The Post Mortem of Playback Trauma®: In Sickness
I’m back! This is the post-mortem for the game Playback Trauma: In Sickness (PTIS). The game is a horror/romantic visual novel set in New Jersey on the night of the apocalypse. The story begins with Jay, a recently awoken coma patient who is hitchhiking across the state of New Jersey to confess to his crush that he likes her. He is picked up by Joy, a young pizza delivery woman who happened to be driving by. The two of them trek down to the Jersey shore while experiencing horror, philosophical debates, and real-life locales. They form a deep connection together that they’ll need in order to survive the night.
This is my third commercial game on Steam, and the second in the Playback Trauma series. I’ve been releasing a game on my birthday for the last three years, and it’s been quite an interesting experiment! Although I’m done with it for now, I think it will make for great conversation at parties, networking events, and companies I may be interviewing for in the future. Unfortunately, I may not have pushed the birthday thing hard enough on social media, because I do believe it’s a serious marketing beat. Maybe I could’ve done better on Reddit with it, and people did say happy birthday and all that but I don’t think it was as strong as it could’ve been.
Github says I started working on the game a couple weeks before Playback Trauma: The Beach (PTTB) was released, so I had a fairly good idea that this was where I wanted my attention to go afterwards. It took me two weeks to actually make another commit after the initial one with some writing attached to it, but that’s how the project started. I made the project with the game engine Ren'py.
This was fairly easy, since most VN's are fairly similar in this regard. While that means this game wasn't going to be super special or ground-breaking, the expectation from players would be pretty clear.
What Went Right: Since the game was a VN and thus fairly simple, all I really had to figure out was what the player would be doing besides reading. I decided to have the player answer questions, which is again standard fare for a VN. The questions would then affect the ending in a small way. Some questions are as weird as I could make them (to reflect the character who was asking) and others were morally or romantically philosophical. I've developed a keen interest in asking questions and these were some of my favorites.
What Went Wrong: I can't say anything really bad went wrong. Besides being fairly plain in terms of gameplay, there's nothing else to note.
I went into this with the black/white/red palette and Ed, Edd, and Eddy style in my mind. To make it work I needed artists. The second half of the art (Making things ‘move’ even though it was basically a static image) was possible for me to do because it mainly consisted of me erasing and tracing things over and over again.
What Went Right: At the beginning of production (and even a bit before that) I knew that if I was gonna make a visual novel it would have to be an artstyle that I could kind of work with even though I’m not an artist. I had always been curious about a black and white color palette and I asked my sister to design the very first concept piece for the game, and it came out really well! This is what I started taking to potential contractors to see if it was possible to create an entire game in that style. Since this wasn’t an insanely complex style, I was able to get involved in the editing of the images. One of the other drivers of the style is that it moves like the cartoon Ed, Edd, and Eddy even when the characters aren’t doing anything. This was really important to have as I thought it was synonymous with the style. I knew that I would have to pay for all of the art, and I dedicated half of the entire budget to art (and almost used all of it). Instead of throwing every single art task at the artists, I was able to purchase a XP Pen tablet and handle the traceovers of each individual piece myself. To get the images to appear like they are moving, all I did was take the finished version of each scene, erase the parts that would move, then trace over them 3 times each for every scene. Ren’py came with some image looping functionality right out of the box which was insanely useful, and it saved me a ton of time.
After the game was released I was told the artstyle looked great. I was really happy to hear this, because it meant I made a good call choosing the overall style in the first place and the artists did their jobs very, very well. It was all I could’ve asked for from our players.
Who I hired: I was almost way too relaxed about hiring because I didn’t have anyone else on the team until March, after GDC. I met my first artist on a whim when I attended Speed Networking for the first time, and when she mentioned she enjoys Visual Novels and horror I asked her right there if she would be willing to join my project. A few days later a contract was signed and we were on our way!
The artstyle in general was simple enough that super detailed images were unnecessary, and I think that was better for everyone overall. It meant less work put into things that the player may not look at or care about, and more attention given to the moving parts. This in turn led to fairly quick completion of images.
