not a beautiful or unique snowflake (nothings) wrote,
not a beautiful or unique snowflake

making a plan

So yesterday one of my old boss's boss from Boston came by after lunch to hang out and chat for a bit. (And try to sell me on a project that some people he knows are doing, but that's not important right now.) I hadn't really talked to him in something like five years--saw him once in a while at the CGDC, but only for a couple minutes, so we talked for quite a while, mostly just chatting about what we were doing and what our plans for the future are. This discussion forced me to try to evaluate where I currently am on the shareware CRPG I'm developing, and why it's taking me as long as it is.

The most notable thing about this game is that for the last year and a half, if you asked me when I thought it would be done, I'd say "two years from now". Which makes it sound like either not much is getting done, or it's constantly growing as it goes, or I'm estimating how much work there is really poorly. The truth of the matter is partly the first, a little bit of the last, and also partly my expectation of my rate-of-getting-things-done getting a little bit lower as time progresses.

Anyway, I sort of sketched out a history of the development so far verbally, but I want to get it down in writing so I can actually look at it and think about it, so I figured I do it here rather than offline just because. Pretty much all of this history is approximate guesswork; all though I do have archived old versions of the project I could try to use to evaluate my progress, it's not really worth the effort.

Before the development story opens, some context is important. The costs of developing PC computer games (and videogames too, but I'm more familiar with the PC) has been rising steadily, far faster than inflation/cost-of-living. As our graphics technology gets more sophisticated, the cost of developing content--art and levels--has grown. To create the same-sized level in playtime costs more than it used to because we must create more detail.

As a result, I've been arguing for several years that I think the classic, large-scale, epic RPG along the lines of Ultima Underworld isn't going to be commercially viable; the market for it is too small, and it costs far too much to create the content. So I think such games are going to disappear from the commercial marketplace, and leave only shareware doing it. Is this bearing out as true these days? I'm not sure. Diablo is not the kind of RPG I mean. Baldur's Gate is fairly successful, but rides on the D&D license. The consoles have the wildly successful Final Fantasy series, but I'm not sure the cost of development there will be risked except on successful franchises and superstar designers.

So. My development history opens sometime around June-August 2000. I was kicking around doing nothing after Looking Glass Studios shut down, and I decided to write an old-skool 3d renderer like what System Shock and Ultima Underworld used, simply because I'd never actually written one of those and I wanted to make sure I knew how they worked, and actually implementing it was the only way to be sure.

I got it working pretty quickly (probably a weekend), but then the test data I was using, typed in in code, was fairly ugly and hard to design anything interesting looking, so I decided to try to slap together a quickie level editor. That probably took another weekend. Then I played with it and got it looking pretty good, except I was using a fairly ugly texture, so I went online and found some free textures I could use and started texturing it.

At some point I said to myself, "you know, if I just had objects in here, I'd basically have a game". I thought about my aforementioned belief about RPGs not becoming commercially viable, and realized that perhaps I should just go ahead and dive in, put my money where my mouth is, and try to make a shareware RPG myself. As well, I loved Ultima Underworld, but when I started at Looking Glass, System Shock was just being finished up, and we never did a game like Underworld again, so I missed out on. So with three things pointing in this direction, I decided to go for it.

Fast forward a couple months: I've gotten maybe a month or two of solid work done, but as almost always happens to me with large projects, I start to lose interest and look into doing something else. At some point, I wrote a high-end outdoor terrain 3d renderer over a weekend, and decided to start playing with using that for a different game. And then I got sidetracked from that, etc.

January 2001. At the end of January I fly into SFO to give a couple of lectures at the Game Technology Seminars. My friend Chris Hecker looks at my Underworld game, looks at my outdoor renderer, and says I should really go back to the Underworld thing. We spend some time discussing business models, he talks a bit about what he's currently working on. I estimate I have two years of solid work to get it done--three or four months on the engine, 1.5 years on the content.

