It feels like forever since I've done a blog update. And wow, what a year it's been! As I said in a recent forum post, holidays are a time for family, friendship, remembrance, and anticipation of the year to come. So in the spirit of remembrance, I wanted to begin the tradition of my anual Look Back. This'll take the place of Vye's normal blog post for this week.
Caspian does his best interpretation of Vye:
'Forsooth, doth this mean Vye hath been cast aside, ne'er to be heard from again?!'
Rest assured. Vye's updates will resume their regular schedule two weeks from yesterday. In spite of her fantastic blogging, I'm writing this update because while she's done a great job keeping you informed about our progress, this is really an opportunity for me to re-connect with all of you. Also, she wasn't here this time last year so her scope is somewhat limited. Also, she's on vacation. :-) But seriously, I'm glad I get this opportunity to review with all of you and I'm excited to think of what I'll be writing about this time next year.
Ok, with all that said, let's get started....
Sometimes it's easy to forget during the day-to-day hustle and bustle of work how far we've really come as a studio. We also take for granted that - since our community is such a devoted community - that all of you have been with us from the beginning. But logically, we know that's not true. So let's stop for a moment and take a look at where we were in Nov. / Dec. of last year, and where we are now.
Perhaps the most obvious difference to us is where we're working and who's doing the work. This time last year the three original employees - myself, TripNull, and Heat, had just transitioned from moonlighting as Soulbound Studios employees in the evenings and on weekends to being full-time Soulbound Studios Team Members. The three of us had left our day jobs, and along with our first animator - Strider, were literally working out of my basement.
We all sat within an 8' x 8' space with desks facing each other. And while we were all passionately pursuing our dream, we all wore many ... many hats. The four of us were cumulatively doing everything from IT, HR, and financing to 3D modeling, texturing, rigging, animating, engineering, and web development.
The first Soulbound Studios office
And remember, this time last year we had already put out over 100 pages of design journals and were planning a trip to PAX-East and a Kickstarter. With four people! Yeah. We were insane.
Fortunately, we recognized that more work was needing to be done than we could reasonably do, so after some personal financing, we began rapidly hiring. Of course, we knew we couldn't fit any more people in my basement so we transitioned to our shiny new office space in Bellevue, WA.
We didn't yet know whether our Kickstarter would succeed so our options were limited in terms of what office space we wanted to commit to. In spite of that, we found a place with 10 pre-installed cubicles and places for Heat and I to put our desks. Plenty of room for our four employees.
The second Soulbound Studios office
Making it our own
Today, we're no longer four employees. Over the course of the last year we've hired a couple more engineers, two character artists, two more animators, an environment artist, two designers, a community manager, a graphic designer, a web developer, a producer, and retained an attorney. Do some simple math and you'll quickly realize that's more than 10 people! To make room for all those extra bodies we had to ditch the pre-installed cubicles and upgrade our furniture to a more open office environment. We've now got room for 20 people in the same space that previously sat 10.
Hot damn! Now we're cooking with bacon! But we're not done yet. 2017 will see the growth of Soulbound Studios to over 20 people and likely a relocation to a nearby office suite with room to grow to as many people as as we need throughout the life of the project.
It really is amazing when I look back and think about how much we were able to accomplish with just the four of us, and how much is getting done now that we've got four times that many people. 2017 stands to be an incredibly productive year, and I can't wait to share it all with you.
Another big difference between last year and this year is where the money is coming from. This time last year the four original employees were being funded by me. I had saved up about $50k USD, and had gotten an SBA Loan for another $100k USD. The combined $150k was everything we had in savings, plus twice that in a line of credit. And that $150k is what the four of us based our futures on. We really were crazy.
After seeing the positive feedback from community members though, and recognizing that people really were passionate about our vision for the future of MMOs, my wife and I agreed to sell our land we'd purchased to build our dream home on. We were going to sell one dream for another. The land sale closed around this time last year which infused the company with another $350k - bringing us to a toal of $500k in starting capital. That was enough to bring on more people, move to a new office, pay for our trip to PAX East, and ultimately make it to a Kickstarter - but we knew the money wouldn't last beyond that.
