Ugh. One step forward, nine steps back. Sometimes that’s how it feels.
Way back in 1998 or so, when the Palm III was considered cutting-edge, I was working for a post-production house as a 3D animator and technical director. I was building fancy special effects for commercials, films, and game trailers, making incredibly vivid images in full color and full motion for all kinds of big companies. Honda. Lexus. Electronic Arts.
But I was bored. On the side, I started making a little 1-bit black-and-white thief character run around my Palm screen and stab bad guys with a knife. The little dude was like 20 pixels tall and was little more than a stick figure. I gave him little sarcastic comments and made a small adventure for him, with keys to find, traps to jump, and treasure to claim. Sounds were a goofy beep or boop. I called it ShadowThief, and I released it online on PalmGear.
It was a blast.
I didn’t make a lot of money, but people thought it was cool, and strangely it was cool. The do-it-yourself one-man team of it was exciting. Even designing the simple graphics was kinda therapeutic for someone who pushed pixels around all day for stupid advertising agencies. It was fun in a retro way. And even if the game was mostly a rip-off of Dark Castle, I gave it my own touch. Made it original.
Then I made my first mistake. I promised a trilogy of adventures. (Stupid, stupid, stupid.)
Time passed, and I got busy with other things. I actually finished a low-budget, indie film I’d started years before, and that took a lot of work and focus. Meanwhile, ShadowThief fans were getting grumpy. Where was adventure two? What was once cool became a disappointment.
By the time I looked up again from the “real world,” Sony had changed everything with a 320×320 color screen and real, high quality sound. All of a sudden things on the Palm seemed kinda interesting again, although in a whole new way.
I had some game ideas, but they all seemed daunting and I didn’t feel up to the programming task. ShadowThief had been fun, but it had confirmed that my spaghetti code style was not the best.
I also wanted to read on my Palm, but all the programs looked so ugly. The fonts were the same terrible built-in fonts the Palm had always had. Lo-res and chunky. I couldn’t stand that. So I cobbled together a reader with nice anti-aliased fonts. Added some smart formatting features to make it a lot more like reading a real book. Before long I looked up and I actually had a working program. And I enjoyed reading books that way. So I released it too.
And lo and behold, other people liked reading books that way too.
Other software caught on to this same notion and very soon DeepReader had a lot of competition. Eventually, even the big boys with their team of programmers on salary would update and add anti-aliased text to their readers, but a few people still preferred to use my program, and it made me kinda happy to make them happy. I prided myself on supporting all the latest devices as soon as they were released — HandEra, new Sonys with virtual graffiti, etc. Until suddenly my program suffered from so much custom code it was starting to bloat with special case checks for every new device out there, and inexplicable bugs on several new Sonys that left me head-scratching for weeks on end.
Frustrated, I realized my little side project had become a real time-suck. And it wasn’t even that fun anymore.
What I really wanted to be doing was games.
And not just any games. Not yet-another-tetris or retro pac-man clones. Not nostalgia gaming, or tic-tac-toe, which is all I’d really seen up to that point on the Palm.
I wanted to do deep, lush games, with high-end, high-quality graphics. To really push the boundaries of the new devices. I wanted to create something that hadn’t been seen on a handheld device before. Hours of puzzles and gameplay and realms to explore. With an evocative soundtrack and a creepy, immersive storyline. Something people would put on headphones and lose themselves in. I’d loved Myst and Riven years before, and I could imagine an interface for a handheld version that would be simple and clean, yet unique and original. I imagined the Memory Stick or SD card of today was the CD-ROM of yesterday.
I whipped up a demo. Three rooms and a few objects to manipulate. An old scroll, a fragment of a journal entry, and a brief puzzle with some animation.
When I showed it at the PalmSource convention, it turned some heads. (I called it “TickTock” back then, but when TakTik was released soon after, I changed the name to “Seven Hexes.”) Everyone who saw it thought it was beautiful and intriguing, but when it came to talk of distributing it, they all scratched their heads. The Memory Stick or SD card of that day was apparently not quite the CD-ROM of yesterday. Even with some form of image and audio compression, I’d likely fill a 64MB card (or bigger) with lots of data, if I really wanted to build the deep world of exploration and adventure I was designing.
