Greetings, Citizens of Elyria!
I'm once again writing this Q3 State of Elyria at the very last possible opportunity... on the publication date. When someone is writing something (in this case a blog post) as late as I am, it is, generally speaking, a bad thing. But occasionally, it can be the result of some very positive, last-minute events. This is one of those times.
Last week, we got some important news which changed my plans for this quarter's State of Elyria Update. And, as late as noon today, I was waiting on news that could shape the entire future of the company for the positive. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's take these two big announcements and updates in turn, and then we'll talk about how we progressed on the development and design side of things this quarter.
Last week, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington dismissed the class action lawsuit which was filed against Soulbound Studios. As a matter of law.
(Sidebar: I considered ending that sentence with an exclamation mark, emojis, and even an excited expletive. But the fact is, there's no punctuation or emoji that adequately conveys how relieved I am by this decision. So, I just went with the classic, informational period.)
The dismissal of the lawsuit marks the end of an expensive, time-consuming, two-year long journey that began as a pre-litigation letter in August of 2020 and then proceeded through two different federal courts, in two different states - first in California, and then in Washington State.
The court decision to dismiss the lawsuit comes as a victory to both all those who have, or will use crowdfunding as a source of seed funding for innovative projects, as well as (and most importantly) the backers of Chronicles of Elyria.
Today, crowdfunding is just as often used as a vehicle for advertising and submitting presale orders as it is for crowdfunding. But crowdfunding originally began as an alternative method of raising money in an otherwise tightly regulated investment market. It began as a way to "kickstart" innovation.
Crowdfunding gave companies a way to work directly with their customers to raise funds for the implementation of good ideas, enabling customers to have a more immediate voice in what products and services they wanted to see in the market.
When something was too risky for investors, when a company was too new or too inexperienced to fit a formula, crowdfunding allowed individuals to pool their resources, divide up the risk, and fund development in exchange for nothing more than gifts and a promise of future goods - should such development efforts prove successful.
But for crowdfunding to encourage innovation, companies need to feel secure in the use of the funds they've received. If failure (or even just delays) means they'll have to repay the money, then the obvious question, "how do you repay money you no longer have?" quickly negates one of the key benefits of crowdfunding.
At that point, crowdfunding portals devolve into nothing more than publishing platforms, as only the companies that already have the means to develop products would "risk" doing so. Fortunately, the court decision last week sends the message that with proper contracts in place, and clear communication, companies can feel secure innovating through crowdfunding, and using the funds toward their intended purposes.
With respect to our backers, now that the legal matters are behind us, and the costs finally capped, we can at last, after two years, put 100% of our attention back on the business of making games. And that's exactly what we're going to do!
On a personal note, I hope that with the lawsuit no longer hanging over us, the most cynical of our backers will also be able to put aside the notion that our ongoing development of KoE is anything other than what it is; an opportunity to create entertainment and value for our backers and customers, and the best path forward towards releasing CoE.
Along the same lines, I hope that with the legal matters behind us, all backers with Alpha 1 and Alpha 2 access will be inclined to test and provide valuable feedback when we release the next alpha test. Doing so will not only be more entertaining but will also help to make the game better for everyone!
While the lawsuit is finally over, and the costs are ideally capped at what's been invoiced so far, we had no way of knowing when the litigation would end or how expensive it would ultimately be. So, one of the most important jobs for me this quarter has been ensuring the studio has enough money to complete development of KoE.
I began the process in Q2 with marginal success. But the reality is, with the ongoing litigation, the lengthy development lifecycle, the shrunken team size, and the current sentiment and misinformation on the internet, we're not really an attractive target for either acquisition, publishing, or investing right now. That'll change one day, but for the moment, that's the reality we live in.
Another alternative we might have taken is debt financing. But we're already $500k in debt and haven't generated any revenue in over two years. So... not really a great candidate for debt financing either.
That leads me to my final option, which as it turns out, isn't entirely horrible. Self-funding!
