It’s the end of January.
As I sit here at my computer, it’s a grey, cool morning, one of only a few in this month of stifling heat. It’s been day after day of cloudless blue skies and a burning sun that wilts the flowers and makes mirages on the roads. To tell truth, I always preferred winter. I like the sound of rain, of silver skies and rolling storms. Naturally, I live in Australia where these are a rarity. I sometimes see all those amazing European programmers and think “I know why they’re so good at this – the endless winters.”
In just three days, my baby son is due to be born. Whether its this Thursday, today, or in a week’s time, my life is about to be flipped, tumbled and knocked for six – in the best possible way. A little boy, a little soul upon whom all my thoughts, hopes and dreams will be poured into; a child who I will shape and guide, who I will defend and cherish. I’ve already started buying him little Lego castle sets for when he’s older, started thinking of which Super Mario games to introduce him to first ( classic NES Super Mario of course!) , of what might happen if he likes the Star Wars prequels instead of the classics. It’s at once terrifying and infinitely exciting. At any rate, there’s no underestimating how big a change this is going to be in my life.
The Glory Days
When I worked at the old company, I spent my 9 to 5 working on the original Swords and Sandals games. Sometimes I’d work a Saturday, or stay a little later, but it wasn’t all-consuming. I had weekends and nights to myself most times, and I never worked on side projects. For many years, it didn’t even cross my mind to do something for myself – my fortunes were so tied into the success of the series, and the success of the company – I just surrendered it all to the greater good ( young person’s mistake) . When the series initially exploded with S&S 2 on Newgrounds, Kongregate, AGame etc, my name wasn’t even in the credits.
We put a little Mochi tracker in it (remember those?) and found it was getting 250,000 plays every single day across the web. The Mochi trackers stopped working long ago, but it’s been played easily over 200 million times now.
Two hundred million times – that’s crazy. I’m not exaggerating that number. S&S 1, 2, and 3 could be found on hundreds and hundreds of Flash portals. Looking back, we never really capitalized on it as a company. Some people think that once you’ve had a hit game, or a hit song, everything you do is going to be as successful. Lightning rarely strikes twice, remember that.
Looking back, I don’t think it was realised just how big the game was, and how big it could have been. Perhaps we should have had everyone at the company switch to S&S projects , to expanding and creating more games as quickly as we could. Merchandising of the product, little mugs, T-Shirts, figurines. We had no official fan forums or Facebook page for the game, Twitter was in its infancy, and I had no real way of communicating and interacting with the fans.
Eventually the series burnt out with a lackluster minigame collection ( S&S IV: Tavern Quests ) and a buggy (but ambitious) dungeon crawler locked behind an email registration system ( S&S V: Grail of Antares ) . I’ll be the first to admit I mishandled the last two games – I didn’t have a strong enough direction for them and let some external forces influence them to their detriment. I was tired, burnt out and uninspired. That was the end of the series, I was put onto client projects and the series just ended.
Anyway, many people know the story of what happened next. In a moment of inspiration, decided to break out on my own with a fresh new take on the series ( You Are A Knight ) . I spent nights, weekends, every free moment on the game. I burnt the candle on it and it totally killed me to make, but in the end I made a game I was hugely proud of – but this knight’s tale didn’t end well. I won’t go into it again, it’s been told before.
Back at the forge
Time heals, of course, and gradually I turned the bitterness into productivity. I threw myself back into game development. With the help of my lovely wife, I was able to channel the energy into a new venture, Whiskeybarrel Studios. I started working on new games again. Some were launched, to little fanfare and even less money. In the end, it didn’t matter. I was free, and independent at last. I worked harder than ever before. I even scored a new job programming kids educational software – and kept the output of new games coming, again, nights and weekends.
Looking back, damn! I was prodigious in my output – I felt possessed. Since January 2014, I’ve launched 9 games, with two more that never got past prototype stage ( Everyone Gets Treasure, Sandbox Racer ) and one massive game that’s 70% complete ( Ships and Scurvy – more on that in a moment!)
Enter eGames. The heroic publisher from New York City bought the rights to the series from the old company, and we forged an alliance anew, agreeing to remake the classic S&S games and build some new ones. Since the partnership, things have really been great.
A New Era
A few numbers and stats to throw around since we teamed up to breath new life into the series.
- Three games launched in just one year ( work began on S&S 2 Redux in late 2015 )
- You Are A Knight was welcomed into the S&S family and rebranded as Swords and Sandals Medieval.
- It went on to be downloaded over 250,000 times so far
- Swords and Sandals 2 Redux became a top #10 mobile RPG in over 35 countries.
