What’s going on / Post-mortem

Posted in Blog on December 20, 2009 by Lewis

This is cross-posted from the ModDB page.  It concerns a planned rebuild, lots of going-back-to-the-drawing-board, and a post-mortem of Episode 1′s first iteration.

Hello! You’ll notice I released version one of Post Script Episode 1 last week. I’ve noticed some things since then, too. And as such, plans are changing a little.

Basically: the promised update this week will not be arriving. This isn’t (completely) because I’m lazy, but because I’ve been playing and testing and re-designing and reading feedback and all sorts, and… well, people are totally right about a lot of things. And the more I try to fiddle around with Episode 1 to turn it into something that more resembles A Good Game, the more I’m thinking that, maybe, it’s just not going to work.

So. No update. But what you will get is a complete re-design and rebuild sometime in the new year, followed by a series of episodes that hopefully maintain a high level of quality. Post Script is going back to the drawing board. Fingers crossed, it’ll be for the best.

Less basically? Well, here’s the post-mortem.


WHAT WENT RIGHT?
Something got released

That might not sound like much, but crikey, consider how many mods die on a daily basis. Post Script, at least, has something out there that’s playable and basically works. Except when it breaks. That something is finished and being played is a great thing, as it’s a sort of milestone, as well as meaning that I absolutely cannot give up on this. People will expect updates and new episodes. I need to make sure I’m working towards satisfying the players.

The writing
A couple of people have been critical of the writing, but the vast majority of players seem to be citing the writing and storytelling as the strongest aspects of the game. This is hugely pleasing, as Post Script was born of having a story to tell and finding a way to tell it. The idea of this world, its characters and themes, had been knocking about in my mind for some time; actually doing something with this idea took longer. It became a videogame in the end, as that’s my big area of interest, and modding is something I know at least the basics of (unlike, say, drawing a comic, or finding the motivation to write a novel). But that the writing stood out as strong is something that makes me really happy, as I believe it to be my strongest suit, and videogame writing is so frequently criticised.

The sound
The self-composed music and additional sound-effects were almost exclusively well-received by players, cited as improving the atmosphere of the mod. Some players reported that the music and sound effects made the mod “scary”, even though frightening players was never intended, via sound design or other means.

Exploring an unusual design concept
When I started making Post Script, I knew a lot of people simply wouldn’t enjoy it, no matter how high the quality of the build. One of its core principles is to remove action from an engine usually associated with action games. The decision to include a small selection of light puzzles came some way into planning for the project, by way of exploring a question that had been lingering in my mind: what effect would it have to take a purely exploratory concept (a la The Path, Dear Esther) and start slowly re-introducing gameplay elements? As much as anything, Post Script is designed to try to answer that question. Whether it’s successful or not is impossible to tell at this stage, but to be experimenting with ideas in this way is a fabulous thing.

Public and press relations
My connections with the gaming press meant Post Script was in the unusual position of being offered pre-release coverage – something that almost never happens in mods. (It’s worth adding that these connections in no way affected the critical response detailed below, those who reviewed the mod being people I do not know personally.) My knowledge of public relations also helped build hype surrounding the release.

Critical response
The critical response to Post Script Episode 1 was generally good. Gaming Daily, Kotaku and eXp all wrote positively of the experience; Destructoid’s impressions were more mixed, but the reviewer still concluded that the mod was “worth checking out”. Critics, as they should be, are difficult to please. To have pleased some is wonderful.

WHAT WENT WRONG?
Not having the faintest idea what I was doing
Call this a lack of planning, a lack of experience, whatever. Fact is, I started making Post Script pretty blind. I’ve used the Source Engine in the past, and led the Neptune mod for some time, but I’ve never actually released a project. My previous work has mainly been learning the engine and its tools. To actually jump head-first into a full project from that point… well, it proved to be a nightmare.

Level design
There is no cohesion to the level design. Instead of appearing as a microcosm of a deeper, larger world, Post Script Episode 1 feels disconnected and arbitrary. Its areas don’t link smoothly. Exploring the world doesn’t feel natural enough, its barriers artificial. The town doesn’t seem to make sense in the context of the implied larger world.

