To a three-year-old, these mysterious machines were alien technology with magical symbols laid across them that only adults could understand. His fascination started from an early age. And at just four-years-old, Michał was able to get more hands-on with a computer for the first time, when his father brought home a real IBM PC. It had 2MHZ of power, and to the young Michał, it was “the most amazing thing ever.” To this day, Michał doesn’t know why his father bought that computer, but he figures he must have wanted to learn to program, and considering a PC like that back then cost as much as a new car, his intention must have been concrete. In any case, his parents were happy to let their children play on this new machine for hours, holding faith that they wouldn’t turn into violent monsters, and actually making it easy for them to engage in playing games, and later, programming too.
“The first game we had was Space Invaders. I remember you could play it with 2 players, so the first day I sat for 8 straight hours with my brother and played it. I think that’s why I only focus on multiplayer games because my first gaming experience was a shared experience, with someone else. I think that’s the way games should be.”
And so it was his earliest game playing memory that ultimately led to Michał’s biggest pursuit: to create the best multiplayer game ever. A goal like this isn’t achieved overnight, and so it would be years of practice, of learning and trying again and again before Michał would be even close to reaching it, not that he ever consciously declared that was his intention. The shift from enjoying games as a player to programming them as a creator occurred around the age of six. The family took a trip to a retail store to pick up a giant box. Returning home, it turned out this was the physical counterparts to a program that enabled the user to make a movie. This was Michał’s first experience with the computer as a means to create something. Due to this, he started seeing it as not just a machine to have fun with, but also a creative tool alongside the crayons that he drew with, and that feeling “burned deep inside [him].”
“I don’t remember where I read it, but somebody said that you don’t become a better programmer in larger software projects. There is no time for experimentation and learning new tricks. It’s true.”
But the first experience with game-making came a year later, when he was seven. Running QBasic under DOS, he was able to play Gorillas. It was an example game made in the Basic language in which two players chose an angle and velocity to chuck an exploding banana at each other’s gorilla. One day he pitched a simple question to his father out of curiosity, as kids do, asking what the yellow letters on the blue screen meant. His father, eager to share his own learnings with his son, started to teach him about game code, and ended up grabbing a book with ready-made scripts that you could type into QBasic editor. That was it, then. Michał spent an entire day copying the code for a game called Joust, and due to not knowing that there was a save file function, he only played it once or twice. The experience taught him extreme determination and patience and to not be worried by loss and to just focus on the game you want to achieve. Looking back at the code in QBasic, Michał tells me it was “really ugly,” something like:
240 IF G$=””THEN 160
245 IF G$=”0″ THEN RUN”GAMELIST
260 IF GM<1 OR GM>9 THEN 160 ELSE GOSUB 350
270 CL=1:GOSUB 580:GOSUB 280:ON GM GOTO 1010,1200,1390,1500,1670,1840,2010,2270,2930
But that didn’t matter, because when typing it and ‘creating’ a game from the effort, it really felt like doing a magic spell. And though Joust wasn’t a game he made per se, it was the first game that Michał created, and it carved the way towards game creation for the rest of his life.
“I don’t remember anything concrete that I wanted to create in those early years. I was too much fascinated by the process. I still am. The fact that you can premeditate what something should happen on the computer screen, then type in a bunch of words into an editor and make that exact thing materialize before your eyes is one of the most amazing experiences ever.”
Playing With Soldiers
Soldat could have changed Michał’s life. It didn’t, or at least not at first. At the time, he was young and had no confidence in himself, and says he was too “brainwashed” by society to see the incredible opportunity before him. His parents didn’t help either; they incited fears of failure in Michał, and so he followed their guidance and attended university to study computer science. He should have risked becoming a full-time indie game developer, though.
His hugely popular multiplayer shooter came after having learned over the years how to make games, and so Michał was able to work on a few different projects using Borland Delphi during his spare time between high school requirements. The urge to make multiplayer games carried strong in him, and so his interests when creating games drifted in that direction with some small top-down multiplayer shooters. At that time he was also heavily into a Finnish game called Liero, which is a gory two-player shooter that he played at school with friends.
