Scope creep, open worlds, and you (Shattered 2 Postmortem)

Shattered 2 was a disaster.

To be clear, I’m mostly happy with the end result. It’s definitely not perfect, but as a whole I think the game works pretty well, it’s one of my favourites, and one of my best games to date.

No, what I’m talking about is the story of its development. It’s been tumultuous, protracted, massively stressful, and taken up a far bigger chunk of my life- and my sanity- than I ever intended.

Why I don’t do big projects anymore

In the past, I’ve committed to huge, years-long projects. I don’t do that anymore. I talk about why in depth in my Ascension III postmortem (written a year ago almost to the day), but the long and short of it is that I find bigger projects more stressful than fun and I tend to lose interest in them over time.

Not only do I not do well with big projects that take a long time, but I can’t handle having a lot of irons in the fire at once either. Projects that are in progress take up space in my mind, they start to weigh on me, and I start to stress about them even (if not especially) when I’m not actively working on them.

Something that I can take from start to completion in a month or two is about ideal for me. Game jams are great for this, but the fast pace required is stressful for me and some of the projects I have in mind just won’t fit the jams I’m interested in. This is also something I talked about elsewhere, but for 2022 I decided to only do a few jams and complete Shattered 2 outside that context.

…except when I do

The first Shattered was a two week jam project. Shattered 2 took over a year to make. Although I didn’t work on it for as many hours a day, and there were some major pauses, I think it’s still about equivalent of two to three months of jam-level effort. Even when I wasn’t actively working on it, it was still on my mind and stressing me out.

I said I didn’t do Big Projects anymore, and for good reasons. Yet this is definitely a Big Project.

I didn’t set out to make a big game that would eat up a big chunk of my life. I knew it would take longer than Shattered, but I figured maybe twice the effort, a month or two depending on how hard I worked on it. Somewhere along the way, it went wrong. How did this happen?

Shifting plans

Let’s go back to the beginning.

After making Shattered, playing the other entries in Magical Girl Game Jam and realizing what I had made was very much not a magical girl game, I started coming up with other ideas both for Shattered 2 and a future magical girl game. Shattered ended with a blatant sequel hook and there was tons of room for more stories in this world, so there was no question that there would be a Shattered 2 of some form. What would eventually become Shattered 2 was actually a rejected concept for Shattered that I continued to bounce around and develop.

Shattered 2 almost was a jam game. It was a logical choice to do a sequel for a sequel and build it for Magical Girl Game Jam 2, and the two month long jam would have given me plenty of time. However, the organizer and community were clearly looking for games that are actually mahou shoujo, and Shattered 2 wouldn’t fit that without a lot of changes and compromises I was never happy with. Ultimately, I decided to go with something else.

That also kinda went wrong, but that’s a story I’ve already told.

It's worth noting that at that point, the concept for Shattered 2 was a lot different than what was eventually released. Some of the story beats were similar, Elisa was there though the name wasn’t finalized on yet, and Lord Westerhold and his castle were prominent elements, but Briella might have been an ally or even playable character, there were other enemies, and no valley to explore.

If Shattered 2 had been a jam game, that would have forced me to constrain scope from the beginning and avoid a lot of the traps I’d fallen into. For better or for worse, though, it just didn’t fit any of the jams I regularly participate in, and I didn’t think I could accomplish a reasonable form of the original vision within the length of any of those jams with the time I had at the time.

I did build part of Shattered 2 for Magical Girl Game Jam 3 in early 2021. The concept was starting to firm up at this point, but I still wasn’t sure about some of the mechanics. A Dream of Valhalla was effectively a mechanics demo for Shattered 2 (something that was divisive among players, wrapped up with some references nobody got, some odd meta-humour, and a dubiously canon crossover. As a standalone game, it was a bit of a mess, but it was very useful experience for building Shattered 2.

Unfortunately, I think in some ways it also lulled me into a false sense of security. I considered the gameplay the hard part, and figured with that out of the way it would be relatively smooth sailing. While it was in some ways the most challenging part, there were other aspects that took a lot more work. I went into 2021 with the intent of Shattered 2 being the major project of the year. Those plans shifted around spring-summer, with an unreleased personal game and shifting priority to Takagi (The Crystal Tower) because I wanted to finish that in time for Christmas of that year. And that one really needed another Magical Girl Gina game (which became At The Break Of Dawn) to make sense, so that took priority, too. I was still bouncing around ideas for Shattered 2 and poking at it occasionally, but it ended up pushed back to the next year.

Sequels are dangerous

Sequels are, in general, better than their predecessors. Or at least, they should generally be better than their predecessors.

