The End Game (part 1)

About 3 meters from me, staring at two screens filled with funky windows full of debug data, one of my two favorite producers is violating at least three laws. I reflect on this talent that allows him to stitch together sexist, discriminatory and racist phrases while head-banging a keyboard and wonder which particular stimuli in his upbringing, environment or genetic constitution lie at the origin of such a prosaic ability.

Does this look like there's still a lot of work left ? Yes, we're ready to finish Dragon Commander - finally :)

In the end I decide it’s probably not the right moment to tell him that it could be that the plan changed, and that the presentations we’re preparing will be hands-on (i.e. the journalists get to play). My empathic thinking tells me that he first needs to assimilate his itinerary for the coming weeks, which he also just learnt about (for the simple reason that I just learnt about it myself, as did the publications we’ll be visiting ;) ).

Said itinerary has him taking two planes pretty much every other day for a fortnight and during that time he’s expected to pretend that he’s still remotely coordinating activities on the Larian front and maintain whatever social relations that bless his life on his personal home front. While there for sure will be some fun to be had on this tour, he’s experienced enough to know that such an endeavor is going to be pretty tough, and I know that he cares enough to want to do this well, which makes it even tougher. He is pretty good at what he does and most certainly deserves a raise(*). So do I btw because I’m joining him :)

But because I’m in need of some feedback about the feasibility of the hands-on thing, I eventually bring it to him in what I consider at that particular moment a light tone:

“Dude, it’s going to be hands on, otherwise they don’t want to talk to us. They’ve seen the games before, and they need something new. We’re not big enough for them to do a feature about the fact that we have a new font. Hence, hands-on“

He reacts with a nervous laugh.

I expected more (“what about social stats? What about attacks of opportunity? What about…the impact of perception!!!”), but clearly he’s beyond that point, and, I realize he’s right.

The amount of possible development interventions is limited at this point. We can have discussions about saturation, we can argue over balancing values, we can express our frustrations over certain bugs, yes, but we can’t change a lot anymore, because we’re running out of time for this particular presentation. So hands on or hands off, it doesn’t make a difference – there’s nothing extra we can do.

Still, I expected him to come up with a list of reasons why the hands on is a bad idea. We haven’t done any usability, likeability, playability etceteraity tests yet. This and that feature still have stub artwork .That feature isn’t in. That thing doesn’t work. Something along those lines.

But in the end, no matter what hypothethical discussion we might have about this, he knows it wouldn’t matter, so he decides to use his energy for the task at hand.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, he thinks his game is in good enough shape.

Whichever it is, we are pretty much in an alea iacta est situation regarding the hands-on thing as the alea was already iacta’d the very day we decided that we were going to be showing Dragon Commander to an audience of a 1000 hardcore gamers at FOM, the biggest LAN party in Belgium, inviting them to come and play Dragon Commander and originally also Original Sin (we’re still deciding about the latter).

If you show it to 1000 hardcore gamers and give them the opportunity to play, you shouldn’t be afraid of letting people from the media play it, yet still, for some reason, that frightens me more than those 1000 players.

It was a mad plan we decided on a long time ago and in truth it should probably have been cancelled in light of the development tasklist but it wasn’t, meaning that impressively, we’re now indeed going to be standing at FOM with something playable, proving yet again that Larian indeed has the planning abilities normally only reserved for those professional companies we hear so much about and ensuring that yet again I will get many invitations from very reputed institutions to lecture on how to plan in a creative environment! :)

That we didn’t cancel our attendance at FOM is because we think we’ve finally cracked the gameplay of Dragon Commander,and so are ready to let people play it because we want to see if our thinking is right.  The only catch is that up to this point the longest play session we’ve had in the office without encountering some blocking bug is something like 10 minutes, but well, we still have a bit of time. Panic will only come Friday evening or so. And if we’re in trouble now, it’s for the same old reason – we want to do too much too well.Not a vice per se, but damned annoying from time to time. And anyway, based on past experience, I’m pretty sure that somehow, we’ll manage.

