Team Aurora Games, A Post Mortem

I’m sure this is something that you’ve been wanting to read about.

It’s hard to begin with something like this, honestly. I guess I’ll start by saying that I’m no longer with Team Aurora, and haven’t been since May 2014. It’s crazy to think that 9 of us, for the majority of Team Aurora’s most active life, had been just jamming out this crazy game, Grey. And it never really saw the light of day.

Yes, sure, we did go to PAX East 2014, but it never saw the release that each of us had planned out in our minds. We all had these great ideas for a game and we all poured our hearts and souls into this amalgamation of ideas. Grey, and Team Aurora are massive topics, so I want to break down this post into a few sections that will discuss how and why we got together, what happened with the kickstarter, development issues, and more.

Background

In October 2011, I was approached by a classmate, who we will call B, with an idea to make a game in our spare time. He pitched the general idea of just making something on the side so that we can stay busy and hone our skills. We could use it as something on a resume or just a project to show friends and family. I had been developing games for many years before going to college and I thought I would be able to offer some advice in the process of developing games.

The team was quite large from the start. We had 5 programmers, 3 designers, and a producer. B naturally rose up as the leader and was facilitating weekly meetings and more. At our first meeting we all started to get to know each other and learn a little bit about what we could do. It was clear from the start that we all shared one passion: Games. But before we could do anything, we started to think of a name for our group. We started to think of what the inspiration was for certain game company names, and one of the designers on the team, R, had a dog named Aurora. We liked the idea of naming the company after his dog, so we rolled with it.

With a name for our game all set, we started pitching concepts to each other trying to come up with an idea that each of us could follow and get in to. I never really got into the story aspect of a game when starting a new project. I always focused on systems, and things I loved about games before making a story. As the ideas started to fill up the whiteboard and everyone was bouncing ideas around, it was evident that everyone wanted to make an RPG game. As I learned from personal experience, you do not want to make an RPG game for a first project. But being young and timid, I never voiced my concern. I was however taken away by my thoughts of how I would go about programming this game.

Over time, and after many meetings we started forming the concept for the game we all imagined and would eventually become Grey. I was a prolific programmer and started programming tiling systems and AI systems and all sorts of things so that we could start laying the groundwork for the game. But by this time we were all contacted by B. B was leaving our group and dropping out of college. He had made the decision that college wasn’t for him and he wanted to do something else with his life. B came to me and handed the reigns over, he knew that I had the most experience developing games and asked me to take Team Aurora and our concept, Grey, to completion.

Grey: The Lost Technology

We quickly realized that Grey was going to be a pretty large game, and a big undertaking for us as full-time college students, but we thought with the right planning we could finish in a year. But we needed to make some changes if that was going to happen. Firstly we didn’t have any artists. We started asking around and talked to who we all thought were the top creative talent in our year, C and M. After some chatting, they were interested and came to a meeting. They decided that wanted to join and we left the creativity for the game come from them. They loved what we were going for and had a lot ideas.

We started getting concept art going and had some game jams working on the game. We all decided that we wanted to use XNA and build a game engine. Since none of us had direct experience working on a game of this size, we thought, “How hard could it be?” Oh what a mistake that was. We had no tools, no way for the designers to make quests or dialogue or characters. Anything really. So I had ideas on how we would lay out all of this work and started jamming on it. I worked on this game probably every single day, designing code flow, ui, editors, etc. I worked on a lot of tools for the team.

I don’t want to make this seem like a one man battle… We had other programmers, J, F, and D. D was busy working on other projects, but had initially come in with the potential to be our media person. D would manage our twitter and other services for us. D began to get preoccupied and could not contribute as much as he wanted to. F and J were both pretty excited to get working on stuff and J was pretty interested in artificial intelligence. But we had a lot of groundwork to lay down before we could start doing anything. I did my best to distribute the workload to each of us. We used git and bitbucket as source control for our work, so we were able to iterate pretty easily. But most of us still had some learning to do with it, and over time we all became proficient with it. Despite that we worked like crazy to get a game together and load in and move around and start iterating on something.

