Journey Home Dev Update #1

I promised myself I would post updates, and even though I missed my deadline of one post a month (the first and last time I mentioned this was in January), I am still continuing with it. Since I spent most of January travelling, and most of February preparing for my GDC talks, and March was GDC and the epic GDC flu, Journey Home has taken a bit of a back seat. I’ve mostly focused on organizing data, creating documentation, and planning ahead rather than implementation.

With that in mind, today’s update is going to be about the MOST EXCITING part of game development. That’s right! I’m talking about scope!

 

SCOPE

It’s really hard to judge scope. When I planned out my game, it was with the intention to finish it in one year. When IFComp announced that they’d allow entries that were already talked about prior to the competition (i.e. devblogs allowed) I wanted to shift the data up to the end of September, cutting off three whole months of development. Three months of what is essentially a nine month project is a huge deal! That means… compromises and cuts. It also means I really risk not hitting my deadline.

When defining scope, there’s a few questions I try to answer:

  • How long does your game take to play and see all content?
  • How long is an ideal game session?
  • What percentage of your content is replay?
  • How much content do you need to make to create that ideal play session?
  • How much time does it take to create that much content?

So, since Journey Home is a piece of interactive fiction, I actually have a pretty good baseline for judging length of time to play (reading speed + choice speed), how much content I would need to make (words written), and how much time it takes to create that content (writing speed).

I’ll use IFComp for my first pass at this, but my scope will change if I change my mind and continue working through January instead of September.

 

How long does your game take to play and see all content?

IFComp judging guidelines say to play for two hours or less, and the nicer judges really do attempt to play for the full two hours, including replay in order to get to branching paths. So we will say that it takes two hours to see the bulk of the content.

Since Journey Home is a roguelike, I am not actually concerned about one-hundred-percenting the game. I am more concerned with majority of content rather than all of it.

 

How long is an ideal game session?

The roguelike nature implies really short sessions that get longer and longer as the player gets better at the game. I think I am going a slightly different route – but won’t really know until I get a chance to playtest it. I suspect that the average session will be closer to 30 minutes, and for the rare person that wins the game you would need to play for longer than an hour.

So the answer is that the ideal game session that I should plan for is 30 minutes of content.

 

What percentage of your content is replay?

Based on that 30 minute session, in that two-hour judging time a judge should ideally replay the game four times.

But that doesn’t mean all the content should be the same. I want replay to feel unique and while continued replay should provide familiarity to the player, I expect new content almost every time a player engages.

So we’ll spitball  a number here – I am comfortable with 10% of content seen again on replay from one session to the next. So the second time someone plays Journey Home, 90% of the content should be unique.

Again, this is a roguelike with elements of randomization so I can’t ever be certain that these numbers hold true, but I can make it statistically likely.

 

How much content do you need to make to create that ideal play session?

Oh boy, this is the exciting bit! First we need to gather data about the player:

  • I know that the average persons reads at 250 words/minute.
  • I know that choices will slow players down, as will reviewing their resources and stats. I will make a guess and say that it takes 2 minutes to make a choice.

Alright, now for data about the game itself:

  • 100% of scenes have the following in common:
    • Introduction – 125 words
    • First Choice – 125 words
    • Second Choice – 125 words
    • Third Choice – 125 words
    • Follow-up – 125 words

Those consequences are the game’s responses to your three choices – all scenes have three choices. However, this really just means that you get a scene, make a choice, read the direct consequence, and then the follow-up, and you are done. But I want my game to have more going on! I want some percentage of multi-step scenes!

  • 66% of Scenes have a second round of choices
    • First Choice – 125 words
    • Second Choice – 125 words
    • Third Choice – 125 words
  • 33% of Scenes have a third round of choices
    • First Choice – 125 words
    • Second Choice – 125 words
    • Third Choice – 125 words

But wait! That’s not all! One of my goals in this project is to have scenes remember and react to previous events in the story. These scenes need to have slight variations in their text that acknowledge the player’s other decisions. This might mean something as simple as describing the group of survivors as “hungry” or “tense” depending on recent events. That means we need words in each scene to vary.

  • The number of words in a Scene is increased by 20% to take into account context-sensitive events.

