Postmortem: Shadow of the Sun
Shadow of the Sun is a 2D action platformer Team Swordicorn (Melvin Kwan, Charles Park, Nick Marce, and Markus W. Redl) produced from July to October of 2014 as a student project in Vancouver Film School’s Game Design program. We were influenced by games like Mega Man X and wanted to produce something that had a similar feel, while making it our own.
Our core pillar for Shadow of the Sun was fast-paced action platforming. We facilitated this with tight gameplay mechanics. Although initially we also wanted to include stronger narrative elements in Shadow of the Sun, for various reasons, they were cut from the game.
This postmortem is of only my perspective on the project and may conflict with other members’ perspectives. I will not name any person in particular in the postmortem. Please keep in mind that this is only my perspective as one fourth of Team Swordicorn.
Note: This postmortem is not technical. It is about the human dynamics as I experienced them.
Things That Went Right
- From Idea To Concept
One of the things I was really happy with was how quickly we agreed to a theme and character, as well as working out the mechanics and getting started on prototyping. Before the term had even begun, we had a quick meeting to start brainstorming. Although one of our members was unfortunately absent for this initial meeting, we were able to work out a lot of things right away that we supplemented with subsequent meetings after the term had started.
We knew right away we wanted to do a platforming game as it seemed pretty reasonable considering the time frame and how limited our experience was. After that, it was coming up with a theme. I had suggested an idea for a story I had been working on for some time about a Sun God and a girl who inherits powers, which everyone else liked, so we decided to take the concept and develop it in greater detail together.
By the end of the first couple of weeks, we had a pretty solid concept to work from and mechanics we thought would work well with the theme and story. Our main character, Lulu, was conceptualized in that time as well, with concept art and name decided, while also establishing the tone of the game.
- Lulu Comes To Life
Thanks to the team quickly coming together and making a firm decision on theme and character design, production on the animations for Lulu were worked on steadily throughout the term and prototyping the various abilities and mechanics necessary to make Lulu move was worked on early. This put us in a good place where we weren’t terribly worried about being pushed for time. This also meant that fairly early on, we were able to see Lulu moving and jumping.
This was the first time many of us were developing a game, so it started to build our confidence being able to see the character we created move around. It also helped us see how the game was taking shape by having a tangible character in front of us.
Things That Went Wrong
- Struggling To Communicate
One of the major issues Team Swordicorn had was communication. This is something we all contributed to and it proved to be a huge detriment to the overall production. Although our initial meetings had gone well and we were able to get into the flow of production quickly, a few weeks into the first term of production we started running into some issues with misunderstandings on details of the concept.
Even though the overall idea was decided, how certain mechanics worked, what we were keeping and dropping, and what the details of the narrative behind the game were became a source of conflict. Everyone had slightly different ideas about how the mechanics were supposed to work, and that led to confusion during group discussions. Part of the issue was that many times one member would be with one other person from the team and they would talk out ideas, but forget to share with the rest of the group what had been “decided.” This created conflict in the vision throughout early prototyping, something of which we were all guilty.
I personally struggled with the issue of communication, as well. I started becoming irritated with certain members of the team and rather than discuss my issues with them outright, I just became distant. Looking back, this was absolutely the wrong way to handle the situation and only served to widen the gap between the team. Partway through the second term of production, I tried to mend this, but again, I was not direct enough. This is something that I fully take responsibility for and will learn from for future team projects.
This was not the only time a lack of communication became an issue. In the project, there were members whose work on the team was not as tangible as others, and it was easy to start thinking that they weren’t contributing enough. There was also an issue of some members saying they had been working on something, but had nothing to show, which exacerbated the issue further. I initially asked for more transparency so I could get a sense for what everyone was doing week-to-week on the project. Although I received a positive response to the suggestion, I did not get any subsequent updates on progress and this solved nothing. I am also partially at fault, as I didn’t push hard enough for more information after the initial proposal.
Something that we also failed to do week-to-week was to have proper meetings to discuss everything we had been working on. We had quick one-offs with the Project Manager to let him know what we worked on and for how long so it could be recorded, but it wasn’t a group meeting. Many of the communication issues we were having could have been solved if we had a designated period of time each week to just hash everything out.
- Late To The Party
An issue that didn’t become apparent until later in the first term, and parts of the second term, was the lack of urgency to complete tasks for the game. Art assets were stalled in certain areas because we weren’t getting any finished designs for levels to work from and things started to back up. Although attempts were made to hurry them along, things were taking longer to be produced than they should have. This became frustrating and slowed down production in other areas.