Then summer hit and we were all impacted pretty hard by it. We had discussions on putting in 12 hours each per week on the game. Each of us were putting in some hours. I was almost always hitting the amount, and most of the team was hitting it too. However, F was struggling to make the meetings (we were pretty flexible about them), and we all could tell something was going on. I had some chats with F about his performance and what was happening. He assured me that he would get going on stuff. Some time passes and we still see nothing from him, despite having assigned some tasks to him. I ask him what was going on and he was discouraged because portions of his code (something around 50%-75%) had been rewritten and he felt like his contributions didn’t mattter. They did matter, but as development goes, we all find better or more efficient ways of doing things, and we will end up rewriting or improving.

This turned into a pretty hard situation for us because we knew we wouldn’t see any contributions from F, and it hurt to see him go. It hurt in particular for me because I had never been in a situation to tell someone that they had been “fired”. It took me a lot of courage to make the phone call (it was still summer and we couldn’t meet in person), but I think the team benefited from it because we didn’t have to assign tasks and see them collect dust.

Kickstarter

Early in the development of Grey, we had a lot of art coming in, and a lot of really cool story development and mechanics planned out by our designers. We were all really ecstatic, but from the early inception of our group, we had always been hearing about the business side from B. B was really into the side of running a business and not so much developing a game. I don’t know if he saw it as a source for money or if he was just being safe, but after he left I think some of us were scared about what would happen if we were to not take care of registering as an official business or having our copyrights verified.

We rushed into the town hall and got our paperwork together to register as an LLC and to get a Tradename. We got it notarized and sent it out. Once we were official, we were still in the phase that we need legal software to be developing this game or we could get sued and go to jail, or what have you. So that’s how we came up with the idea to make a Kickstarter. We all sat down in a meeting and looked at what we wanted to do with the game, and how much time we had in college. We thought long and hard about it. The biggest questions fell to us programmers about our capabilities. I think maybe we all felt a little cocky, but we gave bold estimates saying that we could do this by X date and that by Y date. Although what we really should have been doing was doubling the time we needed to get these features done. We never considered feature creep or our own inability to stick to the plan. We always strived for something greater, and that struck us hard in the later months of development.

But we were excited to create a Kickstarter, and we were contacted by a friend who was doing film work for the school and he said he wanted to document our journey. We were excited to get some coverage on what we were doing and we asked if he could help with our Kickstarter video. He was happy to help, and I think he did a really great job. We all think he did an awesome job! We all felt like it looked very professional. But for me, looking back, we should have been more realistic on what we asked for. We looked professional, but our knowledge of game industry was not that of someone who actually was a professional. The money was requested was not realistic.

Back to the Kickstarter itself. We weighed the budget of what we needed to be legal, and we looked into what was allowed by some of our current software and how it relates to commercial purposes. Most everything checked out, but we still needed some licences for photo editing software and money to buy a soundtrack. We literally asked for the amount we needed to get those. We didn’t ask for money to pay ourselves. Actually, we never made any money from the game, and at the end of the years only lost money, continually reporting losses on our taxes.

Once we meticulously looked over the Kickstarter, over and over, we hit the launch button. It was alive! We all couldn’t have been more happy. But one of the many oversights we made was that we had literally nothing to show for in-game play in first half of the Kickstarter. We just had an idea and that was it. We all resolved that we need to jam on this game real hard to get anything even remotely presentable. We got to work and spent hours on hours working on the game to create the demo video that went live on the Kickstarter page. To be honest, some of it we hacked together for the video, but most of that was done correctly by the end.

After a long 30 days we generated enough interest from users of Kickstarter to get funded!

Grey Development Post-Kickstarter Success

By the end of the summer, Grey wasn’t entirely in a state to send out to our backers and we made a post to say we needed more time. People understood, and that was nice of them.

We needed music  so we reached out to some of the people who contacted us looking for opportunities, and we talked to a guy who lived in Hollywood, and he sent us some samples. We really liked his stuff and wanted to talk to him more. We did a few Skype meetings and he was really laid back about finding a price that worked for both of us and was willing to give us a little more music than we initially paid for. We really couldn’t have found a better composer for the money we paid. After many meetings and months we ended up with the most amazing soundtrack. We shared some of the tracks with our backers and used the music at events we would occupy and it was awesome.

