(Someone welcomes you to a new experience)
Hello! Welcome to the first Inside EQS! My name is Moses Davis and I’m the current project Production Lead for Scene Investigators. Our goal with this blog is to give you all a full-dive look into our studio every month and something to look forward to! This specific post will explain what we’ve done so far, where we are, and where we’re going.
Lvl Up Expo
Before we start, we will be at the Lvl Up Expo in Las Vegas from February 25th to the 27th. It will not be anything new this time, but for those who have not tried our demo, now is the time! If you are attending Lvl Up come visit our booth, we’d love to have you!
How Scene Investigators Started
(A white board of ideas from an internal gamejam)
With the release of our first game, The Painscreek Killings (TPK), we found that we still had no time to relax. It was tough as a group of first timers. There was no marketing, no trumpets announcing our release, and no real clue what was going to happen. We jumped into optimizing, bug fixing, and some editing. We had to figure out how to repair our boat as we sailed. We were lucky, TPK was received well, and so we were able to do our work and stay supported.
Optimization took six months to complete, and while it was being finished up we began preparing our first DLC for TPK. It took us five grueling months to get to a place to begin testing it. What we’d created turned out to be lackluster. There was a story there and some unique assets decorated the map, but it was just a mess. In the end we all agreed it wasn’t where we wanted it and with a heavy heart it was shelved.
A few of us left to go to Japan, intent to begin the ideation phase of a proposed game. The rest of us that remained here at home were given the freedom to create pitches. With a bit of joy and optimism we decided to gather at our table and hash out all our ideas. Each and every single pitch was put onto a whiteboard. Some ideas rose to the top, and from those we began to formulate.
The Japan group eventually returned, but preproduction was halted on their project, as they agreed that it wasn’t the right way to go. We reconvened at our whiteboard, determined to continue forming ideas such as sequels to TPK, or platformers, or even shooters. A great deal of these ideas were given a full sized pitch with an internal presentation. Even after that, we still weren’t sure what we wanted to do or what we could accomplish.
Our production team was stuck in a sort of limbo while waiting for something to be approved. So, we decided to hold a gamejam. We wished to give all our members a chance, to prove our designs in a crucible of fire. We held a month and a half long sprint to devise a prototype of a game. From this Scene Investigators was born. As a game that would be short-term and easy to craft, it put a focus on the strengths of TPK and wrapped it up in a fun package.
It struck with those of us that tested it. The gamejam was a success. With the size and scope it wouldn’t be a difficult endeavor. At first we thought that our other projects wouldn’t be affected for too long and that we wouldn’t have to move them to the back burner.
The idea that it was going to be quick was shot down after PAX. What it took to build the original demo wasn’t being easily replicated in other mysteries that we were making. The magic was hard. Our long struggle had just started.
(Render of a handgun)
When we agreed to work on Scene Investigators we had a handful of people for the production side of things. However, only two of the members had any experience in game development. The rest had not only no experience, but little practical skills to put to immediate use. Even with this situation we had a goal, everyone learns everything.
Each of us had to learn each step of game development. Each of us was to build our own mystery, our own pre-production notes, our own models, and our own lighting. It was a unique challenge that many companies wouldn’t permit. But we wanted everyone to build to their heart's content and to feel that this project was theirs.
We held a boot camp. It forced us to take the first step, learning modeling. This boot camp had a purpose on top of that, we had to prepare to show our project at PAX in early 2020. It was arduous and brutal. We worked overtime for nearly a month and a half straight just to get everything right, and we were still tweaking things until the last possible second. But with this, we understood what we were required to do for our own stories.
(Render of a retro-colored camera)
Our PAX experience taught us a lot more than just production tips and tricks. It was our first real attempt at marketing a new product. It also proved that there was an interest in Scene Investigators from people outside of our studio and from outside of our friend groups. It gave us a great push into making Scene Investigators into something special.
For a time we felt like we were making great strides in all our work. Even with the admirable goal of having everyone be part of every department, we knew it would be real rough. And it was.
