Making a video game isn’t easy. Nowadays, games themselves have budgets that rival even some of the most expensive movies of all time, with each game needing to outdo the last to stay relevant in today’s industry. The MMORPG genre itself can be a challenge for even the most established of studios. More and more large companies are shying away from the traditional MMORPGs we know from yesteryear, instead opting for more streamlined, quick session experiences.
As a result, many small, independent developers have taken up the mantle of creating old-style MMORPGs, the kind many of the developers themselves liked to play back in the day. Saga of Lucimia, the upcoming fantasy-based MMORPG from Austin-based Stormhaven Studios, is one such game. Currently in Alpha and gearing up for their Stage Three test this April, the team behind Saga is definitely taking the MMO genre back to its roots. With a strong focus on grouping and teamwork, Lucimia looks to create a compelling RPG experience you can enjoy with your friends, akin to the hardcore sessions of Dungeons & Dragons many of us still enjoy.
“The funny thing to me is that no one ever calls that hardcore gaming,” Tim Anderson, Saga of Lucimia’s Creative Director said in an interview with MMORPG last week. “Like no one ever looks at people scheduling a D&D session and says, ‘That’s hardcore.’ But the moment you apply that same dynamic to an MMORPG, people start saying ‘Oh, your game’s hardcore.'”
Tim’s game, Saga of Lucimia has its roots in MMORPGs of old: EverQuest, Star Wars: Galaxies and more. The emphasis on grouping is evident when you look at Saga either on their website or in the multiple streams and blogs Tim’s team has published since development first started in 2014, and over time the team has steadily been adding more and more to the MMO to get it ready for release. Most recently, the team released a stream showcasing some of the group content and combat you might expect to find in Saga of Lucimia.
MMORPG development isn’t easy, even as a large studio. So when Stormhaven made their first foray into game development of an MMORPG, it definitely turned some heads.
“We were at the Austin Game Conference at the end of 2017, our team had gone there for educational purposes. We had paid for tickets, and I think [it was] seven of us and we were just there to learn more about the industry and sit down [and] talk to people,” Tim told me over Discord. “But by chance we got invited to be part of the top 10 in the Game Dev showcase with Intel. And as a result, we ended up getting a bunch of publishers looking at us and people wanting to talk to us. And there was another series of dev teams that were there, and all of the other devs that were in the Indie Game Dev Showcase were little two to three man teams. There was nobody there that was doing an MMORPG, it was all scroller platform games.
“One of them, it was a husband and wife duo. I remember they came over to our booth and they had worked for Epic Games in the past, so they had a AAA background. And they walked over and he was like, ‘I can’t believe you guys decided to do an MMORPG as the first project you ever undertook.’ I think we kind of just said, ‘Fuck it, and ran with it.’”
Studios nowadays shy away from MMORPGs as a whole - unless it’s a very specific type of experience. Many MMOs nowadays are flashy affairs, offering a more “on-the-rails” experience versus the story driven, group-based concepts of yesteryear. Modern MMOs like The Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers sort of straddle the mold of the old and new, but nowadays most AAA MMOs are action-heavy, and imminently soloable.
MMO development is risky, something Tim acknowledges and is even taking head-on with Stormhaven Studios. The small team of developers are hard at work on Saga of Lucimia, but its development course has been anything but traditional, as Tim explains it.
“We went from being just a bunch of people who liked playing games - none of us had any previous game development experience. So we jumped into this. We just went in cold. We knew about Unity Engine, Pantheon’s kickstarter had come out. My brother was in college at the time and was working with Unity. So we started to see that maybe this was something we could actually do. So it started off, where it’s just like, five or six of us doing it for fun.”
In retrospect, Tim tells me, starting off with an MMORPG is something he’s not sure he’d do again, but hindsight is always 20/20. Many of the issues that face large studios are compounded as well when you look at a smaller staff - especially one that was quasi-learning game dev on the fly. However, Saga of Lucimia continued to turn heads at every single turn - the team started to throw stuff up on Facebook in 2014 and gained interest from people just eager to help out. However, some of the traditional things larger corporations have to look at when making design decisions is something his team is a bit more flexible with, given the nature of his company versus someone like Blizzard.
