Camen Design

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Year One of the Gathering Project—An Overview

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 by Clint Franklin.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since The Gathering Project first gathered together. A lot has happened since October 25, 2001, when TGP was officially formed. Here, I will write my own account of the project as it has progressed through the year. Of course, telling you about what’s been done to the game itself is only half the story. Behind the scene lies a tale of bad blood, politics, and dealing with one’s own personal demons.

In the Beginning

In mid October 2001, the Visual Basic Explorer Forums were visited by a college kid, going by the handle of DemonSpectre†. There, DemonSpectre posted a message‡, a general cattle call, urging VB game developers from all over to come together to create a large-scale RPG project in pure VB.

This post was met with both skepticism and enthusiasm. At first, I was one of the skeptics. It showed no signs of coordination. If something such as this had come to be, it would be far too unwieldy to succeed. How can you coordinate so many people, when many of them will lose interest, will try to work on things others are, and with no leadership to supervise and plan everything that happened? A recipe for chaos I saw.

After expressing my doubts, the thread went off-topic for a while. However, a few interested people decided to steer the thread back on track. We began discussing things we would like to see (as well as not see) in an RPG. The thread rapidly grew in size, as other onlookers became interested, some even offering their support.

I was overwhelmed by the momentum that had begun to build, and I was sold. I began working on a website for those interested in the project, and after a couple days, we had a site on ad-free ’Web space, information, message board, chat room, and six members.

A Rocky Start

When the project officially started, we had six members. Wutalife27 became a writer. Darkain Dragoon a coder. Asuka also a coder. Neo-Black rose a writer and musician. I a webmaster, artist, and writer. DemonSpectre, the one who made the post that started all this was dubbed the leader of the project, and was also a musician and writer. All of us were considered designers. Soon after, Machaira, a professional game programmer, joined our ranks. With that, we discussed where to go from there.

We started discussing things such as the setting and how battles would be handled, in addition to general aspects such as view. I made some placeholder graphics, while others worked on engine prototypes and a map editor. The musicians also worked on some music to use in the game.

Of course, we felt it best to discuss matters in real time, so we decided to hold our first meeting within the chat room I'd set-up. We had a few vacancies as Machaira and Neo-Black Rose were unable to attend, so the rest of us went forward.

In short, things didn’t go perfectly well. We did make a few resolutions, but only between long rants and arguments. Beside that, we determined what view we would use, tile size, and we declared Machaira lead programmer, even in his absence.

In the days after the meeting, we did a little more discussion within the forums. I proposed a battle system design, which ran separate from the map engine, but that used map data to build a terrain within the battle, allowing for a more realistic scene and strategic combat. This way, it was like the game took place within the map itself, but put everything into a different perspective to give the player a more close, personal view of fights. It was met with mixed emotions, but eventually became the favored system. By that time, Asuka had also coded a prototype of a map engine, as well as a map editor. DemonSpectre also declared me as his assistant executive producer.

The Beginning of the End

After just a few weeks, Machaira decided to leave the team, citing job obligations in addition to the flavor of game we’d decided to go with. Additionally, Neo-Black Rose left after a dispute with DemonSpectre during a chat room meeting. Nonetheless, we picked ourselves up, and moved forward.

That didn’t last very long, however. With all this chaos, a “storyline contest” was held, where the team’s writers would write a storyline, and submit it for a challenge to decide which story would be best for our project. Only Wutalife submitted a story. I was suffering from a depressive episode at the time, so I never commented or submitted a story. No one else seemed to care enough to submit a story. In fact, it seemed as though no one at all cared about the entire project anymore.

This dead period, which I like to refer to as “Black New Year,” started around the end of 2001, and lasted until early 2002.

The message board was left in dead silence for a while. Eventually, my depressive episode passed, and I wasn’t ready to just give up on this project. So, after contacting the remaining members, we decided to move forward with only four members: Myself, Asuka, Wutalife, and DemonSpectre.

The Rebirth

After losing steam, we again began to work on the game, but at a snail’s pace. TGP sort of loomed in a state of limbo for a while. Then, we had some new recruits—NinjaStalker, an artist; and Kroc, a programmer and designer.

DemonSpectre was so impressed with NinjaStalker’s artwork that he was sent my way, where I gave my approval. I was so impressed with Kroc’s design sense that he was approved by DemonSpectre as well. With that, our numbers had grown back to original size. With help from some organizational and design ideas from Kroc, we finally began getting some of the abstract stuff down in stone, and started working on some of the final release work.

With these two new members, our work started to take-off again. We had once again become a spirited force, and our activity reached points beyond what we’d ever experienced.

Full Throttle

Our surge of activity apparently carried-over to spectators, as soon my inbox was flooded with so many resumes and fan mails that I found it a chore just to go through them all, let alone respond to them without cutting into my work time. Only a select few resumes were considered, and of those, even fewer panned-out. These new additions to the team included Intrest86, Vegeta101, and a friend of DemonSpectre, PhantomLegion. With only three additions, activity again climbed higher and higher.

After a brief stint, PhantomLegion disappeared without a trace, evidently losing interest in the project. Of course, morale wasn’t noticeably affected, as we still moved forward with a great force.

