What’s going on / Post-mortem

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.

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2 Responses to “What’s going on / Post-mortem”

  1. I was about to comment “isn’t it a little early for a post-mortem? PS’ only been out for a week,” until I realised – better to do one now, at a crossroads in the project’s life, so you can actually use what you learn from the process of self-reflection rather than do it later and have all that information sitting around for nothing.

    Anyway, the language thing is a tricky one. I think you need to pick your targets on this issue, much as you decided PS wasn’t for people who wanted action scenes. Either you simplify the writing and potentially make the whole experience worse for native speakers (on the other hand, forcing yourself to come up with written words that have the same narrative scope using narrower vocabulary could be an interesting exercise in style), or you just accept the fact that some of the writing will be beyond what non-native speakers can understand and roll with it.

    The third option is a full translation into any number of languages, but that’s a nightmare subject best left unbroached. It’s bad enough coordinating translation teams for your run-of-the-mill multiplayer FPS mod, where tone and nuance have no place and the only thing that matters is getting the information across – it’d be a hundred times worse for something like Post Script.

    Did Dear Esther ever get translated? I don’t recall hearing it did, but that probably just means I’m not quite au fait.

  2. @Ansob: As I always say, it’s never to early for a post-mortem!

    @Lewis: We all know you’re a genius really. I consider this successful baby steps!

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