Monday, March 26, 2012

Middle of Week 12

I know how to work with writers and musicians really well, but I don't have much experience directing artists. I've noticed a consistent pattern with artists. When I interview a programmer to join the team, they want to know all about the lore, the history, what game mechanics we're using--pretty much everything there is to know. The few musicians I've talked to, I can talk music theory with, talk about instruments, and compositions. I can talk to 3D artists really well. I have 4 years professional experience as a modeler and texture artist working as a conceptual modeler at an architectural company. But when it comes to talking to conceptual artists(the kind that draw stuff), I don't have the hang of it. Artists keep wanting to see something. I can't draw for crap nor am I all that visually creative. My meetings with artists tends to go really fast.

We have a private wiki we use with a lot of information on lore, but unless the artists are actually looking at visuals, it's not clicking for them. So for me to say, "Hey, read through the wiki and start drawing stuff," hasn't been super productive. It makes sense to me, as a writer. To me, the visuals are cool, but they're window dressing. I need to read character backgrounds, histories, conflicts, etc, to really get the meat of what's going on. So I've provided all that for the artists. But I've been making the mistake of communicating to the art team like I would want to be communicated to, and this has bogged us down.

I'm starting to learn why writers never end up in charge of big game projects. But, I'm nothing if not adaptable. So we're changing tactics a little. I'm going to have the artists start doing lots of fast sketches on specific things just to get a rapid flow of visual ideas out there. This is what we should have been doing all along.

We have a lot of great concepts right now. There are some really talented artists on the team. I'm just a little frustrated that we're three months in and just barely starting to do some modeling. But again, I take blame for that. Still, I took about a dozen volunteer artists who didn't know each other, put them in one group, and told them to start working together as a team. That's not an easy thing to do. And I've had a few people (and I'm not naming names) who have experience working at AAA level studios who've told me there's no way I can pull off what I'm trying to do without hiring people with industry experience. I've had similar people tell me I shouldn't let my team know that projects like this one have a very high failure rate--even professional studios with experienced people, have a high failure rate. If I listened to people that told me I can't do things, I'd never get out of bed.

But speaking communicating with my team, I've worked on unfunded projects where we were told almost weekly that funding was right around the corner, and of course, it never came. I've done the opposite. I've made it pretty clear we're not going to get funding any time soon.

I can name a few groups of hobbyists that got together, made a prototype, pitched it to another game company or got some funding, and made it big. The Diablo series is one of the most successful game series of all time. But most people don't know that Blizzard didn't create it. It was pitched to them and they took it over. The "company" that made World of Tanks made their MMO on the side while working for another company, and they got bought out by some big company I can't remember right now. Zynga has bought out several studios started by hobbyists.

But there's the other side of things too. Cheyenne Mountain is a big example of a studio that had a big IP--Star Gate. They went two years without any funding at all after they ran out of money and eventually had to close shop. Simutronics kept going to GDC each year trying to get funding for Hero's Journey, before they gave up and now just focuses on selling their custom made engine--the HeroEngine. I met the HeroEngine people at GDC. They sounded like pretty sharp people. It's a little intimidating to say we're going to succeed where they failed.

But I can say that I really believe in the Dawnshine project. It's radically different from what's out there, and I know people are going to really like it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Middle of Week 11

We've been getting a tiny bit of press. It's not really a big deal, but it's a start. I wrote a short Dawnshine bio for Loki's Planet, they included it in one of their press releases, and a couple game news sites did stories on us. There's quite a bit of wrong information in the stories, but that's pretty normal. I've seen quite a few sites refer to the "Underground Alliance" as "The Allienz." I don't know if that's supposed to be short for "alliance" or be pronounced like "aliens." Who knows?

Our site isn't very friendly towards people trying to get information on the game, so I can't really blame them. That's for no other reason other than we're not marketing the game to players at this point, so it doesn't really matter to me. The site really only exists for people on the developer side of things. Still, there's going to come a time where we're going to have to start hitting deadlines. Game media people are going to start wanting content from us. Stuff like, "If you can get 45 seconds of solid gameplay footage by such and such date, we can feature your reel at such and such."

