Camen Design

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The History of the Gathering Project

This is part of the reference material for a series of personal letters written to / from Tanner Helland during 2003–2005. These letters cover—in immense detail—events in my life during that period, including many unfinished and aspiring designs and creations. As a person however, I have changed from the inexperienced, often immature person I was and my skills in programming and web-design have changed just as radically.

Please note that this was not written by me (Kroc Camen), but Tanner himself.

As a kind of addendum to my bio, I thought I'd throw in the background of my game programming experience and the strange path that led to the founding of The Gathering Project. So if you’ve got some spare time, settle in and prepare for a tale of a time long ago and a land far away…

My programming career began in the ninth grade. I was a strapping young 15-year-old who had just been forced to move from his beloved home of 13 years to a new home in a new city with a new junior high school. I hated the new neighbourhood—I was a basketball fanatic, and all these kids did was play soccer and video games. Needless to say, I was melancholy at best; morose and gloomy at worst. I was reluctant to form friendships because I still had dreams of playing in the NBA, and these soccer fanatics and nerds weren’t going to help me any. I guess you could say that I was a little hostile and… well, proud :)

But life has a funny way of throwing up detours when you least expect them. Two weeks into school, I had lowered my guard somewhat and tried to make some friends. Things were looking a little brighter, and I felt like I was starting to fit in. The only problem with this arrangement was my class schedule—my 4th period class was Keyboarding 3, and it was a joke. The classwork was so lame that I had finished the entire course within those two weeks (and granted, I type well but not that well). So I talked to the counsellor, which was my first mistake—school counsellors know less about the school than you do, as a general rule of thumb. To make a long story shorter, the counsellor made me change my entire schedule to accommodate a new, “more rigorous” class schedule. That was fine and all, except that now I had “Lunchtime B” instead of “Lunchtime A”. All of my newfound friends were now in a separate lunch, and I was back at ground zero. Again, I was not too happy with the American public education system… but who is? :)

So I grudgingly agreed to the schedule change, because the last thing I needed was to antagonize the counsellor that held the key to my grade transcripts. As I treaded into the lunchroom that fateful March day, I searched and searched for someone—anyone—I recognized. After careful scrutiny, I managed to locate one—only one—person I knew. As fate would have it, he was the son of the people whose house we had bought. I knew little about him except that he was currently working on writing a computer game with some of his friends. Nerd, I thought, but he’s all I've got. (I've got a little bit of poetry in me too :)) So I sat next to him and after some probing (figurative sense, not literal, you sick people) got him to tell me a little about himself. Yes, he was a computer nerd and yes, we were complete opposites, but he was quick-witted and polite, so I decided to pursue this friendship, since it was all I had.

With every passing day he became more and more open, and eventually we became “friends”. I knew a lot about computer hardware from experience fixing my oft-troubled machine, and his dad was a programmer and he my friend held similar aspirations. So on that somewhat common ground, we started to talk nerd talk. At first I was reluctant to admit that I knew anything about computers, but I eventually found my new friend to be much deeper and more personable than I had previously thought; in fact, I decided that nerds could actually be pretty cool people. I was particularly interested in his ideas for an RPG (a genre I was unfamiliar with), and he eventually gave me an hour crash course in VB5 to demonstrate how he planned to build this game of his. As someone who had always had an aptitude and liking for math, I found this programming stuff to be extremely cool—in my eyes, it was as close to godhood as a mortal could get: unlimited creation potential by simply learning a weird language. Eventually I got him to let me have his old copy of VB2 (Yes, Visual Basic 2.0, the Win3.1 version of VB) so that I could experiment. I had no documentary or books to guide me, so I just began to download source code off of the internet and dissect ’em one line at a time. This was a long and hairy process, especially considering that VB form files aren’t backwards compatible and I usually ended up rewriting each program from scratch. It was messy, but I slowly began to learn the language. I was particularly interested by game and graphics programming, like every other would-be programmer, so I decided to write a map editor. It was the scariest hack of code I'd ever seen and it was slower than slow could be, but it worked! I was amazed! Me, a little newbie programmer, had created a map editor more powerful than anything I'd seen before on the net. (This was back in the early days when planet-source-code consisted of several hundred projects, not millions of ’em). It was then that I realized the potential that programming held for me—it was a medium that allowed me to create. True happiness lies in the ability to create and excel, to do something new and to do it better than anyone else. For me, programming held that potential—it was my domain, my place to create at my leisure. I loved it :)

So my friend and I began collaborating on our greatest game idea ever: Teacher Season. To be released mid-summer after our 9th grade year, it would feature the epic storyline of a kid whose teachers were possessed by aliens. He’d have to take back the school and destroy most of it in the process, fulfilling every child’s dream by blowing away his teachers and liberating his school. It was a great idea and all, but that year ended up being the same year as the Columbine tragedy. After that horrible, tragic event, we were somewhat reluctant to continue work on a game that featured students blowing away their teachers; suddenly, it wasn’t so funny anymore. So with the aid of VB5 Learning Edition (it was cheapest :)) we shifted gears and started work on Realms of Time, an FF-style RPG that would revamp the traditional RPG ten times over.

