ISSUE #77                              THE VALE, QUILL                              10 MARCH, 2020                              ONE BRASS

The Short Report

Welcome to another issue of your friendly neighbourhood devlog, The PixelCount Post! We're keeping this week's Short Report extra short due to the lengthy update below of Matt's adventures demoing the game. Meanwhile, the rest of the team continues their work: Charlie's adding critical gameplay loops, Neal prepares a new haven, and Tice is busy making music for it. Read onwards for the full updates from the team and we'll see you all again soon!

PixelCount Postmortem:
DreamHack 2020 Edition


Holy whack-a-moly, there's a lot of video games out there these days. Seems there's just about something for everyone, whether you're into classic genres like the good ol' RPG or whether your desires are more unconventional, like being a goose who harasses the British. There's so many games, in fact, that one of the hardest parts of playing games is wading through all those choices to find what strikes your fancy. (Shout out to page #2582, the charmingly final page of the Steam store which, I've no doubt, will have already increased in number by the time I post this.)

Here on the PixelCount team, we do our best to try to spread the good word of Kynseed in as many ways as our humble resources and time allow. Yet something that we've been holding off on was bringing the game to a convention or show. There's a few reasons why, but most of them can be summed up into one of two things: A) the game hasn't felt ready enough and B) attending shows distracts from development. Typically, these two reasons seem to be relevant to both big and small studios alike. On the AAA side of things, many a dev could tell stories of how development would halt in order to spend months on a custom 'presentation/demo version' of their game and yet commonly none of that work would be tangibly usable in the real game itself. (Indie-scale games aren't immune to this sorta thing either, of course.)

Granted, the above is a more extreme example of how a game show can disrupt development, but I suppose my point is that there are reasons aplenty as to why a game mightn't attend a show. So ever since the very start of this project, we've been leery of the distracting power that game shows can have. For us to ever consider attending one, we'd need it to be relatively (*cough* ridiculously) inexpensive and to fit easily within our schedules.

Another reason we've not attended any shows is because it's hard to know what kind of impact they'll realistically have in giving the game visibility. No doubt there's playtest and feedback benefits to demoing at events, but in terms of raising game awareness? That's difficult to gauge or predict. Many times I've felt that a well-performing tweet will gain you far more visibility than attending a game show. It's hard to argue, considering a tweet is free and can be composed in just minutes. Still, I do feel there's some benefits to game shows under the right circumstances - particularly if it's a streaming-focused event.

Yet despite our frequent reticence at the idea, the stars recently and surprisingly aligned for us to attend our first major game show! So in the interest of using these devlogs to chronicle all aspects of our development journey, I'm writing this pseudo-postmortem on how it all went.

Much like games themselves, there's also an overabundance of game shows. It's gotten to the point that I can barely keep up with them all. Of course, there's the huge shows like PAX, Gamescom, or E3 - the latter of which seems to be going through a midlife crisis. Yet there's also small to medium sized shows, many of which are a bit more accessible (and inexpensive) for indies such as ourselves.

One such show which I've heard of but never attended is called DreamHack. For me, it's always had a reputation as being predominantly esports focused, but in recent years its been widening its scope to include all of gaming culture in general.

So a few months ago, we received an email from DreamHack about a brand new show they were doing this year in Anaheim, California. As is the norm for shows, we'd have to fill out some forms and submit our game for consideration, as obviously space is limited at these things. Personally I prefer the game shows which have a submissions process because, if selected, that usually means there's little to no cost to attend! (The alternative employed by the big shows like E3 is that virtually any game will be allowed to attend so long as they pay a hefty sum for the floorspace.)

We've received similar emails from other events in the past, but we've always declined up until now. One reason is that the game never felt 'ready' for it. The other reason is that even though an event might be free, there's still associated costs that can (and will) come up. There's not just the monetary costs such as travel and print services, but there's also the time cost of spending time away from development.

Yet DreamHack presented a somewhat unique opportunity for us, which mostly can be attributed to geography. Anaheim is very close to Los Angeles (where I live) - a mere half hour drive most days. This made attending the show not only convenient but inexpensive. Though while shows like this do indeed offer their selected games a free booth spot, they also offer other services for a fee. Things like renting monitor screens, or printing banners, or even renting out gaming PC's. These services can make good sense for developers who, for example, might be travelling to multiple shows all across the country/world and don't want to be travelling with big expensive TV's and gaming rigs. However, with DreamHack being such a short drive away, I figured we could get by without having to buy a single service.