During this time, we managed to do quite a bit. I wrote-up the battle system documentation and a prototype engine was coded by Asuka, with DirectSound and DirectInput coding added by Intrest86, while Kroc coded the public version of the map editor, and the scripting language was designed by both Kroc and Asuka. Vegeta, NinjaStalker, and I all worked on graphics, while Wutalife helped with design and writing. We’d also recruited a new musician, DragonFyre00, a friend of Intrest86.

Things were going great. That is, until…

The Beginning of the End, Part II

Since the outcome of the original storyline contest had never been resolved due to the initial collapse of TGP, the contest was held once again to determine the storyline that would be used as the focus of the game. What would follow though was a cutthroat battle of politics, egos, and suspicion, and almost proved the ultimate demise of the entire project.

Around the middle of 2002, everyone was given one month to write for the contest, and four took the challenge. The future of one member was hanging in the balance, as an ultimatum would have him out of the team unless he could prove his worth. I also accepted the challenge, and began working like mad.

A Sign of Mania

Of course, I should’ve realized that things weren’t quite right. I worked on my storyline from rise to rest. I would spend anywhere from 12-24 hours at a time working on my storyline, only stopping to use the bathroom. I would sleep only a few hours at a time, but still had so much energy that I went straight to work. I barely even ate anything during that time.

After about a week, I'd finished. Still, I spent the remaining weeks until deadline working on the story, checking for spelling errors or plot holes constantly, and more. I had become totally obsessed. Little did I know at the time the reason behind this inexplicable surge in drive.

First Blood Drawn

Then came deadline. All four stories were submitted and made available to the team. Then came the drawing of blood.

The best analogy I can think of to describe the contest once the stories had been posted is the propaganda wars fought during the Cold War. There was a story that nobody liked, a story that was creative but didn’t seem like an RPG, a story that was written as an outline rather than a story, and a story that had very few areas were the player actually played, but was extremely well-written.

In the midst of all this came the suspicion that some espionage was taking place within the project. This caused some tension in the team, as the project leaders were suddenly acting nuts and almost everyone else was left in the dark. In the end, we decided to make a few restrictions and let whatever may have been lost stay lost, since we could never determine conclusively what had happened.

This did not stop the battle between storylines, however. The writers were still fighting, while judges looked at stories in different ways. Some looked at the gameplay aspects, others looked strictly at the writing itself. In the end, it came down to two stories. One that was very well-written and resembled a short novel, and another that didn’t go into as much detail, but left a lot of room for gameplay and other writers. Some judged based on how well the story was written, but others felt that the writing itself is pointless if it doesn’t translate well into a game.

The Final Blow

In the end, the two stories were split evenly amongst all the judges. One vote was not counted, and so my story was left a vote short of victory. At this point, I had a meltdown. I immediately went from a crazed high to a deep depression. I felt that I had failed, and that I was no longer of use. After I wrote my resignation and was just about to post it, I found an e-mail from DemonSpectre in my inbox.

DemonSpectre himself was considering resignation. After another member had threatened to quit over the selection, seeing it as an animated movie more than a game, and the other tensions flaring around the contest, DemonSpectre had more than he could take. He was ready to withdraw his storyline submission, and step-down as project leader, declaring me the winner and new leader of TGP.

Being presented with the oppurtunity to not only have my story written into the game, but to also become the undisputed ruler of TGP, still didn’t make things better. I may not be a shining example of maturity, but I was no fraud. Instead of merrily taking the helm, I talked DemonSpectre into reconsidering his decision. Once it appeared that he had decided to remain project leader, I made my move.

Head Held in Shame

I was disgusted with the way the storyline contest went. When I looked at the way I had behaved, I felt sick. This wasn’t how I would normally act. This, compounded with the loss of the contest, made me feel that I was a total dead weight. Even being handed the competition and the leadership of the project on a silver platter wasn’t enough to pull me out. I felt that the best thing I could do for the project was to convince DemonSpectre that by winning the storyline contest that he was proven the true champion of TGP. That would be my final, best act to help guide the project to success.

Once DemonSpectre seemed to be reassured of his place in TGP, I posted my resignation in the forum, and never looked back. For nearly a week, I spent my time drinking heavily and considering whether my existence in this world carried any merit with it. I expected DemonSpectre to follow my suggestions and encourage the team to move on without me, and I wanted to see it for myself. I didn’t see any posts from DemonSpectre, but everyone else was practically begging me to come back, saying that the project would die if I left. My plan was failing, and I got angry.

At the time, I felt as though I was totally worthless. Yet, everyone else had this crazy notion that somehow I was some sort of superhero that they could not continue without. Why on Earth am I the one carrying everyone on my shoulders? I can’t even take care of myself like a normal person, let alone eight others! I refused to listen, but so did they. My e-mail account wasn’t safe from anyone else, and practically every member made use of it†.

Shadow of Guilt

Eventually, I got it through my thick skull that maybe the outcry opposed to my resignation was some indication that I had some value to the team. If not in material, then in symbolic. At this point, I saw that the team had finally decided to come to terms with my departure, and showed some signs that they were at least going to try to keep moving. After I saw that, I felt a burden being lifted from my chest. The pressure to be more than I could possibly be was gone. I felt relief, but guilt at the same time.

