The Many Iterations of Visions on the Path to Release
In August of 2003 Laurene Wells registered her company name, Heaven’s Blessings Tiny Zoo in the state of Oregon, and her first volunteer programmer, “Kamaran”, joined the team to help create Visions. We had no money, no training, no game development experience, and no idea what we were doing, but we were doing it anyway! We had a dream and a drive to succeed, and that was enough to keep us going, keep us learning, keep us hoping for a better future.
At first Kamaran tried to build our own engine. After three months, we had… a text box. The going was rough. But we kept going. After six months, another volunteer came along and offered to buy us the Torque Game Engine (TGE) for $99 from Garage Games. We leaped at the chance! Now we had a real game engine!
We downloaded the free demo of every 3D art creation software package we could find and eventually decided on Milkshape with a lifetime registration price of $35 (which was still a stretch for our non-existent budget at the time!) because it was easier to use than Blender (which was free but gave us a headache). Way back in 2003-2004 there were not many tutorials for 3D art creation online, and the few we did find were for advanced users. Neither Kamaran nor I had any previous experience making 3D models, but we self-taught ourselves how to make them following these cryptic tutorials and by doing a lot of trial and error. Eventually I started making my own beginner tutorials and posting them on YouTube because people need a starting point. My intro to Milkshape tutorial is still to this day my most popular YouTube video.
After a couple years Garage Games released the Torque Shader Engine early adopter program. Again we had a generous offer from a volunteer to upgrade us to TSE and we accepted it. This allowed us to upgrade our terrain (which was giving us fits) and also included some fun environment and weather features.
The TSE game engine changed names a couple of times while we were developing with it. TSE became TGEA and TGEA became T3D. The TGEA iteration came with the Atlas terrain. Again, we pushed the envelope of the capabilities of the engine and created a terrain the maximum possible size our computers could handle using a full 1 degree tile from the satellite DEM data. It was massive! It was really fun to run across. It also had one severe problem, we couldn’t modify the terrain in the editor. Any dips or valleys or holes in the data that created geometry cavities would trap players and they couldn’t get out. We couldn’t paint the terrain to make roads or grassy areas, or anything like that. We had to decorate the terrain entirely with 3D models. The polycount quickly escalated beyond reasonably functionality.
So when T3D came out with a hybrid terrain we could edit, we switched engines again. TGEA was the last time we attempted to build the city of Jerusalem as the starting point. After this, we changed to Cyprus as our starting area for a variety of reasons, but primarily because the island of Cyprus offered everything that every profession would need in a close proximity. Jerusalem was limited in the types of activities people could engage in for starting professions, not to mention the sheer size of the city and the extreme number of well known historical landmarks people would want to see in game. It was more than our small team could handle. We had spent 2 years working on Chariots as a side project, and were familiar with all 14 cities on the island of Cyprus after having worked on that racing game. So when we switched to T3D we also switched to building the starting point of the game in Cyprus, starting at the city of Kourion.
Rebuilding the world in T3D gave us more experience in worldbuilding. We took the things we had learned from the Atlas Terrain and were more careful about polygon counts. But we still had to plant every blade of grass by hand. There was no automatic grass painting tool like the modern game engines have. If you saw a tree in the world, a developer put it there. If you saw a clump of grass or a flower in the world, a developer put it there. And of course all the props, houses, and interactive objects were placed into the world by hand as well. Creating the world in a game is tedious, time consuming work. The passion for creating a game world has to be strong in the worldbuilder artist, because it takes thousands of hours to accomplish, moreso in the old engines but even today the time it takes to make a game always far exceeds the time developers think it will take. If you’ve ever been playing a game and complained about something you experienced in the game and said to yourself, “How hard can it be?” I challenge you to give it a try and find out!
We accomplished some notable milestones in the T3D engine. We got the server online and playable, and players were able to log in and play together. We had a quest tool that allowed non-programmers to be able to enter quest dialogs so that the programmers could focus on more technical aspects of getting the game working. We had interactive quest dialogs that worked! We had custom avatars with custom Roman-period clothing and armor. The game world looked pretty good, at least for an Indie game that was being made by volunteers with no funding and no budget. Terrain issues were still our nemesis. And there was a bug in the engine with the sound that made it impossible for us to implement sounds properly.
We even had lightening storms working!
