Journey of the Reluctant Indie Dev
My wife and I were dealing with twin newborns plus a 2 year old, and a complete lack of meaningful sleep for months. In the wee hours of the night I would let my mind wander to my “happy place” to help keep my sanity. I am a life-long war gamer and my mind eventually wandered to “how would I create a campaign layer to the Combat Mission series of games?” by Battlefront.com. This is the genesis of Theater of Operations.
I found myself continuing to think about my game concept even after I gradually started to get some sleep. I continued to tinker around with various concepts, and then one day I decided to try and make the game a reality. Here is the catch; I NEVER intended to be the person to actually develop the game. I am not a professional programmer (though I have done it before), nor am I in the industry (yet). I was happy to be a volunteer consultant for a company; all I wanted was credit and a free copy of the game! I tried time and again to “give” my game concept away. Every company I contacted had varying degrees of courtesy, but they all had the same basic answer of “no thanks because we have our own production schedule” and “come back when you have something to sell”.
Steve at Battlefront has been surprisingly supportive of me and my idea, especially during the early days. BFC didn’t want to develop my game, but Steve encouraged me to take the reins and try to make it happen on my own. I had enough going on in my life, and this was NOT something I wanted to expend my energy on… or so I thought. I tried to forget about the project, but I found myself drawn back to thinking about it. My conscience wasn’t going to let me quit this project, so here I stand fully committed and motivated to make this happen.
How was I going to make this happen? I started trying to find different resources and then one day it hit me. I have one of the largest research universities in the world in my back yard (Ohio State), and they became my primary focus for resources. I started getting research material at the library, and soliciting advice and ideas from faculty. Eventually I was directed to Professor Crawfis who teaches game design and development. After meeting with him, he started helping me find some local people that would be interested in joining forces with the project. This is how I met Mitchell and David. Another contact at the university connected me with John, and together we formed Buckeye Battle Group (BBG).
The team was excited about the project, however we had no funding. Despite great interest and good intentions there was little meaningful progress in programming development over several months. Everyone had full time jobs, and the project was too complex to work on in a casual manner. After some time I accepted the fact that the only way to complete an ambitious project like ToO was to get enough funding to dedicate team members to the project full time. So I started researching different avenues to get funding. After a rather exhaustive search I concluded that crowdsourcing appeared to be our best bet.
To avoid any confusion I want to stop here and say that the game name has evolved over the years. Currently our project is called Theater of Operations, however during our Kickstarter in 2015 the game was named Combat Operations: Overlord (COO).
The summer and fall of 2015 was an exciting time for the project. I had a team, and we were working to get a Kickstarter prepared for the beginning of September. I had gotten to know JC of Real and Simulated Wars fairly well over the previous couple of years, and he was excited to try and help. After some planning sessions we decided to run a few segments on his blog about the game. My plan was to begin the Kickstarter after giving it a few weeks to garner attention. I was hoping that the forward momentum would help us reach our relatively modest development funding goal.
The segments ran in Real and Simulated Wars as planned, and it got a lot of positive attention. My team and I also spent time on other forums to attempt to generate even more attention. Then something even more exciting happened; Rock, Paper, Shotgun picked up on my project and posted about it! Morale was high and we thought we might actually pull this thing off!
Then came the reality check. The Kickstarter began September 1 (to coincide with the 1939 German invasion of Poland), and the first day went well. Despite the initial success I sensed that things were not trending in the right direction. Funding quickly flat-lined and I started to see a fair amount of less-than-positive feedback. There was plenty of constructive criticism to take note of, but some other criticism was rather obnoxious and baffled me with its angry tone. I soon figured out that much of the venom was fuelled by scepticism. Behind the scenes I tried to salvage the campaign with different measures, but after a week I felt like anything we did was going to be too little too late. There was a lot of time still left on the campaign (with potential donors still lurking), but I decided to end the campaign early, catch our breath, regroup and reassess.
It sucks to fail, but I learned many critical lessons on many different aspects. The baptism of fire was the best source of accurate information I could have gotten. I got perfect clarity on what we needed to do. Furthermore, I made many new friends that were excited to provide positive support in a variety of ways. A perfect example is our forum on dogsofwarvu.com. Before the campaign I was using a Google Group as a forum, but during the Kickstarter Asid of dogsofwar.com graciously offered me space on his forum. So yes, we failed to reach our primary objective, but the project still made a significant advance forward as a result.
