The Past & Future of Linkrealms
this is the day of a very big announcement. Something we wouldn't have wanted when we inherited the development of Linkrealms, something we didn't expect, yet something we believe is absolutely necessary today.
You might be shocked by what you're going to read, since once more I'm going to disclose information that are usually kept private and I'm looking forward to starting a discussion with all of you to receive your feedback. You know your feedback for us is more valuable than anything else.
Get ready, for this post is "quite" long. Each section contains a TL;DR paragraph in the end.
Once you're done with here, you're invited to discuss it here. I'll also host a live Q&A on Twitch next week where you'll be able to ask me questions directly - channel link and exact date/time will be announced later on.
The history of Linkrealms
In this paragraph I'm going to give you a summary of the story of the development of Linkrealms. As some of you know already, the development of the game started long ago - but most likely none of you is aware of the details of the exact phases and team changes the game had to go through. So here we go.
The development of Linkrealms started a long time ago - as much as a dozen years! The company carrying out the job, Mythyn Interactive, was a small US-based indie studio entirely self-funded by one of its founders. The development team was extremely small, consisting of 4 people and a couple freelancers at the very beginning.
The development of a MMO back then was even more of a gargantuan work than it is now due to the lack of proper game engines to rely on. The choice to make a MMO, coupled with the decision not to look for investors, very soon led the team to shrinking down to 3 full-time members, then to 2 full-time members, then to a part-time project as funds got entirely depleted.
Access to the game was opened in beta without any access fee in November 2010. The almost complete lack of marketing and PR led to this opening going largely unnoticed to the public. Suffices to say, less than 500 new user accounts were created between September and December 2010.
The game kept moving at a very slow pace in terms of both development and user acquisition, until the team disbanded and Linkrealms was de-facto abandoned in late 2013.
In early 2015, the development of Linkrealms resumed as a part-time project thanks to a new development team. This new team included one of the original founders and two former players - one of them being me, working as backend developer, frontend developer, system administrator and community management / PR / marketing man, the other being Uriel working as game designer, web designer, and helping hand in programming.
The development of the game started with a much different approach, focused on the three pillars:
- Renewing the image of Linkrealms and finding a new vision for the game;
- Giving PR, marketing and social media the right space to make the product more visible;
- Improving the speed of development through better team and priority management - and a lot of hard work, too
In 2015, the following milestones were reached:
- A new website, forum and wiki were launched for the game (on the usual domain);
- Social media pages (Facebook, Twitter) were launched and regularly updated;
- A new Trailer video was released;
- The backend infrastructure (hosting, servers) was entirely renewed;
- A huge security upgrade was done behind the scenes to protect both the client and the servers, which were terribly exposed to external attacks;
- The game got back into the press on a regular basis thanks to PR work;
- The game was greenlit on Steam (in less than 3 weeks from the launch of the Greenlight campaign!);
- Two testing phases were run - the Summer Beta and the Fall Beta;
- The Founder Program was launched and enjoyed a significant success;
- 6,500 new user accounts were created;
In 2016, the following milestones were reached:
- A new testing phase, the Winter Beta, was run, plus some smaller tests;
- Linkrealms launched on Steam Early Access!
- The team started working on the game full time;
- The game transitioned to free-to-play;
- Larger advertising campaigns were run (over $8,000 spent on marketing since 2015);
- 15,000 new user accounts were created (total for the 2 years: 21,500);
- A ton of game updates were released, as you can see here.
TL;DR - A troubled story, a big comeback
The development of Linkrealms started long ago, but the game was abandoned in 2013. In 2015, the development of Linkrealms resumed with an almost entirely new team. Even if plenty of important milestones were reached in 2015-2016, the game hasn't been a financial success. Why? Have a look at the next two paragraphs.
The technology is old and unfitting
The words "old" and "unfitting" actually underestimate the depth of the issue here. I'll try to explain the problem in a way I hope is understandable for everyone without experience as a programmer. There's a TL;DR in the end if you don't want to get into details.
The programming language
Both the frontend (the client you use to play) and the backend (the server) of Linkrealms are written in a language called Delphi. This language had a surge of popularity in the mid-00, but has largely fallen out of use since then. Moreover, even at the peak of its success, its target have always been business applications, while it's barely ever been used to make games. The consequences of this choice are:
- It's extremely hard to find other skilled developers for the team, partly because the language has fallen out of use, partly because talented people legitimately want to work with state-of-the-art tech that can enrich their skillset, not with something they won't find a use for outside of Linkrealms.
