Friday, February 24, 2012

End of Week 7

Hey everyone. Sorry if my last post was a little on the depressing side. It was therapeutic at the time. Anyway, let's talk about what the team is up to.

On the art side of things, we have a couple of building concepts for the Neg Wath and several more character concepts. We're almost two months in and we haven't even decided what concepts to use. This is a very important step. Rushing this part is only going to lead to a mismatched style later on. So I'm ok with us taking out time here.

Programming side of things... so I had a plan. That plan essentially went that we would spend the first month of development learning the engine. Those that learned it faster, could write tutorials and help the rest of us learn it. That way we would all stay at about the same pace. Makes sense, right? Yeah, but that's not what ended up happening.

What happened was those that learned it really fast wanted to learn it even more and get even further ahead of the rest of the team. Those that didn't learn it fast have been left in the dust and discouraged. Some people just don't learn well on their own. Others that do learn well on their own aren't always interested in stopping what they're doing to catch others up to speed. So essentially things are more chaotic on the coding side of things.

We've had some issues of one programmer tweaking something and it breaking the entire engine and the rest of us not knowing what happened or where to begin to look for the issue. This is becoming a weekly problem. I'm starting to have a lot more sympathy for game developers that have strange bugs constantly popping up in their code. It's just so easy to have 5 different programmers all poking at different scripts that all use the same basic systems and have something break the whole engine.

To combat this, we're going to start requiring all the programmers to make a detailed account of everything they change to a script when they recompile it. Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking. We should have been doing that from day 1. But I didn't really want to hit the team with a ton of rules and regulations when we're still at the, "I'm fine, thanks for asking," stage.

It was only a couple weeks ago that I got the team to start filling out time sheets. Speaking of time sheets, you might think that people on the team would be dishonest here. I mean, the plan is once we get funding, we back pay everyone on the team for the time they put in. Well, we're not in an office. I can't see when they punch in and punch out. Maybe they will exaggerate how much time they spent to get more money. That's actually not an issue. In fact, the opposite problem is what ends up happening. The pay in the game industry is crap and there's tons and tons of competition. So the people on the team are more compelled to claim a 10 hour job only took them 5. When I've worked for game companies as a contractor, that's what I did. Why? Because I wanted them to think I was awesome and want to hire me full time. So those of us in the industry will race to the bottom, each trying to do a job for a little less than the next guy.

I don't want to have that kind of environment in Stigma Games. I want people to work 8 hours and then go home. If we make less profit that way but can still pay our bills, then I'm fine with that. Long term employee sanity and stability is worth more.

There's another dark side with time sheets. Since we're not a funded company, people are volunteering their time. The plan is everyone will get back paid, though that's not the motivation for anyone on the team. They're all hoping this will be fun, give them experience, and look good on a resume. There are a couple people on the team just as determined to see Stigma Games take off as I am. But until then, everyone still has to work a paying day job in addition to working on this game. That means their creative energy is being hampered by their stress over worrying about student loans and other bills, while much of their free time to relax is instead being spent working on Dawnshine. Add to the fact that now they have to fill out time sheets and maybe they're putting in a lower number of hours that week then they would like to and it makes them feel like they're not contributing enough, and that adds more stress.

I've had a couple artists on the team elude to that issue. They weren't being passive aggressive hinting that I need to work harder at getting funding, but rather they wanted to let me know they wish they could be putting in a lot more work at a higher quality if they didn't have other work commitments.

In either case, this sounds like an easy project--get a bunch of talented programmers and artists together, make a game in our spare time, and maybe it takes off. Sounds easy, right? Make no mistake, it's hard, stressful work making a game. Luckily, we've been able to keep a casual, easy going pace with this to make sure people don't get burnt out. It's easy to be pumped up about making a game. Still being pumped up about the same game 3 years from now? That's not so easy. But for now, so good, so far.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Old Bear

So I really should leave the personal stuff out of this blog and just focus on the Dawnshine project and this journey we're going through to make an MMO. But I hope I won't turn too many people off from one more post about my life.

