Following the E3 of 2006 the decision was made that we have to focus on creating the game, that the expo just makes us focus on the wrong things. It was important that the game started getting together.
During 2007 and 2008:
Work started on the game in earnest. The Art Team started to create the various levels outlined in the script and the objects needed to make the puzzles, as well as the creation of the huge cast of mythological creatures featured in the game.
Team members were added, while others left. The first addition was Vasilis Birbas (3D), as he successfully completed our Art Test. A few other artists were interviewed. Dimitris Koskinas (3D/Textures), Nikos Moutafis (3D/Scripting) and Fotis Tsantilas (3D) were added to the team.
The art style needed to stay consistent, so things were thrown out and re-done and the pipeline was fine tuned. Our tools were mostly exporters that would create files read by the engine in an attempt to avoid burdening the programming team with having to create and maintain an in-game editor, since our resources were stretched pretty thin. (This would turn out to work, but was not ideal for creating gameplay).
The programming team decided that a clean re-write of the current engine was the way to go, since leading up to E3 2006 a lot of things were hard-coded into the demo. Almost as soon as this decision was made the Lead Programmer had to leave to serve in the Greek Armed Forces, leaving Michael Georgoulopoulos in charge of the programming team.
The new team tried to continue the work on the engine, but the pace didn’t pick up fast enough, by the time George Markou was back from the Army (almost a year later), we had changed our project lead Teddy Triantafyllis and tried to implement SCRUM , but the team failed to achieve the desired results. Dimitris Papadopoulos (PR) was a persistent fan of the game, hired to assist the team with all communication with the outside world.
Some levels/areas were created and featured extreme detail, like the Ruined House, the entrance to the underground dwellings of the Three Old Hags / Three Moires (destinies), a few videos and screenshots were released, as well as samples of music. In the music department Fergus Currie was spending time increasing the variation of our soundtrack with completely new tracks and styles of music. Work continued on Danai’s Hideout, the Main Mansion and it’s underground research lab.
During this time we also tried to keep some online activity alive, with our forums and by being interviewed by sites and newspapers. Along with Darkfall (which was then in it’s 6th or 7th year of production) we were considered the epitome of Greek gaming of course. Our graphics rivaled similar productions in the US and Europe , coupled with the Greek mythological element, we were hot stuff for a while.
Then we decided to go to GDC 2008, this would be an educational trip, team members were selected to attend various seminars related to their focus. Educating ourselves was Teddy’s idea, I think it was either him or Nikos Natsios who mentioned GDC, and it was a real eye opener for the team. Watching other people talk about their pipe-lines both gave us some peace of mind that we weren’t going completely in the wrong direction, but also some good tips on what to do in order to get things going.
I created a video of our trip to San Fransisco, which has since been lost. I have only found the original footage and I am not able to re-create the video, since no Premiere project exists. I don’t know how I lost this, I have almost everything else.
We attended lectures from the creators of Crysis, Max Payne and various other well known games. Meetings with Ubisoft and other publishers were also taken care of.
Problems with the Script:
The script was already facing scrutiny, it was decided that a new team needed to be assembled and a new script based on the basic premise of the current game created. This new script would be closer to what we marketed the game as, leaving the typical point-n-click puzzles and featuring more 3d/Tomb Raider style gameplay.
If the script isn’t final you can’t know what you need to create, if you don’t know what you need to create, you don’t know when you will finish. It was of the out most importance that we finished the script and that it met our high standards.
At this point (or between second and third script) a crisis management consultant was brought on to assess the situation, his advice was to reduce the team to the bare minimum, until we are better prepared to manage the task at hand.
This idea was rejected based on the fact that the talent pool in Greece is limited and throwing out a bunch of people and then expecting them to come back would be unrealistic (which it was), this was especially true, because in our efforts to avoid past mistakes we established a screening process in order to hire people, which consisted of a 3d art test and a 2d concept art test, depending on the position of course (this is now common practice in the industry). Doing things this way, which was basically unheard of in Greece, revealed that our potential candidates were actually pretty limited in number and basically it was a pain to find people meeting our expected standard of output.
So in the process of keeping the team – which we considered our most valuable asset – we burdened production with a continuous stream of wages. At the time we saw no realistic alternative.
A team was assembled from people outside the company, that worked on a revision of the script along-side some team members. Though this script was completed it was reviewed and finally tossed out (though some ideas were kept). The main problems were: no real gameplay (something the original had a problem with too), no clear focus and a lack of what we considered playable areas. I don’t remember the names of the people involved in this attempt, besides a few of my team mates: Thodoris Kyritsopoulos, George Markou, Nikos Natsios, I think. ( if I find out more from my team-mates I will update accordingly ).
Around this time I was clearly devoting a huge amount of my time to the project and the failure of the new script was pretty problematic for the team, because there was no clear focus on what was essential. Teddy had left the company, G. Markou was in the Army, so Fayez Daud took over (coming from Track7 Music), I was going to manage the 3d artists, Nektarios would manage the concept artists, and I would be the one assigning and checking everyone’s tasks on a daily basis, the team was at peak size of about 20-25 people.
Third – and final – Script:
The idea was born that a new script needed to be made, a clash of script writers was arranged, both providing a short summary of their script for selection by the team and Kyriakos, the Founder. Apostolos Zaharopoulos would be on one side and Thodoris Kyritsopoulos, Nectarios Chionis, Nikos Natsios and George Markou on the other, with Thodoris mainly leading that side. Two script summaries were produced, the one chosen to be expanded and finalized was the one from Thodori’s team.
The new script featured a new race “Proanthropoi”, something between a God, a Man and a Titan, this race was betrayed by the humans in service of the Gods and almost completely eradicated and thus our main antagonist was born.