As for time costs, development would experience very little disruption, if any. With the show being local to myself, it meant that I'd obviously be the one to attend, thereby keeping the entire rest of the team free to carry on with development while I'm away. (Perhaps most importantly, this meant Neal could continue to code without interruption!)

So after some team discussion on the matter, we eventually decided to give it a go and submit our game for consideration. Thankfully it was a relatively painless process - just a couple pages worth of basic forms. We filled them out, hit the submit button, and within just a week we heard back: we'd been selected!

Time flew by over the next few months, if only because there's always so many other things to be juggling during development. Before I knew it, I was already a couple of weeks away from attending. Thus, it was time to start putting together my remaining plans and preparations. The event would begin on a Friday and run to Sunday for three days, from morning to 8pm.

My overall strategy was to have a unique booth while spending as little as possible. The fundamental question I kept returning to in my mind was, "How can I make our booth stand out against other booths who have more budget and more experience?"

My first port of call with this strategy was a simple one: what all can I fit in my car? Presumably myself, for starters. I'm only half joking though, because quite literally the driver's seat was the only spare room left in the end. All the other room was filled up with my own PC, speakers, all peripherals (keyboard, mouse, Xbox controller, headphones, etc.), two large-screen TV's, tools, cleaners (like sanitary wipes for peripherals), and a wide assortment of decorations/printing.

The decorations and printing ended up being the only things I had to spend any actual money on. For printing services, I decided to focus on only two things: a large-ish banner and some index cards with info that people could take. Thankfully, being in LA means that I have access to numerous inexpensive local printers and I was able to get a basic banner and a couple hundred index cards fairly cheap. The only major snafu I ran into was that my vertical-oriented banner needed a special easel stand to hold it up which, suspiciously, was about five times the cost of the banner itself. Thankfully my haggle stats must've rolled high that day, because I was able to talk the store into selling me their floor model of the stand so long as I returned it by the end of the week (which meant it'd cost me a whopping $0 in the end)! As for decorations, I was able to get most of what I needed by the grace of cheap Amazon products.

(I don't mean to keep going on at such length about the cost and how cheaply we tried to do things, but for indies such as ourselves - particularly self-publishing ones - the cost of attending even one show a year can have a huge impact on resources. So the fact that we were able to go to one so cheaply is a pretty big deal for us.)

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I awoke to my alarm on 4am Friday, which on most days would be when I go to sleep. It was Day 1 of the event and booth setup was scheduled until 12pm, in which the floor would then be opened up to the masses. Technically I could have come in Thursday and had the entire day to setup, but I (foolishly?) thought I'd have plenty of time to setup Friday morning.

I arrived early with ample time to spare, having parked in the middle of what seemed an endless sea of cars. My first order of business was to get my 'developer badge' so that I could be granted admittance to the floor for setting up. After standing in a rather long line and verifying my details, I finally had badge in hand and so off I went back to the sea of cars. From there, I had to make numerous individual trips carrying every item from the parking lot to our allotted booth space in an area of the convention called the 'Indie Playground'.

Unsurprisingly, this took a dozen trips back and forth. Never mind the fact that I had already made the same number of trips the night before carrying everything from my flat to my car, which involved a 7 floor elevator ride and a walk through my parking garage. Between it all, it was starting to feel like I'd agreed to help someone move.

After wearing myself out and being profoundly reminded of the fact that I have a desk job, all our booth's items finally lay strewn about the floor of our 3 by 3 meters of allotted space. Then came the task of setting it all up. I still had a few hours to spare, which seemed like enough at the time. To my credit, it would have been enough save for one little problem: our booth's power wasn't working.

It was a half hour before doors opened and I had just finished setting everything up, so I went to go turn my computer on and get everything running...only to find it wouldn't turn on. After a brief moment of panic, I checked to see if either of my TV's turned on and, somewhat ironically, I was relieved to find they didn't. This meant my PC was fine and that the booth's power junction simply wasn't working. So I hurriedly found some folks from event services and they were quick to jump on the problem and get it sorted.

The only downside was that it took about a half hour to get it all fixed, so eventually I found myself doing last-minute setup right as the doors to the event opened up! I still had a few final things to do though, so I quickly grabbed a sharpie and some paper and wrote "Our booth is in Early Access" and taped it to the front of our table. (Much to my amusement, a few folks came by to tell me they loved the sign.)

