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Interview with Max Gaming Technologies

Dark Horizons: LoreThe CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

I recently logged on with two partners of Max Gaming Technologies, makers of the massively online mecha assault game Dark Horizons: Lore, to chat about the game - its size, its setting, its development (of course) and more. Lore may look like your standard Mech game, but deep down it's anything but, sporting a persistent game world that is set in an original expanded universe, with high-level player interaction and user-created mods that can affect the game world.

Who are you and what's your role in Dark Horizons: Lore?

Adrian Wright: I am the original Founder of Max Gaming Technologies, and though we do a lot of collaborative work, I am responsible for Project Management of Lore, and aid Logan in creating environments, along with being the weapons master

Logan Foster: I am the Art Director and one of the artists for Dark Horizons: Lore. Basically, this means that I am responsible for most of the items such as the MAVs (player characters), textures, animations and a variety of the 2D art such as the GUIs and the GUI design

Congrats on making the finals. Is this the first time you tried submitting a game into the IGF?

Adrian: This is our first real game as a team, and we really are thrilled to have our first game make the finals at IGF. Really, it's a great honor that Lore was recognized by IGF

Logan: Thanks! Being nominated in the IGF open category really means a lot to all of us, especially considering all the hard work that has gone into it and the difficulty of being an indie in pond full of big fishes. We were quite ecstatic to be nominated considering this is our first project that we have built as a team and the first time we have ever submitted an entry into the IGF competition

How long have you guys been together as a team?

Adrian: The majority of the team has been together for 2 years now - I have been really pleased with finding people who share the same vision and are willing to sacrifice to make our dreams happen. Myself and a couple others have been together since the late 90's, when we ran online communities

Did you guys form as a team specifically for Dark Horizons: Lore, or did you have other projects in mind initially?

Logan: Oddly enough, I wasn't involved in the very beginning of Lore. I actually came in just a bit after the project had started in order to help out Max Gaming with the art pipeline involved with Torque. I was of course very interested in what they were doing since I am a fan of mecha games and had planned on doing my own. But after seeing what the MGT guys were doing and how closely their goals mimicked my own, I wanted to be a part of this project as much as I could

Adrian: Max Gaming was actually working on a demo for another game project at the time, but we were also very involved in the GarageGames indie community. As we met our new team members and realized that our original project was way to aggressive for a first time out, as a team we came up with a idea for a smaller mecha-based project that we knew we could get done

Smaller project? Lore seems pretty big to me! Can you share your original ideas?

Adrian: Yes, Lore has turned out not to be the small game we originally game up with. Originally, it was supposed to be a basic FPS that just happened to have mecha. But since my roots have been in Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and online persistent leagues, we steered a little toward what the Original project was supposed to be. Lore is really just the start of where we hope to take players in online persistent games, and is hopefully the start to what we hope to be a series of action and RPG games based on our original Sci-Fi universe, Dark Horizons. The original game idea we were working on involved a much higher level of persistence, and was really more of a FPS MMO called Critical Subterfuge Arena. It included full player customization, and though much more of a first person shooter, it was rooted in providing the players with an atmosphere of online competition that I still have yet to see online. But, being that we are what I like to call true indies, and without the budget and, honestly, experience in game development as a team, we decided to pull back the reigns a bit

Logan: Lore is indeed a very large project, though like Adrian said it's a lot simpler than some of the wish list items that we had planned for it. Some of the items that we had planned but had to scale back for a potential sequel include things like planes, the option for a team commander on each map being able to set waypoints and orders to his/her teammates, portable repair and rearm facilities, infantry, vehicles, deployment zones and things like that. It is our hope that we will get the opportunity to go back and look at this stuff in a potential sequel should our fans demand it :)

The universe Lore is set in, who was the principal creator? What's it all about?

Adrian: I wrote the original outline for the universe, originally in the mid 90's, to create a Sci-fi MUD. Then I got the 3D bug and moved away from my roots in text-based gaming. We now have a whole team outside of video game production that just works on the universe, and plans to release our first Pen and Paper version of the Dark Horizons Universe in Q2 of this year. This team is lead by Brian Hammack and has really evolved the universe way beyond what I ever could have done

You said you were planning on making more games in the universe. Would Lore be considered the start of the timeline, with each successive game going further along, or will they be scattered about, possibly overlapping at times, or preceding Lore at times?

