Community Fangame Convention 2008
Guild Software Q&A
to everyone for submitting all their questions to the Guild Software
Q&A session. Quite a few of the questions asked were repeats,
so we were able to consolidate the questions down to only a handful.
questions were answered by John Bergman, Managing Director and Artwork
head of Guild Sofware.
I'll open with a small preface on myself and my background. I am kind
of an anomaly within the videogame industry. Prior to starting Guild
Software in 1998, I had never worked in any capacity at a videogame
development company, or shipped a professional game. Since founding
our own company, we've managed to ship our MMO title (in 2004, with
full retail presence), and build a small community around it. Thus,
I have only ever worked on a single title, albeit for an entire decade,
and I founded the only company to hire me. So, every month or so,
when some college or highschool student emails me and asks "How
do I get started in the videogame industry?", my gut reaction
is kind of a bewildered "Well, uhh, I don't really know! My route
was.. complicated." So, please appreciate that my answers to
any of your questions must be viewed through the lens of my being
kind of an unusual, indie developer. That said, let's get started..
1: What do you think is the biggest difference between being
an amateur game maker and being a professional?
Mostly the work ethic and getting paid, although some "amateur"
game developers work just as hard as the pros. Professionals, however,
usually have the experience in working together as a cohesive team to
achieve a large project. People who are very skilled in game-developer
oriented areas (good coders, graphic artists, designers, etc) often
tend to be fairly fiery, passionate people with big egoes; after all,
they had the necessary drive to become good at whatever they do in the
first place. It can be challenging to get a group of these people together
under one "roof" (virtual or real), to work on a single project.
The required organization, making certain that everyone is aware of
the inter-dependencies (if Bob doesn't finish writing X, then Joe can't
continue working on Y) is critical. Egoes can take a beating when half-developed
features need to be cut in the interest of deadlines, or when major
projects need to be totally reworked, and these tough decisions are
all realities of professional development.
For my own company, this was an evolutionary process that we had to
undergo. We were not a group of people who came to "work"
for another developer, nor were we randomly thrown together. We had
been building engines and demos as part of the demoscene for many years,
with the friendships and history that went with that; but it was not
an easy thing for us to "grow up" and learn the necessary
cohesion to ship a truly complex project. People and personalities tend
to be the biggest challenges in any business, and game development is
no different in that regard. It's probably not unlike having a band
or a theater troupe or something: a bunch of talented egotistical people
who all have to get along and make something together.
2: Is it easier to work in 2D or 3D?
It really depends on the comparison. Ultimately, the difficulty comes
down to the amount of detail that is needed in the finished product.
Doing "3D" back in the late 90s was a pretty simple thing;
these days, with all many layers of shaders and textures and mesh details,
it can be on par with doing film-grade special effects work. If one
was doing a "2D" project that required a similar level of
detail, the amount of time would probably not be that different (although,
2D has the benefit that people can only "see" the one aspect,
and can't look at the "back" or whatever).
I think the focus of this question is really "Given a 2D usage,
is it easier to develop it via purely 2D or 3D methods," and that
really depends on the project. For most people I know, it's easier to
mix the two.. throw some bits together in 3D, then work with the resulting
output in 2D, and so on. Ultimately, all these things are just tools
to achieve a given result; the method isn't that critical, and the more
tools available (and understood), the faster and better the result.
If one is a really good, fine-artist digital painter, it might be easier
to just fire up Photoshop or Painter and churn out the exact desired
image. So, I guess I'd have to say it depends on the project and the
skillset of the artist.
3: Which programming language do you use to make games?
Vendetta Online is written in three major languages. We use traditional
C++ for most of the client code, and a lot of the server code. Anything
that has to do "heavy lifting" (ie, computationally intensive)
is written in C++. This includes areas like: physics, collision detection
& response, graphics rendering, etc.
