Whatever Happened To The Swindle?
Or 'why Windows 8 meant starting over from scratch'
The Swindle was the much-anticipated next game from Time Gentlemen, Please and Privates dev Size Five Games. Then things went quiet. Very, very quiet. But why? Wha'happened? Will we ever get to play this cyberpunk crime caper? Here, Size Five's Dan Marshall reveals for the first time why the game went dark - a sad tale of Windows 8-based potential doom, leading to a Summer of fear and the difficult decision to start the game over from scratch. But, thank heavens, it's a sad tale with a happy ending. Also, you can get your first glimpse at the game's totes snazzy new look in its brand new engine in the top three (pre-alpha) screenshots in this post.
RPS: What happened? Sounds like you had a bad time.
Dan Marshall: I had a really awful summer. I've basically been a bit of a wreck. What happened was that the entirety of the Swindle was underpinned by XNA - all my code was XNA. All the physics, all the particles, all the lighting, all the sound, graphics, all that stuff was XNA. There had been rumours that XNA was going down the pan, that Microsoft weren't supporting it anymore, all that sort of stuff. So at Develop [an annual games industry conference held in Brighton, UK this July] I went up to the guy on the Windows 8 stall and asked him to clear it up, I asked him to tell me whether or not my XNA game was going to run on Windows 8, because it was difficult to get a definitive answer.
He basically just looked at me and shook his head, and said 'no, it won't run.' I said 'at launch, or ever?' And he said 'ever.'
So that was a bit of worry. Rather than taking that one guy's word for it I came away and Googled the shit out of the problem, and as far as I'm aware there's still no official word from Microsoft on what the future of XNA is, how it's all going to work on Windows 8, whether it's going to work on Windows 8. So I've got this one guy who's in the know telling me that the game I've worked on for the last year and a half isn't going to be supported by Windows 8. And from that I can extrapolate that it won't be supported on Windows 9, or 10, or any Xboxes or anything like that.
RPS: What was the noise you made when you first heard that?
Dan Marshall: God, I've no idea. I think I was probably quite unpleasant to him, poor man. I think I was probably quite stand offish. I don't think I made a noise, but if I did it was probably not a nice one.
RPS: We can print obscenities on RPS, incidentally.
Dan Marshall: I don't think I've got it in me to shout 'fuck' at a Microsoft employee. That doesn't sound like me at all. But basically I felt like the world had crumbled beneath me. I'd put so much into the Swindle and I was now faced with it not running on people's computers by the time I released it. Because it was still like another year away from release, so for all I knew everyone was going to go 'turns out Windows 8 is amazing!' and everyone installs it, and I'm fucked.
RPS: I'm hilariously ignorant about this side of things - I know games made in XNA need the XNA redistributable thingy installed, but would Windows 8 actually block that from installing, or refuse to run the executable, or what?
Dan Marshall: Exactly. I'm disappointingly ignorant about that side of tech stuff too, I don't really know, but as I understand it when you install an XNA game you have to install the .Net framework, and I assume there's something going on there. Basically it sounds like an XNA .exe relies on a load of stuff that's not going to be in the new Windows.
RPS: I guess someone might find a way to hack it back in, but that's not the sort of thing you want to be reliant on your customers having to do...
Dan Marshall: Yeah, exactly. So that was bad. I basically felt like the world had crumbled and I was a wreck, completely lost and bewildered about what to do. So I spent some time looking into it and thinking around the problem, and I basically come to the conclusion that my only way out of it was to throw what little money I'd accrued over the years at the problem, and port it to Unity. But I didn't know anything about Unity. So I've employed a very talented guy called Tim James to very kindly lay the basic foundations for me, recreating the XNA stuff in Unity. Which is going really well, he's going an incredibly good job while I basically sit there and pick at Unity and work out how shit works.
RPS: But he's doing it from the top right, there wasn't much that could be carried straight across?
Dan Marshall: Completely from scratch. So whenever anyone used to mention porting, like a dodgy console port or something, I'd just presume it was basically copying and pasting to make it work on a different setup. But in this instance porting it has pretty much boiled down to rewriting it.
RPS: You made a terrible mistake - everyone else just has this little box with four buttons saying 'PC', 'Xbox', 'Playstation' and 'Nintendo.' Didn't you know about that?
Dan Marshall: Ah, shit. I should have got one of those. There's probably just an option hidden in Visual Studio called 'port.' So I kept quiet about this, because I'm not the sort of person who grumbles and moans in public. I didn't want to sit there and gripe about this until I'd found a solution and was feeling really positive about it again. Which is why I've finally got screenshots together and am talking about the XNA problem now, because I'm finally in a position where I can see that this whole horrible situation has finally proven to be a force for good. The game is a hundred times better for having moved over to Unity and gotten someone else to take over for me while I do the pretty bits and setup levels and some of the more basic designy stuff.