Though once that short bit of setup was done, I turned the TV's on, launched the game, and officially opened our booth!

Having attended numerous events from the gamer side, my experience with most indie dev booths is that they're typically utilitarian in function - a table, a monitor, a chair, and a few printed materials (banners, handouts, etc.). For our booth however, I wanted us to stand out as best we could and do something a bit different - all while spending as little as possible. So here's the setup I went with:

Kynseed's booth at DreamHack Anaheim 2020. (Click image to enlarge.)

For starters, I decided to use two TV's. One TV to put on our main table facing outwards towards foot traffic. Then the second smaller TV nestled further in the booth for players to actually use. The reason I opted for this setup was to create a sort of 'mini sanctuary' within our booth. Game shows like these tend to be an assault on the senses, with bright lights and loud music coming at you from every direction. We want Kynseed to be a chill relaxing sort of experience though, so I felt it was important to give players a pleasant little space to play in.

The drawback to this approach is that the game gets a bit too hidden in the booth. If folks can't see the game when walking by, why would they stop to check it out or give it a play? That's where the second larger TV comes in. I set that TV to mirror the main playthrough TV. When someone's playing, you can see what they're doing all from this TV without having to awkwardly stand over their shoulder. Also, for those moments when there isn't anyone playing the game, I had the TV on a loop of both our trailer and a 10 minute playthrough video I made for the event. As an added bonus, the outward facing TV is large enough that it creates a natural wall-type barrier which aids in providing that 'relaxing nook' I was trying to go for. (For added coziness, I also put a collection of my Fable books at the side.)

The cozy nook where players could demo the game, complete with a Fable book collection at the side. (Click image to enlarge.)

Regarding decorations, and as you've no doubt seen from the picture above, I decided to go for somewhat of a nature/garden aesthetic. Altogether, these items were surprisingly cheap on Amazon and went a long way in helping our booth stand out. We were the most vibrantly coloured booth there for sure. In total I purchased two plastic autumn trees, a bag full of a dozen green leafy vines, a bag full of individual autumn leaves, three different fake potted plants, and then a cheap arbor that I ran vines through and placed over the smaller TV. Oh, and yes: I tied a helium filled floating pig to the booth. Because of course I did.

(Each subsequent day I decided to raise the pig higher on its string. By Day 3, you could see our pig from a distance, floating proudly above all the other booths.)

As for my printed items, I customized a high-res version of some early concept art that the fabled Mike McCarthy made for us which I printed as a large vertical banner. The only other printed material was a couple hundred double sided index cards that had our logo on one side and some screenshots/info on the other. Then, of course, there was the DreamHack provided chair, table, and tablecloth. (The other table was just a cheapy from IKEA that I had tucked away in my closet at home.)

A close look at the info cards and the pig pens - not to mention my lovely ESRB Rating Pending mug. (Click image to enlarge.)

Something else I wanted to do with our booth was to have some sort of piddly 'fun thing' to give out. Almost every booth I've gone to over the years have always had little things they'd give out - usually stickers or button pins or some such. I figured I'd try to get in on the tradition with our booth as well, but I racked my brain for what it could be. Speaking from experience, most items I get from booths end up getting tossed or collecting dust in some drawer. However, I wanted our item to actually be practical or useful in some way. Thankfully, I found the pig pens. (Get it? Pig pens?)

They were just a few dollars per dozen but were surprisingly decent quality for what they were. They're gel pens too, so they make these satisfyingly dark lines when writing. They ended up being a surprise hit with players and I nearly ran out after the first day. Luckily LA has the benefit of Amazon 1-day shipping, so while at the booth I hopped on my phone and ordered another batch to make sure I had enough for the second and third day.

I suppose I should also take a brief moment to mention my good friend Chuck the Plant. Weeks earlier, when I was ordering the decorations, I began to feel mildly bothered by the fact that it was all 'fake'. So I had the thought that I should put at least one real plant in the booth, to at least keep our booth from feeling artificial and sterile. Only one plant came to mind. Chuck.

Chuck and I go way back. He's a pachira aquatica that I got 3 years ago as an office-warming gift to give to a friend starting a new job. I took the liberty of naming the plant Chuck when gifting it, a name which has stuck ever since. Poor ol' Chuck has been through a lot though. In the intervening years Chuck has been accidentally knocked out of his pot by coworkers, has had every leaf eaten by a visiting office cat, and at one point was mistaken by the building's management as the building's plant and was nearly thrown away. Yet through it all, Chuck survived. Somehow.

