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2020 for Kandria in Review - Gamedev

2020.12.31 17:31:42
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Well, 2020 has certainly been a year. Given the amount of stuff that's happened, and especially the big changes in my life around Kandria, I thought it would be interesting to write up a review on the entire year. I'm not going to go month by month, but rather just give an overview on the many things that happened and how I feel about it all, so don't be surprised if I jump between things a little bit.

With that said, I want to start this out by thanking everyone for their support throughout the year. It's been really nice to see people interested in the project! I really hope that we can deliver on a good game, though it is going to take a long time still to get there. I hope you can wait for a couple more years!

A year ago Kandria still had its prototype name “Leaf”, and I had just gotten done with a redesign of the main character, The Stranger. Much of the visual style of the game had already been defined by then, though, including the shadows. Most of the UI toolkit, Alloy, was also standing at that point. I think it was also then that I decided to do public monthly updates on the project.

I'm glad that I started on that pretty early, as I got a few eyes on the project pretty soon after I had posted things on Gamedev.net. There's a lot more that needs to be done in terms of outreach and marketing, though. Since the Steam launch we've been thinking a lot about how to get a bigger community together and foster active discussion surrounding the project. For now I'll keep doing the monthly summaries and weekly updates on the mailing list. I'll also try to be more active on Twitter and the Discord, but other than that we don't have a solid strategy yet.

The Steam launch and everything with Pro Helvetia leading up to that was a pretty stressful time all in all, when I was already running on fumes from everything else that had been going on. I'm really glad that I decided to afford myself these two weeks of holidays just to get away from it all. I didn't succeed entirely – I've been thinking about Kandria every day in at least some fashion – but I have been working on other projects at least, and been spending a lot of time just playing games, too, so I think I'm at least getting my mind cleared up enough to start fresh into the year next week.

On the topic of Pro Helvetia, the story there began in February, when the Swiss Game Hub had a little presentation on the organisation and its grant programme. With a little push from fellow local devs I decided to take the step and try to apply. This in turn forced a lot of changes as I decided to finally “properly go public”. This meant finding a real name, creating a website and trailer, as well as a publicly playable demo, and mailing list to manage the marketing. And of course, polishing everything to actually run on other systems. I also got the Steam app at that point, with the idea of using it for testing distribution, but I only really got that sorted out after the grant submission deadline.

When I applied at Pro Helvetia I didn't expect to get the grant – and as expected, I didn't get it either. However, when we applied for the Swiss Games showcase in November, I did think we had a pretty good shot at it. Getting the message that we were, once again, rejected just two weeks before Christmas was pretty crushing, especially after all the work and rush that went into squeezing out a new trailer, new demo, Steam page, and press kit in time for it. Worst of all though, we weren't given any reason as to why others were selected over Kandria. I've tried contacting them the day after to ask for feedback, but have not heard back from them.

I've never been a confident person, so getting these rejections has been wearing down my already feeble remaining amounts of confidence, which hasn't been great for morale. While I'm not a confident person, I am however a very stubborn person, so despite everything I'm still determined to see this through to the end. Worst comes to worst I'll have to finish it on my own, but even if that came to pass I'd still do it. This is the best shot I've ever had at getting a real game made, and I'm not going to give up on it.

Moving on from these more rough sides of development, there has been a lot of progress this year, though a lot of it was in the innards of the game, and not necessarily on the visible side. That pains me a bit, since the screenshots from a year ago look very similar to the ones from today. I have to keep in mind that even without this, the progress made is necessary and valuable. Anyway, on to what I did do.

I reworked the SteamWorks library to work properly again. I rewrote the sound system stack almost entirely from scratch to allow for more complex effects and to work properly on all platforms. Large parts of the engine had to be rewritten to fix some big issues in how resources and rendering used to be organised. Not directly part of the game, but still important, I made custom mailing list and feedback systems. Hopefully there will be less things like that that I need to do next year, so there's more time for the actual game.

On the side of visible progress, most of it has been surrounding the combat system, and starting on upping the pizzazz by introducing fancy effects and post processing. There's still a lot more to do in that department though. Especially combat needs to have a lot more flare to it – explosions should kick and spray particles around, slashes need to connect visibly, getting hit has to really impact. I've looked at some other games and how they handle combat, and it really does seem like a much larger part than one might think of how the combat feels depends entirely on how many effects there are piled on. Sparks, flashes, particles, and especially crunchy sound effects make an enormous difference.

Don't get me wrong though, the animations of the characters themselves are also very important. They have to be fluid and have visible weight that is being thrown around. I struggled tremendously with that when I started out with the combat in Spring and had to do the first animations myself. I'm very glad that I've recruited Fred to take care of that part, as he's done an amazing job at it. The new animations feel a lot more fun, fluid, and real.

