done on the Exploding Rabbit Youtube channel, and we expect it to last approximately one hour.
Thanks for everyone’s support, and we’re very sorry that we have disappointed people despite having only the best intentions. This was all caused by my own ignorance, and I will certainly not be making the same mistakes again. I hope other game developers can learn from this and avoid the same pitfalls.
For even more info about how this project went, including more detailed financial information, see the FAQ I wrote in September 2013 to address the concerns of backers. You may also be interested in our Inside Look video to see video of how things were going about halfway through the project. That video was made to try and give us a better chance of finishing the project by getting Jessy, Catie, and Jean-Marc working full-time on the game.