Rebooting The Johnson Files
On January 21, 2019, eleven months after the initiation of The Johnson Files and three pre-alpha builds later, we have decided to return to the drawing board and reboot the project. Here's what happened and how we ended up with the decision.
The initiation of The Johnson Files It was supposed to be a short development project, no longer than a year to pull off. The idea for it first started when we felt TPK needed a demo. After coming up with initial drafts for it, we deemed the process of making a separate game just for a demo time consuming with little return, so we abandoned the idea and decided to make the TPK's act 1 a complete playable demo. With the demo released on Steam shortly after and a possible game idea sitting on the side, we decided to develop it into a DLC. It was then that The Johnson Files was born.
First sign of problem: unable to translate a working story into a game that's fun to play As with TPK, we prioritized story over everything else, focusing our effort on building the 3-act structure which went through a few iterations. Then came the first pre-alpha build. It did not turn out well. The game did not hook us and it wasn't fun. We went back and looked at what might have gone wrong with the story. However, nothing major popped out. The story seemed fine, the 3-act structure built up properly, and the plot-points were all there. It might have been the assets that's missing from the first pre-alpha that needed to be there to make it work (quite a number of important items were not in the first pre-alpha, and you could not play until the end). Yet when the second pre-alpha build was out, the game felt equally bad. We went back to the story, had serious discussions on why it wasn't working and made substantial changes, hoping to improve it. By the time the third pre-alpha build was out and tested, we knew the release product would not be a good game.
Second sign of problem: limitations of using existing environment and game mechanics As we delved deeper into what could have made The Johnson Files struggle as a game, we realized it's partially the fact that the design stemmed out of TPK, both in terms of the environment and the core game mechanics. Using locations from TPK and running the game with a similar design was actually limiting what The Johnson Files could potentially be. Although it consisted of new locations outside of Painscreek and new game mechanics were added to it, the overall game flow felt a bit too similar - a walking simulator filled with diaries and keys. To make it worse, the game was missing interesting hooks, the open-world feeling, and a clear focus on what players were supposed to do when compared to TPK. Third sign of problem: in order to proceed, we have to find the keys rather than we want to One of the things that worked well in TPK was that it made players want to find out what happened in Painscreek, whether it was the NPCs' backstories or the truth about Vivian Roberts' murder. In The Johnson Files, however, we found ourselves finding keys and codes in order to progress through the game just to find more keys/codes. Although there were NPC backstories to be read and game lore to be found, the whole experience wasn't very fun and playing it felt more like a chore. We found ourselves forcing through the game because we had to, not because we want to. The design became more of a 'how can I go from A to B' rather than 'why would I want to go from A to B'. The self-created-goals that should have emanated from within the players themselves did not happen.
The decision to reboot After the unsuccessful pre-alpha builds, we went back to the story design phase and reflected on why the game was not delivering while, at the same time, considered different ways to improve the storyline. Time passed quickly and by January 2019, eleven months after its initiation, we realized that The Johnson Files would not work, at least not without reworking it from the ground up. It was then that we decided to scrap everything and start all over again, so that when The Johnson Files is finally released, it can be worthy of the players' time.