That implies that with each iteration, the scope will get a little bit bigger. You can cheat a bit with reuse (and yes, I do this whenever I can), but in general you want nicer art, bigger and more detailed environments, a deeper narrative, longer runtime, et cetera et cetera. All of that translates into more work.

Shattered still remains one of my favourites, and has a certain charm to it, but it was really rough and I wanted to do better with the sequel. The first game was done in a hurry to meet a jam deadline, with a lot of corners cut, and I wanted nice rounded corners this time. I was heading into the danger zone with that mindset, but I think if I’d stuck to that, as long as I was aware of it I could have kept scope under control.

Yes, I wanted Shattered 2 to be better than its predecessor, but I had specific things in mind. Tighten up the gameplay. Have rotations for the enemies. Improve the scripted sequences and drawings. I think if I’d stuck to the original vision of “Shattered, but better”, and stuck with one of the earlier concepts or something similar, it would have been okay. It still could have gone bad, of course, but it would have been much less likely to spiral completely out of control if I’d just stuck to addressing the major weak points of the first game.

No, it was one major design decision which fucked everything up.

Open world equals creeping scope

Inspired by Enygmatic’s Ja Wizardman (a game with quite a complicated development history of its own), I decided to make Shattered 2 an open world game. That game released in summer 2020 and I started thinking about it then, but I don’t think I’d fully landed on that decision until some time in 2021.

I thought it wouldn’t be so bad, since I had all the technological pieces in place for the now-cancelled Ascension III. What I didn’t realize, but would quickly become apparent, is that it has major knock-on effects on the overall design and scope. While I could have just taken the then-current concept and let you roam around a bit and it would technically count, that would not make for a good open-world game.

In my mind there’s a certain fixed cost associated with an open world, for both the developer and the player. As a developer, I have to build out a world and populate it to a certain level for it to not feel constrained or empty. As a player, you have to learn the sandbox, and spend time exploring the world looking for the next thing to do. There’s an expectation, too, that there’s enough content to fill out the world and make it feel worthwhile.

What would have been a series of linear missions became a questline because, well, that’s a pretty natural change. And then that became two questlines, because I had to offer some variety and choice. Two missions per questline became three, because two is just too short and would feel pointless, and we have to introduce all these characters and such anyway.

On top of this, there was still had the linear intro and the end run, which were crucial to the story and were either built or being built at this point. Although, as it turns out, those weren’t the lions share of the work.

I kind of started thinking, well, we already have this expensive open world, so the more I put in it, the better amortized those fixed costs are. And I also started thinking, well, we have this expansive open world, and a lot of ideas that could easily fit into it.

I think you’re already seeing where this is going. Going open world was an increase in scope in and of itself, but after I made that decision, scope creep kicked in hard and things really started to spiral out of control.

On top of that, the open-world decision would bite me in one more way I hadn’t anticipated. Because of the freedom players have and how different stuff can happen in the same world without strict sequencing, there’s a lot more potential for seemingly unrelated things to break when put together and anticipating and testing those possibilities is much more difficult than making sure a single linear path (or even a few branching paths) works. However, I wouldn’t fully realize that until almost the very end of development, and kind of just accepted that the game would launch with bugs.


Long story short, I ended up cutting the corners anyway.

The first calendar year of development (2021) was really patchy, as I moved around from Shattered 2 to other projects. I wasn’t really thinking about a release date yet, and things seemed to be going okay. In general, in 2021 I had other projects and other things on my mind. Although, even then, I was starting to worry that the project might drag on. It was supposed to be a relatively quick project started and done in a few months, and although I’d deliberately switched tracks to other projects, it had already been in progress for a lot longer than that.

When 2022 rolled around, I decided to focus on Shattered 2 first and foremost. It was really starting to take up a lot of headspace, and I wanted to get it out of the way so I could move on to other things. At first, it went okay, though it was going slower than I’d have liked. I was reasonably confident I could make the summer release I had planned, but I’d already started hoping it would come together quicker and I could release it early somehow.

It was really around March or so that the panic began to set in. It was going slow, and I felt I’d dramatically underestimated the amount of work required. At that point I was still thinking of new ideas and trying to work them into the project. At the pace I was going, there was no way I was going to manage a July release, or likely even an August release. I really wanted to hit a June or July release, not just because I can’t stand long projects in general, but because there a few jams I’m interested in coming up in the summer and I wanted to clear my plate before those.

So I started cutting those corners.


I had to switch modes from trying to make the best possible game to trying to get a game done in a limited timeframe. I was already starting to get sick of the project and into “let’s get it done” mode because of how long it had dragged on, so this wasn’t too difficult of a mental shift to make.

