MysteryPhone: Post Mortem

August 11, 2014

You know that feeling when a project is finished? I mean truly complete? No more odds and ends, emails, or updates. It is a beautiful feeling. MysteryPhone has been an interesting journey, due to its timing, scope, and supporting partners. I’m amazed with what we were able to build given the constraints, but I certainly wish it could have gone smoother. The game is live, and will be playable for anyone in the Minneapolis, MN area through August 16th, 2014 (Apple Store Download, Android Store Download).

It was a team of three for the most part. Myself, Jerry Belich, leading development and design, David Pisa directing the story development and narrative, and Megan Dowd project managing.

MysteryPhone Map

The dynamic map view in MysteryPhone.

The visual aesthetic turned out decent enough considering it was created by yours truly, a developer but NOT an artist. It was functional! Here is a look at the interactive fiction aspect.

MysteryPhone Interaction

The interactive fiction component of MysteryPhone.

What went right?

We created something new, and unique. A location-based story unfolding over realtime, with complex interactive fiction mysteries set in the locations you have traveled to. The amount of content is astounding, far more than anyone could hope to play in a single day. It is something we’ll be proud to show off, and we can use it to create more new experiences. I want to develop a better interface for creating the stories themselves though. Here is an image showing maybe a fiftieth of one of the story layouts. Insane! Dialoguer Our team loved working together. I’ve known David for many years and have immense respect for his work in theatre. He doesn’t just write and design puzzles, but also managed business aspects that very few in the theatre industry are capable of. Megan happens to also be an actress, so our backgrounds certainly allow for a special kind of kinship. She is also incredibly organized, and able to juggle the complex components that come together to make something like this.

I have a lot of years of coding, game development, and mobile design behind me, along with agency experience which has toughened me to handle less than ideal working conditions. I took a chance on the technology we used to create the game. I’d been interested in learning Unity as a cross-platform tool for games and interactive apps, which was scary, but paid off in the end by successfully creating a game that runs great across iPhone and Android.

We clearly outlined our budget, and would not accept the project for less, as it would have been devaluing our time and expertise far too much. The budget was less than what it would be for a standard client, but it was an art festival and we understood the cut necessary to participate. That doesn’t mean free, or so low that it puts the project in danger.

I made the risks and concerns we had for the project very clear to our sponsor Northern Spark in our official proposal and specifications for which they had to sign off. This came in handy when defending ourselves during some of the what went wrong.

What went wrong?

I was overbooked. The Choosatron was in heavy development, including a lot of national and international travel. It was hard enough to find time to code for the Choosatron, let alone another large project. This led to a lot of anxiety, reduced the amount of time David and I could work on the story design together, and made it harder to see red flags, allowing them to cause more damage.

Our contract to allow beginning the project was a month and a half late from what we were initially told, and almost a month late from the deadline they stated for getting it to us. This cost us a LOT of time.

There were meetings and discussions with Northern Spark and city officials about integrating our game with other physical aspects of the festival, and with other projects existing in the spaces. We were very open to all of this, but not one aspect of these extensions were ever followed up, which made it feel like a waste of time, and convinced us that next time we should stay as insular as possible as to focus on our creative purpose.

There were various kinds of support we had requested from Northern Spark from the beginning, including a good faith effort on additional funding to match our requested budget (the agreement was for our bare minimum budget), and help with design and marketing to get the game visibility. These items were not well documented or fleshed out, so as time passed they were either literally forgotten by NS, or resources simply weren’t available. I attribute this, and the meetings amounting to nothing a result of NS being just as overwhelmed as we were. Promises are easy, but execution is much harder. Lack of documentation of those promises I view this as a failure on both our parts.

The final version of the game wasn’t approved for the Apple Store in time for the Northern Spark event. We submitted later than we wanted, but still had a week and were hopeful. Sadly, they didn’t get to it, and rejected expedited review requests (which are a real thing, and this frustrated me greatly as one of the reasons in Apple’s drop-down box was time-sensitive events).  Throughout the process I had made it clear (including in approved project specifications) that if the game was complete and live for the Google Play (Android) Store, we had fulfilled our contractual obligation of the finished project. There was some frustration around this as they didn’t agree, until we showed documentation of their agreement, which got us all on the same page again. Document everything, and even record meetings if at all possible. Or at least, followup meetings with summaries, and get confirmation that the other party has the same understanding. This is for your safety AND the clients.

We worked through that issue however, and compromised to increase the playtime for the final event occurring August 16th, their city sponsored event Discovery Day. Instead of just allowing a day to play, it increased to over a week, with parts of the narrative unfolding even before that.

We felt that there were a lot of misunderstanding about what we were creating, and the incredible amount of work it was. It wasn’t always clear if we had the creative reigns or not, and felt at times we weren’t trusted to complete our work. We understood the need for making sure we were on schedule and success was realistic, but the misunderstandings made finding anything useful in the feedback and criticisms difficult. This is definitely a challenge using technology that isn’t necessarily understood by the client, which isn’t entirely their fault.

In summary…

Would we work on a Northern Spark project again? Maybe, but with a some caveats before signing anything. I definitely won’t unless I actually have the free time, which means I’ll have to stick to my guns from the beginning. Realistically, we should have backed out of this project as soon as the contract was as late as it was.

I DID learn a lot about Unity and am thrilled to do more work using such a powerful tool. I learn best when thrown in the fire, and in that sense, this project was ideal. We also have a cool platform to make any number of location-based interactive fiction games. I don’t know exactly what we might do with it, but it is a great demo at the very least. Neither party was perfect as far as this project goes, and I certainly don’t hold any ill will toward any of the Northern Spark folk, and at the end of the day, that’s something to be happy about.