Drama Cleansing Thread

Published on Sunday, September 5, 2010 By Brad Wardell In Elemental Dev Journals

Our story so far…

On August 24th, Stardock released the long-anticipated PC strategy game Elemental on schedule…

Except, of course, that’s not quite what happened. Stardock released the game a couple days early to beta testers and pre-order customers – the same version reviewers were given (v1.0) and the results were painful in two basic ways:

1. The new engine that Stardock developed turned out to have a lot of compatibility problems resulting in crashing and out of memory errors for a significant percentage (I’d go as far as to say as many as 30% of users – which is a gigantic number – anything over 5% is considered unacceptable).  It’s not commonly known but the engine in our previous games (GalCiv II, The Political Machine, etc.) was developed originally in 1997 and enhanced over the years.  Nowadays, most companies just license their engine from Gamebryo (Civilization V, Oblivion, Fallout 3) or the Unreal engine. You are now seeing why they do. 

2. The above ensured ruinous reviews but even without them, the game UI and some of the game mechanics just didn’t live up to people’s expectations, and AI issues.

The purpose of this blog is to help answer questions so that we can move forward.

So here are some of the questions / comments I’ve gotten in emails and private messages and on various forums that I’ll try to answer:

Q: What is Stardock’s plan for Elemental going forward?

A: For the immediate future we’re going to go down two paths. First, the v1.0x versions will continue to focus largely on compatibility (crashing or weird video issues) as well as bugs and turning on multiplayer.

Then, we will work on v1.1 which will serve as our answer to player feedback. Enhanced AI, improved UI, a tutorial, updated quest system, new magic system, numerous other tweaks. This version will serve as the basis to make a demo version of the game.

Beyond that, we will be looking at player feedback. That will work towards v1.2 (October) and v1.3 (November). Once we are satisfied that the game has met reasonable expectations, we can then focus on the first expansion pack: Elemental: War of Magic – Book 2, Cerena.

Unlike Book 1, which is fairly short because it’s only meant as a kind of introduction (the game is mean to be played in sandbox mode. GalCiv and Sins of a Solar Empire didn’t even include campaigns, we are generally not very pro-campaign-y people as you can gather, campaigns have limited replayability).

Book 2, Cerena is the excuse to introduce more far reaching game mechanic changes and begin to add in the multiplayer modes we have long been thinking of (from custom servers that yes, will work on your LAN that has no Internet connection) to tactical-only modes.

That first expansion pack will be free to everyone who owns the game at the point of v1.3.

Q: Stardock should just put out an expansion and re-release the game as a Director’s Cut.

A: NO. While we do intend to release future new versions of Elemental beyond the War of Magic series, we will not be re-submitting Elemental “patched and fixed” for re-review.

A lot of people seem to think that Stardock knowingly released the game “full of bugs”. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  As people who have played through the various versions can attest, weird stuff is very machine specific. For instance, the illustrative outline on graphics causes no difference (not even 1 frame) on our test matrix machines and yet results in 20+ frames for others who have, on the surface, similar hardware configurations for us.  The PC Gamer UK reviewer ran into a white tactical battle screen that we had never encountered before (nor had it shown up during the public beta). 

The low metacritic score for Elemental (about 3 out of 5 average) needs to serve as a long-term reminder to us and anyone else who might think that you can simply put out a major retail game in 2010 with its own custom engine without a massive massive long-term beta program and a long-term QA process. If you can’t do that, then either license your engine or don’t expect people to shell out $50.

Put another way, the blistering feedback on Elemental: War of Magic should serve as a scarlet letter to make us “never forget”. So no, no re-launch of Elemental: War of Magic. It is, what it is.

For fans who are disheartened, look at on the bright side. We will be able to see how much effect word of mouth is. If we do a good job making the game live up to its potential and expectations, then we can see what effect that has on sales. And we plan to share those details with you.

As it stands today, Elemental has sold approximately 82,000 copies.

Q: I heard Stardock is laying off people, I thought your non-games revenue funded the games team.

A: It does. It funds ONE games team. But Stardock has been hiring up across the board to build a second studio. Only Elemental can fund that.  “Stardock” is made up of 3 groups: Enterprise software (our #1 revenue source), Consumer software (Object Desktop, Fences, etc.) and Consumer Entertainment (the games). That’s not counting Impulse which is a separate, profitable entity that doesn’t get affected one way or the other by the success of the games or the enterprise software.

Q: Brad Wardell: You should just kill yourself! [I actually did get this]

A: I’m sorry our recent entertainment product didn’t meet your expectations but I don’t think it would be helpful if I manually modified my date of expiration.