But speaking of Loki's Planet, I'm now on the press release list of a lot of major game companies. It just seems so lazy doing it this way. A big game company puts out a press release, and lazy journalists reword the press release and post it to what ever site they write for. I miss the days when I used to work as a music journalist and I was out there trying to discover new talent before anyone else had heard of them. Now, as a game journalist, I feel more like just another step in some big corporation's marketing campaign. Ah well. The more I understand about how the game marketing biz works, the easier it will be for me to plan a marketing strategy for Dawnshine. So all and all, this is a good thing. Plus, I like talking about games anyways. I might as well get something out of it.

But aside from that, things are moving a little on the slow side. The programmers are rebuilding what we lost after having our engine replaced. And I think the artists are still recovering from taking 2 weeks off. I think the time off and GDC in general broke up the flow for some on the team. I dunno. But we have building concepts I'm happy with. I think the rest of the team is happy with them. So we're going to start modeling things and finally start putting art assets in the game.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Post GDC

From counting business cards, I'd say I met with and talked to about 60 people at GDC. It was a very different experience from last year. Last year I was looking for work and spent a lot of time in the career pavilion and hanging out with other people looking for work. This year, I never even saw the career pavilion and spent most my time talking to investors, middleware developers, and other game companies. Since Loki's Planet was the only company there with a booth that reviewed other games, coupled with the fact we were surrounded by game companies, you can imagine a lot of companies wanted to meet with us. Since I'm the Editor in Chief at Loki's Planet, that means they wanted to meet with me.

Several companies let me know they'd be sending me codes so I could get early access to their games in development so I'd be able to review them. To be honest, I really don't have time to play games all day long so luckily we have about a dozen writers on the Loki's Planet team to be able to cover them, then I'll be organizing that team. This is why it's good to be the Editor in Chief.

I'm a very good journalist, and through writer critique groups I've been part of for nearly 20 years, I'm highly qualified to be an editor. Since I know a lot about game development, this makes me fairly unique. By game development, I mean programming wise, I know the difference between passing by reference and passing by value and on the art side, I know the difference between a bump map and a displacement map. How many game journalists do you think can say the same? Anyway, I'm not technically a game journalist. I know far more about which game companies are doing what than the average gamer does, but I still feel like I should know more. For example, BigPoint Games is a big and important game studio. But when they asked me if I was familiar with other Bigpoint games aside from Game of Thrones in development, I had no idea. It was a little embarrassing. But you know, you have to be honest. If you don't know something, be honest about it.

My average day at GDC went like this: wake up around 7am to get to spend an hour getting ready then meet with the Loki crew to talk about what we were doing for the day. At 9am, we'd walk or take a taxi to GDC. It was usually faster to just walk than to wait 30+ mins for a taxi. I'd get there at 10am and pretty much have meetings all day until 6pm. At 6pm, we'd go out and get something to eat which was sometimes the only meal I would get that day(due to time constraints, not budget). We would then go out to a networking party that would end at 9 or 10pm, then go to another that would end at 2am. I'm not really sure why so many clubs in SF would kick a huge crowd of drinkers out of their club at 9pm and then close down for the night. It made no sense to me, but it meant we usually ended up hitting at least two different parties that night. A couple times, we would get something to eat then, and get back to the hotel around 3am. I had a really hard time sleeping at the hotel, so I'd average about an hour of sleep. I'm usually not a drinker, but I certainly got pretty intoxicated each night.

I'm not going to talk about how things went on the business side of things for Loki's Planet, though I would love to go on and on about that. It's not my place to do so, so I will leave it be. I can say that I found it very encouraging. I can also say that I have a much better understanding of what exactly Loki's Planet is trying to accomplish, and I think it's a really good idea. I went in thinking this week would be one big party. It was, but it was so much more. We got a lot of business done as well. The lack of sleep never slowed me down. I don't drink coffee and I avoid caffeine. I was running on pure adrenaline and excitement all week. Talking business and games with representatives of multimillion dollar companies and big time investors made me feel like I was home. This is exactly where I was supposed to be.