I funded the development of CoE during the first year and a half of the studio. I sold the land my wife and I were going to build our dream house on, I liquidated our savings, and went all-in on Soulbound Studios. Chronicles of Elyria had been a passion project of mine for 15 years and my wife and I would have spent every dollar we had to see it become a reality. I've once again self-funded the development over the last year since the company bank account ran empty.
As I spent the last two quarters trying to find a way to keep the studio funded, it occurred to me that I would, if I could, continue to fund the development of KoE and CoE indefinitely. If I were to continue to fund development, I'd need to do so in a way that was sustainable, and ideally, would allow us to rebuild and regrow the studio to a bit larger size.
So, over the last quarter I've been utilizing my skills as a software engineer outside of the game industry to generate a residual income for myself and, consequently, the studio.
I was hoping to have some more concrete news about this today, which is why I've pushed the State of Elyria as late as possible. But unfortunately, it doesn't look like I'll have anything concrete to say on this for a bit longer.
Regardless, I'm optimistic that I'll soon have a steady stream of revenue that, at the very least, can be used to fund development of the studio through the completion of KoE. And, with luck, my efforts will result in enough income to re-hire more team members and start to rebuild!
I'll provide another update when I have more solid information on this, but in the meantime, my efforts to generate revenue for the company has come at a cost.
Over the last quarter, my efforts towards getting funding for the studio, combined with time spent dealing with the class action lawsuit has meant that I've had literally no time to advance the engineering on Kingdoms of Elyria. None. From an Engineering standpoint, the game is in the same place now as it was in July.
That said, my time away from engineering has given Snipehunter and I the time we needed to dive into the technical design, entirely uninterrupted, and without the randomization that engineering typically introduces into the design process.
So, let's talk about what we've achieved in KoE's design over the last quarter.
This quarter has focused heavily on refining and finalizing outstanding design elements for the world of Elyria. I say for the "world of Elyria" rather than for "Kingdoms of Elyria," because this process has far-reaching effects that propagate back into Chronicles of Elyria itself, as was always the plan.
Over the last several months, we've been going over the core systems and feature areas that are next on the block for implementation in KoE: Settlements. During this process, we've been examining our initial assumptions about how these systems should work, reconciling them against what we've learned while implementing functionality in Kingdoms, and then making the necessary changes to the design to accommodate the behaviors and edge cases that has revealed.
Then, as a last step for each system, we've been making sure that these changes reconcile with CoE because that's the point. The systems and features implemented as part of KoE are meant to drop into Chronicles with little or no change once they're implemented.
So, what did we learn and what were we designing specifically, you ask? Let's take a tour!
Since Kingdoms of Elyria has a different UI from CoE, one area where the two projects do differ is in the way players perform the interactions that allow them to alter the world, accomplish their goals, and have a presence in the world of Elyria. So, this was where we focused first.
KoE is presented in your typical "god's eye" view, and has a much more traditional user interface, where you right click on a location to send your character there or to perform the "default interaction" with whatever object in the world you right clicked on. Chronicles, meanwhile, presents the game in third person, and every interaction is diegetic, performed in the world as physically as possible.
In Kingdoms of Elyria, you may right click on a bucket to pick it up, but in CoE, you would instead walk up to the bucket and use one of your free hands to reach out and grab the bucket. It is the same interaction, but the user experience, or UX, is vastly different. That difference highlights some of the edge cases for complex interactions very well, and so at the start of the quarter that was where we focused.
We looked at how the character interacts with the world passively, nailing down any outstanding edge cases for how gravity is simulated, how buoyancy is simulated, and in general what the rules for physical collisions were.
Is it enough, for example, for a tool to collide with an object it can be used on to trigger that usage, or does the player have to specifically perform a "use" action with the tool to make that happen? Since Kingdoms and Chronicles differ on the UI front, questions like this highlight the edge cases between them quite nicely and made clear the need for more intelligent "contextual interaction behaviors" which became the big addition to interactions as a result.
