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The Independent Games Festival was established in 1998 as a forum for independent developers to exhibit their work, receive recognition, and meet with commercial publishers. Finalists to this event attend the GDC and compete for several awards and cash prizes. This year¹s Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000.
This interview I got to sit down with the Producer and All-Around Guy of Dragon's Eye Productions… literally. More specifically, we were sitting on an island floating in the void of space. It was a "dream" in the world of Furcadia. Holding the interview in the game itself I thought was rather interesting and sparked wonderful conversation about a massively online fantasy game that has been around for many years.
Q: Who are you and what do you do?
Emerald Flame: I'm Dragon's Eye Production's Producer, as well as the Volunteer Coordinator and Project Manager for Furcadia.
Felorin: My name is Dr. Cat, and I'm known within the game is Felorin. I do a lot of different things in Furcadia. When we started back in 1996, there were just two of us - 'Manda did all the art, and I did all the programming, and we kind of split everything else. Now there are 5 full time people in the company, but there's a lot more to do with our greater size. And since I'm the president and creative director and head programmer and business manager I still do an awful lot of things.
Emerald Flame: 'Manda is known as Talzhemir in Furcadia.
Q: Are you all located locally?
Emerald Flame: Dr. Cat, 'Manda and I are all in Austin Texas. Our programmer, sanctimonious, is in Finland and our Community Manager, Cironir, is in Germany.
Felorin: All the people in the company besides 'Manda and myself were people we met on Furcadia itself, by the way.
Q: Do you guys meet to discuss stuff on Furcadia itself?
Felorin: Yes, we have all of our meetings of the whole company online in Furcadia. We also get together individually here, and talk on ICQ or send things in email, to keep in touch. Even between me and 'Manda, more often than not.
Q: How long has Furcadia been around?
Felorin: Furcadia opened to the public on December 16th, 1996. So right now that's a little over 6 years. For the first 4 to 5 years the number of users tripled every year. It's still growing now, but not tripling every year any more.
Q: When did the gameplay idea come about?
Felorin: The basic idea for doing an online RPG with thousands of people in it came to me in 1985, when I was working on a proposal for a single player RPG for the Commodore 64 that I was pitching to Electronic Arts. I had this grandiose vision and it clearly was something that the technology & the market weren't ready for. So I held onto it until the time was ripe. Of course I evolved the ideas a lot over the years, and 'Manda started working on ideas for it with me in 1991. We had met in the late 1980s working at Origin on the Ultima games together, and we've been making games together ever since.
Q: Of all the IGF entries, this is probably the largest in terms of longevity. What made you go at it independently?
Felorin: That's a good question. There are a lot of things that went into the decision. I've been in the computer game industry for 20 years now, and I've played just about every kind of role and done at least a little of most of the jobs there are. A big part of it for all of us at Dragon's Eye is having the creative control and the freedom to do things the way that we think is best. Not having a boss or a publisher who can tell you to do it some other way, or even say this game doesn't have enough commercial potential or is too big a risk, and not letting you do it at all. Since 1985, I always wanted to get into online games early, when it was a bigger risk but much more growth (and success) was possible, and also I wanted to lead the way in innovation in design, user interface, features, etc. To do things that were really new and exciting. A lot of the regular game company product lines these days are crammed full of sequels and derivative products or clones of other games, which are not nearly as satisfying to work on. I've also always felt that when a game is a success, most of the credit and a lot of the profits should go to the creative people that made it a hit. As a totally independent developer, we can certainly be sure of that - if we ever make a hit game. :-D Being independent also lets us put more resources into doing altruistic or idealistic things, when we want to. That's always been a secondary priority of mine, after creative and financial success. Interestingly however, it's become somewhat more important to me after spending all these years starting to do some of this stuff. We really do want Furcadia to make the world a little bit better place, bring people together, let them share their creativity, and maybe learn a few things. I also have always really liked being able to do things whenever I want, however I want. Game companies have given me a lot more freedom to do that than most others would, and I've been given a lot of flexibility at the jobs I've had, but working for yourself is the ultimate.
Q: So was there anything remotely like this when it first came out?
Felorin: Actually we started out with a game called DragonSpires in 1994, before we remade it into Furcadia. At the time it was so novel that 10 venture capital firms emailed me wanting to talk about funding us, and Wired Magazine ran a blurb on us. Origin wanted to fund and publish the game when they saw our early protoype, but it turned out one programmer in-house had just started working on something called "Ultima Online", and they decided to go with that instead. When we shifted to Furcadia in 1996, we were going even further "out there". Basing a whole business on user-created content didn't really happen until places like Geocities came along, and nobody has really done it for online games until just last year we started to see Neverwinter Nights, The Sims Online in mid-December, and now There.com is another that's coming in to compete with backing from the original founder of Electronic Arts. We can't compete with their level of funding, but we've been doing this work longer than anybody now, and I've got a number of ideas for directions to head in next that none of the other games are really going for yet. I have a bet with Raph Koster - former designer of Ultima Online and now the designer on Star Wars Galaxies... Whichever one of us first makes a game that has one million people logged on simultaneously, the other guy has to buy him dinner. So I need to keep working hard to come up with the best ideas. I still don't think anyone else to date has a scripting language that gives users the ease and power of making neat stuff that my DragonSpeak language does. It's very English-like and all the things you deal with are game events and objects. 12 year olds have no problem picking it up.
