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As I am typing this, Roberta and I are completing a long journey.
A few years ago, we brought our boat, Sans Souci, back to its marina in Seattle after taking it around the world. There were a lot of emotions: The satisfaction of having done something few have done, the memories of the good times and the rough patches, the sadness of seeing the journey end, and the sense of unknown as we looked into the future and had no idea what might lie ahead.
Sans Souci, Nordhavn 68
Our prior boat
Those are exactly the emotions we are feeling now. After selling our company in 1996 we retired to sail the world and pursue real-world adventures instead of the adventure of making video games. However, like all of you, Covid changed our lives. Stuck home we each wrote a book, and when the lockdown continued, we decided to build “one more game.” Just as when we said, “Let’s go boating,” and then ran the boat 50,000 miles, we put the same passion into building a game.
For nearly two years Roberta and I have essentially shut ourselves off from the world. We entered a tunnel of hard work and now see the other end. Our journey is almost complete. We’ve been through a lot, and there have been highs and lows, and as we did with Sierra, with crossing oceans, and now with our new game, we have made some serious waves. As we look into the future, we honestly haven’t the vaguest idea what comes next. We know ourselves, and that it’s not within us to be boring, but what will it be?
All that said, there is one upcoming journey that we already know about. Now that we have a video game, we need to present it to the world. It’s called Colossal Cave. The next couple months will be about launching it. We’ve built a game that is quite unique and hard to describe. It doesn’t fit neatly into any genre and whereas in our prior lives, as game publishers, we had a large marketing team, our own magazine, a gigantic marketing budget, a huge customer base and a worldwide sales organization, we now have none of those things. We will do what we can to promote the game, but ultimately it will rise or fall based on how players like it. Roberta and I will help, but our true marketing organization will be those players who play the game. We will be counting on them to spread the word. My message to them is simply, “I hope you will love Colossal Cave, and I hope you will tell your friends.”
Colossal Cave our game. Steam, Epic, Switch, Quest 2 VR, PS5, Xbox, Windows, Mac and more!
AN IMPORTANT NOTE BEFORE WE BEGIN
My blog is read both by some who only follow us because of our boating adventures, and others who follow us because of our game development adventures. Thus, here are two mini blogs below that cover what we’ve been up to in these two disparate worlds. Choose the one you’re interested in, and ignore the other if you so desire.
UPDATE ON BOATING
Roberta and I approached this past summer with a great deal of excitement. We were able to take the boat out a few times last year but were unable to travel internationally due to Covid border closures. For this summer’s cruising we would have Starlink, making possible high speed internet from virtually any location, and we would be able to cross into Canada.
Grand Banks 60, Cygnus
Our new boat
Before anyone asks: The fenders are dangling because I kept tripping over them in the walkway
We had talked of taking the boat to the Caribbean, or Mexico, or around the Great Loop, but we had two things that restricted our travel. 1) We have a home under construction on an island and needed to be available to make construction decisions, and 2) We knew that we’d be busy working on the game and not able to concentrate on boating. Instead, we would venture up the west coast of Canada headed towards Alaska and see how far we got. We made plans for a nice, relaxed summer.
Unfortunately, our summer didn’t turn out quite as expected.
Starlink is a game changer for boaters. It is high speed satellite internet from virtually everywhere. At the start of the season, our little Starlink dish was sitting alone on the bow of our boat in the marina. There was a constant stream of people coming by the boat to stare at our dish and ask questions. By the end of the season there were a LOT of Starlink dishes in the marina.
That said, and whereas Starlink is a dream come true, it also has some serious limitations. Because we’ve been working on a game with a team that is scattered around the world, we spend our days on the computer working with the rest of the team. We are constantly in and out of video conferencing or sharing screens to look at some aspect of the game. I’m often sharing screens with the engineers to look at code and to do debugging. We realized we had a problem the first time we dropped anchor and went to work. We would start a conversation, the boat would rotate with the wind, and the internet would suddenly drop for three to five minutes. For sending emails or surfing the internet this is fine. I’ve dealt with much worse, and much slower, for many years. But for building a game, with a large team, it just didn’t work. We took the boat out a few times but were constantly forced back to a marina where we could ensure the boat would stay pointed in some fixed direction long enough that we could get work done.
Roberta working hard on the boat
This was our life for months aboard the boat
I’m sure a lot of you are wondering how we like the new boat….
