Guest Post: Artix spills his undead guts about the AdventureQuest 3D MMORPG - warts and laughs included.
Death, Mutiny, & Weekly Releases - The AdventureQuest 3D Story
We invited the MMO gaming legend, Artix, to tell the behind-the-scenes story of his team's Kickstarter MMORPG AdventureQuest 3D (AQ3D). It is a tale of laughter, heart, and grand (read: foolish) ambition that refuses to be curtailed.
Hiya! Artix here.
Have you heard of AdventureQuest 3D before? If you asked most people (and please, do not-- we read Twitter too) it is a cross-platform MMORPG. Successfully funded on KickStarter over five years ago, the game is currently updated every week with new content. It has even featured special events with guests like Korn, Alice in Chains, and Breaking Benjamin. Oh, and the game appeared on an episode of the TV show, Designated Survivor.
Would you like to know the behind the scenes story of why and how we are making all this? (I mean, that is a question we ask ourselves daily. But why let that get in the way of a good story?) Let me take you on the adventure of a lifetime... through the deep lore surrounding AdventureQuest 3D!
The first day of the KickStarter took off like a rocket... but unfortunately it was one of those early Tesla rockets that blew up shortly after launch.
So in 2002, I created this game called AdventureQuest. Almost a decade later, we reimagined it as a 2D MMORPG and called it AdventureQuest Worlds. Both games are updated weekly to this day. If you do not believe us, you can check them out here and here.
Less than five years later we made the big decision, supported by countless player requests, to make the next AdventureQuest as a MASSIVELY multiplayer 3D RPG... in Flash.
A 3D Flash MMO!?
"Flash? You mean the browser plugin?" Yes, you heard that right. The plan was to make AdventureQuest 3D a browser-based game. We bet the farm (and the dungeon, and the keep, and my mortgage...) on the experimental Flash exporter that Unity (the popular game development tool) was creating. I even talked with one of Unity's founders in person about it.
So after a year of intense game development and darn close to a million dollars in expenses, we got the news that Unity was officially dropping the Flash exporter. It crushed me more than when that Pittsburgh Steelers football player kicked me in the groin at martial arts class. Neither of those wounds will ever REALLY heal.
Facing an extinction level event, we took the team off Flash cold turkey and entered the terrifying world of mobile game development. We built our first mobile game, Battle Gems. It earned Best New Game on the Apple App Store at the time of release. But, being brutally transparent, that game did not even cover 10% of the cost to make it. But that is how we learned how to build for Apple and Android devices which was 100% worth it for the team!
A year later, fueled by an unquenchable hunger for redemption (and more self-punishment) we were ready to try building AdventureQuest 3D a second time. Then we asked ourselves, "but what device should we make it for?" Cue the meme picture of the girl asking... but why not all of them?
At this point in the game's development, the 50-ish developers at the Secret Underground Lab played musical chairs, meaning we were swapping everybody's roles around. At the end of the day, about a third of them were working on this new game. It was very important to players of our existing games that our other games' weekly updates continue even while we were building something new. (And they still very much feel that way today.)
MMO Money, MMO Problems
The progress was going great, but we just had one problem: we were running out of money. Our existing games were chipping in to cover the cost of AQ3D's development, but there just was not going to be enough money to make it. Literally. Something that makes our game studio, Artix Entertainment, something of a unicorn, is that we have never taken on investors. (Though we certainly are not the other kind of unicorn.)
Our games are 100% supported by the players. This is not a marketing pitch, this is just what happened. We are an indie game studio that has no big corporation as a safety net. At the time, it was a very taboo idea for a company of our size to run a KickStarter.
I was scared of doing it. But if video games taught me one thing, if you are encountering big scary challenges, you are probably going the right way. At the very end of 2015, we launched the AdventureQuest 3D KickStarter. It ambitiously touted itself as an MMO that you could log in and play from your Android, Apple, PC, and Mac. Everybody would play together in the same world. Goals and stretch goals included everything from chat to pets to PVP.
The first day of the KickStarter took off like a rocket... but unfortunately it was one of those early Tesla rockets that blew up shortly after launch. Our Kickstarter looked like it was flatlining far below the project's $200,000 goal. It was pretty bad. I was staring into an abyss of Tweets from players who created charts to show us how badly we were going to fail when we reached the end of the Kickstarter.
