Journal Special: So you want to be a Game Developer?

Plot Backgrounds Characters Music Voice Software
Code Sound 3D Set Testing Project Management Public Relations
Entry #12: Freedom of Speech  
December 25th, 2008 | Neil Rodrigues

In last month’s entry, I discussed how our team got from square one to where we are today, from a management perspective.  In the entries before that, I explained how the game was built from start to finish.  This month entry focuses on the third aspect to consider when creating a game. 

Anyone that has ever decided to make a game eventually reaches a point when they realize that game development is a lot more difficult than they had initially thought.  In the planning stage, all the excitement from ideas, concepts and goals outweighs the reality of what lies ahead.  It’s not until several months (or years!) into development that you realize the better you want your game to be, the harder you’ll have to work to make it happen. 

It’s also very rare to get paid in full before producing anything.  If you happen to be creating a free game like The Silver Lining, it’s no surprise that you will never be financially compensated for all the time and effort spent on development.  Oddly enough, this fact alone is also why most independent games fail to see the light of day.  Team members vanish into thin air because they no longer have free time to dedicate.  You might even notice your own real life priorities taking precedence over what some people see as a mere hobby.

Fortunately, there is something you can do during development to keep team morale high, and excitement in the air.  It can prevent the apathy that accumulates during development from destroying years of hard work.  And, while it doesn’t come in the form of financial compensation, the payoff is uplifting enough to make you enjoy what you do and push you to work harder.  I’m talking about publicity, and the rest of this entry will discuss how it was used by TSL in the past, present, and future.

Reference Material

When I joined this team five years ago, the game didn’t really have a public image.  The website had an entire library of content on other King’s Quest games, but almost nothing on TSL.  At one time, concept sketches of characters and backgrounds were posted each week.  But by the time I found the site, this feature had already been ceased for a several months.  The most active and up-to-date part of the website was, and still is, the Forum.


The Forum

The Forum is essentially one large message board, separated into different categories of topics and threads of discussion.  Like any site, the overall atmosphere of the Forum community is directly related to the people that post on a regular basis.  Our Forum had and still has, a fun and friendly atmosphere, which made people really want to join and feel completely welcome.  When I first discovered the site, several developers used to partake in the Forum community.  Sometimes they would tease the community by dropping hints and spoilers, and other times they would just have fun like everyone else.

Screenshot of TSL Forum
Figure 1: Screenshot of TSL Forum

Once I had joined the team, I was granted access to the wonderful world of TSL development, where I saw first-hand what many people were working on.  Immediately, I noticed the huge divide between what the public knows and sees about this game, and the game itself.  I had the privilege of proof-reading the plot while it was still being finalized, which I was hesitant to do at first because I didn’t want to spoil it for myself.  However, after being fully engrossed by it and discussing various aspects for hours on end with the Game Designer, César Bittar, it has helped greatly with understanding the different themes present throughout TSL.

The “Suffer” Policy

After knowing all there is to know about TSL’s plot, the biggest question was how to deliver this information to the public in bits and pieces, without revealing too much.  Had the plot gone public, the joy of experiencing the game from scratch would be tainted.  It would be like hearing how a movie ends, then watching it for yourself.  While it may still be an enjoyable experience, it would be a spoiled one.  So, to prevent this from happening, we adopted an unwritten rule to never reveal too much about the game.  Anyone fishing for this information would be treated to a friendly laugh emoticon, which was later dubbed as “Suffer!” since the laugh actually looked quite sadistic.

The Origin of the Suffer
Figure 2: The Origin of the Suffer

In order to ensure that team members don’t accidentally slip up and expose plot details, we have everyone sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement upon joining the team.  It basically ensures that all information they acquire while being part of the team remains confidential.  They are not permitted to post this information elsewhere without permission from the PR Department and the Project Director. 