Building A Story
(A Miro board for one of our mysteries. Blurred out slightly, sorry.)
With the PAX crunch ending, we found ourselves in uncharted waters. By this point three of our members had stories, or case files as we internally call them, approved and those were being tested. These case files were considered solid and used by others to reflect on how they’d write their own.
Even just before PAX there was some understanding that the demo wasn’t the full potential for each mystery. It was the blend between puzzles and environmental storytelling that made it work. But other case files could use a bit of a differing formula. Each of the three forerunners had not only a distinct environment but also a different manner in which a detective would have to understand a scene.
While these original three stories worked in their own quirky ways, the other members had stalled. When people tested the struggling casefiles on paper they knew something was off. It was hard to put a finger on the problem. We knew what worked and what didn’t but we lacked a proper way to fix them. Each member wanted to tell a story but couldn’t find the right balance in which to showcase it for an investigation game. We couldn’t just tell the member to look at the three that worked and just do that. We wouldn’t have unique experiences if we just copied the homework.
For a painstaking length of time, a year, these other case files were stuck in development hell on both a story level and a pre-production level. Even when they would slowly begin to be approved these members still had issues deciding on how they’d do set design.
Digital Feng Shui
(Unlit layout from the demo’s later successor)
While the other cases were battling uphill for approval, we still had issues with our three originally approved stories. They were beginning to have a shape, but we still had to decide how graphically intensive we wanted to push Scene Investigators. The first problem we had was with the lighting we wanted to pull off. We decided to update our engine from Unity’s URP to the fancier HDRP. URP was great for game design, but we intended to push things as far as we could. We wanted to taste the materials and feel the warmth of the lighting.
The change between pipelines was smooth, but time consuming. As we did this a half year after PAX it meant updating quite a few objects and scripts. It set us back by a bit, but we were plodding along comfortably, not questioning too much about the time we’d been forced to use up. The work was slow and staggering in amount. Each of us acting alone meant that the entire project was coming together at a turtle’s pace. It was unlike the rapid and unrelenting PAX development.
Eventually we reached a point to test out two of the casefiles as fully realized 3d environments. One was passable, but the other wasn’t. Assets were not reaching the quality we’d envisioned, and there was a general lack of decor.
A few of us sat down and did some heavy analysis of what was showcased. We hashed out what could be done and quickly formed a small group that would give facelifts to anything that required it. This team structured itself more inline with the PAX development and zoomed off to work.
Pipelines and Workflows
(Render of a hunting knife)
A few months later it happened again. Another casefile was in the end stage and it was rough in areas we hadn’t expected. It was evident that our workflow wasn’t functional. Everything was scheduled in good faith. While it was admirable, letting people toil away and dictate the schedules didn’t work. Each time we would simply have to delay without addressing why we were constantly doing this.
We took a look at how the small facelift team was operating. They were on schedule, there was never a delay and the quality was there. We decided then to restructure and base everything on how they were operating. Everyone would simply move over to make assets for the case files. One person would supervise and another would approve. Instead of having us each learn lighting we turned to people that knew it best and handed them our efforts.
We updated our tools, pulled up our britches, and started our concentrated work.
(Render of an old gun box)
After many struggles in getting our stories approved and finding a functional pipeline we’ve found our groove. We’ve recently begun to wrap up the asset side production on another case file and lighting is being tested out for others. Our production team will be jumping into another case file soon.
Now with our new schedule we’re hitting our milestones. These internal goals are being constantly met. Our pace has been set and we’re confident in our ability to deliver.
With this, we’ll wrap up our first Inside EQS. Next time we’ll discuss all of our work in February and we’ll give a deep dive on our story writing process. On Steam, this will also act as a Q&A. We’ll try to answer what we can down below.
We hope to see you at the Lvl Up Expo in Las Vegas! There’s a lot in the oven and we want to get it right for you. We want to show you something special soon!