deep black

The year 2011 – the year of hopes – is coming to its end and it is time to sum up the results. It is about six years of own game projects’ development and 11 years in the gaming industry. Next year means new goals!  For sure, they will be more ambitious than those in 2007, when the idea of Deep Black project was only emerging.

deep black

What was it like?

In the far 1997, when I was 18, I first saw PlayStation console.  I worked for a company that was doing semi-legal localisation of gaming software at those “wild” times in Russia. Working for the company was something beyond description – there were not more than 3 similar companies in whole Russia at that time.  I was very interested in software development and it took me three months to do first “game” that would successfully run on a modded PS1 console. That game earned me 1000 USD, which was very decent pay at that time in Russia – taking into account that I did both programming and drawing.

Starting with 1999, I worked as a producer of western products in the Russian market. It was easier, than developing games myself. My core tasks were to find indie games developed on GNU and buy them to publish in Russia. Indie developers were surprised, that they could earn some money in Russia.  Later there were Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox and much more game systems.  Semi-legal companies would become legal or disappear, owners of companies would change, but the localisation issue was still important. A DVD-format came to Russia.

biart_logo

It was in 2002 when I decided to set up my own company – Biart.  A first version of the company’s logo was introduced and then changed in 5 years’ time.  We were a young team and didn’t think about business-strategies – things were going well anyway. So we started experiments with design, internet services, opened three sound-recording studios and two authoring studios.  And  I hoped  that one day we would  have enough potential to develop own gaming project. So why didn’t we start developing our own game at that time? It was because we understood that we didn’t know the market well.  Besides, we felt that everything had its time. You cannot force yourself.

In 2005, I met an indie developer with an interesting concept and as I also had similar ideas, I decided to make it a commercial project.  So I made up my mind to go into the project and started searching for a script writer, team, and product placement partners etc. We had a small office and some money to finance the development. The development took us a year. We worked hard and devoted our souls and hearts to our work.

So in 2007 Diver: Deep Water Adventures appeared on PC platform. Deals were good at that time and we decided not to play with royalties and prefer a flat fee scheme. Publishers were more adequate then compared to the period after the economic crisis. Publishers were hungry for games.

But our German publisher cheated us and we did not get the last payment from them. It was a guy from Gost Publishing who sold rights to Frogster without paying to the U.S. No need to say that Frogster assured us that they had paid it all. Stephane Gonod – the guy from Gost Publishing – disappeared and half a year later announced himself bankrupt. It is funny that a year ago he set up a new company in cooperation with an ex-Frogster employee and when we accidentally met at a conference, his only words were “Shit happens”. God will judge him.

So the project was released and there was a question – what’s next? I always strive to set new, more complicated goals, so development for PC was not so challenging for me anymore. Everybody was talking about game consoles and I realized that we should slow down with Diver 2 for a few years and devote ourselves to own multiple platform technology’s development.  And accordingly, our new goal was now to create own engine for next-gen titles. I sent an inquiry to Microsoft and a miracle happened – we got a status of an official developer! Thank you guys, if not for you, we would most definitely remain one of those numerous PC-only developers from Russia. So I was one of the first who brought Xbox 360 devkit to Moscow. It was not easy at all to deal with the Russian customs, but once again, thank you to our account manager – Alistair, you are the best!

There was another challenging task – where do we get people and how do we get a team if nobody in Russia can program for consoles, optimise the code and – most crucial – artists do content of very low quality level.  But as they say, believe and love what you do and you will find people who will believe in you and in your project.  Another hint – feel and understand who you are going to employ, for someone without experience is able to learn and the other is only going to “eat” your budget.  Speaking of numbers – it took us a year to experiment with staff and content. The real development itself started in late 2008 – 2009, when the team got skilled enough.

PS3-Deep-Black

The project’s original title was U-Wars. Later we renamed it to Deep Black. Platforms – PC and Xbox 360. It is a third-person shooter with key moments being fought onshore and underwater. Special underwater mechanics, jet pack etc.  The idea of the game appeared after I read various articles about special underwater operation forces. We started doing a game about these Special Forces but then I changed my mind and we did it in the sci-fi genre, abandoning the previous script.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”480″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FPSF8-d28Q[/youtube]

The period of active development of the game was 2010. At the same time, we went into agreements with publishers and started working on PlayStation 3 version of the game. It was not easy, but for sure it was a challenge for the team!

2011 is a year of the technology’s optimisation and content polishing. And now I am going to tell you about all drawbacks we had. I think this may be interesting.

  1. Content

We replaced our game designer three times. There are no experienced game designers in Russia, who know how to do shooters. In 2011, I took over and we spent the entire summer polishing and balancing the game.

We should have done feature cuts earlier. It hurt to cut when we had to do it later. Still even after the cut there were 10 hours of gameplay there. We also cut some game mechanics. Gradually you come to understand that it is better to do less but in decent quality.

