Welcome. Hope each of you is doing relatively well.
With this Newsletter, I’m making a couple changes. First, this will be last update on subscriber numbers. As to the reason why, see Questions, Answers & Comments.
Last Newsletter: ~2725.
This Newsletter: ~2900.
+ If you would like to support Greg with FANSTRATICS, subscribe here. +
Second, I’m going to begin talking ‘features’.
As for this month's Troop concept sketch, I give you the Medusa Vanguard. For those of you who want to see Justin actually render the drawing, you can watch a VOD of his Twitch stream here...
Also, a quick shoutout to Tim Lang and Aeolwyn’s Legacy. Tim and I both worked at New World Computing (NWC), but our paths rarely crossed. However, I do have one story.
HoMM3 was winding down. HoMM3 Armageddon’s Blade and Might and Magic 7 were both ramping up. Frequently, when a project needed additional staff, the first place we looked was Quality Assurance (QA). Jennifer Bullard and a couple of HoMM3 Map Makers asked me to try and bring Tim onto the team. Subsequently, I went into a meeting with Paul Rattner (MM7 Design Lead) where we talked personnel. At the time, we had already solidified our teams, with a couple exceptions. Tim was one of those exceptions. When I told Paul, I wanted Tim on the HoMM3 team, he flatly said, “I talked to Tim. He doesn’t want to work on Heroes. He wants to work on Might and Magic.” I must admit to feeling oddly rejected. Tim was the first person I’d encountered who didn’t want to work on HoMM3. Regardless, Tim went on to work on MM7, MM9, and more. Ironically, Tim and I have chatted more in the past few months, than the entirety of my time at NWC. ;-)
This month, I have seven initial questions, followed by the final part of my lengthy interview with Tavern of Might and Magic.
Until next time.
Fanstratics Game Director & Designer
(Questions, Answers & Comments)
Fanstratics Faction #4: Necrotics.
Lifeforce drained from the living, is most sweet when consumed at the moment of their inevitable death. To this end, tyrannical Necromancers create and control vast hordes of undead, directing them to consume all... to feed their immortality addiction. Decayed on the outside, dead on the inside, the diseased Necrotic exist on the vacillating Dead Lands. Forever they creep forward... unrelenting... unforgiving... unbowed. Playing the undead can be a lot of fun, so... did anyone really think there wouldn’t be a faction in the spirit of HoMM3’s ‘Necropolis’? Representing the Necrotic is the Feral Vampire, which can be viewed in the Fanstratics Gallery.
The HOMM series has a storied history but doesn't really have consistency since it has been remade and its previous canon thrown away every time. Are you planning for the longevity of what you're attempting to make? Are you planning to keep the great writing that made HoMM3 so great going in your successor?
My goal for Fanstratics (FST) is ‘longevity’. There may be other stories, involving different characters from different continents, but I would prefer to stick with one world and one line of characters. Truthfully, I didn’t have a lot of time to work on HoMM3s’s story elements, and map makers were given relative freedom to work within established guidelines. With FST, I want to lay a strong foundation and put a considerable amount of effort into the story. We’ll see what happens. There are many hurdles to overcome.
For its time, the graphics for HoMM3 were insanely good, and the method of producing sprites from 3d models made it age like fine wine - it still looks good to this very day (if somewhat small/low res). Something very typical and important in H3 spirit, imo, is the photo-realistic environment. And overall, I think the "realistic" side is an important point, 'cause it makes me feel like going for a true adventure back in old times, not playing a random video game inspired by Japanese anime. For example, for me the undead has to be kind of "sober", not as colorful and distorted as in H5 or Warcraft3, where it feels like Halloween in Disneyland.
Your point regarding sprites from 3D models is well taken, but keep in mind, HoMM4 also produced sprites from 3D models. In my opinion, it really comes down to the people involved: Phelan Sykes, Scott White, Adam McCarthy, George Almond, and David Mullich. Phelan and Scott were not involved in HoMM4... and it showed.