Adrian: Wow great question, and interesting story. Lore was named so because in the universe these battles are historical - the RPG that is being launched this year is set roughly 200 years in the future of the current Lore timeline. We did this because all the original material didn't actually include mecha in the timeline. When we decided to do a mecha game, and wanted to of course tie our IP together, we went back and rewrote parts of the universe to include mecha. Dark Horizons of course is very much inspired by anime, and originally had power suits and armor, along with traditional Sci-Fi armaments. It was fun taking a common love such as mecha and incorporating into the universe. Future games will progress along the timeline

Logan: I would say that a definite goal is to keep developing games in the Dark Horizons universe as much as possible. There are obviously a lot of stories to tell and a lot of ways that we can tell them. Lore is definitely a starting point or precursor though to the larger universe. We just hope that the market will enjoy it as much as we have and as such, convince us to do more games that keep the ball rolling and provide a lot of entertainment as well as value for their investment

How does the persistent universe aspect of Lore work?

Adrian: Right now, it's pretty simple. We have broken the overall battlefield up into 7 sectors, and within each sector are a set of objectives that a faction must own in order to control that sector. As battles are fought on the Official Server Corp reporting servers, factions gain points toward victory for whatever particular objective (game map) they are fighting on. Currently, only 3 sectors are open for combat, but as the player community grows, and the Invasion grows, we will continue to open sectors and add more objectives. Players, when they get to a point they are comfortable with a faction, can join that faction either in-game or through the game's website. Once this is done, anytime they fight on a reporting server, their stats count toward victory or defeat. Players also have the option of forming squads within each faction, and as the game grows, the leaders that emerge will be able to contribute to the Game Master managed battle plans

How does user-created content affect the game world?

Adrian: Great question, we really haven't implemented this much as of yet, but will be supporting this full-force with the next major release. We of course support modding of the game - I think not only does it provide for us to see what players are thinking, but also helps build a community much more then I think games that don't support it do. We want to take this to the next level, where players can submit new content to what we will release as free player paks that we will allow to be used in the official Lore servers, etc. We feel that this will allow the game to continue to grow, and give the community a sense of ownership and collaboration with the product going into the future

Players are already contesting in the game for a common overall objective, but what are the smaller objectives like? Are they set objectives or changeable objectives that depend on the state of the universe?

Adrian: One of the things we have missed promoting in the past is that we actually reward factions at times when they take really tough objectives. Things like new tech, or capturing some enemy tech. Objectives also change hands depending on who owns them at the time, so it's possible that yesterday you were the attacker on a specific objective and now you have to defend it, and control the main base and the perks like extra repair/ammo and refit. So it does change the dynamic a bit, especially when playing assault- or raid-type of missions

Will there ever be an "end"? Not in the final sense but, what are players of the two factions working towards, ultimately?

Logan: In my honest opinion, Dark Horizons: Lore is more of a social game than one with a definitive start and end. It is what the players and the community make of it and want to do with it. If they wanted an ending then we certainly could arrange that, but from what we have experienced thus far they like the open-ended nature of it that gives them the feel of an MMO without all the hassle involved in one

Adrian: Ultimately, players are working towards the full control of the battle map, at which time we have several options open to us to keep the fun in the game for the players, and allow them to continue to play. As I don't want to tip any of those hats, I will have to leave it as that for now :)

Fair enough :) I visit the GarageGames site every now and then and I can recall seeing screens of Lore for quite some time. How long has it been in development?

Adrian: We actually released a version of Lore mid last year, with the stipulation and promise to the players that we would work with them to continue to develop and improve on the gaming experience. I think we have been keeping up with our promise, and think this next Major version release that is currently in beta testing is really going to put the game where it should, and needs, to be on gamers radars. With that said, when we get to GDC this year it will officially be 2 years since we started the development of Lore, and though its had its ups and downs, its been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life

Logan: Oddly enough, Lore has been in development for two years (as a part-time project for each of us since we all hold down day jobs too), and although some days it feels like its been a long time, most days it doesn't, since its a labor of love to make a great product that we will enjoy

How beneficial was it to be a part of the GG community in developing Lore?

