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From BioWare to Cedar Hill Games: A Jack-of-All-Trades Develops, Part 2

Tobyn Manthorpe takes what he knows from 10 years of experience at BioWare Corp. and starts something new. What are the choices you have to make as an independent start-up?

Tobyn Manthorpe, Blogger

August 17, 2011

10 Min Read

From BioWare to Cedar HIll Games: A Jack-of-All-Trades Develops
Part 2
Part one of this blog talked about my time at BioWare and the skills that I acquired. This second half is all about how I put those skills into practice when starting my own company.

Before I started Cedar Hill Games I spent a lot of time at home doing as much as I could to make my own game using the Torque Engine from Garage Games. I got to experiment with full screen shaders (based on work I had done on BioWare’s Tech Project) and some basic gameplay mechanics, which was very rewarding but meant nothing without some backing, financial or otherwise. Below you’ll find a video of my idea to have a first person turn-based strategy game from the Napoleonic era, rendered in a watercolour effect.

Flintlock Prototype Graphics Video

[Flintlock is still a pet project idea that I’d like to follow up on, but I followed the wisdom not to make a project that was too close to your heart as your first project... it will never live up to your vision. Maybe one day!]

I tried presenting some of my work to my BioWare contacts but that didn’t go through.

So if I was going to continue my games making career, I was going to have to leap head-first into it! Working with Torque was all fine, but I needed to get someone who knew much more than I did about programming. We were going to have to work closely together to bring something to life, but in order to make sure that a team, even a team of two people, works hard on a project, there has to be structure. So I came up with a name (Cedar Hill is a neighbourhood in Victoria) with which I re-christened my old contracting business... incorporation comes later; I found a tiny office space mere blocks away from my house; I joined the local small business development association to learn more about owning a business; I devised a simple yet original game idea, which I made a demonstration / concept movie of (below).

Pistols at Dawn Prototype Video

[I could and should write more about simplicity in game design, even if it’s just for the first basic concept. Make it quick and leave plenty of time to make it great. I learned that time and time again at BioWare.]

And most importantly I made a job posting which went up to all the free sites like Craigslist and also a paid job posting to the local technology association (www.viatec.ca). I got about 40 replies, 20 of which I thought were good, 10 of which I set up meetings for.

So let me impart to you what I look for in an individual, learned after many years being part of BioWare’s art hiring team.

  • Modesty

  • A personal interest in everything surrounding their skillset and beyond. I call this an engineering mentality and it really is a relatively easy trait to find.

  • Skill in their proposed job.

In that order. Seriously.

There was one resume that I really thought was the best according to those traits which turned into my first meeting. All interviews thereafter were comparisons to the first one, and while some were impressive, none were as impressive as that very first guy. His name was Sound Tang and he is still my programmer 2 years later.

Using my prototype movie, we got the Torque 2D engine and went to work on the game as soon as possible. Within two weeks we had a working version of the game. It would take another 4 months to finish it. I stayed true to my production mindset of keeping it simple until you see the game working and then make it better from there. The story was important to me and I worked hard to make it happen. Polish was important too. But throughout it all I made sure to remind myself that the main goal of the game was to finish it, because you don’t know what an industry or your customer is like until you finish something. I’m glad I kept that way of thinking because the game was not a success, and it proves that even if you love something and work hard on it, even when you know it’s good, it doesn’t always become accepted.

Pistols at Dawn Promotional Video

[Pistols at Dawn, a great game that no one played. :(]

This was a lesson I never really learned at BioWare. Our games were always critically acclaimed and while I know not all of them were commercial successes, I never had to look at the financial side of development. We were always very protected from that, and thankfully so.

By this time, I had incorporated our company. New business owners take note, but also make sure not to take my experience as “the right way to do it”. Always seek business advice from trusted and trained advisors. Also, this is my experience in Canada, and I have no idea about the similarities with the US. Firstly I decided not to incorporate until we had an actual source of money, this being that the big reason for incorporating is to get better tax advantages, which only matter when you have income. Next, a corporation has to be a completely new entity, so I dropped my contracting proprietary business, had to terminate and then re-hire my programmer under a new contract. You make your incorporation agreement, have a business plan handy, you submit your documents to the government and then wait for replies. It was all a bit dizzying! But worth it... we were now Cedar Hill Games Inc.

