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The MMOnitor: Darkwind - War on Wheels

Apocalypse Boutique

By day Sam Redfern is a mild-mannered IT lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway. But at night, he creates and maintains his own one-man apocalyptic vehicle MMO. It's called Darkwind: War on Wheels and consists of a two-tier game, with a web interface for social and economic interaction and a 3D racing/shooting action engine. We caught up with him to find out how he copes with the project on his own.

RPS: So when do you work on Darkwind? Just at home or at university too?

Redfern: My official line is that I do it evenings and weekends.

RPS: And you've always run it that way; do you think it's ever going to be successful enough that you're going to move to do it full time?

Redfern: I actually kicked it off with a sabbatical year and so I had more evenings and weekends during that year. That really helped. I am looking for it to become full-time, yeah. It hasn't yet but it's in the ballpark I guess.

RPS: You released it in 2007 but you started working on it in 2005, is that right?

Redfern: Yeah, Summer 2005. I was thinking about it for years before but I started coding then.

RPS: Did you use any off-the-shelf stuff to make it or was it entirely you?

Redfern: The 3D bit is based on the Torque game engine which, um... is a bit out of date these days, it was a bit of out date then as well. The web interface is PHP, Javascript.

RPS: How many people have you actually got playing the game?

Redfern: Erm... at the moment, there's... 220 subscribers.

RPS: That's very much a boutique MMO. It's free to download, free to play. What do subscribers get that's extra?

Redfern: Erm... there's various things you can't do as a non-subscriber. You can't interact with the shops or mechanic, you can own cars but you can't really fix them. You can do wilderness travels, trading. To be honest, it's a kinda love it or hate it game. If there's 220 subscribers, that means there's 220 active players. People do not stick around and not subscribe. They either stick around and subscribe or leave within a day.

RPS: And they're all active?

Redfern: Yep, pretty much.

RPS: So what does a typical day consist of for you?

Redfern: I get up at seven, drive to university. Emails, bug reports. I have some kind of advisors in the game, called the Rules Council so they kinda help me to filter through stuff and decide what needs to be talked about. I mean Darkwind, is only part of what I do now; I make other games as well, iPhone and Android type games. I have plans for them becoming multiplayer... like MMOs in some form as well.

RPS: The actual 3D driving interface of Darkwind is somewhat unusual. It's turn-based?

Redfern: Yep, that makes it pretty unique. Well, it's full physics as well, which I think probably is unique. Turn-based games are not normally physics controlled; they'd be based on some more abstract rules than that.

RPS: Save Auto Assault and Silent Storm, I guess. Is the physics all server-side, or is it on the local client?

Redfern: It's server-side. It used to be both and it created all kinds of trouble; one day I had a brain wave and said “it doesn't have to be this way.” It got rid of all the synchronisation issues because the server just sends all the animations and data to the client.

RPS: Almost what OnLive does then; if people are just putting their instructions in and receiving animations back, their actual computer can't be doing that much work, which is great.

Redfern: Exactly, it helps the framerate and everything.

RPS: Were you finding people cheating, by altering the physics on their local machine, or do you not find people cheating?

Redfern: Very few. The game isn't big enough to do high-tech cheating. One or two people have done screen-scraping and automated bidding, and stuff. Not within the actual 3D game.

RPS: I guess because the currency isn't real world convertible there's not a huge incentive.

Redfern: The game's a bit too small. It's technically a huge amount of work to hack the 3D client. I guess the point you're making is that we've moved to the server being the controller anyway, so even if they did hack the client, it wouldn't do them any good.

RPS: With it all being server-side, does that make it easy to move the game to other platforms?

Redfern: In theory. It's all running on Torque though, which is a massive amount of code. All I did really was short-circuit stuff to stop the client running physics. I'm using the standard network interface so it would be a massively amount of work to port it.

RPS: Change of tack; what does the average person do when they get into your game?

Redfern: When they first get into it? They arrive and go “what the hell is going on here?!” They do a tutorial and they log out after ten seconds and delete the client. That's 90% of them but 10% of them... 10% of them have come from a Car Wars background and think “this is the game I've been waiting my whole life for.” They do the tutorial, which is a nice little story-based thing where you shoot this drunk guy in an arena. They get dumped back out to the lobby and pushed towards these run right now type events, races and arena combat. So they're cnouraged to do them, and then they realise there's other players in there too, kind of chatting and doing wilderness combats. It's the wilderness stuff that most people like. Pretty quick they get told “hey, you can go and rent a car”, because non-subs can rent a car, and get taken out on a scout, where you drive out of the town gates and shoot the bad guys. That's what most of the gameplay actually is, singleplayer or multiplayer scouting. If they get as far as that, they probably like the game enough to stick around. They start taking home loot from the scouts and the loot is just sitting there looking at them. They can't use it or fix it, so ahh...

