At GDC 2012, Michael Lyashenko, founder of Tasharen Entertainment, attended a talk from renowned game designer and developer Sid Meier, whose name prefaces games such as Civilization and Pirates! In that talk, Meier mentioned how game designers are basically copying one another in everything they do, and how that's ok, because much of game development is about iteration.
After that talk, Lyashenko decided to approach Meier.
“I just walked up to Sid Meier and I basically asked him, ‘Can I ['copy'] your Pirates! game?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah! Go for it! It’s cool,'” said Lyashenko.
That was the initial spark that led Lyashenko to start development of Windward, a game that seemingly came out of nowhere on May 12, reaching as high as #3 on the Steam top sellers chart. Lyashenko had taken Meier’s blessing and made a game that was reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Pirates!, but stripped out everything except the actual sailing (sorry, no dancing or swordfights here), and added multiplayer and procedurally-generated worlds.
“I obviously didn’t have the resources that [Meier’s studio] Firaxis has, for all these stories and all that,” Lyashenko said. “So I had to do things procedurally instead. I had to have players create their own stories.”
Windward falls within the tradition of allowing each individual player their own unique experience within a quest-based framework. Players partake in inter-port trading, looting shipwrecks, and most prominently, fighting off pirates on the high seas. I spent several hours with the game on single-player, just ticked it down to “beginner,” kicked my feet back, and had an enjoyable time trading and exploring, my seafaring punctuated by cannon battles with pirates.
Windward represents a fairly common way for a small (or one-person) team to create an interesting game: take one element (e.g. a theme or mechanic) from a bigger game, and drill down into that idea to make it as good as you possibly can.
"I just walked up to Sid Meier and I basically asked him, 'Can I ['copy'] your Pirates! game?' And he's like, 'Yeah! Go for it! It's cool."
“I decided to remove certain things from the original Pirates! game that inspired me, such as dancing and swordfights,” says Lyashenko. “To me, they always distracted from the real point of the game, which is sailing around, and blowing up other ships—ship to ship combat. That’s stuff that I enjoy, not necessarily what everyone else may have enjoyed, but that’s what I enjoyed.”
Lyashenko did start work on Windward after that brief interaction with Meier. And then after several months, $71,000 of his own money spent, and only about $800 worth of preorders, he stopped. “That’s kind of demotivating,” he chuckled.
Looking for more career stability, he worked for Unity, after the popular game engine maker took note of his work on NGUI. “I decided to work on that—when something is successful, it’s best to work on that, to see how far it goes,” he says. His take on Pirates! would sit on the backburner for a year.
Despite the time that passed, something drew Lyashenko back to Windward after his year with Unity. He wanted to take the game’s maps and make them procedural, and add more procedural content to make player experiences unique on a session to session basis. “It was one of those games that always sat at the back of my mind. I knew that I had something interesting going, but at the same time, I didn’t finish it. I was close to finishing it, and I just wanted to get it done,” Lyashenko says. “I woke up one morning, and just wanted to finish it.”
The game ended up climbing to the third spot on Steam, just behind massively marketed heavyweights The Witcher 3 and Grand Theft Auto V. “Honestly, I was hoping for the same [sales] result as Early Access,” says Lyashenko. During six months of Early Access, Windward grossed $150,000. After the end of the first week, Lyashenko had made gross sales of $720,000—far beyond his expectations. “I definitely did not expect that. $300,000 in total would’ve definitely covered development, and made it worthwhile. What it earned surprised the crap out of me.”
And it wasn’t just the income that surprised him. Along with that came dozens of people connecting to his personal computer. “What was supposed to be networked like a co-op LAN party game ended up as an MMO with 316 players connected to my home computer at one point,” he laughed. “I blew through my bandwidth cap in two days...which reminds me—I gotta call my ISP.”