Feature Complete – Managing Expectations

Oct
02

Feature Complete – Managing Expectations

One of the reasons MMORPGs have such longevity compared to, say, a single player title, is that the work is ongoing until its sunset. Expansions and content updates continually bring new features into the game, building upon the original concept over the months and years. EverQuest, EverQuest II, and World of Warcraft are perfect examples of long-term games that, to this day, continue to add new features to their games. In addition, they’ve revamped graphics and character models along the way.

Elder Scrolls Online didn’t add housing into the game until more than two years after its launch (technically not in yet; it’s announced and coming), enhanced guild management for EverQuest 2 wasn’t in until long after launch, and Lord of the Rings Online didn’t have mounted combat for several years, just to name a few examples. The fact of the matter is, no MMORPG ever launches “feature complete”, and regardless if you are talking indie games or AAA companies there’s only so much the developers can do during a single development cycle to bring things to the light of day.

So let’s look at the raw facts for a moment. I know we’ve got a slew of really excited people with their eyes on us out there, and it’s important to talk about oft-ignored-but-nevertheless-real fact that we are a small team of people working on this game in our spare time. As of this writing, there are 14 of us, spread out between artists, world builders, programmers, designers, music composer, and the community management team.

We are not a team of 50 or 150 working with a five, ten, or even 45-million-dollar budget, much less a 100+ million.

We aren’t full-time developers. We are working outside of our day jobs. Sometimes, we have 15-20 hours a week to work on things. Other times its 2-3 hours in a week.

The name of the game in the current development era we’re living in is episodic releases. Just about every company out there does this, releasing content packs every few months that add new features and new content to the game; the days of fully-complete expansion packs are long behind us. And that includes AAA companies (see above). We’re no different in that development model.

So let’s just dive in. Will we be “feature complete” by our launch date? Will all of the things we’ve talked about in Tavern Talk and Tuesdays With Tim and Mastery Mastery and blog posts and etc. over the last 30+ months as we’ve talked about Volume I actually be in the game by that point?

Not likely.

Let’s look at housing, for example. Housing is planned for Volume I. Will we have it in by launch? Nope. Will it be included before Volume II? At some point.

Will the estimated 40 zones, 12 dungeons, and 6 cities by in by launch? Not all of them, nope. We’ll have a good chunk of them ready to go, but the reality is that some of the Volume I map will be rolled out over time in between launch and the release of Volume II, roughly two years later.

To-date, we have rarely talked about features that won’t be included in Volume I, with the exception of a few things like the apprentice system, magic and adepts, and advanced crafting, all of which are planned for Volume II, and we’ve been very careful to make sure that people understand these are Volume II concepts when speaking on them. Everything else we’ve talked about for Volume I = planned to be included. But whether or not that is “in the game at launch” or “in the game at some point between launch and Volume II” depends on a variety of factors.

We’ve been extremely careful about feature creep, as we’re not a typical company with a budget, but rather folks working in our spare time. We very literally cannot afford for there to be feature creep. We have to keep it lean and realistic. And to-date, we’ve been extremely careful to only work on things that we have planned for Volume I. Personally, I think we’ve done a great job, and internally we are constantly cutting and trimming things to ensure that we are only working on things that matter for Volume I, not beyond.

That being said, with the recent rush of people’s perception of what they THINK game companies are working on compared to what the companies are ACTUALLY working on (Star Citizen, Shroud of the Avatar, Chronicles of Elyria, Camelot Unchained, Pantheon, the chaos surrounding No Man’s Sky and players claiming false advertisement, etc.), we want to take the time to clear the air regarding our game and our development.

We, like every other company out there, are working on a minimum viable product. In laymen’s terms, it’s a scaled-down version of the final Volume I model. We have a launch window that we’re shooting for, and we’re going to get as much of Volume I completed by that window as possible, but at some point we have to actually turn the servers on and deliver something to everyone who has pre-ordered the game.

Once that happens, we’ll be rolling out the remaining feature list of Volume I over time via content updates every few months over the estimated two years in between launch and Volume II.

With the way we are designing our game, players will progress at a much slower pace than in traditional MMORPG titles. There’s no mini-map guiding you around, telling you where to go, what to do. You won’t be able to simply follow a waypoint. Players will have to explore, get lost, uncover things on their own. Our goal is to have enough content with core features in place by our launch that there is a minimum of a year’s worth of “things to do” in place for the average player, giving us a buffer to then push content updates out every few months and continually stay ahead of the curve.

Will we release things fast enough to please everyone? Nope. Hardcore players who are putting in 60 hours a week will hit the cap far sooner than the average “core” gamer who plays 15-20 hours a week. And just like every other game that has gone before, guilds at the upper tiers will have to wait between cycles, as we aren’t designing our game with them in mind. For us, it’s the whole enchilada, not just the end-game. That’s where players can create alts, work on crafting, maxing languages, exploring different parts of the world, roleplaying, and etc.

Once we go live and can establish actual income from monthly subscriptions, some of us (and if our numbers are where we need them to be, all of us) will move from part-time developers to full-time developers, allowing for faster development. Our coders, network engineers, artists, and world builders will be the first to draw paychecks; personally, I am the absolute last man on the totem pole when it comes to money. My reward is seeing this come to fruition, and while ultimately as someone in my late 30s I’m putting all of my eggs into this basket and expect to see a return on my investment later on down the line, I have a responsibility to make sure the TEAM who made this game possible gets their paychecks before I do.

Our “winning the lotto” outcome is more than 5,000 monthly subscriptions, allowing us to expand the team and work on even more features.

One of the most important differences between us and other companies is that we’re not working based off of an investment by third-parties, or even off the pre-order funds. We worked on this game for a year and a half before we opened up the pre-order store, and even since then we still haven’t drawn a single penny of salary for anyone on the team as the money is going to other production costs (servers, licenses, taxes, etc.). Instead, we’re all bound to this project by sweat equity. Passion is the primary driving force, not a paycheck.

So while other companies might halt development due to a lack of funding, or tell you that they can’t complete the game until they find three million or ten million or whatever it costs to make a specific title, that’s not the case for us; we work outside of our day jobs, for free. And while yes, we all want to draw a salary for our work on this game, we don’t plan on doing so until we officially turn on the lights for Volume I and have our official launch.

The plans for this game span the scope of years. We’re not building a game meant to be consumed at breakneck speed and then forgotten about when another new title comes along. We’re working on building a legacy, a world that players will call home for years, and hopefully decades. And that’s not something that can be built overnight, nor is it something we’re trying to rush to completion.

But we feel it’s important to temper people’s expectations so they know exactly what to expect from us. We’re working hard on Volume I right now, and will continue to do so until we have taken all of the concepts for Volume I and actually developed them. But like any other company, the full list of features won’t be realized on launch day. Instead, they will be rolled out over time as periodic content and feature updates as we work on continually improving and growing the world over the years that come post-launch.

Your support has been incredible and it’s an inspiration for the entire team on a daily basis when we can come to work on the project surrounded by such positivity. It’s a blessing and a privilege to have so many people interested and passionate about what we are working on, and we can’t wait to deliver Volume I to your digital doorsteps.

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