[Continuing extracts from our wondrous sister publication Game Developer magazine, here's part of the exclusive postmortem of Wii exclusive The Conduit from the High Voltage folks that forms the cover story for the August issue.]

The latest issue of Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of High Voltage Software's The Conduit, written by the studio's Eric Nofsinger and John Olson.

The Conduit, an original property, represented a big step for Chicago-area independent developer High Voltage Software, which has traditionally worked with licensed IP. It was also an experiment on the Wii platform, attempting to sell a hardcore shooter on a system known for its more casual fare.

The following excerpts from Game Developer magazine's recent postmortem, published in the August 2009 issue, illustrate how High Voltage Software overcome obstacles along the way to realizing the sci-fi shooter.

As the authors inquired, "As a company, we’ve been successful in managing and sustaining our publisher relations as a development partner -- but how would we fare as our own masters? Could we apply what we learned as work-for-hire developers to our own creations?"

First Original IP Title

A decade and a half of licensed games is a vast amount of experience for a studio, but as the authors reveal, it's different experience to working with original IP:

"As the company’s first full original IP, everyone was incredibly excited about the potential of the project and wanted to make his or her mark on the game. We had often dreamed of developing our own IP, but learned during the initial preproduction phase of development that we weren’t entirely prepared for the enormity of this daunting endeavor. It would have been easy to get lost at sea without a licensing Sherpa providing us our typically detailed property style guides, scripts, and all manner of assets to draw inspiration from.

"Even more terrifying, we were missing another layer of project management -- our external publishing partner -- vigorously overseeing the development process, wrangling the scope and direction, and supplying actionable feedback. Would we blow our budget and not reach our goals? It was a completely new development environment for us and one that took some adjustment on all levels of the company.

"The early going was unbelievably challenging as we worked to define a solid vision for the game. We knew we wanted a first-person shooter on the Wii. We knew we wanted to play up the conspiracy elements in a near-future Washington D.C. We knew we had great tech and could offer one of the best-looking games on the console. The rest was much, much vaguer. We were accustomed to having a publisher help define our art style, help establish the story or mission beats, and give input toward the desired style of gameplay (“We want GTA4 in space!”).

"As a result, roles weren’t initially as well-defined and quite a few signals got crossed, with some directions being interpreted as Holy Writ, while at other times they were consigned to the suggestion box. The early days on The Conduit at times resembled The Tower of Babel, with copious frustrations, disappointments, gnashing of teeth, and pulling of hair at all levels of High Voltage.

"The story has a happy ending, nonetheless, and the ship was righted. As the communication and management problems became clearly identified, an internal framework for feedback and discussion was implemented and the process became a great deal more formalized.

"In many ways, we modeled our system on something we knew very well—the traditional publisher-developer model—with “official” feedback being given, estimates made, and a single executive decision-maker giving the go-ahead for a particular feature, functionality change, or gameplay adjustment. Executive management became the “external publishing partner” and license sign off. This fundamentally eliminated the majority of the confusion and aggravation, and allowed for a much clearer direction to take shape."

Technology vs. Design

And as any developer knows, there's a big difference between having capable tech in terms of being able to put pretty pixels on the screen, and having capable tech in terms of useful, flexible, robust tools:

"We had some fantastic technology before kicking off the project, but we weren’t entirely prepared to use it in full production. The toolsets weren’t robust enough and the team wasn’t sufficiently practiced with the pioneering techniques and procedures essential for implementing and taking full advantage of our new technology. The product development team wasn’t comprehensively prepared to hit the ground running once the production bell rang.

"Inevitably, a cyclical struggle began. There was a continuous back-and-forth between our technology team and our product development team throughout the creation of The Conduit.

"In retrospect, there’s undeniably a sense now of “if only we’d known this earlier.” While this process is an inevitable part of creating innovation and we’d like to have quite a few “do-overs” (certainly not unique to our project), it was perhaps compounded in our case as we worked diligently to discover all the new shaders, lighting systems, and post-processing effects that we now had available to us.

"Our early focus on the technology (largely aimed at creating great visuals and giving a current-gen look on the Wii) did deeply impact the fundamental game design on many levels. In a few cases during early development, creating a dazzling game trumped creating a fun game as we learned the shiny tech and pipeline.

"It was certainly not intentional, but the sexy and easily distracting realities of new engine creation caused us to occasionally lose focus on the “fun” as preliminary product development began and instead focus on the technical and more bling-oriented aspects of the game."

Focus

But, as so many development postmortems make clear, maintaining a strong sense of focus can overcome a vast number of stumbling points, and High Voltage was no exception:

"This is tough to adhere to consistently, but by and large we did a good job of defining a solid and compelling feature set and didn’t waste a lot of cycles on a system or feature that we felt was not essential to the final game.

"It’s always a tough decision saying no to something, or to pull the plug on functionality that just isn’t coming along, or even worse, to stop working on something that has big potential but just isn’t supported by the budget or schedule.

"A good example of this commitment to quality is our “girlfriend” mode. We got a ton of feedback during development that people wanted an “in the same room” experience, so we spent a little time adding a second reticule that would allow a second player to play the game with a friend along the lines of Super Mario Galaxy.

"On paper, it sounded like a good idea and perhaps even a nice solution to allow a buddy to join in the action, but after quickly prototyping it, we discovered it wasn’t very much fun at all. Our primarily run-and-gun experience encourages a lot of camera movement—something the 2nd player couldn’t control—and the end result was ultimately frustrating for both players. We did recognize that there was potentially something to the concept of the mode, but it would have required significant additional work to make it fun and polished. Magnifying the risk, it would have required work from all of our disciplines, so we cut it."

Additional Info

The full postmortem for The Conduit explores "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the August 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a middleware developer feedback roundup, a feature on fixed camera positions in games, an in-depth examination of different methods of damage arbitration in multiplayer games, and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of this edition as a single issue.