Taking Stock

In the past week, I ran a booth at PAX for the first time, received a ton of feedback from my first wave of beta testers, and announced that Darknet will be coming to Gear VR. All of this temporarily distracted me from actually working on the game, and now I’m gearing up to dive back into the code and finally finish the thing. It seems like a good moment to pause and do some public reflection.

State of the Game

Working alone is a sure way to lose perspective on your work, and I’ve been cloistered on Darknet for months. I knew that I needed to get other eyes on the game, but for a long time I neglected to actually do so, and I only recently started doing playtests. Then, over the past week, I was suddenly hit with an avalanche of external feedback.

First of all, I spent last weekend in Seattle showing off Darknet as part of the Indie Megabooth at PAX Prime. I had attended PAX East earlier in the year, but Darknet only had a tiny kiosk there. This time, I had a real 10’x10’ booth, complete with a banner, a TV, and three demo stations. (Thanks to Oculus for loaning me two DK2s for the demos!) I was showing a very short “flavor demo” of the game, which meant that over a thousand people got to see the game in action. In general, the demo was well-received, and some people seemed to really love it:

However, I’ll readily admit that the demo was shallow, and since Darknet is meant to be a deeper, slower experience, it’s not a great source of feedback. To address that problem, I also brought along the full beta of the game, which I showed to the press who visited. Those who played the beta had a chance to really dig into the game, and thankfully, they seemed to like it too. It was extremely gratifying to watch players figure out the strategic nuances of the game in real time, and this exposure led to an insightful piece from Joystiq and a glowing review from the DailyDot (“It is the best Oculus Rift game I’ve ever played”), among other mentions. So that went well!

Meanwhile, I was also starting to get detailed feedback from external beta testers for the first time. I had asked for beta testers on Reddit and was flooded with more volunteers than I could handle (many apologies to those who I had to skip). All of them sent reports of bugs, balance issues, and ways that the game confused them. Many also often reported that their time in Darknet was the longest single span of time that they’ve ever spent in VR, and a few had very nice things to say (e.g. “Hands down the best VR game I have ever played!”), which was a welcome ego boost.

After that, I’m much more confident about the game and comfortable with its direction. But with so much new feedback, I’ve also created a gargantuan to-do list, and there isn’t much time left to actually go through it.

Finishing Touches

After Ciess won the VR Jam, I figured that the earliest possible launch date for the Oculus Rift would be at the end of 2014, so from the very beginning, my schedule was set up to finish Darknet around now. Actual development eventually started to lag behind that schedule, but it was starting to look like the Rift wouldn’t come out until next year anyway. I figured I had plenty of time.

When I found out about Gear VR, it suddenly became clear that I would actually have to keep to my original schedule. I cut a couple of features in response, but I still felt that it was possible to finish in time. I would just have to buckle down and get working. So, for several months now, I’ve worked nights and weekends by default (although I’ve taken appropriate breaks and days off to keep my sanity and productivity up). I’m not terribly proud of this, but I do think it was necessary if I wanted to deliver the game I had in mind.

As my presumed deadline got closer and closer, I worked more and more. Before PAX, I was in the middle of a big final push, hoping to finish the game before the show started. I built a massive task list, and I was burning through it quickly, but I ultimately didn’t complete it in time. I left the list behind so that I could handle PAX, which was a nice break from the grind. Now that I’m back home and the game is announced, it’s time to get back to it!

Unfortunately, my task list has grown enormously after getting all the beta feedback, and now it’s even larger than it was before my “final” crunch. I feel good about the game, and I know how to improve it, but I’m a little scared about the amount of work I’ve set out for myself. I’m usually pretty comfortable under pressure, but I got my first stab of real anxiety just before PAX, and I’m feeling it again now. And that’s not just because I’m unsure about whether I’ll be able to work quickly enough.

The Future

The announcement of the Gear VR headset was a lot of fun, and I took the opportunity to talk about the new hardware (and Darknet) as much as I could. So did a lot of other developers! There were games announced by the folks behind Monument Valley, The Room, and Temple Run, not to mention the announcements from Marvel and Harmonix and Dreamworks.

Intellectually, I know that all this support is good for the ecosystem, but emotionally, I’m feeling a little intimidated. Darknet is fairly well-known among a very small group of VR enthusiasts, but not much beyond that. I’m always keenly aware of the danger of obscurity, that scourge of indies, and now I’m wondering if my one-man game will be able to stand out in the crowd. (Incidentally, this also makes me feel an instant camaraderie with other solo Gear VR indie devs like Sergio Hidalgo, Llyr ap Cenydd, Justin Moravetz, and Drash, even though I haven’t actually met most of them.)

Oculus has made it clear that that the release of the Gear VR Innovator Edition will be “an early-access, beta-version of the device for developers and enthusiasts rather than a final consumer product”, so it’s clear that the initial release is just going to be the first step on a long road. I may be gearing up for a “final” sprint, but I know that I’m going to keep developing and improving Darknet for months after that, and I plan to expand the game significantly before the eventual PC release. It took about a year to get Darknet to its current state, and it may take about a year before I find out whether it’s a success or not.

Luckily, there isn’t much left to decide until after Gear VR launches, so there’s no real point to worrying or second-guessing myself. In most ways, the die is cast. I just need to execute.


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A game by E McNeill.