Emerald Flame: It also took them $33 million to make There.com. This was made on $50,000.
Q: $50,000 is another big number for an indie title - where did most of the funding come from?
Felorin: My personal life's savings, which are all gone now, I'm proud to say. :-D
Q: You can obviously do a lot on Furcadia. What are some of the major goings on?
Emerald Flame: Furcadia has as many things to do as there are people, or Furres as we refer to them. It's all about using your imagination to create what *you* want to do. We have a huge group of role players and we have many social groups with players from all over the world. Being free, it's much easier for Furres from other countries to visit us. We have groups that have formed around internet radio stations, ones who've made Space-themed Guilds, ones who've made their own role play systems complete with stats… The list goes on, since you can add your own art, music and scripting to your own area, it's really up to you. We also have a huge volunteer program which I'm very proud of. We have over 2,000 Beekin Helpers, which is a community help program. At any time you can ask for help and get it from a live person.
Felorin: Unlike a lot of big "epic" games, where I could answer a question like that by describing the latest big quests, big monsters, new islands, new story developments they'd put in... We don't have a few big things going on; we have thousands of small to medium sized things going on. Some guild parties might have 50 or 100 people in them - some other interesting stuff you might stumble onto may only have a dozen people that know about it - but they're having a great time.
Emerald Flame: We do have big game-wide events as well, though.
Felorin: We do have a few things we run, like our recent "Danival's Winter Festival", but it's really hard to summarize what there is to do here, it's so diverse. About all you can do is give examples. Some of my personal favorites are the games and puzzles people make. Bomberfurre is based on the old classic Bomberman, done entirely with our tools and scripting language by a very creative player we have here. Another player just made a version of an old puzzle game called Atomica that I saw last night, and I have to admit I played it for a few hours. I hope she'll bring that dream back soon - I want to play it some more.
Emerald Flame: We have such amazingly talented Furres here.
Q: And all this is made possible with DragonSpeak? What is DragonSpeak?
Felorin: DragonSpeak is the part of the whole work that I'm the most personally proud of. It's been my own design and implementation from start to finish. In most systems that let players make stuff, they either only let them make "data" (art, objects, maps, music, sound) or they let them control "how stuff works" by using a programming language of some kind, like QuakeC, or on the web you can use Java. Neverwinter Nights uses C++ as I understand. Programming languages are very powerful tools, but they're also tools that the vast majority of mankind simply does not and will not use. They're too complicated and confusing - heck, I use them all the time and even I get frustrated with them. :-D DragonSpeak is a scripting language, and it's designed specifically to be very, very easy for players to learn, use, and have fun with. The commands do things like play sound effects, move an object or change one thing into another, etc. I divided the language structurally up into five different kinds of pieces. The basic two are causes and effects. You can make complete, working DragonSpeak scripts using only these two, if you want. A cause might be "whenever someone moves", or "whenever someone moves to the spot (12,37)", or "whenever someone uses a lute", "whenever someone says open sesame', etc. We also have causes for getting and dropping objects, timer causes (once every 10 seconds, do this), etc. You put that together with an effect, like play sound 12, change all the red pillows into blue ones, or move the player that set off the cause to a certain spot, and you've got a working two line script. Making the language event-triggered rather than some kind of continuous procedural language makes it a lot easier to pick up - and it organizes your thinking around the actual stuff going on in the game and the stuff you're trying to make happen, which I think makes it not only easier to learn, but easier to work with. I also made it impossible for the language to generate infinite loops or crashes - something programmers are used to dealing with, but non-programmers shouldn't have to put up with. Us programmers don't like those either, really. Some programmers wish for a bit more power in the language, but they can generally find ways to accomplish what they want. The beauty of it is that everyone else can too. So we get more creative stuff made, by far. On top of causes and effects, we have areas. These constrain the effect, either to a single spot, or a rectangular or diamond shape region, or only to spots on-screen for the triggering player, rather than happening everywhere on the map. Those are further modified by filters, our fourth type of element. You can say within that area, only make the balloons appear in spots that have a certain type of floor tile. Or everyplace that's NOT a certain type of floor, or various other conditions. And the last element is "additional conditions", so you can further refine when something happens. Instead of "Every time someone pulls this lever", the "and-causes" as I call them (I need a better nickname for those) would let you specify "Every time someone pulls this lever, and they're holding the magic gem, and there's somebody standing on the trapdoor..." I figured out how I'm going to work "or" type conditions into the language in the next revision, instead of just having "and" like I do now. Almost squeezed it into our last update, but I didn't have enough time. You can fake an "or" by having two different causes that do the same thing, that way if one or the other is true, the thing gets done. But that's non-intuitive and wastes space. We'll have a proper "or" later on. Anyway people use the language to make simple sparring systems in their dreams - puzzles, doors that automatically open when you step in front of them, animated water around their island, playing a sound effect when a new person enters their dream... Etc, etc. It's also got a very efficient design for executing the same script commands on the server and simultaneously on all the clients that are connected to the same dream, and keeping everything in synch, including dice rolls. But I've probably said enough already, so I won't go into details on that. It does keep bandwidth usage and lag low, and performance high, which is great.
