Release 16 - Defying Tech-Debt
I took another trip up to Austin last week to spend some time with Richard Garriott and Starr Long, two developers I’ve come to enjoy speaking with a great deal. I think we may touch one of my reasons for finding these visits particularly interesting in this article, actually. It really starts with what Starr calls “tech-debt.”
Despite working as a software engineer and developer for several years, it was a new term for me when Starr whipped it out of his verbal escritoire. Though, the concept of poor coding for the sake of getting something functional more quickly is hardly a foreign concept in my experience. It’s very common for a developer to need some critical component functional in order to prevent holding up other developers working on some related piece. A dev will make the decision to hack out a bit of code, knowing he’ll have to go back and clean up the earlier rough work later.
In this case, Shroud of the Avatar has moved from Unity4 to Unity5, and the tech-debt might be better termed “unrealized-potential.” Unity5 offers a host of visual and performance improvements beyond the previous version, many of which haven’t been fully taken advantage of yet. The problem is that each and every asset has to be touched in the course of doing this, and that’s where Starr’s drawing his term from when he says they have a bit of tech-debt to pay in this release.
The team rolled over to the new version of Unity back in Release 15. Amazingly, they managed to make everything work in the few short weeks they had, but now it’s time to go back through and start making use of some of the advantages. That’s not that there aren’t a few bugs that will be handled, though. For example, there were some performance issues in most urban areas that I visited in the last release, and then there’s the mysterious wall of uncomfortable moistness… Yeah, I think we’ll leave it at that.
Issues and Honesty
Bottom line, there were a few bugs introduced in the last pass after the update to Unity5, and Richard says the team is on it. Of course, that means what had been scheduled for Release 16 has been pushed back to 17, and where the next release had been intended to be a performance pass, this release is getting the treatment instead.
There we hit on one of the reasons I really enjoy these visits and have so much respect for the entire team at Portalarium. Over the years, I’ve talked with a lot of developers, and have been reading industry news for longer than that. For obvious reasons, teams often fall behind on things, miss benchmarks, or introduce bugs that need to be fixed.
It’s hardly a rare occurrence, yet it seems like every time we hear from a team responding about the problem, it nearly always comes off as disingenuous, or at best half-hearted. Nearly always, it’s an attempt to obfuscate at least a portion of what’s going on. Those of us who write about the industry often form friendships at all levels of a team though, and normally hear whispered hints at what’s not said.
What’s crazy about these guys at Port is that it’s never happened to me there. Folks like Richard, Starr, and Chris Spears are all very open and frank about problems when they come up. Frankly, their Dev+ forum regularly know about issues before even the media does. The team has never been defensive about an issue in my experience, and that comfort speaks incredible volumes about the confidence they hold in their community.
It also demonstrates a confidence in the development team by the community that I don’t think has existed in another project to date. Which is why when Starr says they’re pushing the previously scheduled items to the right on the calendar and focusing on touching each asset to improve the game’s visual experience and performance, the Shroud of the Avatar community is not only aware already of it, but uncommonly accepting of the delay.