Series Info... #1: First Date Jitters

by Shannon Appelcline

September 21, 2000 - Welcome one and all to a new column about the care and feeding of an online-only game. We've just released our first online-only game, Castle Marrach, and it's begun to dawn on me that there's stuff going on behind the scenes that people might be interested in. So that's the purpose of this column: to ever so slightly reveal the man behind the curtains.

I'm counting on two audiences for this column.

My first audience is players, who I'm sure will be interested in knowing the latest behind the scenes facts – I'm going to start out talking about Castle Marrach, but I expect to move on to other games as we release them.

My second audience is game developers. The title of this column lists three main topics – trials, triumphs & trivialities. It's really the trials that I want to focus on, not because they're the main focus of our days here at Skotos (one would hope). I want to focus on the trials because I'd like to offer some lessons for all the StoryBuilders who will be coming after us.

This is intended to be a weekly column running about 500-1000 words each time around. It's going to be pretty informal – my off-the-cuff thoughts about the previous week. I expect to be pretty frank too about what's necessary to produce a successful online-only game. I hope you'll enjoy it. Welcome aboard and feel free to drop me comments at

So What About Those First Date Jitters?

Today's been marked on all our calendars for quite some time, in bold, black, indelible ink. September 21, 2000. For the last six months or so, that's been the date set for the release of Castle Marrach, our first online game.

That date has been weighing on all of us pretty heavily. I had a nightmare last night that I logged on to Marrach on the 22nd, after our release, and found it empty. And then there's the gazillions of times that I've asked people, "So, is it going to ready for the launch?" We've put in long hours. We've slept in the office. We've forgotten what weekends are. But, we did it.

Today we released Castle Marrach.

This morning was full of worries. The start story wasn't working right. It output some rumors and some memories incorrectly. It wasn't hooked in to the login page at the beginning or the game at the end. And that was just one of many problems. Our automated seamstress didn't work. The top levels of the Castle weren't quite done. Maps weren't linked with the rooms of the second and third floors. The list went on.

Last night we filled a sheet of paper with required tasks for launch – neatly laserprinted letters intermingled with hastily scribbled notes that had become increasingly indecipherable as the evening went on. Check marks next to these tasks were notably infrequent.

It was chaos, but carefully ordered chaos. As we moved through the morning we made progress and slowly our master task sheet was filled with checks.

There were some lessons learned today and I'm noting them down for all those future StoryBuilders in the Skotos community.

When You Choose a Date, Stick with It. This is a darned important one. After we'd chosen a date and begun to make announcements, we worked really hard to stick with it. After we went to GenCon and invited hundreds of people to Castle Marrach, there wasn't much chance of it moving. We would have lost interest and credibility and that would have been death for us at this stage. We said we'd come out on September 21 and we did.

Keep Your Players Informed.
In all honesty, we slipped a little bit. We planned to go online at 3pm and it ended up being 4pm because of some last minute issues that we hadn't quite solved yet. It seemed to work out OK, though, and I haven't heard a single complaint yet about the (minor) slippage. We made sure that our players were informed. Despite the fact that we were in last-minute crisis crunch mode, we took a few minutes out to call our web designer and ask him to put up a page that announced the delay. The flow of information is something that I learned back in my days as a system administrator – it's crucial.

Be Ready to Adjust Your Ideal Vision. We had an ideal vision for Castle Marrach that involved the release of a feature-complete castle. This included lots of things that we still need to add to the castle, including: working computer NPCs, a fully functional consent system, gaits, poses, a good sound system, and a more complex clothing system. As we approached M-day we had to decide whether we could release or not. We really didn't want to miss the date, but we had to make sure Marrach was functional (and fun!). We looked at the state of the castle, we considered carefully, and we ultimately decided that though it didn't quite match our entire far-flung conception, that it was very playable, and could still be a lot of fun. So, we released Marrach and plan to continue dribbling in these new features as the beta progresses.

At 10 o'clock or so tonight, Skotos gathered together on our patio that overlooks the San Francisco Bay. We filled glasses with champagne and for a moment gazed out into the night – at the dark ocean, at the dimly-lit sky. Then we raised up our glasses and began to offer toasts – to the people who had made this launch a success, to the future, to Marrach. It was a moment of a community, a moment of fraternity, a moment in which dreams had been fulfilled.

Welcome to our dream.

We still have a long road to walk, but we've passed the first milestone and for the first time our destination is ever so faintly visible in the distance.

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