Immediately after the Kickstarter I took a deep breath and re-evaluated our approach. Perhaps the core lesson learned was attaining greater public confidence. Software development projects are met with greater scepticism with Kickstarter, and I had to address this. If we build greater public confidence then we have a much better chance at reaching our crowdsourcing goals. All I was showing in my Kickstarter was my game concept, what it wanted to achieve, some of the support we had, and some conceptual pictures. The public needed to see more since our team had no game production credentials.
The obvious question now becomes “How are you going to attain greater public confidence?” There are a number of ways that we are addressing this. The first way is simply to continue to have a presence (i.e. our forum and website), and continue to market ourselves and our project. The best way is to actually produce something. As I mentioned earlier Theater of Operations is too ambitious with our current constraints, however we are currently working on taking a board wargame from a known publisher and creating a computer version. I can’t talk more about it yet because of where we are at in the process, but we plan to have something out before this fall.
While the board game project diverts our programming attention away from ToO the potential benefits far outweigh the diversion. Ironically the board game project may lead to faster development of ToO for a couple of reasons. The board game will be easier to develop with a simpler scope, and it will give our team more experience and confidence when it comes to programming a complex game like ToO (more confidence, faster execution). Additionally, it will create a trickle of revenue. Accomplishing the board game project may open other immediate sources of funding that makes another Kickstarter completely unnecessary. Like Cicero said "the sinews of war are infinite money"! It is every bit as true for creating war games too!!
As it stands now the ToO game design and algorithms are mostly complete and ready for formal beta testing. I am being brutally honest when I say that we are a long way off of any computer playtesting, because A LOT of code still needs to be developed before that can happen. The programmers indicate that once they can get through with building all the foundational programming for ToO, adding all the game algorithms should be relatively easy.
Currently we are doing a ‘manual’ live play test of ToO. We are running a scenario that takes place in Normandy called Blue, Gray, and Bocage. I don’t want to mislead anyone, so I will reiterate that everything is being accomplished by hand at the moment. So I am using spreadsheets to track and compute results, and I create the visuals using Vassal. While some may scoff at the thought of doing this, I am getting great design information to adjust and tweak. So progress is currently being made in small increments, but it is progress nonetheless. Additionally, people can see the basic concepts in action.
Our forum has gobs of information. I give updates, links to videos, insight to game concepts, and discussion on various aspects. This is also where we are doing our live play test. I encourage all that are interested to check it out and feel free to join the discussion.
The Core Team of BBG
Matt McCoppin is the game designer for Theater of Operations and the ringleader/founder of Buckeye Battle Group. He has over 2 decades of military experience, and he is a lifelong war gamer. He enjoys most genres of gaming from historical to fantasy. He enjoys all mediums (computer, board game, or miniatures), and all levels of combat (strategic, operational, and tactical). He has been designing various games since he was 5 years old, but never tried to get one published…till now!
David Hazlett is our lead programmer and is a cofounder of Paint BiNumbers Studios. His company mostly does consulting work in the gaming industry, and they work closely with Ohio State University researchers. Many projects they do are gamification of daily tasks or therapy. They have partnered with Games That Move You to develop a stroke rehabilitation video game using the Kinect to track a stroke patient's skeleton and have them do gestures to control game actions while getting their therapy at the same time. He is a foundational member of Buckeye Battle Group and has been working on writing the software needed to make our game a reality!
Mitchell Arthur is a foundational member of Buckeye Battle Group, in fact he was the first programmer to join the team. He is currently a .NET web applications developer at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He has been passionate about gaming ever since he popped a 3.5" floppy into his computer with the title "The Oregon Trail" on it. The first strategy video game he can remember playing was Axis and Allies, and strategy games have consumed vast amounts of his time ever since. He started game development in 2012 with Unity 3.5 in a class at The Ohio State University. Ever since then, he can’t stay away from Unity and game development.
John Rose is a foundational member of BBG, but he was too busy to give us a bio in time. So we will just say that he has been developing software for a LOOONG time (since the early ‘80’s).
Lincoln Stanley has many hobbies that include reading, video games and working out. He enjoys all things technical, so he builds computers and websites when he can. He is a former soldier and worked as a linguist in military intel, so he tries to maintain his knowledge of foreign languages as well. He has degrees in Korean, History and Business Intelligence yet he works in finance…figure that one out! His love of gaming in general and historical strategy in particular is what gets him excited to be part of this project.
“Pres" is a programmer for BBG. He has been playing computer wargames since the 80's, and he is an avid student of military history. He has always wanted to develop wargames, and he worked for a computer gaming company for a while to get some experience in the industry. Creating games has always been an interest, and now is a perfect chance to be a part of BBG.