What Went Wrong: I want to preface this by saying my contractors were and are incredibly talented, driven, and passionate about what they do. While working, there came a point where I realized I had made a mistake in my hiring, and it’s something I learned as we went along. When you hire someone who is in the middle of their education they are focused mainly on their studies, and certainly not giving you 100% of their attention or time. Because of this, I hired an additional artist (who was also in the middle of their college education). The same problem happened where there was less time than initially projected to dedicate to PTIS, and I have myself to blame. I never recognized that my artists may have been pushing themselves to do more with less and less time. I caution those reading this to vet active students to see how much time they can potentially offer the project, and ensure it is a standard that can be met. I wound up hiring a third artist who I had also worked with previously, and it was just what the project needed. All of this is to say I miscommunicated and thought the artists could do more when, in fact, they could not. I should have had a process in place to account for this but I didn’t. If I could go back and do it again I would ask them specifically for the quantity of hours they could dedicate to the project per week/day, then if those numbers weren’t being hit we could talk about what I could do to help get us there or reach some other agreement.
What Went Right: To start, the only audio-based person I signed onto the game was a musician. All other sound effects were purchased or recorded by hand. I was able to contractually use a single song from a musician I worked with previously, and signed on an additional musician to do the rest of the music. I found her while browsing LinkedIn one day, and saw she messaged one of my ex-employers asking if they needed music done. I decided to reach out to her right there asking if she was interested in working on a horror project, and that was that! I took a look at her portfolio, asked her some questions I was curious about, and had her sign our contract asap. I don’t know where the sudden burst of confidence came from that allowed me to just DM her like that, but I’m so glad I did. I was and am to this day ridiculously proud of the songs that were created for this game, and I always will be. I’m not joking, the music is so freaking good! I didn’t need too many songs, and after asking if there was anything I could improve on as a leader I had some good feedback.
For everyone reading, I think the most important thing that you can do for your contractors is give them references that clues them in on what the songs sound like in your head and how they are supposed to be used in-game. This Twitter thread is a good resource: https://twitter.com/atelierjoshua/status/1588181051037585408
What Went Wrong: There wasn’t much that went ‘wrong’ honestly. If I can gripe about anything it would be that sometimes I would ask for additional changes on a song. The fact that this happened at all was because of my own miscommunication and lack of planning. That and perhaps my musician had a life/family/other job of her own, so again not always available to me or the project. This was remedied partway through development when we sat down for a call to see what could be done, and from there we projected a date for when all the music could be completed.
In regards to the sound effects, it took me a very long time to get to the point where I was purchasing and then implementing them in the game. I mean I waited until there were less than 30 days until launch to start getting serious about it. I think the reason for this was because I was afraid of having to spend the time searching for a good sound, buying it, updating our finances, cutting up the sound so that it was usable in-game, and potentially designing it to be echo-y. I am educated as a programmer, and doing new things like this scare me. I’ve learned over the years however that doing new and scary things makes those things not scary, so I’ve gotten way better about it.
If there’s anything I seriously slacked on this time around it was QA. I didn’t hold dedicated sessions with my friends like in my previous games. In fact no one tested it at all except me, and even then it was rare that I hit the play button on the game. I once went two months without even seeing what it would look like in-game. I think I did this because I was afraid of seeing how it would turn out and being disappointed. I was stressed enough writing and coordinating art/audio that I didn’t want the added pressure of realizing the game wasn’t even that good.
What Went Right: All I can say here is that I got damn lucky we made a decent game in its own right, and lack of QA wasn’t a death sentence.
What Went Wrong: Had I actually dedicated some resources to set people up for playtests I might’ve written the game a little better, because I realized my writing skills need some work. This realization only came afterwards when a couple of really nice streamers played it and I saw some ideas that were very obvious to me (because I wrote them) were not so obvious to them. There were certainly questions I should have asked like ‘How much would you pay for this?’, ‘How long do you think this should be?’, and ‘What would you expect out of a game like this’? At a certain point, I was so deep in the development juggling so many jobs something had to be sacrificed, and QA was it. Part of the reason I ate it with QA was because I insisted on a 1 year development cycle so this could be released on my birthday while ALSO having a day job.
In general, this game had very, very little code to write. There’s only one ‘if’ statement in the entire game, and I didn’t write it until I was 60 days out from launch day. I guess I was lucky, because most of my time was dedicated to other areas of expertise anyway. It’s also not like I would have done a ton of really cool stuff with any code I could’ve written if I had time, maybe just some nice polish with the UI. Otherwise Ren’py packaged so much useful stuff into the engine itself I didn’t need to do much of the heavy lifting.