Adrian: I would say it was immensely beneficial since half of our team game from the community. We spent a lot of time looking for people that were as dedicated as the founder of MGT. The GG community was the perfect recruiting bed if you want to look at it that way for us. It's really hard to find guys to work for royalties and to chase a dream, putting in full-time at a "Day Job", and then spending another 40 hours a week working on a Labor of Love. We also have formed some very good relationships with some of the other indie studios in the community, and being that most of the solid teams are relatively small has allowed us to use each other's strengths to solve common issues

Logan: The GG community has been a great benefit for us not simply in terms of providing information and developers that we can bring into the project, but also from having peers that we can talk with and relate to as well travel down this indie development path together or bounce ideas off of

How many team members are currently involved with the project? Has this number changed at all over the course of development?

Adrian: We now have a core of 8 team members, since the recent addition of a full-time QA person, that have been working on Lore specifically. We then have some others that we tap when times are tight. We actually have remained pretty steady with the development of this project as in team members, recently in the last 4 months adding a much needed additional Linux developer to help us prepare for the addition of Linspire support and improved Linux support

Does everyone have a day job? You're all true indies?

Adrian: With the exception of a few months last year when Logan and I were full-time, yes we all have the dreaded Day Job in our respective fields. Of course, I know all of our goals are to have enough success in order to allow us to make our games and still be able to support ourselves and our families who have sacrificed to allow us all to chase our dreams

How spread out is the team? Are you all located in the same city or state, or flung about the country and/or world?

Adrian: We are spread out across North America currently, with one team member also in England and one in Australia. We have been able to leverage the ability to work remotely very well to this point using technologies such as IRC, email, and CVS to stay in really constant communications. Of course, I'm looking forward to the day when I can throw Killer Balls at everyone during design meetings :) We also are able to get together at least 2-3 times a year at various cons, which I think has allowed the team to bond and stay focused and allow the face time needed to know each other as more then just bad typists

Logan: We are indeed a true remote team. With a few rare exceptions where we can meet up at conventions or conferences for some team building, we all work online. I think it would be convenient if we were all located pretty close to one another, but I think we have done pretty good too with this remote team work of ours

What are the means by which you guys communicate and coordinate your development?

Adrian: We use a variety of different things, and a lot of which are open source and available to all indie developers. We of course use email (I think the staple of the world), Mantis for bug tracking, dotproject for tracking project progress, occasionally Teamspeak for team voice coms, CVS for version control and of course we spend a ton of time here on our IRC server collaborating not only within the team, but since we are the host of the GG community channel we have constant contact with others we may need to tap

Logan: We do try to do some telephone conversations too when we can. Though considering the distances and differences in times zones (i.e. I am in Alberta while Adrian is in Ohio), it's not always possible. We do try to communicate where we can and with whatever tools we can find to get the job done right and for dirt cheap (since we would rather put the money into developing the game). Aside from that we use tools such as Adrian mentioned, and sometimes even Xbox Live to keep in touch and ensure that everyone has what they need

I assume that Lore was made using Torque for graphics, but did you guys also make use of the Torque Networking Library? Or did you choose to go with another networking library?

Logan: We did not use the Torque Network Library (TNL) at all in the development of Lore; it all started from what you get with Torque and has evolved from there to meet our requirements and demands. Torque's network abilities though are very powerful and as such they allow us to do some very, very big games without requiring everyone playing to have high speed connections. In fact, a number of our players participate just fine on their 56k modems even when they are connecting in from overseas. We have pushed Lore well over 32 players in the servers with stability and without compromising gameplay either

Adrian: Well, the TNL actually comes from the Torque engine, so though they have made some changes to TNL, Torque already has a great network library of its own. Even with 32 or more players in Lore, network lag has not really been an issue for us

What would you think (personally) the most serious bump was, development-wise, along the road from the start of the project to now? How was it resolved? Could it have been avoided?

