At long last! Quarter two has come to a close so it's time for us to take a look back at Q2 and a look forward at Q3! With each passing week the world of Elyria feels more alive. I know the history of our studio has been a bit tumultuous, but it remains our great honor to see the Tribes of Elyria take shape, the different religions flourish, the ecology come to life, and the world be built.
A lot has happened over the last three months, so we've got a lot to discuss. As with the previous quarterly update, I wanted to write about each of the main production areas including programming, design, and art. However, the nature of the last couple months and the way I've spent my time makes it necessary to first talk about the state of the studio, and then we can explore the remaining development areas in more detail.
I began Q2 with a plan for how I wanted the quarter to go from an engineering standpoint. The plan consisted of completing some core platform work, moving on to the implementation of the architecture and construction systems, finishing up some outstanding AI work, and then making improvements to the launcher in preparation for the mid-Alpha test. My goal was to bring all the Alpha 2 folks into the testing process, get some meaningful feedback, and then proceed forward in a push toward finishing Kingdoms of Elyria in Q3 and Q4. Sounds great, right? Well, as the old saying goes, "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
The quarter started off well enough. I continued making progress on saving & loading of the different biomes and speeding up the level loading process, and then transitioned over to working with Snipehunter on the architecture and construction systems. We then spent time revisiting our designs for the group/bulk selection of objects, parcel management, and issuing commands to NPCs by way of contracts. We'll talk more about those in the design section, but I'm excited for the community to get their hands on those.
In any case, by the time I was going to move on to implementation, I noticed our monthly operating costs abruptly (and significantly) began to rise. I'm not going to spend any time on discussing why that is, but I'm certain the astute can figure it out.
Regardless, I decided to step away from my normal engineering duties to spend some time on cost-cutting strategies. The low hanging fruit was our server hosting fees and over the next couple of weeks I worked to move all our internal websites and services, such our task management software, our internal wiki, and our version control system from the cloud to on-prem. The result was a noticeable reduction in our monthly hosting fees, at the cost of slightly slower connection speeds for our remote contractors and more DevOps responsibilities for me.
By this point, it was mid-May and I was just about to return to engineering when I learned of another abrupt increase in our expenditures. It's bad for any company to start hemorrhaging cash, but in our case, the company's financials made it worse. To understand why, I have to go back in time a bit.
Despite what some will say, there was no giant stockpile of cash when I chose to stop crowdfunding in 2020. We had some, but not enough to reach a meaningful Alpha. Based on some financial advice, we applied for and received a PPP loan which added to our pool of available cash and gave us the means to move forward. We then proceeded to use the money from 2020 through the end of 2021 to continue the development of CoE by way of Kingdoms of Elyria. And then, near the end of 2021, the money effectively ran out.
And here, I'm afraid, is where I have to make a confession. Almost six years into development, Chronicles of Elyria remains one of the most important and significant things in my life. So much so, that I had a long conversation with my wife and we agreed that Chronicles of Elyria was worth our own livelihood to see it through. So, for the second time in the history of Soulbound Studios, I began emptying my family's savings and liquidating our assets in an effort to fund the continued development of the game.
Each month, since the beginning of the year, I've added additional funds to the company to keep Soulbound Studios alive. When I first started adding funds, I estimated we had just enough to cover the remaining development of KoE (plus a few months of buffer), but when I noticed the increasing costs in May I did some calculations and realized that was no longer the case. My family, and consequently Soulbound, was going to run out of money by the end of the year.
Now, I want to pause a moment here before explaining how I decided to handle the situation to emphasize that - and this is important - even the company completely running out of money doesn't spell defeat. While it would be another huge setback, and we'd again have to let go of our remote contractors, many indie games have been successfully completed with only a single developer. And, in our case, so much work has already been done on Kingdoms of Elyria from a content and design standpoint that it would just be me finishing the engineering at that point. Regardless, that's obviously a situation I wanted to avoid.