Above this, we have another layer of code written in a nice little scripting
language called Lua. Lua has been used pretty widely in the game development
industry (if I recall, the Baldur's Gate engine used it pretty heavily,
as do others), and for good reason. It's flexible and very fast for
a non-compiled language. We use Lua for a lot of server-side AI, as
well as client-side for the menu system and user interface. Some of
our players have learned Lua, as they can develop plugins for our game
using this language, and in some cases, modify the user interface in
Beyond this, on the server-side we use a language called Erlang. This
was originally developed by Ericsson to use with their giant phone switches,
and it's kind of a "massively-scalable, networked" language.
It's actually designed to run on a big cluster of servers, with lightweight
threads transparently passing data to and fro across the network. For
the server-side of an MMO, this has some obvious benefits. We use Erlang
for a variety of things, but right now it's mostly used for very-large-scale
AI, basically on a "galactic" scale, while passing orders
to individual NPCs that predominately run in Lua.
To give "scale" examples, if an individual NPC is fired upon,
the NPC's reaction, tactics and choices rarely needs to leave Lua. However,
if 10 NPCs end up dying as part of a major Nation's trade convoy, Erlang
may decide that that route has become more "dangerous", and
will consider upgrading the quantity and armament of the defensive escorts
sent with successive convoys, along with other repercussions. Erlang
similarly manages the large-scale behaviour and reactions of our NPC
"Hives": autonomous NPC organizations that the players can
group up to fight.
4: What's it like in the mainstream game creation industry?
And creating a game from start to finish?
Heheh, these are the sorts of questions that always make me feel a
little less like the "average" game company. While PC MMOs
have become fairly "mainstream", my own company is still
kind of an oddball in the industry, as I mentioned in the preface.
Plus, MMOs tend to "never be finished", which is why I'm
still working on the same title a decade later :).
That said, I would say it's very cool. Designing, building and shipping
a game is a very difficult, and very rewarding experience. It will
change you. There are upsides and downsides to the game industry as
a whole; a little searching will show you plenty of people who love
making games, and plenty of people who have trouble with the work
ethic and requirements. It is definitely a job you have to love.
However, it is a truly excellent feeling to see other people get excited
playing something you made. Truly incredible. I feel lucky, in that
sense, being an MMO developer, as I get to interact directly with
our userbase and see their reactions on a regular basis. And while
I get to see (and deal with) all the less positive reactions as well,
it's so worth it for the sheer excitement of the good ones. It's kind
of like being elected by a group of people to make their dreams come
true. That may sound a little strange, or hokey, but for an MMO..
you're always in development, always building the Next Thing into
your game. For a company like us, who actively communicates with our
players, their excitement about the Next Thing totally drives our
motivation. When they get fired up, I get fired up. The sheer enthusiasm
of a population who loves playing your game is just a fantastic thing,
and can (and has) carried me through dark and difficult times.
I don't really know what it's like to ship a more traditional game,
where it goes out into stores, and you see some gaming press reviews,
but you don't really get to talk to the players that much. I'm spoiled:
for one thing, I can fix anything that's wrong in another patch; and
for another, I get to share in their excitement over the stuff that
5: How did you get involved in the gaming industry? What
did it take to/how hard was it to get in?
Well, again, this goes back to my preface. I founded the only company
that ever hired me to make games (is that good or bad? I'm not really
sure). Anyway, I would say it's not trivial to get into the industry,
that it has to be something you're really passionate about. You have
to be willing to work towards it over a long period, and to get up
and keep going after periodic failures or difficulties.
Almost everyone I know in the games industry has gotten there as a
result of pushing themselves fairly hard in some particular direction.
Programming, or graphics, or whatever else (or a combination). One
of our coders started programming when he was five years old; by the
time I met him at 13 (I was 14) he had mastered C and was starting
to write in pure x86 assembly. Andy is a bit unusual, but that kind
of focus and dedication is fairly common within the industry.