So as Chuck's self-appointed godparent, I asked if I could borrow him for the weekend. Thus, Chuck became part of the Kynseed booth. Sadly he's hard to see in the pics above, but you might be able to just make him out right behind the pig pens. (Look for his very stylish braided trunk.) Of course, I wanted to make sure visitors got properly introduced, so halfway through Day 1 I made a little name tag for him.

Chuck the Plant: Kynseed booth mascot. (Click image to enlarge.)

Overall, I feel the booth turned out pretty well for our limited time and resources. This was my first time attending an event as a 'proper' dev (whatever that means) and so most of this was brand new to me. Though thankfully, I'm no stranger to being on the opposite side of the booth. I've been attending game events as a gamer for nearly a decade now and over the years I've gradually formed some ideas and opinions on what I feel makes for a decent booth.

I've rambled on quite a bit about all the logistics though, but in a way that's just ancillary details. For me, the real fun was seeing people play the game in person. So often I'm watching YouTube videos of the game or, even rarer, having someone playtest remotely via screenshare for feedback/development purposes. Or perhaps I'll be watching a streamer play the game. They're all fun and exciting to watch, don't get me wrong. In particular, I love watching streamers explore the game with their viewers. Yet to see someone in-person just pick up and play, not for a channel or for an audience or for a playtest but just as someone casually checking out a game, was pretty magical.

Through that process you learn so much about the game and about players. Many of them had never heard of Kynseed at all, so seeing people have those first-time candid reactions was very cool. It was also a bit of a trip to talk to people in-person about the game. The sweeping majority of the people I talk to about the game are all online - including the team! So to have someone standing in front of you telling you how excited they are about your game is a hell of a validating and humbling experience. Also, the amount of Fable fans that I talked to was staggering. It's amazing how many folks out there are still so enthusiastic about that series. It warms the heart.

It's also worth mentioning the interesting dynamics that develop with the other indie developers. You have booth neighbors whom you get to know really well over the 3 days of the event. Every dev was very chatty and incredibly willing to share their experiences and advice. It was nice to see that although my true love will always be game communities, there's just as vibrant an indie dev community out there too. There's a certain sense of comradery that happens during the quiet moments of the day between players, when the devs are just awkwardly standing in front of their booths, waiting for someone to come by. (That is, of course, when they're not busy squeezing in dev work, fixing a booth issue, or manning their social media.)

At the end of the 3 days, I was understandably devoid of energy and ready to go home and get back to work. Though before I could, I had to basically do the reverse of everything I did at the beginning. Which is to say, I had to tear down the entire booth, pack it all back into its boxes and bags, and make another dozen trips to the parking lot. Then, after the drive home, lug it all back up the elevator and into my flat. Not to mention having to re-setup my entire desk and PC. (RIP my perfect wire management that I now have to redo from scratch.)

Still, despite it all, I'm very glad we made the decision to attend. It's hard to know what tangible impact it may've had on game visibility/awareness (as such things are hard to measure for game shows), but there have certainly been a number of other benefits. Things like watching people play, getting in-person reactions, and simply gaining the experience of running a booth from start to finish. I learned a lot and I had fun. Seems to me that if you can claim at least those two things when doing something, then it was worth doing.

As for Chuck, we've come to the mutual decision that office life just isn't for him. So in a rare move of me deciding to be responsible for another living thing, I've decided to keep him. He's now enjoying his new home nestled right next to my living room's window where he can enjoy the LA sun from 7 floors up.

Chuck at his new home. (Click image to enlarge.)

Penning Proverbs

If a Proverb you should write,
Take all day and most of night.
Four hundred verses you must jot,
Yes, I know! That is a lot.
Then Star Rating chatter follows on,
500 plus! My brain is gone.
Every item in Havens three,
Times by 4, good gracious me!
The moral of this is clear not dim,
Make a game with no items in.

Despite what the rhyme says, it was actually a quite fun experience writing all the Proverbs for the edibles, plants, and ores of the first 3 Havens. We have a huge spreadsheet, all beautifully laid out, with colour coded spaces for me to fill with verses, NPC gossip, and item descriptions (as well as columns for stats, numbers, locations, etc etc).

