For the last half year or I’ve been secretly colluding with the folks at Postopian Games to help bring to life “Manimal Sanctuary”, an interactive story/post-apocalyptic lurking simulator for Google Cardboard.
We’ll be showing the game publicly for the first time at VRTO 2017 (Virtual & Augmented Reality World Conference & Expo 2017) this coming weekend. On Monday (June 22) I’ll be joining designer Jim Munroe on stage to talk about about the game and our experiences making it.
I promised I wouldn’t do a postmortem for Shu’s Garden, and I mostly meant it. But two thoughts keep bouncing around in my brain and so here I set them loose.
Shu, that happy, weird, space-gardening videogame, failed to go according to plan in so many ways. But in recent months it’s become clear to me that one of the root problems was my inability to commit to the mission: Mr. Colin and I set out to make “a game that could sell”, and to do it in a short, efficient production period (four months). Unconsciously, I worked against these goals.
When we needed to be rapidly building out a game experience (originally meant to be an adventure), I was taking long periods to write and re-write an unnecessary procedural plant-generation scheme. On reflection, such things simply interest me more than making an adventure game, and it seems I can’t help but pursue them, difference in time investment and promises be damned. Where we needed to deliver an experience which hooked in an existing player base and gave them a sense of purpose and value for their time, I pushed for an open-ended world without objectives that just made people scratch their heads.
So four months became more than a year. And “a game that could sell” became a weird, miniature experiment appealing to no existing market.
Despite his protests, I offer my apologies to Mr. Colin. I made promises, and couldn’t bring myself to fulfill them.
Shu was a commercial failure, no doubt. Even the biggest bursts in sales (from launch announcements and kind articles) only sometimes approached a reasonable income rate before quickly subsiding back to zero. But, for me, the worst failure of Shu isn’t the lack of sales: What haunts me more is that it doesn’t say anything about me as a creator.
I set out as an indie four years ago. Published mostly silly little experiments, and blew a lot of time doing freelance work just to stay in the black. This is the only original work of note to show for all that time, and ultimately it’s just another cutesy kid-friendly game that is easy to dismiss and hard to say anything about. It doesn’t change the way we think about games. It doesn’t reach new audiences. It certainly doesn’t explore any aspect of the whole “interactive story” field which I’ve claimed is my main interest.
Yes, Shu seems like another professional failure. Or perhaps a professional sideshow. Another delay. Another “it’s not really what I’m about” time suck. I learned from it, naturally. But nothing I couldn’t have learned in other ways, in shorter time, pursuing things that matter more to me and have more to say.
So, ten years after graduating university, nine years after trying my hand at teaching, eight years after officially entering the world of videogame development, and four years after going indie, I’m left feeling like I still have yet to get started.
The next phase is unclear. In the coming months, I will finally finish the interactive story project on which I’ve been dragging my heels forever. It will be more modest and under-the-radar than I once hoped, but it will be done come hell or high water. (Or else I will be returning grant money, head hung in shame…) What comes after, I just don’t know.
This will be my last post about Shu’s Garden. The path turns a corner up ahead, and I can’t yet see around it. But the space-cacti are behind me, finally slipping over the horizon.
Ultimately, it consumed far more time and amounted to far less than either of us planned. Many things went wrong — I’ll spare you the postmortem — and needless to say it has not been a financial success. Perhaps what makes the spent time & effort sting most of all is that it’s not really in the vein of games we’d like to be making: Building a reputation around a cutesy platformer when you want to be making interactive stories for a more adult audience seems like misdirected effort, you know?
But every now and then I’m reminded that the game actually resonates with some people. Amongst the drone of “it’s cute, but I don’t see the point of it”, and “that’s a nice start; you should add lots of objectives”, there are those odd moments when it just clicks with a person and you hear something really rewarding: This game makes me so happy.
Last Friday, Nathan Grayson of Kotaku was kind enough to share his experience with the game and how it affected him at time in his life when he needed a little bit of happiness. His story is deeply personal and that Shu could be a positive part of it is surprising and heartwarming.
The same day saw the final part in a Let’s Play series featuring a man and his son playing Shu together. Shu was semi-targetted at children and it’s always great to see it hit the mark. Special thanks to HamShanksCraft for sharing this.
Shu will almost definitely never cover the costs which went into it, and it may not be the ideal exemplar of our work. But little stories like these remind me that it amounted to more than nothing.