Fanstratics’ art will be 3D, but with a forced perspective mimicking an old school 2D presentation (sometimes called 2.5D). This type of interaction is habitual for every HoMM3 player, and I believe it is important to stick with what is familiar. As for the art style, we are attempting to fashion a ‘realistic fairy tale’ or ‘creative caricature’, which I believe Justin Gerard is accomplishing. Just as the game play will be a spiritual successor to HoMM3, I want to art style to also be a spiritual successor.
How soon can we get some map pictures, town screens, or some tiny video?
Unfortunately, images or video are a long way off. For a couple of reasons, my approach to development has been ‘design and programming first’. This means art and audio will be fashioned only after most of the design and programming are in place. While this method is more efficient and cost effective, the approach is uncommon as it requires ‘vision’.
Most people have a difficult time ‘seeing’ anything unless it is shown to them. One of the reasons developers produce ‘fake demos’ for publishers, management, media, and gamers, is to ‘show’ them the ‘vision’ for the game they are attempting to make.
In 1998, at E3 in Atlanta, I sat on a chair for eight hours a day, showcasing HoMM3 to numerous industry people. Our HoMM3 E3 demo was effectively fake, but it got HoMM3 the mainstream press coverage it needed. It also helped the team ‘see’ what we were building.
Remember the ‘No Man’s Sky’ demos from 2013 and 2014? Heavily scripted. If Sean Murray didn’t have a scripted demo, how many people could have ‘seen’ what he was talking about? Remember Cyberpunk 2077’s demo from 2018? Heavily scripted. I’m not excusing what Hello Games and CDPR did, but I understand how and why it happened.
Overall, fake demos are a deceptive practice, but without it, most developers cannot get the external or internal support they need. As for myself, I know asking people to wait is asking a lot, but I want to avoid producing a ‘scripted demo’. So... as I mentioned... images or video are a long way off. Which leads me into the next question...
To successfully crowd fund the game, you say you need 50,000 subscribers, yet you have less than 3,000. Are you concerned? When do you see a possible release happening?
Truthfully, I’m satisfied to see we’re closing in on 3,000. I do sincerely wish I was emailing 50,000 people each month, but I don’t expect to see subscriber numbers accelerate until I reach out to the mainstream media. I can only reach out to the mainstream media when I have a collection of screenshots, clips, and a video. Anything short of this will simply be ignored (as for the reasons detailed above). Until I have more to show, I’m content to fly under the radar, communicating specifically with the hardcore fans. So, to avoid any concerns, miscommunication, or misunderstanding, I’m removing the ongoing subscriber count.
As for the game’s release, I have a very, very loose timeline for Fanstratics. This year’s goal is to program, program, and program, while finalizing the game’s design. If things go reasonably well, I want to crowd fund sometime in 2022, with an Early Access release sometime in 2023. I know it’s a long time to wait, but it’s the eternal dilemma of ‘good-fast-cheap (pick two)’. At this stage, I can only afford good and cheap, so development will be slow.
For some perspective, consider Valheim, which sold over 3,000,000 copies in February, and is still in Early Access. Most people don’t know the game’s Steam page has been live since October of 2018. In January of 2020, they had ~5,100 Steam followers, with ~50,000 wish lists. Prior to February of 2021, they had ~1,700 Twitter followers, but now have over ~58,000.
What changed? A couple mid-tier Twitch streamers played the game. Soon thereafter, larger Twitch streamers liked what they saw and joined in. Add in some Youtubers and the game took off like a rocket. I’d surprised if there weren’t some complimentary Steam keys handed out, but the point is this... at this stage, ~3,000 non-Steam newsletter subscribers isn’t bad.
Fanstratics Feature List.
Why am I now revealing a list of features? Since June of 2020, I have sent a Fanstratics Game Proposal to different publishers, venture capitalists, game investments firms, and government grant programs. At this point, what I am attempting to do is not really a secret, so I thought... why not publish the features list and expand upon each one every month?