“It was just stupidly fun, and I wandered if I could engage the whole class and play a game like that on LAN with more than two people. I always found destroying little human characters more fun than worms, so I decided I definitely wanted little soldiers. I didn’t have the resources to paint animations for them, so I thought of a different approach, which was quite revolutionary at the time for 2D games. The idea came from the game Hitman. I read a paper from one of the authors how to make ragdoll physics, and that was it. As soon as I made a little character animated and falling and tumbling, I knew that it was going to be something great.”
What he wasn’t expecting was just how popular the game would eventually become – he had only made it for his class to play. But the first spark came after he posted Soldat to a small Polish game developers forum. There was no way to gauge the popularity back at the turn of the millennium because there were no tools for such a thing, like Google Analytics today. However, he could certainly see that the forums were buzzing about it, and after a few days after this small release, he noticed that some people were arranging a tournament around his game, Soldat.
“I didn’t understand why; I still hadn’t played it myself with more people, so I didn’t know how much fun it was. After a few weeks I had ‘physical’ evidence of the game’s popularity. My temporary server would fail because of too many downloads; I’d switch to other servers, and they would ban me for exceeding the bandwidth, and so on and so on…”
And so it started. Picture the scene: you’re young, it’s the summer holidays and you’re sat on a beach at a lake. Every now and then, you’re receiving SMS messages that are notifications informing you that more people have just bought your game. You’re on holiday, and you’re earning cash for a game! This was the situation that Michał found himself in; he was making enough money to live on his own and just make games when he felt like it. But he didn’t; he went to university instead, which ended up being a waste of time. Except for being taught C++, which is the main language he uses now.
“Nurturing a community doesn’t just mean giving them a place to hang out, but it also means open and honest communication and constantly pumping new blood.”
Ultimately, though, Soldat was a huge learning experience for Michał. The game itself didn’t teach him to become a better coder, but he learned all the problems and obstacles that a large in-production project faces. And this ended up being more valuable and essential to the success of his later projects, especially King Arthur’s Gold (KAG), than anything he was taught at university.
“The thing I learnt most was having and keeping a community. I never imagined having one, and there it was. I learned it is like a plant that grows. You must give it soil and nurture it. Many developers don’t do that, but I instinctively did. In the beginnings I read all the forum topics, and I answered every single e-mail I got (and it was about 30 a day). Nurturing a community doesn’t just mean giving them a place to hang out, but it also means open and honest communication and constantly pumping new blood. This means frequent releases, with updates and patches, and reaching out and bringing fresh people into the game.”
Speaking of learning things, there was another lesson that Michał said he had to go through before being able to make King Arthur’s Gold the game it is today. He had to experience a challenge so great that he couldn’t handle it. He had to fail. That lesson is manifested in Link-Dead. This was to be a follow-up to Soldat, so naturally it’s a 2D online multiplayer shooter, and to this day it remains in public alpha. There was too much for him to learn in terms of engine coding and game design to make it work as it needed to. But Michał takes positives from the experience, saying that “it was a catalyst that allowed me to get to a new master level.”
Link-Dead first emerged back in 2008 with a five-second vision. It was a side-scrolling game with futuristic hi-tech soldiers versus a rebel mutant faction. The units on each warring side were running in tight, dark corridors, moving slowly, planning every move carefully, using tactics to ambush the enemy, and items like cloaking devices to hide. Apparently, it was such an intense idea that it fuelled Michał for a full three years as he attempted to bring it to life. But it was too much for him.
Even the most basic of actions in Link-Dead, like running, jumping and shooting, were very complex and hard for him to grasp. He compares the movement to Prince of Persia with guns, and with everything on top of that – weapon management and team co-operation – it was very hard for any player to master. He says that what he should have done is built a solid foundation, and after that, added the complex world, setting, inventory system, weapons and stats. But we learn from our mistakes, and knowing that, he’s been able to put that into practise with KAG.
As for Link-Dead, well, what ended up killing it at the time was the popularity of other indies like Braid and Minecraft. A week before inventing KAG, Michał was at the high point of his frustration with Link-Dead. He was stuck fixing 2D self-shadowing relief mapped tile rendering issues, or something like that, he says, while simultaneously observing all of these other indie games growing to be massive successes. And you have to remember, back in 2008 the idea of an “indie game hit” that went on to earn the developers lots of money was a very rare thing indeed. This was a year after the iPhone had been released and Xbox LIVE started publishing indies, which went on to make plenty of money. There was all this buzz and energy about indie games. Michał was left with an unfinished game with a release date far into the future.