So I want to share this next bit with you-- especially if you are ever running a Kickstarter or similar sort of thing. Because this is the true story of how that suddenly turned around. I wrote an email. I wrote it to every player of our previous games. But I did not ask for money. No, I simply shared our sincere vision of what we wanted to create (with pictures).
A few days later the Kickstarter surpassed its funding goal.... AND we were greenlit on Steam.... AND I got the news that my wife and I were going to have a baby girl. So there were at least TWO releases to look forward to in the coming year.
The Kickstarter was completed successfully on New Year's Eve, right before the start of 2016. Backers were trying out the first Beta within just a few weeks.
We always want to over-deliver and take care of the people who support our games. That includes the Kickstarter backers. Over the next few years, we encountered every problem in the book while delivering on our KickStarter promises. And to be fair, nothing can psychologically prepare you for being a parent... or developing for Apple iOS.
"Tell me your team is small without telling me your team is small"
Every player and monster animation from the first few years of the game was done by a single animator (you are a beast, Korin!), all the models were created by a single modeler, all the maps created by a single background artist... you get the idea.
Building an MMORPG for one platform is a huge task. Developing it for 4+ at the same time was a... look, I have made a pretty sizable number of bad decisions in my 20 years as a game creator. But this one gets the grand prize. ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED!
See, in order to roll out a new version of the game, you have to submit it to every platform. Then, we need to synchronize our releases on each platform. However, each platform has its own rules, so they might not all get approved to go out at the same time. We learned how to do this... the HARD way.
For comparison, in our 2D games, here is the process to make an axe in the game.
An artist draws something
They upload it to the server
They add it to the database
They make it live... POOF it's there
(Okay, that is maybe a little bit of an oversimplification, but go with it for this example.)
Now, how about we look at the 3D process:
An artist draws a concept sketch
The sketch is sent to a modeler to create the 3D model
The model is sent to an artist who paints the texture
The painted file is sent back to the modeler for optimization
The finished file is uploaded to the cloud farm...
(What the heck is a cloud farm? Just remember, every time someone says "the cloud" they are talking about someone else's computer.) Specifically in this case, we are talking about a lonely dark room in the back of our office filled with laptops. Each laptop is running a different copy of software that converts and spits out files. Each file is required to be read by Apple, Android, Mac, and iOS. And do you know what the best part of that cloud farm is? When it actually works. XD
Then we add the database entry for the axe on a dev server...
Which then gets moved to the stage server for testing on all devices...
And then is finally rolled live so you can play it!
(Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk on cross-platform game development.)
I am really proud of our team and how hard they worked to bring all the KickStarter promises to fruition. The AdventureQuest 3D team is obsessively dedicated. We kept the weekly updates going even through Florida hurricanes, the pandemic, and a string of tragic personal losses.
It takes a lot of heart to keep building something like this. Especially as devs who actually read player reviews. But our commitment is to keep making the game better every week. We have been working on new features, areas, story updates, and more.
So why the heck are we still in Early Access on Steam? Great question! I was hoping you would ask. We are scared to death to flip that button on Steam until we have an event big enough to justify it. And that event is probably our upcoming main story. (To our players who have been patiently waiting, do not worry-- your Great Great Grandchildren will love it!)
As I write this, our team is working on the dark, mysterious, and fiend-filled Nulgath Saga. It is our newest saga which will continue raising the level cap. You are welcome to join us. The adventure begins in a red forest filled with strange, glowing red orbs. All the villagers that live there wear blind folds.
There is also a group of overzealous Paladins there searching for the pieces of a legendary shattered sword. They believe if you help them reassemble it, it can be wielded to take down the game's biggest villains. But if you have ever played a video game before, you know we did not put this much effort into their character-arcs for them to survive. Or will they?
Hope you enjoyed the full story of AdventureQuest 3D. And if MMOGames ever lures me back with the seductive temptation of writing as a guest author, I will give you the inside scoop on all our newest game updates, features, and maybe some embarrassing pictures of the team.
Hope to see you in AQ3D!