I don't want to dissuade anyone by saying these things, learning to
program at five is *not* a requirement, but passion and dedication
are. People who have the dedication to develop the skillset will find
their way into quality companies in the industry. For example, I had
a friend (of whom I've since lost track), who, back in the early Quake2
era, got started by re-creating the Quake1 engine on his own. He didn't
use any of Carmack or Abrash's code, which I don't think was even
public at that time; he wrote the entire thing himself, and made it
completely compatible with Quake levels and so on. This is a pretty
impressive feat, obviously, writing a software game and rendering
engine that's only slightly behind the current "cutting edge",
by himself. He had no highschool diploma or other education, but he
went on to work in the games industry on the strength of his accomplishment.
The moral being, if you really want to work in the industry, be very
good at what you do, and push yourself to learn as much as you can
about everything related. A good graphic artist who understands some
programming can be a huge boon, as can a good coder with an "eye"
for graphical quality, and so on. Being able to communicate clearly
with others is a requirement no matter what your desired job (but
especially for designers). One more thing for designers: learn as
much as possible about what everyone else does (coding, graphics,
music.. try it all). It makes for a much more realistic perspective
on what the time requirements are for a given gameplay goal.
6: Do you enjoy developing games, or has making them professionally
become a chore?
I love developing games. Running a company has become a chore, frankly.
I would be happy handing that off to someone else, at this point,
and just focusing on game design and maybe project management. We're
a small shop, so we all have to wear a lot of hats. For a long time,
I wore way too many hats, more than I should have taken one, but I'm
trying to hand off some of them at this point.
Game development is great. Yes, it's challenging and can be difficult,
but after my last 10 years of accumulated ups and downs, I've finally
reached a point where I'm no longer really afraid of much anymore.
I've negotiated contracts with publishers, dealt with retail launches
going awry, managed explosive confrontations between players in our
community, kept a development team moving forward.. I've "done"
enough that I'm not so worried about handling the inevitable issues
(even new ones), and I still love making games. So, I think that's
a pretty good point to reach, at least from my perspective.
Going back to an earlier response, one of the big things that keeps
me fired up, even after tough times or burning out, is player enthusiasm.
Seeing players get so excited by some new aspect of gameplay or some
change that I'm putting in, the feedback of that is a wonderfully
positive thing. It makes the good times excellent and the tough times
easier to bear, and it almost always motivates me and gets my creative
7: Entrepreneurship vs. joining a team: is it enough to look
into a degree in video game design and join a team, or would creating
my own games be more realistic?
Joining an existing team is probably easier and more "realistic",
although I'm not really one to talk.. since I've never done that.
Heh. But either way, the focus should be the intense and passionate
pursuit of whatever areas interest you. Schools and colleges are great,
they give you more tools, more experience, more interaction with groups
of other people (the cohesion/communication thing being one of the
core areas I mentioned earlier). But generally speaking, if game development
is something you want to do, it's something that you should just try
and "do" as much as possible.
I am periodically asked to speak at schools and such (middleschools,
universities, whatever), and the questions often match some of the
common themes here.. "how do I get started", "what
should I do", etc. One of the things I often say is.. if you
want to make games, just try and DO that. It doesn't matter how trivial
or stupid the game, there are so many wonderful tools now to let you
try actually *making* something. And frankly, I think the reality
of making something is worth far more than all the theory of object-oriented
programming or whatever else. The most highly esteemed videogame university
is probably Digipen, and they spend a lot of time putting their students
into little groups and having them make games. Usually a bunch of
games with different groups over the period of time. This is something
a lot of people can probably do on their own.. find some like-minded
friends at school, on messageboards or chat rooms, whereever, and
say "Hey, let's try making stuff". That was how my company
got started: back in 1993 we used to get together in my parent's living
room, with all our computers, on Saturdays. Yes, some of it was playing
LAN games, but we also *made* a lot of stuff. Little demos and intros.
Our first network game project was a redux of the classic "SpaceWar",
written for DOS to run over a Netware LAN. This was not something
we planned to sell to anyone, it was simply something we made for
fun and the experience of "making stuff".