The quick answer is that we are still asking ourselves that question. There are a lot of good things to say, and nothing bad. We spent over three months on the boat and had zero mechanical issues. We didn’t go very far, so it’s not saying too much. But it is saying something. The boat is fast and SOLID. It took us anywhere we wanted to go in any weather we wanted to go in. It is very comfortable underway and lures you into going much faster than you plan. There are logs in the water in the Pacific NW and hitting one can wreck your whole day. On this boat, in these waters, I really don’t think it is wise to run faster than 20 knots – and even then, to keep sharp watch for logs. That’s more than twice the speed we averaged on our prior boat. And yet, it feels like you are standing still. It’s easy to nudge the throttle just a little bit and say, “You know. 25kts feels fine.” Until that feels slow, and then it is time for 27 knots, and then you remind yourself about the logs. I’m looking forward to when we can take this boat somewhere without logs.
I’ve mentioned it before, but our two favorite features on the boat are the Seakeeper and the “hold in place” button.
The Seakeeper is just a big heavy ball that spins at an enormous rate. If you’ve ever held a spinning top in your hand, it works on the same principle. When underway it dampens the motion of the boat and makes a huge difference. At slower speeds it seems as good as or better than conventional fins. What I hadn’t expected though is that we’d use it sitting at the dock! Our slip is in a busy marina with boats constantly coming and going. At first it seemed like a crazy idea to run the Seakeeper in our slip, but after being rocked around a bit I decided to try it, and the difference was amazing. The Seakeeper puts out a high pitched whine which is annoying, so on calm days we didn’t automatically turn it on, but on weekends or anytime we expected a lot of traffic in the marina, I’d leave it on all day. There is one other annoyance with the Seakeeper that I should mention. It takes a good 45 minutes to spin up to speed. This turned out not to be a problem but the bad part was that it takes four hours to shut down. Normally, at anchor or in a marina, things are calmer at night. Rarely do we need the Seakeeper at night. It makes enough noise that it is an impediment to a good night’s sleep. We would need to turn off the Seakeeper by 6pm if bedtime was 10pm. And if the seas weren’t calm, a decision would have to be made.
Twin Disc Express Positioning
My other favorite feature is the “hold in place” button. The boat has an optional joystick which can be used at slow speed, rather than maneuvering with the engines and rudder. We only rarely use the joystick, but we do often use a feature that came with the joystick: A “hold in place” button. Press it and the boat isn’t going anywhere. It’s incredibly handy when dropping anchor or placing fenders to enter a marina. Once I press the button auto-pilot takes over and uses a combination of the rudders and throttles to keep the boat in place. There is almost certainly some amount of current, wind or waves which the system can’t overcome, but in those situations we’re probably not entering a marina anyhow. Most of the time I just hit the button and then both of us can calmly go out to place fenders.
There is one feature of this boat that we are struggling with. We swapped boats because we didn’t see ourselves crossing more oceans and wanted something smaller and simpler than our prior boat. Our Nordhavn 68 was a big heavy lumbering beast. It was configured to take us anywhere in the world safely. We did some wild things with that boat, including crossing the Bering Sea. It spoiled us. Downsizing always sounds good until you actually do it. Cygnus has delivered on everything we wanted and more. However, after three months aboard with our two dogs, it did start to feel small. The problem may have been that we really didn’t go anywhere. We took the boat out a few times, but our need for solid, fast, reliable internet kept us pinned down. Roberta and I spent three months within a few feet of each other constantly working on a new game. The new owners of our prior boat, San Souci, are based in the same marina as us and we’d often walk past her and marvel at how large and comfortable she seemed. I don’t mean to make our new boat, a Grand Banks 60, seem small. By any rational standard it is a VERY comfortable and large boat. But, spoiled is spoiled, and we plead guilty. We have the boat we have, and it’s not fair to blame the boat for our not taking it very far. Once we can head back out into open water we’ll re-evaluate our feelings and thoughts. Nothing is changing short term, except we hope to finish this game and start cruising again. Summer 2023 should be a lot more fun and adventurous.
Speaking of which. Whereas Starlink didn’t do what we wanted this year, I expect a different experience this coming summer. Starlink has released a service just for mariners that will work fine even while the boat is underway or being pushed around by the wind while at anchor. It is intended for big fancy yachts and for freighters. It is prohibitively expensive for use on smaller boats like ours. That said, it does have one nice feature that we didn’t have with past maritime internet solutions (like VSAT). We can turn on or off Starlink at any time (in monthly increments) with no money owed for when we aren’t using it. The ability to only pay for Starlink during the four months we are actually on the boat changes the equation. As any long-time reader of my blog knows, we are internet centric. Roberta is less so than me, but we both suffer happily from internet addiction. For summer 2023 we will have Starlink’s maritime service. Internet will not be an impediment to our travels.