Hmm, a few other highlights. So I talked to this huge company. I don't want to say who. But they cover credit card transactions and related customer service. They took me out to lunch to a pretty nice place to talk about Stigma Games. Their account manager was telling me about how he used to work for EA Games and how it was his job to find game studios for EA to acquire. When I told him I started Stigma Games so I could ensure my place as a writer for our products, he thought that was a little weird. He told me he'd never heard of a full time writer, that when he hired writers at game companies, it was for short term, contract positions. He went on to say that he didn't think establishing the story first before the artwork was a good idea. He said it would bog down production and cause the design phase to take too long.

I mention this because I want people to understand how radically different the Dawnshine Project is. Writers, story... that's all after thought stuff to the other 99.9% of game studios out there. The term "story driven" gets thrown around so much by people that don't even know what that means, that it no longer means anything.

BioWare is one of the few exceptions to this rule. They tend to have excellent story elements in their games, and are an inspiration to the rest of us writers in the industry of what the future of RPGs can be like.

So our engine is working again. At GDC, I talked to Cooper and Herb from the company that makes the HeroEngine, and they explained the issue. I won't say exactly what it was because it's a little on the scary side. Someone on our team accidentally uploaded some Windows System files. I know I accidentally did this in late 2011 when I was trying to sync the asset library with my C drive so I could upload art assets. I created a virtual drive so it would only upload from a specific folder, but it reverted to my C drive for some reason and started uploading my Windows files. I deleted the files that got uploaded, but somehow they got restored. So either I inadvertently caused the problem when my deleted files accidentally got restored, or someone else did the same thing.

I don't want to give too much information out there to the public on this in case this is a persistent security risk, but from here, we were affecting servers related to our virtual server, which, had we been hacking on purpose, we could have done some damage to their network. I swear, we're not master hackers.

When I walked up to Herb and told him I was from Stigma Games, he told me that over 6k people have HeroEngine accounts, so he didn't know who I was. I told him I used to work on an MMO that gets a lot of press and who's screen shots from the game are still on HeroEngine's website. He told me he had nothing to do with marketing or their own website, so he still had no idea who I was. I said that our HE account was crashing one of their servers, and he said, "Oh, you guys!" and started telling me about how they've been scrambling to figure out how we did what we did.

Cooper, who's the Project Manager for the HeroEngine, spent a good amount of time talking to us. He seemed pretty flexible with some of the licensing agreements we'd like to work out with him. All and all, I was pretty happy with my meetings with them both. It's nice to be able to meet the people behind the engine we're using and know they're good people.

So GDC was a blast, and I hope I'll be able to announce big plans from the Loki's Planet camp that might affect Stigma Games soon. But aside from that, it's time to get back to work on Dawnshine.

Friday, March 2, 2012

End of Week 8

Hey guys,

GDC is upon us and everyone's freaking out. I have lots of meetings planned. I'll mostly be doing stuff for Loki's Planet and doing a little recruiting for another game I'm working on called Tower22 ( ). There's not a lot for me to do for Dawnshine right now. No company will invest in us this early on, and those that will would offer too little seed money and want a massive chunk of our profits to make up for the risk. Not a good deal for us.

I don't think a lot will come out of GDC for Dawnshine other than to make some in roads connection wise, get some figure quotes for me to put in my business plan, and check out the latest in middleware on the market. I've been looking at a few other engines aside from HeroEngine. Though in terms of what all HE does, and the fact that the license is cheaper than what the other guys are doing, I don't know if we're going to switch. I had to sign an NDA to find out how much BigWorld charges for their engine. Wow, is all I can say. It's worth it, but wow.

There's a few things about HE I'm not happy about. The water is really limited. If you play SWTOR, you can see what I mean. It's not very realistic. It also does cube mapping for dynamically created shadows. Every time I play SWTOR, that really stands out to me ( aka, notice how the shadows are in squares ). I keep thinking, "This game cost over $300 mil to make and they're using the default cube mapping from the engine?" Ironically, the HeroEngine development team is planning on upgrading the shadow mapping rendering system, so future MMOs using the engine will have better graphics. So Dawnshine will have smooth shadows, while SWTOR will probably still have shadow squares.