Now, whether you should take these groups and conglomerations of friends
and then try turning it into a company? I can't answer that, it'll
really depend on the group, your skills, and whether you want to try
making it on your own. All I can pass along there is: EXPECT IT TO
BE DIFFICULT, and START SMALL. For gods sake, don't try making a gigantic
space MMO with a few friends ;). You might get there eventually, but
you'll get a lot of gray hairs in the process.
8: What software do you use to develop games?
We use Photoshop for 2D art, and 3D Studio Max for most art-asset
development. One of our guys develops on Windows, and uses Visual
Studio, but the other two develop on Linux with normal GCC.
Back when we started, it was a requirement to use professional software..
there wasn't anything else. Now, you could probably bootstrap a pretty
cool game using free programs like The GIMP (open source Photoshop,
essentially), and 3D tools like Blender and Wings3D. They may not
have all the bells and whistles of the fanciest pro software, like
Max or Maya, but a lot of game developers don't even use all the bells
and whistles anyway.
Aside from that, a lot of our other tools are developed in-house,
which is pretty common in the industry. Big companies like EA or Midway
will have whole teams dedicated to nothing but building libraries
(graphics engines, etc) and toolkits to work with them. For some things,
we use a mix of the two: we've written some proprietary plugins for
Max that serve various functions and export into our own formats,
areas where we didn't need to re-invent the wheel and make our own
"3DS Max". Sometimes, however, this can be helpful, the
editor for the Unreal engine being a good example. We also have standalone
apps for tools that really require working directly with our engine
(effect development, for instance: explosions/weapon shots/particles,
9: As far as education goes, what would you recommend learning
to break ground in game creation?
Follow your interests. If you're starting from absolutely no basis
at all, maybe consider learning to program in Flash or another web-esque
language, and play with some graphics/drawing programs. Try making
some simple games. Start really basic.. think "pong" or
"nibbles". Then move up to puzzle games, 2D RPGs, whatever.
There's a temendous amount that can be made in a browser these days,
MMO "Dofus" was written to run in a browser, and that's
a pretty complex game.
This all goes back to my general statement that, to succeed in the
industry, you need to have the drive to pursue stuff on your own.
Colleges and classes are great, but this industry changes very quickly,
and there is a strong continuous learning requirement. If you plucked
a person out of an SNES game development team and stuck them onto
a modern console title (ie, not mobile), they'd probably be lost/terrified.
Things change, fairly quickly, and the people in the industry have
to be adaptive and excited about learning as they change. On the leading
edge there is usually no structured college to take a class from,
at best there might be a Siggraph paper to read, or just a post from
some other game-developer on a messageboard (or, most often, something
new you have to invent yourself). Self-education is a must.
For more traditional (but very valuable!) areas.. graphics people
benefit fine art skills and digital painting, but also from general
"graphic arts" / "photoshop trick" stuff to quickly
generate interesting textures. 3D modeling, texturing/coordinates
and shaders are their whole own.. ball of wax, but there are a lot
of free tools and tutorials out there. Programmers should focus on
mathematics (lots of algebra! but also calc, etc) and getting experience
in structured languages. Fundamental understanding of optimization
is important, but shouldn't be approached until after the foundations
of structured programming have been laid. Computers are so fast these
days, programmers can be lazier.. but this has no place in the game
industry. We need all the work we can get out of a given processor
cycle. This actually goes for graphics people, too. Everyone should
know what "optimization" means.
10: How difficult was it to get your game published?
It was very, very difficult. "Practically impossible" would
be an apt answer. We suffered from a number of issues.
One, we were developing an MMO in the late 90s, a genre that was not
yet considered a "proven business model" by the publishing
establishment (UO was a highly qualified quasi-success, EQ was a real
success but still New and Scary to most publishers). The whole concept
of selling something that doesn't necessarily "come in a box"
and has this "pay-to-play" thing going on was at odds to
the traditional "selling widgets in a box" brick-and-mortar
retail publisher model.
