• Jonathan Ribarro

Playback Trauma: The Beach, A Post-Mortem



Overview


Playback Trauma: The Beach is a short, found-footage walking simulator about exploring the beach at night. The game was released on PC on January 26th 2022, my birthday!


I first thought of the idea for the game after a mixture of ideas stewed around in my head for a few months. One of the very first ideas came from a movie called Underwater, and for those who have seen it then you may know what I'm talking about here. There's a scene where one of the main characters is out in the open and sees some dust kick up just out of view. They keep looking towards it but it keeps moving steadily, and I thought, what if that happened except it was on the beach with little to no lighting? The idea was born right then and there.


After finishing my first game Altidudes, I had a solid month of time before the release date so I thought a lot about what I wanted to do in the future. I really enjoy horror and I have a TON of ideas floating around in Notes on my phone and elsewhere, so I started thinking about a series of horror games, connected by a singular universe but still not super dependent on each other similar to Outlast or the Amnesia series. My friends were the ones who pushed me over the edge to work on it though. If they hadn't forced me to think about what would really make me happy I wouldn't have taken the risk, and I owe them a lot for that (If they read this, you some real ones)


THE ENGINE


I used Unreal, and I'd been dying to learn it for years prior to PTTB, but I never had a chance to be mentored on the tech or even learn about it in a class (Those classes are always so long and boring I'm sorry). Turns out a small, very short walking simulator is a great way to learn a piece of technology as well as hone your skills in general on the game-making process. Unreal has two big components to programming which is visual scripting and C++, and for this one I decided to go entirely with the visual blueprinting method.


GAMEPLAY


What Went Right


Walking Simulators normally have few gameplay elements besides walking around hence the name, maybe exploring some locations, and building a story for the player to enjoy. My game had no fatal flaws in this regard, and in fact it made many of the development decisions easier. I considered at the beginning to add interactions with objects like other horror games, but eventually decided against it.


What Went Wrong


In all the complaints I've seen for the game so far (including my early testing friends) I really didn't do a great job giving the player things to do. I tried to keep the game within scope as much as possible, and just as well I had to cut a lot of stuff out that I would have loved in the game.



DESIGN


What Went Right


I started out with the small seed of wanting the player to walk on the beach at night with a camcorder in hand and an Outlast-esque nightvision light. That seed sprouted into something beautiful, and that base has done well. Being that this game is the first entry in a series, I kept a lot of things in this one open-ended which gives me a lot of much-needed freedom for the future.


What went Wrong


I was fearful, sometimes even paralyzed by all the design choices I had to make. Literally everything in the game had a potential consequence down the road that I kept thinking about, and at times it stalled production. Another issue that cropped up was people found it difficult to follow the story and events that happened in the game. Based on the couple of negative reviews on the game (Which I am most grateful for), I really need to work on my narrative and design skills. A big gripe with the game was that nothing made sense, and by the end people were just confused. It's unfortunate, but I've made peace with it and I'm just gonna do even better on my next game!


THE CODE


What Went Right


Once I got the hang of the Unreal Visual Scripting stuff I was really surprised by how easy it was to use. Since there wasn't a ton of advanced functionality in the game I could do most of what I needed with collision blueprints that just activated when the player walked into/near them. All of the coded features for the game didn't take long to prototype either, which helped energize me to work on more.


What Went Wrong


It was kind of annoying when visual scripting got more complex to handle than just typing the code out in an IDE or something. I think visual scripting is amazing but there were times when I just wanted to see the code, but I was determined to do the project entirely with the blueprints. The code was also unoptimized, unorganized, and most unpleasant to look at. Sorry for anyone who gets to see it, I just wanted to get the game done!


GAME VERSIONS


What Went Right


I stuck to PC/Mac for this one, and didn't bother with Linux. Being that this was Unreal and I know almost nothing about Linux, I didn't wanna touch it with a 39.5 foot pole. The Windows build went smoothly mostly because I was working 99% of the time on a Windows machine. Once Mac came into the picture it got a little harder.