RPS:'s kinda taunting them to subscribe. It's interesting, as an indie MMO developer you must interact with your players an awful lot more, especially as they help out. Do you think that's fair?

Redfern: Absolutely. I'm not as good at it as I used to be. I've been doing this damn thing for six years now, so. It's evolved. It's not my game, it's the whole community's game. I think that's the reason a lot of them like it; if they want to, there's a good chance of influencing it. There's various ways they can add content. One of the things you can do is reskin the cars, come up with custom paint jobs.

RPS: And you can trade these?

Redfern: Well, yeah, some people have these little paint shops in the game. Where they're good artistically, but not good at playing, they can get in-game money off people.

RPS: Car Wars; I never played it, though I played the Warhammer versions Dark Future and Gorkamorka. For the younger readers, what was it?

Redfern: Car Wars was an initially very cheap game that came in these ziplock packets. It was these cardboard counters of cars with a small A6 rulebook and you rolled a six-sided die to move your cars. It had quite complex movement rules. Each turn was a second and they broke it down into ten phases, and depending on the speed your car was moving your car might move forward in each phase. And you have these various manouvres you can do, like turn 45 degrees or drift left or right, and there would be a chance of going wrong, depending on your drivers skill, if you tried to manouvre too much or manouvre at speed, and then you'd roll on the crash table,making your car go out of control. It was a really nice idea but very fiddly. You'd play for an hour and realise you'd played ten seconds of game time. But nevertheless quite popular.

RPS: It sounds like everyone crashed quite a lot within that ten seconds?

Redfern: Oh, it was usually over well within ten seconds and everyone was dead. Basically, I said this game is crying out for computerisation. The computer is the ultimate bookkeeper and gamesmaster; when the rules are too slow and complex for a human, it's the perfect game for a computer.

RPS: I think Blood Bowl had the same thing; it would take a few hours to play and set up a game in real life, but the game has modelled it really well.

Redfern: Blood Bowl was really good. Compared to Car Wars, Blood Bowl was elegant and fast to play.

RPS: It's interesting to think that the Games Workshop games, despite taking all day to set-up and play were relatively elegant for the time. But, yes, the scouting consists of going out and shooting pirates. Is it right that if the community doesn't kill enough pirates, they can close off trade routes?

Redfern: Ish. All of the NPC pirate gangs are kind of simulated as proper gangs. They win and they lose and they stronger and they get weaker. Part of trying to make the community work as a community, if the pirates in a certain region get too tough, then the players have to gang together and do something about it.

RPS: And you have to go out and kill them? Because your game features real death, doesn't it? Do your characters often die in combat?

Redfern: Very often. If they don't die in combat, they die of old age. I think that's quite important myself. In that you can't have a real hero without having mortality. Most games sidestep that.

RPS: Yes; in most RPGs you just get stronger and stronger; this is more Football Manager, where they peak and decline.

Redfern: It's very interesting you mention Football Manager, because that was one of the main influences on that part of the game. I love it, used to play it a lot. Just following your digital minions career from age 18 to age 30, knowing that it's finite and that there's an arc, knowing that before he finishes his career, he starts dropping off. There's something poignant about it, it's the human condition , y'know.

RPS: At 30 their physical characteristics start to decline and at 40 their mental characteristics...?

Redfern: It depends on how much damage they've taken and these sorts of things. They age faster basically. Mutants age a lot faster, but they start off strong. If they sit and do nothing, they can live well into their fifties.

RPS: Nice, apocalyptic future you've set up there, where 50 is old. I remember in medieval times there were people who lived to 80 or 90, but extremely rarely and regarded as living saints....

Redfern: Well, that's the way it would be, wouldn't it? When you're living on rusty water and rats, you can't expect to live too long.

RPS: Especially not if people are shooting at you at the same time. Do you find that players get rid of their old guys as they start to decline or...

Redfern: No, no. They keep them. They keep them until they die. They fall in love with them. I mean, 12 weeks of real world time is one year of game time. So a character that you recruited age 20, you're going to have him for several years real world time. It is a long time. Also, they can become mentors towards the end, and help with the training of the younger characters. There's lots of little subtleties in the game, it's really evolved. I had an initial vision but through discussions and prodding from the players and various ideas from different angles, it's evolved in lots of different ways. It's fiendishly complex overall, there's lots of stuff in there.