Art design
Here’s a big, epic fail on my part: the assumption that, in an experimental mod such as this one, its ideas would carry it, and less than perfect visual design would pass by uncriticised. In fact, the opposite proved to be true. Due to the reduction of recognisable gameplay, Post Script ended up relying almost entirely on its aesthetic. And while the music succeeded, the fact that the visuals are not always of the highest standard (though I do believe that they stand up against plenty of other amateur mods for Half-Life 2) led to a drop in atmosphere for many.

Glitches
So many of them. Ones the playtesters didn’t pick up on (and through no fault of their own – they picked up on plenty, but a wider player base is always going to find more problems than a small one). Lesson learned here: get as many testers on-board as possible.

Narrative pacing
This is perhaps the problem I most regret. Players have commented that Episode 1 lacks an immediate hook, that its setting is clichéd, that not enough happens. When I look at the structure of the story, this is painful, as… well, I can see that those people might totally change their minds in further episodes. The assumption that players would give the benefit of the doubt to a slow opening was an embarrassingly wrong one. Further episodes aren’t available yet. Post Script is going to be initially judged on this, and this alone.

Underestimating the international player base
A number of L2 speakers of English have commented that they failed to understand the narrative due to the complexity of the language used, and the short duration of the dialogue on-screen.  Other than translating the project into various different languages, something I’m ill-equipped to do with only my native English and a very basic grasp of French, I’m struggling to find a work-around.  Making the language more simple would result in the loss of a number of stylistic choices that help to flesh out characters.  Making the duration of the messages much longer would inevitibly lead to problems with players triggering multiple items of dialogue at the same time.

Public and press relations
Yeah. Heh. The problem with managing to generate a fair amount of hype was that, when the thing was released and wasn’t as good as it could have been, people were disappointed. Disappointment is absolutely not what I was going for.

Player response
Not that it’s gone totally wrong, but after an initially very positive reaction (8.3/10 average rating at the end of day one), player response has gone down. The mod’s current user rating is 6.8/10, significantly lower than other experimental mods (at the time of writing, Dear Esther and Radiator both hold a 9/10 average, Decay and Korsakovia both 8.7. Outside of mods, The Path currently holds a 6.8/10 user average on Metacritic, the same as Post Script on ModDB.)

WHAT MIGHT HAVE GONE WRONG OR MIGHT HAVE GONE RIGHT
The puzzles

Interestingly, almost no one has commented that the puzzles were “alright”.  A number of players enjoyed the simplicity and underlying logic of the two puzzles in Post Script Episode 1.  Others disliked them, saying they were too easy or out-of-place in an otherwise entirely narrative-based experience.

Comparisons with fantastic mods
Dear Esther, Radiator, Decay and Korsakovia have all been mentioned in connection with Post Script, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.  The general concensus seems to be that Post Script is less successful than its peers, but the fact that those comparisons have been drawn at all strikes me as a good thing.  In no way do I want to copy what such pioneering titles are doing, but creating something in the same vein was very much my intention.  And the exemplary quality of Dear Esther in particular means I’ll always be happy to hear Post Script mentioned in the same breath.

CONCLUSIONS
Some players have commented that they found the mod boring by its very nature.  A few have asked for action sequences.  I am very aware that these are the players I am not trying to please; there is an abundance of games for action-oriented players to get stuck into.  As such, and with the greatest of respect, I’m actively ignoring such criticism.  But the vast majority of user feedback, both positive and negative, has come from players who do like this sort of thing.  Criticisms from people who really wanted to enjoy it, but found themselves unable to due to various problems, are wholeheartedly welcomed and enormously useful.  These are the players I’ll be listening to, whose comments I will be analysing, as I embark on the redesign and rebuild.

