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volume 1, issue 26

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Guest Editorial:
To Balance the Powers

By Sergei Klimov



Nine months later and we were all equipped to conquer the world:

A standalone Character Editor (work with inventory parts, tune animations and their cycles, adjust palettes and the rest of the fun), custom plugins for LightWave and MAX for smart rendering and post-processing (did our own grass plugin for LW, by the way), Dialogue Editor fit to create the next Pulp Fiction, a special easy Script Language to do movies on the engine (command characters, play with the camera, set dynamics for the whole in-game world), and an in-game Location Builder were just a fraction of the bells and whistles we prepared for a successful work that would free us of the regular content limitations.

Twenty months later and we're still there... Doh! What went wrong, Marge?

The Ambition

Another cool shot from Warlord.

From the very beginning, the idea of the game was to have an immortal hero take part in a real life rendition of XI-century Northern Russia and Scandinavia (kind of "can be killed but will be reborn" type- we call them "heroes"). The yet uncovered social structure and highly effective weapon range are a treasure of unique gameplay situations; a two-volume monograph on swords and spears provides a lot in terms of providing inventory balance...

We wanted a game played from the first person perspective (in terms of experiences, not in terms of engine mind you! :). The experiences had to be as real as if you'd been hit by a car on the street. Yet we wanted a game with the personality where you would act in a certain style, so that you couldn't really enter your own village and start killing innocent bystanders: you have preset moral values and opinions on these kinds of things. We also loved the idea of multiple informational layers for all in-game information: characters can lie, deceive, scheme, manipulate, and exaggerate. Make your own judgement on them, just like you'd do in a good novel or movie.

The hero of the game steps into the role of a warlord for the prince of a small valley and faces the challenge of defending it against another immortal of his own kind. Just a different hero, not an evil type by all means. See, we were attracted by the diversity of the interactive system, the living valley, which could be set to develop on its own and, having the characters react on your actions, provide for a vast variety of gaming experiences. Something scripted and simple was not enough for the Snowball boys <big grin>.

Throwing these ideas onto the specific team have set in motion a never-ending quest for The Perfect Game: if we were living in any other country, sooner or later we'd have to face the necessity of paying bills or changing cars, but in Moscow $275K for a five-man team is as close to developers' heaven as it gets... Sometimes I wonder if Peter Molyneux felt the same way when he started Black & White after quitting Bullfrog <big grin>.

The Evolution

Describing the drawbacks, we did turn out to be overly theoretical for the task of creating The Big Thing on time with four MS's and MA's among the team, not surprisingly every design document turned out to be too general and abstract. By Jove, many features and concepts were so widely formulated, there wasn't any single day when you could say at least something would go unchanged!

We also had the misfortune to commit to a "when it's done" plan and set neither solid, nor approximate, dates for prototype stages within the cycle. Yes, we had a great time experimenting with different protos, but look at us now as we have just come to merging the final content resources with the gameplay module. And that's after over twenty months of hard work...

Speaking of work, working 7 days a week and 12 hours a day the five of us did probably more stuff than any 20-man crew would do (we all own the company, so it came about naturally...). People got married between the release of alpha-2 and alpha-3, going on a 5-day honeymoon with Secrets of Character Animation packed next to their wedding rings. Defended their LLM in between drafting versions 4 and 5 of the design document. Skipped their hockey team's finals to prepare location maps. Yet initially we failed to set any certain limits that would enable us to finish something solid: the last two years have been mostly a continuous R&D journey both in terms of concept and technology.

To describe it in one statement: it was an open-ended evolution. Unfortunately, until the last few months, an uncontrolled one. It took us all a lot of blood and sweat to understand the value of discipline and discover a way of placing limits while keeping intact our creative freedom.

The Scope

The scope of this evolution was mighty indeed. Ever wonder how your local press might react, seeing a prototype migrate over the genres every other six months? The good news, though, is that on average we scored about three full-scale previews per magazine <g>.

Step one was attained when, after six months of RTS development, we decided that a tactical strategy was not enough for hero-warlord, even with the extended group management, and so we went to develop our own RPG system. At first the new prototype looked like an RTS/RPG mix, then it became RPG/RTS, then we came up with a Role-Playing Strategy concept (RPS, for short :).

