Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Status

Merry Christmas everyone. So I've met with several people in person that have told me they're following this blog, so I'll try and do a better job keeping things updated and not ramble on about my cat or something.

So we've picked the big day--January 7th, 2012 for our first meeting. I've recruited about a dozen people so far and in about two weeks, everyone on the team will meet each other and we'll finally get started making this game. Strangely, I thought programmers would be the most difficult to recruit and 3d modelers the easiest. The opposite has been true. I've been unable so far to recruit a single 3d modeler. I'm not terribly worried about that at this point. I wouldn't have anything for the modelers to do for a month or so while we work out concepts. Still, it's nice to have all the bases covered before we get there. I've worked in a professional setting as a modeler--doing commercial 3D renderings for architectural concepts for a drafting company, so I could fill that roll if needed. However, we're going to need a lot more than just one person in that capacity, so I'll definitely need to recruit.

I'm pretty happy with the concept artists we have on the team. Officially, we have 2, but there's 2 others I've either met with or will meet with soon that are also really talented. Because we will be constantly rolling out new art assets through the pipeline, we'll always need concept artists, but if for some reason they get caught up or bored and want to try something else, I can move them to design. Dawnshine is going to need more level design than most MMOs and it's going to be a whole lot different than any other MMO, but I feel more comfortable getting the artists on the team doing that. Dawnshine instances are going to be a lot more story driven rather than boxes with monsters in them and text to read at the end that passes as a story. The instances are going to be a selling point for the game--what sets us apart. So level design is going to be a very important position. I realize level design is an entry level job. Anyone that can play the Sims can be a level designer for most games. But still, I like the idea of the artists taking a break from their main roles and doing something different, though related. So for now, I'm not recruiting any designers.

What else? So the Art Institute of Sacramento had their first Game Art and Design graduates. I met both of them at the AI's portfolio show. The portfolio show is sort of like a graduation party where the graduates set up a booth showing off their work. The employers go booth to booth in a sort of reverse job fair. The two graduates were showing off their building modeling skills through the Unity engine. I talked to them both quite a bit. I didn't really make a big push to recruit them since I won't have anything for them to do for a while, but I at least made some inroads there. We'll see. I also got to talk to the career counselors at AI a little more. They're good people. I'm glad I've been able to form a partnership with them. Good things will come from it.

Stigma Games is a good deal for them as well. The game industry is really hard to crack into. Most graduates won't get in. So for us to be able to bring in new grads and current students to give them real world experience might be just as important for them and their resumes as going to college itself. There are a lot of skilled and talented people in this town that aren't getting a chance otherwise. I have to admit, I have a lot of fun recruiting. I like the idea of finding hidden talent and giving people that shot no one else will. I just wish this was a funded project and I could also give people the earnings they deserve as well. But on the other side of things, if it was a funded project, then I'd probably only be recruiting experienced professionals because I'd be swamped with applicants.

I've had a few other interesting meetings, though it's still too early to say how those will pan out. I'm networking with the people from Loki's Planet. I'm going to one of their office meetings soon to talk more business. They seem like really good people too.

Oh, and I got an invitation by the president of Rocketeer Games to check out their studio. I met their president, John, years ago. He's a 3D Modeler that used to be a director of sorts at the Art Institute. He does absolutely fantastic modeling and texturing work. I'm definitely honored to check out his studio.

Several people have asked me when we're going to start needing testers. We can bring in testers when a character model is built, textured, rigged, and animated, the combat system is working, many of the attacks and spell abilities are working, the character creation system is working for Dawnshine characters(as opposed to the default system now that comes with the engine for making Hero's Journey characters), and there's at least once instance or zone people can run around in. Right now, none of that is done or even started. There's 4 classes and 4 factions. That's a total of 16 classes that should all play very different from each other. It's not going to be 4 classes in 4 different flavors each. They're not going to have equivalencies cross faction. Such variety is going to take a huge amount of balancing, so I'm going to want to bring in testers early.

Next post should be on Jan 7th.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Getting Lawyered Up

Today I meet with lawyers. This is an important step in forming a company. There's three legal documents I'm going to need everyone to sign before we start production. We'll need an NDA. A Non Discloser Agreement is a promise that people on the project won't tell people outside the project what's going on. I'm not so much worried about people on the team telling their friends about the game or even letting them peek at their monitor to see stuff they shouldn't be seeing. I'm more concerned about people on the team bragging about how we might get an endorsement deal and have that spoil the deal, or talking about features before they're finalized--especially if those features need to be changed. Otherwise, I'm going to be a lot less secretive about Dawnshine than just about any other game dev company. Like I've said before, if it makes us look less professional if we're more open and people can see that we're just regular people, then I'm ok with that.