Finally, I’d like to add a special thanks to Radiator creator Robert Yang.  To receive an email from someone whose work you respect immensely, in which said someone proceeds to explain to you in great detail exactly why your work is rubbish, is a real punch in the gut.  But it’s also probably the most useful email you’ll ever receive.  His insights should go into the creation of something that far exceeds what this first iteration of Post Script has managed.

Impressions of the impressions

Posted in Blog on December 16, 2009 by Lewis

(The ModDB download link is now working. I suspect you may have to register, but you totally should anyway.)

Already, approaching 300 people have downloaded Post Script Episode 1.  That’s staggering.  It’s been available for eight hours, and that’s been overnight in the UK and partially overnight for most places in the US.  I couldn’t be happier with how many people are playing already.  And I couldn’t be happier with the feedback.

There have only been seven votes so far, but Post Script currently has a user rating of 8.3 out of 10 on ModDB.  ModDB’s users are famously, ferociously honest (Dear Esther has “only” managed a 9, and that’s one of the finest “gaming” experiences there is), so that’s a great early result – though obviously there’s plenty of time for that to nosedive.  But what’s thrilled me most is how helpful and sensible the response has been, even from people who hated it.

I’ve had, y’know, actual feedback.  People getting in touch to say they really wanted to like it, but couldn’t, and for these reasons.  A few people have said they didn’t like the lack of both traditional gameplay and hand-holding, and that’s fine, because Post Script probably isn’t being made for them.  But others have pointed out bugs, glitches, level design issues and all sorts that make me want to bang my head on the table, because they’re such glaringly obvious problems that I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on them.  Such is the nature of creative work. Spend long enough on it, and the whole thing becomes a blur of shapes and colours.

This is actually why I was so nervous as I clicked the upload button last night.  What if it’s shit?  I’ve played through the episode so many times – probably 30 or so in full, and countless more in early testing. To me, it just isn’t that interesting any more.  I know the story, so there’s none of that intrigue anyway.  But the world has lost some of its intrigue, some of its magic.  I was terrified this was just because it was a rubbish concept, but no – from early feedback, it seems people are really interested in it.  People (generally) love the writing, which is fantastic.  People (generally) find it to be really atmospheric, which is wonderful.  These are the two things I was really aiming for, and will continue to aim for in coming episodes.  If people dig those aspects, I can deal with (and hopefully fix) criticisms of the level design and art pass.

Thanks to everyone who’s downloaded and played so far.  Thanks to all those who intend to.  Thanks to Kotaku for being the first site to post impressions, however short (and I totally dig “Fallout, only without the mutants. The Road, only without the annoying whiney kid. I Am Legend, without the vampires”).  And thanks to everyone for the wonderful and helpful feedback.  I now actually believe that, with a little more care and attention, this mod can end up being a serious contender.

Released!

Posted in Blog on December 16, 2009 by Lewis

Wow! It’s actually happened. Episode 1 is released.

It’ll be downloadable from ModDB shortly. For now, here are a couple of temporary download links.

Mediafire

BigUpload (Select ‘Free’ service and enter code when prompted.)

Be sure to check out the manual (included in the .zip file), and report any bugs to postscriptmod[at]gmail.com.

And, well. I hope you enjoy it. Go!

Beta and Press

Posted in Blog on December 2, 2009 by Lewis

Today is my first full-day off from Post Script since beginning the build last Monday.  I find myself twiddling my thumbs a little, procrastinating on catching up on actual work.  It feels weird not to be in Hammer, or Mixcraft, or with a Word document open to neaten up the script.  But heck, I deserve a few days off.  Because this morning, Post Script Episode 1 hit beta.

Awesome.

There’s certainly polishing left to do. But I wanted an idea of where to focus my efforts, so I’ve sent a copy off to my fabulous team of beta testers for them to pick apart.  I’m sure they’ll do me proud.

So at the moment, I’m tentatively looking at a release in about two weeks time.  Maybe a bit longer, but definitely before Christmas.  Depends on how many things the beta testers shout at me for doing wrong, really.

