Crunch time thoughts

One of my best friends told me that I really should update my blog. I explained to him that I’m literally working from six in the morning until midnight trying to get Dragon Commander out of the door and that the last thing I want to do in my current schedule is spend what little free or sleeping time I have left writing about work. He shrugged, repeated three times that I should update my blog, and then proceeded on another topic.

Net result: I’m updating my blog. He can be convincing.

So, we’re in crunch. Not because we’re in panic mode or because a publisher is threatening us with whatever legal nonsense, but because we still have a ton of small things we want to finish before the game goes live *and * because we selected a release date we swore we wouldn’t miss (August 6th 2013 for those interested)

The current situation is that there’s still some stuff on our task list and there’s a whole bunch of stuff on our bug/suggested features list, but most of it still all feels possible.

To put that last statement in perspective – of course, the lists are getting longer now that we launched the beta, and of course, we find ourselves forced to be selective, and of course we’d prefer to put everything in that still makes sense, and of course realization is dawning that we won’t manage to do it all. Still, morale remains high, because we think that what’ll be in will be sufficient to please a significiant large enough part of our audience and I hope wholeheartedly that that indeed becomes the case.

Those who played the beta or read my previous entry probably already figured out that we’re still debating exactly how the game should be balanced.

We indeed went for different settings for the different difficulty levels, which in theory allows us to differentiate between hard-core and casual players. The plan is to try out different sets of balancing with all the players who are in the beta and see what works the best, subjectively (by reading their reactions on forums & co) and objectively( by analyzing het logs that are being sent). To be fair, right now we didn’t even get to the objective part because it was pretty clear that we’d paced things too fast to start with, but I have good hopes that our next beta update might fix things in that area. Then again, maybe it won’t and we’ll have to try something else.

I like this multiplayer beta thing. It’s the first time we did one like this and obviously we already made a couple of mistakes, but we’re learning a lot from it and I’ve faith that in the one month that seperates us from release, we’ll manage to implement a lot of improvements based on the feedback we’re getting.

Obviously, there’s quite a few things we should remember from the bad ideas department.

One particular gem was launching without a proper tutorial and giving players access to only one game mode i.e. the one they’d usually try once they finished the single player campaign because otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to them i.e. multiplayer skirmish with plenty of stuff unlocked that players have no clue what to do with because nobody explained it to them.

Another was not telling people that the beta would initially be multiplayer only. This obviously got us flak from those that thought it’d include the single player campaign (for the record: it should eventually include a small part of the single player campaign).

Yet another was thinking that this time around we’d avoid trying out all of the junk food in town. (we’re switching to catering now)

But inbetween all the curses at yet another blooper occurs, we are making progress, and the game is getting better by the minute. Using my high tech project management skills, I can predict that at the current rate, everything will be ready enough on August 7th, exactly one day after we release the game ;)

Because we’re now a self-publishing studio, amidst all the development effort that’s taking place, we’re also doing a bit of a publishing effort. We’ve managed to get the game on Steam & gog.com without looking too much like idiots, although we certainly did manage our share of goof-ups there too. We also managed to meet for a couple of hours and have an actual marketing meeting. I’m not sure if it’s going to do us any good, but at least we’ll be able to say, well, we did do this and that.

We’re even going to have adverts in print magazines! Us! Who could’ve imagined?

We also went completely over budget on the voice recordings for the English, French and German versions of the game. This way, should for any reason this game become our swan song, it’ll at least be to the tones of sweet Edmund’s “I told you so commander!”.

Rumor also has it that actual boxes are currently being printed, boxes with an actual manual that features an actual forword written by none other than yours truely. I’m quite enamoured with the box art btw. Sadly there’s no gold master yet – that goes into the boxes later. I say sadly because if there’d be a gold master, I wouldn’t be sitting here in the office writing this blog but I’d be at home drinking a rather good bottle of wine.

Unfortunately it does look we’ll have to go for the trick of a day 1 patch for the retail edition because otherwise we wouldn’t get everything in in time. We’ll probably take some flak for that, but I prefer doing it this way over having to deal with the fall-out of getting players to play versions with major known issues. Because Dragon Commander features a hefty dose of multiplayer content, it’ll be a live game anyway, meaning there’ll be plenty of updates post release.