There was a time in the past where a disgruntled team member posted TSL’s plot all over the internet.  The team was able to get sites to remove the content, but still was forced to scrap the storyline and start fresh.  Since the game was still in its infancy, it was not a big ordeal to do this.  However, if such a leak were to happen now, it would spoil years of hard work by hundreds of people.  Once the game has been released, it will be inevitable that people may unintentionally post spoilers or even entire walkthroughs.  Still, we will try our best to prevent exposing this information to anyone not actively seeking it.

Contests, Events, Media and More!

As time went on, so did game progress, however due to the suffer policy, the public grew restless from not knowing any details.  People wanted to know whether the game was still being developed, and what kind of progress has been made.  Obviously, this is even more tricky to do than revealing plot spoilers, because something visual will most likely appear in the game in some form or another.  We decided to have a few contests and reveal small visuals to contest winners as prizes.  Then we held yearly events celebrating the anniversary of the website’s creation.

Screenshot from's 3rd Birthday Chat Log
Figure 3: Screenshot from's 3rd Birthday Chat Log

During these events, tons of visuals and other media were made public for the masses.  We figured that one day a year is fine to showcase some really good progress.  It allowed us time to prepare promotional material in advance, and it allowed people to freely view it at their leisure.  The largest promo we’ve ever made was the TSL Trailer, which showed 3D rendered animations combined with voice and music.  The Trailer was so large and popular that it nearly took our entire site offline by exceeding our monthly bandwidth limit!  Thankfully, another site hosted a mirror and was able to absorb most of the traffic.


Legal Battles

Since the TSL Trailer spread like wildfire across the Internet through adventure gaming communities and blog sites, eventually Sierra themselves caught wind of it.  Vivendi Universal, now the owner of Sierra, sent the team a Cease and Desist letter requesting that we halt all development on King's Quest IX, as the King's Quest IP was their property exclusively.  We complied with their request, but also requested that they reconsider their decision by evaluating the game for themselves.  In addition, we posted a letter to our fans on our site, explaining the shutdown situation.  We were not legally permitted to reveal any details about the negotiation, and as a result, the news of the shutdown travelled further and further with people getting more and more upset at Vivendi’s decision. 

Campaigns to save the game were formed by fans of our game, with people writing everything from personal e-mails, petitions, and even hand-written letters to Vivendi expressing their disgust with the whole shutdown situation.  Simultaneously, our team was working hard to overcome their own emotional turmoil and turn a couple scenes into a fully playable demo version of the game with a deadline of just 3-4 weeks.  Since Chapter 1 of the game is very small, we tried to put as many scenes as possible from it into this demo for Vivendi.  Additionally, we sent them a video detailing the Making of TSL, as well as other media which we hoped would help convey the effort and work poured into this game over the years.

Screenshot of menu screen from DVD sent to Vivendi
Figure 4: Screenshot of menu screen from DVD sent to Vivendi


The Silver Lining

Thankfully, a month later, Vivendi rescinded their decision to have us halt development, and granted our team a non-commercial license to use Sierra-based IP in our game.  This was incredible news at the time, because all the hard work from the team and fans finally paid off!  It was not a surefire bet that the game would be saved, so the news of this oddity resulted in a massive amount of web traffic and press interest.  TSL was interviewed in many online and print publications, because it was a true underdog story.

The only caveat was that we were asked to remove “King’s Quest IX” from our game’s title and website, because it would create confusion if an official ninth sequel were to be developed in the future.  The license also stipulated that Vivendi must approve the game (for quality assurance purposes) before it can be publicly released.  While we’re not sure how extensive this final pass will be, nonetheless it remains the final roadblock the game must go through before it can be played publicly.


Release Date

The biggest question we’ve gotten over the years is: when will the game be released?  Usually, this question is impossible to answer, because deadlines are difficult to keep, and because unexpected challenges arise during development.  I’ve previously explained how staff’s real life priorities affect the project’s overall schedule, but what I haven’t shown is how their productivity rates can project a completion date.