As I hoped, the episode weighs in at about 10 minutes for a play-through.  It might be less if you don’t explore everywhere.  It might be more if the two puzzles stump you.  But it pretty much captures my vision of five (yes, I’m going to confirm this at five now) short, bite-sized episodes.  No idea when the next one will be out, before you ask.  Let’s be ambitious and say before the end of January, but not so ambitious that you’ll hold me to that.

Amongst all this, some people have been saying things about the mod.

“Since he’s written probably more extensively than any other critic on this sort of game – from the Path to Dear Esther, Denby’s been all over it – I’m intrigued to see what he ends up creating,” says comrade Gillen at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.  Which means I probably have some sort of reputation to maintain with this.  Christ.

“Looks pretty nice,” say IGN’s PC-only sister site Voodoo Extreme. But their claiming that its gameplay is “traditional” leaves me confused, and a little worried that their readers are going to get the wrong end of the stick.  Notably, the comments thread is divided on whether it looks awesome or awful.

“What is Post Script about?” ask GamesModding.com in an interview with yours truly.

“This is a mod that will make you think about something important,” suggest Default Prime, while also claiming its world to be “vast”.  Hmm.  Again, I hope people don’t get the wrong end of the stick, but I’m glad they’re optimistic.

And “It’s not an action game, but primarily focuses on emotions and the cruel circumstances of the situation,” say Hungarian site PC365, I assume, based on what I’ve deducted from running it through Google Translate.

More to come, I hope.  I’ll also be appearing on the Game Central podcast this weekend to talk about the mod. Awesomes. ‘Til then…

The (Fake?) Sound of Progress

Posted in Blog on November 30, 2009 by Lewis

I feel like a bit of a plonker, if I’m honest.  I realised I’d need someone to do the music.  A soundtracking company had been in touch, and I was talking to them about the possibility of working on Post Script.  And I’d also been talking to an old friend of mine who worked on Neptune while I was at the helm (and, um, still is working on Neptune, I’d assume).  And then I’ve probably annoyed the hell out of them both by thinking, actually, I’m actually a musician (ha!) myself.  Why not keep this a complete solo project?

So. I’ve been recording the music and sound effects.  This is because THE TOWN BUILD IS BASICALLY FINISHED.  I’d have liked to expand upon it further, but by keeping certain areas locked off for now, I’ll be able to allow for further exploration in future episodes.  There are a few bugs left to iron out, a final art pass to run through, but it’s pretty much there.

It takes around five minutes to explore the whole place, another three minutes to get to that point.  I’m guessing the finale should be about three minutes, too, meaning I’m bang on my target of ten minutes per episode.  I suspect canny players would be able to race from the start to the finish of the town section in, ooh, about 30 seconds.  Only, you wouldn’t be that canny at all.  Because you’d have missed most of the content.

Anyway. Sound design. I think it’s going okay…

Music for the final scene. Which should be pretty awesome.

Pretty as a picture

Posted in Blog on November 27, 2009 by Lewis

Things are progressing rather quickly indeed!

I’ve been working on the town.  The story called for there to be a pond on the outskirts, so I started building that yesterday.  I made it too big, so it turned into a small lake, but I like it that way, so I’m keeping it.  Adding detail, I decided to generate some thick foliage in the surrounding area.  This area of the game world has now ended up turning into The Path.  Goodness.  I hope it doesn’t end up being too plagiarised.  Then again, I’d give anything for Post Script to be that good.

Detail added, a lovely warm fire in the middle and so forth, and it’s ended up looking like this:

The lake. Was supposed to be a pond. Oh well.

Then today, I started putting some detail on the building interiors.  I haven’t actually finished building all the exterior yet, by any means, but I wanted to get a feel of how everything was going to work together.  Played about with lighting for a while – wanted to have this building so the sun came in through the windows and cast some nice shadows – but the sun’s angle was wrong so it didn’t work.  So it’s nasty old electric lights for this one.

I might add something to this, at some point.  My only worry is how detailed it’s all getting, when it’s one giant sprawling map.  It seems to be running smoothly enough at the moment, but the town’s only half-built, and if every building’s as detailed as this one on the inside, I could be asking for trouble.  To be honest, though, as boxy as this looks, I think it pretty much works.  In context, there would be no reason for this building to contain anything else.