The pipeline settled by the development’s final stage. I relied upon level designers’ common sense and some of them were wrong when incorrectly putting emphasis in level design.  For instance, level designers used to pay too much attention to places; a regular player would run by within three seconds and would not notice.

Our major problem was that we lacked experience. As a result, too many iterations.  If I started the project now, I could economize not less than 1.5M USD (total to-date budget 4.2M). The pipeline and exact task setting – this is what counts. When you feel that your ship is going in the wrong direction, do not be afraid to change your staff. I said good-bye to those who didn’t match our dream team in 2011. If you are an indie, fire those who only work for their salaries and who do not go with the level of your team.

  1. Technology

First, there was weak understanding of the architecture and some mistakes of the lead programmer.  Let me put it like this: we were unlucky with our technical architect and had to re-do the technology three times before we dismissed him.  Integration of new features to the render was changing the pipeline in terms of art. As said above, it took us one year to experiment with the technology and develop first toolset. To me, it was like a joker in the pack – the arts and programming departments would set some terms, but in reality it appeared that nobody had control of the situation. Difficult? It was. Especially when you invest your own money. And your employees do like to experiment 🙂 As a result – we finally got a working technology for Xbox 360 and PC in 2010… But our publisher then wanted PlayStation 3. I have to admit that we were afraid of it. And not in vain.

At that moment we had strong guys in our team and decided that we could do it. We got the hardware in August. And we realized that we had to do the impossible – once again re-write the whole architecture of the render and do refactoring of the engine, as our engine was not ready for PS3 architecture. And in October we had to show the Playable to the publisher.

Gritting their teeth, guys got down to work and analysed the entire code in every detail.  The publisher waited patiently for something playable for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. I, as a producer, had to look into it too – it was a serious step to do considerable refactoring of the code. But I trusted the guys and they did it.

biengine

At the same time, we provided for the possibility of the engine to easily add new platforms, as well as mobile platforms. The previous code was designed for Xbox 360 and DirectX. The new one became a real engine. Within three months a playable for PS3 was available. …. But how slow it was! 🙂

In 2011, while doing a team test and fixing multiplayer for Xbox Live and PSN, programmers were focused on optimisation of the engine code and PS3 render. Numbers? Ok! We raised these two-three times for Xbox and four times for PSP! We had 25-35 fps on PS3 without Cell optimisation.   At the final stage of development. We even used to joke about Stereo, but had already dealt with feature cut and knew the importance of total concentration on our tasks.

We reduced our staff by middle of 2011 and left only key people. It was clear now that it was not enough to do a game and fix critical bugs. One has to pass certification! And, let me tell you, this depends on the quality of testing. It is tough, as you start finding weak points in the code, when something hasn’t been considered well.  And at the same time, you keep on spending your money… And you do postpone your other projects. We had a three month delay and moved release date. Very hard times…

On the whole, the project lasted a year longer than planned. On the one hand, it was due to PlayStations 3 porting, on the other though, because of overestimation  of own abilities.

What now?

We started developing concepts of two new projects in mid-2011 and are planning to release Depth Hunter game about underwater hunting and treasure hunting  by December, 2011.  It will be released for mobile platforms later. Yes! We are indeed developing a version of our technology for mobile platforms – IOS, Android.

And Deep Black is going to become MMOTPS. We are going to launch it as a Free-to-Play by the end of next year. Depth Hunter for mobile is going to be Free-to-Play too. We are eager to work on free-to-play for consoles. I do believe that this is going to be of top interest in 2012-2013.

We have registered an office in the USA (Delaware) this year. So far it is our legal HQ, but we are looking forward to getting money for Deep Black to move to the USA. Unfortunately our business is in Russia and it is getting more difficult to search for investments here, in Russia. Unreasonable loan terms and local investors who are eager to get a controlling interest at once make it challenging to do business in Russia.

The political situation in Russia is not predictable too. People talk a lot about it and do not trust the government. Guys, we do want to work and develop games, rather than wait for another revolution!

A Russian Association of Game Developers and Publishers of Game Industry and Interactive Technologies (http://www.radit.ru/) was set up in 2010 by a number of Russian companies. We were trying to promote development of simulator games and gain support to develop an equivalent of, for example, “Canada” in Russia.  But in our country you can only do business if you pay bribes. I spent two years and a lot of money trying to change things. I have held two conferences ACGI (2009, 2010, http://www.acgirussia.com/), but soon realised that they do not need us. I have no intention to have anything in common with the current authorities any more.

So at the moment I am busy transferring our contracts and licenses to the US, dealing with registration issues and searching for investors/ partners for a long-term cooperation.

We have always tried to develop not only original and quality games, but also high-tech games. I think that we have coped with our task in 2011. I am sure that we will cope with our new challenge – move to the US – in 2012.

Six years after the company set-up, we are facing a new stage of the company development. I am sure that the upcoming 2012 will bring success to all our games!

Konstantin Popov

Founder & CEO of Biart Company