Stem Stumper Post-Mortem

by Kwasi Mensah

October 21st, 2011

Stem Stumper Postmortem

On April 19, 2011  my company Ananse Productions released Stem Stumper into the world. Its a mobile puzzle game for iOS and later Android, where you try to guide Mimea the plant through a garden as she tries to stuff herself with Fertilizer. You have navigate around obstacles (Stubborn Stumps, Brick Walls, and and Weed Killer) and use powerups (Angry Acorns and Slingshots) to stuff Mimea.

Stem Stumper Screenshot

Stem Stumper Screenshot

And if that doesn’t sound like enough do it with your eyes closed! The game was designed from the very start to be blind accessible. It speaks to the type of company that I’m trying to establish with Ananse Productions, which you’ll read a ton more about below.

What Went Right

1) Scope management

Before starting Ananse Productions I worked at Demiurge Studios in Cambridge, MA as a gameplay programmer. Thankfully, my time there taught me that even on the most talented teams everything takes longer than you think it will. And the mobile market seems to reward those that focus on doing one thing very well instead of those that try to work off of a back of the box checklist. So for Stem Stumper we knew we were going to have one main mechanic and hone in on it.

Now, it took us a while to circle in on it. We went through  lot of prototypes. In fact the very very first incarnation was supposed to be much closer to Breakout. But we dumped that really quickly because we didn’t have time to figure out how to make it fun for people playing with VoiceOver, the iPhone’s screen reader.

We eventually focused on using sound to help you find items on a field. I knew we didn’t have time or the sound expertise for an experience like Papa Sangre and we wanted to be more inviting for sighted players. Thanks to some advice from Eitan Glinert from Fire Hose Games we settled in on using music to help guide you towards the objects you were looking for, and using the combination of tracks to guide you towards items. We were always aiming towards a very small polished experience.

2) Great team!

Hiring is a really easy place to screw up a game before you’ve written a single line of code. Thankfully, the Stem Stumper team was amazing from the get-go.

The Stem Stumper Team

The Stem Stumper Team

Dawn-Marie Dunn, our audio guru, was instrumental in getting the musical layers to not only sound amazing and stick inside your head but to work well in guiding you to what you’re looking for.

Jennifer Kanis took care of all of our art. This is by far the area I’m weakest in. She did an amazing job balancing Stem Stumper with all the other super secret freelance projects. She’s also named our main charcater Mimea (Swahili for vine) and the Angry Acorn (her favorite character!).

As the project went on Jen and Dawn-Marie did an amazing job giving life to a game that was programmer art and  quickly tossed together music. But I started to fall behind with making our levels. Once we had our first set of tutorial levels, it became clear we needed someone who could devote their full time to making our puzzles as head scratchingly hard as possible. That’s when Eric Sutman, our level designer and a former colleague from Demiurge came on board. Adding him to the team could be a “What went right” point all by itself. He pushed more out of our mechanics than I ever would have. And he added a ton of new ideas and mechanics which made Stem Stumper 1000% better.

3) Testing like whoa!

I knew we had the get the game in the hands of potential player’s as soon as possible. Especially since we were working hard to include the visual impaired, a constituency none of us belonged to. Plus, like all other mobile games we needed to make sure Stem Stumper was easy to pick up and play and was polished enough to keep you focused and immersed while playing it.

Jeff, the world's greatest playtester

Jeff, the world's greatest playtester

I really have to thank Jeff, our main visually impaired tester. Over the last half the project we’d have weekly playtesting sessions where he let me pick his brain on what was confusing about our UI, where he expected items to be and just suggestions about what he’d think would make the game more fun. Plus, I got to play him on his tactile chess set. After he womped me he’d give me a ton of tips.

We also had more general tests in order to show off Stem Stumper while it was in progress. In fact several of Ananse Productions PR events were thinly veiled way to get people to us feedback. Ananse Production’s Superbowl Party, Movie Night and Potluck helped get more eyes on the game, especially from people who play a ton of mobile games but aren’t into their console cousins. These events also acted as great motivators for the team and as rallying points for deadlines.

Some of the tasty food at the potluck

Some of the tasty food at the potluck

4) Great support!