Note the distinction between a completion date and a release date.  The completion date is the day no further development on the game is permitted (including bug fixes and finishing touches).  The game will still most likely have minor bugs in it, but they will be listed in the release notes as known issues.  Once the completion date arrives, the game will be packaged into one setup file (although given the size of the game, it will most likely be split into multiple files).  This will then be presented to Vivendi for final approval. 

If it is not approved, further fixes will be necessary and re-submitted until the game is deemed satisfactory.  During the approval period, more bugs may be fixed and/or more enhancements be added.  Depending on the timeframe, these last minute fixes can be merged with the game prior to release, or kept as a separate patch to be released separately.  From this point onward, the release date will be entirely in our hands, and the game will be imminent.

Completion Date

Keeping everything I just said in mind about the release date, the next biggest question is: when will the game be completed?!  In the past, we based milestone dates on approximations and estimations: “By December, we should have x, y and z completed”.  “By the summer, we will just need to finish a, b and c”.  These approximations were made by assuming a constant rate of productivity, no allocation for time-consuming issues, and no consideration for leaving enough time for adequate testing.  Obviously, the approximations were very inaccurate, resulting in vague release dates such as “sometime next year” or “This Winter”.

Screenshot from Trilogy Teaser
Figure 5: Screenshot from Trilogy Teaser

But now, thanks to Redmine, we can finally answer this question with some degree of certainty by using actual historical data.  More specifically, we can measure the number of issues opened and closed each month and determine when the majority of issues will be closed.  It is important to keep in mind that there is still some uncertainty here, in that not all issues are created equal. Some issues may take more time to fix than others, and some are so minor that they can be left as known issues.

Here is a graph showing how many issues were opened and closed every month in 2008:

TSL Issues Opened vs. Issues Closed in 2008
Figure 6: TSL Issues Opened vs. Issues Closed in 2008

You’ll notice that certain months were more productive for developers, and certain months were more productive for testers.  The peak in January occurred because we were entering in many assignments and because the first Fannatic Beta Testers joined the team.  In May, the peak is largely due to the remaining Beta Testers joining the team.  The December amount of issues created is extremely low because we’ve recently re-assessed all open issues and moved many to “Polish”.  Polish bugs will only be fixed if time permits, and are therefore excluded from the list of bugs needed to be completed for release. 

A better graph that gives a better understanding of progress is the following figure.  Here is a graph showing overall progress in 2008, by accumulating the number of issues opened and closed each month:

TSL Monthly Progress in 2008
Figure 7: TSL Monthly Progress in 2008

This graph is important because instead of looking at monthly progress in isolation, it looks at the overall picture.  It ignores the fact that productivity varies greatly, and that more bugs could be found in one month and more bugs fixed in another.  It is calculated by simply looking at the total number of closed issues divided by the total number of open issues each month.  It shows that in general, the game gets closer and closer to completion each month.  Also, it shows that as of the date of this entry, the game is overall 78% complete.  Keep in mind that we still plan on closing more issues off before the end of December.

So, knowing the current status of the game percentage-wise and the number of issues remaining to be fixed, we can approximate when the game will be completed.  On average, we complete around 3% each month, meaning the remaining 22% will take roughly seven months at the current rate of productivity.  However, the directors have very recently agreed on a plan which will effectively ramp up our speed, and get the game done in five months.  The effect of this plan can already be seen by comparing November's overall progress with December's.

In other words, our goal is to have TSL completed by May 2009.  Once completed, it will then be sent for Vivendi approval, and once approved, the release date will be determined and publicly announced.  As it stands today, TSL’s projected release date is: Summer 2009.


Trilogy, a.k.a. Parts One, Two and Three

Back in 2005, we announced our decision to split TSL into three parts.  The game is a total of 9 chapters, so each part would contain 3 chapters each.  In 2006, after the whole Vivendi ordeal, we decided that we needed to concentrate all resources onto completing Part One (i.e. “Shadows”).  This meant that development on Parts Two and Three had ceased, rather than being worked on in conjunction with Shadows.  Within Shadows, we also decided to complete Chapters 1 and 2 together, since both settings are based in The Land of the Green Isles and because Chapter 1 is not much different from the Public Demo.

