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1/8/2002 -- First diary entry

Welcome to the first installment in the Pyrogon developer diary.

First off, for those of you that don't know anything about us, I'll recommend you read the "About Us" blurb at /about/aboutus.php 

You still with us? Mmmmk, let's continue.

The Pyrogon developer diary is going to be written by myself with the occasional input from Pyrogon's co-founder, Rosie Cosgrove. I'm not sure yet just what we're going to talk about, but in general I don't think it's going to be overly technical. We'll talk about things like puzzle game design, independent game development, player audiences, and software development. Unlike previous columns and .plan files, we're staying away from game reviews, beer and football discussions, older games we've worked on and other "off-topic" stuff.

For this inaugural diary entry, I'd like to talk a bit about the state of PC game development and why both developers and publishers are suffering. At the end I'll show how Pyrogon arose out of this rather troubling environment.

The computer gaming industry has been in a nearly decade long rut. While personal computer sales have risen steadily over the past decade, the sales of PC games have remained relatively flat, a trend that has alarmed developers and publishers alike. In fact, there has been a noticeable shift from PC development to console development over the past few years as sales decline, returns increase and support costs escalate.

The business case for PC game development is a tough one to make. Games cost an exorbitant amount of money to make, and the odds of breaking even are very low. A game that cost millions of dollars and took years to develop can find itself in the bargain bin a few months (or even weeks!) after release. This is depressing for everyone involved.

Game developer employees benefited from the tech job market crunch by getting higher salaries and other forms of increased compensation. Coupled with the greater team size and longer development cycles, the cost to develop a game soared in the past few years. Frankly, a team of nine people making a game in twelve months is pretty much unheard of -- or it's laughed at -- in this day and age.

And costs won't be going down any time soon. In an arms race of spiraling development costs, publishers attempt to outdo each other with their premier titles, betting the farm every time they bankroll their next "sure fire" hit that has to sell at least 500K units in order to be profitable. Even worse, the games must support the latest and greatest sound and graphics hardware, causing more support hassles and turning off users with machines more than a year old.

The high cost of game development, of course, comes with a pretty big set of downsides. With fewer dollars available, publishers don't have as many titles under development. In addition, there is an institutional reluctance to taking risk on new teams, genres or ideas -- there's just too much money at risk. Niche genres are ignored because the return on investment will be too low. This is why you just don't see some types of genres any more from the big publishers. The net effect is less choice for the consumer and less innovation by developers.

Finally, there is the "hardcore" market that must be pleased at all costs -- yes, I'm talking about YOU. Even though hardcore game buyers make up a small minority of the overall potential game buying public, they happen to be the most vocal of the buyers and control a large amount of dollars on a per-capita basis. And these hardcore users read hardcore gaming magazines, have hardcore gaming machines with the latest, greatest (and probably overclocked) hardware, and they definitely do a lot of talking on message boards. They want complex, intricate games that take 60 hours to complete and require the fastest hardware imaginable (like theirs). Any games that come out that don't meet their lofty standards are denounced as lame, out dated and simplistic. Because this minority is so outspoken and controls so much mindshare in the gaming community, publishers feel a need to appease them -- which leads to critically successful commercial failures.

So what we have today is a situation where publishers are only interested in funding known developers working on known genres; and even so, the heavily hyped and funded games often don't do well in the market place. Yet we have direct evidence in the form of games like The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Deer Hunter and Myst -- or even Chu Chu Rocket and Samba De Amigo on the Dreamcast -- that the larger game buying public has interests other than making sure their GeForce 3 is maxed out.

For a developer, making PC games just isn't that much fun anymore. You're stuck in a hell of trying to provide the biggest, baddest and greatest, yet you know you probably won't ever make back your advance.

As a game buyer, things suck just as bad, because for every new release that's good, there are a dozen of "more of the same". If you're not into first person shooters or real-time strategy games, you're screwed. If you're not willing to blow $50 for a game, you're screwed. If you don't have an Athlon XP1800 w/ 512MB RAM and a GeForce 3, you're screwed. Good luck getting a game to run on your P2/400 w/ 64MB and a TNT.

Add this all up, and you'll see why we formed Pyrogon: we want to have FUN making games again. This means shorter development time and worrying more about design than technology. This means trying to figure out how to make a game that our friends and relatives would play -- folks that may normally only play MineSweeper and Shanghai/Mahjongg. Our first game, Candy Cruncher, fills that role, and we're very happy with it. Non-hardcore gamers enjoy it, people are trying it out and liking it, and that's what matters to us.

This doesn't mean we're only going to be doing puzzle games, however. Our next project is going to be Stellar Deep, an on-line space adventure RPG game in the tradition of the old classics like Sun Dog and Star Flight. We're going to write it on a shoe string budget, and we're going to ask future players what they want from it first. We're going to have an open community where we listen to player's suggestions (even if we don't agree with all of them). While it will have pleasant graphics, we still want players with older machines to enjoy this game. And, to be honest, we believe that gameplay is what matters in the end. Pretty graphics can pull you in, but gameplay is what keeps you around for the long haul.

Stellar Deep will be episodic in nature and incrementally developed; it will launch with a minimum set of features, and from there we'll constantly add new features. Accounts will likely be free, and so will the download -- but if you want to progress far, you'll need to get a subscription (which unlocks items, skills and locations). We don't need (or even want) 100K subscribers -- we'd be happy if we peaked at a couple thousand of very happy, enthusiastic players that are there to enjoy themselves.

On the surface Candy Cruncher and Stellar Deep look completely unrelated, but in fact they are close siblings -- both are born of a desire to make games that are deep, fun and approachable. They both appeal to audiences that we feel have been ignored. And both will have been made on our terms.

We don't plan on getting rich by writing our little games. We're not looking for publishers or investors, and we don't plan on selling the company on the off chance we have a hit. Hell, we may not survive for another year, but at least we'll have tried to do something a little different instead of just begging publishers for millions of dollars so we can write another first person shooter. If we can make an honest living making reasonably priced, fun games the way we feel they should be made, then we'll be deliriously happy.

Next installment: The Making of Candy Cruncher


Copyright 2002 Pyrogon, Inc. Site by John Krane. All rights reserved.