Welcome to the Chronicles of Elyria update for the week of July 11th! It feels like forever since I've had the opportunity to sit down and give you all an update.
Two weeks ago most of us here at Soulbound Studios were out of town, enjoying 4th of July festivities with family. Last weekend we had an update scheduled, but as many may have noticed our website was down for maintenance. The maintenance consumed 100% of my attention for a few days, as I'm the primary web developer at Soulbound. Which is saying a lot, as I haven't really done any web programming since the early 2000's. In any case, I figured the best update I could provide people was seeing the website come back up, so that was the focus of my attention last weekend.
But, at long last, here we are. The site's back up, development continues on multiple fronts, and there's been a series of things worthy of talking about. So, let's jump into the full update.
The elephant in the room is of course the website. As a small team, especially one whose experience lies primarily in the development and production of video games, we're bound to make mistakes - especially in areas surrounding, but not directly related to the development of CoE.
The important thing here is that we don’t make excuses. As my grandfather used to say, “Excuses are like #$$holes, we’ve all got ‘em, and they all stink.” Instead, we need to recognize the mistakes, learn from them, and then never make the same mistake twice. To help with that, I sat down with some of the team members and had a retrospective about why the maintenance and development of the website took longer than we expected, and what we can do in the future to prevent that. What we discovered is that I'm filling too many roles.
As I believe I've mentioned in previous updates, I cover a lot of roles at Soulbound Studios: Creative Director, Web Programmer, CEO, Producer, IT Guy, Technical Director ... and the list goes on. Previously this was a function of not having the money to hire more people, now it's a function of not having the time. But, we'll get back to that.
Each of the roles I fill requires attention, and sometimes multiple at the same time. As a result, I have to use my time a lot like an operating system, allocating time slices to different threads of execution. I'll spend a couple hours building computers for the new hires or visitors, then I'll swap over and work on the development of the new benefits packages for employees, then switch over and work on licensing deals with our partners, etc.
This allows each of those areas to make small progress so it never feels like any of them are being starved or ignored. Unfortunately, I'm a real-time operating system and processes are divided up into the important and urgent. Often times urgent tasks, such as licensing deals, need to take priority over the important tasks.
It makes sense intuitively but it leads to important tasks - such as the development and roll-out of our new website - never getting the time slices it needs. This is why the v2.0 of the website took so long to develop. It was important, but not urgent, so development was delayed.
Then, back during the Kickstarter, we declared that we'd have a new online shop running right after the Kickstarter which would allow people to continue to pledge, upgrade their pledges, etc. This was the catalyst for the website suddenly becoming not just important, but urgent.
However, at the close of a Kickstarter a lot of other urgent/important stuff pops up that needs to be taken care of as well. So in spite of the fact the website was now both important and urgent, there was other stuff that was both urgent and important as well. To make a long story short, we kept pushing the date of the website launch back because I wasn't getting the time I needed to spend on it.
In the end, we opted to just dive in anyways. I moved my client programmer off the game client for a week, and we dove head first into web development. From last Friday at 8pm PDT until Thursday morning at 12am PDT we did nothing but focus on getting the new website up.
This probably gives the impression that we spent several days trying to figure out how to copy and paste a completed website from one folder to another. Nothing could be further from the truth. I used the website maintenance as a forcing function, to give reason for Nathan and I to dedicate all our attention to the website. But the truth is, when we took the website down on Friday it was maybe 25% complete. We spent the next several days implementing unit tests, test data stores, production data stores, managers, controllers, and views.
Throughout the process we were always hopeful that the task lists we had would only take "a few more hours", but as neither of us are web developers things kept popping up that took longer than we expected. Furthermore, once we got things to where we thought they were ready for release, we'd run an internal release and have everyone use the site and provide feedback, and this only served to add new important tasks to our task list.
In any case, the website was down from Friday until the end of Wednesday and we're sorry about that.
But here's the two takeaways:
I'm filling too many roles. My next priority has to be the hiring of new employees or we're going to encounter this problem again in the future.
My team rocks. In spite of the fact that we had only 25% of a website up on Friday, myself, my client dev, my web designer, graphic designer, and community manager jumped right in and put in extremely dedicated, extremely long hours to create a website with a rich set of features that takes many production companies months to create. And it took us a week! The new website has the backend and middle-tier support for more fine-tuned banning controls, forums, expanded moderator tools, expanded blog support, a CMS, ranks & roles, updated user account management, and a bunch more.