RPS: You were a relatively early F2P MMO, is that right? Is there a future for subs-based ones?

Redfern: I guess other indie MMOs of the time were also F2P, like Runescape. It's hard to say about subs-based. Things have certainly moved heavily in the other direction. The funny thing is that people in the Western world, even as recently as 3 years ago, were saying it was always going to be subs-based, the idea of microtransactions would never take off in the west. How wrong they were! I think it's feasible that we won't see them very often in the future.

RPS: Ignoring the ones in development, to start work on a subs-based MMO doesn't seem an obvious way of making money. But for an indie...

Redfern: Yes, yes, yes. If you're niche enough, you'll probably have the same kind of player response I do, which is 90% hate it and 10% love it so much that subs-based model is perfect for them.

RPS: It's that thing about getting a 100 fans who'll buy anything you'll do being the foundation for a profitable creative life. The boxed copy model doesn't seem like a great way to find those fans.

Redfern: I'd say that's much more likely to be gone all together.

RPS: Which is good, as it means people will be trying everything, so the good stuff should win out.

Redfern: It's an interesting analogy that was made, people talking about free iPhone games versus paid ones. People who download your free game are not doing a shopping activity, they said, they're doing a flicking-the-TV-remote activity. It's fundamentally different so don't be surprised if they don't buy it.

RPS: Do you think something like OnLive will be a model for future MMOs?

Redfern: The answer is yes, proliferation and choice about how you want to do everything is the way. We came from the old publishing model, where there was only one way, and the internet has made all the other possibilities happen. Some of them will be more successful than others, but it doesn't mean that any of them ever need to go away.

RPS: Is Darkwind on Steam? If not, why not?

Redfern: Okay; note to self. Check out Steam. I don't have a good answer for that. Darkwind is very, very niche. Most of my people who stay around any time are people who played Car Wars and they'll have found it via Google. All I had to do is make sure that if you type Car Wars Online you get Darkwind. I've tried all kinds of marketing and nothing was as successful as that. And it's free.

No, there's no good answer, I should check it out, it can't do any harm. I toyed with one or two other publishing ideas, talking to Garage Games at one time, but that didn't come to anything. You're right, there may be a bigger audience to find because, certainly, not everyone comes from a Car Wars background. We do get the occasional 18-year old who comes in and likes detailed games. Related to that, the gaming public is changing and has changed a lot in the last four years, because of mobile gaming more than anything and Nintendo Wii. Lower-powered devices that enable weak gameplay have educated the gaming public a lot. Back in 2006 when Darkwind was first available in beta, I used to get a lot of people arriving in and saying “these graphics are crap” and leaving, y'know? I get LESS people doing that now. That's never happened in the gaming industry before, where expectations about graphical quality have reduced. If you go back as far as computers have existed that's never happened before. So, for that reason, checking out Steam is worth doing, because things have probably changed since Darkwind's been alive and maybe it doesn't have to be as niche as it is.

RPS: I don't think, there's a straight path from playing on the Wii to Darkwind, but it's more of a cultural shift that allows nostalgic games like Minecraft to sell.

Redfern: Minecraft is the perfect example. I'd say that if Minecraft was written five years ago it would have bombed. Devices like the iPhone have made people realise that there's more to gaming than graphics; that you can get a fun, interesting game based on gameplay. It's an excellent thing for the industry overall.

RPS: There was definitely a problem amongst games journalists in just judging things on appearance, which is slowly going, thankfully.

Redfern: That's because the games were all so similar. I actually give a guest lecture once a year to Masters students we have, which forces me to think about these things. Up until about three years ago, I would give them this horrible depressing view saying “innovation stopped in the late 90s” but in the last few years I've stopped that.

RPS: Oh, someone mentioned the soundtrack... A band called Curve?

Redfern: Yeah, there's a nice history to that. I would have been, in the late 80s, early 90s, I would have been listening to early music. One night I was quite drunk, had been working on Darkwind all day, and thought “could I contact one of these people, see if they can supply me with music for the game.” I managed to track down the guitarist from Curve and he replied. I don't think it's made any difference to sales of the game though, but it was kinda cool to have one of my ex-heroes music in there.

RPS: Ha, that's grand. Do you program a lot when you're drunk?

Redfern: It's not the best way to program. The way I program anyway, is kind of freeform, so you're working on something and realise you need to improve something else, and that itself requires something and there's a whole train of things you're doing, which you have to follow back up. If you're not fully sober, you just lose what you're doing. You need short-term memory.

