What Went Right
1. Reserving funds. This was probably the riskiest part of our project strategy. We reserved funds to continue work on the game after it was released. This was particularly challenging in our case because Stardock funded the game entirely on its own. When we took the concept for the game to publishers, they universally passed on it since it was often perceived that turn-based strategy games were on the way out. So the game ended up self-funded with part of the budget reserved for after-release.
In order to do that, you have to remain on schedule. You can't release a game that isn't finished because the game magazines review what's in the box, not what the company puts into subsequent game patches, and you'll suffer at the hands of reviewers. On the other hand, if your development schedule falls behind, you eat into your after-release budget. Fortunately, our risk paid off big time -- the reviews have been favorable.
The second part of the risk in reserving funds was seeing how people would react to the idea of getting a bunch of rapid and significant updates after release. Would they view it as "they didn't finish the game?" Or that the game was "buggy"? So far, this has turned out well for us.
Another early concept of the user interface.
All of these updates, which were based on player feedback and released shortly after we received players' suggestions, have helped build a loyal player community. These updates aren't trivial, either: about 15,000 lines of new code have been added to Galactic Civilizations since it was released, along with several megabytes of additional graphics. To put this another way, a considerable amount of money was spent after the game's release even though the game had already won two Editor's Choice Awards from Computer Games Magazine and Computer Gaming World, and PC Gamer said it's better than all the other turn-based strategy games currently out combined. I apologize if this sounds like hubris, but it was just such a massive risk for us. Imagine if the game had received lukewarm reviews, or even been panned outright? All of these updates would have looked like we were just finishing the game, rather than adding significant free support to it.
Our strategy really rested on the assumption that the game, out of the box, would be a complete, successful and solid experience so that our updates would be seen as enhancements, not bug fixes. Only then would the word of mouth from happy customers likely reach the level to make up for our generally under-the-radar marketing (it was hard to get significant coverage of our space-based, turn-based strategy game, with Master of Orion III taking much of that limelight already).
2. Bonus development time. We finished the game on January 20, 2003, but our release date changed at the last second when our publisher, Strategy First, made a great deal with Infogrames. Infogrames' Master of Orion III had been delayed and rescheduled to come out at the same time as Galactic Civilizations, so we agreed to push our date back one month -- a deal that helped both of our games. In addition, Infogrames was kind enough to put a flier for Galactic Civilizations into every box of MOO3.
This additional month proved to be crucial for us. Our art team was able to add in a series of "mini-cut scenes" that added a lot of flavor to the game, and the additional time allowed us to polish other parts of the game. It also allowed us to have our "BonusPak" come out on the day of the game's release, rather than a month after release.
3. Our unproven art team. About 99% of the artwork in Galactic Civilizations was done by two people. That includes about ten minutes of cut scenes (other than the opening intro) and the sound effects for the cut scenes.
What's really amazing is that our main animator in Galactic Civilizations started working on the game without any prior 3D animation experience. He was a recent graduate from Sheridan, and while very talented, he had to learn how to model and animate using 3ds max within a 16-month time frame. I think anyone who sees the cut scenes and other individual pieces of artwork will be pretty impressed, even by AAA standards - and it's almost all done by two guys.
An artist's rendition of the Drengin race.
4. The AI. The computer AI in Galactic Civilizations has been singled out repeatedly in game reviews as exceptional. That's a key indicator that things went right is because strategy games that are rushed out the door usually suffer from inadequate AI.
Things went a lot better in Galactic Civilizations' AI than we had thought they would. The OS/2 version of the game was written in C, which made it much harder to have multiple AI personalities - there was a because you was a lot of copying and pasting of code which made it a hassle to introduce basic improvements to the AI.
The AI in the new Galactic Civilizations was written in C++ and using object-oriented methods. Inheritance saved a lot of time when we coded the core functions and allowed us to focus on creating the six different AI engines in the game without having to rewrite things like CalculateEnemyMilitaryStrength() half a dozen times. The result was an AI that is much more sophisticated than we originally expected.
But here's where things really get interesting about the AI. In the Fall of 2002, just months before release, users suggested having Starbases and galactic resources in the game - two concepts that were not in the design document nor in the development schedule. The beta testers' starbase concept was so good that we decided to put it in. That meant that the AI would need to be programmed to handle building, upgrading, and placing starbases with only a month or so of development time. While the AI has room for improvement that we've been adding to since the game's release, it still came together pretty well. I think years from now when people ask talk about the most important feature of Galactic Civilizations, they will cite the artificial intelligence.
5. Choosing not to include multiplayer functionality. We knew when we began development that it was going to be hard to compete in today's game market. So we relied on our beta testers heavily to fashion a game that would meet the expectations of strategy gamers.
One key decision we made based upon the beta testers' feedback was to nix multiplayer features, since it's much easier to add features to a game when you don't have to worry about how they'll impact issues like synchronization, latency, and game flow. Not having a multiplayer component allowed us to make Galactic Civilizations a much better game overall.