I guess it won’t come as a surprise if I admit that I’m maniacally browsing through forums and comment threads again, trying to figure out how the game is being perceived for the moment.  I hadn’t done this anymore since our Kickstarter campaign. Right now I have to say it’s hard to figure what our players are telling us because they’re sending out different signals, but I hope that eventually all this feedback will converge to a clear nicely packed message with step by step instructions on how to make this the best game it can be, and that we can do all of this in time for release.

Distilling what players are telling us is of course made more complicated by there not being a single player campaign in the beta yet which teaches them how to play, so I guess I’ll have to wait a bit more before I can figure out if we made something that enriches the lives of our players with moments of fun (yes, yes, I’m trying to be the saint of gaming here – in reality I’m doing it all for the truckloads of money I’m getting from this job)

You can probably also imagine that one thing that I’m anxious about is reading what the press has to say.  There’s not a lot I can do about it now, short of not releasing the game, but I wished I could skip this part.

In the end we decided not to be selective about who we’d send versions to, because we figured a game like Dragon Commander could potentially have a broad appeal, but that also means we run the risk of having journalists play the game who really don’t dig this kind of thing. We ended up sending out hands-on versions of the first chapter of Dragon Commander’s single player campaign to I guess over 500 people in the business of previewing/reviewing games. Now the wait is on to see what they’re going to write, if indeed they’ll write something at all. I only noticed two youtube videos so far (here and here) with a sufficiently good ration of thumbs up to thumbs down, but I guess I’ll only really know when more pop up over the coming days.

It remains a strange feeling to know that something you and a whole group of other developers spent several years of your life making, will now be judged by a handful of people in but a couple of hours. But, such is the way of this business, so I really shouldn’t complain. We already made somebody’s day in any case ;)

Btw – Here’s a random observation that springs to mind which might be of use to fellow developers walking the self-publishing path.

Beware the ripple effect. I initially wanted to do a very tightly packed online campaign, filled with videos, screenshots and what have you to help promote Dragon Commander, but relearnt on day one that most sites that have some followers don’t necessarily pick up your news right away. Give them a couple of days to bring out the news, so don’t swamp the channel, at least not in the beginning of your campaign. Whether or not this is good advice, I have no clue, but it’s the conclusion I arrived at, based on what we’ve done so far with Dragon Commander and also what I witnessed during our Kickstarter campaign.

And talking about the Kickstarter campaign, I recently found myself comparing the unfolding Dragon Commander campaign to what we did for Divinity:Original Sin. While it’s still early days, I do miss the days of promoting Original Sin and sharing the result counter with the rest of the world. There’s something strangely motivating about having that counter out there for everybody to see, showing how well (or how bad) you are doing and tweeting every day about you getting closer to the next (imaginary) milestone.

Anyway, all that and much more, happening on a daily basis @Larian for the moment ;) And then I didn’t even talk about Original Sin yet whose gameworld is getting dangerously dense.

Yeah yeah Igor, 2013 will be a pretty tough year so I’m not really sure I’ll be able to help you paint your new appartment ;)

  • Stefan Groot

    Great read. Specially liked the:
    “And then I didn’t even talk about Original Sin yet whose gameworld is getting dangerously dense.”
    part. ;)

  • LC

    Very nice blog post, Swen! 500 press copies sound like A LOT….. I hope a fair share of decent (p)reviews will come in in return…. ;)

  • Tovarah

    Thanks for the update Swen, its great to see another blog from you. Like LC I hope that there will be a few previews from the youtubers coming up that will make the public want to buy the game even more.

  • Illusive Man

    Yep, that was one hell of a bad idea “not telling people that the beta would initially be multiplayer only”.

    That’s a 5 GB download and I have absolutely no interest in multiplayer… STEAM => Delete local content.

    • M[u]ddy

      You do know that you can play the multiplayer mode against an AI enemy?

      • Rack

        That’s a shame, for the most part the Beta works as the single player version of Dark Crusade. I’m obviously looking forward to dedicated single player but there’s much to be gained playing skirmish against AI, much more so than most RTS.

      • Paul Yew

        Crap, I didn’t know that, which is why I haven’t touched the Dragon Commander beta which has been staring at me for the past week.

        Thanks for the enlightenment!