- There are no Delphi resources (libraries, components, plugins) targeted at game development that can be used to speed up our job.
The home-brew graphic engine
The graphic engine of Linkrealms is home-brew, meaning it's not built on a game engine: it's been written from scratch. While the system itself was skillfully crafted, the home-brew choice, the age of the work and the lack of documentation we've inherited are major issues for a small team like ours, because:
- Once more, it's hard to find developers for the team and resources to speed up the development of the game - same as the previous point.
- There are several important errors that you have experienced (like the infamous Nvidia drivers crash, or the screen "going black" in some occasions) which would take a very long time to be analyzed and fixed.
- As technologies and operating systems evolve, more and more issues come up every month.
The server architecture
This point would be a bit too complicated to explain in detail. Suffices to say, the backend of Linkrealms is (of course...) home-brew as well, and plagued by an overall bad architecture. Bad because it's not stable: over the course of these couple years, there have been countless stability issues that we've had to fix. Server crashes are now extremely rare, but the whole architecture remains fragile. Moreover, it's bad because it's not scalable: it doesn't make use of multi-core CPU, and it can't support a large number of players in the same world.
TL;DR - What does this all mean?
It means that for Linkrealms to be 100% compatible with today's video-cards and operating systems, have 100% stable servers and be able to support a large number of players in the same world, large chunks of the graphics engine and the whole server architecture would have to be rewritten. Given there's only one developer in the team (me), this means Linkrealms would receive no content updates for a year or so.
There are huge design issues
When developing a game, some game design choices can be overhauled easily, while others are deeply entrenched with the design of the software itself. For all the major game design issues of Linkrealms, sadly we are in the second scenario. We'll mention a couple below.
Realms and their size
The world is divided into small regions called realms. While we don't think that a seamless world is necessary to enjoy a MMORPG, we're aware that regions have to be at least large, not so small that you have a transition every 30 seconds while running. I know you hate it. We hate it too. Sadly, the whole frontend and backend is designed around realms, and realms of the current ludicrous size.
Movement and controls
While we know some of our users like the current movement system and controls of Linkrealms because of the Ultima Online nostalgia, we are also aware that being old-school doesn't mean being outdated. A 360° continuous movement, more intuitive controls and modern UI systems (e.g. inventory) would go a long way to improving new player retention. Sadly, the current situation hopelessly relegate Linkrealms to being a game for a very small niche of players.
TL;DR - What does this all mean?
A seamless world or one made by large regions are fundamental for Linkrealms to be successful. Modern controls, UI and other systems are absolutely needed as well. However, focusing on those would require re-writing large chunks of the core of the game, with a likely other year of development dedicated to that.
What do we do now?
If you've read the wall of text above, you will have understood why continuing to develop Linkrealms in its current form doesn't make sense. Expanding the team with qualified professionals is borderline impossible due to the technology being used, and fixing all the core issues with the current team would require a couple years without content updates. Even after that, game development would still be slow due to the underlying technology. A no-go.
That is why in the last couple of months we've been busy designing and picking up state-of-the-art technology for a new game. The already ongoing steps?
- Building up a new team of motivated young professionals;
- Founding a new company in Italy, where most of the team resides already;
- Looking for startup incubators, business angels and investment funds to provide seed financing for the new project.
- Hitting Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms (e.g. equity crowdfunding).
The aim? Giving you what Linkrealms should have been: a MMORPG that couples old-school vibes and mechanics to modern technology, controls, and UI.
What is going to happen to Linkrealms?
The development of Linkrealms will move on with maintenance patches containing fixes and minor content updates. It will hit full release on Steam in 2017 and continue to be supported after for several years to come anyway.
Are we going to get testing access to this "Linkrealms 2"?
Sure you will, including alpha access, depending on your current contribution to Linkrealms.
TELL US MORE ABOUT THE NEW PROJECT DAMN YOU!
Not yet! First of all, we really want to know what you think of what we have just told you, and what you think are the biggest flaws of Linkrealms in its current state. Mind, we're not talking of specific balancing issues, but more of large-scale issues. Those core thing that have always annoyed you so much and you know have annoyed a lot of other players too. Discuss here!
Thank you all for reading and for supporting the old-school dream!