|04 March 02 Passing the Tropico Torch Feburary CGM|
|Passing the Tropico Torch
An expansion pack for our game Tropico will gold master next week. Tropico: Paradise Island will feature new buildings, new scenarios, new music, and many other goodies, but the best new element (for me), is the new developer, Breakaway Games.
|18 January 02 The myths of working at a game company January CGM|
|The myths of working at a game company
It seems the public assumes that working in the game industry is also an all-day party job. I like my job most of the time, and love it some of the time, but Nerf guns and a playground atmosphere have nothing to do with it.
|16 January 02 Keeping small while ramping up production December CGM|
|Keeping small while ramping up production
For reasons that are not easily explained, it appears the sweet spot for PC game development is a single-team developer with 5-25 employees. For all their financial success, Epic Games and id Software have elected not to grow beyond their core sizes of about a dozen people; 3D Realms tried to grow to two teams, retrenched, and is now strongly in the single-team camp.
|21 November 01 The ups and downs of the sales chart (?) November CGM|
|The ups and downs of the sales chart (?)
Yesterday was a milestone for me. I wrote my first lines of code for PopTop’s next big game.
|02 November 01 Still Chugging: A new Railroad Tycoon, sorta October CGM|
|Still Chugging: A new Railroad Tycoon, sorta
We had already done three major versions: the original that was released in fall of 1998, The Second Century expansion pack of 1999, and the Gold Edition, which combined the original, the expansion and 12 extra scenarios, which was released in the fall of 1999.
|18 September 01 The ups and downs of the sales chart September CGM|
|The ups and downs of the sales chart|
|08 August 01 Lou Bega, Polish vodka, and other tricks August CGM|
|Lou Bega, Polish vodka, and other tricks – Localisation
For the four biggest European languages (German, French, Italian and Spanish), we sent the localization kit to them two weeks before Tropico gold mastered in English. They translated 25,000 words of in-game text, plus a half hour of narration and a 90-page manual, inside of three weeks, and we had rolled out every major European language within seven days of the U.S. master.
|02 August 01 A proud poppa has two babies in 48 hours July CGM|
|A proud poppa has two babies in 48 hours – Steinmeyer on the release of Tropico and the birth of his son two days later.
It’s excruciating to work so hard on something, pour so much effort into it, and then have to wait to see how the public will judge your product, and by proxy, how they will judge you. About the only thing worse that I can picture is Olympic Figure Skating, where girls 16 years old who’ve been practicing daily since the age of four, are judged on 90 seconds of effort, which can go down the drain if they slip one time in that 90 seconds.
|14 June 01 Crunch Time June CGM|
Today is March 18, 2001. Our upcoming game, Tropico, is scheduled to Gold Master in 19 days and three hours. I’ve had one day off (a Sunday) in the last 70 days. Crunch time has hit hard. Yesterday was a Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day. At 10:00 PM, I wasn’t drinking green beer – I was eyeing various green breads and green snacks in our office refrigerator (no food coloring was involved), figuring out my late night snack before programming some more.
|17 May 01 It’s alive! May CGM|
Much like in Frankenstein, where the completed monster only comes to life with the application of a final, massive burst of electricity, a few of the last features to go into Tropico have really brought it to life, especially music and politics.
|09 May 01 Odds and Ends April CGM|
|Odds and Ends
As we get nearer to completing Tropico, my time, and everyone’s time here at PopTop, is fragmented among the dozens of tasks that go into creating, testing, and producing a finished product, and trying to make sure at least a few consumers will actually buy it. Here’s a sampler of a few of these late stage odd jobs.
|05 April 01 Improving the Interface March CGM|
|Improving the Interface
Even the richest software companies can’t design decent interfaces. For all of Microsoft’s business acumen, its interface stupidity is staggering. “All right, team, here’s our two-part plan for world domination. First we’ll cut off Netscape’s air supply and seize total control of the desktop. Then, we’ll earn the love of our customers by adding animated paper clips that pop up any time you press the enter key!” Microsoft’s boldest idea for a user-friendly interface was the ill-fated Microsoft Bob. While the rest of the world chuckled, Bill Gates was so enamored with the product that he married its manager (Melinda Gates, nee French).
|27 March 01 Lurching towards Alpha Feburary CGM|
|Lurching towards Alpha
Unfortunately, the German tourist I clicked on happened to have the last name of Rommel (a famous German World War II general). World War II references apparently don’t go over very well in Germany. I had put Rommel into a list of possible last names the game draws upon for Germans, mainly because I was struggling to come up with distinctly German names the day I was filling in the names list. With the journalist looking on, I dropped out of the demo, loaded up the source code for the game, and pulled up the section with the lists of possible names. To my relief, I had no other famous Nazis on the list. Rommel was replaced with Schmidt, a couple misspellings were pointed out and fixed, and finally, much to the delight of my interviewer, I added his last name to the list of possibilities. (It never hurts to be nice to journalists.)
|07 January 01 Exploding the Myths January CGM|
|Exploding the Myths – The PC isn’t dead; technology, violence and hype does not sell.
