We come at last to our final installment of my conversation with the creator of Divergence Online, Ethan Casner. As Ethan is living the designing/creating dream of more than a few gamers out there, it seemed only fitting that we should finish this series with a glimpse into the human realities of that fantasy process.
Lisa: First, how many years of your life has been dominated by the development of Divergence Online? Was it an inspiration nursed from childhood? Or college age? Or the womb?
Ethan Casner: I guess you could say the seed was planted during Anarchy Online “back in the day”. I loved working with the story, the two factions and was very happy at what it had to say about sci-fi in general. It took until 2006 before I started to notice the emerging trend of making indie MMO development closer to a reality. Although back then, engines which are free now were still running a $1M license, at least progress was being made towards that end. This was where I finally decided it was time to start putting it together and in times of surplus or times of famine, it’s been my life every day since.
Lisa: When not eating, sleeping and breathing Divergence, what else occupies your time?
Ethan Casner: As some people who troll the youtubes have noticed and asked me about, yes I do have a hobby of music production and a lot of very loud and obnoxious songs to show for it. Some less crappy than others mind you! Music production and trying to always improve my mastering chain has been a welcome therapy in times of hell. Also, when you’re devoted to something you tend to get your work done relatively soon, and in most cases well before everyone else. And so I turn to recording as a welcome distraction to occupy my mind and prevent one of those, “Why the fudge isn’t this done yet...?” confrontations that would otherwise complicate the process.
Lisa: From what other sources do you draw inspiration? Books? Movies? Interpretive dance?
Ethan Casner: I’ve always been a student and admirer of secular philosophy. With regards to Sci-Fi, I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars but always felt that the one place those amazing worlds that captivated me as a child lacked was in realism. Works like Blade Runner and the Ghost In the Shell series told me things I needed to hear; That it’s ok to inject realism into surrealism when you’re trying to imagine what a “real” future might look like.
As much as I loved the utopia of Star Trek, it was an impossible future made to be easily digested. There will always be profanity, hurt, and the pursuit of fulfillment of individual need until the day when human beings cease to be human.
As much as I loved Star Wars, it taught me truths also. First and foremost, it taught me not to have heroes, or to hold the works of another person as inherently sacred and infallible. I got a first row seat to watching the Star Wars of my youth twisted and contorted into something commercial and grotesque by its creator. People would never have tolerated Da Vinci to come back 500 years later and say, “You know what, I think I’d rather the painting have a gungan in the background to appeal to a younger demographic.” and neither should they tolerate it when George Lucas did it. Secondly it taught me that people know, and very much do not appreciate, when they’re being tricked. Everyone on Earth prefers the dirty, realistic puppeteering on real sets of films 4, 5 and 6 to the sterile perfection of CG environments and even worse, CG actors. These “shortcuts” cheapen and diminish the connection your audience has with your world, who as they grow to adults, slowly begin to see things for what they are and subsequently learn to resent you for it.
What I’ve tried to accomplish with Divergence is to create a semi-likely future that players can not only have fun playing in, but also let down their guard and actually invest in emotionally. This isn’t a franchise that will ever be sold to Disney, or have its own watered-down PG-13 series on Sci-Fi (I don’t recognize the new trendy way of saying it) network with a pre-approved catalogue of near-curse-words and an ethnic makeup approved by market research and focus groups. Those are the ways of “un-truth”.
Lisa: What does a typical work day look like for you as you develop the game? Is it all Divergence all the time, or is there the necessity for a day job?
Ethan Casner: I tried the “day job” thing in the past and it just doesn’t work out. If I’m not behind on my bills nothing gets done. Each day that I work on the game, be it creating islands for paying customers, training interns or generally being an annoying prick to our few part-time programmers, I wake up thinking that if something doesn’t get done that day the world is going to come to an end. Someone will quit the team because I had to get five hours of sleep last night and I wasn’t around when they logged on at 6am, the community will turn on me and the entire thing will unravel. Then I get it together and accept that even if all of those things happened simultaneously, it doesn’t matter. I am obligated to see this through to the end by mandate of force of will alone if necessary.
There’s a line of dialogue in the game not yet implemented involving two characters. The first is relaying an irreconcilable catastrophe of which there is no going back to the way things were and asks of the second, “What does one do in such a situation...” The second responds, “One get’s one shit together!”
That line I reflect on at least a dozen times a day, and one does just that.
Lisa: if you could start the whole process over again today, knowing what you know, is there anything you would you do differently? Is there any advice you wish you’d had back in the day?
Ethan Casner: Oh yes. Beware of anyone who says, “I wouldn’t change anything”. A person without regrets is a person who has neither lost anything of value nor learned anything of value. It’s a mental disconnected from visualizing “what could have been” or “what might be” that is at the core of the human drive towards advancement. Not everyone has it. But you aren’t asking me if I have any advice for other Indie developers, you’re asking me if I would have advice for myself.
If I could go back in time and see myself, the me of 2006 would not believe the me of 2013. We are too skeptical to believe in time travel. Therefore the best thing for the project would be to slay that person and assume their role. The me of 2006 would understand. It’s for the best. That way I would already know ahead of time who is worth it and who isn’t. Who I should have been more understanding towards and who I should have cut loose a long time ago. Such a wealth of knowledge would present such a vast opportunity to get so much done and to save so much money! I would, for instance, already know not to waste four years of my life with C4 Engine.
And with that, our conversation ends, for now at least. I’d like to thank Ethan Casner for his remarkable patience with this whole interview process. And to those of you eager for more Divergence Online news, I promise we’ll check in on Ethan (and his virtual baby) again soon.