Writing

SOL: Exodus Manual

When developing SOL: Exodus, we knew that the initial release of the game would be a digital one.  We still wanted the game to have a great manual in the tradition of boxed retail PC games we all grew up playing.  I wrote and edited the manual for the product, which shipped as a printable PDF and was also translated and printed for use in the Collector’s Edition that was sold in stores in Europe.

 

Gamesauce Magazine (Spring 2010) “Producers”

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In the Spring of 2010, I had the opportunity to partner with fellow veteran game producer and friend, Kenn Hoekstra, to write an article for the second issue of Gamesauce magazine.  “Producers: Essential Glue for any Project or Useless Bags of Meat?” was a humorous, “Goofus and Gallant”-inspired article that explored key responsibilities of games producers and gave examples of producers behaving well and poorly in each role.

Sid Meier’s Railroads!

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EngineerRailroads! was my final project at Firaxis and one that I’ve come to appreciate a lot more as the years have passed. In late 2005 when I was assigned to the project, it was nothing more than a simple-yet-enthralling demo Sid had created that merged the basic strategy / economy game of Railroad Tycoon with the fun and aesthetic of playing with model trains.   Our challenge was to take that demo and create a polished retail product in about a year.

As in previous projects such as Pirates!, I took on more design responsibilities on this title, putting together the basics of our scenario system, compiling the list of trains, buildings, robber barons and scenario locales to be included, and borrowing some familiar gameplay mechanics from some of our other products (the stock and patent systems were shamelessly lifted from the “Mars” prototype that eventually became Civ IV).  I also  implemented some smaller features into the game including the “train table mode” and the in-game newspapers that are displayed when key events take place.

Initially intended to be a small-scale product that helped stagger our production cycles following the simultaneous completion of Civ IV and Pirates!, interest and expectation soon began to balloon as 2K fielded a lot of press inquiries about the game, and major press events followed.  I first demoed the game at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco as a part of Sid Meier’s induction into the “Walk of Game”, then traveled to Los Angeles to present the game at E3, where it was nominated for a “Best of E3” award, and later in 2006 had the chance to demo in Leipzig, Germany at the world’s largest games show.  German gamers are passionate about their trains!

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Looking back, we did some pretty amazing things with the game in a very short amount of time.  At the time of development, it was without question the best-looking title the studio had ever produced, and I think we nailed player experience in the core feedback loop: to this day I feel that there is a zen-like joy to being able to drag train tracks across terrain and watch the world terraform to meet your desires.   We had an amazing team, including some of the best engineers and artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

 

The game has gone on to become a bit of a cult hit — there are still active communities building mods and maps for the game despite a lack of real built-in mod support (we never had the resources to tackle it on this project), and the game was even ported to the Mac recently, proving that “watching the trains go by” does indeed have universal  appeal.

 

Sid Meier’s SimGolf

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SimGolf was a product that literally evolved into existence over the course of a couple of weeks.  The product actually began life as Sid’s infamous dinosaur game, and despite building a variety of different prototypes (a card game, an RTS, etc), he was never satisfied with “Dinos” and began to tinker with other ideas. One of those ideas was a golf simulation that used the same isometric tile grid that he had built for his Dino game.   One week, we were playing and giving feedback on the dinosaur game. The next? presto-chango — SimGolf was born.

SimGolfStory2It wasn’t actually called SimGolf at first — that name and branding was a somewhat uneasy marriage brokered by EA’s Bing Gordon, and we did the best we could to embrace the Sims aesthetic.  The “Sims” that roamed your golf course could interact with each other and start “stories” that would only be fulfilled if your course provided a certain kind of challenge or fun.