So in May 2016 we launched our Kickstarter. It was successful. Wow was it successful. We managed to reach our $900k goal in just the first 10 days, with a final Kickstarter amount closing at just over $1.35M. That made Chronicles of Elyria the 24th highest backed Video Game on Kickstarter and the 115th highest backed Kickstarter project of all time. Not bad for a project many people thought would never get funded.
That's... a lot of digits.
We went the crowdfunding route because we knew the project and team were risky ventures. While we were made up of a team of professionals from AAA studios, we'd never worked together before. We believed if CoE was going to get the funding it needed to really get off the ground, it was going to take crowdfunding. We also understood that while it would have been extremely difficult to get publishers and VCs to invest in our idea, we knew that you guys would understand what we were trying to create, why we were trying to create it, and what potential it had to re-shape the landscape for MMORPGs going forward. And we weren't disappointed. You guys came out and represented gamers and said loud and clear - 'We want dynamic, immersive worlds.' And thanks to you, this last 6 months have been possible.
But you didn't stop there. In October we launched our online store for those that weren't able to back us on Kickstarter and since then we've raised another $675k or so in residual pledges - bringing our total raised to just under $2M.
What's going to happen next year? It's hard to say. But what I can say is we will continue to keep our online store open for residual income, and we've already been approached by multiple publishers and investors. We're in a good place right now financially and have more money than we expected at this point in the development process. We're also in no rush to make deals, and are instead holding out for the right deal for us - and the right deal for you guys.
Either way, 2017 looks to be a profitable year with us having plenty of runway to complete development and move into QA, Testing, Hosting, and Publishing.
The next main difference is our website. When we first launched the CoE website back in 2014, a full 6 months before really making our project publicly known, it started as just a black and white web page. Gradually over the next 6 months we released a handful of developer journals that talked about our plan for the game and laid the ground work for what was to become our design journals.
You can still find those original 5 dev journals in the blog section of our website here:
Of course, in July 2015 we launched the first version of the website. Remember, at the time it was just the three core members of the team - a concept artist / 3D modeler and a couple of game programmers.
So it should come as no surprise that our first version of the website looked like this:
I have no words to describe this website
Of course, by January 2016 we'd gotten feedback that our website sucked so we began adding new features, increased the contrast of the website a bit, and released what was something like version 1.5 of the website. It looked like this:
It was largely the same visually, but added a lot of functionality that wasn't there previously. But, it was still built on a website technology that wouldn't scale well, wouldn't allow for many new features, and ultimately needed to be replaced.
So in July 2016 we released the version 2.0 of our website, which is more or less what you see now. Version 2.0 was a complete re-write of the website using a different web technology that allows us to add new features quickly, is easier to maintain, etc. It was a rough deployment that resulted in almost a week of down-time for the website. But in the end it came out much better.
Sexy in a retro sort of way
Between October and December 2016 we released two versions of our online store, with the latest looking more like what the next version of our website will look like. Something along the lines of:
Sweet, sweet, website...
And Of course, as per our recent update, my focus in 2017 - at least the first quarter, is going to be primarily on our game. I recognize there's still much to do on the website, and as you can see from the recent store release we'll be moving to a more open, full-screen, responsive design. However, for the time being, my focus is turning inwards toward the engine and game experiences.
We will periodically make updates to the website as necessary to cater to the game experiences; things like settlement selection, account merging, character-based portals, etc... but as the primary purpose of the website is to provide a place where the community can come together to discuss the game, see new media, and learn about the progress, we feel it's more or less where it needs to be for now. And correct me if I'm wrong - but what you really want to see is all the cool stuff we're working on for the game?