“If you look at what everyone wants to build, in a modern era, it tends to be a very cookie cutter format, because they know what makes money and that's what they're in the business of: they are in the business of making money. Because these are big, multi billion dollar companies, and that's how they survive. They've got boards of directors, they have corporate heads, they have investors, it's a big machine. And you can even look at where Blizzard started off, as you know, as just a handful of guys at a college, building a handful of games and then becoming over time this giant beast became a corporate entity in and of itself.
“When you get to that level, and you're being run by a board of directors and a series of investors, there are, you know, there's like a maximum level of risk that you're allowed to take because you have to always be making money, that's the only thing you're allowed to do. And obviously, money is important. No company can exist if they're not making money. But if I can look at that and say, you know, from a risk perspective, one of the things that we've always benefited from, is the fact that we bootstrapped everything in the very beginning - for about two years, it was all out of our own pocket and everything.”
In the years since Saga of Lucimia has been in development, Tim tells me he has not drawn a paycheck from the game - everything goes back into the game or hiring contractors to work on Saga.
“So because we bootstrapped and did it all on our own and, to this day, you know I'm six years into this project I have yet to draw a paycheck. Out of the original six of us, that started things back in the day, the four that are still here, [as] we had a couple people who just dropped off over the years because we're working for free. So when you're working for free for twelve hours a day, on top of a day job, you know, for six years that tends to get understandably to be something that can wear on some people. So to this day, you know, I've not drawn a paycheck, my brother's not brought in a paycheck, John's not drawn a paycheck. That's something where because we were able to do that, because we've bootstrapped it all this way.
“The money from the pre-order store allowed us to mitigate our out of pocket expenses, start paying for the business itself. By the time we got to the Austin game conference, we were on stage, which got publishers interested in this. And when we started to see the publishers interested in this and numbers started being thrown in our direction, it was like, Well, if publishers are willing to give us this kind of money, then why wouldn't we just go out and talk to investors to give us that money because then we don't have to give up any rights to our company. And we don't have to give up such a huge chunk of our income to anybody, let's just do it ourselves. And that led to getting our initial seed round, which got us contractors in 2018, which allowed us to continue building the game out.”
MMORPGs aren’t cheap either - as mentioned previously, many games now have the same budget as some of the top-tier movies on the market place. Red Dead Redemption 2, VentureBeat estimates, cost Rockstar close to $644 million to make - double that of Avengers: Endgame. MMORPGs themselves are some of the more expensive games on the market to create, with games taking close to a decade of development time - even if the public only really know of a game in the latter years leading up to its release. So a team drawing $100K per person a year salaries for eight-nine years to develop an MMO, plus all the infrastructure, licensing, bonding, to keep it going for years after its initial release, it’s no wonder AAA studios are creating games that have proven to be a money making model instead of taking the risks smaller studios can take.
Saga of Lucimia is running off investor money as well as the initial influx of pre-orders before the team shut down its store, but the game, as Tim mentioned previously, was bootstrapped at the beginning. This allowed the team to offset some of the initial costs to this point and create the game they wanted to create.
“Because we've bootstrapped, that has allowed us to basically offset millions of dollars of salary in exchange for basically just blood sweat and tears. And the difficulty in that is not that it's, I wouldn't say that it's hard to build an MMORPG. Obviously there are intricacies to it. The hard part is being willing to work extra hours for all those years, to build something that is your dream.”
Working long or extra hours for many automatically sounds like “crunch” in the gaming world. And with good reason. Crunch is something that is often talked about in our industry - an issue that many game companies struggle with due to the deadlines imposed by publishers or leadership without fully understanding - or caring - about the human cost of such crunch tactics. For many studios, crunch is inevitable, and it comes at the detriment of its workforce. One need only look at Anthem’s troubled development - riddled with poor leadership and crunch that doomed the game right away. Tim shared his thoughts on crunch and the discussion surrounding it in the games industry in recent years, especially given his circumstances of building Saga without drawing a single paycheck for six years.