When I was 14, I'd written a novel and a computer game, both on my Apple IIe. The computer game was a Space Invaders knock off. The graphics were written in Vector Codes. I bet no one even knows what that is any more. Basically, I took out graph paper and drew all the graphics for the game out. Then I translated it into "make a dot, move the pen up one pixel," or "don't draw, move left one pixel." Each of these commands were in an octal series of binary. Most game graphics back in the 1980's were done this way, as a series of 001, 101, 110, etc, each standing for a series of instructions. Then you would save it in a special file type so that operating system knew what to do with them.

I mentioned that I used to play DnD as a kid. I have three learning disabilities that sort of simulate Autism when combined. I was always off in my own little world as a kid and computer games (making them or playing them) helped me visualize the ideas that kept popping in my mind. I was terrible at writing. My dyslexia made it difficult to learn how to spell, but I was so driven to over come it that I kept a dictionary by my computer and constantly looked up how to spell words. Anyone that reads this blog knows I still make a lot of typos though.

But I was starting to get better at game design, programming, and creative writing. When I was 15(which would have been 1988), I wrote a game proposal to a game company on the east coast. It was called Underground Empire. The concept of the game was that you played a revolutionary leader determined to take over control of a large medieval city. You had to raise an army, train spies, make alliances with the other revolutionaries, etc, until you were strong enough to topple the government and take control to win the game. This concept is now the premise behind the Underground Alliance, one of the Dawnshine Factions.

The proposal was about 15 pages long and pretty detailed. The company wrote me back telling me they were very interested and wanted to meet with me. Um, did they know I was only 15? Ah, who cares? This was the first step in a long journey that was to be my career as a game developer. But it wasn't to be.

My parents got me the computer because I was withdrawn from the world and doing badly in school. It was their hope it would help my grades, but it only made me more withdrawn. They decided that I should go work with my grandpa. So I went from a 15 year old computer nerd with very little upper body strength to a young man that laid brick 60 hours a week during the summer break and all weekends during school. I still have stretch marks over my pecks and biceps from the work. There were days I came home and collapsed or cried from physical pain. My grandfather yelled at me and insulted me, driving me to work harder and harder. I thought he was the meanest guy on the planet.

My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression. He was on his own when he was 8, working as a stone mason to support himself. When he was 17, he went to college full time and worked full time, and after 3 years, graduated college with a straight A average. My grandpa knew how to work, and he didn't put up with people who weren't willing to do the same. He usually did jobs for half the money he should have been charging and gave away money to his "less fortunate" neighbors even when they were doing better than he was. My dad got the heck out of there and became a bar tender in Tahoe and my uncle Larry went to acting school in London just to get away. But my grandpa Harry didn't retire until he was 88 years old. I'm really not kidding. He was still laying brick into his late 80's.

I laid brick until I was 24, hating it the entire time. I did a lot of things professionally after that--played bass and sang in metal bands, taught Computer Science and Music to 4-6th graders, managed a pizza restaurant, worked as a journalist for a heavy metal music magazine, and worked as a bouncer or booker at several night clubs.

I'm mad at my grandpa for being the mean guy that he was. I blame him for diverting me for 20 years away from my goal of developing games. But because of him, I know what it means to work as if your life depends on it and to do what say you're going to do even when you don't want to. The irony is, even though I hated him, that my grandpa loved me deeply, and thought this was the greatest gift he could give me. I finally realize he was right.

It hurts to even type this. But at 96 years old, he passed away yesterday.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Middle of Week 6

There's not a lot to report this week, so I'll talk about the Game Development Conference happening in less than three weeks in San Francisco. I managed to line up an interview with a recruiter for EA Games. No, it's not for me. I'm interviewing her. I'm writing an article for Loki's Planet about what recruiters in the game industry look for candidates, how they find them, what frustrates them about their job, etc. I think I mentioned I have a couple other meetings lined up at GDC. I've signed up for a lot of parties as well.