So, in mid-May I began to look for other ways to keep the company afloat. That's why a major part of my effort over the last two months has been in preparing us for another round of conversations with investors and publishers, as well as exploring opportunities for residual income for myself or the studio.
I say, “for myself or the studio" because either way, residual income would mean a steady stream of money to keep development going. I say, "residual," because we can't afford to have me working on something other than KoE for any significant length of time. We'd just end up paying for design and content, without ultimately moving the needle forward on the game's functionality. That's the reason I haven't taken any other work, contracts, or jobs since our layoffs in 2020. Despite not having any income for my family, my role as the sole engineer for Soulbound Studios means it's imperative I keep focused on moving the needle forward on the game's mechanics.
Unfortunately, these last couple months of spending time away from programming is a perfect example of that, as I couldn’t make a significant contribution to the engineering of KoE while also handling the finances. As a result, we were unable to release the mid-Alpha playtest and will need to revisit my plan for Q2 in Q3.
I know that's disappointing for many, myself included. But I'll be returning to engineering soon, hopefully with a short-term solution to our funding problem and we’ll continue our forward push to mid-Alpha in Q3. Regardless, while I didn’t get as much done on the engineering side this quarter as I'd planned, there was still a significant amount of work accomplished on the design, content, and art sides. So, let's move on from engineering and see how the rest of the quarter went.
Perhaps my greatest regret in our initial planning of Chronicles of Elyria was the decision to focus on the adventuring mechanics first. Logically, I know it's reasonable to focus on the area that will be experienced by the most players first, but had I been more perceptive I would have noticed how important the domain, settlement, and land management mechanics were to our most active and engaged community members.
Some of our most significant design challenges and developmental hurdles came about because of our community's perfectly reasonable desire to build (and engage with) their organizations, settlements, and domains, and in retrospect, were clear indicators that we were developing the game backwards.
I think that's the main reason why development on CoE feels so good right now. The scope of Kingdoms of Elyria is almost entirely the things that are most important to our community. Namely, the land management mechanics such as zoning, agriculture, construction, and farming; and the settlement management mechanics such as building management, resource & commodities, crafting, and contracts. With each design document we finalize, we move our community into a place where they'll be able to experience what it's like to manage a settlement or domain in Elyria.
Along those lines, Q2 began with continued work on the production chains which were first highlighted in the Q1 State of Elyria. Since work on the production chains began, there's been 72 different production chains completed, most focused on the resources present in the first 2-3 biomes that will be in KoE. With each chain completed we answer important questions such as...
We're down to brass tacks now, and it's great seeing the world come to life. Here's a couple of examples of some of my favorite production workflows.
And for the sake of completeness, here's a video showing ALL the production chains worked on so far. Since I know there will be people who pause every few frames to see what each contains, let me express the caveat that these are still "work in progress," and are subject to change through testing.
As mentioned before, after completing work on production chains, Snipehunter and I worked on UI/UX for area-based commands and group selection. This included in-depth design on parcel selection, parcel information, and zone/region selection. The most obvious challenge here is making sure the information we provide to players is information which is easily attainable and displayable in both KoE and CoE.
As an example, in KoE it makes sense that the player might be able to select a parcel of land and gain information about who owns the parcel, etc. But does this work in CoE as well? Should we adjust our design for KoE as a result? The short answer, and the logical answer after doing any iterative design like this is "yes."
Naturally, the answer is to provide the information to the player based on their character's knowledge. This is in-line with our design goals of allowing the player to dictate what their character does, while the UX the player experiences (both UI and diegetic) communicates to the player what their character knows. This ends up with a UI for KoE that looks something like this:
Continuing from the work on area-based commands, Snipehunter and I then collaborated on significant design and UI/UX work on the housing, architecture, and construction mechanics. This included answering a ton of questions such as:
All-in-all, this was one of the most exciting and interesting design tasks Snipehunter and I have collaborated on. The result is a building/settlement system that is both expressive and powerful enough to allow players to define rooms and buildings of their choosing, while having enough constraints to make it simple and intuitive. This is one of the main focuses, if not THE focus of the mid-Alpha playtest; and both Snipehunter and I are eager to get players in and testing.