Another big event in 2016 was PAX East. We'd never been to PAX East before and so didn't know what to expect. Also, as our growing team of about 12 people hadn't ever hosted a PAX booth before, we were completely unprepared for how much work it would be. To make it more interesting, PAX East was just a solid two weeks before our Kickstarter.
So myself, Camigwen, Aurora, and Souzou were running around like crazy trying to get ready for the expo, as well as do filming for our Kickstarter. Meanwhile, the team was actively working on a multiplayer combat demo experience which lasted until around 4am the morning of PAX East.
What can I say? April was a crazy month. But, we had committed to going to PAX East, the team pulled through, we headed to Boston, and in the end had an amazing time. We had people come in on the first day who came back every day after that just to learn more about the game, play our combat demo, and talk with other exited people who came to learn about the game.
Some regulars at PAX
We had hourly tournaments for the combat demo as well as a bracketed tournament at the end of each day where the hourly winners could compete for prizes. Our booth was standing-room only for much of the weekend, we all lost our voices, and it was awesome. We also really enjoyed getting a chance to meet everyone from the community who was able to make it.
The hourly champions for the day, preparing for the bracket
In the end, there was a ton of coverage of us at PAX East - video interviews, videos of the combat demo, and even written reviews.
Among other things, we received our first PAX Award. MMOGames.com awarded us the Best Indie MMO of PAX East 2016.
So what's in store for 2017? Well, we're once again heading back to PAX East. This time with a booth 3x the size of our booth last year. We've got Scarlet with previous booth design experience, a larger outreach team, a producer, and a heck-of-a lot more to show this year than last. Plus, I'm even on a couple panels this year.
Finally, we're trying to get one of the smaller stages this year so we can do a talk about some of the finer details of CoE: what makes it unique and how/why we're changing the face of MMOs.
So we're super excited for PAX this year and can't wait to see you all on the show floor again.
The next thing I wanted to talk briefly about is community growth. As of November 30th 2015 we had just 11,000 registered community members on our website. As of November 30th 2016 we have 111,000 community members! That's an order of magnitude larger!
The steady and accelerated growth of the community is a testament to your passion for the game, your desire to share it with others, and our vision of what the next generation of MMOs should look like. And we're just getting started.
Part of my job as CEO is helping to grow the community, interacting with stakeholders, and ensuring people are seeing our company and product in the right way. So it's no secret that a big part of my focus for 2016 was on looking outward. I spent a non-trivial amount of time on IRC/Discord answering questions, on the CoE forums, and interacting with potential customers on other community websites such as MMORPG.com, MassivelyOP, etc... As a result of all of my efforts - as well as yours, the hype is real. People are genuinely becoming excited about CoE, even at this early date.
We're #1, we're #1, we're #1...
That's one of the reasons we've more or less remained the #1 Most Anticipated Game on MMORPG.com for nearly the last full year. It's also one of the reasons we've been nominated for two different community awards on MMOGames.com - Best Crowdfunded Online Game of 2016, and Most Anticipated MMO of 2017. If you have an interest in doing so, feel free to head over and vote. You can vote twice a day for the next 34 hours.
But while my focus this year has been partly on 'sharing the gospel of CoE,' that can only take us so far. What will ultimately grow our community size from 100k this year to over 1M next year, is continued progress, an increase in the amount of public content, and more exposure to what matters the most - the game.
So 2017 is going to see a lot less of me engaging with the community directly, and a lot more of me engaging with the community indirectly through released content. As was posted in a previous update, I recently returned from a trip to London where I was visiting with our partners over at Improbable. I came back eager to push forward and excited about the new opportunities presented to us in 2017.
So with my focus turning more toward development, expect to see a lot more going on at Soulbound Studios this year, and as a result, expect more and more people to move from that phase of cautious optimism into the phase of anxious excitement.
Perhaps the most important differences between now and December of last year are our development workflows and the game itself - most of which you've seen yourselves in our recent updates. So I'll focus on the high-level rather than regurgitate a year's worth of updates.