So while I know there's a lot of people out there critical of the fact it took us a few days to get a "simple website" up and running, I can assure you it was anything but simple and I'm extremely proud of the hard work my team put in. It's reassuring to know they'll do what must be done, when it's needed. The passion from my team knows no end.
With the talk about the website outage out of the way, let's take a look at some of the other stuff going on with production.
When we moved into our new office it was filled with 10 cubicles from the previous tenants. When asked whether we wanted them removed and have to buy our own furniture, or lease and leave it in, we opted to leave it in. But alas, we had some remote employees visit the office over the last week and we realized all cubicles were full! So now we're working with some office designers to help us gut those cubicles and replace them with something smaller and trendier, as we need to be able to fit 25 people into our little office. Exciting times! Once the renovation is complete we’ll post pictures to our Instagram and other social media so you can all see the new Soulbound Studios layout.
As I just mentioned, we had two of our remote employees were in-office last week. We had our Community Manager, which many know as Caeoltoiri, as well as Raevantiel, our environment artist. Both were there to check out the office, see the area, and solve the problem of housing and such, as both will be relocating in the coming months so they can work on-site rather than remote.
We're extremely excited to see more and more of our staff settling in Bellevue and being in the office.
At the end of June I started looking through the resumes that had been sent in to our Jobs email list. One caught my attention immediately, as I knew about the work coming up on Kingdoms of Elyria. While we've yet to sign a contract, we do have a verbal agreement and starting August 1st we 'll have a new Sr. Web Programmer joining the team. In hindsight, it would have been great if we'd gotten him July 1st rather than August 1st. :-)
While this is part production, part design, I wanted to briefly return to talking about features of the new website. If you go to the website, you'll find the newly fleshed out "Game Guide" section. This has articles on our business model, aging & dying, lore & religion, as well as many other game-play mechanics. But, if you click into any of those pages you'll notice the title [In Development] at the top. That's because these pages are all placeholders.
We knew we needed a place with more information about the game, but what information do we put there when the game is still very much in design and development? Generally speaking, the Game Guide is the area for "locked in" information about a game. Since nothing is 100% "locked in" at the moment, this would indeed be a fairly empty section. Rather than leave the game guide blank, in fear of stating stuff that's not 100% fixed, and rather than put everything on the page, knowing some stuff will likely change during development, we've decided to do something slightly different with our game guide.
We're going to use the Game Guide section of our website as a bit of a project board. That is, as we start developing or revisiting the design of different parts of the game, we'll continue to add, change, and even flesh out the different areas of the game guide with concept art, 3D models, etc. so you can track the progress of each of the game mechanics. In fact, we're even going to put some kind of visual indicator like a progress bar on each of the game mechanics pages so you can see exactly how far and in what stage of development each of the mechanics are. How's that for transparency!?
In the meantime, while we figure out how we want to represent progress, and what kind of UI we want for displaying concepts, etc. we've put up temporary "In Development" pages. Stay tuned for more cool stuff coming to the game guide.
The last thing I wanted to talk about related to production and the website is Max Influence, IP, and Ranks. It had always been our intention that people be rewarded for influencing the success of Chronicles of Elyria. As stated in one of our forum stickies (dated Oct 25, 2015), Influence will be awarded for the following things:
I bring that up because I wanted to remind people that "Maximum/Total Influence" is a measure of how much Influence a person has had on the success of CoE and isn't directly related to the Kickstarter. The Kickstarter was just one way to gain Influence.
Long ago we established a ratio of $1 USD to 10 IP. This means that for every $1 someone backs the game for they earn 10 IP. IP is a currency that players can use to purchase in-game items and benefits as a reward for helping to make the game successful. In the case of IP earned through the first 8 methods above, it can also be used to purchase or upgrade backing tiers. (Sorry folks, no wishing for more wishes - IP gained through purchasing or backing rewards can't be used for upgrading tiers).
The difference between Max Influence and IP is subtle, though. Any time you earn/purchase IP you're increasing your Max Influence, and in most cases your spendable IP as well. If you then go and spend your IP your "spendable IP" decreases, but your Max Influence remains the same. After all, why would someone’s influence on the success of the game go down simply because they’re using the IP they were awarded?