The second important document is the Contributor Agreement. People are going to come and go. It's important that the work people do on the project stays with the project. If a modeler creates a figure and several other artists rig, texture, and animate that figure, if the artist says they're leaving and taking their work with them, it could mean hundreds of hours lost from people that put work around that figure. The combination of NDA and CA also means people can't take their work and try and use it on another game, thus damaging the Dawnshine IP.

The third document is the one I'm having the most trouble with wording correctly, and what I'll need help the most with when I talk to the lawyers today. It's a Share Agreement, one that says if the project makes money, I need to pay the people that contributed to it. If I trust myself to do the right thing, you might wonder why I would need to have people sign such a document. But this actually protects me. It protects me from people having a reason to accuse me of potentially pocketing all the profits and not paying anyone. Much to the disappointment of my parents, money has never been something I cared about. I'm fine living pretty much anywhere and driving a beat up car. Even through all the years that I used to book bands at night clubs, I never took a cent of money for doing it. If there was money left at the end of the night, I gave it all to the bands. I do care about taking care of people that work with me whenever I can.

Let's see, also recruiting programmers has gone pretty well. Artists, not so much. I've been in touch with some really promising artists lately, ones that have sent me some great portfolios, though most of them seem to be pretty busy. I'm really hurting for environmental concept artists and modelers right now. I do know a few that are fantastic, and have worked on block buster, AAA games that might be willing to help, but they don't live locally. I'm really kind of burnt out on trying to work with people over the internet. Still, it's nice to have amazing talent as a plan B.

I met a few artists at the open house for Pride Animation. It's a studio that produces cartoon shorts featuring characters from the LGBT community. I'll be honest and say I was a little nervous about going to their open house, but they were all really, really nice. I was impressed by how dedicated they were to the work that they produce.

While I was there, I also met a few people from Loki's Planet. As kind of a side note, for the last 20 years that I've chatted with people on the internet, I've used the chat name "Lokana." Lokana is a fictional character I've been working on for the last couple decades and has finally settled into being an incredibly important character in the world of Dawnshine, but before that, it was my chat nickname. When I used to meet people off the internet at big IRC get togethers, I used to have people actually assume Lokana was my real name. For a long time people called me "Loki" as a nick name. So when I heard about Loki's Planet, I thought the name was a funny coincidence.

Anyway, so they launched about a year ago, had some management issues and re-organized. Now they plan to relunch in two months. Loki's Planet is a sort of Facebook for gamers. It's a place to talk about games and keep in touch with all things related to games and gaming culture. They also want to bring back lan parties, which sounds like a lot of fun to me. They were really excited about everything they have planned coming up so I'm eager to see how things shape up.

Oh, also, though this doesn't really relate to us, there's good news for another Sacramento game company--KlickNation. They only make Facebook games, but EA Games has decided to join the FB Game mix by buying out KlickNation and renaming them after the BioWare brand that they also own. So now KlickNation is called BioWare Sacramento. Though I don't know them, I'm still pretty excited to see a company that, just 2 years ago, were just a couple guys posting on craigslist looking for programmers and now they're owned by one of the biggest game companies in the world. That's pretty awesome to see what a couple guys in my hometown can do. It fills me with optimism to follow in their footsteps.

Speaking of EA and BioWare, I got into beta for Star Wars: The Old Republic. It's supposed to be the most expensive game ever made. Since it also uses the HeroEngine, of course I was interested in paying close attention to how they did terrain detail and other things. The dynamic shadow map generation is still pretty blocky, and the terrain billboards for flora that HE uses still sort of creeps me out. If you don't know what I'm talking about, if you ever play SWTOR, point the camera straight down at grass or flowers, then rotate the camera. You'll see that the grass and flowers don't turn with the ground, but stay fixed fully facing the camera at all times. Rift and WoW both use static meshes for their flora instead of billboards, and thus escape this problem. Static mesh doesn't get as good performance this way so they can't use as much of it. I think the HE method of billboards is fine as long as everything you use is tall and skinny. I bet most people won't notice either way, so it might not be an issue.