By this time, I think it was about 1.5 years after the Kickstarter and we had something radical coming together. We had audio transitions in the game, some AI, dialogues, map transitions and many enemies. The editor was even coming together. I had shifted some of the media responsibilities over to one of our designers, B. He was posting twitter updates and everything. We posted a few updates on our blog, and the kickstarter backers seemed happy that we were developing the game still.

We realized that we were going to be graduating soon and really needed to get things into gear. So we brought in some “interns”, an artist and business manager. I couldn’t take care of all of the business things anymore and wanted someone to take care of stuff like that. We needed to keep the development team developing. I had shifted most of the social media responsibilities to our business manager and she was busy doing her thing and B was able to continue designing mechanics for the game. Our new artist also fit in really nicely with C and M and she was making some really great art!

We were about 90% complete with art, and most of the systems were done in the game, and editor was nearly complete. But the game still didn’t feel right. It was interesting, but it wasn’t fun. After 2 years of development, the game wasn’t living up to our expectations, and the way we did the animations wouldn’t allow for as fluid of combat as we hoped. Despite this, we did all we could with what we had so we could get this game to the public.

We wanted to generate some hype so our business manager found a tech conference in Burlington for us to go to and was able to source a table for free! We went and our game generated a lot of buzz there. We had our sound track playing and we were able to really pitch our game as the cool and awesome product we envisioned. We had kids walk by who stuck there faces to the tv and fell in love with the game. At this conference we still had nothing playable, but people were still interested, nonetheless. We went to another conference hosted at our college, Green Mountain Games Festival where we had a full table and C was doing concept art, and we had a playable demo of the game for spectators. We got a lot great feedback and we were still improving on the game day after day.

We got the point where the game felt good, and development was winding down. It was nearing a point where the designers could design nearly the entire game (with the exceptions of cutscenes, but we decided to scrap that). However, we all realized how close we were to graduating and needed to do something quick.

Most of us had accepted job offers from other companies because we all wanted to get paid. We wanted to see some money, and we all had developed and honed our skills to a great degree. This was not great for Grey though. The team got together, and we discussed cutting features to scale back and get the game to play well and be fun. We started dropping features and working more on our showy features. We did get a little further in how it played and the combat was getting really interesting with multiple combos and finishers. We were all getting excited again. We got the opportunity to go to PAX East 2014 and bought a table. Some of the team went down and showed the game. I couldn’t make it for the entire weekend, but was able to get down for a day and we generated massive amounts of interest with this.

We all felt like it had gotten to a good point. Good enough for the remaining members of the team to handle the final touches.

Post-Graduation

Once we all graduated, it was time to hand over the reigns to D as he was free now to work on Team Aurora projects. I gave him all the credentials for our social media, website, servers, etc. I also transferred over all business documents and similar official documentation. Once this was done with, I hoped to see updates on the Kickstarter and the twitter, but it pretty much went dead after I transferred it over. Before transferring the Kickstarter over, I tried to change my name, but it didn’t work. Kickstarter would not allow it. I also tried to email Kickstarter many times but consistently never heard anything back from them. It was a real disappointment to me to experience absolutely terrible support from a company that assists in funding projects worth millions of dollars.

All in all, this is essentially where it ends for me. This massive, massive, massive project of ours, 2 years out from Kickstarter end and nothing to show backers for it. I think in our hearts we were all a little disappointed with ourselves and how we handled the development of the project. I have to hand it to the team though, we worked unbelievably hard to get the game where we got it for the PAX presentation and I couldn’t be more proud of the work we did there.

I think as a team we had written something like 60,000 lines of code for the game and had something like 1GB of art assets. The game was huge, but that’s what you get when you make an RPG for a first project. I think if I had the choice to do it all over again, I would smack down any request for an RPG and suggest we make mobile games. Mobile games are fun and can actually generate revenue! There is a low startup cost too.

 

So, that’s the story behind Grey and Team Aurora. Thanks.

 

Tom

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