Secondly, we were looking for development capital as well as a publisher.
I never intended to take us all the way to shipping a game, with just
the four of us and less than $300k. I figured we would build the engine
and underpinnings, make a good tech demo, and then get added funding
to fill out the team and "really" develop the game. But,
this never happened, so eventually I was left in the icky position
of trying to make a tech demo into a shippable product, since that
was the only option left to keep our company alive.
Lastly, we were an "unproven" team. This basically means
that we had not shipped a finished product. Being "Unproven"
is kind of the kiss of death: it doesn't matter how talented you are,
or how great your tech-demo looks, or whatever else.. you're still
a risk because the publisher isn't sure you'll finish the game. Their
skepticism is not really misplaced, a great many games are not finished
or run over budget due to developer-related issues (organization,
skillsets, poor development choices by inexperienced teams, etc).
This is why I recommend that other people try Starting Small. Make
something relatively simple that is cool, and polished, and shows
high production values. Even a flash puzzle game that looks really
great and has nice sound and music and is bug-free is a big step over
having no history at all. Of course, the irony is that any "major"
project, like an MMO, will often cause a publisher to demand an experienced
team, and in 1998.. there were few experienced MMO teams. This can
also be a problem when switching to newer hardware. A good friend
of mine shipped a lot of GameBoy and GameBoy Advance titles, but when
the PSP launched, Sony and many publishers were not convinced his
company could deliver "3D" games. Kind of a frustrating
situation for him.
Anyway, getting a publisher to ship our title was a.. fascinating
ordeal. I would set up meetings at E3 every year, usually starting
a few months in advance, and once there I would wander around in my
suit feeling rather silly and having awful, 15-minute meetings in
an extremely noisy booth somewhere, talking to some hung-over publisher
rep who had been out too late partying the night before. Every year
I would go out, and pound on as many doors as I could, with tech demos
and sheets and blurbs and business cards and realtime demonstrations
(our original "Vendetta Test" public alpha shipped in May
of 2002, so I could demo it to people at E3). Each time, they would
say "unproven team" or "thanks" or "space
games don't sell on console systems" (?!) or whatever else. This
was tough, and very disheartening, but I learned a lot from the experience.
There were a few cool meetings, like Jeremy Gaffney of NCsoft (and
formerly of Turbine), who continued to give us a lot of great advice
about how to launch an MMO, even after he had chosen not to pick up
our title (his advice was a big help to us).
Eventually, we finally shipped with a publisher who was going through
some tough financial times (which made our complete-looking title
somewhat attractive, along with the near-zero-investment on their
part), but it got us a real launch into retail stores, and we all
got to go into a local Gamestop and buy copies of "Vendetta Online".
In general, it is easier to get published under two circumstances:
1) You have a finished game and want zero development money. And 2)
You have the most proven, awesome team in the universe and have a
super-cool game concept in the works. Situations that are not 1 or
2 may encounter difficulty. On the upside, the internet has made it
possible to self-publish smaller titles, although this may not be
easy and you'll need to have something really cool to garner to gaming-press
attention (all-important if you have no money for marketing).
11: How do you go about creating fun gameplay and levels
that compliment it well, and how do you know when you've successfully
Well, "Fun" can be difficult to define, as different people
find appeal in different ways. Our own game tries to balance various
playstyles and perspectives. We're one of the few MMOs that still
pushes completely non-consensual PvP combat, but we still try to keep
it in balance with other, more peacable playstyles. However, I still
get angsty emails from people who don't like PvP, or who *only* like
PvP; you can't please all of the people, all of the time.