Lastly, we didn’t completely sit still this summer. Our first trip to Canada was shortened by the lack of reliable internet. We traveled up the west coast of Canada and spent some time at anchor. It wasn’t nearly enough, but we have great memories. Our second trip was a fiasco. Our first stop after clearing customs was to be a week relaxing at the Victoria International Marina in Victoria BC, Canada. Clearing into Canada was easy and the marina is awesome. However within hours of tying up at the marina I started feeling ill. Roberta also started feeling terrible later that evening. We had somehow gotten through the first two years of Covid without incident, but suddenly, here it was. I remembered July 4th weekend, a few days before, and standing in a crowded line to order lunch. I’m sure that’s where it caught us. If you’ve had Covid you know the drill, and if you haven’t, congratulations. You don’t want it. We didn’t need a test kit to know it wasn’t just the flu. We had just entered another country and had heard rumors of Canada locking down people in quarantine hotels. We had the dogs with us and didn’t want to be locked down anywhere. We had a game to build! To make a long story short. We were in a wonderful place, but hid inside the boat, worked when we could, and when we started feeling better we returned to the US, where we stayed at anchor for several more days until we felt safe returning to our slip. Yes. It was one of “those” summers.
Defender Safe Boat 25
We are building a home that will finish next summer. We had originally hoped it would be done by now but then we learned about the phrase “supply chain problems.” I’m not sure our original schedule was ever realistic, and the pandemic did nothing to help. The home is on a remote island that is serviced only by ferry or by plane. We’ve now spent enough time there to realize that getting off and on the island can be a struggle. We’re only about 25 miles from the mainland, but it’s farther than we can swim, and the ferries only run a few times a day and have long lines. We’re going to love island life, and we do own a boat, so getting to shore anytime we want is not impossible. But neither is it easy. Our boat, Cygnus, is large enough that finding moorage can be a challenge. Instead, we decided to get an additional, much smaller, boat that we can easily run back and forth to the mainland. Given that we would treat it more like a car than a floating home, our focus was on speed, simplicity and safety. We found a relatively inexpensive, retired, Coast Guard boat! It has no head, and on a beauty scale from 1 to 9, it rates a zero (though we think it’s beautiful!). But it’s virtually unsinkable, can cruise comfortably at 35 knots, and is small enough to park about anywhere. We’ve run it around enough to know we made the right decision.
The boating season is now over. The fun begins again next summer.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE GAME!
At roughly the same time as you read this, Roberta and I will announce that our new game, Colossal Cave, is complete and give the date when it will be purchased.
I could write several pages, or even fill a book, about the history of the game, and why we think it is worth playing. My suspicion is that everyone who has ever invested years of their life making a game thinks their game is the best ever invented. We’re like any other proud parents who think our child is perfect. I am happy to bore anyone who will listen with all the accolades our game deserves but will leave it to you to form your own opinion. Let’s put it this way: Roberta and I have built a lot of bestseller games and would not have come out of retirement to build a mediocre one.
The original text Colossal Cave game was so revolutionarythat it was published by Microsoft, Apple AND Atari. It also became the inspiration for the game Zork by Infocom
I can tell you a little about what makes the game different. Our old company, Sierra On-Line, was best known for our storytelling games. The characters from our games, like King Graham, Roger Wilco, Laura Bow and even Leisure-Suit Larry were known to millions. Surprisingly, I wouldn’t call this a storytelling game. Instead, it draws from a number of genres. If I were forced to pick a genre for it I’d probably call it an Adventure game, but it has action, magic, humor, strategy, puzzles, point system and a whole lot more. It’s not linear like Sierra’s games. There are a few puzzles you need to solve to continue, but most of the time the entire world is open for exploration, as well as various strategies to choose for best play.
Everything about this game is unique, including how it was built, and how it is being published.
You may have seen articles saying that Colossal Cave is being published by Cygnus Entertainment. Well, Cygnus is really just Roberta and me. We started the company to develop and publish this game and named it after our new boat. We haven’t ruled out doing another game, but we also didn’t start the company with a goal of building a publishing empire. We were passionate about building this particular game and wanted to build it without the pressure of taking venture capital, or having a publisher, or any of the normal expectations and pressures that come from taking other people’s money. Building this game was a big financial undertaking but being able to just focus on what was right for the game with no considerations, outside influences, or anyone backseat driving, allowed us to build the game we wanted to build.