A team needed to be assembled to bring this new script into a form that would allow gameplay, with puzzles and a lot of platforming exploration. George Markou would be busy working on the engine, Nikos Natsios was not interested considering he was swamped with his assignments, so it fell upon our natural art director Nektarios Chionis, Thodoris Kyritsopoulos and me as the one with enough 3d expertise to figure out what was possible, as well as the required gaming experience to complete the task. At some point we brought in Panos Theodorakopoulos ( Script ) to assist with dialogs, cut-scenes and fleshing out the lore of the game.
The whole game started to take form, all possible scenarios were detailed using visio flowcharts, huge spreadsheets were made to keep track of progress, all gamepad configurations illustrated. Basically we had every aspect of the game designed in extreme detail. It was just a bit too late.
I gave a presentation on our 3d model pipeline at the ‘Ionion Panepistimio’ (University) and a lecture at a’Greek Screenwriters Association’ event for ‘Writing for Games’, in which I explained our method of avoiding writer’s block, puzzle creation and character creation in the context of gameplay and a demanding production in which the luxury of time was no longer something we could afford.
We spent almost a year detailing every part of the game, every puzzle, every object in the game down to the individual tables and ornaments. By the end of the year we had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done and it was a lot, too much as it turned out. From our estimations (which based on months of recorded data) weren’t that off, we would need around another 18 months to complete the game or increase the size of the team significantly.
The programming team was also trying to put the engine together, adding new features like deferred rendering, SSAO and such. Set backs were also faced there and a specific deadline was missed 2-3 times. At some point we even considered just cleaning up the E3 demo and using it (btw this demo works on my PC today).
During this period we had quite a few financial issues, we basically had two large stretches of delayed payroll (6 months each).
During the first period of problems 2 team members left (Nick Moutafis and Fotis Tsantilas), they were almost instantly replaced by Aris Kandiliotis (3D) and Alexandros Kartsonakis (3D). Production moved along even through these troubled times. Another concept artist was hired to deal with the volume of work we needed to complete, George Dimitriou (Concept).
Remember that the game was originally going to be released within a year (2005) or at the latest 2006, initially. We were now two years after this initial estimate/proposal and the game was still not complete. This led to some people leaving the company and even though we got back on track at some point a second series of salary delays led a new-comer to the team to rally a significant amount of people to take legal action, without any warning or even informing the company after the fact, which led to our Founder having to deal with the Greek state at his doorstep.
This was construed as an act of aggression by our Founder. Key members had enjoyed everything this man had to offer his team, things that weren’t possible anywhere else in the country.
It was also compacted by the fact that our Founder had already secured a large amount of money in the days leading up to this ( a long time effort had just produced results), which ended up funding the departure of almost everyone involved in the legal action. To some this might seem problematic, but the reality is that we were informed that if anyone had any pressing financial commitment we could notify the appropriate person and appropriate action would be taken, I can say that this happened with more than one team member and I was one of them. Some team members in need had private care in one of the founders successful clinics, used his family’s Roadside Assistance firm, had meals and drinks paid for and generally Kyriakos was very generous and tried to support us in any way possible.
Almost 80% of the team was fired in the days following that action, everyone got complete severance and their due salaries. There was concrete evidence that the money had just become available, something no one can dispute, but the damage had already been done. To think that if this action had been postponed for just a couple of days everything might be different is something I don’t like to think about.
Anyway this created a big problem, the Founder, Kyriakos, was devastated by this action, he lost a big chunk of faith in the team and in people in general.
I can’t blame him, he gave us the means to do what we wanted, funded us for what can be considered 5 times the amount initially expected (or more depending on how you see it) and even though he asked for some patience, he got a very formal and surprise attack by the people he was funding.Every estimate and deadline was given by the team and that same team had failed to deliver, yet he continue to believe in us, then it all changed. It seemed that no one believed in him.
It is important to note (again) that team member that led this action was the latest addition to the team and though highly skilled and talented he had bad experiences in the past. I have since worked in another company in which he was hired exactly the same day I was and when problems with salaries occurred there, he had a similar, though not as infectious behavior there. It is unfortunate that this person hadn’t enjoyed – what I consider – to be the privilege of working during the time we didn’t have these issues or experienced all the efforts made in order for us to succeed, it may have been different if he had.
The script team and I had no real sense of this occurring since we were spending most of our day in another part of the building, we didn’t learn about the idea the rest of the team had until it was too late. This was an error on our part, since it was obvious that we were instrumental in the melding of the team and that we could prevent this escalation. Alas I was at the company from 9 til the next day, sleeping there sometimes, managing the team and creating the vast cast of characters, as well as working on the script and detailed recording of all required assets and still missed this.
As we once got together and took action towards a team member that we thought was not pulling his weight, the team once again took it upon itself to take matters into it’s own hands, with devastating results this time.
The remaining team were:
Thodoris Kyritsopoulos, Nektarios Chionis, Konstantinos Yiatilis MacFarlane, Aris Kandiliotis, Vasilis Birbas, Lefteris Mavrogiannis and Fayez Daud.
This would mark the start of the last efforts the remaining staff made until August 2009 to save the game, which I will cover in the next and final part.
Disclaimer: this part doesn’t have exact dates, because I was swamped. These two years were basically a blur for me. From taking on the task of finishing the game design document, to managing the artists and at the same time taking care of the character creation and animation, as well as communication with Music/Sound FX and going to GDC and talking to marketing for various materials (editing videos and replying to interview questions). Add to that the fact that I became a father in March 2008, I have a clear idea of what happened, but the exact timeline is not as concrete in my mind as the previous years or the next. This is the main reason I delayed this post.