The Lessons of Alchemy Engine

14 Aug 2013

I have been quiet regarding Alchemy Engine recently and what follows is an email that I sent to a friend describing my experience. It was extremely fulfilling to get this all written down and wanted to share it in the hope that I can at least emphasize some of these classic mistakes.

About three months ago I set out to do a video game startup. It had to be a game startup because that’s what I want to do. Make games on my terms. These can be separated into separate goals but not for me. They go in tandem.

But before I go any further, I must say that I wasn’t ready.

And I knew it.

It was a plunge of convenience if there is such a thing. It was a good time for me to leave Austin which meant I was already leaving my job. I had a pretty sizable amount of savings which would give me time to bootstrap, and I had an idea. But I also had baggage. I had a move to do across half the country, I had student loans to finish paying off, I had personal issues with my weight and fitness, and I had an ambitious idea which I had been carrying with me since I was a teen.

While it can be argued that it is never a perfect time to start on such a quest, I would argue that this was pretty much the wrong time to start one.

In a way the ridiculousness of it all made me bolder. It was a massive challenge to overcome and with time I became blind to how silly my plan was from a strategic perspective because of my desire to overcome it.

The plan in short was to prototype the game engine and toolkit, build a demo, and Kickstart my way into long term funding. This was ambitious in many regards including my timeline and scope, but above all I knew that any single hitch could be disastrous because of my circumstances. So many things could go wrong. I could take too long, I could fail to Kickstart, I could succeed at Kickstarter but have messed up my goals, I could have a product that appeals to too small an audience and never gets motion beyond Kickstarter, etc. Beyond all of this, I had an idea that I cared too much about.

And this was what started the end.

As I was sprinting through my second month and looking through the designs of what was planned for the demo and the Kickstarter goals I realized it wasn’t possible without almost doubling my target funding. I couldn’t double the goals though since the amount I was asking for was already pushing the bounds in terms of someone with no visible history to show.

I had no writing, no public finished projects, no presence or reputation on which to base my product.

So my demo had to speak for myself, itself, and the project goals, a goal in contradiction with reality. But I worked through it. It took a few days to really break down what was and was not necessary. What would actually help it sell and what it needed to move forward. It left me a bit depressed but it was good. The project needed it and the results were cleaner and tighter. That didn’t necessarily make me feel better about cutting things I cared about but it was there none the less.

And then it happened.

I woke up on a Monday morning to bad news in the Kickstarter community. Developers were starting to really speak up about the actual costs of development, about reality. It made me itchy and I started trolling the internet to try and figure out what the damage would be. And that’s when, while scrolling through a site, I saw news that Cube World was for sale.

I was heart broken.

Even before I left Austin I had known Cube World was a major factor and possible problem for my project. Not because it competed directly but because it raised the bar of expectations. And here it was, available for sale.

It took me two days to get a copy but when I did I proceeded to play for the next four. It looked like a great game and its awesomeness was proven to me the moment I slew my first enemy. And it also validated my fear. The bar had been raised and it had been raised above what I knew I could hit with the conditions in which I had to operate.

With everything that I knew that could go wrong, I just wasn’t ready for this. It was the strangest depression I’ve ever had. I was crushed, saddened, maddened, curious, introspective, angry, frustrated, …

At first I tried to figure out how to work around it but eventually I saw the problem for what it really was: a bad choice.

In the end I really did learn a lot. I learned a lot about development, about scope, and most importantly about myself. And in this honesty I worked out a, I think, better plan.

The first step is getting the model editor for Alchemy to a release point. I need to get something out that people use so that I have something to show not only for this effort but in general. Additionally I’m going to upgrade it so that it can be used by the Cube World modding community which is taking off.

The next step is working on a demo for a smaller project and one that is aimed at getting traction with one of the local Seattle incubators. I’ve realized that I need help in making this dream come true and so picking a project that works with that path is important.

The current idea, as you asked, is a mobile social and strategy game, both things that I know and have experience with.

While making the prototype I’ll also be working the local entrepreneur and tech circles, building connections and trying to learn from others. Because above all else, I learned that I have oh so much to learn.

As I said, I wrote it to really put it all down. It’s the culmination of weeks of reflection and internal dialogue so its nice to lay it out. As it is, I am doing contracting with Microsoft while I recover and really get settled in the area, and while I sort out my personal issues and try to find some cadence within my life.

Onward! For Victory!