Aside from the technical aspects of SWTOR terrain, I was really impressed with the use of music. There's one quest, Man With a Steel Voice, in particular where I noticed it. So there's an old, dying man whose entire life's work comes down to one moment. You can either help him and hurt others, or help the others, dashing the old man's one chance to complete his dream. If you chose not to help him, he tells you(all voice acted), how you've robbed him of everything he ever cared about. And the music that played was really, really sad. I've never had a game really appeal to me on an emotional level like that. I thought, "I don't want to play this game. It's too sad." Then I got to run around blowing up people and I was ok again.

But it made me realize I've got to really lay out all the zones, instances, and quests in Dawnshine as soon as I can to give the composers on the team the best chance at really reaching people. Audio is a huge part of games, and one that has to be taken seriously.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


A couple months ago, I went to Pinnacle College to produce a local band. Pinnacle College is an audio school with a couple recording studios. I'd never heard of it, and I've been in pretty close to every recording studio in Sacramento at one time or another. But not one in a college. They offer audio degrees for recording music and for foley work for films. Their main campus in LA also does audio design for games, though I imagine the Sacramento campus doesn't have enough demand for it. Still, while I was there, I talked to their career counselor about hiring out some of their students for voice over work on a complete different game project I'm working for. Since I have no say or even heads up on that project, trying to coordinate things turned out to be difficult, so I gave up (no one's fault either way).

A few weeks ago, when I decided to create Stigma Games, I contacted her again with the news and told her exactly the talent I needed for our project. She was quite excited and put me in contact with some of her graduates a few hours later. I either met or talked to at length on the phone with all of them. Very cool people. And at this point, I consider the Audio team on the project to be filled out. I know like a billion musicians in this town, so yeah, that wasn't really going to be hard for me. But still, finding people that are driven to do sound and music for games is cool.

I'm still working on the Business development team, but I have some promising leads there. Luckily, it's not a priority right now. I'd like to recruit a project manager / scrum master. Though I don't want to use a pure scrum development model. Scrum is really, really annoying for game development for the creative types. I'll make another post to rant about that another time.

A couple days ago, I got in contact with the career councilors at the Art Institute in Sacramento. They invited me to come to their job fair today. It was pretty low key. They set me up with a booth for Stigma Game. Maybe 20 students came by, but it was still cool to talk about games and game development. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but the staff at the school was really welcoming. In terms of the type of 3D games a lot of us have spent the last ten years playing, Sacramento is a game development dead zone. So the idea of setting up shop here in the city I grew up in, seems to be working out. Oh, and we also talked about setting up an internship so that AI students would be able to get college credits for interning at Stigma Games. Interesting.

One of the career counselors asked me to come to their portfolio expo show a month from now and be one of the speakers. I'm pretty comfortable speaking in front of a crowd--one of the weird things about me, I guess. I remember in one of my Anthropology classes, I did a presentation on Mayan uses of blood in rituals, and I was actually getting laughs. Hell, I killed with that material. I didn't call it my presentation. I called it my set. Anyway, I'm not really sure what to talk about. I like preparing speeches, but it's such a wide topic. I have a feeling students are going to want to know about breaking into the industry. I feel like I'm still trying to do the same. I still do a lot of projects here and there on the side. Though with Stigma Games coming together, I'm clearing my plate.

Speaking of other projects, one of them recently got sponsored by Dell Computers and Alienware and I might be getting a free Alienware computer out of the deal. I've always wanted one.

Recruiting programmers... in some ways this will be easier because there's not as many specialized roles. If someone knows how to set up class objects and data structures, they can pretty much apply that to anything. However, programmers on the team will need to learn a completely new language with a steep learning curve. The problem with the HeroEngine that I'm having as a programmer is the interface. Case in point, every website I've ever built, whether it was a simple html page or if it had php query calls to a MySQL database, I built in Notepad. Raw code. When I write programs in C++, it's all raw code. I like it that way. In HeroEngine, the different types of objects all have different interfaces where they need to go in. And none of it is intuitive. Still, this is a brick wall all the programmers are going to hit, and if I don't have it down, I'm going to have a hard time getting the rest of the programming team through it.

Still, I think I'm making progress on recruiting programmers. The main game programmer instructor at Sac State told me he was going to let his class know about Stigma Games and our project. I'm going to need to talk to an actual counselor there though.

This reminds me of something a friend of mine told me. So I was at E3 talking to my friend Brandii. She's the LA chapter lead for the International Game Development Association. She was telling me about how game companies locate to cities based on the talent quality of college graduates. So this is normal for companies to work directly with colleges to both develop the type of graduates they want and to base the products they release around what the talent in the area is good at. This is probably why games with 2d engines come out of the bay area, LA puts out graphically intense games, and Austin produces mechanics heavy games. In fact, since the programming colleges are better in Austin, game companies will often relocate there if they're struggling to find programmers or to LA if they need artists more.

