This is part 2 of a series. Read Part 1 here.
When we last left our intrepid hero (Me, I’m writing this in the 3rd person), he/I had just finished Uni and started my first programming job. In the shipping and logistics industry, although it wasn’t as exciting as it sounded. Database stuff, mainly, tracking containers as they moved around the world.
I’d move from that to working on long range fire detection and video analysis software, and then on to writing online gambling games. We don’t have much of a game development industry here, so if that’s the skillset you’ve developed, you often need to find employment in adjacent industries.
But what I did as a day job was besides the point. From the time I left Uni, I had one goal – to create video games. The day job has always been in service of that goal, letting me survive while I do it, funding my ambition.
So what game was I writing in my spare time? My dream game, natch. Because what else would a beginner game developer attempt to build than something combining all the elements of their favourite AAA games?
Totally sensible, right? Right.
So I set out with the oh-so-realistic goal of making a 1st person RPG (called Scars of War), combining the best elements of Baldur’s Gate 2, Deus Ex and Morrowind, by myself.
Building the engine first.
I know, right? Ah, that youthful naivete.
It was (obvious in retrospect) wildly beyond my resources to make. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
I had a game world mapped out, with factions and quests and a main storyline examining the toll war takes on people and nations (hence Scars of War), albeit through a fantasy filter.
I drew concept art, such as it was.
I coded up an engine, aiming for enormous Morrowind-like large outdoor spaces and huge urban hubs. Again, of course.
I gave up on building my own engine after a few years of tinkering, realizing that, without a team, I’d spend a decade just building an engine and tools, without even starting to work on the game. And it would still be behind the curve, tech-wise.
So I looked around, found a game engine for sale, and then agonized for 3 weeks over spending $100 to buy the Torque Game Engine.
I have to laugh, now. THREE weeks, for a measly $100! XD
But I finally got past that hurdle that exists in many a programmer’s mind, the insidious “why should I spend money on this when I can just implement it myself, and then I will have perfect control over the implementation and not have to fit around other programmers’s bad design choices” fallacy.
Once I’d done it once, I found it easier to fork out money the next time, and the next.
It started to dawn on me (I’m slow) that the key consideration was time, not whether it was within my capabilities. Sure, I could build it myself, but how long would it take to do that? Versus “how long it would take me to earn the money I spent buying some 3rd party solution”.
Years vs days.
So I started buying up all the asset packs I could get my hands on.
(To this day, that’s one of the key differences you can see between hobbyist devs and pros – whether they factor in time into their calculations properly, and whether they have a realistic idea of what they can accomplish in a day, a week, a month, a year.)
I just need to buy enough modular assets, I thought, and I can flesh out my fantasy world. Asset marketplaces would solve my content problem.
Haha, no again.
RPGs have ENORMOUS art requirements on top of complex technical specifications, they’re one of the worst genres to tackle for a first project, in terms of the resources to make them.
Even buying every asset I thought would fit with my game’s art style (a challenge in itself), I had nowhere near enough.
Well then, I thought, I’ll just have to make my own models. Because I didn’t have enough money to pay anyone, and I wasn’t swimming in volunteers to do the art for me. Maybe, once I had enough art, I could attract talent, form a team.
So I taught myself the basics of modelling and texturing. Which went ok, at least for static models, I was able to achieve a basic level of quality I thought would world well enough (remembering that this was 2010, and I was aiming for the quality bar of Morrowind for 3D models).
I was rather proud of that ship, at the time.
In the mean time, blogging about my progress on the Torque developer blogs section resulted in another developer contacting me, an RPG enthusiast who, together with his team, was also working on a Torque RPG, The Age of Decadence. The infamous (in some corners of the internet) Vince D. Weller of Iron Tower Studio. A fan (to put it mildly) of hardcore RPGs, Vince encouraged me to actually go out and talk about it, interviewing me for RPGCodex.
Self promotion is something that doesn’t come naturally to me, and I thought it was way too early to be talking about my game, but Vince convinced me to take the leap. I’m forever thankful to him for that, because putting yourself out there forces you to have some degree of accountability. It’s painfully obvious when progress stalls out.
I got my own section on the ITS forums, and I continued to build. Thanks to that community an actual, real concept artist decided he liked the idea and offered his services on the project.
I also had a volunteer 3D modeller join the project. He started building some models, so that was cool, at first. The plan was working.
Except that relationship soured when I friended him on facebook, and started seeing another side of him.
A wildly misogynist, racist side. Dude had a real problem with women.
I don’t have a lot of patience for assholes at the best of times, so that relationship didn’t last long, and I was back to making my own models, along with all the coding, writing and design.
I coded up an RPG character system:
Quest and dialogue systems:
Character customization of skin and eye colour, hair and beard, tattoos (The prototype model is crap, but it was something I’d come back to working on later):
I even had a module loading system, something like Elder Scrolls/NWN plugins.
I turned my concept art into models…
…and then used those models plus bought assets to start building out my levels.
I bought a base “naked guy” model and then built accessories for that model, because RPGs need items and equipment, right?
Muttonchops and mullets for the win. How could my RPG not succeed with Bubba there on the cover art?
But always, always, the problem was content creation. Art, levels, scripting etc. Just…so much to do. And not enough of me to go around. Particularly with a demanding day job.
There would be periods when I just couldn’t devote much time to Scars, and months would pass by without a significant update.
Community interest is hard to build and maintain without consistent updates and engagement.
I’ve been blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with the confidence that, given enough time, I can handle just about any role in game development. But, it was becoming clear on me, I couldn’t do everything.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the approach of my 30th birthday. I was 29, I’d been working on this project for 7 years or so, and I was no more than 20% of the way to completion, realistically.
I had, in the intervening time, risen to be a senior developer in my career, with team lead the natural next step in my career progression.
And with that experience, being forged in the fires of real-world project delivery in a big, international company, came a clearer understanding of my own limitations, how long projects actually take.
And I realized that I was chasing my white whale.
Unless I changed something, this project would consume the rest of my life and probably never come to fruition.
I had transitioned from the mindset of a hobbyist to a professional, and I could see that my current project wasn’t feasible.
I realized that the best way to achieve my ultimate goal of making games commercially was to stop, put Scars aside, and tackle something smaller.
If I finished and released some smaller-but-still-profitable games, I could build up capital. And then use that capital to hire people, build a team capable of making the types of games I wanted to make.
What takes 1 person 10 years to do can be done by 10 people in 1 year (probably more like 13 people, teams come with management overhead, but you get the idea).
Counter-intuitively, I could make RPGs faster by stopping making RPGs, temporarily.
That is another lesson that comes with experience – learning to overcome the sunk cost fallacy. It is extremely hard to stop making something you’ve devoted most of your adult life to, something you’ve put out there in public, that an audience have become (somewhat) invested in. It’s painful to fail, and embarrassing to do it in public.
But sometimes you just have to suck it up, buttercup, and move forward.
So I did that. And then I took a massive, terrifying leap of faith.
Join me next time, for part 3, where I talk about System Crash, my first commercial success, and how I jumped off a cliff to make it, trusting that I could build my wings on the way down, before I went splat. And that, sort of, worked.