At the time, I was still the web and community manager, so I worked with the Maxis web team to build and test the SimGolf website (including the “SimGolf Exchange” functionality on Maxis’ servers) and moderated the discussion boards.  I wrote some stories for the theme backs and also built a tool in Visual Basic called “Sim Golf Story” that allowed you to create new pairs of golfers and their “story” and save the file out to your game.

demojournalists2001 was the first year I attended E3 as a developer and demoed the game for press.  Our demo room was a golf-themed room right inside a giant tree that EA had constructed in the middle of their Harry Potter-themed area.  It was loud!  The giant SSX Tricky display outside our room was on a 2-minute loop and you could feel the bass in your chair 🙂

Sid Meier’s Civilization III

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chariot_fidgetCivilization III was a very big deal for Firaxis.   Although it was well-understood that Alpha Centauri was the spiritual successor to Civilization II, Hasbro held the Civilization license and, aside from a brief challenge from Activision’s ill-fated Call to Power series, there really wasn’t anything out there giving turn-based strategy fans what they wanted.  So when we signed with Infogrames to do Civ III, there was a lot of excitement internally, for good reason.  Over a period of several years I was involved in many facets of the product’s life cycle.

At the time of the original Civ III’s launch, I was heavily involved in the launch of Civ3.com, which was by far the most ambitious website release we’d ever done.  But I was also involved in several ambitious side projects: one such project, internally codenamed “Play the World”, was to be a feature that allowed Civ III players to connect to the Civ3.com website each day, download that day’s game seed, and, periodically throughout the course of their gameplay session, upload their current game state for comparison to their friends and the best players in the world.   I built what I would later realize was a primitive server backend using ColdFusion as a web application layer and SQL Server as a database, while the Director of Technology built the client routines to send scores and download game seeds using standard HTTP calls.  In the end, it proved too clunky and was abandoned, but it did lend its name to the infamous expansion pack!

psychedelic_editorAnother side project I spent extensive time on was gathering and triaging fan requests and working with one of our engineers, Mike Breitkreutz, to improve the capabilities of the game’s editor.  We would have near-daily meeting to discuss new features, brainstorm ways to work around limitations, and debate interface usability.  The editor itself was a standalone MFC app, and I wrote comprehensive Windows help files for the application.   Though we received a great deal of criticism for the editor’s initial lack of functionality, many fans eventually grew to consider the Civ III editor among the most powerful in the series; indeed, thousands of mods and scenarios were created by fans for the game.

27163624In 2002, I worked with Eagle Games, a boardgame manufacturer known for its massive boxes and high production values in its game pieces, to develop Civilization: the Boardgame.

In 2003, I was the producer for “Civ Console” project, a controller-driven, TV-resolution prototype of a Civ-style game that Sid had developed with the intention of developing for the Sony Playstation 2.    Eventually, the kernel of this concept would go on to become Civilization Revolution, which shipped on Xbox 360, PS3, and iOS.

In 2004, years after the original launch of Civ III, I was asked to build a gold pack compilation of Civ III and all its’ expansions — Civ III Complete.  I authored the autorun, edited the manual and managed QA for the compilation.  The product was released on PC and Mac and remains a strong retailer seller to this day.

 

 

Civ3.com

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ColossusAfter re-launching the Firaxis website as a dynamic, ColdFusion-powered site with an online store, Civilization III was the next product to launch, and it would be the first project with our new publishing partner, Infogrames (briefly Hasbro Interactive, soon to be Atari).  Firaxis believed very strongly in controlling its own marketing message and managing those assets — in careful coordination with the publisher, of course.   Civ3.com was a huge endeavor because it marked Sid Meier’s reunion with the Civilization IP, so the website design, staging and update schedule was meticulously planned.

CivTriviaWorking with design firm Anonymous, I took their final PSD’s and sliced the files by hand into nested tables (CSS was not yet a reliable way to render layouts at this time), then used ColdFusion to template specific portions of the site layout for ease of propagation throughout the site.  I also developed and implemented a weekly quiz game called “CivTrivia” which tested users’ knowledge of the Civilization series, awarded scores, and kept track of top scores on a leaderboard on the site.

Every week for 16 weeks leading up to launch, a new Civilization from the game would be unveiled on the site as the “Civ of the Week“.  A new background style and images of that Civ’s leader and unique unit were released, as were two sets of custom wallpapers for each Civ.  Finally, I wrote an irreverent, humorous (yet historically accurate!) description of each Civ that accompanied the new assets and associated game data.

Developer updates, two of which I authored, served much the same purpose as modern dev blogs do, and our “Ask the Civ Team” feature fostered  interaction with fans at a time when 1-way outbound broadcasting was the model for product marketing websites.

The site framework worked wonderfully and was so successful that it was used time and time again for the various expansion packs which were added to the game in subsequent years.