While interactions are one of the most important aspects of a character, being the way those characters have any agency in the world at all, each character also has a suite of mechanics that govern internal processes, such as aging, or growing stronger or fatter as they perform (or don't perform) physical activity in the world. So, with our focus on interactions fulfilled, we turned our gaze inward, so to speak, and began to look at the mechanics of character simulation itself.
Here we had a few questions left over from Chronicles of Elyria that remained unanswered, so it wasn't pure refactoring or ensuring that KoE's UI could handle the planned detail level. Those tasks were absolutely part of the process here as well, but the focus was on ensuring that we understood exactly how functions such as metabolism, physical activity, and aging would impact the character.
And when we say, "impact the character," we mean that we also nailed down technical implementation issues such as "how does the body dynamics shader we developed interact with character stats and actions to show physical aging and body changes?" This was done in addition to ensuring the UI/UX and core simulation systems didn't have any hidden "gotchas" that the Kingdoms perspective revealed.
While the world of Elyria is, as one commenter put it "simulationist af," it's important to remember that Elyria is an RPG at its core. Even in Kingdoms, where the diplomacy and colony building aspects are presented in a format that's more conventional for a strategy game, every interaction and action that a player wants to take is filtered down to the characters that perform them and the core Chronicles of Elyria's RPG mechanics.
From ensuring that a character's attributes and skills play a role in how well they can traverse the world, carry heavy weights, or survive in the wilderness, to the mechanisms of skill growth, atrophy, and a character's ability to learn and teach new skills, a slew of RPG systems form the core of the way we determine the success or failure of a character's actions (including players!).
Since Kingdoms has none of the real-time interactivity experiences such as our active crafting design, it behooved us to ensure that the RPG mechanics were tightly coupled and capable of not just seeding those active experiences, but handling the entire interaction attempt when those experiences do not overlay them.
The attention focused here resulted in changes to some of the core skill math, and a retuning of the rates at which skills are gained and influence character progression, with a focus on ensuring that skill growth can occur even outside of active experiences, such as in learning environments or via personal tutoring. While the focus was on how quickly attaining skills changed the pace of character progression play, it also had farther reaching effects. For example, this work filtered down into the more passive interactions between the game and its RPG systems, such as in survival determinations for tolerances to heat & cold, humidity, dehydration, and starvation.
And, as we hinted at a few times there, we also took the time to finalize and complete all the learning and teaching mechanics for passing on skills to other characters or gleaning them from teachers, books, and other external sources.
The point of KoE is to nail down the diplomacy and management mechanics of Chronicles of Elyria. And, as the name implies, there's a sense that the goal is the grandiose aspects of those interactions: Treaties between nations, rivalries between settlements, etc.
However, for any of that to be possible, we must first ensure that the permissiveness mechanics – the systems for building and enforcing trust in agreements – are functional and support that goal. So, one push we made this quarter was to look at the core of the contracts and permissions systems to ensure they can handle the variety we intend.
As part of this push, we nailed down the contract crafting flow, how scribes advance in their trade, and identified and isolated those aspects of these mechanics that needed to be more "in the game" and less "in the world."
As an example of that, consider allowing a friend to stay over at your home for a few days. Most of us wouldn't immediately present that friend with a contract for them to sign that outlines what they can and can't do as a guest in our house, right? Perhaps the more conscientious of us might take a moment to explain the house rules, but a signed and notarized acceptance of those rules is likely out of the question. It's just too much overhead and formality for that use case, right?
So, what do you do? In the real world, most guests have common sense. They know not to touch stuff that doesn't belong to them and isn't put out for common use, so you don't need to explain the rules to them. Games, on the other hand, are places where we've been trained since childhood to smash every pot, loot every chest, and take everything that isn't nailed down, so clearly there's a need for the rules to be established and followed.
