Today we’re presenting the last installment of Chris Marks’ long-running column, Behind the Veil. Chris, AKA Dimono, started this column all the way back in 2003, as you can now see since all his columns are once again online. The column provided an insider’s view into the process of developing an MMORPG at an independent game studio, along with presenting a few game designer interviews and other features, and new installments were posted frequently during 2003 and 2004. Chris has turned out fewer of them in recent years, but the announcement of Diablo III has his old juices flowing, and he’s getting back into the columnist saddle!

    So why is this the last Behind the Veil? Because he’s closing this chapter before beginning a new one. Chris’ new column, Diconstruction, will debut next week. In Diconstruction Chris is going to focus on the the games in the Diablo series, as well as commenting on other games in RPG genre. He wanted to wrap up the whole MMORPG saga of Behind the Veil first though, and here it is. Click through to read the last Behind the Veil, and expect installments of Chris’ new column to appear every other Tuesday, starting next week.

    So It Begins, So It Ends

    I’m sure some of you have noticed it’s been a while since the last installment of Behind The Veil.  Fortunately, the fact you’re reading this means there’s finally another article!  Unfortunately, it is also the last one.  You see, around the time the last article came out, our hopes and dreams for video game domination officially died.  I could have continued writing the column, but I would have felt like an enormous hypocrite trying to share tips about building a game successfully when the game I was working on had tanked.

    For anyone who is joining us for the first time… what kept you?  …I mean… hi!  It’s nice to meet you, and it’s a shame it had to be under such terrible circumstances.  To catch you up on what’s going on in the first paragraph, the whole idea of Behind The Veil was for someone who was involved in creating a new MMORPG to share some insights on the process as someone going through it.  When our MMO died, thus so did the column.

    It’s been 3 years now, and the dust has had plenty of time to settle, and I can now objectively look back on what happened.  In retrospect, it’s clear to me that even though we had high aspirations and lots of great ideas, we were in way over our heads.  We made a lot of critical mistakes, and it turns out we were doomed to failure long before we started, but we were too optimistically blind to realise it.  Here are some of the larger mistakes we made, in the hope that you can avoid doing what we did:

    1. Don’t start vast projects with half-vast dedication.  This was the biggest problem we had, so it may as well be the one I start with.  Because we were doing this unfinanced, we had to do it in our spare time.  Some of us were working, some (like me) were attending college or university, and some just had other things going on.  For most of us, that meant the majority of the time we were able to commit to the game was on the weekend, and that’s just not enough time.  Making a game as complex as an MMO takes a full-time commitment, not “when I can.”
    2. It takes money to make money.  Like I said, we were doing this unfinanced, and as cool as it would have been to get it off the ground for free and run at 100% profit, the world just doesn’t work that way.  With a project as immense as the one we were trying to pull off, you simply have to get financial investment of some kind so that you can dedicate your time fully to the project at hand.
    3. Ants don’t work alone.  Another huge problem we had was our lack of size.  There were 10 of us working on the game, and because we were talented we thought that would be enough.  After all, who needs a huge production studio when you have 10 people who fancy themselves the best at their craft?  This was also a problem caused by the lack of money: if you can’t pay people, they won’t work for you.  There were only so many of us who wanted to volunteer our spare time to work on the game, and because it was spare time it wasn’t nearly enough hours.  If it takes 50 people 2 years to turn out an MMO working full time, and we had 10 people working on weekends…
    4. Ants are also highly organized.  When you’re working as a small group, it’s easy to become tightly knit and friendly and focus more on the friendship than on the project.  The friendships are absolutely important and highly valued, but creating the game is the reason you’re there, so it has to come first.  Despite my best efforts, there was very little high-level organization within our group; no deadlines, no real accountability, and only the vaguest definitions of departments within the group.  There was also a very disruptive member who thought of the game as “his baby” and rejected attempts to change things he personally didn’t approve of, and for some reason we tried to work around him rather than work without him.  This lesson applies everywhere: if there is a disruptive member who is distracting attention from working on the project, you have to get rid of them, no matter who it is.

    When it comes right down to it, the real problem was that we thought we could make the game quickly and easily, and we were wrong, and when we found out we were wrong we didn’t do what was required to solve the problems.  It’s unfortunate when you find out you’re not as cool as you think you are, and that things don’t go the way you want them to without (in this case) serious effort on your part.  It’s unfortunate, but it’s also absolutely necessary, because it reminds you that the world doesn’t simply bend to your whim, and you actually do have to work to make your dreams happen.

    So what is the overall message I’m trying to communicate here?  Is it that you shouldn’t dream big, and you should be a follower instead of a leader because it’s safer and easier?  Of course not!  You should always dream big, and you should try to be a leader because it’s harder.  I’m saying you should always follow your dreams, but you should be sure to do it intelligently.  Do some due diligence before you start.  Research what it takes to do what you want to do, so you know what you’re getting yourself in to.  If you need to, start small and build up to your aspirations over time.

    That’s the mistake we made.  We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves in to, and because we didn’t know what to expect or how to handle it we were taken by surprise when it happened, and not having the tools to resolve the situation, we eventually failed.  If you want to do something big, you have to do it right or else it’s not going to happen.

    And so ends Behind The Veil.  Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading it; I certainly enjoyed writing it while it lasted.  There were more topics I would like to have covered, but I’m still happy with how much I was able to do.  If you want to read more about building online games, I recommend Developing Online Games – An Insider’s Guide by Jessica Mulligan and Bridgette Patrovsky.  It is easily the best resource I’ve found on the topic, and is so accurate that I once received an email asking why my experiences and the contents of the book were so similar.  I also used it as a cited resource in several articles.

    So that’s it.  I hope you had fun, and I’ll see you all back here on Diii.net for my upcoming column Diconstruction.  Until then, have a wonderful time!

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