We received a ton of support from our the blind tech community. Several members of lists like Audyssey and VIPhone really helped us by being beta testesrs and recommending us to their friends. We’ve been featured and interviewed on podcasts like SeroTalk and Tech Access Daily Tip. And No Eyes Needed wrote a great review of us.

We’ve gotten a ton of great advice from local members of Boston game dev community. I already mentioned Eitan Glinert from Fire Hose Games. Ichiro Lambe and Leo Jaitley, of Dejobaan Games helped us get our feet wet with how to talk to the press. And several members of community were willing to trade me taking them out to lunch for me getting an hour with their Android phone to track down bugs specific to their model. This community wouldn’t be possible without Boston Indies, a monthly meetup that gets everyone out from behind their monitors and in the same room mingling with each other.

5) Raised Awareness

When I explain the blind accessibility of Stem Stumper most people don’t even know about VoiceOver or Talkback, the screen readers for iOS and Android. In fact most people had never thought deeply about how blind people use technology. I’ll admit, I was pretty ignorant about this too before Stem Stumper.

Ananse Productions mission is to make games that encourage this type of thinking and hopefully foster empathy. Stem Stumper’s sonar mode  is an introduction to ho the blind naviangte the world even though it isn’t the same as playing with VoiceOver on or with your eye’s closed. And hoepfully that’ll carry over into any real world interactions they have with someone who’s visually impaired. We plan at Ananse Productions to tackle other diversity issues the same way.

What Went Wrong

1) Learning how to manage

I always believed that the sign of a good manager is that you barely notice them. You’re able to concentrate on your work and check in every once in a while to make sure you’re on the right track. But just like swan on water, you never realize how much work their doing beneath the surface until you have to do it yourself. For example, I had this system of inis that Jen our artist could use to specify what textures were in which atlas (which helps with memory usage). I thought the inis coupled with our directory structure and documentation would give her all the control she needed. It turned out though that all she wanted was a dummy file to replace with final art. I managed all the technical stuff in the background. Her job was to make awesome art not to track down memory issues.

Then there was also learning about the ways different people work. I’m a night owl who likes to have a different email thread for each conversation. To everyone else on the team that turned into them waking up to a stream of new emails. This made it harder for the important emails to standout from the random “wouldn’t this be cool” emails. I learned really quickly that while some members of the team were ok with this, I had much more success with a single daily team email.

Night owlism

Night owlism

2) Lack of Pre-production, unclear direction at start

I have a ton of pride in how quickly we were able to stand up Stem Stumper once the rest of the team came on board. But from day one I was making asset lists and trying to Jen and Dawn-Marie to work off of them. The turning point came in the second week when I realized that not everyone understood how our musical/graphical reveal layers worked. While I had wrote documentation and had a playable version of our game, I hadn’t sat down and made sure everyone was on the same page. That’s when I knew we need to take some time to figure out what we were making. Unfortunately, this period only lasted for two weeks before I was worried about getting more assets in game.

"Get the game Done" isn't a plan

"Get the game Done" isn't a plan

There’s a lot of competing advice on subject. For every “indie” with the “just get a game out there” attitude there’s another with the “it’s done when its done” attitude. Plus in the mobile space there’s this idea that you just need to get version 1.0 out and you can fix things in updates. I’ve learned, however, that first impressions are still really important in mobile games. Updates are really for loyal fans who like your game beneath its quirks not for enticing new players (although it does help to introduce them to a better version of your game).

For our next game we’re going to have a lot more time upfront making sure everyone understands the game’s vision and that each discipline knows how their work is going to fit into it. And I have to do my homework by having reference work put together for everyone.

3) Tutorials and Managing difficulty

We had to make sure the someone who couldn’t see th screen could understand where everything was placed and could find it on their own.
This is the part that gave me the most headaches even though I didn’t leave it till the end. In fact, we changed several parts of the game to make it more teachable. I don’t think our problem was too complicated. When we could explain the game in person to testers they were able to understand it very quickly. But we were able to see and respond to part people were getting stuck on.

We were also focusing on making Stem Stumper “easy to learn, hard to master”. We did this by making completing levels relatively easy. The real challenge, at least for our early levels, is getting the max amount of Curious Carrots (our version of stars). And you need Curious Carrots to unlock the later levels. So there are a points where a player has to replay early levels and do better on them to unlock later gardens. I thought this would work better than having explicit difficulty levels.