The lack of hard data and experience leads developers to overreact to normal technological and market changes, blowing the normal winds of change into hurricane shifts in development direction. While the industry will certainly evolve in the years ahead, just as it has evolved in years past, most of the hand-wringing is based on myth, not fact.
|09 December 2k The Garden of Eden: How to do state of the art vegetation|
The Garden of Eden: How to do state of the art vegetation
For Railroad Tycoon II, we made our trees by sticking dried n’ dyed lichens on plastic sticks (a classic model railroading technique), then photographing the results and importing them into the computer. This highly sophisticated method actually worked well for low-detail, North American and European looking trees. But with Tropico’s trees due to appear on-screen at four times the resolution, and with wildly different varieties and colors, it was time to put away the lichen bag and find something better.
|05 September 2k I Sold My Company – Tales from the business side|
I Sold My Company – Tales from the business side
I started PopTop in February 1993, and for the first few years, things were very simple. I had no employees. I worked out of my home. I had a relationship with a single publisher, and didn’t even use a lawyer for my contracts (fellow developers… don’t try this at home). The games I worked on sold well.
|16 August 2k Of Bugs, Demos, and the Press…|
|Of Bugs, Demos, and the Press…|
|14 August 2k Language Barriers|
Believe it or not, in the last two years we’ve made or helped make 39 games, and are currently making eight more. No, we haven’t been teaming up with Head Games to make Extreme PaintDry or any other 30-day development wonders. All 39 games are variations of Railroad Tycoon II. Some have been minor variants, easily created in a few hours, others have been major new versions, with months of development time (either within PopTop or by outside developers). They are both a major source of revenue for our company, and a royal pain in the tuckus. The variations fall into three primary categories – different languages, different platforms, and different content.
|02 June 2k Creating a design-your-dictator interface|
Creating a design-your-dictator interface
The idea for our opening setup screen came the way so many ideas do – copied out of another game. Specifically, Dungeon Keeper 2 has a great setup sequence, with a fully animated scene that the camera moves through as you make your choices. It looks great in DK2, and I had grand visions of something similar for Tropico. I assumed we’d contract with an outside Hollywood-type specialist shop – you know, the places that brought Titanic to life. A few inquiries with these specialists helped me to understand why Titanic cost $300 million, and no, it wasn’t all spent on hair gel for Leonardo. Since our budget is closer to Lifeboat than Titanic, I rapidly grew pessimistic.
|02 May 2k Or how we sit around NOT playing games all day long|
|Or how we sit around NOT playing games all day long – A day in the life…
5:30 – Review a press release about Tropico created by our P.R. firm. The press release contains a quote from me, about how Tropico will be the greatest game ever, cure cancer, end world hunger, etc. Like a lot of my quotes in these press releases, I didn’t say it – the P.R. person did. But it sounds like something I might say, so I sign off on the release.
|01 April 2k Ever wonder why games take so long?|
Ever wonder why games take so long?
It’s fashionable in game development circles to do a post-mortem of a project after it is complete – to analyze what went right and wrong, with the hope of improving things the next time around. Last week, I took a look at our rather dubious schedule, and did a little pre-mortem (you can never have enough mortem on a project).
|01 March 2k Are you sure you want to work here?|
|Are you sure you want to work here? – getting a job in game development.
PopTop’s biggest problem in hiring people is our location. St. Louis, Missouri is well known for beer and baseball, but that’s about it. Certainly St Louis is no hub for the game industry. When we opened up shop, we doubled the number of local game companies. Whenever we talk to applicants from the west coast, we need to assure them that we have all the same modern necessities that California does, including earthquakes, street gangs, and breast implants.
|14 January 2k An Estrogen Injection: Putting women into games|
|An Estrogen Injection: Putting women into games
So, in typical chauvinist pig manner, we decreed that only women could fill some positions (the aforementioned maid, “social hostess,” teacher, doctor, journalist), and only men could fill others (miner, banker, dock worker). Some decisions were easy – priests must be male (the Catholic church decided this one for us). Some were harder – spies, male or female? We chose female. When the cunning, attractive female spy encounters the macho, arrogant male general, don’t bet on the guy with the brass buttons.
|13 January 2k Plan? What Plan? Do designers really know the games they’re making?|
|Plan? What Plan? Do designers really know the games they’re making?
For Railroad Tycoon II, I’d made a meager effort at putting the game design on paper, resulting in a 10-page document finalized about six months into the project, which was never updated thereafter and was completely ignored by everybody (I’m not sure everyone on the team even knew we had the document).
|12 January 2k A Dime a Dozen: Got a Great Idea for a Game? Think it Through|
|A Dime a Dozen: Got a Great Idea for a Game? Think it Through – the birth of Tropico
By conventional wisdom, game ideas are a dime a dozen. Anyone even remotely connected with a game development shop eventually gets hounded by casual acquaintances with “can’t-miss” game ideas.
Unfortunately, most game ideas that people come up with are either too derivative (i.e. the game’s like StarCraft, but better…), lack pizzazz (hey, since that railroad game did so well, how ’bout a bus system game…), or are disqualified on some other grounds, such as poor taste (you wouldn’t believe how many people wanted our next game to be Drug Tycoon).