Keep in mind, these are ‘new’ features, in addition to those commonly expected from a HoMM inspired game. Also, this list avoids detailing the real core of the game: heroes, troops, spells, skills, destinations, structures, etc. Some items have been purposely omitted as they have been mentioned before (fully 3D game, 6 resources not 7, etc.), and others have been purposely omitted (i.e. spells, skills, etc.) as they are currently unresolved. In the end, I suspect most fans will find the proposed items to be relatively logical and evolutionary. Please remember, if a feature does not work as envisioned... it will be cut. Nothing is set in stone.
- 9 Playable Factions
- Base and Alternate Troop Types
- Troop Rally Ability (this month’s feature)
- Ether Gate Structure
- Player Determined Weekly Events
- Battlefield Artifacts
- Artifact Upgrade System
- Legendary ‘Boss’ Battles
- Experience Potions
- Quality of Life & HotA Efficiencies
- 2 or 3 Campaigns and ~45 Solo Maps
- Hardcore Mode
- Community Map Editor & Random Map Generator
As for this month’s feature, I’m going to start with... Troop Rally Ability.
Feature: Troop Rally Ability.
For those of you who haven’t already figured it out, this feature is clearly inspired by Street Fighter, and was actually an old idea I had back in 1997, when I was working on HoMM3. I didn’t push for it in HoMM3 for a couple of reasons. First, I was already asking for a lot of new features, and the programmers had their hands full. Second, I thought it was foisting upon the fanbase, too much complication too quickly.
Now, as to the feature... on the Battlefield, in the course of basic attack and defense, a Troop Division will accumulate ‘Energy’. When a Troop Division acquires 100% Energy, it earns the option to activate a Rally Ability (aka. a Super or an Ultimate). Each Rally Ability is relatively unique to each Troop Type, and largely amplifies a Troop’s unique attributes for one action. Conceptually, the purpose of the Rally Ability is to add an extra layer of strategy to Battlefield Combat. Specifically, ‘focusing down’ a Troop Division may not be the best or most obvious tactic.
Tavern of Might and Magic
Questions 46-58, of 58
This interview was conducted by Tavern of Might and Magic and GoodGame.ru, and published on February 28th, 019, the 20th Anniversary of HoMM3. It’s a very long interview, almost 60 questions, and delves deep into unresolved lore, as well as other common questions. This is the end of this interview, covering questions 46 to 58, of 58. Next Newsletter, I’ll begin posting questions from an interview I did with Behemoth Cave (Webpage & Facebook).
46. How did you join NWC?
I submitted a resume via the internet. Keep in mind, it was 1997, so submitting a resume via email was a new thing. I lived within driving distance, interviewed first with JVC, then a second time with JVC and Mark Caldwell. Later, Mark called me, told me the salary, and I accepted. 7 days later I started my first day, and met David Mullich for the first time.
47. What did you like (or dislike) about working there?
Working at NWC was an odd experience. Don’t misunderstand me, it had periodic moments of drama, but in general, it was ‘quiet and repressed’.
In personnel terms, the company was filled to the brim with shy, dorky, socially inept introverts. Some might think, “It’s a video game company. Isn’t that normal?” Well, yes, it would be normal, except shy, dorky, socially inept introverts, would point at NWC and say, “Wow. Look at those shy, dorky, socially inept introverts.” Compared to NWC, everyplace else I’ve worked, felt like a Friday night party.
With all this in mind, I must admit, I was the most productive when I worked at NWC. Perhaps there’s something to be said for working at the library.
48. Your impressions in general?
Of all the game companies I’ve worked with, tech and art were rarely an issue. Typically, a company’s weakness was average design and idiotic management.
With NWC, the formula was inverted: average art, average management, below average tech, but great design. This led to NWC being the least talented, but the most successful developer with whom I ever worked. It was ironic.
49. Could you tell us about your impressions of HoMM III at its development stage, after the release and now, 20 years later. How did your opinions change?
While we were working on HoMM3, I felt we would do well, but had to continually remind myself, we aren’t a hot 3D game. It won’t light the world on fire.
As was typical, at the time, game magazines and game websites focused more on features, and less on pure gameplay. Specifically, I remember when Starcraft hit the shelves and received a cool reception. Sure, it was a good game, but it was a 2D game in an emerging 3D market. Only later, months after release, did fans and critics discover the excellence in Starcraft.
