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Grave Matters: Two Approaches to Making a Game

October 29, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

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ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Grave Matters: Two Approaches to Making a Game

October 29, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

The year before last, Jeremiah Alexander had two new game ideas. The first was a card collecting game, conceived in response to an emerging trend – let’s call it Project A. The second was based on an impulse to make a minesweeper game – let’s call it Project B. “Project A was approached in classical fashion: production of an extensive and detailed game design document (40 pages to be precise), sent on to a potential publisher”, Jeremiah recalls. “Project B had no formal design, more of a hacked together prototype that then became a game”.

Project B is now called Grave Matters. It was selected for the Indie Prize showcase and publicly unveiled at Casual Connect USA in July 2014. Project A is still currently just an expensively bound design document, gathering dust in the corner of a publisher’s office on the other side of the world. Jeremiah shares the story about two different approaches to making a game.





A Minesweeper Game to Rest From Project A

This story begins in my office, an open plan space I share with two other games companies (Fluid Pixel and Whispering Gibbon). We have a very different attitude to most things, nevertheless, we try hard to help each other out. We have no formal partnership agreements to this end, but just share the belief that it’s better if we all succeed. Your lawyer and business consultant might tell you this is foolish, companies must operate in independence, with NDAs and policies to conserve secrecy and intellectual property integrity. Whilst I am occasionally forced to deal with these legal formalities, I do prefer handshakes and IOUs.

minesweeper
The classic Minesweeper game was used as a base for a project “just to relax”, as Jeremiah thought at first

One (probably rainy) day, I walked into the office and said, ‘I want to make a minesweeper game’. This sort of random idea outburst is common and most often ignored, as it was in this case, too. However, I had a bit of hiatus in paid projects, and was bored of writing documentation for Project A. So, I cracked open Unity and just started making the game, designing it as I went along.

In a rather short time, I had a basic version of the game. It wasn’t a lot of fun, but a couple of rewrites later, it became much better! These rewrites included a complete grid structure change (from squares to hexagons), and some different ways of representing danger. Generally, the gameplay design was just a process of experimentation, this project wasn’t about doing things by the book, it was about just letting off some steam.

Grave Matters - Screenshot - Level
The minesweeper-like game has been rewritten: squares replaced with hexagons, and a new representation of danger has been added

Not long afterwards, I stopped working on Project B and went back to working on the design document for Project A, the card-collecting game. I was convinced that if I picked an emerging market trend, designed an amazing game within it, and produced the most beautiful game design document ever to illustrate it, then we’d be onto a winner. We did this, then we sent it to the best suited games publisher and waited…

Digging Grave Matters Out of the Dropbox

Resurrectionists_by_phiz - creative commons - cropped
Jeremiah’s research into grave diggers and resurrectionists such as Burke & Hare has inspired the game’s theme

… and waited. I soon returned to Project B, which was quite fun at this point but looked appalling! So, I borrowed some of Gareth‘s (Fluid Pixel’s art lead) time to help me out with the graphics. I had already enlisted his help on some steampunk designs for Project A, so it made sense to stick with the theme. At the time, I was also working on an educational project around 19th Century English history, which included some interesting research into grave diggers and resurrectionists such as Burke & Hare. This became the inspiration for the game and Project B became “Harey Burke”, later to be renamed Grave Matters.

Grave Matters - Burke and Pup
The art style is steampunk, just like it was in the developer’s Project A

So the Grave Matters game already had a name, some graphics, and was fun. But then the clients started calling again, bills needed to be paid, and the game was put on the shelf where it sat for a while. Not long after this, Project A was rejected both by the publisher we had sent it to and also by a small prototyping fund we had applied for. At this point, both projects seemed to have fallen into the abyss. Time passed. Client work was done. Bills were paid. Life went on.

Late in 2013, over coffee, Stuart, the CEO of Fluid Pixel asked me, “What ever happened to Grave Matters?” I responded: “It’s sitting in my Dropbox, along with the tea-making app and football game and other half-finished endeavors.” He suggested Gareth and Chai, who had some downtime, to pick that game up for a while. We were aiming on what could be called proper development, but our approach to this project lacked anything close to finesse.

SCAN0199
Sketches were even made of backs of envelopes from creditors, the code was hurled on a memory stick to whoever was working with it.

Thanks to working on a lot of client projects, I’m well-versed with project management, source control, quality assurance, and so forth, yet Grave Matters employed none of this. New design ideas were often scribbled on the backs of envelopes containing letters from creditors (I will pay, I promise).

The complete source code was hurled back and forward across the room on memory sticks to whoever was working on it at the moment, and we generally made it up as we went along – it wasn’t lean or agile project management, it was blasé. Closer to the end of development, we started using a board on Trello, but for nothing more than a list to remember what still needed to be done when we’d not been working on the project for a while.

After about six months of development intervals interspersed between client work, we had Grave Matters, and now it was time to get it out there.

Here’s where I’d love to say: we self-published the game and it became a huge success, shooting to top of the App Store and making millions. In reality, as I’m writing this, we don’t yet know how this story ends. Grave Matters was released as a Halloween launch in October 2014. The game is still in it’s early days, and we’ll see how it goes in a few weeks.

Project A would probably have been a better game: it’s definitely better designed, more innovative, and has a better business model. Yet, we never had the resources or connections to get it off the ground. Grave Matters, on the other hand, has been released independently and, if early impressions are anything to go by, it could do really well (at least with fans of Minesweeper).




If Grave Matters is a success, it will challenge much of what I thought I knew about the right way of developing a game: comprehensive GDDs, robust planning, well-formulated business models, strict project management, etc. This might make me a little sad, but I’d have a successful game instead, so I’m sure I’d get over it 🙂

Grave Matters for iPhones and iPads is already available in the App Store, and an Android version will be released further down the line. 

 

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