What Went Right: As I stated previously, there wasn’t a lot of hardcore code that needed to be written. Ren’py comes out of the box with so much helpful stuff that made my job as a programmer easier.
What Went Wrong: There was a lot I could’ve done to improve the level of polish and ‘wow’ factor of the game through code, but that never happened. Whether that was a skill issue or time issue is debatable, but it’s probably both if I’m honest. Other than the occasional bug to solve there isn’t much more to be said about the programming because there was so little I had to do.
All writing in the game was done by me, and thus was susceptible to being crappy. Coupled with no QA being done until the very end of the development cycle and I had no idea if my work was even good. There was no one to blame for that except myself. The main characters Jay and Joy were modeled after everything I hated about myself and everything I hoped I could become one day, respectively. I don’t think I planned for that, it just went that way once I started putting words down in the script.rpy file and the characters began to take on identities. I realized that what was coming out were two people who reflected me exactly, with a few baked in personality traits. Fun Fact: A few weeks into development I was taking a shower and on one of those aqua sticky note things I wrote down who the main characters were boiled down to a few traits and quirks. All throughout development I would look back at that note if I needed to check if I was on track in writing them. It came in handy!
Coming up with the characters only three of them are named, and everyone else is generic (ex. Shopkeeper, ‘???’, Boyfriend). The two main characters are Jay and Joy, and if you know me and my real name you might realize Jay is pretty uninspired. Going through names I didn’t give a second thought to Jay because it worked and I didn’t wanna debate the usability of my name vs. Ethan or something. Joy was a little trickier. She started off as ‘Sam’, but as I kept writing it didn’t feel like her. Then I started building her character up as a happy, energetic, chaotic young woman and I realized that Joy fits her so well AND it’s what I would name a daughter of my own. That was the last time I had a remote doubt about their names, and it stuck all the way through development.
What Went Right: Since I was the one doing this job entirely on my own, I reported to no one. This saved me time and money not having hired a contractor for it, and whether or not this was a good choice I can’t say. It was fairly easy for me to sit down and just write when I needed to, and I just kept refactoring and rewriting until it was decent. I aimed for the entire story to be 2nd drafted at least, then as the release approached I did a 3rd draft just to be safe and shipped with that. One of the best techniques I think I learned and used was just to keep writing, even when what I had on the paper was completely impractical and wouldn’t work out in the end. I heard about this from a Masterclass by R.L. Stine, and it worked out fairly well for PTIS. This also meant that a lot of parts in the original rough draft of the game were completely different and unusable in the final version. But! On the flip side, when I wrote in this fashion I came up with one of the craziest parts of the story. I needed the characters to be mostly on the road and without cash, but I also had a problem to solve. The problem being that their car was almost out of gas. I think this is where writing gets really interesting… How do you solve a problem like this *legally* with what we are given in the story? There weren’t a lot of options, so I thought about maybe the two characters exploring a graveyard and finding buried treasure. As crazy as that sounds it kinda worked, then a lot of the dialogue and scenes afterward depended on that one little story beat so I had to roll with it. Another part that went great were the major story beats. I didn’t have any problem coming up with insane places and people for the characters to come in contact with. Writing those into the story was one of my favorite parts because I got to truly explore how far these characters would go and who exactly they turned into under pressure. My favorite part of this entire project was a scene that I almost cut out of the game to save time. Joy gets pulled over by a cop after falling asleep while driving, and they both have a conversation. I was thinking about what this cop and her could possibly talk about, so I had her hand over her license so he could take a look (I’ve heard of cops doing this, I have no idea if it’s true but I went with it).
After he comes back he makes her say her name out loud, and I was thrilled when I came up with the idea to have her say the name Ribarro! I decided to canonically throw myself into this universe, and make Joy my daughter. Up until this point, I had no idea when Playback Trauma took place and that scared the hell out of me. I knew I needed to figure that out, and this one scene took care of it for me and made me feel good to have me as a person in a video game (even though I’m not anywhere in the game, just mentioned).
