Goodbye, Soulite Monsters

Several weeks ago our small team was informed that funding has been withdrawn and the company paying us will cease to exist at the end of the month (yesterday). I’ve put together something I wish I had done on my previous project, a memorial to look back on in the years to come.

It was a project in its infancy, recently erupting from beta to a live audience, fresh off a fairly significant update just a month after its release. It always started from a… highly irregular place, to summarize: The boyfriend of my previous project’s Lead Engineer worked with a guy who knew a guy who acquired funding and was tasked with starting a North American game development studio. They weren’t quite sure how to go about that from the actual development standpoint, so they recruited us.

I haven’t been at the start of a studio before, but I suspect it was… irregular. So we had a studio of 5 people, and our first week on the job was to… figure out what game we were making! Up to that point, I’ll be honest, it was all very strange. When I received my first paycheque I was still quite surprised (despite: hey, they bought computers and we have an office) and also immensely relieved – I had been living off of a very generous severance given to me by IGG when they shut us down at my previous job, but it was running quite low. If this crazy start-a-studio-from-scratch thing didn’t pan out I’d of had to jump on a pretty aggressive job hunt.

The game had some fairly serious requirements: it was to be a 1 year project to a beta with live (non-development) humans playing. It had to be fully server-authoritative and have some hefty anti-cheat security. It was a mobile game that will launch internationally (including China), and it was expected to ramp up to some significant revenue numbers fairly quickly. That was December 2018, we spent the rest of December building up a technical foundation and determining art style. I got excited, I spent my Christmas “vacation” building our combat simulation and its various dependencies, throughout the entire project I took only a single vacation day for a long-weekend away.

I seem to have a linear narrative so far, I’m going to drop that and just type a bunch of words to indulge the whimsy of where my heart wants to meander.

So I’ve lost weight during the pandemic. Weird segue right? One of the perks of our office-sharing space was we had free beer on tap, and generally at least one pretty good one (though the sour they got in… so good, but also no other beer keg had been demolished so fast, so maybe too good?). Turns out when I stop drinking beer every day I shed pounds, hah. As a studio we had opted to work from home since the beginning of March.

In fact I made ample use of my own work-from-home setup back in November (2019) when I was suffering from what a doctor described as: “either a very bad case of bronchitis or pneumonia“. I was miserable for 8 weeks and absolutely wrecked for one of those weeks – but even during that week, the hours I spent out of bed were on the project for at least 40+ of’em. So I was accidentally very prepared to hunker down for a pandemic at home already.

One of my early goals was to design and create game systems that could be re-used across many game genres. To validate that these systems could be used outside of the Soulite Monsters project part of my process was to have them all working in a stand-alone C# terminal before integrating the library into the Unity project (and later, also the server). This had some really solid compound benefits, including the ability to rapidly reproduce bugs with simple text commands sent to a terminal, and verify those bug fixes without all the visual/UI overhead of the project.

We originally weren’t talking about building a single project, the goal was a sustainable studio. In month 2 I was already writing out plans and team structure on how we could evolve to both develop and support multiple projects (that shared technology that functions agnostic of any game project was one of the key elements of this). In fact, I got out of bed one night to have a conference discussion on what it would look like if we needed to immediately ramp up to 30+ people.

It was a wild ride. It sounds like people who have been part of a start-up can most relate. In a large company, responsibilities are dolled out, and if something slips through the cracks a meeting is held and by the end of it that floating responsibility would have a dedicated handler. We started with 5 people. There’s no committee to decide optimal work-load – you want that thing? No one else currently has the band-width to do the thing? You probably need to learn to do the thing.

This is also true for requirements passed down from the voice of the person funding the project. Need a trailer? Alright team! Who wants to put this together?

… no takers? Artists are busy? Errr… okay, guess I’ll make a trailer… that’s a first. I got to learn that Blender is pretty darn usable for making trailers, that was unexpected and neat. Context: I have near-zero aesthetic sense, probably why I’ve gravitated from Game/Systems design to blend it in with programming in general. So I’ve never, ever, had the desire to play around with video capturing and editing tools. My morning started with googling, and before lunch I sent out two 15-second trailers that disappeared into the ether that was some overseas business stuff that we weren’t exposed to.

It was an incredibly unique experience, and I hope a lasting learning experience for everyone involved. After all, whether it’s a risky start-up or multi-national company the games industry is not a stable place. I was told by recruiters many a year ago that the average life-span of an employee in the games industry is 2 years. I defied that by spending 7 of my first years at Relic Entertainment (until their parent company THQ declared bankruptcy), and continued to be stubborn by staying at every company I joined afterwards until they shut their doors.

Very rarely is there an opportunity to really persist with something lasting over a long period of time, though sometimes you’ll have your gems out there that you can continue to enjoy (I shockingly still see the odd news blurb for Company of Heroes crop up and my heart warms up each time), so there’s at least that. But when it comes to Mobile and more modern games… they get taken down, forgotten. As support dropped I’ve seen many of the games I’ve worked on just… cease to exist. That’s why I felt it was important to put together something of a memorial for Soulite Monsters, something I can selfishly look back on or to share with friends over the years.

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