“I see a lot of people complain - it’s a hot topic the last couple of years, crunch in the industry is a hot topic, right? I have no sympathy for people who complain about crunch. And I’m going to explain why. Because these people in AAA companies are making AAA salaries and they’re getting paid time and a half for their overtime, right? So not only are they getting very well compensated for their time, they’re also getting to work in video games, which is a dream come true for almost anyone. As a business owner, I’ve been working crunch for six years with no pay. So I have no sympathy for people who talk about crunch because when you’re building something, that’s what it takes.
“Now, obviously, I don’t expect that of our contractors because they get paid to work their 40 hours or whatever and that’s done.”
In a follow up statement provided to MMORPG, Tim provided more context as to why he holds this viewpoint on crunch itself and the overall industry discussion:
"So here's a better way to talk about that, based on a conversation we just had with an investor, recently. They asked us "What separates your team from others? What makes your team really stand out?" And I answered, "We aren't afraid of crunch."
"Now, it's important to note that I'm talking about "we" the business owners, the partners in Stormhaven Studios. Not our contractors; those folks can work more than 40 hours if they want, but it's not mandatory, and most of them typically work 20ish hours per week for us, on top of whatever other freelance work they do.
"Bill Gates has gone on to talk about how startup founders shouldn't take vacations or days off when they are building their company , and Elon Musk wrote a tweet back in 2018 that resonates with us. "There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week."
"Those are belief systems that holds true for us as company founders, which is why I feel the whole "crunch" discussion has been taken way out of context over the past few years, and why I don't really have a lot of sympathy for people who complain about working overtime "just because".
"I'm not talking unjust overtime. There are plenty of labor laws in place that compensate employees fairly for mandatory overtime, and everyone in an employee position/salaried position should be expected to work some overtime here and there as part of their job duties. They are compensated at an above-normal-salary rate for that; there are laws in place to protect people from unjust overtime.
"But when I see/hear people applying this blanket statement that crunch is bad "just because", I don't buy into that. I don't agree. I *do* agree that too much overtime for a salaried employee is bad, and there was a great article published recently over at Slate that talks about how you don't owe a company your undying loyalty. But I think people need to understand that when we see articles come out talking about crunch, why is it that you never see the management or business owners complaining about the extra hours, but only the 40-hour-a-week folks?
"I can tell you that, as a business owner who has worked unpaid for six years on this project, that I don't get to have sick days. I don't get to take time off because I don't "feel like" working, or because I went out partying too hard last night, or because I've worked hard the past 45 days. If someone can't make it because they are sick, or they can't make a deadline because their power went out, or they have a family emergency, or whatever, I'm the one that has to pick up the slack because ultimately I'm the one responsible to our community, to our investors, and to all of my contractors and employees who want to have a job tomorrow. So I have to find a solution to those problems, even when that means I'm the one working 18 hour days for months on end without any sort of extra compensation for my time. I have't had a proper vacation since we started this project, and I won't until we finish and publish.
"Now, granted, the payoff for me is that, should all of these things be as successful as we want them to be and we plan for them to be, then I will be justly rewarded for my time. Far more than an hourly employee will be compensated. But that's the tradeoff, isn't it? In return for loyalty and 500% dedication to the company, myself and my business partners (who have been working for free for all these years, well beyond 40 hour work weeks, on top of secondary jobs) get to see rewards that go well beyond a simple hourly rate and/or overtime pay.
"I think crunch is an important topic, but let's discuss it in its entirety, not just from the perspective of the 40-hour-a-week hourly employee who doesn't owe the company any loyalty and doesn't care about time-and-a-half compensation when they haven't seen their spouse/significant other/kids in six months. Because that person is totally justified in feeling overworked. But someone who only has to work an extra 10 hours a week for 4-6 weeks out of the whole year? Completely different subject.
"At the end of the day, as a business owner, I don't get to simply tender my resignation and put in a job application somewhere else if I don't like the way the job is turning out. I'm here, sink or swim, and that requires a level of sacrifice and loyalty that goes way beyond what an hourly employee or contractor will ever have (and nor should they have, as they aren't business owners)."