As gung-ho high school kids are known to do, I got all excited and recruited anyone and everyone I could find. I searched ICQ, VB sites, personal homepages, and anything I could get my hands on, looking for people who wanted to join this epic RPG development team. I eventually formed a team of 20 or so people, ranging from C and VB programmers to 3D artists and musicians from around the globe. Each person had great ideas on how to make a game, so we distributed out the general storyline and layout and told the people to start working on whatever part they felt suited to.

It was a disaster in the making.

People committed to do things they really had no intention of doing. Some guys I never heard from again after sending them their acceptance letter. Some people worked really hard, only to be pissed off when another guy—whose work they were relying on—didn’t follow through. Team members started dropping like flies, and I felt my dream of making an RPG slipping away. My best friend, who had taken upon himself the role of lead programmer, decided that DirectX was a little harder than he had thought, so he bailed on me to pursue another game idea of his own making. I was mad and frustrated; I tried to become the lead programmer, but my skills were still weak. I knew little more than BitBlt and was in no way ready to write an entire game. Eventually and inevitably, the project fell into the ever-growing pit of game oblivion. Realms of Time died a slow and painful death, and its memory still haunts me…

So I forgot about programming for awhile. My once-best-friend and I had a falling out because I started dating and got back into sports, and he continued to do his programming thing. I was still bitter over him bailing on my dream project, so I was perfectly happy to be rid of him for the time being. I sailed through my junior year in high school, playing the socialite popular kid and trying to forget my crushed aspirations for being the next in-garage game producer.

But again, fate had other plans. At the start of my senior year, I began applying for college scholarships. Almost as an afterthought, I applied to the Sterling Scholar competition, a state-run scholarship program that was notoriously the hardest and most prestigious in the state. There were thirteen categories, ranging from math and science to computer technology and music, and I thought my best bet lied in either music or math. So I applied and forgot about it, since I had little chance of winning. (The way the scholarship worked was that you first had to win the competition for your school; then for your region; then for the state.) To my surprise, I was one day called down to the principal’s office to be notified that the faculty had selected me as a Sterling Scholar candidate. I was ecstatic—to be one of only thirteen kids from my school selected for the honour of Sterling Scholar! Oh, it was a happy day. :) I was so happy that I nearly missed the kicker—I had been selected to represent the school in Computer Technology. Aaahhhh! What were they thinking?! I asked the business/computer department advisor what this was about, and she told me that I was the only one with any computer experience listed. So, even though I had requested music or math, they stuck me with Computer Technology because I was the only one from the school that was even close to eligible. I was okay with this, of course, because it was still an honour—albeit an unexpected one—but it meant that I had my work cut out for me. As part of the competition, each candidate had to prepare a 20 page portfolio outlining four categories of accomplishment: category scholarship, overall scholarship, citizenship, and leadership. Strangely enough, my weakest section was “category scholarship,” so that night I headed home and cracked out the old VB5 and started to pull up some of my old programs, hoping to dig up something that I could drag on for 4 or 5 pages about. I ran across my original map editor, and the trip down memory lane began. I remembered the joy of getting a program to run without errors; the suspense at heading over to planet-source-code to see how many downloads I had received that day; the fun of staying up late and making up stupid programs like our “insult generator,” where you put in a name and the program would randomly assign it an insult. With a smile and a cracking of the fingers, I started debugging that old map editor, and—as they say—the rest is history.

After many late nights of programming 3D terrain generators and graphic workshops, I finished my portfolio (the night it was due, as is my style) and submitted it to the scholarship people. To save you the gory details, I would go on to win region and eventually take 2nd place at state—the scholarship was mine, against all odds. This was nothing short of a miracle for me (and I daresay that it was a miracle, a result of my many prayers that the judges wouldn’t laugh me out of the interviews) and I took it as somewhat of a sign—I had been blessed with a strange knack for programming, and I would be stupid to waste that gift. So with the myriad of knowledge that I gained from my month-long programming marathon, I started working on several select programming projects in my spare time.