GDC is interesting. Once the doors close at 6pm for the night, you can go to any bar, club, or restaurant within a five block radius of the conference and it's going to be filled with game industry people looking to network. It's a good idea to sign up for exclusive parties though. Often a company will rent out a place and only let in people that RSVPed. Some of these events cost money. Nearly all of them involve alcohol. There are several a night, meaning I probably won't get a lot of sleep.

I'm not much of a drinker, but I did drink a lot last year at E3 since I was going out to clubs with some friends I have in LA. Unlike SF, LA is spread out and the area around the LA convention center where E3 is, isn't all that particularily a great neighborhood. So all the after parties were at specific places. That was actually a good thing since you drove a ways to go to a specific place filled with other game developers who were also looking to network.

Considering that I'll be hanging out with the crew from Loki's Planet at GDC, I have a feeling I'll be drinking a lot. GDC is a pretty exciting conference if you're into making games. It's so strange to be around a huge number of people just like me. You can walk up to anyone, start talking about game development, and they'll be really excited.

Game developers tend to be social awkward people. Also 90% of the industry is male. At E3, I found it pretty odd hanging out at clubs filled with dudes and walking up to guys I didn't know to start conversations. But usually I'd get reactions like, "Yay, someone's finally talking to me," and it was fine.

Let's see. Like I said, not much to talk about team progress so far. One of the artists brought in a huge amount of concepts, but just his original drawings because he keeps forgetting to scan stuff. Otherwise, a number of people were either sick or unable to make it, so this week wasn't vastly productive. We have two animals models created. These will be important for reasons I hope we can talk about soon. We're also working on creative high resolution models for a more interactive new website. Our two technical artists on the team want to start posting their own dev blogs, so I'll set that up soon. Otherwise, there's a lot in the works, just not much finished right now.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Middle of Week 5

I used to play DnD a lot as a kid and up until my mid 20s. I was just about always the Dungeon Master. I would continually weave stories and mysteries into the plot lines for the players to unravel. But I also did something else. I stuck to the rules completely. What worked well because if there was a mystery to solve, the players could use the rules as a tool kit to solve puzzles. If there was a murder mystery and the body was found with three arrow wounds but no arrows were present, they knew the murderer had to be a Magic User, and what level range they would be in to be able to cast a Magic Missile Spell to produce three arrows.

Every now and then, I'd check out other gaming groups. I never met another DM that played strictly by the rules like I did. It hampered their creativity, they'd say. And when there would be a puzzle to solve, their players would give up. Why? Because since their DM didn't go by the rules, they knew there was an infinite number of solutions to the puzzle so why bother? The DMs would get frustrated and dumb things down for their players. With no challenge, there's no sense of accomplishment. Meanwhile, I literally had waiting lists of people wanting to get in our gaming groups purely from word of mouth.

I think about this analogy as I consider Epic Fantasy versus Hard Fantasy. Hard Fantasy has been around a long time. I feel as though it's slowly coming to the forefront. When it does, I hope to see Dawnshine be part of it.

Ok, enough of that. Let's talk about the project. So we had our first stumble. About a week ago, I logged into the engine to find the following problems: the screen was completely gray with only the UI rendering. If I selected objects in edit mode and moved around, I'd find that the camera wasn't moving correctly. And I couldn't enter Character mode to run around with my character.

Ok, so... one of the programmers was working on getting NPC dialogue to work. Another is working on player statistics and getting them to show on the UI. Two others are still working on tutorials to learn the engine. And the last programmer is working on the Character Creator system. I figured out that if you manually put an Area to the Default view, the gray screen went away and you could see stuff. Why wasn't it defaulting to the Default view automatically anymore? But you still couldn't enter Character mode and the camera controls were all messed up. It seemed obvious to me that the programmer who was working on the Character Creation system messed something up since he was trying to figure out how to move the camera to different character creation screens depending on which faction the player selected. No brainer, right?