HoMM3 traveled a similar road. It did well when it released, and received excellent reviews, but it took months and years before fans and critics understood the game’s depth and breath.
It may be just me, but it feels like HoMM3 gets infinitely more attention and respect today, compared to its initial release.
50. What are your favorite features in the game?
Honestly, I do not have a favorite feature. When I look at the game, I see everything working in concert: design, art, programming, audio, and music.
51. Was it possible to save NWC?
Most game companies, who don’t turn into corporate entities, undergo a typical Birth-Life-Death cycle. Where a developer sits in this sequence, almost always correlates to the passion and involvement of the person who founded the company. If you look at organizations like Origin, Bullfrog, and NWC, each company began to falter when its founder simply grew weary from the grind.
If I remember correctly, JVC told me it took him 5 years to bring the original MM to market in 1986. This means, by the time I joined the company in 1997, JVC had been making video games for 10-15 years. Putting aside any issues regarding development ‘crunch’, JVC had also seen NWC through some rocky times, leading to it being bought by NTN Communications, and later to being bought again by 3DO. In my observation, JVC had completed his ‘opus’ with World of Xeen, and simply wanted to slow down and take a back seat. He was coming into work 2 or 3 days a week, and everyone at the company was perfectly okay with it. He had earned it. However, the game industry had no interest in giving JVC, or anyone else, a moment’s rest.
3DO wanted yearly franchise releases; the Madden model, not today’s ‘games as a service’. I could go into depth about how bad an idea this was at the time, but I think most people understand how such an approach is incredibly shortsighted.
It almost always dilutes product quality, and grinds a developer into dust. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done successfully, but it requires strong personalities, an unflinching commitment to quality, efficient organization, and multiple teams working in tandem. 3DO had none of this.
Additionally, in 1999, the video game industry was also undergoing technological revolution. Sega’s Dreamcast on was on the shelves, with the Playstation 2 and the original Xbox on the horizon. Nvidia’s GeForce 256 was laying the foundation for the PC Master Race. Ultima Online and EverQuest were changing the concepts of what makes an RPG. In this respect, NWC was well behind the technological curve on all fronts. As good as MM6 and MM7 played, they simply looked primitive when put up against games like Team Fortress, Half-life, and Quake 3 Arena.
Bottom line, NWC as a company, was exhausted on multiple levels, and struggling to remain relevant in a changing market.
52. Broad question, but do you think that maybe 3DO selling NWC and MM to another company around 2003 would have helped? Or something else?
When MM was sold in the 3DO bankruptcy, Ubisoft was the only bidder. No one else, other than Ubisoft, wanted what was essentially a dead franchise. Had MM been sold to another company, say EA or Activision, I doubt the results would have been different. I strongly suspect they would have been worse.
What made MM and HoMM special, were the people and company culture (which as I mentioned, typically has a finite lifespan). It’s rare to take a creative property, put it in the hands of someone else, and see an exceptional result.
‘Franchise neglect’ is common. You see it frequently with movie sequels and reboots.
53. Do you have any funny stories related to HOMM3: the development, lore/story writing, PR field, etc. I still fondly remember your witty FAQ about the whole anti-Forge backlash fiasco :)
I’ve told this tale numerous times as an industry ‘war story’. I don’t know if I would consider it ‘funny’. At the very least, most might consider it ‘amusing’.
We were crunching on HoMM3. I was already putting in 9 and 10 hour days before crunch began. At some point, I began to wonder exactly how many hours I was working, and with my salary, what I was making per hour. So, I began tracking when I arrived and departed from work. After I had accumulated over 300 hours of overtime... I did the math. In the year 1998, I was making about $5 an hour.
With this number in my head, I needed a break, so I left my desk, and drove to McDonalds for a quick dinner. I was waiting in line, looking at the young lady who was about to take my order, when it dawned on me. On a per hour basis, she was probably making more money than I was.
Something to think about for anyone wanting to get into video game development.
54. Why did you quit NWC? What were the key reasons? How did you feel about the company and other related stuff at the time?