Parallel to that, we also had to take on a bit of extra work just because we’re self-publishing little devs. So we decided to launch a new trailer & website, pretty much on the same dates as FOM, the idea being that now that we’ve actually gone ahead and changed the mechanics of the game, we need to communicate what we did as well as we can. Obviously that we’d need to communicate such things also came as an afterthought, so it was all done in a bit of a rush (we’re going to make the trailer tomorrow), but we’re confident that that too is something we’ll manage.

And because of that confidence, we’ve also invited a whole bunch of press to Larian to show both games, hoping that yet again, people will be willing to write about it just because they think their audiences will be interested in what we’re creating. And just to ensure we get the highest reach possible (or to increase or chances of finding the single interested soul) we’ve organized a tour around both Europe & the US for all the press that will not come to our offices. And then afterwards we’ve invited even more journalists. All in the hope that they’ll write about us, and spread the word…(which tbh they damn well should – both these games dangerously close to become very good games and yes, I know – I shouldn’t be the one saying that, but still, damned fine games if you ask me. )

Now obviously, if we don’t manage, we’re in a lot of pickles (is that even an expression ?), but as I said, I have faith – one of the many features a studio head needs to have if he wants to survive longer than a day in this job. That and a fierce believe in the “trust but verify” way of doing things ;)

Somewhere in between those things we’re also going to be starting the process of translating all the text into different languages and recording the voices for the game, using our fantastic dialog pipeline which I wrote about before. (Writing this I’m actually looking at an animator who for the nth evening in a row is sitting late in the office, working diligently to ensure that the animation quality of the game will be way beyond what we could ordinarily afford with the budget we have, meriting a definite raise (*))

And we’re also prepping the pre-order thing, which tbh we didn’t think enough about and I still need to figure out between now and the weekend. And we’re prepping the public beta-testing thing. And we’re integrating the game into Steamworks. And we’re finalizing the box art. And…and…and…well, in general, we’re busy with the stuff typically associated with the endgame of a game development project. I’m not saying we’re not putting features in anymore, we are, but they are related to getting the game ready for shipping and not to inventing some new type of gameplay element anymore because really, we are nearing the point where we’re going to say, that’s it, fix the bugs and ship it.

And this time I actually say it with quite some certainty because in those ten minutes that I could actually play Dragon Commander today, it was clear to me that after all those tries, we finally found the gameplay mix that imho successfully blends RPG, strategy & action into a real time strategy game, and I’m very proud that we did, especially considering some of the decisions we had to take to get here.

So now we just need to finish the job. That should be simple enough after coming up with the Dragon Commander formula ;)

Finally!

If you want to personally check my theory that the gameplay of Dragon Commander is brilliant, and you happen to write for a publication of good repute (or ill repute in one particular exceptional case), do get in touch with us and we’ll happily try to organise something that will convince you that in fact, everything I said about Dragon Commander is right! That, or you can come to FOM & join the queue (at least, I hope there will be a queue, eventually ;) )

(*) Obviously, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental

  • Synergex

    Always love reading your blogs, I’m excited for both games, especially after rootin’ and tootin’ for Chris Taylor’s “Wildman” project of Kickstarter and then it being pulled (cancelled). But alas, I wish you well and I’m happy to hear that a dev thinks his game(s) are awesome and they are actually coming out. Good stuff!

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Thank you Synergex. Regarding Chris Taylor, did you read this http://www.pcgamesn.com/indie/wildman-bay-inside-chris-taylors-fight-save-gas-powered-games ? A very good behind the scenes article that tells a story many an independent studio head had to go through at some point or another in their career for whatever reason. It’s certainly one I can relate to in many points as I had to go through it too in the past. But it looks like he’s is a survivor though, so I think he’ll come through one way or another in the end.