In my mind, getting the architecture and construction mechanics into the hands of our players will be one of the most exciting moments in the history of our development, unlocking so many possible experiences we’ve discussed previously, such as giving the players a means to explore and build upon their own, claimed settlements from Angelica, Luna, Selene, and Oceanus in a sandbox environment.
In the same way that a game's design drives its required engineering, a game's design (and to a similar degree, it's engineering) drives its required art assets. In the Q2 update we took a look at some of the "resource providers" being developed by our artist. These were flora that exist within the first few biomes we've been working on for Kingdoms of Elyria.
To a large extent, that process has continued in Q2, but with the focus shifting from creating assets for the resource providers themselves, such as the various trees and bushes, to creating the assets that will most commonly be encountered by Elyrian gatherers and producers, such as the leaves, branches, flowers, and fruit.
Throughout Q2, our artist has been working his way through the aforementioned production workflows, creating assets for the primary and secondary resources. Below you can see the different resource providers that were added in Q2. As a reminder, each of these resource providers have primary resources that can be harvested, gathered, or extracted using various tools, and then many of those resources can be used to obtain secondary resources through a process of refinement.
Below you can see some of the primary and secondary resources that we've created assets for. These are displayed as piles of resources because, as you might imagine, resources are items which are themselves stackable both in your inventory as well as in the world.
Finally, engineering does indeed impact content creation at times, and near the beginning of Q2 we migrated from a previous version of Unity to the latest, and then did it again about mid-way through. This was in the interest of eliminating some bugs we were encountering with the engine. With each update, our artist spent some time updating our custom materials in order re-enable support for functionality we've developed specific to KoE.
Moving into Q3, I anticipate asset creation will slow down as we focus on quality over quantity, and as we move from creating craftable items to creating art and animations for unlocking missing gameplay. Additionally, with the architecture and building systems largely defined, it'll be time to turn our focus toward creating the necessary assets for architecture and building construction.
I know the first part of this update was a bit of a downer. We were unable to deliver the mid-Alpha playtest in Q2, and we as a studio are struggling financially. There's no doubt about it, Q3 is going to be hard. But, if we were looking for easy, we wouldn't have started down the path to creating Chronicles of Elyria in the first place. And if we were looking to give up, we would have just filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and called it a day. But CoE isn't something we can just put down. It's soulbound.
We believe in Chronicles of Elyria, we believe in what we are trying to create with evolving, online worlds, and we believe in our mission of enriching peoples' lives with experiences that fuel imagination and provide accessible, engaging, and meaningful interaction through entertainment and technology. So, in Q3, we will quicken our pace towards the mid-Alpha playtest, we will double our efforts at securing residual income or a publisher, and we will continue our march towards delivering both KoE and CoE to our backers and fans.
When we started this journey back in 2015, I observed that this was going to be a "journey of a thousand miles." As common as the metaphor is, I don't think we always stop to really understand what that means until we're in the middle of it. Sure, a thousand-mile walk is long and hard, but it's also diverse, filled with peaks and valleys, paved roads, and gravel paths. Sometimes we have the comfort of others, and sometimes we walk it alone. But at the end of the day, what matters most is that we keep moving forward. As André Gide put it, "one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."
As with the Q1 State of Elyria, I wanted to give you plenty of advance notice of the Q3 State of Elyria so you have something to look forward to. So, the Q3 State of Elyria will be published on Tuesday, October 11th, 2022.
That's all for this Q2 State of Elyria. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts to all those who continue to support us with words of affirmation. It's easy to send kind words and encouragement to developers when things are going well, it's much harder to do so when things get challenging. But it's in those times we need the support all the more. So again, while I do my best to thank folks individually when they write in, if I've somehow missed you, please know that we greatly appreciate it and it is for you, dear community, that we continue to walk.
Pledged to the Continued Development of the Soulborn Engine and the Chronicles of Elyria,