What Went Wrong: Middle parts of the dialogue While I felt really confident coming up with big events in the story, the middle parts in between was what I had the most trouble with. I think even now those parts flowed well but they may have been boring for people to read. To note, I was not educated as a writer and I don’t think I’ve written anything even remotely as long as PTIS since high school (which was about 8 years ago for me). All I knew about writing was what I happened to remember from my school days and potentially any tips I learned from Masterclasses. This worked against me in many ways because it directly affected the level of enjoyment when people played PTIS. To get players in was fairly easy, but I think to keep them in might’ve been a bit harder. Still, I have no idea if my writing was that bad because I’ve gotten so little feedback on the game (again, my own fault). I think there were also a few areas where I didn’t make it clear what was happening. This came most prominently when near the end Joy begins talking to herself in the form of questions (In VNs these spaces are usually reserved for when the player makes choices that affect something, but I decided to add a twist and make the choice text read like Joys’ consciousness was a separate entity).
Production and Managing the Project
I was the point man in charge of the entire project and communication with all contractors. This was the largest team and project I had ever taken on to date, and coupled with all the work I had to do writing and trace overs for the art it wore on me. I still wouldn’t have traded it for anything, because even now the experience I gained leading our team was priceless. I kept track of all our tasks in Trello with a mix of Email for musical pieces and Discord for quick questions. I tried my hardest to stay organized in some way because leading a project of this scale was new for me.
What Went Right: There wasn’t a better team I could’ve put together for this game, and I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was also the first project where I really had to rely on others to get it to completion, because art and audio were two things I wouldn’t be able to complete to a quality standard. For this reason, I was determined to build a team that I could count on and boy did they deliver. Each one of them was so gifted and easy to work with, and my heart swells with pride everytime I think of them. This is also my third commercial project using Trello to handle everything and it’s still working for me! I’ve always heard whispers of tools like Notion or even Jira but I never strayed from Trello because it’s what I know best. Fun fact: At the start of PTIS I decided to use Jira and signed up for an account and everything, then when I got in there I tried to experiment and figure it out and not 20 minutes into that I changed course and just went back to Trello. I wanted Jira on my resume for future career prospects, but not that bad. Besides that, everything went swimmingly for a long time and tasks were getting completed left and right.
What Went Wrong: Communication is the pillar and cornerstone of so much, including game development. While working on the game, this was the first time I depended so heavily on contractors to help me. With PTTB I *might* have been able to complete the game alone or with entirely purchased assets from places. With PTIS there was no way that could’ve happened. Every single frame seen in the game is custom-made to a high quality standard. My mistake was not setting up very clear expectations on what I needed for the game or certain tasks. There are things I didn’t know about leading a team and things I still don’t know, but where was I supposed to learn? I was never taught how to lead a team in college, and incidentally almost nobody in our gamedev spheres teaches leadership. I think you can find info on every single field and sub-field of gamedev except leadership and it bothers me, but alas that is the way of the world. (except for Games Leadership Network)
There were many times during development where I felt that we weren’t gonna make the release date. I estimated the time that the tasks would take but it was extremely rough, and emotion cut through eventually. I got really nervous about it, and I had us refocus on the parts we absolutely needed in order to ship the game. Mainly art, audio, and writing just enough to make the story cohesive. Some of the music we could’ve shipped without, and I made sure that the writing drafts we shipped with made sense, because for a long time they were broken and incoherent. Fun Fact: In the early drafts the characters visited a pawn shop in order to get some cash to pay for gas, but I had to cut that after I realized it would have cost a ton in additional assets.
I also had to cut a scene early in the game when the characters stop at Joys’ home. I wanted the scene to show some infected people standing around Joys’ neighborhood in the street, but unfortunately it was a stretch goal that came in way too late, and would’ve required me to re-write a few places in the story. I was about three and a half weeks out from release day and the changes weren’t something I wanted to risk with the little time I had left.
I think if I was working on this game full-time it might’ve eased the stress on me, but I’m naturally stressed most of the time. I don’t know where this comes from but things weigh heavily on me. One of the reasons I lacked time to work on the project was because I was working on two games at the same time. One to pay the bills, the other being PTIS. I think this is how a majority of small-time indies do things, but it’s really not my style. At least not anymore. This is a situation I have no desire to continue because it really is stressful and it stifles any sort of outside life I may have had. Everyday I woke up, got to work, went on until 5 or 8 PM, then did whatever until I went to sleep. This went on for the entire year and now… I’m hoping I have the sense to change and take back my life.