Q: What was Furcadia itself developed with?
Felorin: The client was developed with Visual C - known as Visual Studio these days. The server was programmed with gcc, and has run on BSDI, Red Hat Linux, Solaris 86, and another distribution of Linux. My co-founder has used 3D Studio, Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, Deluxe Paint, Illustrator, and hand-drawn art scanned in and modified from there.
Q: How has the game changed over the years as technology advanced?
Felorin: We've deliberately always stuck to software technology that would run not only on the current machines, but on machines that are a few years older. This is in stark contrast to the approach at someplace like Origin, where I used to work, that always tried to be on the cutting edge. The hardcore gamers always want games - and hardware - that are on the cutting edge, and they're always out buying new 3D graphics cards or whatever else it takes. We're trying to reach a broader audience, including many people that don't play most "normal" games at all. The Sims showed that something that's not so "hard core" can reach a mass audience - it's now the best selling game of all time. We have gradually improved the core technology in Furcadia, of course. Including things most people don't really see or experience, on the server backend. Games like Everquest, UO, etc. divide people up into different worlds, with little or no ability to communicate between them. I'm trying to make the biggest online community ever, and let people make new friends, meet people from around the world, show off their cool creations to EVERYBODY - not just the 1/17th of everybody that's on the same world server you are, so I built a distributed server technology from the start, and I've been continually refining, improving, and expanding it behind the scenes over the years to keep up with or (hopefully) stay ahead of the load as our number of users grows. It's pretty cool technology; I could ramble about it quite a bit. :-D Of course we have to keep working on our client technology. We added in support for all the major music formats including tracker formats a couple years ago. Now we're working on a major graphic update, to add 16/24/32 bit graphics support, alpha blending and translucency, real time lighting effects, and possibly altitude levels for the maps. We also want to put out a fully integrated editing tool rather than the separate tools we have now. We might put in support for placing sound sources that are stereo positioned and fade with distance too. Further down the road, we'd like to put in real-time 3D rendered avatars, while keeping the isometric tile based maps and objects and walls. That would let players have a lot more different animated actions they could do, without requiring us to produce a huge amount of art that's not only time consuming to make, but in an online game it makes it a LOT bigger download, which is bad. We are careful also as we add new features to always support the older versions of player created assets, by the way - art, maps, scripts, etc. I got an email from a player who had just returned after several years' absence, and was pleased to discover that all their old dreams still worked perfectly!
Q: What made you enter Furcadia into the IGF?
Felorin: I had actually been wanting to enter the IGF again for years. I put DragonSpires into the first IGF, but it was too primitive at the time and didn't make the finals. I've been too busy to ever get around to actually doing anything for years now, so I haven't been doing roundtables at GDC or submitting IGF entry forms or anything. Luckily Emerald, while also being too busy to get around to anything, uses her magic Producer powers to get almost everything done anyway, and she prepared the entry for us at my request. ;-) I've not only always believed in promoting the independent scene - 'Manda and I worked on some of the earlier Apogee shareware titles, before Wolfenstein 3D, but I also see the IGF in particular as a great opportunity for smaller developers like us to promote our work to the public, and get more players to come give us a try. That's one of the biggest problems for an independent. Today if you have the best game or the best new soda or potato chip, or the best anything, you have to spend MILLIONS of dollars making sure all the consumers that would like your product know that your product actually EXISTS so they'll give it a try. There are so many rival movies, books, comics, games, TV shows, and of course potato chips, screaming for attention that it are hard to get noticed. So I love any opportunity to get some good press and PR. ;-) I also really appreciate the recognition and appreciation from my peers in the industry. That means a lot to me.
Q: Emerald Flame, Felorin, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. See you at the GDC!
Felorin: It's been great talking to you. We'll see you there!
Emerald Flame: Nice meeting you! We are really looking forward to going.