Three Curious Carrots

Three Curious Carrots

Once Stem Stumper was out we got a lot of conflicting feedback about our tutorials and difficulty. Because of the way we setup the Curious Carrot requirements you could get pretty far before you had to worry about doing well (we were trying to make sure you made it through our tutorial levels). I think this caused a lot of reviewers to pan the game as being too easy. We should have either made the Curious Carrots more relevant at the start or hammered home how difficulty worked (we added a tutorial after the first wave reviews but it seemed too late to spread the word properly).

And while we tested the game with several blind users, many still got stuck early in the game. Beta testers on several lists helped to get people unstuck. But many users wanted a manual or an audio walk through to help them at least get their bearings. These are things we’ll have on day one for our next project.

4) Spreading the word

PAX East was huge for us because we got to shake a lot of hands, get a lot cards and start what will hopefully be a fruitful relationship with several press members. We also made good impressions on all the people that got hands on demos with Stem Stumper. But there a lot of things that I bungled along the way.

We should have spent a lot more time on our trailer. I asked Jen to put it together in a weekend with music Dawn-Marie put together really quickly. For a game that touts blind-accessibility we had trailer without any speech! We also announced Stem Stumper at the start of the Game Developer’s Conference, which made sure our press emails were buried deep in everyone’s inbox.

The fact that we “announced” a mobile game is a sign of my noobness. Console games need a fair amount of psychological buildup to get someone to commit $60. For mobile games, however, nobody wants to read about it unless there’s a link for buying it right away. There’s so many worthwhile mobile games out there that trying to get the press and players to care about a game that’s just an abstract concept to them is really hard.

You're competing against this many games in a single day

You're competing against this many games in a single day

I’m still a little unsure if focusing on our blind accessibility up front was right from Stem Stumper. We definitely value our support from the blind community and we made the game with them in mind from the start, but I wanted to position Stem Stumper as a great puzzle game that’s also blind accessible. Not a game for the blind that everyone else can play. That message was lost in our coverage but we needed to rise above the noise that’s the mobile game’s market. Plus I think we would have been more effective at showing that you can make mainstream games blind accessible if we let people come to that conclusion on their own instead of hand holding them to it.

We also could have made Stem Stumper more social. We launched with GameCenter achievements and Leaderboards but it would be great if there was a way to share with your friends your Stem Stumper awesomeness (a tweet when you earn an achievement or beat a friend on a leaderboard). We skipped out on this to keep our scope manageable but it’d be interesting to explore in our next game.

5) Updating vs. a New Game

I didn’t plan to localize Stem Stumper into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Czech, and Dutch. And I definitely didn’t plan on an Android version. But in the age of digital entertainment and pervasive internet access, games can grow through updates. This gives you time to fix all the bugs you were ok with shipping with, add features you knew weren’t needed on day one and respond to how people are playing the game.

But frankly, its also cheaper for me to keep improving Stem Stumper in ways that I can fix on my own than to start another game.  I don’t have to pay contractors to fix bugs, to port code to Android or to make our UI layout is clearer. I’m not saying this because I’m a scrooge. Once Stem Stumper was out the door we just didn’t have the money to get started on a new project right away.

You can't pay other people in ramen

You can't pay other people in ramen

But its really important that we don’t get stuck here. Ananse Productions needs more experience getting games out and in offering varied experiences. No matter how many improvements get added to Stem Stumper some people just aren’t going find the game fun. You can’t make a single game work for everyone. And while you can make sure you put out the best game possible, nobody is still clear on what makes a hit. Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game. We need to take more cracks at figuring out the mobile market and getting put everything we’ve learned to use.

Data Box: Stem Stumper

Developer: Ananse Productions
Publisher: Ananse Productions
Release Date: April 19, 2011
Platforms: iOS, Android
Number of developers: 1 full-time, 3 contractors
Length of development: 6 months
Development Tools: XCode, Photoshop CS4 / CS5,
Team Traditions Started: Everyone got a copy of “The Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories” and signed each others copies.

Night Owl image from http://thenightowlpresents.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_archive.html
“Plan not available” from http://daughteroftheking89.blogspot.com/2010/04/day-with-no-plan.html
Games images from http://gamerlimit.com/2010/05/ccpsa-how-to-save-money-on-your-games/
Ramen picture from http://wendistry.com/get-ramen-profitable/

 

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