To clarify, for a few years now I’ve had a rule of never working after 8PM on anything professional. That included work that would pay, and work that wouldn’t (Like PTIS). It was very rare for me to break this rule, and I’m still really glad I kept to it because it’s spared my sanity many times.
Much like with my previous two games, I took a serious backseat to marketing. I had a few ideas and I spent a lot of time in the HTMAG (How to Market A Game) community on Discord but that was really it. What I ACTUALLY did was post to a few Discord servers I’m in, reached out to two very nice streamers who played my game on day 1, posted on LinkedIn, posted on Twitter, and sent out a newsletter post (The newsletter in general has been severely neglected).
What Went Right: My efforts weren’t all in vain, I think the most personally fulfilling part of the marketing was the streamers I reached out to were happy to play the game. Not to mention they were so nice and their respective communities were hilarious! I think I’ll reach out to more people in the future and be more methodical about it. For this game I was strapped for time and just messaged the first people I saw who might be interested in playing it.
I also planned weeklong discounts on all my previous games to coincide with the release of PTIS. The sales during this week were good, much better than they have been at any point over the last year.
Midway through development there was an opportunity to demo the game in the Steam Next Fest so I jumped at the opportunity with my artist and musician. We got the demo ready just in time, but I had to put it out there with a sucky bunch of capsules that I made myself and some screenshots that didn’t convey the style of the game very well (mainly because I hadn’t written polished dialogue for these points yet). I wish I took screenshots of the Fest and where the game ended up, but I didn’t have that kind of foresight. I do have the wishlist data from the days of the fest though!
In the final few weeks of development I called upon my capsule artist to make some new capsules in order for me to create a bundle since I now have at least two Playback Trauma games. It feels good to have a bundle out there and ready for purchase, and it’s already resulted in one sale which I was very happy about!
What Went Wrong: For starters I didn’t put much effort into it. Second up was it took me a really long time to get the Steam page up, and an even longer time to get half-decent screenshots in there. I needed a trailer to get the Steam page up, but to get a trailer I needed at least one panel to display how the game would look, but to get that panel I needed an artist to complete it, and after the artist finished it *I* had to trace over it to give it the roto-scoped style I was going for. All that made the trailer take awhile, then I had to make it myself. Not to mention, I needed additional screenshots to put on the store page and I just didn’t have enough.
One major problem I’ve encountered is the pricing. Midway through development pricing came up and I thought $5 was about how much I should charge, but then I kept hearing about Steam pushing games more based on how much cash they bring in for the platform. I decided then that I should bump the price up to $10 if I could break 1-2 hours of playtime. I did bump it, but then I took it a step further and set the price at $15, my philosophy being ‘When’s the next time I’ll even get to release a game anywhere near a $15 price point?’. This was, on my part, a seemingly grave mistake. It’s now close to two weeks since release, and there have been just shy of 5 sales of the game (3 of which came from my family and friends). My assumption had always been that no matter what kind of game you make or how bad it is you’ll always get at least one sale on day one. This is very much not the case. I have no regrets about bombing on release though. I really wanted this data for myself rather than asking other devs for stats and numbers like some skivvy. My plan now is to do staggered discounts for the next 6 months to a year to find out where wishlisters will buy the game, then permanently reduce the price to that range. That will take awhile, but I’m in no hurry to see the game pay for itself if it ever does.
The entire budget of the game was $5,000 USD and a year of development time. You’ll see that I spent the most on art and audio. If I had outsourced the writing I’m sure I would have spent just as much or more.
Art - $2145 USD
SFX - $84.45 USD
Music - $1300
Marketing - $190
Total Spent - $3719.45
Total wishlist stats
I have no idea. I’m definitely going to keep making Playback Trauma games, and in each one of them I’ll infuse horror perhaps with another genre. I will not be releasing another game on my birthday though. That type of pressure has become a little too much for me, especially now that I can’t live for free anymore. With the time I have each day I’ll be doing research on a few genres and studying what’s good and bad about them. I might also invest in localization for PTIS and PTTB to see if I can boost sales, but that’s a lower priority at the moment. All in all I had a good year with a lot of personal growth and development, and I couldn’t have asked for more. I want to take a final moment to call out my team, they were instrumental in the development of this project and I never would have done this without them. I hope this post-mortem has helped you as much as making it has helped me!
Good luck friend,