After working for over a year and a half on Chapters 1 & 2, by fall of 2007 we knew that we had to make a tough decision about the release of Shadows.  Chapter 3 was essentially in the same state Chapters 1 & 2 were in, in 2005.  That being said, we knew Chapters 1 & 2 would most likely get completed in 2008, but adding Chapter 3 into the mix could possibly add an additional 3 years to the release.  While all of us really wanted Chapter 3 to see the light of day, we mutually agreed that it did not warrant another 3 years of unpaid labor for ourselves or the staff.  It also wasn’t fair to make fans wait an additional 3 years, despite what was promised back in 2005.

So our decision (which remains today) is that the release will consist of both Chapters 1 and 2.  For simplicity sake, the game will be called “The Silver Lining”, as opposed to “Shadows”, “Part One” or anything else.  Chapters 3 – 9 will most likely never be released non-commercially, because without funding, it would take us 10 or more years to complete them.  If we were to release them commercially, we would first require a commercial license from Vivendi.  However, as evident from their lack of interest in the Sierra brand itself, they have absolutely no desire to even discuss such a license with us.

The Future of Phoenix Online Studios

TSL will be the only product developed under the banner of Phoenix Online Studios.  Any original games created could, in theory, compete with Vivendi’s product line, which would cause many legal problems due to our non-commercial license with Vivendi.  There has been some discussion of forming a new company with core team members.  This new company would obviously have nothing to do with Sierra-based intellectual property, nor TSL.  It would create entirely original games, on possibly different platforms than PC, and possibly different genres than adventure.  The sky's the limit!  More details on this will be announced after the release of TSL.

One benefit to working on TSL all these years is gaining first-hand experience in what is involved in developing professional games, as well as working collectively as a team to bring them from start to finish.  I’ve often mentioned the hardships that occurred in the process, namely: being non-commercial, having unpredictable productivity, legal issues, marketing challenges, etc.  But what I haven’t mentioned is why after all these years, I still love it. 

I found this site because one day I decided to re-live a childhood memory.  At the time, the King’s Quest games stood out among other games for being smart, creative, interactive, and enjoyable.  Upon discovering that a team of people were developing a sequel that too was smart, creative, interactive, and enjoyable, I knew that this was something I definitely wanted to be a part of.  The other major attraction was the people.  Everyone was extremely talented in their trade, and had a true passion for their work.  Fans were very supportive of these people who were taking a major legal risk, because above all else, the team’s goal was give the series the proper closure it needed.  It was not to alter the KQ universe to fit a modern interpretation, nor to overstep the property of the series’ creators Ken & Roberta Williams.  In fact, a commendable effort was made to keep many things close to the original storyline.  While the story is quite different, it still feels very much like the ninth King’s Quest game.

Lastly, what I’d like to mention is how TSL has helped me shape my career.  I had learned Flash and Web Development by working on many different projects over the years, which helped me land my first full-time job as a Flash Developer.  The techniques and skills I learn at work often directly apply to TSL, and vice versa.  That’s the main purpose of this Journal Special: to share the lessons, skills and experiences over the years developing TSL, so that people can use and apply them to their field of work/study.  Any group project you get involved with requires being able to work with many different people with many different skills and talents.  While you may or may not be the one in charge of keeping everything organized, you must be able to fit your work in with everyone else’s, because it too is an integral part of the big picture. 

I hope this Journal Special has given you some insight into what’s involved in developing TSL.  I’d like to thank all of you for reading them, because it was not always easy to find the time to write them.  I’d also like to thank those of you who refrained from whining about lack of release dates and progress updates this past year.  My goal was to give everyone a greater appreciation for all that goes into making this game.  Since I now feel that many of you have that, this final Journal Entry was designed to finally answer all your questions.  

Happy holidays, and here’s to celebrating the release of TSL in the New Year!

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