“When Minecraft came out I just thought, “Jesus, I could code that game in 2 weeks and be an instant millionaire. Why am I so attached to this vision of accomplishing Link-Dead?” Soldat sales also dropped significantly during that time, and I was running out of savings. A few more months of Link-Dead development and I would be starving. So I did what every man should do at my position – admit defeat and come back bigger and stronger.”
When asked whether he thinks he’ll return to Link-Dead, Michał says that once he knows how to make the game as amazing as he intended it to be, then he certainly will return to the world of Link-Dead. But what’s important to take away from everything before this point where he gave up on it in 2011 is that he’s incorporated everything that he learned into KAG, and that’s why, he says, that KAG is “so good”.
So, frustrated but determined to find something else that would work in simpler terms, Michał found some revelations about game design after playing Ace of Spades, and decided to chisel the huge cloud of gameplay ideas and ambitions that Link-Dead had become and take just a few of the more interesting ones to form a solid concept that he could develop from scratch. These were: darkness and flashlights, traps, killing and simple movement. And that’s it! Michał tells me that as much as he likes philosophy behind game design, he’s also very pragmatic, and so he decided to put these concepts to a test. After 72 hours of furious game development, he had a small 2D team-based multiplayer game called Warmonger.
“You can see the seed of KAG there. It has two teams and three classes. Each class must cooperate with each other to win. There is no other way to play because, for example, the attacking class could not climb or dig, so they had to rely on a builder to make passages. I never tested the game with people, although it surely worked. I just instantly knew this was it! People were waiting for a game like this. So I scratched that and decided to make something cooler. I gave myself 14 days to make a prototype, and that was how King Arthur’s Gold was born.”
During this two-week period, Michał took to a pixel art forum, anonymously, asking for someone to help him out with a game that was essentially a remake of the old SNES 2D RTS, King Arthur’s World. One artist, who went by the forum name Geti, thought it was a neat idea, and was flung into the rapid-fire development of the King Arthur’s Gold concept without any realization of how big a project it was going to be. The pixel artist turned out to be Max Cahill, and funnily enough, he happened to be a quite a big Soldat player after being drawn to it for its competitive nature. He enjoyed the feeling of playing as part of a team, and that each person who played Soldat took it fairly seriously, while still having fun with it. Not so great were the sore losers, who called out “hacks” every time they lost. But he is also a self-taught developer himself, and got involved in a lot of community projects, such as modding Cortex Command and making well-received custom levels for the iconic platformer N. Max has become incremental to the development process of KAG, acting as both the artist and co-designer, and has become particularly good at heeding the requests of KAG’s rather large community.
But what attracted this community to the game in the first place, and more importantly, what has kept them playing?
Of course, Michał has some followers due to his previous projects, and so having them made for a good start. But Michał points towards the unpredictable nature of KAG as one of the core reasons as to why it’s become so popular and universally praised.
“In contrary to designing a single-player game, you can’t streamline the player’s experience. In a story-based single-player game you put a wall here, put a wall there, activate a trigger when the player steps here and then you play some pre-scripted event. I would find the job of doing that very boring. I also grew out of playing games like that – I get very frustrated at them when they want to serve me an exact experience that the developer had in mind. I think that is the domain of television and movies, not computer games.”
So when designing KAG, he ensured that its gameplay would be “unpredictable”. But the challenge was ensuring that this was the case without it just becoming a complete mess. He needed the gameplay to flow in a certain direction, but how that is accomplished is determined by the players. His role, as the game’s designer, is to simply give them the tools. He does this by turning obstacles into opportunities for co-operative moments between team mates. For example, a wall might be blocking the way, and so a knight can help others out by holding their shield up, which players can stand on and jump over. For particularly high walls you can even stack knights on top of each other (and idea that Michał got from old Asterix & Obelix comics) to form a “knight tower”. It’s possible, but none of this is easy to pull off because it requires good communication between players and a unified intent, which is rare to find in any public server.
“The proudest and happiest moment for me as a game designer was when I was playing on a server, and suddenly I saw a tower forming consisting of 8-10 knights. I saw it working for 2-3 earlier, but when I saw this gigantic knight tower, I think a little tear appeared in my eye.”
“Every single aspect of the design is a challenge. If something falls into place, it’s like winning the lottery. This is why releasing early and constant feedback from testers is critical.”