- It has been downloaded over 800,000 times in under a year.
- 1,100,000+ downloads across Google Play, the App Store and Steam since January 1, 2017.
- Swords and Sandals 5 Redux has had over 100,000 downloads in under a month.
- The series is financially successful enough that I now work part time on it
The upshot of all this is, Swords and Sandals is alive and well. I have more fan interaction than I ever have. Each day I answer fan emails, tweets and messages on Facebook. Never so many that they are overwhelming ( I’m an obscure game developer after all, not a rock star!) , but I love them all. The fact that fans can email me and point out plot inconsistencies, character theories and new ideas for the series is something I’d always hoped might happen.
Age Matters Not
I’ll be 40 in two months. I had crazy success with the series when I was in my late 20s and thought it would always be this good. It’s taken a long way to claw back to this point, but I am eternally grateful to find myself where I am. I guess, the point is, you’re never too old for this. Don’t feel burnt out or a failure at 30. Or 35. Or 45. Although I believe the industry is probably a young person’s world now ( just in terms of the sheer amount of time it takes to make a game ) , if you have the vision and persistence, you can have your share of the glory too. I imagine the next years will be kind of tough for me to be as prodigious as they were, with a young family, but if you are determined, you can succeed.
Hayao Miyazaki is still working on Studio Ghibli stuff in his 80s. Why should we too not be making games with grey in our beards and the power of nostalgia in our veins?
What Path Next?
Which, of course brings me around to the title of this article. What, indeed, is next for Swords and Sandals? The series has been around since 2006 and had many incarnations and ports. Let’s quickly take a look at the games so far and the plans for them.
- Swords and Sandals I: Gladiator
Originally launched in 2005. This one will most likely never get the Redux treatment as it’s too small a game. Potentially a DLC add on for S&S 2 Redux though?
- Swords and Sandals II: Emperor’s Reign
Launched in 2006. Ported once to mobile in 2012 ( this version has been removed from the App Store in recent years ), then remade completely as S&S 2 Redux in 2017.
- Swords and Sandals Crusader
Launched in 2007. This one will definitely get the Redux treatment either this year or next year.
- Swords and Sandals III: Gladiae Ultratus
Launched in 2008. The game I most get asked about, the one everyone wants a Redux of. Also one of the hardest games to remake. It’s probably going to get a Redux version, but not for some time. I need to write a new game engine for the series ( more on this in a moment)
- Swords and Sandals IV: Tavern Quests
Launched in 2009. A collection of minigames that didn’t sell that well (though still has some loyal fans). Can safely say this probably will never get a Redux. In hindsight, I wish I’d never made it an official ‘numbered’ game, would have worked much better as a spinoff. I might even use the IV for a new game in the series inbetween III and V.
- Swords and Sandals V: Grail of Antares
Launched in 2012, and eventually taken down because of technical issues. Completely remade and given the Redux treatment, launched in December 2017.
- Swords and Sandals Medieval
Originally launched in 2013 as You Are A Knight. Rebranded and re-released in 2017 as Swords and Sandals Medieval.
- Swords and Sandals Pirates
First created in 2015 under the name Ships and Scurvy. Rebranded and scheduled for launch mid this year, though the title may change.
- Swords and Sandals VI
Still just a glint in my eye right now. It deserves a new game engine, all new art, multiplayer, the works. I’d estimate a 2020 launch.
- Swords and Sandals RPG: Constellation Mirror
Easily the most ambitious game I’ve ever thought of making. This is a full-on, Ultima VI style retro RPG set in Brandor. Party based, towns and cities, dungeons, many adventures to be had. I’ve actually written a 40 page design document for this and commissioned a bunch of art but its not a game I can make until I’m more financially ready, as it will take years to do.
Looking back at this list, we can see there’s three new games confirmed in the next two years ( S&S Pirates, S&S Crusader Redux and S&S VI ) . There are some smaller minigames on the way, just fun little projects and spinoffs for the series ( a HTML5 S&S web game, for example, is in the works – not built by me but I’m overseeing the job ). There’s way more Swords and Sandals content I want to build than time to build it. I’m working towards doing this fulltime – currently I’m about 40% of the way there. The baby is of course going to throw a (wonderful) spanner into the works – it’s unlikely I’ll have the long unbroken stretches of productivity, merely snatching a few hours here and there to work on the games.
To Sail the High Seas!