The team had finally begun to work on its own. It didn’t need me anymore. But, as one member put it, my absence, even if it didn’t kill the project, it would water it down. So, I decided to serve the team again. I offered to remain a part of the project, but only if I was voted to be allowed back in. The vote was unanimous. I was unsure whether the team would be resentful for my actions, but at the same time fairly certain that I would be voted in. If nothing else, it served as a symbol that I work for the team, more than it works for me.

Round and Round We Go

So, after all that happened, things were somewhat back to normal. That didn’t last very long, of course. DemonSpectre had been utterly silent during the course of the turmoil over my resignation. Once I decided to reconsider, he decided to quit again. Things are never simple, are they? After talking with DS, we made a compromise. Due to a lack of time with school and work, he decided to leave me as the sole entity for decision-making, except in matters of recruiting and handling other membership matters, where we would reach a decision together. Or, as he put it, I am the president, and he is congress. He would also still contribute to storywriting and music.

Of course, it became apparent that this was something that made sense. About that time, I heard the former prime minister of Israel make a comment about how no government has succeeded with two top-level leaders.

Perhaps ironically, this move that reflected successful government guidelines actually seems to have purged the politics out of the project. Ever since this, tensions have been relatively minimal. I view this as a very important lesson to others who wish to venture into a team project. It takes time to decide who in your team is best-suited as its leader, but once a decision is made, you should have only one leader.

Moving On

Fortunately, things have been going considerably smoothly since the whole storyline debacle. Well, at least as far as conflicts within the project go. However, I continued to experience periods where I would do nothing but work every waking hour and sleep very little, which were immediately followed by periods of burn-out, where it took everything in me to even turn my computer on. I simply dismissed it as normal energy cycles. Work too hard, too fast, and you burn out.

Of course, things continued to worsen to the point where I went days at a time where I got little to no sleep or food. Due to a chemical imbalance, I've always experienced some depression and other similar health problems, but things were getting to be a little too much. So, I decided to see a doctor.

Soon, I will begin treatment for a newly diagnosed illness. Now that I know what it is that’s going on in my head, I can get help for it. Hopefully with this help, and from what I've learned from my past experiences, I can make sure that these mistakes don’t happen again. On top of that, I hope that I can be a little more consistent with my work, rather than spout-out five big projects at once and then be unable to do anything for two weeks. And, finally, I hope that although similar conditions are a noted feature of artistic minds, that a little treatment doesn’t affect anything but the bad stuff. :P

Of course, even though I'm not always working doesn’t mean nothing’s going on. In fact, Asuka is currently coding the final core engines for the game system, the writers are writing, the programmers are working on utilities such as a cutscene editor and the public version of the map editor, the musicians are composing, and the artists are arting (or something like that).

In Summary

So, that’s it. That pretty much tells you the major stuff that has happened behind the scenes at TGP. In case I left anything out, here’s a basic idea of what we have done so far.

As far as graphics go, there’s still much to do. A lot of tiles need to made, but a lot of tiles are already made, too. We’re working on some stuff to help us with character sprite creation, and on other parts such as the GUI.

As for programming, Asuka is working on coding the final game engine, including battle system and script machine. We have designed our own scripting language, thanks to the work of Kroc with help from Asuka. We have some basic map editors, while the release version of the map editor is still sort of in limbo.

The game design is for the most part complete. We’ve decided the perspectives, battle system, NPC interaction, and more of the necessities. We’ve also devised some extras, such as stat ramps and templates, personality and relationships, and other goodies. A fairly good number of mini-games have been planned as well. In fact, the only real design issues that are still open are a few layout issues and designing more specific items and characters.

Writing is progressing, but there’s still plenty to do there. Some rewriting on the original premise will be done, while other parts are fleshed-out. We’re writing the story in a way that will make it very different each time you play it, and decisions you make will have an impact on the direction a story takes.

There’s still a lot to do in the music category, but we already have plenty of good stuff for now. Sound effects have been somewhat low on our list of priorities, but I have some foley knowledge, so we will have that covered.

Of course, when you consider that we probably wasted our first six months running around in circles, that’s not too bad. In fact, I think the only things we did back then that we’re still holding to is the battle system (and that was changed to an isometric perspective), a modern / futuristic setting, and tile sizes.

The End?

It’s been a long year. TGP has undoubtedly gone through much more garbage than most teams would’ve stood to endure, but that serves only as a sign of its resilience. We’ve made it a lot farther than most in our situation, and right now, the future looks sweet.

This is definitely not an easy job. I don’t think any of us expected nearly as much trouble as we’ve experienced as members of this little project. But hey, all in a day’s work when you’re a member of TGP. TGP is about resilience, determination, and defying adversity. We’ve come to conquer a challenge. When we do, we’ll brush our shoulders off and find another. We’ve withstood everything from bitter rivalries to abandonment, from personal attacks to personal demons. We’re not giving up that easily.

We are The Gathering Project!