But not every aspect that makes KAG what it is today can be attributed to Michał, or even Max. The pair of them opened up the game to the public as soon as they possibly could, after about two weeks, and at first there was no requirement to login, and no means to donate towards KAG’s development. This in itself generated interest and a lot of positive feedback, and it’s a tactic that Michał used for Soldat in order to gain a thriving community. He even goes so far as to say that it’s critical for multiplayer-only games. He explains further by saying that if a game of this type doesn’t gain enough momentum right at the very start, then the players on the servers will start dwindling. So releasing the game for free allows for a community to build, and when you start charging for a version of the game, then you have a lot of potential and pre-interested customers. Having a free game and it spreading via word of mouth goes hand-in-hand, he concludes.
So back to the point, KAG had a sizeable community from the very start; they could garner plenty of feedback and suggestions to help make the game better. Opening it up to the public so early also enabled Michał to assess whether the core concept he had worked on was something that people wanted, saving himself months or years of wasted time, as was the case with Link-Dead. As he says, the game is “always perfect in your head.” It was soon apparent that KAG was growing at a promising rate, and so the next step was to put some responsible members into administration positions and set down some hard rules and softer guidelines for them all to follow. The community can then grow around this, and the administrators are able to handle most of the issues that crop up themselves, which leaves Michał and Max free to concentrate on development of the game. Max posts a few times a week to address concerns that moderators and testers can’t answer, and Michał can often be absent from the community forums and discussion areas for months. Sometimes they retire old moderators and hire new ones, but there are also internal polls to allow some level of autonomy as to who has power over the boards.
Max then explained how they handle the requested features and feedback that their community offer:
“We maintain complete discretion over what we implement, and try not to “promise” anything as much as we can. If a good feature is suggested that gels well with our plans for the game, then we’re very likely to incorporate it into the game. The community is involved with development at different levels, there is a circle of testers that playtest the beta and have more influence over changes than the average player, but I also watch and reply to all of the large announcement threads to make sure I’m on top of the majority of crowd feedback.”
And there are more benefits to growing a community to be positive about the game they enjoy playing, as well as each other, too. Quite often Max and Michał are left surprised by the events the community organize by themselves, such as the four-to-five-month long competitive leagues between the more prominent clans, and the the now famous “Acavado” traps – these are named after a forum member and are a combination of trap bridges and spikes, arranged such that it only exposes the spikes when enemies are near.
A more recent surprise from the community that Michał remembers is a particular mod that added an extra aspect to the gameplay:
“I remember joining a server a few weeks after we released the Zombie Fortress mode, and some people made a normal CTF server with a workshop in which you could buy… zombies. Because all objects in the game have an assigned team, the purchased zombies were on your team and didn’t attack you. But they did attack the enemy. So it was basically like buying a pet which defended you.”
KAG is now gearing up to the release of the public beta version, and when that survives, it will be launched on Steam, as they recently announced. This beta version that they’re currently working on, after a year-and-a-half of being the in alpha stage, sees them throwing away or turning every game element they’ve added upside down. For instance, siege weapons are too overpowered to act as defense weapons because they cut through anything like it was butter, farming proved to be tedious and having builders also act as suppliers is just too boring for any player to want to do for their team. But even when this work has been done, they plan on supporting KAG for a long time, or at least as long as people want to play it. And if it comes to it, they’ll let the community take the game into their own hands.
“Part of the thing I like about not being a “proper” company is that we won’t just end a game because we have no funding due to some corporate merge or something. We’ve seen too many good games die like that. We can afford to let go of the game and have it live its own life. This is what happened to Soldat. The reason we spent the last couple months rewriting the entire game into scripts (Angelscript language/library) is that we want the community to take over. With every aspect of the game outside in scripts, anyone can modify the game, fix bugs and add content. We will be supporting all sorts of mods, and I don’t think its too far from reality if I say that one day a KAG mod might become even more popular than the game itself.”
Of course, not every single good idea that Max and Michał come up with gets incorporated into KAG. In fact, they told me that they’ve been holding buildable vehicles for KAG 2. Bascially, these would be moving vehicles that can be constructed just like the blocks in the game. Michał tells me that this would mean you could ride a giant moving castle, for example, or a 12-storey battleship with factories inside it, all built and maintained by players. But these ideas won’t see the light of day for a while yet; he’s got to finish KAG yet.