Series Info...#12: A Brief History of Game, Part Five: Castle Marrach

by Shannon Appelcline

December 7, 2000 - Last week I offered a quick overview of the history of Skotos Tech – how we got started and what our initial plans were. This week I'd like to continue down that path, focusing on where we are now. Which is to say, I'd like to talk about Castle Marrach.

The Castle of Romance

From the start we understood that Skotos Tech had a unique opportunity. By truly creating a fun storytelling and roleplaying environment we could appeal to a demographic traditionally untouched by computer games.


Thus was the idea for the Castle of Romance born. It was really just a theory at first, a sort of intellectual idea that showed the type of thing we could produce at Skotos. We considered the idea for a bit, then shelved it as something to think about someday.

The Castle Hightower

In May, June, and July, Mike and Lisa, our two game designers, began work on the games they'd been hired to write: Alvatia and Golden Gate: 1849. However, it quickly became obvious that the game server wasn't ready for something of that complexity yet. So we decided to take a step back...

We'd already been talking about Stages by this time. They'd be preconstructed locales which could be used to run any type of game. StoryTellers could check out a Stage and run a fun night's or weekend's entertainment: murder mystery, political intrigue, scavenger hunt... whatever they wanted. The technical requirements for a Stage were a lot simpler than the technical requirements for a full World, so we decided to create a Stage as a demo, to go with our developer kit, while Zell moved forward building the server.

We remembered the Castle of Romance and decided that a Castle would be a great setting, applicable to many different types of games. A Ball on Monday; a murder on Tuesday; and even a modern mystery on Wednesday. It sounded perfect. Calling it the Castle of Romance constrained it a bit much... so it became the Castle Hightower.

Our first documentation on Castle Hightower dates to July 23, 1999, just a few days after we officially incorporated Skotos Tech.

Some of the first notes are fairly ironic. Mike wrote the following about StoryTeller characters in the Castle: "Relatively few (servants, the Chamberlain, musicians, the Ice Queen and her maids, a few guards, birds, dogs, the Omphaloomp, the Talkative Gargoyle, etc.)" A few days later Lisa added some notes on things that didn't happen in the Castle: "Extended persistence [and] long, elaborate, continuously running plots."

A first lesson for StoryBuilders today:

  • Your game will mutate. Go with this.
Development on Castle Hightower continued through September 1999 without a lot of change from the initial concept. Maps were drawn. Rooms were described. The castle was laid out via web pages, then our developers started playing with the first version of our developer interface. You'd recognize many of the rooms, but we still presumed that the Castle Hightower was going to be a demo, despite the fact that it had grown to a few hundred rooms in size. A second lesson for StoryBuilders:
  • Your game will grow uncontrollably. Be aware of this.
The Castle Forgotten

What follows is about nine months of blurred time, from September 1999 to June 2000. A gestation period, as it were, for Skotos Tech and for the Castle that would be Marrach. (When I passed this article on to Lisa, she agreed, saying, "I have no idea what happened between September and December 1999 either. In fact, I remember being at a planning meeting in September that included nothing at all for Michael or I to do. I volunteered at the time to take those months off – paid of course.")

We backed off of Castle Hightower a little bit. The initial work had already been done. We weren't yet planning to create a game that would always been running, so we didn't need much in the way of plot or characters. Besides that, the server and the developer interface were in flux, and it became obvious that any work done on Hightower would just have to be redone later. So, we put our little demo aside, for use later.

It was at the end of September 1999 that Christopher Allen gave the financial go ahead for Skotos. After that we began to consolidate as a real company. We moved into a new office. We wrote a business plan, then another one, then a third. We began working on a second-generation web site, to replace the animated graphic on our old web site which boldly stated "It's always the darkest before the dawn" and promised a release in "September 2000". As we moved through the start of 2000 it became obvious that the five of us weren't going to be able to do this on our own and we began to hire more engineers.

The Castle Remembered

Sometime in here there was a decision. I can no longer recall the exact time, but it was probably early in 2000, after the annoyances of our office move and the y2k holocaust were done. We decided that Golden Gate: 1849 and, especially, Alvatia were still far out of our grasp and we really needed to start building a customer base and making some money. We really needed to do something for that date we'd been promising on our web page. September 2000.