As an example, let's say I invite 10 people to join the game, and each backed CoE on Kickstarter. At 50 IP per invitation, that's 500 Max Influence gained through inviting other people. On the Kickstarter Max Influence chart my name would go up by 500 IP. Now let's say I choose to spend 200 IP on the purchase of a small building. My spendable IP is now only 300, however my Max IP, that is my Max Influence toward the success of CoE remains at 500. Spending my IP doesn't reduce my Max Influence.
So, many people have asked why on the Max Influence chart they're showing 10x the price of their backing tier + overpayment toward add-ons. That's because the IP shown is the Max Influence you have, not how much spendable IP you have. That'll be shown on the Influence tab under Account Management when we get that set up. Someone who backed at the Bloodline tier ($120) has 1,200 Max Influence, and of that, 100 can still be spent on in-game stuff. Likewise, someone who backed at the Baron Tier ($250) has 2500 Max Influence, and of that, 625 can be spent on in-game stuff.
Oh, speaking of Max Influence and add-ons. Many people noticed that there was / will be the opportunity to buy IP at a discount. That is, $10 = 100 IP, however $100 = 1250 IP. Please note that in the latter case, you're spending $100 so your Max Influence will go up by 1,000. Your spendable IP will however go up by 1,250. Because of the bonus IP your spending power is greater, but choosing to buy IP with your $100 as opposed to going up from say the $250 to $350 tier doesn't change your Max Influence at all. Either way, $100 USD is worth 1,000 Max Influence.
The last bit I'd like to explain is Ranks, Borders, and Titles. Kickstarter has tiers. The tiers have names. Some of our reward tiers also indicated they came with new borders. For example, if you backed at $250/Baron level, it came with a "Forum Border - Baron". That's because 2500 Max Influence marks the transition from one Influence Rank to another, which was titled Baron previously. We've since changed the name to something like Tier X, to help people understand that not all people who backed at the Baron tier will actually be barons in the game, and not everyone who reaches 2500 IP did so by buying the Baron package.
In short, now that the Kickstarter is over, you should look at the border / title you have on the website, not what was listed on the Kickstarter. That is, you got the highest border you paid for on the Kickstarter, but its name will be changing to disassociate it from the Kickstarter Tiers. Likewise, as Borders/Ranks are a function of Max Influence, not reward tiers, you may find that people who paid above their backing tier have higher Max Influence, and thus have higher ranks/borders. That's simply because their Max Influence is higher.
If you don’t like seeing Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, etc. under your name, don’t worry. We’re working to come up with new titles, and hopefully the new titles will make it clear that they represent ranks of Max Influence, not which backing tier you purchased.
Phew, glad we finally got through all the numbers. For the final section of this week we're going to do something a little different. As Design, Concept, and Environment Art have been collaborating together, I'm going to list them in a single update, rather than talking about each separately.
Up until this point we've been using the artistic hand of our concept artist and environment artists in order to set up the architecture and layout of our settlements. That is, while we can procedurally determine where a settlement will be, it's been the environment artist(s) that have been laying out the settlements; specifically, New Haven and Silver Run. Along the same lines, the environment artists have been basing the look and feel of the settlements on the concept art and paint-overs created by our Art Director.
This serves to create settlements that look and feel amazing. The problem is, it takes way too much time creating the settlements by hand. There's literally no way we can hand-create every settlement for every server before launch with the size of our team. Nor would we want to.
Even if we could hand-create every starting town, what would happen after the game launches? We'd inevitably have some really nice hand-created settlements by our designers, and then a bunch of thrown together settlements by the players. Not to say that players aren't capable of creating amazing settlements, but artist are artists.
So our end-goal should be to create game-play mechanics that encourage players to create settlements that look and feel as good as the settlements created by our designers and artists. For example, when you look at the concepts and screenshots of New Haven you'll often see barrels and other stuff lying around that gives the world a "used" feeling. If those are purely cosmetic, then there's no reason for players to place the barrels there. If it's purely cosmetic, then at best it would be a waste of resources to create barrels and leave them lying around.
So if this is the vision we're trying to create, if this is what we feel a town should look like, then there needs to be a reason for players to lay barrels around such as exists in our current settlements. This is the symbiotic process that is currently happening between our Art Director, Environment Artists, and Designers.
The designers are going through looking at the concepts and environments that have already been created from an artistic vision, and then working with the others to add game-play mechanics that would realistically result in settlements that look like the concept art. Then these new mechanics are being used to drive future concept and environments.
This circular relationship means that at launch, settlements will be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. And not just the settlements we create. But the ones you create.