External cards were expensive, and only the high-end users really used them. No one was buying cards that big, unless they were storing tons of their own files. Everyone mostly kept their applications and games in Palm RAM, which was still pretty miniscule. No one installed apps directly to their external cards; there wasn’t even an option to do that yet in the Palm Desktop.
I felt a bit defeated. Here I had this cool game — even a working proof-of-concept — and I couldn’t figure out how to distribute it. I figured maybe I was just ahead of my time. And I got back to other projects. (Being a compulsive creative type with an adult form of Attention Deficit Disorder, this wasn’t hard to do.)
Still, ARM devices were on the horizon, with the processing power to do even more than I’d already envisioned. Maybe I could still do a media-rich, trend-setting game, and yet keep the external storage under 8 MB? I liked the notion of an isometric RPG. Something that looked a bit like Diablo but had more depth and storyline, more true role-playing and personality.
Again, I whipped up a prototype. This wasn’t much more than a barbarian-looking character with a sword walking through some dungeon walls and stabbing a guy who wouldn’t fight back, but it was enough to make me excited. It was light-years beyond ShadowThief and unlike anything I’d seen yet on a Palm. The problem was — the graphics were easy (although there were a lot to make), but the programming side of things was still a struggle for me. I have a computer engineering degree, but after twelve years as an animator/director, I haven’t really worked at disciplined programming. I mean, I’m capable, as two working apps had already proven, but I wasn’t stellar, as a bloated and often buggy DeepReader had proven. Besides, I figured if I could focus on the graphics and game-design side, which would be extensive, I’d be a lot happier and the game would probably be better. To do it alone would take a lot more time. Or so I figured.
I decided to look at what was already out there. Not a lot had been done since I’d written ShadowThief, but a few programs which billed themselves as “true RPGs” were available. One of them in particular caught my eye. Aldon’s Crossing. On the surface, it was little more than Kyle’s Quest or a crude early-days Ultima. Simple lo-res, “cute” graphics. But once I got into the thick of it, I realized the scripting engine underneath was actually pretty deep. There was a lot of complexity and flexibility. And a detailed and worthwhile amount of gameplay. It captured the role-playing experience well, and it had a loyal, well-deserved following.
Best of all, the authors were local to me. I contacted them online and arranged to chat. At first they let me know they weren’t all that interested in OS 5 devices and making high-end games. Then they saw my little demo with the barbarian. Their tune changed quickly.
In my partnership with Constant Games, I made several mistakes right away, but at the time I thought I was doing it for all the right reasons. First, while I made sure to retain creative control of the project, I made no claim to the code. Since they were modifying an existing and proprietary game engine, I figured the benefits outweighed the risks. I’d get
my game made in a fraction of the time and I’d be able to focus on the visual and creative side without getting bogged down in the line-by-line code. Since the engine for Aldon’s Crossing already existed, a lot of the work had been done already!
Of course Tony and Mike (a.k.a. Constant Games) were also “spare time” Palm developers. And their real jobs weren’t quite as flexible as mine, being way more tied to the 9-to-5 working world. And in the ongoing dotcom Silicon Valley recession, they were also a lot more tenuous.
Still, in the six weeks before E3, we made phenomenal progress. We were able to run through full environments, hacking and slashing skeletons and giant spiders with bloody gore spraying left and right. Lightning spells and fireballs wrecked havoc on our enemies. The sound of our footsteps and sword clashes and a quick MIDI soundtrack made for an impressive demo, with the best of the eye candy working perfectly. It looked like I had a winner. A lot of the rest of the game — dialogue and buying and experience levels and the rest — were already in the engine, just unhooked and waiting to be patched together with new graphics and then optimized. Time-consuming, but all very doable.
I was still reluctant to over-promise and almost kept the game completely under wraps, still stinging from promising the never-delivered ShadowThief trilogy. My partners helped convince me we should “put it out there,” get some buzz going. Do the E3 thing and see how interested people would be. This was only April and we had done so much in only six weeks that it was hard to believe we weren’t a month or two away from having the engine done. Beyond that, three more months of me cranking out more heroes and more monsters and finishing the adventure (which was already mostly laid out on paper)…Surely by the end of the year we’d be done and celebrating. Right?