What does that mean for me? It means if I choose to stay in Sacramento for the next decade or more, I might have a hand in shaping the game development curriculum in the local colleges. After all, my dad runs an architectural company and he's changed the design curriculum because of his input. All of this sounds like complete insanity to me right now. I'm just some guy that wants to make a game.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ideas are Worthless

It's interesting that game companies guard their features. Even after a game is released, it's still rare to get a copy of the Design Document for it. I have close to a gig of concept art from games I've worked on that I legally can't show anyone even though that art got turned into 3d assets that have since been released.

I watched an interesting video the other day about game marketing. Game publications, specifically for MMOs, are hungry for anything they can cover. The other MMO I'm working on right now--we get about 1 article on our project a week. I don't even read them anymore unless it's a bigger one like Massively. We keep everything so tight lipped. Why? Because we're(and by "we," I don't mean "me") afraid someone will steal our ideas.

Considering how many people out there work in the games industry and how many of them are highly creative, chances are good, what ever you can think up, there's a whole lot of people that have those same exact ideas but, for what ever reason, they're not implementing them at the time. You know how many ideas I've had that later ended up in a game because someone else had the same idea? In either case, I vote that we post our concept art, our screen shots, our programming milestones and progress, and our game play features... ok, within reason.

It will do two things. One, we'll be able to give credit to people on the team. Like, "programmer so and so has got the chat system working," or "after whatshisname got the human female model rigged, animator so and so completed this awesome run animation and here's the video." Would this make us look less professional? Yeah, it would. But two, it would give followers of this blog and of the project a real inside look into the process. Is it more important for us to look like a cold, polished, well funded enterprise or more important for us to connect with people?

But like I'm saying here, it's not the ideas that have value. It's the skills required to turn those ideas into a game. I will say though, I'm really, really happy about the game play and story ideas we've put together for Dawnshine. And yeah, I'll start sharing them... soon.

For now, I've been able to recruit a couple people, but I'm going to do a big recruiting push soon. It will be interesting to see what Sacramento has to offer. We're a decent sized city with not nearly enough game development going on. That means more talent than opportunities. Let's see if we can change that.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Start of a Movement

It's not a visionary that starts a movement. A movement starts with the first follower. Tonight, I met with my first potential recruit. He's an AI Programmer. Much of what he does might not work for the project, and most of what he wants to do on a game project is content design, which isn't going to be needed until much later in the project. But it's a start. The goal here is to recruit programmers and test some mechanics. We're using the HeroEngine and that gives us a lot of finished game art to experiment with, so I'm going to hold off on recruiting artists, but I won't say no to a good one that's interested in the project.

I have another friend that said she might help with getting us grant money since she does funding strategy research for start ups. As strange as this sounds, I'm a little leery about pushing for grant money or any kind of funding right now. Funding is really hard to get either way, but even if someone gave us a million dollars to start hiring people, we'd run out of money way before the project was finished and would have to put out a feature poor game. Once you start paying people, they pretty much want you to keep paying them. It might make sense to look for funding once we get closer to having a playable game. We'll need money for a strong marketing campaign at some point as well.

In either case, I'm working on a couple other games right now. I need to do the best job on those that I can for now. The updates for Dawnshine will be slow going until then.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The beginning

Creating an MMO is one of the hardest things a game developer can possibly do. Conventional wisdom says you should start small, get a couple friends, and test the waters with that. If things go well, get a small studio and take it up a notch and repeat from there. Blizzard had over a decade of experience before they took a stab at World of Warcraft.

MMOs are extremely labor intensive and require a huge amount of technical programming knowledge and artistic talent from a team of hundreds. People don't make MMOs in their basements and start the next big thing.

There's a million reasons why I can't start from scratch, assemble a team out of nothing, and make an MMO. But there's one reason why I should try: I want to. I really want to. It's just me right now. I will need to recruit several dozen more, highly skilled programmers and artists. They will need to believe in the project pretty strongly since I don't have a dime to my name to pay them until the game sells if it ever gets that far. Even if I could recruit a dream team by tomorrow, the game will still take a few years to complete. That's a long time to hold a team of volunteers together.

This blog will be the beginning of a successful venture or a frustrating failure. It doesn't get any more "Ground Zero" than this.