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Postmortem: Stardock Entertainment and Ironclad Games' Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
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Postmortem: Stardock Entertainment and Ironclad Games' Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion


October 9, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

2. Unexpected Departure

Further complicating early development, a key employee we planned to assign to the Sins: Rebellion art team left the company. This individual had been the go-to artist for working with the Iron Engine for the previous expansion pack, and had valuable experience working with the more technical aspects of that toolset's art pipeline.

When they left, we had not yet staffed the art team, and there was no obvious person to transfer that knowledge to. Additionally, they were still assigned to another project within the studio, which took priority over documenting their pipeline knowledge in the weeks before departure.

When we finally did hire and free up art staff to come onto the project, much of the first month was spent re-learning that pipeline. Thorough documentation (or not losing the team member to begin with) could have saved time early on as well as making technical hiccups in the art pipeline easier to resolve later in development.

3. Inter-Studio Communication

Any project coordination work between two separate studios will have related challenges at some point. Luckily, our relationship with Ironclad has been, and continues to be, fantastic on both a personal and professional level (we love you guys <3).

However, the ease of this relationship allowed us to be lax in our communication. Coordinating approval of game mechanic designs, UI visuals, and other art assets by email was a slow process. These "done pending approval" elements of the game multiplied the uncertainty that goes with most production estimates. For example, instead of knowing our UI artist would be free to move onto another studio project with approximately a two-week margin of error, we always had to add the caveat of "if we don't have any surprises in the feedback".

Something as simple as a scheduled weekly call could have eliminated the occasional blocking issue and identified problem areas in development more quickly. The lesson for us was, treat external team members like internal ones and schedule regular meetings, even if they are just a brief touchpoint, to make sure everyone is on track.

4. Shadows

One of our goals was to keep Sins: Rebellion as visually stunning as its predecessor was when it first released. A major hurdle was the implementation of real-time shadows, with the sheer number of units being drawn over a wide variety of scales. A completely new method was required.

One of our engineers was tasked with implementation of this major graphics feature, despite being unfamiliar with Iron Engine's graphics tech. This led to burning over three months of an engineer's time because this misallocation of a task wasn't identified and reassigned to Ironclad's team earlier. Setting a clear milestone to evaluate the progress of major or risky features would have found and fixed this issue early on. In the end, the pain of development is numbed whenever a Titan ship eclipses the sun and casts an entire enemy fleet in darkness.


Two Titans battle it out

5. Legacy Bugs & Assumptions

Throughout the early phases of the beta, we'd gotten intermittent reports of players getting desynchronized during multiplayer matches, forcing them to restart. Partway through a match, they would discover inconsistencies between the state of the game on different player's machines.

A planet might be owned by a Player A on one machine, but owned by Player B on another. A battle could be raging in one corner of the galaxy between two players, while the third player would see nothing. Worse, unless players were constantly communicating with each other as to the state of the game, the desynchronization would often go noticed for 30 minutes or more. However, these reports were uncommon, consistent with what had rarely been reported in previous releases of the game, and couldn't be reproduced with stable network conditions.

Or so we thought.

With the potential time suck of a wild goose chase, and the uncertainty of whether we'd actually fix what we thought was a rare issue, the siren song of "It's always been like that" was too strong for us to resist.

In reality, we had introduced a number of new desync bugs that had a reproduction rate of nearly 100 percent if you were playing the right type of match. It turns out this was a match type a lot of people happen to enjoy.

Large universes played with four players or more made for some epic multiplayer matches. They also made for some epically long multiplayer matches -- so much so that playing one would keep one third of our dev team tied up for a full day. As you might expect, this time commitment resulted in those games being played less frequently than other modes during development.

In the end, the community yelled loud enough to snap us out of our spell. It added a hiccup to the beta and an unwanted scramble towards the end of an otherwise smooth dev cycle, but disaster was averted. It forced our hand -- to focus both on the desynchronization issues we had introduced and the ones that had been there all along. This was a blessing in disguise, as it resulted in a multiplayer experience that was much more stable than any other title in the series.

Conclusion

Not without its lessons learned, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is now the most successful launch and one of the smoothest development cycles in Stardock and Ironclad's history. Based on our review of the successes and failures along the way we plan to continue extended and complete public betas for all of our future titles. It's cemented our confidence in a digital-only strategy. Most importantly, it has reinforced our commitment to quality above all else in the games we release.

Project Stats

Developers: Stardock Entertainment & Ironclad Games

Platform: PC

Release Date: June 12, 2012

Developers: 15 (at peak)

Development Time: 13 months

Tools & Technology:

  • Iron Engine, Visual Studio, Perforce, FogBugz, Maya, Photoshop, Mari, Zbrush, Mudbox, XSI, Beyond Compare, Powershell, Python

Distribution

  • Digital: Steam®, GameStop® Digital, GameFly®
  • Limited International Retail: Australian, New Zealand, Japan

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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