Let's see. The artists are taking two weeks off from meeting. About half our team is going to GDC and they're going to be showing off their portfolios. So I didn't want them skimping on their portfolios because they're working on Dawnshine, nor did I want them feeling guilty about not working on Dawnshine because of GDC, so yeah.

No rest for the programmers. This brings up another issue. The engine is broken again. We're building a zone just for character selection / creation. You probably don't realize this when you play World of Warcraft or most MMOs out there that if you click on your character, it instantly moves you to a camera in a little room that has art assets that symbolize your character's race and/or faction. Click on a different character, and the engine moves you again. It happens so fast that you don't know the camera is switching around.

Well, this is what one of our programmers is creating right now. The other programmers are working on other things, but this is the area that's broken.... I think. All I know is there's an error with the camera systems and it causes the engine to crash. None of us seem to know how to fix it, and I'm so busy doing everything else on the project. For me to squeeze in time to do a crash course in the camera systems to try and figure out how to fix things, yeah, pretty frustrating. But we'll figure it out, just like we've figured out the last two game stoppers. Eventually we'll break the engine in every way possible and find new, impossible ways to break it. In the end, we'll be masters as fixing it and pushing it to the limit and throwing in our own curves to extend that limit. So I'm not freaking out about it. Still, I don't like that the programmers have been at a dead stop for a week now because of it.

Aside from that, we're starting to work on marketing. Several business related people outside the team are trying to work with me on how to pitch Dawnshine. Now, the finished game will be awesome, but what do we say about our game now while we're still working on art and game play features and don't yet have anything to show people? There's a few options here. Calling this the first hard fantasy MMO ever made is really awesome.... to me... and the 12 other people that know / care what Hard Fantasy is. Um, ok, so that's not really going to wow anyone. Hmm, in a male dominated game industry, half of our art team is female. That doing anything for anyone? Girl power? I think that's sort of interesting to some people. Not bad, but not enough. Well, the graphics will be amazing... just like every next gen game out there, so that doesn't stand out. But our awesome graphics aren't going to be ready for some time. We're going to focus on multiplayer content and strong community. That's cool, but still doesn't really strike people as something awesome. Our combat system is really, really cool. Our class system is really, really cool. A lot of other game features we have planned, I feel, will revolutionize the industry. But none of that is stuff we can talk about any time soon. So what do we have left?

Then there's another angle, though I'm not sure if this is a selling point or something we should down play. We're all inexperienced. Um, that can be a good thing... sorta. Well, I've worked on some game projects making a splash, one of which is an MMO, but I did so as a writer. This is the first time I've worked as a Project Manager or a designer. It's not a whole lot of industry experience, but it's all we have on the entire team. Well, one of our modelers interns at BioWare. I'm not sure what she does there since that particular studio doesn't use 3d models in their games, but it's still pretty cool. Otherwise, our team is essentially recent graduates or current college students with game related majors. Two of our programmers have game programming degrees from DeVry. Our sound guy has a degree from Pinnacle College, which is an audio school. And then most of our art team is from The Art Institute.

What's cool about this is the fact that, in a world of MMO clones, we can put something together that's really unique. We don't have to bow to publisher demands to put out a flavor of the month game. We can truly do what we want. And I can tell you, a lot of what we're doing has never been done before. Usually when something's never been done before, it's because it's not a very good idea. Time will tell on that. But the bad thing, of course, if big studios full of experienced programmers have tons of bugs in their games, what's going to happen with a studio filled with inexperienced game programmers? That doesn't sound promising, does it? Do gamers respect underdogs or do they respect studios with proven track records of quality products? I think it's the latter.

But one thing I can tell you, we're not going to let a deck stacked against us win. Dawnshine is going to be an amazing game, and we're not going to release it until it really shines.