  • Wim Wouters

    Good luck! You made me very curious :)

  • Illusive Man

    Great, both games are closer to release. See you in 6 months for much “closer to release” blog entries for common people, i.e. neither journalists nor Belgium LAN gamers.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Well, other than saying that I really do believe optimism is a moral duty and I think at least one game will be out sooner than that, we are going to bring the LAN party thing to other countries if this one works out well. And given the multiplayer nature of both games, we will be getting the betas to quite a lot of non-journalists prior to release. But we have to start somewhere obviously, and this is where we start. It’s a pretty big thing for us.

      • Illusive Man

        Well, that’s good news. Showing your games directly to gamers is certainly a good start IMO.
        Maybe frustration has overcome optimism over time in my comments, sorry.

        One question though : what happened to Sergei ( Klimov ) ? Is he still working with Larian ?

        If I remember correctly he talked about plan to develop online propaganda on DOS and DDC. And you were doing well with your Youtube channel last year. Can we expect more ?
        Like getting those 10 playable minutes of DDC in some Full HD glory with comments from Farhang and yourself…

        • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

          Sergei’s isn’t working for us anymore, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the propaganda pause you saw. We did that on purpose because we needed time to prepare for all the stuff that is coming and we really have very limited publishing resources. That means that a lot of the stuff you were seeing took up development time too and that started having too much of a negative impact on the games. So we changed course and that turned out to be the good decision, as the extra love is clearly visible in the gameplay. You’ll get the videos, don’t worry ;)

  • WotanAnubis

    You know, once upon a time, I really wanted to get into game development somehow.

    Now I’m really glad I didn’t. I don’t think I could handle the stress.

    Anyways, yes, *fix the bugs*. I am a very forgiving player. I’m willing to put up with a lot of mediocrity if there’s just a hint of originality or brilliance shining through – like the original version Divinity 2, which had so many frustrating problems that I put up with because I liked the world and the concept of being this badass dragon warrior lady.

    But bugs… I don’t really forgive bugs. Unless the game’s so awesome I’m grudgingly willing to put with them, like with New Vegas or VtM: Bloodlines (though in the latter case the tireless effort by fans to patch that game into miraculous functionality definitely helped).

    So yeah. Bugs. Fix ‘em. Even the best game is worthless if it can’t be played.

    Finally, really looking forward to seeing more of Dragon Commander after you supposedly shook up a lot of the gameplay. I’ve been starving for news, to be honest. So I hope it works out.

  • arne

    Finally some real news! I was beginning to think you spent all your time creating those absurd photoshops! How unfortunate that ‘nearing the end game’ and ‘shipping end game’ is not as short-lived as one would hope for. We’ll be reading those articles … please be kind enough to have a link on the DC ‘press’ site. Good luck!

  • http://www.facebook.com/achim.heidelauf Achim Heidelauf

    Hello Sir. I hereby do get in touch with you. So please happily try to organize something that will convince me that in fact everything you said about Dragon Commander is right! Thanks!! (not that I need any convincing, knowing first hand what you guys are capable of… but still, hit me! Now!)

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      My friend – you need to come to our office, spend two weeks here, and go home with you want . You’ll need to repeat that a few times but I guarantee you, it’ll be a good investment in yourself :)

  • Gui ‘Baalka’ Z

    I wish you everything goes well during this LAN and the reviewers presentation! It’s harder for us to wait now we know the release is getting closer and closer. I hope there will be many feedbacks to read about this weekend, see what the gamers think the game.

    And then, I think about a question i got in mind for some time : will there be demos for both Dragon Commander and Original Sin? I love demos, but sadly more and more developers don’t do any anymore. Though, I’ll get both the games without needing a demo -oh, and I btw hope you will release that Dragon commander boardgame, as a collector bonus or, even better, as a ‘stand alone’ game! Would love to be able to preorder this week my DC with boardgame… And Kirill’s soundtracks. Oh, and a living dragon inside!

    Thanks for the job, and good luck for the final stretch, that with no doubt will be exhausting!