That's where the "in the game" comment from earlier comes in. Using the game's diegetic trust and security systems, a player would need to craft a house rules contract and somehow get their guest to sign on to it to get the same behavior we'd expect out of a guest in real life. But, by adding a simple "set permissions" UI to the game, we can offer players a straightforward way to set up their house rules and then leave their enforcement to the game's systems.
As part of this effort, we nailed down both the way authoring contracts "in the world" would work and how to set up these more game-like permissions using more traditional "permissions UI" screens. We also finalized the types of contracts characters can make without the need of the scribe skill or specific authority (such as a king or mayor might have), including how characters in both Chronicles and Kingdoms create posted notices, open job offers, and even sublet rooms in their homes to tenants.
With these fundamentals out of the way, we then turned to their specific applications in KoE to isolate any missing functionality to be incorporated into the design to accomplish its goals. Specifically, we looked at how characters craft from every step of the production process.
In Elyria, we have a component-based crafting system, where raw materials are processed into components that are then assembled into final goods which can then be further altered after the fact via customization.
We call this the Gathering – Processing – Assembly – Finishing chain and it forms the core of the production system design (With disassembly and recycling closing the loop on the other end).
We looked at the mechanics that had been designed for each step of the chain, looking at every craft that would be part of Kingdoms in the process. In doing so, we also internalized the extensive research we had done into soil properties, erosion, and the plant lifecycle to ensure that the "production of gatherables" (aka farming and ranching) were up to par, too. All this was done with the aim of making crafting a major feature add to the Kingdoms alpha in an upcoming release.
In the last few weeks of this development period, we began to move a little farther afield now that most of the foundation has been verified as strong or altered as needed to ensure it.
Here are a few examples:
This push to make sure our design is in order is not finished, and in Q4 we will continue to critically examine, test, and refactor more of the game's mechanical design so we can bring this process to a close.
That will put us in a good place for the remaining alpha releases, as it'll free up our technical designers to focus on implementation of the gameplay mechanics as well as the UI/UX, rather than having to continue to explore the fundamental designs.
Q3 2022 has come to an end, and while engineering fell behind this quarter, things are otherwise starting to finally turn around for us.
Back in March 2020, I made the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. We were facing a failed crowdfunding event and were on the verge of a pandemic. There were rumors of a global financial crisis and hiring freezes, our friends in the industry were starting to get laid off or furloughed, and I didn't want our community of dedicated backers continuing to fund development when their money would be better spent on the necessities, or at the very least, on games they could play at that moment, rather than those still in development. So, I made the decision to stop crowdfunding.
The decision to stop crowdfunding meant no reliable income for an unknown period of time, which meant I'd eventually have to lay off the employees if I wasn't able to get a new source of capital fairly quickly. I didn't trust myself. I decided it was better to lay the employees off when we knew they could get re-hired, rather than take the risk I'd have to fire them in the middle of a recession. Hindsight's a bitch, isn't it?
So, I wrote a blog post, filled with heart ache and disappointment, which attempted to convey the message that we were suspending development, but not all was lost, and we still had hope for the future. I wrote about the abyss, the fifth stage of the hero's journey (aka the monomyth), in which the hero descends into darkness, goes through a major ordeal, is at their all-time low, and then ultimately ascends, transformed. It didn't land. But, in the interest of putting a capstone on that analogy, allow me to borrow from it one final time.
I can't say for certain that we're entering the next phase of the hero's journey yet, that we've ascended, transformed, but we are ascending. The legal battles are (hopefully) behind us, we're very close to having a sustainable income (at least for our smaller studio size), we're nearly done with the complete design of KoE, and all that mostly remains is some heavy engineering work, which, as it turns out, is what I'm best at.
So, while we may not have ascended yet, we're all looking up now. Ready and excited to break free of what's been holding us back. Ready to move forward and face what lies ahead. Face the challenges of development, of rebuilding our community, of re-hiring studio staff, and generally ready to come back into the light again.
It has been a hell of a journey so far, and we sincerely hope that you will continue to walk it with us in the future!
Pledged to the Continued Development of the Soulborn Engine and the Chronicles of Elyria,