My senior year ended and I spent the summer working construction. After work on nights when my friends were busy, I'd work on my website or add some new features to one of my programs, and I began to again establish many connections within the VB programming world. I received (and still do) at least a couple of e-mails a week asking me about various VB concepts, and through that I have made a great many friends acquaintances among VB programmers. I enjoyed my once-lost “fame”, but the idea of game development was still gone, buried beneath shame in some dark corner of my ego.

One day while cleaning out my high school archives, I happened upon the folder that contained all of my Realms of Time storyboards, outlines, and scripts. With a grin, I read through the monstrous stack of wasted time, stopping again and again to contemplate why the project had gone south. I created a list of project-dos and project-don’ts in my mind, and after a couple days of perusing through those thoughts, I decided that the VB world was ripe for a Realms of Time 2; an in-the-garage, break-the-mold, breath-of-fresh-air RPG project. There were easily enough qualified programmers, artists, musicians and designers out there—the problem would be harnessing those talents into one cohesive project. I had learned many things about the woes of teamwork from my first game development debacle, and with new resolve I laid out a plan for how to redo Realms of Time without the failure ending.

Enter the VBExplorer forums.

Following several days of pondering how to go about this, I decided that an in-your-face call to arms would be the way to go. After contemplating exactly how and where to do such a thing, I eventually decided to use the VBExplorer forums because they seemed to represent the largest gathering of mature VB programmers. Other forums probably had more people, but they were overrun by newbies and people looking for a free ride to greatness. So I scripted out the now-infamous “VB Game Programmers Unite!” post and waited for the response.

It was mixed, initially. Some were gung-ho about the idea, but most expressed reservations about the success of such a project. Eventually, though, the scales began to tip in my favor. It took some sweet-talking and some very excited posts from people who really didn’t know what they were talking about, but people began to say “hey, this could actually work”. A particularly gung-ho guy by the handle ‘theraje’ built us a quick site and set us up with an ezboard forum, and people began to jump on the bandwagon of the tentatively titled “Gathering Project”.

Eventually a rudimentary team was formed, and we began deciding on how to go about building our game. Despite my forethought and planning, there were many logistical details I hadn’t thought of in designing my second development team. Some of these problems led to disagreements, tension among teammates, and for a while the project went into a coma. Christmas break rolled around, people went out of town, disgruntled team members left for good and the project looked dead. And, in fact, it would’ve died a painful death had it not been for my friend and partner, Clint Franklin / theraje and our resident motivator Noam Brown / Wutalife.

After several people had left the team and the silence following the Christmas break of 2001, I saw the dream of a united VB development team slipping away. I started to devote my efforts elsewhere, and I spent less and less time checking in on the forums. In my mind, TGP was doomed; I'd seen this happen to a game project before, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

One day, however, I got strict e-mails from both Wutalife and raje, telling me to get off of my lazy butt or they were going to oust me as Executive Producer. I was both surprised to hear that people still believed in TGP and embarrassed to have been threatened with impeachment. Somehow, those stern e-mails lit a flame in my developer’s spirit, and TGP slowly began to chug down the tracks again. Raje and I completely redesigned our management scheme; Asuka kicked out an incredible map engine after a mere several hours of work; we had the great addition of Kroc and his brilliant ideas; PhantomLegion joined our ranks and helped us completely revamp our design scheme; NinjaStalker joined and loaned us his extreme artistic talent, and Wuta continued to provide us with fresh, innovative propositions.

So that, kids, is the history of The Gathering Project. Hopefully you haven’t been bored to death by all this, and now you can see where I'm coming from when I get cranky and start bossing people around. :) Seriously, though, I hope this helps you see my vision of TGP and where I hope we can take it. Yes, at times the Executive Producers may seem like distant uninvolved leaders, but never forget that we have more at stake in this venture than anyone—if it fails, I'll be a loser for the 2nd straight time… and that’s something I'd like to avoid. Sometimes this means that I have to take a step back and play the pragmatist, analyzing our weaknesses and strengths and maybe sounding critical, but hoping to come out that much stronger in the end.

And hey—you gotta admit that we have more fun around here than anyplace else I know. TGP is the friendliest, most welcome development environment you’re gonna find on the ’net. We’re like one big happy family. :)

And never forget our unifying theme:

We want to excel. We want to be the best there is at what we do. We want to turn the gaming world upside-down and see that it never looks at an RPG again without comparing it to ours.

We are The Gathering Project.

Stay cool y'all,
Tanner “DemonSpectre” Helland
TGP Founder and Executive Producer, March 2002