Deadlines? Customers? Income? It was an odd attitude for a dot com company, especially before the dot com crash of April 2000. Nonetheless, it seemed like a good idea.

At the same time we were turning some new ideas around in our minds. We'd been looking at MUSHes and had seen that they could produce quite successful games, solely based on socialization. People interacted and told stories and had fun. Though we couldn't produce Worlds yet we could definitely create a terrific social environment and keep it running all the time. This idea became our "Grand Theatres". We remembered that Castle we had put aside in late 1999 and began to consider it anew, as our first Grand Theatre.

A game was born.

The Castle Marrach

The name Marrach first appeared on September 8, 1999, just when the first round of Hightower building was dying down. Castle Hightower hadn't sounded exotic enough, so we'd worked up a bunch of alternatives including: Kear Euhallys, Caistel Mortorran, Caer Bannog Twr, and Casteldyn. And Caistel Marrach.

By March 23, 2000, we'd definitely chosen Marrach as our name of choice. No doubt, it was ruled the name least likely to hurt a player trying to say the word.

That's MARE-ick, by the way, or mar-ICK or MARE-ack, depending on who's pronouncing it here at the office. It does not rhyme with squash or wash. Castle Marrach comes from the Gaelic. It means a castle which bewitches and keeps you. We hope.

Early in 2000 we began plotting out all the systems we needed in Marrach, some of which you're familiar with (proximity, consent), some of which have not yet appeared (favor, accent). We worked out a story for Castle Marrach and began to see how the game might run.

When June rolled around, we decided we needed some help, and so we hired one of the former administrators of Camelot MUSH. She worked with our initial notes and began to construct the sub-plots and the people of Castle Marrach. She gave it a feel of high fantasy and romance, which you'll particularly see reflected when the Inner Bailey is opened up.

As we approached the September 21 deadline which we'd set for ourselves, we realized that we were running behind. We'd never done this before, after all, and we really didn't know everything that was involved. Another freelancer started putting the rooms into the developer interface and another couple started developing the Outer Bailey, full of intrigues all its own. The Outer Bailey had a darker, grittier feel than the Inner Bailey... and we loved it.

A third lesson for StoryBuilders today:

  • Different StoryBuilders will have different styles. Take advantage of this.
I should take a moment here to say that we hadn't forgotten our original conception of a demo to package with our developer interface. We came up with a new one, called SkootOnInn. It was a small Medieval inn, only a dozen or so rooms large. Much more manageable. We ran alpha tests on it beginning in July 2000.

Those last months before September 21, 2000 were a blur, again. We attended our first major convention, GenCon, in August 2000 and came back with approximately 700 names in hand: players who wanted to beta test Castle Marrach. We launched a new, third-generation web site too, all in the month before our first release.

A major convention, a major web revision, and a major release, all in just over a month. In the last column, I said we were crazy. Let me reiterate that.

We did it though. I talked about the release back in my first column. It was the end of several months of exhausting work. It was the beginning of several months of exhausting work.

Looking back at that first column, I realize we'd come full circle. On January 6, 1999 seven of us had sat in a hotel room in San Francisco, the westward facing window looking out at The City and the Pacific Ocean beyond, and we'd dreamed. On September 21, 2000 a dozen of us or so stood on a patio in Berkeley, facing west, looking out at The Bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond, and we saw a dream made reality.

A nice symmetry.

The Castle of Romance, the Castle Hightower, the Castle Forgotten, the Castle Remembered, the Castle Marrach had launched.

The Castle Future

Today, the future is still unknown to us. Next year we'll start collecting credit card numbers, and we hope we'll discover that people enjoy our games and trust in our future enough to pay a monthly fee. In the meantime, we can only look at what we've accomplished, what we've created thus far: a fun game, a terrific community, an exciting vision.

Over 2000 players have at least tried out our game. We're still seeing how many are willing to stick around and enjoy the game. We're still waiting to see what Castles the future may bring.

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