I always find the process of writing a postmortem to be useful, and I wanted to do one for The Fifth Zombie. My buddy Greg did all of the art for this project, and he’s never made a game before this one – so I thought this would be a good opportunity to do something a little unique.
So here’s a ‘conversational postmortem’ (AKA GMail chat session) between Greg and I discussing The Fifth Zombie’s development process. It’s totally candid and casual, enjoy!
Steve: So the normal format for something like this is pretty straightforward: what went right, what went wrong. I think it’s probably a lot more interesting to hear what you are thinking, especially since you’ve never worked on a game before.
Greg: Well, I’ve wanted to be involved in video games since I was a kid.
Steve: Why are you chatting me from two separate windows simultaneously?
Greg: Sorrryyyyyy… Reemiiiiiixxx. Ok, we good?
Greg: Ok. So, I’ve wanted to be involved in video games since I was a kid. But seeing as I have zero working knowledge, it never really seemed likely. So when you brought up the idea for The Fifth Zombie i was pretty jazzed.
Steve: Yeah the hobbyist video game world is pretty sweet now, honestly. There’s tons of available tech to make whatever you want. I would have KILLED for this stuff as a kid. I had to spend all of my time screwing around with DOS mode 13h.
Steve: The problem I have with these small games is I can do anything on the tech side, but when it comes to anything artistic, I am beyond horrible. Seriously – find a good artist and tell them to draw the worst thing they can imagine. Guaranteed I can top it, effortlessly.
Greg: haha, I loved your placeholder art. That squiggly zombie was incredible.
Steve: Sadly, that zombie is probably my finest work.
Greg: Yeah, and I have only been drawing on the computer for a little while, so I think it took the right project for us to work together. The ‘Story Game’ theme and storybook idea just fit.
Steve: There aren’t a whole lot of game types that we could have just jumped in and made with our exact skillsets, right? Storybook game is pretty much the only one.
Greg: The fact that we couldn’t really do animation was pretty limiting, but worked for the theme.
Steve: Hey, I made that page turning animation.
Greg: You made that?
Steve: It probably took me longer to make that than to make the whole rest of the game.
Greg: The game really wouldn’t work without it. We needed to literally TRANSPORT people to a world where they were reading a book.
Steve: I had visions of this really sweet page turn animation, like a classic Disney movie intro or something. Reality hit that vision pretty hard.
Greg: Yeah, well I had some pretty sweet visions too… that didn’t work out. I had a ton of fun drawing for the game, but it was just super rushed.
Steve: Probably our biggest mistake was only leaving two days to make the entire game.
Greg: haaha yeaahh. If anyone is working on a game, I would not recommend taking that same month to apply to grad school.
Steve: Solid advice.
Greg: I thought i had it pretty under control, and then I wrote a list of what art I actually needed to deliver. This was two days before it was due, and I immediately thought: “there’s no way”.
Steve: I think your art turned out pretty awesome, but the quality level pretty clearly dropped as the end of the project approached… and your carpal tunnel set in.
Greg: At 2 a.m when my wrist felt like it was going to break off… not so smart.
Greg: It’s funny you say that, because some of my favorite art is the later stuff. The simpler it got, I almost enjoyed it more.
Steve: Which were your favorite 2 or 3 drawings? I really liked the grave scene, the death at the Forgotten Cave when sneaking out, and the hero sleeping in his bed.
Greg: I think the fat zombie was number one for me, he was just a lot of fun to draw. Originally all the zombies were going to look the same, but with different colored shirts – we had discussed Ninja Turtle colors. But then you brought up the idea of a fat zombie, and it just made so much sense.
Greg: I’d love to know his back story. Was he fat before he became a zombie? Or is he a brains glutton?
Steve: Dude needs to get on P90X or something. Drop a few pounds, get back in the hunt.
Greg: Seriously. That’s why in the scene where you get eaten outside the cave, he is the last one in line. He is too fat to catch up.
Steve: That’s one thing I wish we had done a better job of: giving each zombie some kind of perceivable backstory. More personality. The fat zombie is great, but the other 3 are totally generic.
Greg: Yeah, for sure.
Steve: That was really a script problem from the start.
Greg: I think with a few subtle changes we could have added a lot of character. Maybe one has a Starbucks uniform?
Steve: We should have made one of the zombies totally obsessed with Van Halen. You can defeat him with power chords. The Axe of Destiny turns out to be a sweet guitar?
Steve: We also could have done more involved battles than just ‘brass knuckle smash’ or ‘sword stab’ or whatever. There were a few things in there to make it interesting, but they were pretty bland overall.
Steve: We should have had the battle with the fat zombie end with you tricking him into eating himself, like Pizza the Hutt.
Greg: I think stuff like that could have added a lot. I think the zombie encounters in general could have been a lot better. We had originally talked about them being these intense scenes where they would slowly start communicating with you. And then eventually you get to the fourth zombie, and it’s more of a conversation than a battle. But obviously with 2 days to go we just winged it.
Steve: Yeah, the biggest problem with the script is that we never really iterated on it before trying to crank out the entire game. I had the basic idea, which I thought was pretty cool. And then I wrote up a rough draft in like an hour… and that’s pretty much what we went with.
Greg: I think we just kind of assumed it would write itself as we went
Steve: There’s a good lesson takeaway: Things do not write themselves.
Greg: I think next time we would write a much more compelling script, and build the game around that. We need an actual script that’s good, not just a good high level idea.
Greg: Then there’s the intersection of story/art/game. Take the Revolver of Truth for example: You loved the idea of a revolver, as did I. But I could not, for the life of me… draw a revolver.