It held for a record seven months before we came up with a different one when the non-linear story began to flesh out with hundreds of interrelated quests. It became obvious that there was more adventure than we ever anticipated, so we called it a RPS Adventure.

Still, after three months of playing with this prototype we have added the highest, strategic level (form and manage troops, lay sieges, defend roads and key points of the landscape) and changed combat system (built a brand new set of basic behaviors, looks more like Bushido Blade than Fallout now), we finally failed to find any clear genre definition :). So it's just a story now, about Warlord Vseslav and his adventure, around which we have built gaming experiences using RPG, RTS and Adventure as our gameplay palette.

Meanwhile...guess what happened on the business side of the project? :)

The Business

When we moved to the RPG concept, our local publishers lost their connection (my guess is they were thinking mostly in Warcraft/Diablo terms) and were quite nervous about stretching the initial release schedule over 16 months, so after about a year of development we have parted as friends and continue to finance the project with our own money.

When we signed a US publisher last summer (for the reasons known to loonyboi they prefer to remain anonymous, but it's a pretty cool one with a mighty hit in '98), we had the RPS system under control and just started experimenting with the strategic level.

Over three months we had seen a similar fade of understanding as soon as we started changing the specs and doing prototyping for things that weren't originally on the schedule, so on a note similar to the EA/RBR letter, the termination came for reasons of failing to reach a stable stage, with praise of our well-developed storyline and excellent content.

Furthermore, when I look back I see that the understanding was never really there since their external producer and marketing people were thinking primarily in terms of interface and definite statements, when we had a "from general to particular" 100-page design bible which failed to give simple answers.

(So it doesn't say it's a real-time strategy? No, but it says it's a game where all events happen in real-time, see page 14; How can I use ranged weapons? See under Combat System for dynamics, Skill System for Bow/Crossbow skills, Tactical Level for character and group controls :)).

We planned to have a final graphical realization of the interface ready during the last months of production (still do); they wanted to have pictures six months before shipping. We planned to experiment with the balance of tactical/strategic elements and friendly AI characters; they wanted something straight and understandable in terms of "text on the retail box."

Do I have to continue? :)

Final Analysis

A side by side comparison between Warlord Sveslav and Baldur's Gate.

Summing it all up, I would say that with no hard-set definition of the game, we kept the luxury of flexibility until as late as beta or even final. But the same lead to a constant gap between prototype and content, and the same lead to an absolutely unbalanced development schedule.

As it stands right now, we have no US or Euro publisher and the state of the Russian economy doesn't promise any new local investments, so we'll try to keep on our own as we did for the last ten months and hope to reach a playable version before we drain our savings accounts... :). And yet I get three to five emails a week from Euro publishers and just this January we had three companies fly down to Moscow to take a good look at the project and talk about possible a w/w deal. Loyalty to your title buys loyalty to the developer, just ask Derek Smart :).

However, after the previous experiences, we're not in a hurry to close unless and until we have a playable version that we can finally call stable. With most publishers not accustomed to working with evolving projects, testing the limits of their understanding won't do much good to the fate of the title.

So. Is the result worth the price? I believe so. To us, it looks like we finally understood the major questions set forth by the dynamics of evolution and are on the final run for a successful release. And speaking honestly, I believe we will be one of a very few developers to say that we put into our game every cool feature we wanted to have there.

I am absolutely certain that a game which was built with such open-ended philosophy as our Warlord has a much higher chance to break into new ground and create new gameplay experiences, moving the whole medium one step forward, but the final resolution would be well postponed until we either ship the game or close the project. It's still up to real life to prove if it's viable as a business model (if under any conditions it is, living in Moscow with the low cost of local development should help... Guinness at $0.30 a bottle, anyone? ;-).

Believe me or not, but after years of prototyping we plan to finish a playable Episode One within eight weeks from now (did I just say that? :), and we'll probably do some formal press-releases at that time to find the final publisher... We'll see if we've finally mastered that beast of an evolution and, you know what? Book me up for a round of margaritas at this E3 if we did, since rollerblading along Venice sounds to me so much better than plowing through the snow of Podmoskovie :).

Sergei Klimov
Snowball Interactive


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.