RPS: So perversely you've ended up being able to do more work on it, rather than less?
Dan Marshall. Perversely, yes. I mean it's costing me money, a lot of money that I don't really have, but I think in the long run it's going to be the game's benefits. It's a fucking brilliant game - well, it was until I had to start again, rebuilding to that point again. But it's a great game, I have no doubt it's going to do really well, but it has gone a significant number of steps backwards.
Important note: all screenshots from hereon in are of the old, XNA-based Swindle, not the new fancy-pants Unity one.
RPS: Have you considered the paid alpha thing, like Introversion just did, using that XNA build you've got as a prototype to entice people right away?
Dan Marshall: I've thought about doing something, but I've always been sort of anti-Kickstarter, in that it's not right for me while I've got the cash to self-fund. Getting money off people and having people influence the game design, that's not for me. But over the Summer I seriously considered reversing my position...
RPS: Suddenly other people's money looked quite good, eh?
Dan Marshall: Yeah, when you're starting a project all over again. But it'd take me a fortnight just to get the XNA version up to a point where I'd be happy releasing it even as just a shitty alpha, God knows what state it was in, so I don't think it's really an option. It's going to be about two to three months now until the Unity version is up to where the XNA one was. That's with the two of us working on it, and obviously loads of the graphics and things had already been done, so there was some stuff that was salvageable, not a lot.
RPS: So how many months behind the original schedule do you expect to be - five?
Dan Marshall: Probably six, cos there was a month of running around crying, where nothing really got started. So probably about six months down the drain, but well worth it. If you compare screenshots of the two it's looking and playing much better. There are a few little bits and pieces that, when you start again, you have the luxury of doing differently. I said to Tim I'd always liked the idea of putting bullet time in, but by the time I'd decided to do that in the XNA version it was going to be too much work to scale back and put it in. Then he send me about two lines of code [in the Unity version] and it was done. It's one of those things where Unity has really come on. The last time I checked out Unity was about two years ago, and I immediately discounted it as not being right for me. So picking it up again was really weird. So much stuff that I had spent weeks writing code for in XNA was basically just drag and drop in Unity.
RPS: Does it feel like cheating?
Dan Marshall: It feels completely like cheating. All the really nitty-gritty stuff of it, collision detections, physics, game mechanics, that doesn't feel like cheating, that's proper programming, but quite a lot of making it look pretty and sound effects play, that's just a dream. That's just drag and drop.
That's the other great thing about it - if there's one thing that was worrying me massively about the XNA version, it was the level editor, which I'd had to program myself. It was pretty basic, I didn't really need to care about the programming because I thought no-one else was ever going to use it. So I knocked it together and it was workable, but it was a pain in the arse to use. The great thing about Unity is that 50% of it is basically a ready-made level editor. So that whole worry that I had to rewrite that, that was a massive weight off my mind because it's already done for me.
RPS: Why were you on XNA on the first place - was Privates using it?
Dan Marshall: Yeah, used it for Privates. And it's a really lovely language, it's a dream to use. Getting things looking nice and all that sort of stuff is brilliant, it's such a shame that Microsoft seem to have shot in the face, or just don't care about it. I don't know what they're thinking about it, if it's a failed experiment or what.
RPS: They seem to be on a more generalised crusade to get rid of whatever people are used to at the moment.
Dan Marshall: It's weird, but XNA is a triumph, it's a brilliant beautiful language that should be widely used. It's a great way of getting things up to speed really quickly, especially for idiots like me who are never going to really understand the nitty-gritty of DirectX. But they seem to have just fired it off into the wilderness and don't really seem to care about who's using it or why or what they can do to support those people.
RPS: You know, of course, that as soon as you finish doing Swindle in Unity they'll announce XNA for Windows 8? And then you'll kill yourself.
Dan Marshall: Yeah. But I can't risk that, I can't take that gamble, that in a year's time they'll suddenly go 'surprise, XNA's on Windows 8 now!' because then I'd be two and a half years down and into an XNA game that might not work. The massive plus of Unity is that now I'm supporting Mac and Linux as well, and possibly console versions as well, but when I was tied to Microsoft it was increasingly shaky ground.
It's weird, just after that Develop meeting when I was feeling my absolute worst was when Gabe Newell came out and said Windows 8 was looking like a catastrophe. I didn't say anything about it on Twitter or anything like that, because I didn't want to talk about this until I was ready, but it was a massive relief to me when he started saying things like that.
Tomorrow: what's new in the Swindle since last we heard from it, how its storytelling works and how much of a comedy game it is.