Steve: Yeah, I posted a link to the game on the Unity forums – one of the first dudes is like: “Just have to point out that the Revolver of Truth is obviously a pistol, and not a revolver. I thought there would be some special meaning to this later, but I couldn’t see any. Am I missing something?”
Greg: haha, I thought that too!
Steve: I did too, but I was hoping that nobody would notice.
Greg: The only way I drew the gun that’s in the game is that I literally held my Glock in my hand and took a picture.
Steve: You held your what in your hand?
Greg: My glock.
Steve: Even though the art didn’t fit ‘revolver’, Glock of Truth just sounded so wannabe gangsta to me. Instead of high-class, dignified zombie slaying. It was the lesser of two evils.
Greg: Yeah, revolver art would have worked so much better. Although I challenge anyone to draw a revolver free hand.
Steve: Let’s have a revolver drawing competition, I bet I can take you.
Greg: I’m sure you can. Mine looked like an umbrella.
Steve: I guess the lesson there is that people always will notice those little inconsistencies, and inconsistencies can really take them out of the experience. Even if it’s an experience about a little kid battling 5 zombies, consistency is super important.
Greg: Yeah, I think if you make a world you need to stick to that world and its rules, or else you risk taking people out of it.
Steve: No doubt about it.
Greg: Like you said… it’s a game about a kid killing zombies. But I felt like if we had made any sort of pop culture references, or mentioned anything in our world it wouldn’t have worked. In my mind this village was a Dragon Quest village on some island in the middle of the ocean. The only thing on the island is the cave, the lake and the town.
Steve: I think that’s the safe play, but some quirky stuff from our world ‘slipping’ through can be really interesting: like the idea that one of these zombies used to work for Starbucks, or that his favorite song is Runnin ‘ With The Devil. Killer guitar on that one.
Greg: haha, yeah that’s true. Little connections here and there can be pretty sweet.
Steve: That’s kind of why we went with this: “… the year was 1998″ intro, right? To give some of that weird “long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” feeling.
Greg: That’s true, I kind of forgot about that.
Steve: Like maybe this really happened in our world somewhere, but maybe not. Maybe it happened in some other world a lot like ours.
Steve: I do love the idea of these little microcosm worlds, where literally the only thing in existence is an island, 10 people, and a cave.
Greg: Yeah… I kept imagining the beginning of a ENIX RPG.
Steve: I always think about game ideas along those lines. Like that UFO game – it’s just a man, a camera, and a lake.
Greg: There’s also disappointment . Don’t forget disappointment.
Steve: Yeah, there was also sadness, loneliness, etc.
Greg: It’s a minimalist game world where you really have to fill in the cracks and gaps.
Steve: I guess those are the real important parts of the experience.
Greg: When you give the gamer so little, those universal emotions help keep them in it.
Steve: I think the ending of the Fifth Zombie turned out pretty well, but the beginning wasn’t so hot. I wish we had worked on helping the player care about the family more.
Greg: Yeah, if we redid the game I think we would focus much more on the story and the player’s connection with the characters. And WAY more choices. I feel the experience could have been much deeper if we added a lot more things to do, which obviously we had to cut due to time.
Steve: Yeah, plus maybe some choices that weren’t instant dead ends. That was the original idea, but time struck us down.
Greg: I guess that’s the number one thing I took from this experience: time. Make sure to spread out your work.
Greg: I had a great time working on this, and it was awesome to have a hand in making something that people can actually play and experience. It’s a really cool feeling. It’s so much more of an experience to me than reading a book, or looking at a picture.
Steve: For me, the bottom line is that I just really like making things.
Greg: It was a great experience that really showed me I have so much to learn, and a lot of practice ahead. But it was so much fun, I’m ok with that. Not everything you make is a masterpiece, it will never turn out exactly how you want it. All you can do is learn at each step and apply that knowledge to your next project.
Steve: It sounds kind of weird to say, but I generally have way more fun making games than playing them.
Greg: I think that’s pretty sweet. Sometimes I will sink a couple hours into a game and afterwards think: “I gained 1400 XP… but what did I really do? I gained nothing”. At least making something, you will always have it to remind you of the work you put in.
Greg: I love looking at things I was drawing even a year ago, and wonder: “Who was that person?”
Steve: It’s a major bummer when you play a game for a while and afterwards you think, “All I did was push buttons for an hour.” Sometimes it’s awesome, but a lot of the time it’s just pushing buttons.
Greg: Yeah… that’s why something like a Team Ico game will put me back into the “game crazy” mindset. They are such an experience I don’t feel guilty… I feel like maybe I’ve been reading a good book, or been at an art exhibit or something. They’re good on so many levels I can actually justify not doing my homework and playing them instead.
Steve: There are still plenty of games that I feel worthwhile playing. Even something like NHL 12, which is not an artistic masterpiece. We play that all the time, but it’s more of a way to hang out with our friends than anything else.
Greg: Yeah for sure. Look at how much more we’ve gotten together since we started playing NHL. We share this thing, its pretty special. Not to mention the accomplishments.
Steve: I mean we scored 7 goals in a single game. That’s something to take to the grave.
Greg: I’m a changed man now. I feel like I will be telling my kids about that game someday.
Steve: Well, this seems like probably a good place to wrap this up?
Greg: Sounds good.
Steve: In conclusion: pace yourself, keep your game world consistent, actually write the story, and GO BRUINS!
Greg: GO BRUIIIIIIIIINS… and TIME!