This time last year the design Chronicles of Elyria existed mostly as a couple dozen physical journals on bookshelves. Throughout the course of the year the design has moved from physical paper to word documents, to OneNote, and finally to our internal wiki. The new wiki contains all that is CoE and represents the truth of the game we're creating.
Over the next couple months the pages of the wiki will continue to fill out with design mechanics becoming functional and technical specs, and the todo lists replaced with lists of items, consumables, equipment, the remaining tribes, and asset lists. This will then be delivered to you guys in the form of content additions to our Game Guide. Stay tuned!
Similarly, while our project management has moved between paper task lists, Excel, and even Visual Studio Online, we now have a Sr. Producer who keeps all of our epics, stories, and tasks neatly organized in our JIRA database. Each week we get to work on our tasks and on Fridays we end the week by doing a play-through of the game, a retrospective, and then sprint planning for the following week. Each sprint the team gets faster at sprint planning, and each sprint we've seen a steady increase in the velocity of the team.
We've also changed software quite a bit this last year. We moved from Git to Perforce, moved through three different game engines, finally landing on UE4, and moved through a couple different motion capture systems before landing on a final suit-based solution.
Our first mocap 'studio'
All-in-all, as the team continues to grow we've been able to incorporate new ideas, address development pain points, and improve our workflows to be even more productive. December ended nicely and January+ should be really exciting.
As for the game itself... back in December of 2015 CoE was a dozen different standalone projects, each designed as a test of a specific technology or technical problem we needed to solve. So while we had locomotion, an equipment system, character creation, and the beginnings of a combat system - it wasn't one cohesive game yet.
Today, everything has been integrated into a couple different clients - each intended as deliverables for specific milestones we're facing over the next few months. Now we're doing weekly play-throughs so we can share in the progress each of us is making. Finally, in January we begin our integration of SpatialOS, so we can move from a standalone offline game client designed to test the features and mechanics of the game, into one seemless, online world.
It's fairly easy to forget that while you learn about most games - and especially MMOs - only months before the game's launch, we began showing concepts, screenshots, and even videos a full two and a half years before our targeted launch date. I'm not saying that as a way to pat ourselves on the back, but as a reminder that even though it feels like forever since our announcement, we're still very early in the development process, and still have a ways to go before launch.
Seeing where we are today, with videos, screenshots, regular play-through, etc., it's easy to forget that just 12 months ago we were a team of four guys working out of a basement. We've grown so much this year, and achieved more than I can even put in a single blog post. Each member of the team has had to stretch him or herself in new ways, gain new skills, and become better than they were before.
As a result of the team's hard work, they've made great progress in a short amount of time. Realistically, more progress than should be expected of most 4-person-become-16-people development studios. But we set ourselves to a higher standard. Nay. We set ourselves to the highest standard...Because we understand that's what a game company should do, because we believe it's what you deserve, and because we know it's necessary for our small, motivated team to make a game like Chronicles of Elyria successfully.
Back in November of 2014 I said in the very first blog post on the CoE Website:
'It is said the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So it is true with Chronicles of Elyria...' and concluded with: 'There is a long, arduous journey ahead of us friends. But with your support, encouragement, enthusiasm and relentless demand for the best game experience possible, I'm sure we will take it in stride. It is indeed a journey of a thousand miles...'
While we've taken many steps since that date, our journey continues. Our pace is quickening and our stride lengthening, we are resolute in our heading and sure in our footing.
As 2016 ends and 2017 begins know that all of us at Soulbound Studios come to work each day dedicated to bringing this game to you as quickly, carefully, and as lovingly as we possibly can. And so long as we continue to receive your support and encouragement, and as long as you seek companionship with others who have dedicated themselves to the CoE community, the journey will be over before you know it... and we'll all be in Elyria.
Pledged to the Continued Advancement of the Soulborn Engine and the Chronicling of Elyria,