Now, through the life of this project, we're all going to mess the engine up at some point. That's not a big deal. But I was irritated that someone screwed up the engine and didn't tell anyone what they did or where we needed to start looking so we could fix it. I stayed calm. And at the Programmers meeting, I tried to politely say if you screw up in the engine, you need to tells us about it. I repeated that I wasn't mad it happened, but when something's broke and no one can work in the engine until it's fixed, it's kind of stressful for a Project Manager. The programmer that was working on the Character system wasn't at that meeting, making it a little more irritating.

But that programmer contacted me the next day while I was at the Art Meeting telling me that the engine was broke. I was like, "Um, yeah," so he stopped by the Art Meeting to talk to me about it. It was clear, if he is the one that messed it up, like I assumed, then he wasn't aware of it. He's done a lot of work on the project so far, and really cares about what we're doing, so I felt a little bad that I assumed he was careless.

I got home and started looking into things. There were three files that got changed around the time the problem happened, all by this same programmer. They were part of the Character system--the system that seemed broken. However, I looked through the code of all three, and I couldn't see a problem. They were part of the character system, but they established base ability values. Not really anything that would make sense to cause the issues we were having. Then I looked more closely at the error messages. I noticed two of them were talking about missing art assets, so I mentioned that to the team. One of our technical artists on the team then noticed a huge chunk of art assets where missing. They must have gotten deleted accidentally. Art assets are things like the 3d models and animation files. So he spent 7 hours straight manually restoring each one. As soon as he finished, the engine reverted completely back to normal. Crisis averted, other than the fact that I blamed a programmer for something he probably had nothing to do with. Not cool.

In either case, I'd still like to get to the bottom of why a missing art asset was shutting the Default Room view off and reversing the Camera controls. It does give you some insight into why games have such weird bugs that can take a while to fix. I never would have figured out which art assets were missing because that's not something I'm keeping track of. I would have been lost trying to figure that out. All the art assets that come with the engine, we'll be replacing. But we're not quite ready for that yet.

Not much new going on with the team other than that. With our lack of Environmental Concept Artists, the modelers have been moving forward without them. So we're getting some rough models made right now. I recruited a couple Character Concept Artists, so that should help out. Otherwise, I haven't done any recruitment meetings this week, nor do I have any lined up til next week. Because of that, I've been able to get a fair amount of writing done. Nice for me to finally be working on a task in my comfort zone.

Off topic: So Loki's Planet is going to have a booth at GDC. The Game Development Conference is one of the biggest Game Industry events of the year. About 27k people are planning on attending. This isn't for game fans. This is for people that want to find out about the latest game development tools coming out and how to use them. GDC is also a giant job fair as well as a massive networking convention. Loki's Planet will be the only social networking site there looking to monetize. So game companies looking to advertise will want to stop by. Last year at GDC, I was going booth to booth trying to get hired by game companies as a writer. This year, I'll be behind a booth trying to hire writers looking to do game news and reviews content for LP. Nice switch.

Although it's too early for us to be talking about Dawnshine at GDC this year, there've been a couple companies that have contacted me and set up meetings with me. One of them specializes in monatization strategies. Another is one of the largest MMO game server companies in Europe. To be honest, I really have no idea how much server hosting for games costs. Yeah, I know. That's one of those, "Um, why am I in charge of this project?" moments. I do actually really like business. It just seems like it's so early on this project to even consider that side of things, but that's just my naivety speaking. Putting together a solid business plan is something I should do as early as possible. It's the first thing any investor will want to see, and the sloppier it is, the more the investor will assume we don't really care about this project. So I have to get it tight. When I took a Business Management class in college 10 years ago, I wrote up a business plan for a night club, and I had it detailed down to how much it would cost to wash the forks. That's exactly the type of thing you need to do to be taken seriously. I need to come really prepared for these meetings to get exactly the details I need to make a serious business plan or this project will never get off the ground.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Middle of Week 4

I met with my dad for dinner a couple nights ago. He's worked construction all his life in one form or another. His work has been featured in architectural magazines. He co-wrote the test for the masonry contractor's license for the State of California. He's also read about every fantasy and sci fi book ever written and plays World of Warcraft more than anyone I know. I was telling him more about the Dawnshine project, the culture, the building materials, etc. He's going to help me a lot with the building concepts. He knows a lot about ancient history and construction methods. So it was a helpful talk. I just wish my dad didn't talk with food in his mouth. That bothers me so much. But what can you do?