Also at this time, perhaps before we understood how poorly Pistols at Dawn was doing, we decided to get to work on a 3D engine. Sound, my programmer, got frustrated with Torque and had ripped out all of their run-time code by the time we had shipped that first game. He knew exactly how he would tackle a 3D engine as he’d already done something similar in his spare time. Personally, I knew how to build model exporters and plan the pipeline, again from my time on BioWare’s tech project, so I went to work on that. We started building a concept of mine that ran along the lines of “Wind in the Willows at War”, anthropomorphic animals in a time of crisis living in a forest kingdom. It would be styled like Beatrix Potter but would have a grown up storyline. I titled it “The Bailiff of Swordfern”. I had modeled a badger, our first skinned mesh in the game and we had him parading around a simple level. I still love the idea.

But with the poor sales of Pistols at Dawn I came to the realization that I couldn’t have the games that I wanted to make if I wanted to succeed as a business. Who goes searching for a game about pistol dueling in the 17th century? And for that matter, who goes searching for a game about badgers with rifles? Time to get back onto the mainstream track: bring in the barbarians, bring in the monsters, bring in the classic fantasy themes. We also needed a concept that had potential for growth, and so I devised a very cunning plan.

I decided that we needed a contracting gig where we were making a small game as marketing for bigger games. This trend was happening all over the web and I had seen it done at BioWare with Dragon Age and their brilliant flash game. We also needed a new catch for players... how about a game where you unlocked votes as you played a level and then got to spend them on how the next level will play out? Give us a month between level releases and we can put the votes into action. That way, every month the users would be exposed to the IP! Brilliant. I put together a presentation and set up a meeting with the big-wigs at BioWare.

Emissary of War Prototype Video

[Our presentation video after 4 months of work. You may be able to notice the subtle differences between what we had last summer and this summer. At the end you can see the voting system (and how we converted it into our shop!)]

Unfortunately I had misjudged our little meeting. Our game was impressive, yes, but I hadn’t spelled out all the little details about how the project would work and how much it would cost. I didn’t know how I would handle testing and QA. I was full of dreams and ideas but my business accumen left a lot to be desired. And little did I know that my idea was rather similar to a project that BioWare had shelved because of many of the same questions.

Right! Well, let’s learn some more lessons then. Don’t try to accomplish something that could easily get out of hand (and certainly don’t try to sell that idea to the masters of content analysis). Don’t stroll into a business meeting without solidifying your business approach. And don’t assume that a shoe in the door gets you any more than that!

New approach: lets finish this game and show everyone what we’re capable of. Take out the voting, it’s too much of an unknown. Finish up the story. Build the asset lists, make a schedule. Build temporary objects for all known assets. Work on AI, audio, an emitter system, pathfinding. Make a bit of cash on the side by hiring our your programmer for 3 months. Build, build, build!

Around February 2011, we realized the game was missing something that we just didn’t have time to work on: balance and gameplay. We needed a champion for the player, someone who would make it all fun. How on earth could we find someone who knew what they were doing? Again looking back on my BioWare days, I remembered that their first story and gameplay designer for Baldur’s Gate was a dungeon master who knew roll-playing games like the back of his hand. I needed that guy... well not actually James Ohlen, he would be a little out of my price-range, but someone like him. So I got myself a shirt printed that read “I make computer games, want to help?”, and walked around a local gaming convention hoping that someone would introduce themselves. I didn’t get many people who approached me, but the one who did read my shirt and said “Yes!” is now my designer, Mike Sansregret. And an excellent addition to the team is he! With him planning the monsters, playing with the stats and helping us devise gameplay additions, we now have a very enjoyable game.

And this game goes out to the public tomorrow! We’ve been getting some really great previews and interviews going thanks to our PR team at Evolve PR. We’re mostly finished our Android build of the game which can go out soon. We’re planning on localizing the game into German, Chinese and Japanese. This is the moment! This is where it all comes to fruition!

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present Emissary of War!

Emissary of War Trailer Video 

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