Adrian: For me, there real are 2 struggles we have had during development ‘til now on the project. The first is we are developing cross platform for Windows, Mac and Linux, which within itself is a major challenge, since there are obviously things you can do in Windows only, that can't be done on the other 2 platforms with ease. At the beginning, we really relied on outside resources to help us do the ports, which, though they are great developers, didn't really understand the project, and I think I set up a bit of a speed bump. Since then we really do all 3 platform developments in house, and have been able to get a lot of help from Apple Labs on the Mac and really have improved our Linux development with a new team addition. The other has been really related to funding: I think we could have been able to improve the game even further if we were able to gain some outside help in areas such as sound, and also we have created some tech that we could have probably licensed and been able to spend less time on that, and more in improving other areas or adding features

Logan: I would have to say that the self-funded nature was a big bump. Dark Horizons: Lore was developed with what we brought in for resources, namely our knowledge, experience, time and tools that we already owned. So at times there were areas where it would have been nice to throw money at a solution but it just wasn't possible so we had to make due with what we could. There is another one too - the post-release crunch. You are quite honestly never prepared for what will happen with your product after you have released it. No matter how much planning or organization that you try to do you always seem to under-estimate things, and then you rush a bit to catch up and provide the support that you need to provide while also continuing to develop and provide new value added features for the players.

Quality of life has finally started to become the big issue in the industry. What do you guys do to keep it fun, and what are your views on the current state of QoL in the industry?

Adrian: Well I think we have some advantage in the fact that we want to be making the games and projects we work on, and though many times it can be stressful around milestone dates and deadlines, it's still something we want to do. As for the industry as a whole, I think there needs to be some hard looks made by some of the major studios to determine what is best for their employees. Burning out in your 20s or late 30s shows there has to be some core issues going on, and I think if the industry wants to stay on top of the game it needs to do what other industries have done and take a hard look at its culture

Logan: I am sure my comments or thoughts will get me into some hot water, but since you asked here are my thoughts: I personally understand the need to work the "death marches", as they are so affectionately called, because there are times when the team needs to do whatever it takes to meet a milestone. But when you hear about these 4, 5 or 6 month long death marches of almost 100 hours every week, I have to wonder if the management is not at fault for poor planning or if they simply do not care about their employees because management has the opinion that they are easily replaced or that the employees can put up or shut up if they want to keep their jobs. To me, company and team is a two way street. Employees are expected, and should, work their hardest to ensure that the project gets done as soon as it possibly can and with the quality levels expected, but management also needs to reward their team for this hard work and dedication that is given to them. Respect is earned and not given; it's a reciprocal item, so that if you break the circle it will come back to bite you in the ass. People should not be destroyed for giving all that they can physically, mentally and spiritually just to be burned. This is why I am glad to be an indie because I at least know that the physical, mental and emotional turmoil that I can put myself through working crazy crunch hours (40+ a week plus full time day job of 40) will reward itself because it's an investment in myself

Well, any teases or looks ahead you'd like to give on Lore and/or your future projects?

Logan: Well, we have a great new build that is quite honestly days away from going out the door. This new release adds a whole plethora of new features such as advanced dynamic lighting, multiplayer bots for increased competition, new weapons, visual enhancements to all of the MAVs (mecha) in the game, the ability to torso twist (a much-demanded feature from the player base), new weapon geometry, plus our usual assortment of enhancements, bonuses and tweaks like new missions, a tech room, 3rd person control option, etc. Mac users will also find some much improved performance in-game from where Apple helped us get everything optimized and running really smooth. Overall we are really proud with this release, more so than any other release that we have done, and we feel confident that it will once again be well-accepted by the players, both old and new, as well as a great surprise at the IGF booth during GDC

Adrian: I think the Lore that you will see at IGF is a huge improvement over the original version we turned in at the start of the competition, with many great new visual features and game play features. All of this being released at a convention coming in the next couple of weeks :)

Okay I'm spent :) Thanks a lot guys for doing this interview, good luck, and I'll see you at GDC in March

Logan: That sounds great. Thanks for the interview, it was fun

Adrian: Can't wait, thank you. Very much enjoyed participating

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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