I would confess that we have advantages that most small independent developers don’t have. Our Sierra On-Line background, and Roberta’s track record of hits, opened doors that would be closed to most people. We received support from Unity, Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Valve, Amazon, Epic and Meta that was overwhelming, humbling and incredible. We’ve also received a level of support from the game community that I never would have expected. From the very beginning of the project we have had gamers offering to help in any way they can. When I needed help working a booth, we were flooded with applicants in minutes. When I wanted someone to beta test, we were flooded with applicants. When I think about why Roberta and I were willing to work so hard on this project, it isn’t our investment or our future I’m thinking about. It’s all those people who want us to succeed I’m thinking about. Like Roberta and I, there is a universe of people out there who were sad to see our company go away, and who are anxious to see a new game from us. A lot of people have gone WAY out of their way to help us. And for many, it isn’t just Roberta and I they are helping, it is their own memories of this particular game. Colossal Cave has a place in history. It is remembered nearly 50 years after its introduction, both because it was the first computer game for many people, but also because it was a darn good game. It’s as if we are painters asked to restore the Mona Lisa. Art lovers everywhere have one overriding message for us: “Don’t screw it up.” We hear them loud and clear.
And speaking of things related to this game that are unusual, let’s talk about the team. Colossal Cave was developed by a team which is quite literally all over the map. Members of the team have spanned Zurich, Brazil, Thailand, Mexico and the US. Within the US we’ve had developers from several states, Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Florida and more. The team also has a wide variety of experience and skills. We have pros who have led development on megahit games (eg. Jon West, Skater XL), and we also have some rookies. We have a wide variety of skillsets. Some have experience in Unity, some in Unreal, and some in none of the above. Some are environmental artists, some are tech artists, some are engineers, and some are even speed runners. It’s a diverse group, but also a group with one common mission. Everyone on the project wants this game to be a success.
There has been a lot written about the pros and cons of tech workers working at home. I’ve asked myself many times, “If I were still running Sierra, would I insist that the employees come to work every day.”
For Colossal Cave I needed to assemble a team quickly. When I first tackled the Colossal Cave project, I did not understand the true scope of the game. The game seems deceptively simple at first, but as you dig deeper into the cave, there are a lot of surprises waiting. Also, deciding to add a VR version of the game, support for 13 languages, and support for consoles added a huge amount of work. Ultimately, the decision that dramatically increased the scale of the project the most was involving Roberta. She has a very high sense of quality and will agonize over the smallest detail. Art, or a sound effect, or a piece of animation, that looks great to me, will oft-times be tossed by Roberta. She knows the game she wants to give players and will push until she gets it. One way or the other. There was a time early in the project where my once-a-week team meetings spent as much time introducing new members to the team as we did discussing the project itself.
Regardless of what anyone thinks about the relative efficiencies of having tech workers work from home, I can safely say that this project would not have been possible in any other way. If I had insisted that everyone go to work every day, I’d have been among the first to refuse. Roberta and I like our time on the boat and would not give it up to sit in traffic, driving back and forth to work, each day. I’d rate this as the #1 reason we stayed retired after our non-compete ran out. And then imagine if I’d tried to recruit a team by limiting my search to just those persons looking for work in the local Seattle area. There would have been both cost and quality issues. By opening my search to the world, I was able to quickly find the candidates who had the skills, attitude, and availability that I needed. Recruiting was a learning experience. Many of the candidates were not who they said they were. Many did not have the skills they claimed. Some workers get up in the morning and run to their computers eager to work, and some bill for hours without working, or try to work while constantly distracted by events at home. Bottom line: For this game what we did worked. We quickly assembled an incredible team, who worked extremely well together, and who achieved the virtually impossible: A game well worth playing! If I were running Sierra today, would I send everyone home? No! There are pros and cons to managing a remote team, and the answer as to which is better really depends on the situation.
Ken, auditioning for a role in another game. He didn’t make the cut
Probably the toughest task on the project will be waving goodbye to the team. There is still some work to be done: marketing, testing, porting the game to additional platforms. But realistically, this phase of the journey is coming to an end. Roberta and I have had an amazing time. We’ve worked hard, the team has worked hard, and we’re all very proud of the result. We’ve delivered an amazing classic game to a new generation in a fresh and modern way. Now comes the fun part of watching it be played by all of you!
That’s it for this edition of the blog!