Q: Brad Wardell – you have a martyr complex! You always take personal blame for everyone! Get off your cross! [yes, got this too]

A: That is my job. If you’re going to spend years railing about CEOs not taking responsibility when something goes wrong, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me not to take responsibility when things go badly on a launch.

In addition, some of the issues are directly related to my specific decisions.

Q: Your act is getting old. Fool me once on Demigod, fool me twice, shame on me! [got this too in various forms]

A: The Demigod debacle ultimately resulted from a fundamental communication failure between the publisher (Stardock) and the developer (Gas Powered Games). It took us a long time to figure out exactly how the connectivity issue occurred (i.e. many months). Ultimately, and sadly, it boiled down to a miscommunication. When you host a game in Demigod (even now), you are given a dialog for your port #. It was believed by the Stardock team that Demigod handled direct IP connections and thus its raknet  based port system would only be used when that failed.  GPG, by contrast, thought Stardock was handling direct connections too. It turned out that that port # part (even now) doesn’t have a function and so 100% of connections attempts when to the Raknet system which overwhelmed it.

The reason why Stardock rightly took the blame is because, as the publisher, we should have looked at the beta tester connectivity logs and seen that 100% of connections were being passed to Raknet for the socket rather than the 10% anticipated. Add tens of thousands of users quickly and bam. A different system had to be developed. 

But Demigod didn’t suffer from compatibility issues. It was very solid right out of the gate (for pretty much everyone) and was an excellent game on day 1. GPG did a great job making a great game. And Stardock did do a good job making a good backend. But one miscommunication between developers resulted in disaster.  Only a much larger beta test would have discovered the problem. The system wasn’t “buggy”. Not that it does anyone any good now, but at least people can see and learn from what happened.

Point being, the situations are not similar.

With Elemental, the issue is the game itself.  With Elemental’s MP, the system works because from day 1, Elemental’s servers are just hosted by Stardock. No P2P.

Q: What do YOU think of Elemental?

A: Elemental is the finest game we’ve ever released. Ever. At least, that's what I thought on the day we released it.  However, I have come to the painful conclusion that we will have to dedicate more effort to making the game live up to the expectations of our customers as a whole. You'd be surprised how easy it is to confuse the enjoyment of making a game to the enjoyment of playing it.

Q: My post was hidden on the forums! I have a right to post my anger!

A: No. No you don’t.  Believe me when I say I speak from first hand experience, there are entire forums dedicated to letting people post about their anger about something.  The Stardock forums have never ever been some forum of free speech. And they never will be. If you’re looking for that, you should go elsewhere.  I’ve been moderating “forums” since my Commodore 64 days as a “Sysop” and “Subop”. A few toxic users can wreck a community. 

If someone needs/wants technical support, has a question, has a suggestion, wants to interact with the community, that’s great. Go for it.  But if your purpose is to vent your rage on other users, us, the game, small animals, what have you, the moderates are instructed to take a very dim view of that. 

After the release of v1.08 (this week) I intend to instruct moderators to be even more stringent on that sort of thing because we (as a community) need the Stardock developers themselves to participate on the forums. 

While I have two decades of people telling me that I should kill myself or that <product X> is a “piece of shit” as well as various wishes that I get cancer and die “bleeding from every orifice) (yes, there are people out there that post these things) my development team are just normal people who are excited to talk to gamers who have cool ideas and we’re not going to subject them to haters (and most haters don’t have any idea they’re being hateful).  Rule of thumb: Just treat people as if they’re right in front of you.

Q: You’re getting screwed in the reviews! I can’t believe <website X> wrote <Y>

A: NO. We’re not getting screwed. While some of the review scores do have a bit of “dogpiling” to them (relative to review scores given to other games) I have yet to read a single review that I felt was unfair in terms of the text.

If anything, I feel bad about putting some of my friends through this.  It’s no secret that Tom Chick and Troy Goodfellow are friends of mine.  The question isn’t how I feel about them criticizing or giving negative reviews of the release version of Elemental. The question is how they felt having to give a negative review of a game of someone who’s their friend? It’s called integrity.  I’ll take a 1 friend who will tell it like it is over a 100 yes men.  

So when I read the reviews, my first reaction isn’t anger but sorrow at having put people I respect through having to give something I know they were inclined to like and wanted to like through that. It’s also the reason I will not be re-submitting some “patched” version for review.

It also redoubles our collective efforts to live up to the standards we have set.  We will be working on Elemental for a long time. We love it. We live it. And together, we will make it awesome.

 

Now, let’s move past the drama. Let’s do the things that need to be done going forward to have fun and create something that will stand the test of time.