Anyway, more specifically, keeping a fresh perspective is good when
testing any new gameplay you make. Making gameplay is like anything
else. Like writing a song, or painting a picture. After staring at
something for 8 or 10 hours, or worse, months on end, you really lose
perspective on whether it's any good or not, and it becomes a lot
more difficult to pick out the flaws. A fresh perspective is useful
in this case. Bigger companies use professional game testers to come
in and give them a sort of "focus group" response, and that's
probably very helpful. I read somewhere about the intense testing/tweaking
process that one of the recent Halo games went through, with the every-movement
and action of all their testers being recorded for intensive analysis..
"Why are most of them getting hung up here?" or "Why
are they getting confused about what to do next over there?",
etc. This is easier to define a linear FPS, but the principles are
all the same.
For my own part, I try to start a new character and play through parts
of our game periodically (from scratch, without dev-cheating, etc).
I also try to have friends test the game, every so often, and give
me feedback. Probably the most beneficial is the active, communicative
relationship with our players.. we have a "Suggestions Forum"
where various problems and solutions are debated, and the feedback
provided is very useful to us. Beyond this, we also record data about
how people are progressing, and periodically use in-game polls.
Getting back to more basic concepts, one of my litmus tests for intial
ideas is "Does this sound Fun to me?" and then "Will
other people probably think this is Fun?". This sounds.. ridiculously
obvious, but you might be amazed how few people seem to ask the second
question (not an easy question to ask, but few even bother). The ability
to step outside your own perspective (such as you can) and examine
a gameplay concept critically, is very useful in game design.
For instance, every year we seem to get a new PhD economics student
blowing through our community, who thinks that the greatest and coolest
thing we could possibly add to the game would be separated currencies
for all our Nations, with inflation and deficit spending for each.
And, this would certainly be an interesting addition to the game,
and would have all sorts of deep ramifications. However, it would
mostly be interesting to other economists. Probably not that wide
of an appeal, compared to say.. large scale capship battles. For a
game like ours, adding "Everything" is always cool, but
I only have so much development time to go around, so I need to spend
Another way of putting it is that there is a lot of stuff that would
be "Neat" that isn't necessarily "Fun". Always
ask yourself which is which, and try to be aware of the difference.
You have to develop an ability to determine what is likely to be "Fun"
well *before* doing the work. Everyone, amateur or pro, has a certain
"budget" of development time that's viable; for amateurs
it's simply the point where people start to burn out and give up on
the project. The best games are those with a cohesive design that
creates a fully-formed product (whether big or small, fully formed
is most important!) using the resources available. The ability to
do this is the most critical difference between professional game
designers, and the general public. Look at the games from Sid Meier
and Shigeru Miyamoto and so on, they're all compact and elegant. They
do *exactly* what they set out to do, they do it very well, and they
don't over-reach. This is just as true of "Bejeweled" as
it is of "Civ IV", the game's complexity isn't what's important,
achieving the optimal rendering of the given vision is what's most
John Carmack once updated his .plan file to say that the general gaming
public is probably just as good at coming up with game-design ideas
as most of the pros, and I *TOTALLY AGREE*. However, the difference
comes in the ability to take an idea and shave off different pieces
to make it work for a given development scale (time, people, skillsets,
etc), and to end up with a polished product. It's really more of "project
management" at that level, but having a designer who can do that
at fairly early stages (and throughout development, reacting to change)
is.. critical, in my opinion. If the person doing the chopping doesn't
understand the philosophy, the "spirit" of the design, then
you end up with a bunch of jumbled "stuff" rather than a
cohesive game. I've learned most of these lessons by personally making
most of these mistakes.
At the end of the day, I always design the game that *I* think will
be fun, and that fundamentally appeals to me, which is really based
on my own tastes and my experience as an actual gamer. But I try to
balance it across what I think is "best for the progress of the
overall game" and our greater community. Like any MMO developer,
I cannot be a slave to the wants of the community.. large committees
can be terrible at designing things (like the famous joke about the
Camel being designed that way: it does everything, none of it well,
and has a bad attitude). However, I do try to stay aware of the pulse
of the community, and what excites and interests people.
once again to John Bergman from Guild Software for answering these
questions. We hope these answers have helped you and your game development