We are currently working to add in this most critical of gameplay loops...where the player can get items, when they can get them, what they do, and what the various conditions are to improve them. These will become (hopefully) very addictive loops as the player tries to first find out the info and fill in the blanks, then put their gathering plans in to action.

Star Ratings can be improved in many ways, from the quality/material of the tool, to the weather conditions, time of day, doing an action to reveal the item, and so on. We will be making changes to the inventory UI to make accessing this info easier, plus some map functionality to help (some as Fairweather item upgrades).

When you see the spreadsheet, with the hundreds of items, recipes, monster drops, and so becomes an exciting proposition. We hope that players will trade information, refer to wiki's, and whisper secretly amongst each other to not only fill in the blanks but to discuss things they discovered. Events, sightings, visitations, secrets, puzzling places, etc.

The game has the potential to span generations and offer hundreds of hours of play. So the desire is to try to keep things fresh in the long game, to keep that sense of discovery, and to keep the player obsessively hunting to fill in those blanks by experiencing all the world has to offer.

For Haven's Sake

Another few weeks passed since the last entry written. This time has mostly been pretty filled with progress on the update for myself. The second week of the update mostly followed along the daily scheduling with progress on various areas. Reaching the end of this week came with the realisation of how although some good progress was being made it wasn't exactly clear what would make it into the next update. After a little though, we decided that the Mellowfields setup seemed like a good place to debut this update. Although it is technically our next roadmap update after the current one, it felt like there would be value in getting it in now. Partly that is because it expands out the area of gameplay in a nice way by adding new items/NPC's/music while also giving us a chance to reflect on the systems as they are in place to see how they can be improved.

With the three havens in place it feels like we have a good variety of areas to play with in terms of increasing the quality of the play experience, so although the levels will be in now there is more content to add into them as Charlie has been working towards. That'll likely lead into the subsequent few monthly updates being a lot more iteration on the existing content to fill in the details and take the experience to the next level so to speak.

To remain focused on what is happening on the current update though, there was a surprising amount of work needed to setup Mellowfields. We had never really formally organised a list of what composes the minimum requirements for a haven and kept discovering bit after bit that needed adding in (at a high level there's about 40 elements to do at a minimum). With that knowledge written down, subsequent progress should go a little smoother where we can start filling in a lot of that work prior to the levels going public at a more steady pace!

The amount to do meant I had to, for now, generally abandon the daily scheduling apart from Mondays/Fridays being more feedback focused. I feel like this is the push-pull that always happens with more concrete deadlines; once it is more established what needs doing then it is much harder to resist getting pushed into only working on those elements and then feeling like the rest takes a backseat. At the least, it still feels like maybe the first two weeks of an update can operate on a slightly freer basis which is definitely beneficial. The larger the variety of areas of the game covered by the daily schedule, the more chance there is of understanding and making the game (and game making process) better as a whole. Wishing everyone all the best!

Thyme to Turnip the Beet

For the past weeks I've been working on music for Mellowfields regions. There was one that I wanted to redo since I felt it wasn't as fitting for the environment as I would have liked. My first attempt at it turned out to be a bit too 'large' and 'grand' for the area. So I started from scratch and made something more befitting the farming theme that the landscape was going for. Plus, another track for Mellowfields was added to the list very last minute because we had first overlooked it.

So now I'm scrambling to get it done as soon as possible. It's for a landscape of beautiful gardens, and as reference material Charlie showed me "English Country Garden" as performed by the English Coronation Orchestra. It's got a very very sweet melody and harmony to it. Sickly sweet even. Lots of little flourishes make the orchestration come alive.

This is actually quite time-consuming to represent with a sampled orchestra. It requires a lot of micromanaging of each note. Frequent articulation switching, detailed changes in dynamics, and so forth. I'm trying to aim for an end result that, while still orchestral, feels light and fluttery. The English Coronation Orchestra version of the referenced song ends up getting quite 'epic' near the end, which I was asked to avoid so the trick will be to keep it light throughout while still remaining diverse. That's been a challenge throughout the soundtrack as I make tracks of around 5 minutes each, which mustn't move around too much as they are all meant to represent a single environment.

Next time we talk I presume I'll be working on Whisptrail again.

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Copyright 2019 by PixelCount Studios (Limited).ᅠᅠAll rights reserved.ᅠᅠEdited and assembled by Matt Allen.