I’m very nitpicky about certain things, but for better or for worse, I don’t have the same perfectionism some other developers have.

Anything that wasn’t needed for the main quest was omitted. Levels were reduced in size and complexity. Sequences were simplified. Alternate paths were cut. NPC variants were reduced in number and simplified. At first, things were soft deferred instead of hard cut, pushed to “at the end if we have time” or turned into stretch goals, but almost everything that was deferred ended up cut.

The end result is rough in places, rougher than it would have been if I hadn’t started cutting. I had to make a lot of compromises in scope and quality. There game is shorter and has a lot less variety than I’d hoped, and the open world ended up functional but rather sparse, both in terms of objects and events. The polish and balance just isn’t quite there, either.

Ironically, though the game was open-world and nonlinear, the final section of the game became pretty much a linear rush through hordes of enemies with a boss at the end. At one point, before the open world entered the concept, it was planned to be bigger and more open with keys to find and areas to explore, almost metroidvania like (though perhaps Hexen is a better comparison). To be honest, though, I’m not sure if that concept ever would have made it to completion. After deciding to go open world, the main sandbox grew and the end run shrank. For me, the biggest loss was that basically all the background lore that would have been revealed in this game was cut out. It was without a doubt the right decision to cut it, because it’s not strictly necessary to understand the plot of the game and would have been quite a bit more work for something some players will never bother looking at. However, it makes the world feel a lot thinner, and puts a lot more burden on the next entry in the series to explain things. I’m a storyteller first and a sucker for narrative, so this is a pretty prominent concern in my mind.

What went right?

I’ve talked a lot about what went wrong. I think, at the same point, it’s important to also acknowledge what went right. This postmortem is about the process, so I’ll focus on that here.

Building A Dream of Valhalla was well worth the effort. I was able to validate and tweak the mechanics in a more controlled environment before building a full game around them, and it gave me confidence that yes, this would work. I think it’s one of my stronger jam entries despite its semi-tech-demo nature. It also gave me practice with constraining scope, and gave me a better idea of what would be needed in the final game.

The careful but aggressive requirements scrubbing worked. Shattered 2 was released on June 11, 2022, a month ahead where I thought it was going to land when I started making cuts. I’m not happy with all the cuts I had to make, but I’m proud that I was able to make those tough calls. I was still spending way more time than I wanted to on this project during the last few months of development, but I could feel significant progress being made almost every day and the project steadily came together to completion, ahead of schedule. The end product is definitely less than what it could have been, but I feel it has the majority of what I really wanted in it, and the overall creative vision was preserved intact.

What’s next?

I’m tentatively planning a small update in the next month or so with bugfixes and tweaks to the most annoying but easily fixable issues, but that’s contingent upon those problems actually being discovered. If there’s nothing game breaking (or at least really bad) that comes up, this doesn’t need to happen.

I do want to go back and add back in some of the stuff that was cut out. Not everything, maybe not even the majority, but some of it, especially the lore and exposition that was deemed non-essential but could help lead into Shattered 3. Maybe a little more variety to the graphics and a bit more detail to the levels. If this does happen, it won’t be until 2023. I don’t want to make that a promise, though, because in the past I’ve been utterly awful about talking about updates and then never actually doing them.

What about Shattered 3? I have a somewhat firm concept in mind, but there are still a lot of questions to answer about scope and specifics, especially given how Shattered 2 went. It will be a much different game than Shattered 1 or 2, it will be significantly smaller than Shattered 2, and it will not be open-world.

Other than that, I’m going to take a break for a bit, and then maybe do some silly little games or some non-game content. There’s a few jams coming up this summer, too, that I’ll probably throw my hat in the ring for.

Final words

The title of Shattered 2: The Promise is strangely appropriate on a meta level. It refers to the promise Sylvan makes in the flashback, of course, and more tangentially references the song that somewhat inspired the storyline, but can also describe the project itself.

Shattered 2 finally fulfills some of the promises I made with Ascension III or even Ascension Revolution before it, and offers a glimpse of what those games could have been. It’s a smaller, much more limited version of the dream game I’ve talked about building for a decade.

However, there are good reasons why those games never reached completion, and why I never tried to do anything similar until now. At some point, I forgot those lessons, and had to relearn them the hard way.

I learned some pretty important lessons about scope from Shattered 2, although they were things I should have already known by now. Will the lessons stick this time? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure, though: I am not doing another open world game any time soon.

Get Shattered 2 - The Promise

Download NowName your own price

Leave a comment

Log in with to leave a comment.