March 2001. I've been working on the Underworld game solidly for 1.5 months. I fly out to San Jose for the Game Developer's Conference. On the plane I build a graphical conversation editor on top of the underlying "scripted" editor. I show my in-progress stuff (about 3-4 months of development time) to everyone I know--a lot of ex Looking Glass people, Jon Davis, Warren Spector. Everyone, every single person, is encouraging, seems to think I'm not wasting my time on it--that I'm not totally high for thinking I can do in ~3 years time a project similar to something that took ~3 years for a team of ~10. (Advantages: I'm way more efficient alone than any individual is on a large team. I have much faster hardware at my disposal, so I don't need to optimize much. I can use a 1600x1200 display for my editor instead of 320x200. I am using Underworld as a design template, and not innovating on a game design front; the Underworld team had to invent a sane system of movement controls for a 3d world.)

April 2001: I've already stopped working solidly on the project. I don't remember why.

July 2001: Two of my three roommates announce they're moving out. My remaining roommate and I agree it's not worth finding new random roommates; we hardly know anyone in Boston anymore since LGS went under. If I'm moving apartments anyway, I start looking at moving to either Seattle, SF, or Austin.

I talk to Chris Hecker, and mention that I'm still interested in trying to see the Underworld thing through, considering how much effort I've already put into it; I'm just not able to keep myself sufficiently motivated trying to work from home. He offers to sublet me some of his office space in Oakland.

August 2001: Start prepping to move. Start working on Heroes, an IF game. Visit Oakland for a few days. Chris and I pair program on my Underworld game, writing the conversation player and a primitive conversation scripting player, and implement a complete test conversation.

September 2001: Staying with Chris for a month until I find a place. Only work on Heroes full time.

October 2001: Start full-time work on Underworld game again, finally.

December 2001: Offer for contract work from Warren Spector. I don't need the money now, but I will need a cash infusion before my Underworld game is done, and establishing the relationship now might be a good idea, so I take it.

January 2002: Finish Ion Storm contract. Between contract and Xmas trip home, I got very little work done on the Underworld game, but less than 100 hours of contracting hours. I did manage to write Chromatron over Xmas break. I was originally thinking of trying to sell Chromatron as shareware, but after determining there are similar games already being sold, I give it away for free. (As of this writing, around 4200 copies have been downloaded.)

February 2002: Mostly spent on programming for the Indie Game Jam, a project I still have to post about in more detail. Also developed Chromatron 2, released Feb 28. As of this writing, around 25 copies have been sold. (Sadly, most of the downloads of C1 were before C2 existed, and don't mention the possibility in the game. Hopefully more C2 will sell if I can promote C1 more.) The idea here is that doing the contracting for Ion Storm felt like a total lose, and I'd rather spend the time creating some small games and putting them up on a shelf where they can continue to generate sales for a couple years. They don't even need to cover my rent, just cover part of it, enough to extend my savings out beyond the two years or so that I started with.

March 2002: The Indie Game Jam. GDC. Total loss of momentum.

April 2002: Miscellaneous distractions. Start planning strategy for marketing Chromatron. Start doing another small game.

So you see, the current status of the Underworld game is "on hold while I try to generate some revenue streams"; moreover it's been severely hampered in the past by various distractions, so I've never gotten more than a month or two of solid work in a burst, and only done that a few times. There's probably really less than six months of solid work in it.

However, I feel confident that none of the distractions since I moved out here are necessary consequences of me trying to get work done. The Indie Game Jam was a great idea and a lot of fun, but it was, Chris and I agree in hindsight, a mistake in terms of the amount of time it sucked up and the lost momentum. Hopefully somebody else will run the next one, or something. The contract work for Ion Storm was a total productivity killer, although at least it netted me money (even only getting 100 hours of contract work over the course of 240 hours of work time). The current 'write some smaller games' is an intentional 'distraction' which I'm doing to try to get money so I don't have to do the Ion Storm thing again.

So, really, maybe I've been saying it'll take two years for the last year and a half, but I really do think it'll take no more than two years from whenever I stop doing the little games and start cranking again--and that's including taking a few months to do contracting (which I hopefully won't have to do at all).
Tags: chromatron, lj, uw
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