I guess the “real world” kinda kicked Mike and Tony. Mike changed jobs to an internet gaming startup and I think his hours got crazy. I’m not sure what Tony is doing but they both essentially dropped off the radar shortly after E3. Mike got the news that his wife was expecting, and as happy as that news was, I knew it would impact his schedule sooner or later. As a recent father of twins myself, I know what effect the little ones can have on one’s remaining “free time.” Not to mention one’s sleep patterns.
To be honest, I’d been way more of a slave-driver for those six weeks prior to E3 than I’d ever wanted to be, so maybe the partnership was doomed from the start. I’d hoped to partner with someone that would help feed the energy of the project. Help drive me to keep up my end of things, to keep things exciting. Help keep the creative juices flowing.
So I didn’t nag a lot. I waited and I hoped things would sort themselves out. Crossed my fingers and held my breath.
Then we hit our “late 2003” supposed release date. And I realized I had to say something to all of the eager fans who have so ravenously anticipated the release of our game. So I finally spoke up, giving Tony and Mike the option to commit to some kind of firm deadline or to gracefully withdraw. I honestly think they took the realistic option.
I don’t think Constant went into the project with any false intent; I think they’re just a victim of bad timing and the pressures of the “real world.” One of the hazards of the independent “spare-time” hobbyist developer, I suppose. Maybe if I could afford to pay salaries and wrap a real “company” around this little project, we’d be able to protect ourselves from this kind of thing. I know for my own part I often get distracted by real world events as well, if not by another one of my many “big ideas.”
But in a way, I don’t really want to start a company. I like the indie approach. I don’t want to deal with overhead and business plans and marketing and sales. I like the mean, lean, garage-band team concept. I like working from my home office, keeping up with things via IM or email. I’d like to think it could work, as a business model. There’s something very “Zen-of-Palm” about it. Free-form, creative, game-making, rockstar tech-heads, not-so-incorporated.
But I really do have game ideas that would benefit from a team effort. I’ve wondered whether maybe an open source scheme would be cool. I really like the notion behind Plucker…but is that the best model for game design? I kinda doubt it.
Maybe I just haven’t found the right partner(s)? Or maybe I really am better off running solo? Sure, it’ll take forever to get it done, but then I’ve only got myself to blame.
I don’t know. I’m feeling just a bit depressed and defeated by the whole experience. One step forward, nine steps back.
I have cool games to develop, dangit! I have tons of artwork in various states of readiness and piles of code begging for debugging. I have lots more big, exciting ideas, and I’d like to make them all happen. I am trying to make them happen. I want to finish making this one happen.
And I will. At some point I will. (After all, I finished that independent film, even if it did take me five years to get back to it and another year to get it done.)
Hopefully this’ll happen sooner than that.
(I should probably add that while Edge was languishing in the hands of my partners, I did get back to Seven Hexes and made some crazy cool progress. …And the distribution possibilities these days make the game seem a lot more possible than it was just a short time ago…There are actually a lot of different ways to release it… So maybe… just maybe…)
Aw, heck, maybe I should have just stuck with a tetris clone or pac-man or something. Maybe I should just stop trying to change the landscape, to push the boundaries. To be original. To change the game.
…Naw. Just wouldn’t be me, really.
Postscript: Feedback is welcome and appreciated. If you are actually a capable, reliable, and interested developer just itching to help me out, please do drop me an email. I’m a bit skeptical about partnering right now, but I remain hopeful about the possibility of finding some truly like-minded programming wizard who is fanatical about the kind of stuff I’m busy creating. Who knows? …Also, a sincere thank you to all the kind well-wishers who’ve already dropped me an email after hearing the disappointing news of Edge’s delay, offering their support and condolences. I’m feeling down, but not beaten. Don’t give up. Maybe we’ll win the war yet.[For a recent interview with even more, see PDA247.com’s PDAThoughts.]