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volume 1, issue 26

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Guest Editorial:
To Balance the Powers






By Sergei Klimov



"Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty." -The Coda, Frank Herbert

ife sucks, shit happens, titles get delayed. Developers have to be ruled with a stick and a checking account or they won't ship anything. Publishers are greedy and will always compromise quality for higher OEM sales. No matter which side you align with, as with any form of art, the interests of the creative side do not always merge well with the interests of business.

The Freedom

Freedom springs creativity and gives room for totally original stuff that could not have been planned. When you look at any of the great titles, whether it be Star Control 2, System Shock, or Half-Life, the end product is as much a result of things done well, as it is the result of things attempted, tested, and then crossed out. The whole process is non-linear and for any particular step forward one sometimes take two steps back. However, having complete freedom enslaves one as much as having a day-by-day schedule: when everything is possible, nothing certain is done. If you are familiar with East-European sci-fi tradition, you might remember Stanislaw Lem's argument against the nation of geniuses being able to do everything; they won't do anything. Why try if you already know you can do it?

The Schedule

Precise planning leads to predictability and creates foundation for expansion of business. Electronic Arts, Eidos and Take-Two live by their flow charts. The better you schedule, the better business plan you have to attract the next investment from NationsBank, or a good recommendation from the analysts of London City. Long-term credits, successful IPOs, and happy shareholders would not be possible without proven quarterly results and justified positive projections.

However, overtly predictable scheduling destroys the creative model: "new" means "unknown and unknown is far from predictable. While Deer Hunter III or NFS IV might be the perfect cash cows, the progress of the industry at large depends on the groundbreaking titles that help games evolve as a form of entertainment. And, just like to justify a dozen of Peacemakers there must be at least one Perfect World, to make room for a dozen Abes there must be at least one Another World...

The Balance

So. With interests of publishing coming across the principles of creative development and vice versa, is there a way to come up with a successful development style that would work equally well as a real-world business model?

Sure, and the recent years demonstrate that there are solutions: despite the multitude of differences, Final Fantasy VII is as good a game as Unreal. Now go look at their development teams; I doubt you can find more diversity.

The final question seems to be in the balance of power: the power of freedom and the power of planning. Abandon any scheduling, and lose yourself on the road to nowhere. Build a cage too tight, and indulge in mediocrity, betraying your artist's soul. But master both and find the discipline. The discipline that will set you free.

The Story

The story below is a story about the particular balance we have found with our own project, started back in '97. The road to glory was rough and with our present experience we could have evaded some of the larger pitfalls, but we still believe the end result was worth it.

Unlike issue #24's piece on Rebel Boat Rocker, this is not a post-mortem; we're still alive and kicking. :) Most of the people we meet say the days of evolving projects are over. Some say small teams are long gone, too... However, on a similar note, I happen to remember movie people being negative about Pulp Fiction's budget as well. :)

The final message here is that I don't think you have to hire 20 developers to build a good game or borrow 40+ million dollars to make a decent movie: true, Titanics and Final Fantasies happen, but there's always Railroad Tycoons and Knights & Merchants being created by one or two-man teams. In essence, your game depends on the balance you manage to reach, and such a balance comes free from financial or numeric requirements.

Thus, without further ado, let us begin:

Time & Place

The time was late spring '97, the place Moscow, Russia. Minus 20 degrees Celsius in February, heavy snowfalls in March. A vast pool of development talent and a place of relatively low budgets, quite a number of workshops doing outsourcing and graphics for European and American game houses and a dozen native teams struggling to break into the world market on their own.

Check out this shot from Warlord Vseslav.

Our studio had just finished its first big title (an odd mix of action and tactics on hovercraft and helicopters, who could guess where this kind of mix would lead to... and signed a much bigger contract for a medieval RTS titled Warlord Vseslav.

The Russian market was on the rise and, having a stake in localization/publishing as well, we did some good initial funding: $275K for a 16-month cycle, rather cool for those days. And hey, we could recoup it from East-European sales alone; three native titles had just grossed over $300K each on our territory and the future looked brighter than the sun.

Target release date was set for the second half of '98, but who could guess that 22 crunch months later we'd be still adding new features, finishing yet another playable demo, and meeting three potential publishers a month from all over the world... Time to look at the starting position, then.

The Assets

From the very beginning, we had great assets to go with the provided financial backup:

A great genius engineer who did miracles with technology: in four weeks, we had a real 3D landscape (the year was '97). One month later we had multiple alpha-channels, then real-time lightning, then z-buffering for character items (so that they could change their inventory parts on the fly), then a dozen of other kickass features. A working prototype of the engine was up within three months and it's still getting more features every passing day; just added lightmapping two weeks ago...

An incredibly talented AI programmer who did superb AI prototyping on Java. He later worked out a unique RPG system and with his tremendous gaming experience was constantly shooting out fresh concepts and ideas that were not just your nerdy type with an MS in math who does smart stuff for his own sake, but an addicted and passionate gamer who would play Final Fantasy Tactics in Japanese with a dictionary running in the background :)

A very gifted master artist who did superb texture and render work (just look at the screen below). A man born to art, a man who got along perfectly with our designer and took charge of the whole in-game world, making sure it was as alive and believable as the one you see in your window.

Add here a fresh character artist who in about a year got all of the necessary experience (sent him to training 4 hours a day; he didn't seem to mind :), so that our current animations are probably on par with Diablo II now, and a designer/producer with the vision who took care of the storyline, character bible, gameplay prototyping, and historical research (ever wonder how many Russian books are out there about XI-century Europe? :).

(Continued on next page)


Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. This Guest Editorial is © 1999 Sergei Klimov. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.