BASEMENTS & BUGBEARS POST-MORTEM
Written May 2018
There are two immediate lessons I’ve learned from this project, as they were bugbears we faced through its development that constantly bit me in the rear. The first was the obvious (and intended) one of the course: scope. This is the first time I’ve been forced to consider my time spent on something in the context of hours and how much I can actually produce. I don’t know how other teams lived without their burndown charts, because I need them to breathe now. I’ve even started creating burndown charts for my fun projects, simply because having the baseline knowledge of how long something may take and considering how many hours I would want to devote to projects in a week is incredibly useful.
Burndown charts force me to consider my design in terms of scope scope and to lay out tasks in a manner that’s much more productive than just “doing” them.
The second major lesson that I learned was the value of giving design the proper amount of time: in all of my prior projects, I’d been forced to spend at least a few weeks on the core design specifically, and I never realized how critical that is to creating good and interesting design in the projects I work on and make. Basements & Bugbears’ design suffered drastically from a lack of thought.
I feel like there is more interesting and engaging gameplay that could better serve our experience goals, we just didn’t look hard enough or spend the time finding it.
Ultimately I don’t think the game as a whole experience is bad as a result, but the core game loop is fairly weak and bland. The game is carried by its writing, rather than its design, which is something I’m not fond of.
I’ve learned a couple of things on the subject of writing: the first is that I don’t love making narrative games. I love making games with narratives, but without interesting systems to accompany them, I as a designer become bored. I love playing narrative games, but that’s because I didn’t write them: every line and piece of dialogue is a surprise, a reward.
In making narrative games, I lose all the surprise and emergence I get from making systems-based games.
I like making games that feel good and that have enough depth in their systems that I can play through and feel surprised and rewarded in play despite the fact that I’ve made them. The issue with a strictly narrative game is that nothing surprises me: I know every word, every line. There’s nothing new for me to explore when I myself am playing it, as I’m already familiar with everything that will happen.
My other lesson in games writing is that it takes a lot of time. I can write very quickly, and expected writing a 150-line character conversation to take me an hour at most. I was rapidly proved incredibly wrong, as such a dialogue would often take me up to four hours to finish.This game was my first experience with significant games writing, and the piece of information I did not know going in was that reading in games has to be fun.
Reading a sentence in a game has to be as fun as jumping in Mario or shooting in Halo, or nobody will read it.
I often found myself “finishing” a dialogue, playing through it, and cutting 80-90% of what I wrote and writing again. I had to always pursue what was the most engaging writing, or I’d lose the player.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that I never quite want to make a game exactly like Basements & Bugbears again, which is good: it exists, I’m proud of it, and I should want to make better things now that I know how.
Were I to start over knowing everything I know now, I’d make a narrative game in the same fashion as I have, but spend more time crafting more interesting gameplay elements to make it more fun to just play. I love the characters, I love their stories, and I’m going to write and draw and code some additional content before release for my own sake because I want to, but I plan on making narrative games very differently now that I’ve made one.
At the end of the day, I’m really happy that what was a learning experience for me could bring smiles to the faces of so many people. I don’t plan on making this exact game again, and I’m happy that people saw themselves in our little game.
The final lesson I learned is that I need to share my games outside of the small school community that I am a part of. I wasn’t proud of or happy with Basements & Bugbears until I decided to share it with one of my friends back home –– the partial inspiration for Gene, the smoking bird character –– and they told me that they had never heard their struggles put to words in the way Gene had. That reminded me who I was making games for, and why it was important for me to keep working on B&B.