Trigger is an interactive story (aka visual novel) about a woman dealing with PTSD and a mysterious past. It’s a straightforward branching-story game that tells a realistic story about a 30-something woman and her husband. The game has been out for a couple weeks, so I thought I’d write down some thoughts on the project while they’re still fresh in my mind.
This was my first commercial release, after a series of freeware games made in my spare time and for game jams. I worked on the game’s writing, scripting, and music for a couple years before seeking funding. While the story itself is short (just over 20,000 words for all paths), the subject matter hit close to home, which made it difficult to write. I successfully crowdfunded payment for an artist and musician via Kickstarter. We hit our funding goal on May 20th, and spent the rest of the year producing the final art and music for the game.
What Went Right
Often this section of a post-mortem will talk about the intangibles of project management. People will write about how the team was a good fit, or the core idea of the game was fun. While it’s nice when these things work out, I don’t feel like there’s any meaningful advice to be gleaned from these points that hasn’t already been discussed, at length, in pretty much every single creative field. I’m going to focus my points here on what I felt were smart decisions, rather than strokes of luck or cliche truisms we’ve all heard. I am by far not a business or project management expert, but I can tell you the process I went through to make this game happen.
1. Set a Realistic Funding Goal
Many game projects have failed to meet their funding goals on Kickstarter. Crowdfunding campaigns can fail for any number of reasons, and there is no sure-fire way to guarantee success. Given that, it is still really common for indie developers to set their sights too high. Maybe the team is working on their first game ever, or they have no name recognition or social media following, or the game is still deep in pre-production. All three of those are reasons to question your crowdfunding goals as a small-time indie dev, and combining them is a death sentence.
The simple truth is, people will put their money in something they have confidence will actually happen. A lot of games funded through Kickstarter have been canceled, or are still drifting along without a rudder in development hell. You don’t want to be the next project on that list. Your potential backers don’t want to give money to a project doomed to join that list. That means you have to match your funding goal to your reputation. How many people know who you are? How many of those people will care about what you are making? How many finished games have you released? How often do you release games? All of these are things to think about.
Figure out how long it will take to churn out what needs to be produced (all estimates end up being wrong, but if you can’t at least make a ballpark figure, you need to work on it), figure out your expenses for that period, and if the resulting amount is higher than your reputation can sustain, find a way to cut down the funding goal. Which brings me to my next point:
2. The Game Was in Beta Before Crowdfunding
Trigger was playable, start-to-finish, before I even thought about crowdfunding. This is partly because I first thought the game would be a throwaway experiment, but also because I didn’t have the confidence to crowdfund before 90% of the game was completed. That lack of confidence worked in my favor; the writing and scripting went through numerous changes before completion. The amount of art needed changed dramatically. The style of art I had in mind changed several times. If those changes had happened while the clock was ticking, mid-production, on a fixed crowdfunding income, it would have been a nightmare.
I think the games industry is naive in how it approaches pre-production. We all know that game projects pivot drastically during development, but we keep planning new projects as if we can actually predict that process. Some studios include playable prototypes in their pre-production work, or vertical slices. I don’t think that goes far enough.
Thankfully, visual novels lend themselves to a more expansive idea of pre-production. You can know, for sure, that the game works as a whole before producing expensive art and sound assets, and you can know for sure by using nothing more than a text editor. Because of this, Trigger reached its own form of beta before any money was raised, or assets produced. This “pre-production beta” status was what made my next point possible:
3. Production Needs Were Explicitly Outlined
I knew roughly how many character sprites needed to be created. I knew exactly how many backgrounds. I had a demo recording of every music cue in the soundtrack before bringing in a composer and live performers. I knew where I had wiggle room and could cut corners, and I knew what assets were absolutely necessary.
Even this clear outline morphed during production, but because I knew where we could cut corners, those changes didn’t eat into production time. My artist and musician were filling in the blanks of a completed game, rather than throwing out work as the game itself changed. As a result, the development process after crowdfunding felt like a relatively straight line trending upward to 100%, which almost never happens in game dev.
4. Sought Feedback from Trusted Friends First, Strangers Later
The story in Trigger would not be as good as it is without testing. Most devs know about testing: Test early and test often! Get strangers in front of your game as much as possible!
Trigger was a different animal, though. Feedback from strangers, in the early stages, would have pulled the game closer to conformity with the rest of the visual novel scene. That would have conflicted with my goal of ditching anime genre writing in favor of something more true-to-life.
The testing process during pre-production was, fittingly, more akin to how one might seek feedback while writing a novel. When writing a novel, you don’t want strangers to read your work at first; you want trusted opinions from smart people who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings. Without that approach, Trigger would not be the game it is now. It was only through my small circle of trusted advisers that I found the story I wanted to tell, without it succumbing to gamerisms and trope overload.
Now we completely turn this post-mortem on its head. Brace yourselves.
What Went Wrong
1. The Economy
I highly recommend creating games outside of economic bubbles on the verge of bursting that inflate the housing market until rent is unaffordable. It’s also smart to avoid creating games after a global economic meltdown. This means your best bet as an indie dev is to make a game outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, before the year 2008. Failing that, move somewhere affordable as fast as you can. It helps to be white and know people with money. If you’re poor and disabled, it helps to have government assistance. Don’t talk to your Bay Area techno-libertarian friends about being on government assistance, even if you are white. They’re still convinced they’re the player character in a Fallout game and will come out of this mess unscathed, and that taxes are the Big Bad you have to kill at the end of the main quest line.
2. My Health
If you live in the United States and are poor, don’t get sick. If you do get sick, prepare to be sick for a long time, and expect everyone else to blame you for being sick. If you take my advice from the point above and move somewhere affordable, prepare for your health insurance to disappear for several months. Come up with bizarre home remedies that might actually make your condition worse. Prepare for your doctors to blame you for doing your best to manage your condition on your own, absent an actual healthcare system. If you get a sinus infection, just pretend you’re healthy. If you get severe joint pain, just pray your limbs stay attached. Consume lots of ibuprofen and dollar menu food.
3. Too Successful
After successfully raising funds for Trigger, I was unexpectedly accepted to a non-profit game accelerator in Sweden, to work on a different game. (They’re going to do another event, by the way, and you should apply. It’s life-changing.) I naively thought I could work on my other game during the day in Sweden, and do art and music direction for Trigger at night, during my off hours.
In reality, most of my off-hours got eaten up by networking, socializing, and a magical thing known as a sauna. (Which was purely medicinal, I swear. See my point above about my health. Sweden beats the United States at healthcare even when you’re a foreigner in the middle of the woods.)
My dual-development schedule didn’t work out as planned, and this caused the majority of delays on Trigger. No matter how much we want to be superhuman, it’s best to remember we are not.
4. Story Was Perhaps a Bit Too Close to Home
While Wendy has a unique story all her own, a lot of the broad themes in Trigger are inspired by my own life experience. This let me get into the head of a character with PTSD more than most writers can, but it also meant that sometimes the game was too exhausting for me to work on. I sometimes had days where I was too triggered from actual life to work on the game, because the story mirrored reality too closely. I had to become numb to the story to get it out the door. Thankfully, the most important parts were already written and polished by that point, so it didn’t impact the quality of the game too much.
I’m very happy with how the game turned out. It was amazing to have my first crowdfunding attempt succeed, and for the result to be so incredible. I am blown away by the work of my artist Stolen Computer, and my musician Brandon Maahs. The game would not be the same without their contribution, and that contribution was made possible by crowdfunding. I hope to apply what I learned here on my next project, especially the concept of a pre-production beta.
You can buy Trigger online, DRM-free.