RPS :Why's the continent called Evan?

Redfern: The naming of most things were spur of the moment decisions, so I wouldn't put too much weight on it. It actually means God-given apparently. Now, I'm an atheist, so I'm not sure why I picked that. I was sitting in a boring meeting and I got a piece of paper and started sketching. It was supposed to reflect the survivors; feelings that they were lucky, I suppose.

RPS: Okay. The Whale model, where you give the rabid fans the chance to give you all their money, in return for Sparkleponies. Do you think that's going to dominate F2P?

Redfern: It's kind of already dominating, isn't it? Certainly I've been looking at the mobile phones market and it is.

RPS: Would you make another boutique MMO?

Redfern: I think of Darkwind as my mid-life crisis actually. Another one possibly would not be a crisis. Making games was what I'd always wanted to do, what I'd done. So making Darkwind was my ultimate, which I'd been thinking about for years. It rolled up all the things I liked and didn't like about other games.

I'd probably make a smaller one. I've learned... I had learned things about what people like and dislike but I think those things have changed. A couple of years ago, I used to say “why did I make this turn-based, this has ruined my game” but I think niche games are more feasible these days. It suits casual play as well, as you can go off and make a cup of tea and talk to your kids and still be playing. You don't get killed because you don't have 100% attention. That's the way a lot of games have gone on the iPhone.

RPS: If you were going to make another boutique MMO, would you do it by yourself again?

Redfern: Yeah, it was learnings I'd made about myself and about other people. I'd had a couple of failed business ventures in the dotcom heights and something I'd learned was that you can't always trust people to put in the effort and I also learned about my own response to that when I've got equal ownership; I just walk away. I didn't want to have a negative experience which would make me drop the game, so the best way to do it was to do it on my own. It also makes things much simpler in terms of communication and documentation and all those things, even though the established wisdom is it's impossible to make an MMO on your own.

RPS: How did you start constructing an MMO by yourself?

Redfern: I had strong ideas about what I wanted the game to be. It was clear to me that of all the games that you might want to make, one where the animations came from physics rather than art was a suitable one for a coder. Also, you can buy a lot of car models out on the internet. So it was eminently suitable for a non-artist to make. I think the first thing I did was an economics simulation. I had these grandiose ideas about a system dynamics world where there's these trade flows and piracy levels, all influencing each other behind the scenes. Then I made races. I basically hacked Torque apart and made it turn-based. I just got standalone races going and put enough of a database to support that. Worked on weapons next, after which I put in death-races. Worked on wilderness maps and wilderness combats, then worked on other towns and made the travel mechanism. All of that was quite well laid out, that wasn't part of the evolution, but lots of the stuff around it has come from other people. Different types of races and slave arenas and we've got these mutant creatures in the wilderness that attack you if you're out walking... came from interaction with people. I'd look at an idea and say 'is it feasible for me to do that?' If it is, I consider doing it.

RPS: Do you think dual-level games, like Rome: Total War, X-Com, Blood Bowl, where you have an exciting action bit and a long-term strategic bit that feed into each other. That seems like a compelling model and one that games don't seem ot use that much.

Redfern: It IS a compelling model. Part of the long-term strategy is the travel. It takes real-world time to travel in Darkwind. That was a direct response to when I used to play Ultima Online. They had this really nice economic model they used to talk about and then they had these teleport gates, which just negated the whole existance of geography and distance, which was the worst thing they could ever do. So travel was a direct response to that; the only way a proper economic and trading model can work is if it takes time and effort to move from A to B.

RPS: Like Eve does, yes.

Redfern: Quite a lot of gamers like the idea of the game being hard and a challenge, which is at odds with the general trend of games which is make everyone a winner. I was reading an article yesterday where games have moved towards little leagues where everyone gets a trophy at the end, no matter whether you were on the subs bench for the whole year... that's the way games have gone and there's a significant number of people who don't like that.

RPS: When the advertising-driven model came in and developers went “we can make the game compelling and people will think they're having fun”.

Redfern: Unfortunately, a lot of those games are very successful. They keep releasing new variants and as long as people playing are them. It's largely a new demographic that never played games before, the middle-aged woman. It's really a different product, not a game in the old sense, not for gamers in the old sense.

RPS: Often they're extremely linear and you just to have follow a plan. To maxmise your success, you have to spend money, to hit that deterministic path square on.