The game world looked pretty good, at least for an Indie game that was being made by volunteers with no funding and no budget. Terrain issues were still our nemesis. And there was a bug in the engine with the sound that made it impossible for us to implement sounds properly. Overall however, we were happy with the direction we were going and things we working.
That is, until the fateful engine update of September 2011 that was supposed to fix the sound bug, but broke the game for everyone who was running it on a computer with Nvidia video drivers, basically, almost all of us. It was unplayable. We didn’t figure out the real problem however until late October when a friend joined the team and had a really nice souped up computer with a quad core processor, and dual graphics boosted video cards, and even he couldn’t get more than 3 frames per second. We were dead in the water.
We wrote to Garage Games about this problem and they basically said we were on our own, they had no plans to address the issue, and if we wanted to fix it we had the source code so we could do it ourselves. But there were millions of lines of code in the engine, we did not have the time, money or the resources to pour into fixing their game engine. Our days working with Torque had ended. We were faced with a choice: switch engines or cancel the project.
The team voted to switch engines, again. After a very brief one month experiment with the Hero Engine that damaged our team and left all of us with traumatic memories and possibly a little bit of PTSD, we had another offer of a gift engine license from a fellow developer who also offered to join the team and help us. Admittedly, Laurene did hesitate on switching yet again after just one short month. Would switching engines again so soon irrepairably damage the team and inadvertently kill the project we all agreed we wanted to complete? A single exploration of the Bigworld Demo changed her mind and she unreservedly made the decision to accept the offer and switch the team to the Bigworld game engine.
Development in Bigworld began in January 2012, and we have been working with the Bigworld game engine ever since. It was the best thing to happen to Visions since the beginning of the project, and we have wished many times that we had been able to start using Bigworld years earlier.
For the first time ever our game engine can handle the real-world satellite data in a seamless terrain. The terrain painting tools actually plant grass with the stroke of a mouse. The server code worked correctly right out of the box. Many things have been a tremendous blessing since switching to the Bigworld game engine. We can now create the beautiful game world we always wanted to create.
Over the course of about three years, with the help of several volunteers and many hundreds of hours of work, we managed to create six terrain zones all seamlessly connected to complete the island of Cyprus, and a portion of the surrounding Mediterranean sea. Each zone is 6 square kilometers (again, pushing the envelope of what our development machines could do at the time we started) so the starting area of the game world is 12 km x 18 km. That is a lot of area for players to explore on foot!
The terrain is still being created using real world satellite data. We were not able to create the world at a 1:1 scale however, it’s closer to a 1:18 scale. So the cities are smaller than they would have been in real life, but we are still using archeological dig site information to create geographically relevant cities and landmarks. We are still creating landmark architecture and historical sites to the best of our ability so players can experience history in a way that gamers have never experienced history before.
We have not been able to re-create the quest tool like we had in T3D but we have more functioning tradeskill tools that players can use than we have ever had before! We have dozens of recipes in the game now, which can be used to craft items. There are many things in the game world that players can harvest and used as ingredients for the recipes. We have created the groundwork to make it possible to implement professions skills, quests, and other aspects of the intended game design.
In an effort to keep the game fun while we’re still working on it, so our most devoted fans who still log in to play even when the game isn’t actually done yet will have an enjoyable experience, we have been creating occasional holiday events. Our favorite event is Christmas, and even if we do nothing else we do try to release a Christmas patch every year so people can open presents. We have also done a Valentine’s event, an Easter event, and once we spent a couple of months creating a Day of Atonement event for September complete with a quest series to accomplish.
The quests had to be hard coded at the time though so it was a one time thing for the players who were active that year. It was fun and gave us all a glimpse of what we want the game to look like when it’s “done” (as if a MMORPG is ever actually done) according to the design intended.
Some of the tradeskills we have working now include, cooking, blacksmithing, mining, logging, and a little bit of farming. I encourage you to look at the recipe page over here: Recipe Cheat Sheet and log into Visions to try your hand at crafting some of the items! Bring a friend. Have a Bible study together in the Aphitheater. Go for a quiet stroll along the beach. Swim with the dolphins. Climb a mountain. Use the game world as your private online meeting space. Discover the hidden waterfall outside of Paphos. Ride the boat. Catch a baby chick. How many ways can you have fun in Visions during the Alpha?
Come play with us!