What Went Wrong


The Mac version of the game took a lot of finicking to get right, and in all took me an extra week of debugging because the engine wouldn't even open to the project. Around the last couple months I tried the Mac version for the first time since month 2, and boy was that a mistake! The engine crashed as soon as the project tried to load in, and it took a real long time for me to track down why it was happening. In the crash logs there was an error coming from a certain scene in the game, which was confusing enough but looking into it further revealed that it wasn't just this scene, it was a line in a Config file that was used for some Sand Deformation tech I got off the asset store. Amazingly, the scene in question didn't USE that tech, which caught me off guard even more. Once I pinpointed the issue I just decided to rip out all the sand deformation stuff because it was causing a big headache and I just wanted to make sure the Mac version was playable. You'll notice this section is quite long, and that's because I ran into Mac problems for weeks. After that whole crashing fiasco I realized the game ran so poorly on my Mac it was literally unplayable, so I had to get to optimizing. I checked every trick I could find on Google and it seemed like most of the lag and frame issues were stemming from the art. After all was said and done the game can kind of do ~30 fps on my Macbook Pro 2018, so to those who played the game on an older machine I'm sorry I did my best!


ART


What Went Right


Thankfully, I worked with some very talented people on this game, and I couldn't have done the art myself. Robert Louttit and Breanna Bakker were my main artists who did various props and building design respectively. The remainder of the art came from the Unreal Marketplace and Fiverr for custom work. In total everything came out very nicely, and the game had a very strong realistic look to it as a result of the quality assets.


What Went Wrong


I have a very limited understanding of textures, LODs, optimization, best practices, and how it all plays into an engine like Unreal. My negligence and lack of knowledge led to a lot of rework, misunderstandings, and a big problem for Macbook users (and potentially anyone playing on an older machine). In the future I may take a class or something to give me a baseline understanding, but we'll see!


AUDIO


What Went Right


For Sound effects and design I purchased most of the sounds from a website called Pond5. However, I'm very proud to say I recorded some of the very sounds that are heard in the game! I've always had a fear about working on music and sounds and I have no idea what it is, but whenever I open up a studio tool like Cubase or Audacity I just get scared that the work won't come out good enough or maybe I recorded it wrong or something. I have a lot more confidence in recording and designing even though I'm still not that great at it. My friend Toby Misselbrook is the reason for that, and it's because of him I just got up and started just DOING it. For informations sake, the audio tools I used were Cubase, Audacity, Soundtoys (Echoboy Jr. and Crystallizer) and an H1n mobile recording device.

For music it all went phenomenally. I contacted the same composer who worked with me on Altidudes, Bert Cole, and he did all the music for PTTB, which came out to 5 tracks and a few stingers. I couldn't have been happier with the results.


What Went Wrong


If anything there were a couple of purchased sounds I ended up not using like a camcorder nightvision sound that was *way* too military spec-ops-ish to feel right. The one I found was way better, then I reversed and it and lowered the pitch for the turn-off sound. Honestly though, audio went most excellently and I don't have many complaints about it.


TESTING


What Went Right


I ran another round of playtests with my close friends and again got some valuable, juicy feedback. All of the feedback I got I plan on using for future horror games (Which is where I am going to stay as a developer for now)


What Went Wrong


I didn't try super hard to act on the feedback given to me because a lot of it would have cost a lot of time and money to change. Of course, most reviews I've seen for the game thus far touch on those exact early comments I got lol. But! It just means my next game will be that much better.


MARKETING


What Went Right


I'll be honest, I actually tried really hard with Altidudes and it went nowhere. With this game it really has done a great job of marketing itself almost strictly through Steam. Not to mention, for all the library logos, store pictures, and etc. those were pictures of a real place in Wildwood New Jersey! I did the usual posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, a newsletter thing, etc. There are actually Youtube videos of people playing it too! This next part is good and bad, but a fairly big Youtube channel (100K subs and 15K views as of now) played it and shit ALL over it. It says right there in the title 'Terrible Indie Horror Game', no joke! If anyone is reading this and has a game in a similar situation, just don't watch that stuff and especially don't read the comments section. I got a good friend of mine to read the comments and he said there was nothing constructive, just a lot of people being mean. I'm not taking the title of the video to heart though, in fact I'm super happy they decided to BUY my game at full price, make a whole video about it, then post a Steam review without me even asking them to. It was all negative, but it's pretty much the best-case scenario for a small fry like me!