At any rate, the next game in the series, confirmed, is Swords and Sandals Pirates. I think you’re going to love this one. I love it already. Let me give you a little background on the game before I continue. I started prototyping a little seafaring adventure back around Christmas 2014. A little ship on a massive blue ocean, sailing around. I originally intended it to be a simulation of the great ocean voyages, Magellan, Cook, daGama , and so on. I went a bit crazy on this one, developing nearly a hundred trade goods, their value, weight, nutritional value, food group and so on. Turns out that simulating a three month voyage at sea with little to do but argue with sailors just wasn’t as fun in theory as in practice.
It’s good to do prototypes of things. I get a bit carried away though sometimes, putting in final artwork early, polishing and adding sound effects and particles (because thats all fun to do!) , and sometimes that bites me when the game has been worked on for a while but isn’t as fun as you first thought.
About 6 months into development, I had a working prototype, but when I started a new day job and also the S&S Redux contract, I parked the game for a few years. When I came back to it earlier this month, I realised I’d actually done a ton of work on the game, but the general direction of the game was kind of broken.
What was needed was this: I ripped out the story component of the game, and decided to let the player tell his own story. Instead of following a single path, being forced to go to islands in a specific sequence and follow a long quest chain, you can now do what you want. Imagine a game that’s one part Civilization , two parts Ancient Art of War and one part Sid Meier’s Pirates! and you’ve got Swords and Sandals Pirates. Oh yeah, throw in a bit of S&S Crusader in that mix too, because the land battles are highly reminiscent of that game. So much so I intend to reuse this engine to rewrite Crusader.
Swords and Sandals Pirates is a long way through development. It’s actually a prequel game to Swords and Sandals 1, set at a time when the Royal Phaetorian Navy has been decimated. The oceans of Tritonia are up for grabs!
You can select one of 10 sea commanders ( including classic heroes like Wolfgang, Belgrave and HeChaos ) , then you set out to conquer the vast Tritonian oceans in the hopes of ruling the waves. You will explore islands, interact with native tribes, trade and attack each other, fight on land and at sea, and even encounter massive sea monsters. Most of this stuff is in the game now. I’m actually at the point now where I’m turning it into a solo game into a game with many enemy AI forces. A lot of reworking of code, changing of rules and so on. It’s a nice breath of (salty sea) air after a few years in the dungeons of S&S V Redux! I think about 18 months is about as long as you want to spend on any one game unless its something very special – you’ll burn yourself out otherwise.
There’s a lot of fun stuff to do in this game and I’m looking forward to showing it off in an alpha video soon.
The Future of the Series
Time goes fast, huh. Swords and Sandals has been around since 2006. Some of the code I used in S&S V Redux, was actually written in 2006 ( a lot of the random name / text generation stuff ) . The games are, admittedly, very buggy. It’s largely because of this mish-mash of code. S&S V, for instance, has code from no fewer than three other S&S games. It’s a messy (but fast) way to develop, and for the bugs, I apologize. There’s no way to fix some things in the game, stuff that I know is an issue but just have never been able to resolve.
The games originally started off as Flash games, and to date I’ve been building them with Adobe AIR and the Starling framework, which is basically a more powerful version of Flash, but for making games for desktop and mobile. Starling has been very good to me, and I’ve become very proficient at it. However, the S&S series is starting to look very long in the tooth, even with the Redux series. There are certain limitations I have with Starling, a lack of eye candy the engine just can’t provide. It’s very hard (near impossible) to easily get decent lighting, powerful special effects and things like reflections and shadows into the game. I use a lot of little tricks and things to get around this, but the time has finally come to switch engines.
S&S Pirates will be the last game made in AIR/Starling – after this, all future games will be made in Unity3D. I’d have switched over sooner but this game, being 70% complete, should be completed in the current engine. It’s not worth jumping ship until you absolutely need to, remember. Good games are made in all engines, I’ve just exhausted my time in this one.
After this game, I’m really hoping players see a real improvement in the stability and visual ‘wow factor’ of the series. With S&S VI and beyond, there’s going to be a whole new era of great games, for fans old and new. I really want to expand the world of Brandor, tell more stories , flesh out the characters and the places. More sinister Arena Champions, noble gladiators and knights, more arenas in far fetched locations. Eventually the RPG S&S Constellation Mirror will be the ultimate destination for the series going forward, though that might end up being a project for my old age… a greybeard old veteran tinkering away at 1980’s style RPGs in the era of Virtual Reality. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Signing off, for now
The next post I write, I’ll most likely have a tiny little person sitting on my lap. Thanks as always for being part of my game development journey, and good luck on your own adventures.
Cheers, Oliver Joyce