The main problem was that the task list we had was not being enforced strongly enough and left us unable to properly keep track of progress. We left everything in the hands of the person in charge of each department and didn’t check in often enough to make sure that the right things were being worked on and getting done on time. On teams that have experienced members who have a history of accomplishing tasks efficiently and on time, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but none of the trust we were placing on each other was earned. Even if we pressed the issue with whoever was late completing a task, nobody followed up to make sure that they were working on it and simply trusted that they would do it.
We also had to cut the story from the game, unfortunately. Although this was initially our “hook” for the game, it became apparent that the time spent programming and creating animations for the cinematics would be better spent on everything else we were behind on. This was something I really wanted to keep in the game, but understandably wasn’t feasible.
As a result of the delays and an apparent lack of progress from other team members in the departments they were responsible for, I started losing motivation halfway through production. Some of the animations produced during this time were not as polished as they could have been. Environment art had also taken a back seat, as it was something I didn’t particularly enjoy doing, but I take full responsibility. Especially because it is something I knew I didn’t enjoy doing, I should have made more of an effort to plan out environmental art to keep on top of it. (Side note, I’ve come to enjoy doing environment art much more since finishing the project.)
We also ended up cutting out the final boss from the game, and eliminating the second half of the second level. The plan up until the last few weeks was to have all those components in the game, but we had to re-scope the project to compensate for the delays. There was no time to do additional environmental art assets for the second half of the second level as there were still revisions that needed to be made to the design of that part of level and with the time remaining, it just made more sense to cut it out altogether.
- Why We Do This?
Late in the second term of production, we had a playtester that helped us realize that we had a context-sensitive mechanic with no real reason behind it anymore. It made sense initially in the context of the narrative that we had designed, but the narrative had been cut so it didn’t make sense anymore. We made adjustments to the mechanics and the level design and it totally changed how the game was playing. Gameplay started picking up speed as well, which was one of the pillars we were building from, but because we didn’t realize this until so late in production, there simply wasn’t enough time between all the assignments we had due at the same time to make all the adjustments we wanted to.
This was a turning point that should have happened as soon as we cut the narrative. We didn’t have any proper discussions about how mechanics should change after we cut the narrative, or if they should change at all. If we had had this discussion earlier, we may have had more time to review the mechanics we had, the levels that had been designed, and improved the overall gameplay experience further.
- Plan, Plan, Plan!
Overall, the problem that caused us to cut out so much content out of the game was the lack of a proper schedule and task list. Most of the time, we were left to our own devices and if any of us slacked off in any area, there was no one to follow up to make sure that things were getting done. This was not just an oversight by the Project Manager, but for every individual on the team.
For future projects, something that I will keep in mind is how important planning, scheduling, and task lists are. Regardless of whether or not I’m in a leadership position, this is something that I will keep on top of, if not for everyone else, then at least for myself.
- Always Keep Talking
Not having a proper schedule might have been the reason we cut a lot of content, but the problems between team members might have been mitigated by keeping a constant dialogue going and addressing concerns early on. Too many times team members had kept quiet on issues they were having with other members or with the project and it only resulted in dividing the team.
In the future, there should be absolute transparency on a project. That is, everyone should share what they are doing regularly, and raise concerns with everyone in the group together, rather than with individuals on the team. I think this will go a long way in keeping a team united.
- Trust Falls Couldn’t Hurt
Although not specifically mentioned in What Went Wrong, Team Swordicorn hadn’t spent that much time socially together over the course of the project. A few of us would play some games together, but we didn’t participate in non-work-related events as a team, which likely aggravated the communication issues we were having.
It’s very important for the team to engage outside of a work environment. There are times when tensions from work can be resolved simply by enjoying a non-stressful activity together. Planning for regular social events or by doing team-bonding exercises could make all the difference.
Shadow of the Sun was the first project I had worked on for an extended period of time with a group. I’m happy with what we were able to accomplish in the end, producing a game that received positive feedback and fair criticism. There was much learned about team dynamics, time management, and making sensible design decisions that I’ll take to heart. I’m sure this will not be the only time I experience difficulties on a team, but what I’ve learned from this project is that planning ahead, being open, and talking to everyone, as obvious as that may seem, is absolutely necessary for a team to function well.
If you would like to play Shadow of the Sun click HERE
Melvin Kwan is a VFS Game Design student