What Went Wrong


One thing I completely forgot about was the Steam screenshots. The shots in use currently are mostly from a super old build and I only updated them once. If you look closely, you can even see some weird edge that Unreal puts on screenshots which I didn't even notice until it was too late! I haven't bothered to fix it because the game is still selling and I have so much other work to do. I also didn't reach out to ANY press or news outlets which I told myself I was gonna do because I felt PTTB as a horror game would have gotten more traction. Maybe a big mistake there, but I'll get em with the next one. I did reach out to Horror Games Community (Previously Horror Game Aesthetics) and Hurc was very nice and did a post for my game! That post resulted in 9 wishlists for the day, maybe not much but he was very nice, highly recommend talking to him if you got a horror game on the way!



What I Did (BONUS SECTION)


Here I'll list every little thing I can remember doing to market PTTB:


1) Twitter - Made a simple release tweet for the game, got like no traction because I didn't use any hashtags (I heard from a lovely reputable source that perhaps htags aren't the way to go anymore? Let the post carry itself, and the people will spread it)

- Horror Games Community: Like I said earlier, Hurc made a post and it got about 9 wishlists from there


2) LinkedIn - I like making a company post here then sharing it with my personal account so that all my professional connections (Potentially) see it. Not to mention, I want my account to look active because it's the one place all of my most important projects and experience are. If I get sales from here it would be a miracle


3) Newsletter - I sent out a release post about the game asking to wishlist and purchase, but I haven't even checked the stats yet sooo who knows


4) I made the page for this game as soon as I had a decent-looking (and well-lit) entrance. I even used a block-out building in one of the earliest screenshots to get everything setup in Steamworks! No one seemed to mind, or at least no one complained about it.


5) Trailer - I was able to make a quick trailer myself for this game, and in total it took me about a weeks worth of time to put together and get up on Youtube/Steam/Twitter. Was it worth it? Stats on Youtube and Twitter were not great, but Steam is the only place where it counts and it's a little harder to measure there.


6) Discord promotions - I put the game in a share-work channel in a couple servers. I really dropped the ball here because I totally forgot about that UTM post Chris Zukowski did and they would have really come in handy here.



A big thing that happened once I got to 1.0 of the game was I just closed shop on it and immediately jumped into the next entry. No joke, as soon as the 1.0 build was on my computer I started doing research on potential engines and tech for the next game! As a result, marketing really suffered because I was so focused on getting the product out and then dealing with it later.



Business/Legal


This didn't change much since Altidudes. The biggest thing I did was get a freelancing contract drafted up by my lawyer Daniel Koburger. The other thing was a trademark for 'Playback Trauma'. I don't know where this series is gonna go, but I'll be working on it for at least a few more years.


The Time


I got Altidudes to full 1.0 a month early in 2020, so I had some spare time when the new 2021 year hit. I spent that time doing a ton of market research on horror games, watching horror movies, and prepping the designs and Trello for PTTB. In total, it took me until about Christmas 2021 to get PTTB to 1.0, and history has repeated itself because I had quite a bit of time to play around with!

In reality it's hard to describe what my schedule was like, working on this because I had part-time work some days, and other days I could focus solely on PTTB.


The Bill


I logged every single penny I spent on this game and associated fees in a Google spreadsheet, and damn am I glad I did. Having a single file like this as an overview of finances is so nice to see, and it helps a ton with organization. When I started, I specifically dedicated myself to a budget of $5,000 USD and 1 year of time, but I was willing to extend it to 2023. I came in under-budget and way ahead of time, which is pretty awesome! Here is a breakdown for those interested:


Legal: Just over half of the budget, and a lot of it went towards a new trademark and freelancing contract to give to anyone I worked with. Additionally, there was research done with the project budget

- ~$2700


Music:

- $607.54, done by the excellent composer of Altidudes, Bert Cole

SFX:

- ~$50 for purchased sounds, some of which I edited


Art:

- $40 per prop asset for my main artist, Robert Louttit

- $100 for a building from my other artist, Breanna Bakker

- $100 for a human model from Donny

- ~$161 for Unreal Marketplace assets

- ~$600 total


Additional fees:

- Steam submission fee $100

- LLC upkeep $75


Grand Total: $4326.97


Just like the last time, I'm really proud of what came of this. It never would have happened without all the people I collaborated with, so from the bottom of my heart I thank each and every one of them.


I hope that this is helpful to you in your gamedev journey, and I'll see you for the next one!


Good luck friend,

Jonathan

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