So I'm finishing up a temporary gui for the Character Creation process. I'm happy with 90% of the classes, but we might end up tweaking one or two of them. We won't be announcing any of them until they're working in the engine and we're happy with their advancement customizations. Some of them are unique, most are very unusual, and the ones that are similar to what's in other games, still have a lot of interesting twists. Still, my concern isn't that people will steal ideas from us. My concern is that we promise to have feature X and struggle and struggle with it, and either can't get it to work right or we come up with a better idea and don't want to feel constrained. My word is really important to me, so I'm really careful about making promises.

With that in mind, the crew at Loki's Planet want to announce their teaming up with us. So I have to write a press release about Dawnshine. That's harder to do than you might think. We're not announcing many features at this time. And although it's incredibly awesome that Dawnshine will be the first ever MMORPG released in the Hard Fantasy style... um... most people don't even know what Hard Fantasy means or why that's a cool thing. Hard Fantasy is an amazing genre, but it's really, really rare. Really rare. It goes against everything that is the core of what fantasy is, so to most people, you explain it to them, and they give you a, "uh, what?" expression.

In simple terms, the elements in sci fi that cause science fanatics to argue about Warp Coils and Tachyon Beams is what makes for good Hard Sci Fi. But no one argues about similar mechanics in Fantasy. The reason why is people just shrug their shoulders and say, "It's magic. The whole point of what makes it mysterious is that you don't know how it works." That's the whole point of fantasy. In Hard Fantasy, there is no mystery. Everyone knows exactly how magic works, or at least the highly trained do. Thalos and Lokana are both Gods in Dawnshine, but even they could be killed if done in a specific way. Their magic is also highly restricted to the same laws of the universe that binds everyone else.

This is counter productive to what most people love about Fantasy. But, in exchange for giving up the ability to hook people with unpredictability, Hard Fantasy offers a stable platform which makes it easier for a story to center around characters rather than events. Magic is no longer the central theme to the story, but rather a back drop to it. This way, we get to focus on a character's personalities, goals, conflicts, struggles, etc. If magic in the story is unpredictable to the reader / player, it can keep them from getting invested in that character. After all, who sits on the edge of their seats knowing that any danger the heroes get in will just be solved by some new magic spell that the author just maked up on the spot? Well, in Hard Fantasy, the reader / player already knows all the tricks the heroes have up their sleeves because it's been established and the author can't break their own rules or it's not Hard Fantasy any more. It's a subtle difference that makes Hard Fantasy a very unique genre--and one, I think works fantastically as an MMORPG genre just waiting for someone to create.

Will most players care? Probably not. But that's why we plan to make Dawnshine a really fun game just in case.

Aside from that, here's what we're working on:

Half the programming team was out of town this week, so it was a short meeting. The team is working on getting the camera to move to different scenes depending on which faction you select during the Character Creation and Selection screen. That way, you pick the Neg Wath and you see a forest scene, pick the Sawkarans, maybe you're outside a sun temple or something. I noticed the camera's really messed up in the engine right now. I'm guessing a programmer tweaked with it, broke it, and decided to figure out what's wrong with it tomorrow.

We're getting a ahead of the concept artists, so the modelers are going to start modeling basic stuff that doesn't really need concept art for--bowls, rocks, simple tables, etc. To be honest, everyone's moving faster than I planned they would, so people are getting ahead of me. Plus the team keeps growing by a couple new people each week on average. I'm spending a lot of time scrambling to keep up with everyone.

Nothing to talk about right now. I need to clone myself so I can manage the project and get all the writing done I need to do. I really hope we can start posting some Dawnshine fiction and lore a month from now. I can promise you guys are going to see a freakish amount of details about the game lore--far more than anyone's ever heard of from an MMORPG. Dawnshine is definitely a game lore nerds and role players will love.