Speaking of Fred, one of the biggest changes this year was that I finally decided to put not only my time, but also my money on the line and actually hire some people to expand the team. This is something that was a long time coming. I always knew when I started out that I'd have to eventually expand the team, simply because the scale would require it to get it done in a reasonable amount of time, and because I simply don't trust my own skills well enough to get a great product out of them. That's where the confidence thing comes in again.

The hiring process took an entire month of my time, mostly because there were way more applications than I ever thought there would be, and I wanted to do my due diligence and investigate everyone to a good degree. Ultimately finalising the selection was also difficult for me, and took me over a week of deliberation. I'm happy with the choices I made, but I still wish I had the funds to just hire more people.

Since the game is almost entirely built on a custom stack of software, engine and all, there's a lot of rough edges and corner case bugs that hinder development and cost us a lot of time. I really wish I had the funds to hire another skilled programmer to take care of those so I can focus more on directing the story, art, and general features and level design. Still, we're already on a tight budget that isn't going to last for the entire duration of development unless we can procure additional funding somehow. We've been talking about that a fair bit, too, but there's no clear decision yet.

So far the plan is still to complete a vertical slice in the coming months and then do another planning session to see how things hash out once we have a better idea of the development costs involved and how the overall plot and world will pan out. Then comes another application for the Pro Helvetia grant in September. If we get that, we'll have extended funds for another year, which should hopefully bridge the gap well enough to pull through to the end. If not… well, there's other possibilities that I don't want to really discuss yet as it's all still too uncertain.

As you may know, during most of the development of Kandria so far I was a Master's student at ETH. I've been a student for a long time, since my Bachelor's took me a long time to complete, largely in part to not being able to take the stress of taking on too many subjects at once. Most of the classes I either didn't care for, or outright loathed having to work on, so it was not a very merry time. Still, I managed to persevere. Now, in the Master's programme for Computer Science at ETH there's a requirement to complete two of three “interdisciplinary laboratories”. You have to complete these regardless of the focus you take, and so regardless of your interests or target skillset. I tried all three, and failed all three, the last two of which I failed this Summer. All three were very hard courses that required a ton of time investment. I did not expect to fail them all. Whatever the case, this, in addition with the strict term limits at ETH, meant that it was not guaranteed I'd be able to complete my Master's even if I did decide to try them again in a year. It would mean spending at least one and a half more years to complete my Master's, if I managed to pass these classes the second time.

I decided that these odds were no longer worth it. University made me miserable, and I was not sure how big of a benefit the degree would be anyway. So I made the big decision to work full time on Kandria, which I have now been doing since September.

Doing this also shifted the project quite a bit though, as now it is no longer a game project I just want to complete on the side, it's now something that has to prove not only possible, but also financially viable, in order to be able to keep doing this. Naturally this places a huge burden on me, and even if I don't want to think about it much, my subconscious still does anyway. This has lead to a somewhat unhealthy work/life balance, where I couldn't justify working on other side projects like I used to all this time before, as the thought of “but shouldn't you be working on the game, instead?” always came creeping around the corner.

This has especially been a problem in November and the beginning of December, and is why I've run so badly out of steam. These two weeks of holidays have really been great to get away from that. Still, I'm going to have to figure out some better balance to make this sustainable in the long run. I can't be going on holidays every two months or so after all. At this point I don't yet know how exactly to do this, except that I know I need to weave different projects into my schedule somehow. That's something to figure out in the new year.

Tim and I have already been making some good progress discussing the characters, setting, world, and overall story in December, and I'm really eager to dive back into that and get started on planning out the first section of Kandria for the vertical slice. I also have a bunch of cool ideas for new features and effects to implement. I'm looking forward to diving back into all of that next week, but I'm also cautious about all the challenges we already know about. I really don't want to rush it and end up with something we have to throw away in the end.

This entry has gone on for long enough already, even if there's a lot of details and smaller developments I skipped, so I'll try to bring this to a close. As always, if you want to be kept up to date on the development, sign up for the mailing list!

Tim also wanted to write a little bit about his experience working on Kandria the past two months, so here goes:

It’s been a whirlwind two months working on Kandria! I’ve already gotten heavily involved in writing marketing text, developing the lore, and making a demo quest to learn the dev tools. I’m looking forward to coming back after Christmas and keeping the momentum going for the vertical slice. I expect I’ll be getting more hands on with the tools in particular, to write multiple quests for a hub-like area; now I’ve learned the basics and will have more time, I’ll be looking to structure it better as well, using the quest system to its fullest, rather than brute-forcing it with task interactions alone. :)

With that, I think I'll call the yearly round-up done. I hope next year will be better than this one, and am currently being cautiously optimistic about that. I wish everyone out there, and especially you reading this, all the best in 2021!

Written by shinmera