Redfern: A lot of kids will play those games as well. One of the things that I do is, I have kids myself, a ten-year old and an eight-year old. I don't have times to play games myself, so I get them to play games and talk to them about them. They're happy because I pay for them. I did an interesting experiment with my older son, who was playing a fantasy RPG one, slightly better than a lot of them. I watched the process of how he got hooked and how badly he started nagging me to buy him in-game stuff. A bit of an eye-opener.

RPS: Sounds a bit like Isaac Newton poking himself in the eye with a blunt stylus to study optics and lenses. But people normally do these experiments on themselves, not their children...

Redfern: It's like poking your son in his eye. My children have time you see, I don't. Also, I couldn't bring mself to play a game like that.

RPS: (laughs) I'll be calling social services after this call. Though implying that playing F2P games is abuse may be a bit of a stretch, Back to the boutique MMO; what would you like to do?

Redfern: I've had various ideas. One model I particularly like is the Planetside model. It is a persistent world, but it's very casual as well. Darkwind is one of the ultimate bean-counting MMOs, where everything is so serious and death is permanent... a lot of MMOs are very serious, whereas Planetside seemed to me very much more casual, you just dropped into play when you felt like it. One thing I've learnt about people is that they like to be able to do that. In Darkwind, I tried doing these leagues where people had to play together at particular times. It's so hard to get people to meet up to do a league. People don't want to paly games to a timetable. A real-time Planetsidey version of Darkwind, where you just log-in, go “who's here? Do you want to shoot bad guys?” and you just drive out into the desert and go. Torque was never going to make that happen.

More recently, I started working on something which I think will become an MMO, though it's initially going to be LAN-based . I recently released a iPhone game, with top-down Asteroids style shooting and 3D graphics and it struck me as perfect for multiplayer, bluetooth play. An arena, where you log in and fight someone in a variety of scenarios. It'd work for a casual MMO as well, modelled on the Solar System. I like the kind of low-tech stuff, where you don't whizbang across the whole universe; I prefer it to be the near future. So basically humans have colonised the solar system, so you see a tactical map of the war, pick one of the hotspots and drop in, the Planetside model. It's a nice model, quite unusual, a permanent world, very casual and drop-in/drop-out. That won't be designed for ages, I've shifted over to a new engine that exports to everything. It's called Shiva, a French one, much smaller than Unity and cheaper, and nicer in some ways, though not having a big community isn't so good, supporting the latest hardware is difficult... but French people are very smart, I like the way they think. So that'll be Windows, Mac, iPhone, Web-browser, everything.

RPS: Do you think the niches are saturated yet for MMOs?

Redfern: I don't know the answer to that. They say the amount of people playing games is still growing; I think there are always new niches that haven't been tapped yet. I don't yet know what the lifecycle of a niche game is, but I know from Darkwind that it has a very long tail, probably even longer than your traditional MMO.

You're up their with Ultima and Eve. There's nothing else like them.
If someone's playing World of Warcraft and another one comes along with better graphics, they switch and there's no reason to go back. Whereas I see people play for six months, get bored and leave... and then I see them back a year later. The Darkwind itch comes back and there's only one thing to scratch it.

RPS: It's interesting, I was chatting to the Fallen Earth guys who lost critical mass, and many players stopped playing, and going towards your F2P model saved them.

Redfern: Darkwind can inherently be played single-player and there are people that prefer that, so it doesn't matter how low the user base falls, there will be a core of players anyway. I don't need many subscribers to support myself. It's all about your overheads. That's the other thing about doing it on your own, zero risk. My server costs are negligble, I could run it for free and it wouldn't really cost me anything. The only issue is the time it takes.

RPS: Niche MMO audiences aren't flighty anyway, are they?

Redfern: No, we've a very solid community. We've people who'veve been playing for three of four years. I feel like I've made these people meet each other. They meet in real life and all sorts of stuff. It's a great feeling for me.

RPS: Does it attract an older, more mature and cleverer demographic?

Redfern: They are. That's part of the draw for all of them, as well as being creative in the game, and related to them being a bit older as well. There's a lot of talented writers, artists and 3D modellers.

RPS: Would you tap that hugely talented community to make a crowd-sourced game? I know it's a horrible thought for a man who likes working on his own.

Redfern: I don't know. Maybe I like to have total control and just having other people suppling artistic content. It may be because my code is so impossible to read, because I've never written it for anybody else. I've never worked in the industry as a programmer, I've always been a hobbyist; the biggest team I've worked in is two. I'm too institutionalised, too entrenched. Too old.

RPS: I'd better stop there. It was a nice natter.

Redfern: Yeah, it was a good chat.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Darkwind is out now. You can play the game here.

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