What about replay? What did I say about how much content can the player see again when replaying between sessions?

  • 10% of content can be seen again on replay between sessions

Last bit! You really do need to account for all variables or else you are doing yourself a disservice. Since this game is a roguelike, and community (and players telling their unique stories) are important in those games, I don’t actually want all the players to experience the same content (unlike, say, a linear game like Last of Us). I want to create enough content so that each player has something unique to talk about, even while sharing experiences with each other. This is really hard to gauge, though, and is going to be another one of my guesses.

  • Any given player should only experience 25% of the total game content. That means that for a single player, I have to create four times the content. (This is like extending your 2 hour game to 8 hours worth of content).

Okay, this is really starting to add up to a scary amount of words. And that’s really what I am looking for. “Content” in a piece of interactive fiction mostly consists of “words”, so since I group my words into discrete scenes, I need to know how many scenes to make for that 2 hour experience.

I’ve done my calculations in excel, but here’s the raw data and what it looks like:

SceneCal_1

Once I know how long they spend on average in a single scene (six minutes!), I can calculate how many scenes I need to create for a 2 hour experience:

SceneCal_2

Okay! I need 74 scenes created, tested, and implemented for October. That’s not too bad, right? Maybe? I don’t know. This is why we are calculating scope!

 

How much time does it take to create that much content?

This is the home stretch really, but we have some more calculations. For one thing, a player goes through a scene and only takes one choice out of three… but I still have to write all three! So there’s a lot of content that players aren’t actually going to see. There’s also that 20% bump to everything written to take into account previous events.

So to figure out how much time it takes to make this game, I first need to find out how many words are in an average scene:

SceneCal_3

Almost 1200 words! That’s actually not bad at all. When I do my weekend Twine jams, like Her Pound of Flesh, I average about 10,000 words. I could do 8-10 of these scenes! Except I would want them to be better quality, and they have more programming involved, and more polish, and I can’t sustain crunch like that, so it would still take longer. I don’t want to be overly optimistic so I will put myself down for 1,000 words per day. (Real writers will know that this is still overly optimistic.)

SceneCal_4

It will take me more than 12 weeks – 3 months! – solid of just writing text in order to complete this game. I have about six months so that might actually be doable. Keep in mind that I am not factoring in programming, design, art, sound, playtesting, polish, fx, accessibility, localization, and so on, so that easily fills in the rest of development.

To put it in perspective, 88,000 words is the average length of a novel. It’s a really big task. Realistically speaking, you don’t write a novel in only three months – not unless it’s a pretty badly written novel.

 

So why calculate scope like this?

In my case I use words, and in others it will be chunks of work like art assets, levels, systems, and so on. I personally calculated this out because I needed to know if it was manageable. The answer is that it’s barely manageable.

There’s another reason though. I have a game full of scenes, and there’s many different “types” of scenes. As I was brainstorming scenes, I realized I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t making too many scenes of one type or another, and that all the different resources and game states had a good amount of coverage.

For example, for my prototype game I am just concentrating on scenes dealing with the food resource – hunting, gathering, hunger, starvation, spoiled food, poisoned food, and so on. I wanted to have events tied to the food resource stat depending on if it’s high or low, but also events that reflect party moral. Imagine this: what if  you are low on moral, low on trust, and low on food? You get hording and stealing behavior.

But to do good coverage for a single stat like food, I created a total of 31 scenes. This is just for my prototype! Now that I’ve done my calculations, I know that this is half of the scenes I need in the final 2-hour game, and that this is 37,000 words! That’s almost 6 weeks of writing! And we’ve only covered food – we haven’t even touched on all the other survival elements and cool story opportunities in the game. This is how I know that my planning phase has a severe disconnect with the actual scope of Journey Home.

 

Update your scope calculations!

One last bit before I finish this update. It’s important to do scope like this in excel (if you can chunk up your game like this) because things change as you get better information. For example, what if players only take 1 minute on average to make a choice? What if it’s 3 minutes? That means anywhere from 55 to 111 scenes, and anywhere from 2 to 5 months of writing time!

The good thing about something like excel, if created right, is that I can just change key figures and all the calculations will  update.