After we finished Armageddon’s Blade, I was angry for a number of well documented reasons. I remember thinking things over, and asking myself, “Should I stay, or should I go?” It didn’t take long to draft a mental list of positives and negatives.
To the positive...
Working with JVC, David Mullich, and the HoMM3 team.
To the negative...
Didn’t feel my efforts were appreciated.
Wanted a better salary.
Long work hours; poor work/life balance.
Wanted to work on something other than TBS games.
Wanted to work with newer technologies.
Felt NWC had fallen behind the industry ‘evolutionary’ curve.
3DO was slowly zombifying NWC.
I felt the writing was on the wall. NWC’s days of producing quality product were quickly coming to an end. I had the freedom to make a change, and wanted to see if the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. I sent out my resume, took some days off, did a handful of jobs interviews, and got a handful of exceptional offers. In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
55. Even after 20 years, fans continue to support and improve Heroes III. Almost 10 years ago, a team of fans created a non-commercial project named Horn of the Abyss. Its main idea was to create new expansion as it could be made by NWC. It contains bugfixes, new heroes, objects and new town of pirates named Cove. Now the team plans to create a new Factory town. It is a rethinking of the ideas about the Forge town and inspired by classic steampunk of brass and glass. If you know about it, what are your thoughts?
I’m looking forward to it. Modding and fan patches have kept HoMM3 alive for the last 20 years. Now more than ever, HoMM3 belongs to the fans. Keep going. Have fun.
56. What is your vision of the perfect MM game and the perfect HoMM game? We realize that this is a very broad subject, but it's be nice if you list your key thoughts on both.
Yes, this is a very broad subject and well beyond the scope of this interview. It is also an extremely tough question to answer because there is no objectively right answer. Video game design is one big ‘judgement call’. You create what you find exciting and appealing. In the end, when the final product reaches the retail market, you hope there will be plenty of people who agree with your vision. Nevertheless…
As to my idea of a perfect HoMM game… I would respectfully decline to answer. I am currently working on two personal indie projects, both in early pre-production. One of them is a HoMM style game. In any conversation pertaining to an ‘ideal HoMM’ game, I would be effectively talking about what I am currently attempting, and at this time, I would prefer to keep all details private. Within the next 3-5 years, I hope both games will be published, but as with any entrepreneurial effort, the likelihood for failure is far greater than the chance for success.
As to my idea of a perfect MM game… this one gives me pause. With a finite scope and limited ambition, one part of me desires a high quality, traditional, single player, turn based, tile based, RPG, with a party of six adventurers. With a larger scope and unlimited ambition, another part of me wants a real time, first person, 1 to 4 player, co-operative, action-adventure game with a moderate story, heavy RPG elements, and a reactive world. With these basic concepts as a starting point, the next step would be 6 to 12 months of franchise research and current market examinations. Along the way, I would expect there to be mild, major, or wholesale alterations. In the end, I would hope for something unique, honoring the franchise’s traditional foundations, with one foot in the past and another in the future.
57. What can you say to Might and Magic fans? Any wishes, advices, etc.
When you think of the ‘old school’ RPG’s from the 1980’s (Ultima, Bard’s Tale, Dungeon Master, and Wizardry), all of them are essentially gone. Surprisingly, M&M is still here in one form or another. When I watch Twitch.tv, it still amazes me to see a moderately active HoMM3 community. On behalf of JVC and everyone who worked at NWC, thank you for continuing to play Might & Magic.
58. Please write a few words of congratulations to the fans from the ru segment and our communities (RPG Geeks, GoodGame, Tavern of Might and Magic, HotA Community)?
Just last week, I saw over 12.5k people, largely Russian, watching HoMM3 multiplayer games on Twitch. It absolutely blows me away, when a 20-year-old game I designed, creeps into the modern Twitch top 20. I knew HoMM had Russian fans, but I had no idea the base was so large, so dedicated, and so passionate.
To everyone who has played HoMM3, and continues to play it today, know this... there is at least one developer who appreciates your passion. Happy 20th.