Saga of Lucimia is often counted as one of the more anticipated MMORPGs coming on the market, alongside games like Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen or Camelot: Unchained. Much of the hype being built around Saga can be attributed to the fact that Tim and his team are so open with their community - in fact, Tim himself is an active member of these forums, consistently commenting on and interacting with fans either about his game or other MMOs covered on the site. This level of transparency is unheard of in today’s gaming industry, especially when so many games have carefully curated PR campaigns, planning the release of information months and years in advance.
Personally, I find this refreshing - it’s nice to see the CEO of a company essentially getting into the trenches and discussing in detail the game they are creating. It’s also refreshing to see so much documented on the process of how Saga is being created. Tim feels it’s important for him to be out there on the front lines, interacting with both those who support and leave positive comments, as well as those who are, well, not so nice.
“I’m a big believer that, as a company leader, I don’t want to be there saying, ‘Give me your money, improve my game.’ I’m there in the trenches, playing games with people every single day, showing people that I care about them as a person - that I’m there too. That’s how I got started. I am a gamer. I’ve always been a gamer. I’m still a gamer. Just because there’s this mythology that the CEO of a company is somehow this ‘important person’ - I cry bullshit on that. I may be the founder, etc; but at the same time I’m still just a gamer.
I’ve always been a big believer in being in the trenches with everyone and being accessible to everyone. And the number one mandate for us from the beginning has been that we’re going to document every single thing down to the napkin sketch.”
As a result of this, Tim and his team have released countless videos and blogs, streams and more showcasing the development history of Saga of Lucimia. As a result, Stormhaven Studios does something very different than many of the PR campaigns you see at larger outlets: they show everything - warts and all - to the community as it happens. This is influenced by what the dev team wants from other game companies - transparency.
“We’re a company founded by gamers, so we went into it with that mentality. ‘What do we want to see from other game companies? What is the transparency that I want?’ And I’m going to give that to our people. And so we’ve always done that.”
One of the more recent endeavors the team has undertaken in the desire to be transparent and open a dialogue is their new “Topic of the Week.” The team posts a topic to the forum and Tim later records a video of himself discussing the topic as well as answering questions and comments from the forum post itself. It’s intriguing, especially when topics range from MMO mechanics like ways to keep older zones relevant as you move through the game to hot-button issues such as game monetization.
These types of discussions show a level of transparency not found with many other MMOs, even the crowdfunded or Kickstarted ones - though Saga of Lucimia is neither of those (Tim tells me the Indiegogo page the team created was done as a way to let friends and family give money to the game development legally before Stormhaven became a LLC). And as a result, it gives fans a look into how MMOs themselves are made. These types of discussions usually only happen behind closed doors - regardless of studio-size, how you make money off your game is a huge decision. Tim tells me that this discussion is nothing new even within their own community, having posed the topic to their backers for three years.
Saga of Lucimia is an interesting MMO to follow, especially with a team that makes themselves available to be part of the conversation, wherever - and however - it may take place.
“When I’m responding to everybody, then when somebody who comes in and is interested in what we’re saying, then they are going to see that not only am I responding to all the positive, I’m also responding to all the negatives. [...] Anytime I see a backlink coming into our site, I will go there and engage in a conversation with whoever’s leaving a comment about our game - regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.”
At the end of the day, MMO development is complex - as is any game’s development. Decisions are made by the studio that can and will affect the future of the game years down the line. As a result, many major studios working on MMOs don’t take the level of risks to do something outside the box - or even go back to the genre roots - because the bottom line is most important. And while Tim is never going to say that money isn’t important to the business, creating a great game that they love and enjoy and hope other people will agree with them on is first and foremost on their mind as they work towards their target launch of 2021.
“But because we aren't burdened by tens of millions of dollars of debt, or a publisher who's pushing at us that we have to do this by a certain date, or that we have to hit these numbers or they're going to drop us or they're going to cancel us or whatever, we can literally do whatever the hell we want, whenever the hell we want, and do things at our own pace, which is what we've always done, and just continue to do the best we can and create it.
“You know, ultimately, what we're trying to do is create a good game that's fun for people that want to play. We're not too focused on the numbers, although obviously we do have minimums that we're shooting for. But that risk factor that you were talking about the beginning. We're not really burdened by that because we're building the game that we wanted to play. And there are a lot of people who want to play the type of game that we're building. And that's something that is inspiring for us.”