Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Avernum 3, Remasters, and the Joy of Owning Your Work.

It's weird to see over four years of my life just sitting there in a lump.
I've been making my little indie games for a living for 23 years. Being a greybeard in such a weird and young industry comes with special privileges.

For example, while some of my peers are getting around to remastering their old games, I am remastering our most popular game, Avernum 3: Ruined World, for the SECOND time. It is only when you rewrite the same material twice that you really test your discipline and integrity.

Writing indie games has become miserably competitive lately. Most new games, even promising ones with a lot of work in them, are sinking without a trace. Yet, thanks to the grinding tedium of rewriting the same game again and again, I have a fighting chance of my business surviving enough to write cool new stuff.

So I'll tell the story or Exile 3: Ruined World/Avernum 3/Avernum 3: Ruined World. (Also on Steam.) There are things to learn here for any young person who thinks, "I wanna' make cool things (not just video games), and make a living doing it."

Don't laugh. It sold like crazy.
In A Previous Millenium, I Wrote A Hit

In 1997, I'd been making games full-time for a couple years. I wrote (and still write) retro, turn-based, low-budget indie RPGs with fun systems, interesting stories, and mediocre graphics.

Happily, I got started at a time when there were very few good RPGs out in the market. I got a nice computer, wanted to play a good RPG, and couldn't find one. So I wrote one. It sold, because no competition. This is a key example of my most important business strategy: Get Very Lucky.

My first games, Exile: Escape From the Pit and Exile 2: Crystal Souls, were designed on a simple principle: I would go back to all the RPGs I loved as a kid and steal the best idea from each one. I then carefully combined all my quality stolen ideas into a coherent whole. This is called being a game designer.

For our third game, I had a better idea. I spent months playing all the new RPGs that had come out over the previous 2-3 years. Then I stole the best idea from each one of those. Thus, I transitioned from stealing ideas from old games to stealing ideas from new games. This is how you evolve as a game designer.

I ended up with Exile 3: Ruined World, which has been our biggest success. It features a gigantic world, that is easy to get lost in. As time passed, the game world evolved. If you didn't fight the monsters off, they would ruin towns and kill the townsfolk. (Though, no matter how slow you play, you can always still win the game.) If you didn't want to follow the story, you could be a bounty hunter or merchant. You could buy a house.

(If you want to try it out, it's available as freeware here. Warning: It probably won't run on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)

Exile 3 came out so long ago that most new computers then looked exactly like this.
It Was The Right Title At The Right Time

In 1997, it was what people wanted. It was a legit shareware hit. Now, having a hit indie game in 1997 (when the world wide web was basically nothing and most of my sales came from AOL) was different from having one in 2017.

These days, the sales of a hit indie game will buy you a mansion made of yachts. Back then, it bought me a modest house and made my parents slightly less ashamed to say what I did for a living.

I won awards, to the extent there were game awards back then. I got attention from the traditional games media, which was really worth something then. And it established me in the business for good.

But even then, I knew that the real prize was not the praise (which I don't care about) or the money (which is nice, but then you spend it and it's gone). What was really valuable was that I owned the game. It was mine. I could do with it whatever I wanted. Forever.

Five Years Later, I Rewrote It For the First Time

We rewrote Exile 3 as Avernum 3 in 2002. Five years is a really short time to wait before rewriting a game, but I have a good excuse. When I started Exile 3, I'd only been making games for money for two years, and I wasn't very good. There were a ton of ways in which the story, interface and graphics should have been improved, and I didn't know to do it.

I spent well over a year writing Exile 3, and my wife and I spent another year turning it into Avernum 3. We went over every single location, line of dialogue, and bit of code, improving and expanding it to the best of our improved abilities. The revised version didn't sell as well as the original, but it still made a lot of money. (Again, by early indie game standards. It was a lot of money for lone artists, but not big-shot money.)

(If you want to try it out, you can buy it super-cheap here. Warning: It probably won't run well on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)

The new game. I am constantly accused by cranks of never improving my games. Look. I'm not saying this is super-fancy. But I don't think you can say there's been no improvement.
Now, Fifteen Years Later, We're Doing It Again

Fifteen years is a long time in the tech industry. Our most popular game is now woefully out of date in every way, largely forgotten, and doesn't even run on new Macs anymore. Now I can rewrite it so it actually works, and an iPad port will fall out of the process in the bargain.

Interfaces and game design have evolved in a million ways. I'm spending 18 months going over every tiny bit of the game again, redoing every single thing from scratch. I'll release it in January or so, and it will hopefully sell. I think it will. I've spent over 20 years building up a loyal fan base.

The Pros and Cons of a Remaster

The good side of remasters is that they can be less work that writing a game from scratch. You can, with luck, get a full new title for 2/3 of the work, and it's easy to market it because people already like it. (I'm assuming you're not remastering a game everyone hated.)

The bad side of remasters is that you become the curator for your own work. It can be grinding to go over old material day in and day out. The reason a remaster is successful is because your fans like the original game. You don't want to crap it up with too many new ideas, no matter how clever. People tend to not like change.

A Lesson For Young Creators

Never underestimate the value of owning your work. There hasn't been a day since 1997 that I haven't made money off of Exile 3. The reason is that I own it. It's mine, to alter, remaster, and distribute. All according to my whims, with all the earnings going to me.

It's a tough market out there. But suppose you release a new game and nobody ever even hears of it. Wait five years, remaster it and it really will be, as far an anyone is concerned, a new game. You can try selling it again!

And ten years from now, people will be using new consoles, new devices, new sorts of computers. Port your game to them! Each new port is an all new release. A new chance for your game to get noticed and catch on and become a hit!

Nature provides us with a perfect metaphor for any internet discussion.
"But Your Games Are All The Same And Look Like Crap"

I have a follow-up post about the reactions when I announced Avernum 3: Ruined World. It's pretty funny, but this is already long so I broke it out into its own post.

When Avernum 3: Ruined World comes out (hopefully in January for Windows/Mac and March for iPad), I'll have spent over four years of my life on it. It's not a game for everyone. It's mostly the product of one person, and it'll show.

Even if you don't like my work, I hope you take some satisfaction in this: Vidya games are still a place where one weirdo can make weird things for other weirdos and make a living at it. As long as this is possible, there's hope. Maybe the next weird thing for weirdos will be YOUR perfect game, the Best Game Ever, and it never would have existed in a purely big-budget world.


If you're intrigued by the retro-RPG goodness of Avernum 3, you can wishlist it on Steam. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Edit: Added the Pros and Cons section.