It looks like this:

Cosy.

I’m also brainstorming for some little atmospheric touches to litter the game: music, sound effects, visual effects etc.  I’ve been playing both The Path and Dear Esther for inspiration, since I guess – despite some substantial differences – those are probably the closest existing titles to Post Script.  The ways those two use sound in particular is fantastic.

So I’ve been trying out a few similar things.  And, well… to heck with it.  I whipped up a mini-trailer incorporating all the stuff I’ve been doing.  Enjoy!

UPDATE: That second screenshot was a bit iffy. I went back and added a chimney, and now it seems to look prettier. It is above.

Bricks and Mortar

Posted in Blog on November 25, 2009 by Lewis

So I’m doing two things simultaneously at the moment.  Well, more than that if you count literally everything I’m doing.  But in terms of Post Script, two tasks are taking up my time.

The first is writing a particularly interesting character who’s sort of evolved out of a piece of dialogue with another one.  She’s a mysterious, unnaturally verbose type that I’ve managed to write as being quite accidentally poetic, yet quite obviously a bitch.  It’s funny – she wasn’t initially on the list of characters I had in my head, but trying to segue from the narrator into something that resembles in-game dialogue proper (which is all text-based, by the way, as I don’t want any voice acting problems fucking up the game), I wrote a line that… well, that pretty much defined the character from the outset.

I’ve written little bits of her dialogue so far, but am refining as I go along, and as I properly build up her character profile.  The nature of Post Script’s story means it’s all about little incidental things; the broad story arc is there, but pretty much downplayed in favour of a snapshot of these characters’ personalities.  So I’m trying to work in some subtle answers that can be woven into the game, a few secrets that players dedicated to uncovering every inch of the world can discover.

That’s a point, actually: you probably get out of Post Script what you put in.  You can quite literally, with one exception, walk from the start of Episode 1 to the end of it without interruption.  But all you’ll get is an introduction to the main story arc. And that’s a shame, because Episode 1 is all about this one character, and you can find out a lot about her by just being patient and hunting around for clues.

The second thing I’m doing is building the town in which much of Post Script takes place.  Episode 1 will probably be quite frustrating to create, as I’m telling a story that only relates to certain bits of it, but obviously an environment like that can only work when – y’know – there aren’t big chunks missing from it.  So there’s a lot of incidental detail that I’m having to build up, which is a bit of a long slog – and the nature of how I’m doing it means long stretches of building without anything really becoming playable.  It’s kind of an iterative design, as well as one that’s growing naturally as I tweak it.  But compiliing it so it can render in-engine means “sealing off” the map, and while this works for purely technical testing purposes, having a giant set of walls, or an impossible skybox, surrounding what I’ve done so far doesn’t really serve a purpose when it comes to seeing how it actually works in-game.

The town so far, in-editor. Anyone familiar with Source level design will, I'm sure, be able to spot plenty of terrible habits there.

In Post Script, you’ll be able to wander freely around much of the town, but each episode different things will happen, and in some cases new areas will be open for you to explore.  Triggered events occur at specific times, and that’s going to be a difficult thing to get right.  While it’s unlikely players will sprint from one trigger point to another, hidden one, nothing’s to say someone definitely won’t try, so it needs to be literally impossible for the player to trigger the new event before the old one has finished.  Which means somehow blocking the player from doing so.  Which is really tricky to do without artificially constructing the environment so you have to take a convoluted route around, or making the whole place so impossibly huge that it feels sterile and unnatural (and shoots several holes in the framerate).

I’ll be thinking of some ways around this in the next few days, continuing to plug away at building the world, and trying to get Episode 1′s script finished.  Hopefully I won’t become enormously busy in the next few weeks (though it’s very likely) and can get something into proper testing in the reasonably near future.  Once Ep 1′s environment is fully built, it means substantially less design work for future releases.  Hopefully that will lead to at least a semi-regular release schedule.

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